Andrea, Bernadette. 2017. The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4875-0125-9
I'm always on the lookout for books on history (or art, or literature) that will help expand my default assumptions about the diversity of cultures in the past, particularly in the field of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of ethnicity. I picked this book up last year at Kalamazoo, in part because I'm trying to get a better grasp on the experience of people from Islamic cultures in early modern Europe as grounding for a character in Mistress of Shadows. Although this source isn't particularly useful for that specific project, I started reading it this week in the context of one of my Book Bingo mini-stories, where I'm introducing a character originally brainstormed as a woman from Ottoman Turkey, widow of an Englishman who was part of the trade presence there, who is now building clockwork siege engines as part of the Alliance forces in the Low Countries. (The next Book Bingo square is science fiction and I needed a sci fi motif appropriate for alte 17th century Europe that wouldn't entirely break my overall worldbuilding.) For the Book Bingo project, this work was quite useful in confirming my initial plausibility-sketches. I don't often do full summaries of books that don't fall into the LHMP scope, but maybe I should do them more often.
* * *
The Lives of Girls and Women... looks at women from the Islamic world (though not necessarily documented as Muslims) who came to the British Isles in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The book focuses in particular on how these women were able to express cultural agency and resistance to assimilation even when their presence in England was entirely involuntary, as well as how their foreign identity was depicted within public culture of the time. Rather than try to discover the general demographics of the female Islamicate presence in England, the book focuses on a small number of specific individuals whose names and life stories are known and fairly well documented. Their origins include West African, Tatar, Circassian via Safavid Persia, and Armenian via the Mughal Empire.
Andrea tries to recover their lives from the documentary evidence (and the meticulousness of her project is reflected in the fact that nearly 50% of the page-count is notes, bibliography, and index). She describes England as in a "proto-colonialist and proto-Orientalist" stage at this time, but it was not yet a major international power within the emerging colonial system. The lives of these women were linked to elite Englishwomen such as Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Mary Wroth. The problem of tracing their lives is, in part, reflective of the larger problem of deciphering women's lives in this era.
Here are brief biographies of the women that the text focuses on:
Elen More - A black West African, brought to Scotland by privateers who took her from a Portuguese ship. Elen was most likely taken from her original home as part of the slave trade, but she established a place in the Scottish court that is clearly more that of a lady in waiting than a slave. Elen was featured in early 16th century pageants at the Scottish court as the "Black Queen of Beauty" and presided ceremonially over tournaments in that role. [Note: as I read about her, I immediately recognized the inspiration for Alyssa Cole's historical romance Agnes Moor's Wild Knight and now I may add that to my TBR queue.]
Ipolita the "Tartar Girl" ended up in Queen Elizabeth's court after being "aquired" (read: "bought") by an agent of the Muscovy Company and sent to the queen as a gift. Her function in the court seems to have been roughly that of a pet or mascot, similarly to a woman with dwarfism** that the queen also kept in her employ. Ipolita (a name bestowed on her in England) was the model for a character in Mary Wroth's novel The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, which features several foreign type-characters.
**Please forgive me if I've stumbled in the phrasing of this reference. The text has "female dwarf" which may be a standard historical description but feels othering to me.
Teresa Sampsona was a woman of Circassian origin living in the Safavid empire and possibly related to one of the Shah's concubines. It's unclear whether she was originally Orthodox Christian (as many Circassians were) or Muslim (a possiblity raised later in the context of accusations of apostasy). She met the Englishman Robert Sherley when he was attached to the Shah as his envoy to Christian Europe and Teresa may have been, in effect, given to him as a reward for his services. Teresa was baptized as a Catholic in 1608 (which doesn't preclude the possiblity that she was previously Orthodox) before marrying Robert and they traveled extensively together through Eruope, indcluding extended stays in England on several occasions. She, too, was a model for one of the charcters in the Urania. Teresa was multi-lingual, politically savvy, and possibly martially skilled, as portraits of her (by Anthony van Dyck and others, see this link for the van Dyck portraits) sometimes included a pistol and she is recorded as having saved her husband's life during various encounters with Persian and Portuguese attackers. After her husband's death in Persia, she dealt with several years of persecution from her late husband's enemies and rivals before succeeding in escaping to Europe where she spent her remaining decades in Rome.
Mariam Khanim and Teresa Sampsona's lives intersected in person, despite their separate histories. Mariam was an Armenian subject of the Mughal emperor, the daughter of a high-ranked courtier, and was married successively to two English men associated with the East India Company: William Hawkins and Gabriel Towerson. Mariam's life and experiences were the inspiration for John Dryden's character Ysabinda in his Southeast Asian-set play Amboyna, or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants (1673), although the character is "an almost unidentifieable re-creation," having been converted into an Indonesian princess. Mariam and her husband traveled to England during the same general period as the Sherleys' travels. Like Teresa, Mariam was highly unlikely to have had any volition in her marriage to a Englishman and appears to have been part of a bribe to keep Hawkins at the Mughal court. When Hawkins did finally leave two years later, Mariam's family tried to prevent her from leaving (again, it being unclear what her own feelings were on the matter). Hawkins died during the voyage back to England and Mariam promptly married another East India Company captain, Gabriel Towerson. Financial need was probably a driving force, though Mariam petitioned the Company on her own behalf for compensation as Hawkins' widow. Two years later, the couple returned to India after which her husband left her and died in battle and Mariam vanishes from the written record.
Andrea presents fascinating evidence that Teresa Sampsonia and her husband Robert, while sailing back to Persia in 1613 encountered the ship carrying Mariam Khanim and her husband, traveling form India to England, when both ships put in for supplies at the Cape of Good Hope. And for a further connection, correspondence to Teresa and her husband from a friend back in England notes that Mariam had visited their son Robert (who had remained in England). [This sort of detail is particularly interesting in the context of the "historic plausibility" of multiple marginalized characters interacting in historical fiction.]
Andrea's book also spends several chapters looking at how these women were represented or interpreted in English literature of the time (such as the Urania, but also including some of Shakespeare's works). If you have any interest in the general topic of diversity in European history, I recommend checking this book out.
Historical studies of prominent women such as Queen Elizabeth I often focus on the men who filled key positions in their governments or who served as advisors. Such an approach that looks primarily at formal structures can overlook the immense power and influence that women had in a social context where people spent most of their lives in gender-segregated contexts. If you wanted to present your petition and plead your case to a woman like Queen Elizabeth, the most efficient means was not to approach Burghley or Walsingham, but to have a personal connection with one of the gentlewomen of the chamber--the women who interacted directly with the queen every day in her private spaces. This article looks at such "unofficial" personal networks between women in early modern England, and especially as they revolve around the role of secretary--literally the person who in entrusted with and and keeps one's secrets. While some prominent women might have male secretaries to handle their correspondence, the social context made it far more likely that a woman would fill a role such as this that expected and required a level of trust, faithfulness, and intimacy that were hard to achieve across the genders at that time.
Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries” in Queer Renaissance Historiography, Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9
A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.
Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries”
Crawford tackles the intriguing topic of women in 16-17th century England serving as secretaries--both in official and de facto positions--especially in service to other women. She particularly looks at the function of a secretary as an advisor and secret-keeper. As the Oxford English Dictionary gives for the first definition of the word: “One who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.” (Keep in mind that the root of “secretary” is “secret”.) The second definition, involving the job of managing correspondence, developed later but is also a significant sense in the 16th century. And, indeed, one of the contextual citations in the OED for this sense is feminine, though allegorical, referring to Mary Sidney Herbert as “eloquent secretary to the Muses.”
While studies of secretaries in the 16th century commonly focus solely on men who served women in this role--especially those serving Elizabeth I--Crawford seeks to recognize women themselves fulfilling the role of secretary. The general omission may in part be due to a focus on the function of secretaries in those social spheres less open to women, and especially on the significant homosocial bonds between men in these functions in the public sphere. But 16th century writers had no problem with accepting that women might fill the role of secretary for other women, in particular fulfilling the role of private counselor and often serving as intimate confidante.
There is a brief survey of examples of women secretaries and their duties: Hannah Wolley in The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1674) describes handling her mistress’s correspondence; Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World features a female scribe working for another woman; and there are numerous examples of women whose secretarial duties involved reading aloud to their employer. One pair that may be of particular interest is the Countess of Bedford and court poet Cecilia Bulstrode, whom Ben Jonson satirized with an accusation of lesbianism.
The women serving female monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne fulfilled an interwoven set of official and unofficial secretarial duties that are hard to untangle from more intimate services. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions and the women in service to powerful employers enjoyed significant control over access to their attention. Crawford suggests that such close relationships--although not considered sexual in their historic context--could not avoid having an erotic component. The article examines the role of these female secretaries in terms of specific types of functions.
The first of those functions examined is “bosom counsel and bed-sharing,” that is, someone to serve as a close confidante--“close” in both a metaphoric and physical sense. As Angel Day put it in The English Secretarie (1592) a secretary is someone “in whose bosome he holdeth the repose of his [master’s] safety to be far more precious then either estate, living, or advancement, whereof men earthly minded are for the most part desirous.”
The word “bosom,” literally meaning “breast” and extended to the clothing covering it, came metaphorically to mean both closeness and discretion. Papers and letters meant not to be seen were tucked beneath clothing on the upper body, embodying the idea of secret speech entrusted to the bearer. Inescapably, the language of taking someone to one’s bosom, or sharing one’s bosom evokes images of female erotic intimacy. Examples of such language between women is offered from several Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.
These female confidantes in Shakespeare often combine the sharing of secrets with the sharing of a bed. Here the complicated interpretation of bed-sharing must be examined. In early modern England, it was normal and expected for people of the same sex to share a bed. (If nothing else, housing logistics and less than ideal home heating arrangements made it desirable.) Bedfellows might be siblings, close friends, host and guest, employer and servant, random travelers staying at the same inn. But such arrangements did also involve complex social politics and could both indicate and negotiate friendships and alliances. Sharing a bed was de facto an intimate relationship and offered the opportunity for private conversation that could lead to possibilities for advice and influence as well as strengthening inter-personal bonds. And it was a context that provided opportunity for homoerotic interactions, regardless of how the participants might have understood and classified those interactions.
The article quotes correspondence about bed-sharing that uses erotically charged language (with all the necessary caveats about interpreting it as specifically sexual). In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier (they later had significant social ties throughout their lives), “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged.
These were personal connections, but also the creation and strengthening of political alliances with consequences for the extended families of all the women involved. Anne Clifford had a number of young women of good family in her service--a key part of the life cycle of the upper classes when such bonds were established. The question of sharing sleeping quarters and beds was a dynamic part of making those bonds for the future, in part because of the opportunities for “knowledge exchange” in a private context.
The second type of function covered under the position of secretary was identified by terms such as chambermaid and handmaid. Changes in meaning can result in misunderstandings about the functions involved. “Chambermaid” in this context does not simply mean some who does household cleaning, but a servant responsible for a woman’s personal, private sphere (the “chamber”) and so someone with regular and reliable access to her employer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Maria is identified as Olivia’s “chambermaid” it is clear from context that hers is a position of significant power and influence within the household. A connection is made with Queen Elizabeth’s “gentlewomen of the privy chamber” who were recognized for their potential as influential intermediaries and were sought out to transmit letters, petitions, and requests to the queen. This is the same sort of role that Maria fills for Olivia--a role of such responsibility that Maria can write letters in Olivia’s name and hand and have them taken for her mistress’s word.
A third function associated with the secretary is that of someone expected to be present within their employer’s private spaces and interactions and to keep those transactions secure.
The friend/counselor/secretary relationship between women was seen as qualitatively different from their relationships with men due to the absence of gendered differentials of power. It could function as resistance to patriarchal structures even when it served political networks inextricably linked to patriarchal authority. Female same-sex interactions served an ideal of fidelity and equality that worked against external tyrannies. But in some ways, the concept of consilium (advice) was itself a gendered concept, with the “counselor” understood as pairing with the person being advised in relationships that mirrored gendered pairings such as husband and wife. Thus women were, in some ways, seen as always standing in a consilium function in any relationship.
The article expands on this with an extended look at the characters of Paulina and Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and how Paulina’s function as counselor, “gatekeeper”, and eventually guardian of the queen’s most important secret (her continued existence) makes her both a prototype of key secretarial functions and an example of how those functions can act to resist tyrrany. Another literary example that is a more direct allegorical representation of real-world politics is Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, where various of the female characters serve this function of advisor and secret-keeper for each other.
The author concludes with a summary of how secretary-like functions between women in early modern England were an integrated part of women’s social and political power, as well as illustrating the complex possibilities of same-sex intimacy and eroticism that underlay the ostensibly heterosexual foundations of society.
The seventh category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Fake Relationship. I'm adapting the trope a little because usually it refers to two characters who have to pretend to be in a relationship and then find themselves in love after all. As you'll see, I've reorganized the components a little, in part because of the demands and direction of the overall story structure.
I need to give a content advisory for this story because some people seriously dislike the motif of an unwilling gender reveal. I thought seriously about choosing this particular event for the necessary shift in character direction. If I had set up Magdalena/Pieter as in any way being gender-questioning I wouldn't have used it. But I tried to be very careful about showing both of my Dutch soldiers as identifying clearly as women who are using male disguise for economic purposes and personal freedom. So this is not a story about someone being forced back into a rejected gender role, but about someone being forced back into abandoned social restrictions. That said, I know that not everyone finds the motif palatable so I wanted to make sure they have the chance to avoid it.
I've reined myself back to a shorter length for this snippet and it probably feels unfinished in terms of even a micro-plot. Currently I'm setting up a three-snippet story arc that will introduce a new character in the next bit and give Lena a new and even more adventurous romance in the end. [ETA: I've made some minor edits since originally posting this.]
Follow the Drum: Reprise (Lesbian Book Bingo: Fake Relationship)
They ransomed us at last from the French at Montigny. Maybe it isn’t fair to say “at last”. It wasn’t as if the French wanted the burden of dozens of Alliance prisoners, but it takes time to arrange for exchanges and calculate the worth of lives. It was long enough that Martijn’s wound had healed except for a limp that she tried to hide from the officer who took charge of us. We had grown expert at hiding. Sometimes even Martijn didn’t notice the small burdens I took from her, especially on that first long march away from captivity. It was what a comrade did.
That was what we’d become: comrades. There was a time I thought we might become lovers—more than the simple fact of sharing comfort and passion within our combined bedroll when we thought it safe—but instead we’d settled into something closer and more comfortable. When I first put on a uniform and followed the drum, my desire to see the world and have adventures was tangled up with that other desire. I still thought I liked women more than I’d ever like a man, but Martijn… Well, and Martijn had told me about Mayken, and how she hoped she might still be waiting for her back home even though they hadn’t promised each other anything. It was strange to think that there was still a place called home after everything we’d seen.
The regiment we’d served in before Montigny was off in the Germanies now and the end of our march was a camp with English flags before the officers’ tents and a babble of different voices. I’d learned bits of French in the past months but English danced just out of reach. It sounded like it ought to be no harder to understand than the soldiers from Leeuwarden, but the words always slipped sideways out of my head.
After the quiet and stillness of close confinement, the camp was crowded and noisy. At the other side of the parade ground from the officers was a fenced off space with enough clanging and hammering for five blacksmiths and a crowd of strange engines whose use I couldn’t imagine. On the far side of that was a sprawling civilian camp of the sort that grew up any time the army stayed in one place long enough: the wives and children of soldiers, as well as women less particular in their affections. Steaming cauldrons of laundry and the smoke of cook-fires mixed with the scents of better food than Martijn and I had enjoyed in months, even though it was nothing but soup with a single scrawny chicken in a big pot. At least we wouldn’t have to do our own cooking and washing until we marched away again.
That was where they took us after we’d passed inspection in front of the officers and been assigned to a new regiment. With bowls and spoons in hand, we lined up with resigned patience for a share of whatever was in the cook-pot and a chunk of bread. Martijn was staring at the ground with that look she got when her leg was aching and she was too tired to do more than put one foot in front of the other. I nudged her to close up the gap in the line so no one would push past us. “Maybe they’ll have some beer.”
Martijn shrugged. “Not unless someone’s willing to give us credit until we’re paid.”
I started calculating how we might find some spare coins before that. We were already in debt for a tent and bedrolls and that was before thinking about the state of our clothing. That distraction was why I didn’t notice anything about the woman who was ladling out the food except that she had a baby slung across her back and a small child tugging at her skirts. Not until it was my turn to hold up my bowl for her to fill.
I recognized her half a breath before her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open.
“Lena?” she cried in disbelief.
It was too late to warn her off, to hush her, to beg her silence.
“Lena? What are you doing here like this?”
Two steps beyond, Martijn had frozen in place, staring at us both.
“Greta, please!” I asked softly and urgently. “Please don’t.”
It had been two years since I’d seen my cousin Greta back in Zendoorn. Two years—the age of the boy holding on to her skirt and staring up at me. She’d followed the drum in her own way but in all the wide world, why had we ended up in the same camp?
It was too late. The officer in charge of seeing the new arrivals settled had heard the outcry and come over to see.
“You know this soldier?” he asked.
“Soldier?” she said scornfully. “That’s my cousin Magdalena, she’s no more soldier than I am.”
I think I was angrier at her for denying me that title than for exposing me to scorn. I’d marched and sweated and bled as a soldier. That should count for something. But now the officer was staring at me closely with a frown. Before I knew what he was about, he’d grabbed me by the shoulder and put his other hand between my legs to feel for the thing that wasn’t there. I shoved him away, not caring for rank, or that my supper had just gone spilling away in the dirt, or that I’d blushed as red as a beet. Not caring that he could have me whipped just for pushing him like that, never mind for what else I’d done.
But he only laughed and rolled his eyes and said, “Sweet Christ, another soldier-girl! And you—”
He turned on Martijn and my heart froze.
“Please sir,” I begged, clutching at his sleeve. “Please, I only did it to be with my sweetheart. There wasn’t time for us to be married before he marched away. Martijn didn’t want me treated like a common camp follower. Don’t blame him sir!”
Was it enough to turn his suspicions away? I babbled away my reputation, my pride—anything to protect Martijn.
Greta let out a long gust of laughter. “Oh Lena, you were so prissy when I had to marry my man, and here you are no better than you should be! You put her in my hands, sir. I’ll teach her what it means to be a soldier’s wife. And maybe we can get a pastor to bless them before her belly swells too big.”
She took me by the wrist and called for someone else to take her place at the kettle. I barely had time to look back over my shoulder at Martijn who still stood frozen in place without a word of protest or defense. But what could she have said that would do more than make things worse?
* * *
Greta found a skirt for me. The weight of it felt comfortably familiar around my legs, though I'd finally grown accustomed to breeches too. “Keep the coat,” she said. It seemed like half the women in the civilian camp were wearing bits and pieces of old uniforms. “You can sleep with me for now. Help me keep an eye on the boys. There’s plenty to do so make yourself busy.”
And just like that I went from being a soldier on the march to cooking and mending and looking after babies. All the things I thought I’d left behind. It wasn’t that I thought less of women like Greta whose entire world was caught up in home, even the home of an army camp. Maybe someday I'd want all that too. But not now, not yet. I thought back on the plans Martijn and I had shared: the places we’d go together, the cites we wanted to see, maybe even taking ship for far lands. We’d been comrades. Equals. Not just Martijn and me, but all the men we’d marched with. And now I was just “Martijn’s sweetheart who put on trousers to follow him.”
It was two days before Martijn came to find me where I was turning a spit, trying to keep Greta’s boy amused so he wouldn’t stumble into the fire, and fighting a headache from the unending pounding of metal from the engineer’s camp beside us.
“Magdalena?” she asked hesitantly. The name was awkward in her mouth because I’d been Pieter so long.
I hesitated, wondering what to say, but there were people watching who’d heard about us so I threw my arms around her neck and kissed her like all the other women did with their husbands and sweethearts. It gave me a chance to whisper in her ear, “Is all well?”
Martijn nodded. She pitched her voice low. “I’m sorry about…all of this. We’ll figure out what to do somehow.”
“What to do? They’ll find someone to marry us. What else can we do? What other excuse do I have for being here?”
“Pieter—Lena, we can’t! It’s not… We aren’t…” She broke away from the embrace and threw her hands up in a shrug. “We can’t be married in God’s eyes, it would be a lie.”
I hissed at her, “I don’t care what God thinks, I care what Greta thinks and what your commanding officer thinks.”
Martijn was afraid, I could see that. I couldn’t tell whether she was more afraid of God or of her own disguise being found out. Was she sorry she’d let me join her on that fateful day back in Zendoorn?
“Martijn, you told me before that a comrade who shared your secret made you safer. A wife who shares it will make you safer yet. It’s like you said back at De Leeuw: nothing works better to convince people you’re a man than having a woman.”
Having a woman, like one might have a gun or a pair of boots. I didn’t like it any more than she did, but we both had too much to lose. No, that wasn’t true. I’d already lost almost everything. I’d lose that last scrap of respect unless we married. Without a ring, I’d be just one more fallen woman, considered common to anyone who took a fancy to me.
“Lena—,” she began.
But then I had to scramble to pull Greta’s boy out of danger and give the spit a turn so the meat wouldn’t burn, and when I looked up again, Martijn had left.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
[Continue to the next installment]
I've had a few movies on my to-review list since I watched them last year, so here is me giving up on writing anything lengthy and thoughtful in order to catch up on all the movies and tv series I can remember watching that I haven't talked about yet.
Battle of the Sexes (2017) - A dramatized biopic about the publicity-stunt tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. The movie provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at Riggs' motivations in setting up the stunt, as well as giving a good picture of the no-win situation in which it put the various female tennis champions that he tried to drag into it. If he won, hey, it proves men are inherently superior to women; if they won, hey, they were world champions up against a middle-aged amateur, what does it prove? The movie also includes a very sweet low-key look at King's romance with Marilyn Barnett. The one aspect of the film's depiction that rather grated on me was how it tried to frame Riggs' over-the-top sexist rhetoric as being an obvious put-on, even in a context where the outrageous economic discrimination againt women's tennis was part of the plot. I'm sorry, but I remember the 1970s and I remember the media around the "battle of the sexes" and there was no sense that the men publicly bashing on women's competence and professionalism were "ha ha just joking to be theatrical." Riggs was an asshole and the men who encouraged him were assholes and the media who played along were assholes and we still have to deal with people like them. So don't try to make him "loveable".
Coco (2017) - Pixar makes another heart-wrenching story about love and family and pursuing your dreams. Don't get me wrong: I loved this movie, with all its plot twists and turns, and I loved the conclusion, and everything. But it's a typical Pixar story in how it completely centers the male characters and their relationships. The animation is glorious. The cultural references were fun. (I totally loved the idea of Frida Kahlo doing artistic design in the afterworld.) I'm aware that Pixar went through some cultural rough spots in developing this story and came perilously close to making a complete hash of it. And however well they succeeded after regrouping, there's still a strong whiff of cultural objectification, but it's not my place to judge how well they succeeded or failed on the cultural end.
Black Panther (2018) - I've kept swearing off superhero movies and keep getting lured back to give them one more chance. This is the first time I've had no regrets at all about giving in. Not only is the movie visually glorious and full of a far more complex and nuanced plot than is typical for the genre, but it was chock full of strong, beautiful female characters with immense agency within the plot. It says a lot that this movie, headlined by a male character, felt to me twice as strong on female presence as Wonder Woman did. I really enjoyed how the movie engaged with the flaws and conflicts within its own premises (regarding the pros and cons of isolationism). And I'm overjoyed that it has done so well at the box office, though--like many woman-centered films--it has clearly been held to an impossible standard of success. If it had merely been the third highest-grossing superhero film in history, one gets the sense that the usual suspects would have tut-tutted, "Well, we gave it a try to center a non-white story, but it just didn't work out." Yay for overwhelming success, but lets keep moving toward a world where we can get broader representation in films without them needing to be superachievers to be considered viable.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018) - This was another visually-gorgeous, daring movie, with casting that went beyond the usual defaults. But although I loved the cinematic experience, I found the plot mildly incoherent. A few weeks later, I have a hard time remembering more than scattered snapshots of imagery. (I read the book a very very long time ago and didn't refresh before seeing the movie, but that was probably for the best.)
And now for a couple of TV shows that I've belatedly been tasting via iTunes.
Wynona Earp - On a whim (and based on a vast amorphous pressure from fans in my larger internet community) I picked up the first two sesasons of this weird western show and have watched the first four episodes. That's been enough to conclude it just isn't for me. Oh, I can see the beginnings of the same-sex romance that everyone is so excited about, but there are too many elements in the show that just Aren't My Thing, mostly the regular, extended gruesome violence and the "bad girl" main character. Sorry, but I just don't get the appeal of violent nihilistic self-desctructive protagonists.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Once again, I was inspired by the general love this show gets from my internet community to give it a try. And after the first two episodes I'm really kind of "meh." I don't like the protagonists. Either of them. And I don't think there's a single female character who rises above the level of cardboard.
So that catches me up on the visual media reviews, I think. Next to tackle getting caught up on books.
The 18th century English performer Charlotte Charke manipulated gender performance both on stage and off. Charke's performances--whether dramatic, economic, or literary--represented a challenge to gender boundaries of the time and have continued to stand as a challenge to historians engaging with Charke's person and performances. Was Charke's off-stage performance as "Mr. Brown" simple economic necessity? Was it a reflection of transgender identity? Was it a strategem to engage in homoerotic encounters with women? Are we to read Charke's three marriages to men as evidence of an underlying heterosexuality? Or do we filter our understanding through Charke's recorded negative opinions of them and view the marriages as social and economic necessity? How much of Charke's autobiography was sincere and true and how much was deliberately sensationalized to sell more copies--at a time when literary success was crucial to Charke's economic stability? Depending on which evidence is emphasized, a solid case can be made for a variety of interpretations, but in the end those interpretations will usually tell us more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter. I am not immune to this. Given my own interests and the context of the Project, I will tend to default to framing Charke as a bisexual woman who played with gender presentation to create contexts for engaging in same-sex desire, as well as to benefit from male economic privilege. But other framings are equally supported by the contradictory evidence and I encourage people to look further into the life of this fascinating person.
Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”
In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.
By the early 18th century, men playing female parts was only acceptable as an obvious parody of femininity. The parallel expectation for women in male roles only arose in the later part of the 18th century. In the mid-18th century, the ambiguity regarding women cross-dressing was considered part of the appeal. But toward the end of the 18th century, there was more condemnation unless the depiction left gender boundaries clear and unquestioned.
Theories about the appeal of cross-dressed actresses have tended to focus on the male gaze and how the roles objectified female bodies, but Straub suggests that the appeal was more complicated. She argues that evidence such as the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke contradict an easy fit of this phenomenon into a traditional expectation of “the subjugation of a feminine spectable to the dominance of the male gaze and the exclusive definition of feminine sexual desire in terms of its relation to masculine heterosexual desire.”
The appearance of women on stage beginning in the 17th century did serve the obvious function of using conventionally attractive feminine bodies to sell tickets, as many commentaries will attest. But the variety of responses indicate that an equal attraction came from sexual ambiguity, and that female audiences were just as attracted to the performance as men were. A 1766 memoir notes, with regard to this topic, “It was a most nice point to decide between the gentlemen and the ladies, whether [the actress] was the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.”
This “double pleasure” on the stage was more problematic when it moved off-stage. Popular culture tended to contain the transgression of actresses who continued to cross-dress in ordinary life by assigning them unambiguously heterosexual desires. Susanna Maria Cibber was reported to cross-dress when off the stage to facilitate a heterosexual affair. Susanna Centlivre similarly cross-dressed to pose as her lover’s “cousin Jack” in order to live with him when he was at Oxford. Sarah Siddons was accused of taking on the role of Hamlet for an opportunity to seduce her married fencing instructor. Even same-sex attraction off-stage was framed with conventional motivations: Margaret Wolffington was said to have set out to win the affections of another woman, but only to distract that woman from the man they were competing for.
[Note: this catalog of stories doesn’t touch on the question of who is gate-keeping the recording and transmission of these responses. All the "was said"s and "was reporteds" raise the question of who is doing the talking and what topics they are not talking about.]
By the mid 18th century, there is significant pressure for cross-dressed actresses to confine their appeal to “acceptable” contexts, revealing the underlying anxiety about their roles. These anxieties were several. The appeal of cross-dressed women as men challenged traditional notions of masculinity. And secondly, they represented a challenge to the idea that women should be limited to the private, domestic sphere.
By the early 19th century, discussion of cross-dressed actresses became increasingly condemnatory. [Note: As for Trumbach’s article in this same collection, it’s hard to square this assertion with the mid-19th century popularity of actresses such as American Charlotte Cushman, who enjoyed major success on English stages in "trouser roles".] The suggestion was that it was “improper” for women to play these roles, appealing to shifting models of femininity. Wearing breeches on stage for broadly comic purposes was possibly acceptable, but still not entirely proper. This exception still allowed cross-dressed classics such as Shakespeare’s comedies, as long as the masquerade was obvious. Flying in the face of the evidence, critics of the practice denied the possibility that an actress could believably play a male role, much less one that is desirable by female spectators. The vehemence of these criticisms imply the success of cross-dressed actresses in challenging the stabiilty of masculine sexuality. In particular, they highlight the anxiety that a masculinized performance by a woman might attract unapproved sexual desires by the female audience.
Charlotte Charke’s 1746 autobiography illustrates the real basis of these anxieties as she took her cross-gender behavior off the stage and into everyday life in ways that challenged heterosexual norms. The work is a textual performance, in parallel with her stage performances, and part of a varied set of gender-fracturing enterprises by which she worked to support herself and her daughter. A number of those enterprises involved taking on male occupations (such as valet) in male garb. [Charke’s early experiences with cross-dressing, whether as performance or personal expression, suggest to the modern reader a transgender framing, and there are a number of publications that examine Charke's life in that context, but I have followed the author’s lead in consistently gendering her as female in this summary.]
Straub suggests some interesting potential motivations for the prominence of cross-dressing in Charke’s life story. In particular, she suggests a through-line of critiquing her father’s submissive subservience to his artistocratic male patrons. Various historians see in her performance a challenge to concepts of masculinity that, in her era, were increasingly driven by contrast to a female “other”. The masculine woman refused to be “other” and so undermined the concept of a distinctive masculine identity. The major threat to “masculinity” was being seen as womanish or feminized, as represented by the “feminine” male homosexual. This was the image of “failed masculinity” that Straub suggests that Charke is implicitly critiquing in her father.
There does not appear to be any unambiguous evidence that Charke engaged in sexual activity with women, in disguise or otherwise, but many of her early “adventures” involve inspiring the desire of a woman while in male guise and only narrowly escaping situations in which she would need to confront that desire.
Historians, in considering Charke’s life and writings, are often frustrated by her resistance to being read either clearly as heterosexual or lesbian. Straub discusses the context of the “female husband” narrative and the ways in which Charke contradicts it--a contradiction that can just as easily be read as a refusal to fit female same-sex desire into a heterosexual mould, instead of as a refutation of same-sex desires. Henry Fielding’s fictionalized account of “female husband” Mary Hamilton is discussed, focusing on the motif of Hamilton’s use of an artificial penis as part of her disguise. [Note: I think there’s a significant difference in that Hamilton is not telling her own story or intending it as a performed spectacle. Whereas Charke was clearly performing even when not on stage.]
Charke plays with the idea that she might return the desire of the women who engage with her male presentation, always regretfully finding a reason to escape. But her protestations such as that she was “greived it was not in my power to make a suitable return” (of affections) leave open the possibility of genuine regret, not simply feigned excuse. Regarding the reason for her cross-dressing, she toys with her readers, saying that “the original motive proceeded from a particular cause” but then protesting that “I am bound, as I before hinted, by all the vows of truth and honour everlastingly to conceal [it].”
In contradiction of the potential for same-sex desire, Straub fastens on to Charke’s novel The History of Henry Dumont, which includes a vicious portrayal of a male homosexual character, as implying a general position of homophobia (to use the modern term) and a distancing of her own experience. [Note: I think that Straub overlooks the problem that male and female same-sex desire were not seen as parallel and equivalent in this era--or, indeed, in most eras before the 20th century. Hostility by Charke to male homosexuality doesn’t strike me as automatically ruling out the possibility that she felt same-sex desire for women and possibly even acted on it.] Straub concludes by noting the continuing difficulty of interpreting Charke’s biography when colored by modern concepts of gender and identity.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21a - On the Shelf for April - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/04/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2018.
Have you had a chance to listen to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s first original fiction episode? Last week we debuted the new series with Catherine Lundoff’s “One Night in Saint-Martin” and we have three more equally great stories lined up to come out this year. If you enjoy the story, make sure to recommend it to your friends.
One of the things I really enjoy about my blog and podcast is the opportunities they provide for me to be in contact with other authors and readers in the field. I have to confess that I’m usually far too shy to contact someone out of the blue to tell them how much I enjoy their writing. Which--folks, don’t be shy like me! Authors love to have random strangers tell them how much they enjoy their books! It’s totally ok! But it’s a bit easier when I can say, “Hi, I love your books and would you be interested in being on my podcast?”
Sometimes the intersections are a bit more interesting. Let me tell you a funny story. I was on a book-buying spree for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog recently, and due to an error in an Amazon listing that confused two similar titles, I ended up with a duplicate copy of Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan’s sourcebook Homosexuality in Early Modern France. Like you do. I mean, it could happen to anyone, right? It had been fairly cheap, and the error was partially my own for not noticing the error in the listing, so I figured I’d just find a good home for the book and posted on a facebook group for people researching historical romance that I’d ship it to the first interested person with a US shipping address. I got an immediate response from a woman that I’d interacted with a few times on twitter. But when I asked her to message me her shipping address she said, “So I just looked at your profile, and you could save the postage because we live in the same town.” We ended up meeting at a local coffee shop for the book hand-off and to chat about writing and publishing and books we loved and whatnot. So you never know where those random internet contacts may take you.
Publications on the Blog
As I mentioned last month, I’ve lined up a lot of journal articles to cover on the blog. In fact, now that I’ve had a chance to read through them and sort them into thematic groups, it looks like I have enough material to take me into August. So here’s a run-down on what the blog has covered in March and will be covering in April.
I’m always interested in articles on my favorite 18th century cross-dressing novel, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu and Caroline Gonda takes a look at the story within the context of cross-dressing novels as a genre, both in France and in England. Her conclusions suggest that it’s even more curious in that context than it first seems.
Next I cover four articles from a collection entitled Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity. These papers look at various aspects of gender presentation across the ages and its relationship to categories of sex and sexuality. The first article looks at a particular genre of medieval Arabic literature that discusses categories of non-normative sexual practice. The Arabic material is a good way to shake up your preconceptions both of what medieval attitudes toward sexuality and gender were like and of what medieval Islamic cultures were like. The second article looks at the concept of the hermaphrodite in Renaissance writings and how the idea of people with ambiguous bodies or with ambiguous gender presentation were a key factor in a shift from medieval concepts of sex and gender to the beginnings of more modern concepts--though we must be careful not to understand “modern” as meaning either “more evolved” or “more true”. The theme of the relationship of sex, gender, and sexuality is continued in the third paper, which looks specifically at the rise of the concept of homosexual orientation as an identifiable category around the 18th century. And the fourth paper I cover from this collection is about women playing male roles on stage, and particularly about 18th century English actress Charlotte Charke. Interesting that both the 18th and 19th centuries had a prominent actress named Charlotte who was famous for her trouser roles!
I follow that collection with a pair of articles from a volume titled Queer Renaissance Historiography. One looks at the function of private secretary in 16th and 17th century England, focusing in particular on women serving as secretaries to other women. It discusses how the dynamics of secretarial functions within a gender-segregated society created and relied on personal intimacy at several levels and created homoerotic potential even within the framework of patriarchal power structures. I timed my coverage of this collection for the second article of interest, which is about Renaissance and early modern representations of the goddess Diana and her nymphs that show how definitions of female chastity in that era were considered compatible with female same-sex erotics. The author of the article posits that images of “Diana’s Band” created a context for women with erotic interest in women to form a community of interest. I’ve been wanting to do a podcast episode on the image of Diana as lesbian, and this article gave me the inspiration to carry through on it.
This month’s author guest will be Alyssa Cole who wrote an absolutely lovely lesbian romance novella set just after the American Revolution as part of the collection Hamilton’s Battalion. And this month, our Book Appreciation segment will feature reviewer Liz Bourke, talking about some of her favorite recent historicals with queer women. Liz is also a great resource for finding great science fiction and fantasy with queer female characters. I recommend her blog at the SFF site Tor.com.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
I’ve searched the net and social media to bring you information about new and upcoming historically-based fiction with queer women. Remember that I can only include books that I know about, and as we all know, historical novels about queer women can be hard to find. So if you have or know about a forthcoming book that you think would fit into this podcast, drop me a note so I can follow up.
We all have our favorite sub-genres and I’ll freely confess that Regency Romances are near the top of my list. So I was overjoyed to hear about The Covert Captain: Or, A Marriage of Equals by Jeannelle M. Ferreira. It came out in March, but I didn’t hear about it in time to get it in the March announcements. Here’s the blurb. “Nathaniel Fleming, veteran of Waterloo, falls in love with his Major's spinster sister, Harriet. But Nathaniel is not what he seems, and before the wedding, the truth will out... Eleanor Charlotte Fleming, forgotten daughter of a minor baronet, stakes her life on a deception and makes her name—if not her fortune—on the battlefield. Her war at an end, she returns to England as Captain Nathaniel Fleming and wants nothing more than peace, quiet, and the company of horses. Instead, Captain Fleming meets Harriet. Harriet has averted the calamity of matrimony for a decade, cares little for the cut of her gowns, and is really rather clever. Falling in love is not a turn of the cards either of them expected. Harriet accepts Captain Fleming, but will she accept Eleanor? Along the way, there are ballrooms, stillrooms, mollyhouses, society intrigue, and sundering circumstance.” At the moment, the book is only available through Amazon, but I’ll be waiting anxiously for the next couple of months until it’s out in other formats.
Justine Saracen has another of her impeccably-researched World War II novels out with Berlin Hungers. Here’s the blurb: “In the years after World War II, the alliance that saved Europe is breaking down as the Soviet Union and the West compete for control of Germany. When Russia blockades Berlin, everyone, it seems, is hungry: Russian soldiers for German women, the Soviet leaders for territory, the Berliners themselves for food. But the hardest hunger of all is between a Royal Air Force woman and the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot who helped set fire to half of London.”
We move into the realm of alternate history and steam punk with Alex Acks’ Murder on the Titania and Other Steam Powered Adventures. “Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full, what between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security) and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horrors of high society tea parties. In contrast, Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he? Join Captain Ramos, Simms and their crew as they negotiate the perils of air, land and drawing room in a series of fast-paced adventures in a North America that never was.” This is a collection of stories in something of a mystery-adventure vein. To be clear, this isn’t romance although there’s a definite same-sex flirtation running through the stories, very much with an enemies-to-well, to sparring partners flavor. Come for the casual queerness, stay for the derring-do.
When I started doing this upcoming books segment back in February, the first book in K. Aten’s “Arrow of Artemis” series had just come out, but I didn’t include it in the listings because it looked like it was pure fantasy rather than historical fantasy. I’m still not sure quite where it sits on the continuum, but since the third book in the series mentions the Roman Empire, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Book two in the series is coming out in April, titled The Archer and following the adventures of Kyri, fletcher and archer and new recruit to an Amazon band.
I’ve had this month’s Ask Sappho question sitting in the in-box for a while, and to some extent this is a confession of failure. The question was from Ann Terpstra, who asks, “I was wondering if you could recommend a few non-fiction books focusing on lesbians or queer women in the 1920s. I have an idea for a book set in 1920s Chicago focusing on lesbians and speakeasies. I've run down a few good possibilities, but I thought you might be a good resource for other suggestions.”
Ann, I wish I could pull out a list of recommendations for you--if you’d asked about the 1820s, I could do it. But when I set up the scope of my history blog, I put the cut-off at the beginning of the 20th century for several very practical reasons. The first is that there’s simply so much more research available on gender and sexuality in the 20th century that I’d get swamped by all the possibilities. I know that doesn’t make the research sound any easier to find when you’re just starting out! But believe me that it’s out there. The second reason is that people’s understanding of sexuality in western culture went through a seismic change at the beginning of the 20th century. Most people today who know anything about queer history will know the basics of the 20th century experience. So my history blog is focusing on earlier eras because the attitudes and experiences were so different from what our own experience has been and it’s more important for an author to ground herself in those differences to write them well. A third reason is that historic sources for the 20th century are more likely to be available in popular formats--history books aimed at a general audience. In contrast, research on earlier eras is more likely to be hidden away in academic journals or specialized books that the average library isn’t going to carry. So I think I can be more useful in building bridges for the earlier material because it’s harder for the average person to stumble across it.
All of this is to say that I can’t easily put together a solid suggested book list for 1920s Chicago from my own reading. But I can offer some directions and hope that they don’t duplicate what you’ve already found.
When I plugged the keywords “Chicago 1920s lesbian history” into Google, I found some useful leads. The first hit was for an article on gays and lesbians in a site called The Encyclopedia of Chicago. It only has one paragraph covering the 1920s but it also cites as one of its sources an organization called the Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Project that collects oral histories, although there’s no guarantee they’d have any from that particular era.
There’s a popular history book titled Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall by St. Sukie de la Croix that looks like it would be useful. And there’s a text titled Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago, available as a free pdf file, which is a museum exhibition catalog and covers some useful topics. My own experience is that the best way to find more detailed information is to start with one good book and then look for gems in its bibliography. I’d guess that both Chicago Whispers and Homosexuality in the City will have really useful bibliographies to start from. I’ve listed all of these sources in the show notes with links.
New and Forthcoming Books
There's a lot of meat to chew on in this article, and I think that Trumbach's exploration of shifts in how same-sex desire was understood and classified during the "long 18th century" is both fascinating and valuable. But at the same time, I see a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of flaws and weaknesses in how he frames and presents the data and his conclusions. Which I have commented on at great length interspersed with my summary of the article. To some extent, he seems aware of these flaws, for he uses a lot of "hedging language" like "seemed," "likely," "probably." But if I didn't have a fairly extensive existing familiarity with the data (and--I'll admit--a very different personal engagement with the data and its interpretation) I might have taken his conclusions more at face value. To be somewhat fair, the article was published in 1991 which was at the leading edge of the deep work in gender/sexuality history that we can now take for granted. But articles like this (and a critical reading of them) are a useful lesson in the importance of questioning not only the data but its interpretation.
Trumbach, Randolph. 1991. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Trumbach, Randolph. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture”
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article. I’d also like to acknowledge that articles such as this that treat historic individuals in a cross-gender or gender-ambiguous conext will necessarily trade sensitivity for clarity when discussing both beliefs and realities about the relationship of bodies, identities, perceived identities, and orientations. I will usually try to rephrase an article’s language to something more neutral, but as we are not dealing with persons who can clarify their own preferences, the results will not always be satisfactory.]
Trumbach looks at shifts in the cultural understanding of gender and sexuality that appear in northwestern Europe around the beginning of the 18th century and that he sums up in the title of this article “from three sexes to four genders.” The modern western model of two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female) does not hold through all cultures and has not been universal throughout western history. He associates the shift under consideration with the beginnings of an ideal of equality between the two “legitimate” genders and the rise of a recognition of a third “illegitimate” gender: the “adult passive transvestite efeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation toward men, known in England as a “molly”.
[Note that this is not quite the same as a concept of a general homosexual orientation as it still focused exclusively on the “passive” partner who was assumed to have sexual encounters with “normal” men. Also note that "gender" is being used in this article to discuss a concept that combines features that we would today distinguish as gender presentation and sexual orientation. I believe the point that Trumbach is making with the use of the word "gender here is that 18th century English culture conflated gender presentation and sexual orientation in exactly this way.]
By the end of the 18th century, a parallel female role of the mannish woman-desiring “tommy” was becoming recognized. Trumbach asserts that at this time “sapphist” and “tommy” were used as the high and low culture terms for women with homoerotic interests just as “sodomite” and “molly” were high and low culture terms for men. Trumbach’s claim is that this “other female gender” was not completely recognized until the late 19th or early 20th century as women’s gender classification was driven more by participation in sex with men than by their attitude toward sex with women.
[Note: There are certainly pre-19th century references to women who desire women constituting a “third gender” so I’m not sure exactly what Trumbach’s basis is for pushing the concept toward the end of the 19th century. I get the impression that--like many male historians--he’s treating the male experience as the default and evaluating women’s history in relation to how closely it matches that male experience. In this case, the phenomenon he's focusing on is the conflation of cross-gender presentation and same-sex desire as a combined social category, that is, the development of a female category directly equivalent to the "molly". In doing so, he filters out historical concepts and behaviors that don't participate in that combined category. So keep that in mind as I summarize this article.]
By this point (i.e., ca. 1900) western society had developed a system divided into four roles: man, woman, homosexual man, lesbian woman--roles that presumed only two biological sexes, that rejected a biological basis for homosexual behavior, and that no longer framed homosexuals within a transsexual structure (i.e., that one’s “true” gender was determined in contrast to the object of desire).
The 17th century paradigm--which was applied to both men and women--recognized two genders (male and female) but three biological sexes (man, woman, and hermaphrodite). Under this system, all persons were considered capable of desiring both genders, but “legitimate” sexual activity and desire occurred between male and female genders, and hermaphrodites were required to choose (and stick to) either male or female gender. Violation of this male-female requirement was stigmatized as sodomy, but sodomites were not considered a distinct gender based on their sexual relations. Further, acts of sodomy only violated the accepted gender system if they went against a gendered framework for penetration. As long as older, dominant adult men had penetrative sex with adolescent boys, and women had non-penetrative sex with each other, the gender system was maintained even during same-sex erotics. Persons who acted against this system (e.g., biological adult males who were penetrated or biological women who penetrated women) were not considered to be a distinct social class (gender) but rather were considered to be motivated by belonging to a distinct biological class (hermaphrodites). In the case of women, there was a persistent expectation that this biological class was identifiable by an enlarged clitoris. [Note: The failure of medical examination to uphold this concept in the case of women doesn’t ever seem to have disrupted the standing assumption.]
In the early 18th century, this system as applied to men underwent two shifts: from a 2 gender/3 sex system to a 3 gender/2 sex system, and from an expectation that sexual relations between men would involve an active adult man and a passive adolescent boy, to a system where some adult men who desired men took on “feminine” aspects of dress and behavior as part of engaging in those relationships.
This article focuses on what was going on with women in regard to these categorization shifts during this same period (the 18th century) particularly in London. Trumbach focuses on three topics: the concept of women as hermaphrodites, the understanding of cross-dressing by women, and the scope of “what male contemporaries would have considered to be actual sexual relations between women.” [Note: I use the precise quotation here to highlight that this analysis is assuming a male gaze for this shift in categories. I presume that to some extent this approach is due to the larger amount of male-authored material used as evidence. But I’d be happier if Trumbach seemed more self-aware of the problematic aspects. In the next section I’m going to quote Trumbach’s hedges for his assertions, because I think it’s important to recognize the degree of note-entirely-acknowledged personal speculation involved.]
Trumbach dates the emergence of the “sapphist” gender role to the latter half of the 18th century, emerging clearly only in the last quarter. In the earlier part of the century, women’s behavior was “likely” to be bisexual and their sexual activities with women focus on manual stimulation and avoided penetration. “Men speculated” that women engaging in penetrative sex with women were assumed either to have an enlarged clitoris or to use an artificial penis. “It is likely” that some female husbands who dressed as men and married women did use artificial penises, but “it is likely” that most passing women did not have sexual relations with women, and this is “probably true” even if they married.
[Note: that’s a lot of “likely”s and “probably”s. This entire section of the article strikes me as someone working hard to fit the evidence into the his existing conclusions.]
Open cross-dressing, as on the stage, was aimed at appealing to men, not women, relying on the overt knowledge that the performers were women, while covert cross-dressing was intended to conceal the bodily sex. Only toward the end of the 18th century is there evidence of women using cross-gender appearance to appeal sexually to women. It is these women that Trumbach identifies as “London’s first sapphists of the modern kind”, in the sense that they were considered to be expressing a fixed, minority sexual orientation, rather than indulging in a more general possibility of same-sex desire that any woman could experience.
The “hermaphrodite” category was sometimes applied to men who took both an active and passive role in same-sex activity, but it was treated as more of a symbolic label than it was for women, for whom it indicated an expectation of anatomical anomoly. And as the 18th century progressed, the male category increasingly used “molly” instead.
For women, “hermaphrodite” could also be used in a metaphorical rather than anatomical sense, especially when attached to clothing that was felt to be too “masculine” in design, such as tailored riding habits. Here it is the clothing--not its wearers--that is considered to partake of male and female traits, and at least in the early century there seems to be no implication that women wearing “mannish” styles associated that fashion with desire for women. [Note: The early 18th century Memoirs of the Count de Grammont implies a relationship between Mrs. Hobart's "mannish" attributes and clothing and her predatory sexual interest in young women, but it's true that the association isn't as strong as it later became. And I think Trumbach has an unstated distinction between descriptions of "mannish" clothing being part of a stereotype of women's sexual deviancy, and the deliberate use of "mannish" clothing to express personal identity/orientation. Did the existence of the stereotype inspired homoerotically-inclined women to adopt masculine-coded clothing? Or was the stereotype an outgrowth of the earlier gender/orientation model that viewed female same-sex desire as a symptom of an essential "masculine" identity that also inspired cross-gender dressing? I think there's a lot more to investigate here, though it's questionable whether the data exists to be successful.]
The association of the concept of the physiological “hermaphrodite” rather specifically with women (as opposed to both women and men) is emphasized in the coverage of medical treatises on the phemonenon, such as Edmund Curll’s 1718 work, which focus entirely on physiologically female bodies that featured enlarged clitorises. He considered that hermaphrodites were inherently predisposed to transgressive sex and that sex with women was simply an extension of this. He also takes an exoticizing view of same-sex desire, considering hermaphrodites to be more common in hot climates, such as Italy and France. Unlike writers later in the century, he considered hermaphroditism to represent a distinct physiological (yet still female) sex that resulted in same-sex desires.
But hermaphroditism was not a stable category. A woman could become one as a result of masturbation, which was believed to enlarge the clitoris. Several “case studies” are adduced from the sensational tract Onania (which seems to have been a combination of anti-masturbation polemic and porno magazine letter column). Under this understanding of the relationship of physiology and sexual category, individuals can move between sexes by means of changes in their genitalia, whether spontaneous or as a result of stimulation.
The Onania also reflected the next stage of thought, citing writers who considered that so-called hermaphrodites were simply mis-categorized as to sex due to ambiguous genitalia. Thus, a girl with a large clitoris might be assigned as male (as in a case study related by surgeon John Douglas) and only later in life be re-assigned as female. In the case study this re-assignment was due to pregnancy. John Parsons, repeating the report in 1741, notes that in earlier ages the case would most likely have been reported as a change of sex, rather than an initial miscategorization.
It was mutability, rather than anomaly, that incited disapproval. Another physician, writing in 1771, noted a “hermaphrodite” who had lived as a man for at least 12 years, marrying a woman and living with her until her death; but after the wife’s death, the person began living as a woman and had married a man.
While earlier legal policy had recognized the possibility of change of physiological sex, it had required everyone to choose a single behavioral gender and stick to it. This emerging view of physiology in the 18th century held that actual sex change was not possible, and therefore to avoid sodomy it was necessary to correctly identify which sex a person was and require them to perform the corresponding. Another case study is offered: Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl but then at age 22 joined the army as a man and went to America . In that country, Thomasine again lived as a woman, but when examined was found to have male genitalia. (Trumbach suggests the likely explanation that Thomasine had an intersex condition in which male genitalia developed in late adolescence. But in general as Trumbach is interested in subjective social categorization, he doesn’t touch much on intersex conditions as a factor in the data.) The American court took the rather unusual approach of sentencing Thomasine to dress partly male and partly female, which would seem to contridict the requirement to “pick one and stick to it.” [Note: for those who would like to follow up on this case and its unusual legal context, see Wikipedia as a starting place.]
John Parsons briefly acknowledges the possibility of such mis-assignments of male individuals, but in general treats all hermaphrodites as basically female. As women, he argued, there was no point in requiring them to choose a gender--they had one. But this position combined with the expectation of heterosexual desire to argue that the the category of “hermaphrodite as tribade” was non-sensical. Even women with enlarged clitorises were women and therefore should naturally desire only men.
What this meant was that rather than using hermaphroditism as a reason and excuse for apparently-female persons desiring women, desire between women was now considered to have no biological basis and therefore must be viewed as simple moral deviance. [Note: This is, of course, not a new and previously unknown understanding, but to some extent a return to an earlier position. As seen in other research, the fascination with the idea of the “macroclitoride hermaphrodite” was a Renaissance invention and superceded a previous model of same-sex desire as potentially available to all persons but morally deviant.]
As the category of hermaphrodite was receding as a framework for women who desired women, there was not yet an equivalent to the masculine “molly”, i.e., women who were socially (rather than biologically) disposed towared desire for other women. Such a category would become necessary, and was filled with the concept of the sapphist/tommy, representing women whose desires had been corrupted toward an inappropriate object.
The next section of the article specifically looks at the association (or lack thereof) between women who cross-dressed or passed as men, and women who desired women. John Cleland, in his translation of the life of Catherine Vizzani, suggested that cross-dressing women were predisposed to same-sex desire, but this suggestion doesn’t seem to hold for most 18th century cross-dressing women in London. (Keep in mind that Catherine Vizzani was one of those “hot blooded” Italians.) Trumbach asserts that for most of the 18th century, there was no specific association between female cross-dressing and lesbianism, in contrast to mollies (men cross-dressing as women specifically in the context of same-sex relationships and activity).
[Note: in order for this particular conclusion of Trumbach’s to be demonstrated, it is necessary for him to re-categorize a significant number of “female husbands” or to deny that their relationships had any relation to sexual desire. While it's true that documented motivations for "passing women" in this era are diverse, Trumbach goes out of his way to downplay the possible role of same-sex desire. I’m going to do a lot of critique interwoven into this next set of data.]
Trumbach notes that although there were women who courted and married other women in 18th century London and “may have tried” to have sexual relations using a dildo (as documented for Mary Hamilton and for Catherine Vizzani), this specific sexual act cannot be proven. [Note: Trumbach seems to ignore the issue that England had no laws against performing a sex act with a dildo, unlike a number of continental cultures where trial records document such sex acts clearly and in detail during this period and earlier. This seems to me to greatly weaken his conclusion that 18th century English cross-dressers were not engaging in penetrative lesbian sex simply because there’s no mention of it in the record.]
“Female husbands” in 18th century London were normally charged with fraud rather than with a sexual crime [there being no sexual crime on the books they could be charged with]. Examples of fraud charges include:
• Sarah Ketson who courted Ann Hutchinson in 1720 as “John”
• Constantine Boone who was convicted of a fraudulent marriage to a woman in 1719 (and later was identified as a hermaphrodite)
• In 1773 a younger woman (presumably passing as a man) married an older woman for the sake of £100
• In 1777 a woman (presumably passing as a man) convicted for marrying 3 different women
Other cases suggest that whatever the initial understanding may have been, the relationship was found acceptable to both parties once the gender disguise was known. Sarah Paul was abducted by a man for sexual purposes at age 13 and dressed as a boy (Samuel Bundy) to conceal her identity. She escaped him and went to sea as a man, then returned to work as a painter, at which time she courted and married Mary Parlour. Mary soon discovered her “husband’s” physiological sex and took no action at first. Some ambivalence entered their relationship for Mary later had “Samuel” arrested for fraud, but then refused to appear in court to support the charges and kept her husband company while in prison. The only outcome was that the magistrate burned Sarah Paul’s male clothing and ordered her never to appear as a man again.
Such relationships were sometimes successful enough to last until death. John Chivy was married to a woman for nearly 20 years and was not discovered to be physiologically female until after death. Mary East was the husband of a couple married for 36 years, running a public house and holding parish offices, and only discovered to be physiologically female after her wife’s death in 1766. Trumbach notes that there is no direct evidence whether their relationship was also sexual, though he notes that East’s suscuptibility to a blackmail attempt suggests the possibility of more than simple gender disguise--or at least that the suggestion of such was a threat. In some cases involving simple gender disguise without marriage, the woman testified directly to an economic motivation, citing the better employment opportunities for men.
Simple economic gender disguise was treated inconsistently by the law, with many examples coming from military contexts. Some women, on discovery, received punishments including whipping or hard labor, while others were turned into folk-heroes and granted celebrity status, such as Hannah Snell and others. The popular media showed a certain prurient interest in the details of behavioral disguise, e.g., the use of instruments to allow male-style urination, or the need to perform the expected flirtatious interest in women. But the startling observation is how mahy of these known passing women in the military were not arrested in connection with their discovery.
Given the expected gender segregation of society, another motivation for women cross-dresing was to facilitate illicit interactions with men, whether sexual or merely social. Sally Salisbury dressed as a man for drunken and violent sprees with a group of young aristogratic men. A woman who served as coachman to Lady Ann Harvey cross-dressed in order to conceal her illicit marriage to another servant in the household, was only discovered due to pregnancy. Catherine Meadwell developed a male persona to better facilitate an adulterous (heterosexual) affair.
Trumbach spends a fair amount of time discussing the life and autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, but although he notes the “complications” of interpreting her motives, he sets out his default position by stating that she “probably” began cross-dressing to facilitate her second, secret marriage (to a man). In contrast, her travels with a female friend as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” are atrributed merely to safety. Charke’s cross-dressed courtship of several women, her flirtations with prostitutes, and her stated discomfort with traditionally female occupations are considered to be balanced by the fact that she bore a child within marriage. [I can't help by hearken back to Trumbach's statement that women's erotic identity during this period was defined by whether they had any relations with men, not by the existence of relations with women. It's hard to find any clear distinction between Trumbach's own categorization stratgy and his reporting of historic categorization strategies.] Trumbach sensibly points out that Charke’s hostile satirization of an effeminate male homosexual cannot be interpreted as a general hostility to same-sex relations as the two situations were not considered in any way equivalent at the time. But he concludes by noting that there is no proof that she ever engaged in “what would have seemed to her to be sexual intercourse with another woman.” [Note: this leaves aside the question of what she engaged in that would not have been categorized as "sexual intercourse." But there's a consistent through-line in the historic western treatment of female same-sex erotics that "it isn't sex unless it closely mimics heterosexual penetrative intercourse." In some eras, this interpretation left a lot of latitude for "acceptable" female same-sex erotic activity. But when this same definition is echoed by modern historians--in combination with a definition that "woman cannot be classified as lesbians unless they engage in sex," you get a lot of erasure where perhaps the majority of women with same-sex erotic interests are defined out of the category of "possible lesbians."]
Trumbach then sums up his not-entirely-proven conclusion that the majority of cross-dressing women in this era did it for economic reasons or for safety, but that a minority were motivated by a sexual attraction to women. Also his counter-position that the majority of women who had same-sex relations (whom he labels “libertine”) did not cross-dress or take on masculine behaviors. [Note: I’m not saying that I think his conclusions are necessarily false, only that they feel decidedly under-proven.]
Moving on to the specific topic of sexual relations between women, Trumbach reiterates one of the key factors in the English historic record: there was no law against it. Under English law, sodomy was illegal, but it was defined narrowly as either bestiality or anal intercourse. This leaves no scope for evidence of sex between women to be found in the legal record, abandoning the field largely to literature and gossip.
The imagined sexual activities of women in fictional accounts are largely written by men (most often in pornographic contexts), with one exception being by Delariviere Manley. The accounts may involve women of all life situations--young unmarried girls, married women, prostitutes. Somewhat obviously, the latter two groups are depicted as also enjoying sex with men, even in cases where they prefer women.
Manley’s satirical work The New Atalantis stands out in content. It features a “new cabal” of aristocrotic women who have affectionate and romantic relationships with each other, though lip service is given to considering actual sexual relationships to be “going too far.” The characters in the narrative also acknowledge the difficulty of entirely avoiding marriage to men, even when they reserve their romantic love for their female friends. A few women are described in the work as being mannish in affect, though not in dress. And one is depicted as cross-dressing in order to visit prostitutes in company with her female lover. Overall, the depiction is of a group of women who have primary romantic attachments for other women, sometimes including sexual relationships, but who accept that marrage to, and sexual relations with men are also an unavoidable part of life. [Note: Trumbach seems to assume that the reader knows that Manley’s work was a thinly veiled roman à clef, with most of the fictional characters being easily connected with her real-life social circle. This makes the fictional nature of the relationships less of an argument for discounting them.]
More common in literature are male depictions of sex between women as an adjuct to sex with men, as in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in which lesbian sedution is used to “train up” a new prostitute. An interest in sex with women is presented as an “arbitrary taste” to be enjoyed when available but not pursued exclusively.
Gossip among the fashionable classes of London was another source of evidence for women’s same-sex realtions, although perhaps not any more reliable in the details than literature. The nature of Manley’s novel provoked speculations. It was commented on that one married woman traveled with a female companion becasue she bore “affection to her own sex.” Sexual puns were made to comment on the public affection shown by one woman to another. And women who pursued amours with other women were reported with an implied expectation of sexual activity. The state of marriage was irrelevant in this context. Being married was neither a guarantee of disinterest in women, nor a bar to acting on that interest. Conversely, the possibility that affairs between women might disrupt heterosexual marriages was a spur to the sharpness of the gossip, but not an assumed consequence.
The flavor of this gossip was parallel to that seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries regarding sodomy between men, prior to the development of the molly role. Male rakes were expected to sexually pursue both women and boys. It was immoral but not scandalous. Similarly, these 18th century women generally had sexual relations with both men and women. There were economic pressures for the former that can’t entirely be discounted, but in general bisexuality was the expectation for “libertine” women. They were the subject of gossip for unchastity, but not for the nature of their partners. The suggestion of deviance was reserved for the rare examples of women who combined same-sex desire with masculine behavior (as for a few characters in Manley’s novel).
The use of dildoes for sex between women is another topic where fact can be difficult to extract from the available literature, which betrays a male-centered fixation on penetrative sex as being qualitatively different from other options. Thus, in Henry Fielding’s fictional account of Mary Hamilton, she is depicted as despairing of enacting her marriages to woman without the use of an artificial penis (the discovery of which led to her exposure).Cleland’s translation of Catherine Vizzani’s memoirs also fixates on her use of an artificial penis in her affairs with women (while also addressing the previous era’s expectation that such desires were driven by anatomy in the form of an enlarged clitoris). In fact Cleland’s writings straddle various tropes. His Vizzani text expresses some surprise that Catherine did not have the expected anatomical cause, while highlighting her use of penetrative sex with an instrument, inspired by “some error in nature”, but then his Woman of Pleasure embraces the new framing of lesbian desire being “infectious” as it were, potentially stimulated in any woman via “corruption” by an experienced practitioner and not involving a pseudo-male partner. For Cleland, Vizzani’s cross-dressing was not a cause of her sexual interest, but rather a more serious transgression that took same-sex interest too far. In Cleland and some of his contemporaries, we can see these first hints at a female parallel to the molly: a minority of women who removed themselves from the category of “female” entirely and into a new category that would become labeled as “tommies” or “sapphists”.
[Note: While I've always been aware that Cleland's translation of the Vizzani text revised several sections relating to her sexual relations, I wasn't aware of some deeper and more questionable motives in his revisions that are explored in Donato 2006, which is among the articles I have lined up to cover in the next few months. Cleland very much cannot be viewed as a neutral observer of women's sexuality, in case there was any question.]
Another triangulation on the emergence of this new category comes from the gossipy diaries of Hester Thrale-Piozzi. Thrale had something of a fixation on identifying and recording male homosexuals (she considered herself to have a special ability to detect such inclinations even when concealed) with near-universal condemnation. She also commented on (real or imagined) sexual relations between women, particularly in Bath and London, but was less consistent in her reactions. She repeated an accusation that the French Queen Marie Antoinette had been the head of a Sapphic sect. She initially praised poems honoring the friendship of Miss Weston and Miss Powell, then later speculated salaciously on why Miss Weston had been averse to marriage and had made a fuss about another young woman. In 1795 Thrale went so far as to say that “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” But at the same time she had difficulty imagining what such women could actually be doing together. She was one of a number of people who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, as well as noting that Damer had also adopted various men’s dress accessories.
Thrale’s inconsistency also shows in her attitude toward famous passionate friends: Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The majority of Thrale’s commentary on the “Ladies of Llangollen” is positive and she engaged in friendly correspondence with them, despite how well they fit Thrale’s criteria for being “unclean birds” as she puts it elsewhere. [Note: Trumbach states that Thrale “never made any negative judgment of them” but Donoghue cites a lesser known diary entry in which Thrale did refer to the two as “damned sapphists.”] Other contemporaries of Butler and Ponsonby were less hesitant to comment on their relationship and Butler considered a lawsuit against a newspaper article that suggested some irregularity to their relationship by describing her as “tall and masculine--always wears a riding habit” while describing Ponsonby in more conventionally feminine terms. In context we see a suggestion of the stereotype of “mannish” lesbian, and Ponsonby certainly reacted as if they description implied something unacceptable.
Trumbach suggests there was a distinction that Butler and Ponsonby did not “project [their relationship] as sexual” while Anne Damer, enacting a similar gender transgression in her dress and a liking for pretty younger women, “clearly projected her affection for women as sexual.” [Note: the evidence in both cases for this “projection” seems to come from how their contemporaries reacted to them.] “It is likely” Trumbach says, that this difference in projection derives from whether the women themselves identified their feelings as sexual in nature.
Even after the concept of a female “tommy” role developed, it was not as heavily stigmatized as the “molly” role. Women, in general, did not engage in their sexuality publicly and there is no evidence of a female subculture in taverns or public spaces equivalent to the molly houses. [Note: Other authors such as Donoghue have identified references to some evidence of public culture of this type.] Trumbach identifies several other general shifts that occur in the late 18th century with the rise of the “tommy” role: a falling off of interest in female actors taking on male roles on stage [but note various 19th century actresses famous for their “trouser roles” such as Charlotte Cushman], a greater difficulty for women passing as men and less interest in their stories, and the near-disappearance of the motif of an enlarged clitoris being used to explain same-sex desire. By 1800, Trumbach asserts, this new configuration had settled into a system of two types of bodies (male and female) and four genders, two “legitimate” heterosexual ones, and two stigmatized homosexual ones.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20e - "One Night in Saint-Martin" by Catherine Lundoff - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/31 - listen here)
Welcome to the debut offering of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series! I think you’re going to love the stories that we have lined up for you across the year.
Our story this time is “One Night in Saint-Martin” by Catherine Lundoff. Catherine lives in Minneapolis with her wife and two cats. She is an award-winning writer and editor whose stories and articles have appeared, or are forthcoming, in venues such as Respectable Horror, My Wandering Uterus, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty, Renewal, Callisto, The Cainite Conspiracies: A Vampire the Masquerade V20 Anthology and Nightmare Magazine: Queers Destroy Horror. Her recent books include Silver Moon and Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories. Catherine is also the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a new genre fiction publisher of tales from out of this world. When not writing or working on Queen of Swords, Catherine is a professional computer geek and former archeologist who enjoys science fiction and fantasy, good books and local theater. Catherine was featured in the very first Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast author interview, in August 2017 and I’m delighted to be able to offer you this tale of spies and pirates in the mid-17th century Carribbean.
Our narrator for this episode is Tiana Hanson. Tiana was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and came to the Bay Are to chase her lifelong dream of being a professional actress. She has narrated fifteen audiobooks (available on Audible), mostly lesbian romances, and is delighted to find a new creative outlet that allows her queer light to shine.
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.
“One Night in Saint-Martin”
By Catherine Lundoff
Captain Jacquotte Delahaye cautiously raised her spyglass above the rocky outcropping she was sheltering behind and swore under her breath. What was Celeste Girard up to? She looked as if she was simply flirting, laughing behind her fan at some witty remark from her companion, a rich Dutch merchant. But Jacquotte knew better: Girard was one of King Louis’ agents in the Caribbean and her companion was not what he seemed. Whatever she was up to, this was part of a plan.
She shifted against the rocks and heard the crackle of paper inside her jacket. The sound made her grin in the direction of the balcony that she was spying on. "I outwitted you before, Mademoiselle Girard and now I have your authorization from the King. Will I need to outmaneuver you again or are we now allies on the same side?"
The thought of crossing swords, figuratively and literally, with the beautiful spy again sent a pleasurable heat through Jacquotte. But perhaps her first mate, Villiers, was right and more time spent in the entertaining brothels of Tortuga would reduce her susceptibility to this particular pretty face. Jacquotte grimaced, put away her glass in the case that hung from her belt and slid cautiously down the rock face so as to avoid either breaking her back or tearing her breeches.
He might be right, at that. But there was no time for that now. Celeste Girard was flirting with Anton De Vries, the Dutch merchant who played the part of ambassador or spy for whichever power paid him the most. Jacquotte wondered which side was paying for his services now. Working for the Dutch was more difficult of late. The English Protector and his navies were still blockading the merchant princes of the Lowlands, and now King Louis sought to profit by it.
None of this would have normally concerned Captain Jacquotte Delahaye, pirate, captain of her own fleet and possessor of a small island not far from Port Royal, the pirate capital of Jamaica, had the conflict not begun to affect shipping. His Majesty of Spain’s ships full of gold and the riches of the Incas and other conquered peoples no longer sailed as frequently from Spain’s great ports in the New World. Now, the intervals between ships were growing longer and each one was more heavily guarded. At this rate, she and her crew would be robbing cotton merchants or fishing boats to keep their own ships afloat.
Jacquotte snorted at the picture in her head. That or turn slave traders ourselves. She swore under her breath again at that thought and considered her crews, composed of men and a few women, their skins a veritable rainbow of shades from tanned brown to black, for a moment before thrusting the notion firmly away. “We’ll take up fishing ourselves first,” she muttered.
“Captain?” Villiers was waiting for her at the end of the path, his scarred, swarthy features twisted into a puzzled question.
“It’s nothing. Girard is the Vicomte’s guest and she is with De Vries. I need to know what they are plotting. If France chooses to side with England or Spain, we’ll never have enough cannons to fight them all.” Jacquotte frowned as they walked toward the cove where The Lioness lay at anchor.
“We could kidnap Mademoiselle Girard. T’would be easy enough, Captain.” Villiers sounded as if he relished the idea.
Jacquotte turned that over in her mind for a few minutes. They had a few options: kidnap Girard or De Vries, bribe one of the servants or slaves, waylay any messages…or, most efficiently of all, she could turn spy herself. Certainly Celeste might recognize her, but with a good disguise, it might take even King Louis’ most trusted local agent some time to do so. Enough time, perhaps, for Jacquotte to learn what she needed and disappear. And if that failed, well, perhaps Villiers had a point…
Celeste frowned at herself in the mirror. The tropical sun did not agree with her milk-white complexion. Worse, she was running out of her treasured powder that protected her skin from freckling, and that was not to be borne. At this rate, she would need to petition the King to allow her to return to Paris until her beauty was restored.
With a sigh, she arranged the lace on the neck of her gown to flatter her shoulders and décolletage. Her maid, a slave on loan from her hostess, fussed over her silvery blonde hair for a few moments, adding a light sprinkle of powder. “Mademoiselle will dance tonight, after dinner, no? The pins, they must hold.”
Celeste eyed the brown-skinned girl in the mirror. It had taken her a few days to learn the island’s patois but now that she understood Marie a bit better, she recognized a slightly impertinent tone when she heard it. Marie looked down demurely and dropped an apologetic curtsey, though the curve of her lips suggested that she was not that sorry.
Celeste wrinkled her nose and couldn’t resist a small smile in return. She could not imagine being at the beck and call of others, your very life hanging on their whims. It was astonishing that the girl was as good humored and adept as she was. She felt a flash of pity for Marie or whatever her name had been before she was brought to this house.
A moment later, that thought vanished to be replaced by more pressing concerns. She was running out of time to find out what the Dutch had planned to confound their English foes. A ship sailed for France in two days and her message must be aboard it if it was to arrive on time to be useful. Celeste swept from her room into the hallway in a rustle of skirts and petticoats, determined to complete her mission in the allotted time.
De Vries was standing on the landing outside her room, like a cat waiting for a mouse. Celeste fluttered her fan up under her eyes to hide a quiet sigh. De Vries was dull, but persistent, with moist hands that had to be frequently fended off. Yet it was him she had come here to spy upon so there was nothing for it but to resign herself to his company. “Monsieur De Vries, you honor me.”
“It is I who am honored, Mademoiselle. Or perhaps I may call you Celeste, now that we are such good friends.” He leered at her, cold gray eyes dropping from her face to her bosom, then below. The offer of his arm soon turned to an arm around her waist as they descended the stairs.
The Vicomte Auclair and his lady wife were already seated at the table in the dining hall, along with some guests. He rose with a gallant smile. “Ah, Mademoiselle, Monsieur. We do not stand upon ceremony here on the barbarous edges of His Majesty’s empire. Allow me to present you to our friends.” There followed a catalogue of names and a few titles, all of them unimportant to Celeste; what were a few more merchants and their wives who had nothing to do with her business, after all? Still, she filed away the shared details of their lives automatically for later perusal.
She smiled prettily, ignoring the way that De Vries stiffened at the mention of “empire” and “His Majesty.” But he maintained enough self-control that he managed to hand her into her chair with an unwanted caress. She gritted her teeth but turned a polite smile to the rest of the company. The Vicomtesse broke into her thoughts with a cheerful burble about the hotness of the day, and from there, the ladies began discussing fashions and tonight’s dancing. Celeste chatted with them, one ear turned toward the men’s conversation to learn what she could.
It was little enough. Slaves, servants, children, they all came and went, quietly and efficiently or noisily and leaving chaos in their wake, as the case might be. That and the presence of the women was enough to dampen any serious discussion and Celeste thought longingly of disguising herself as a boy. True, she was not as skilled or believable in that disguise as a certain red-haired pirate of her acquaintance, but she could have made it believable in this simple company.
She bit back a sigh and fanned herself a bit faster. The hot early evening transitioned slowly into the slightly cooler night and guests from around the island began to arrive. Celeste was introduced as a cousin of the Auclairs, sent from France to the colonies. The Vicomtesse implied that she had been sent to find herself a rich husband in Martinique, but had come to Saint-Martin when her chaperone fell ill. She threw herself into the role with abandon, asking all manner of questions that might otherwise have been found impertinent or rude. Frankly mercenary, but pretty, young women were afforded some latitude.
But it took very little time before she felt a certain hostility from the ladies present, particularly those with daughters of marriageable age. Celeste looked around the room for a harmless target for her attentions. The unmarried and unknown young man that she found was only recently arrived from New Orleans, according to the Vicomtesse. Dark-haired and deeply tanned, he had a bashful quality that she found refreshing after De Vries, often looking at the floor or away from her as if she was too lovely to gaze at for long. It pleased her vanity at the same time that it brought De Vries closer to confront his supposed rival under the guise of discussing shipping, crops, pirates and other topics of interest to the other guests.
At the mention of pirates, Celeste pricked up her ears. De Vries boasted that all the pirates in the Sea would soon be captured or killed, though he offered few details beyond mentioning some bargain that the merchants of the Lowlands were about to reach with King Louis and the King of Spain.
The young merchant had a strong reaction to this pronouncement and pressed him further for greater detail, but to no avail, apart from attracting more of De Vries’ attention than Celeste herself for a few moments. She could only suppose that he was worried about his new ship and trade. Still, she could not help thinking of Jacquotte Delahaye with a pang of longing and resentment and the conversation washed over her inattention, leaving little else of interest in its wake.
The subject of Celeste’s reverie managed to control her fury at De Vries’ casual mention of wiping out all the pirates in the islands. Did this fool believe it would be so simple? Though, upon reflection, the pirates with their scattered ships and fleets, their lack of a common tongue, their resentment of authority apart from their own captains, were ill-equipped to unite to defeat a concerted effort to wipe them out. Jacquotte’s mind spun furiously, picking up and discarding plans and theories with lightning speed while trying to maintain the quiet demeanor of her disguise.
Was Celeste here to help or hinder these plans? If De Vries told the truth and this was a plan hatched by the French King in concert with the others, then there was no need of a spy to watch him. But if the King did not trust his allies or if De Vries was lying, that might be another tale. Or, perhaps, King Louis and his ministers saw it as a chance to strike out at the English dogs and seize their plantations and islands while they distracted themselves with a war in the Low Countries. Attacking the pirates might be nothing more than a mask to their true intent.
She wondered whether De Vries was the linchpin of this alliance, responsible for sending messages and relaying information, real or imagined. A sidelong glance at the lovely Celeste suggested that she thought as much. Mademoiselle Girard was making every effort to seem both fascinated by their conversation and far from indifferent to the Dutchman’s attentions, though an observant companion might have noticed the adept way in which she slipped away from the grasp of his hands whenever she could.
Idly, Jacquotte wondered if gutting him here and now would resolve all uncertainties and problems with a single solution. She dismissed the notion reluctantly and instead schooled her features to mercenary interest, the kind that a barely fletched young man turned merchant, might exude in such company. As they spoke, the slaves finished clearing the furniture in the next room for as robust an evening of dancing as the heat would allow and the musicians began to play. Before Jacquotte could speak up, De Vries claimed Celeste’s hand and brought her out for a country dance.
Smothering her disappointment, Jacquotte took the opportunity to speak to the other guests, as well as the Vicomte himself. Presenting herself as the possessor of an untried ship with a terror of pirates garnered her a few more details than De Vries had offered up. But it was soon clear that her suspicions were correct: the Dutchman was the one who was central to this plan. Between dances, she cultivated him as if he were a newfound friend, dodging Celeste’s flirtatious gaze as much as she could in the meantime. A jealous De Vries was vulnerable and potentially useful. A passionately angry De Vries who might be foolish enough to have his new young friend cast out of what passed for good society on this island was a very different thing. With that in mind, she played upon his ego and set herself up as a possible ally, albeit a not very powerful one. She knew she would have to stay close in order to be ready to disrupt his schemes.
Still, it would be wise to know what Celeste did as well, once this evening ended, and she could not follow her in a man’s guise. Nor could she be in both places at once. She would require a confederate and Villiers was too crude a tool for her purposes. For a moment, she even considered bringing Celeste into her confidence to determine whether or not they had shared goals. She mulled that over, fondness for the spy warring with distrust until she finally, reluctantly, dismissed the idea for the moment.
But perhaps there was someone else. The young woman who served as Celeste’s maid looked clever enough, despite endeavoring to look appropriately servile and subdued. She had just picked up Celeste’s empty cup and taken it to a tray outside the doorway when Jacquotte approached her. Assuming the attitude of the colonial Frenchman she seemed to be, she stepped out into the hallway and barked, “Here, girl, come here a moment.”
The maid’s face went slack, eyes turned apprehensive, as she twisted her fingers in her gown like she thought to run. But she maintained her self-control and walked over to Jacquotte, with a sidelong glance at the other slaves who stood grouped between the ballroom and the rooms beyond. Jacquotte continued, more softly now, “You serve Mademoiselle Girard, yes? What are you called?”
She nodded and managed a clumsy curtsey. “Yes, Monsieur. I am Marie, Monsieur.” From her expression, she was suppressing relief that this young gentleman was more interested in her mistress than herself.
Jacquotte knew that such interest was no defense for her to rely upon, but there was nothing she could do about that. Instead, she tugged her purse free of her belt and told her a version of the truth. “I hope to win Mademoiselle’s heart some day soon, but in the meantime, I fear for her well being in this…” Here, she gestured, as if considering her words more carefully, “place, so near the Dutch with their crude ways. Perhaps you might accept this small gift from me and in return, if Mademoiselle should be in distress of any kind, you could send a message to me at my rooms.” She named the only inn on the French half of the island that rented rooms, one where the owner had been well bribed to pass along messages intended for her ears only, and gave the girl a name, “M. Delacroix.”
The coins vanished into Marie’s garments and she studied Jacquotte sidelong for a moment, as if taking his measure. She liked the girl the better for it, especially when she finally nodded. Jacquotte provided her with a simple code for contacting her, then turned back to the ballroom and De Vries. If Marie proved reliable, she might prove to be a useful asset on this island where she herself had few allies. If not…well, she’d deal with that roll of the dice when she had to and have Villers set a man on the docks to watch the ships either way.
When she stepped back into the room, Celeste was clearly pleading exhaustion, fluttering her fan prettily as a barrier between her and De Vries. Jacquotte suspected that there was a blade in its elaborately carved handle and that the spy was perfectly capable of removing his insistent hands if she needed to and smiled slightly at the thought. She took her leave of the Vicomte and left on her borrowed horse, bound for the inn without a second glance back at Celeste.
By the time Celeste returned to her room, she was exhausted. De Vries’s intentions were growing more insistent and harder to turn aside. Whatever she had envisioned for herself, spending time as a powerful Dutch merchant’s mistress on either the Dutch or French sides of this misbegotten island was not a part of it. At least he had let slip a piece of information that might almost be worthy of notice in Paris.
Marie was waiting for her and soon had her undressed quickly and efficiently. “Did Mademoiselle enjoy herself?” She began brushing Celeste’s hair out of its elaborate style, placing each pin carefully on the dressing table. She looked up as she put them down, studying Celeste’s face in the glass.
Celeste met her eyes in the mirror. “One or two of the gentlemen were, perhaps, too attentive. But the music was lovely, as was the dinner. Did you find it amusing?”
Marie dropped her gaze and brushed harder. “Oui, Mademoiselle. One of the gentlemen asked about you. The young, handsome one with the black hair.”
Celeste arched an eyebrow. There had been something familiar about that merchant, something she wanted to examine more closely, but he had been too bashful to flirt and De Vries had been entirely too present. Now her suspicions were aroused and she began to think back on what she had noticed of his features and gestures. “What did he ask about me?”
“He said that he was in love with you, but feared for you.” Marie hesitated. “He is not what he seems, Mademoiselle, but I don’t know why.”
“Indeed. What told you that he wasn’t an ordinary merchant?” Was there another spy on the island? There must be at least one or two. The Dutch had De Vries, the French had her, but what of the English, the Spanish? Perhaps even one of the more enterprising pirate captains, if they got wind of what De Vries was planning? She straightened abruptly. How had she been so blind? “I think I do know why. Thank you for the warning, Marie.”
So Captain Delahaye wanted an eye kept on her, did she? She hurried Marie out with pleas of exhaustion and a few small coins, likely to pass unnoticed so that she wouldn’t be beaten for theft. Then she opened the wardrobe with a sigh. Would it be sensible to disguise herself and hunt for the pirate tonight? Or should she wait until she was fresher?
She dropped into a chair and considered what she knew of the Dutch, what De Vries said they were planning, of the English Roundheads, of the Spanish and their gold shipments. It would not benefit her King for the English to grow too strong on the seas, but it would benefit him still less if Spain were to refocus her troops and energies on her northern border. The enemies of France should be occupied by being at war with each other.
The thought of Jacquotte must have driven her next thought: what of the pirates? They would be wiped out eventually, true, but that would takes years and far more naval power than De Vries thought it would. If she allowed herself a rare moment of honesty, she cared only about one pirate and her fate, and that only reluctantly. Her fingers caressed her lips absentmindedly, remembering their last kiss.
Of course, Jacquotte’s ability to preserve her own life had already earned her the nom de guerre of “Back from the Dead Red”; she did not need Celeste’s assistance for that, at least. Still, it would be useful to know what the pirate planned to do next and how it would impact her orders to engage with De Vries. And yet…
She might learn more about his proposals from the pirate and who he was double-crossing to affect them. He had hinted to her that his pockets had been lined with Spanish doubloons, as well as English pounds. Alliances were fleeting and could be expensive; her King could not afford one on such soft ground as this. Besides, his interest in M. Delacroix had certainly increased during the evening and she wanted to know what Delahaye had hinted at or done that had drawn his eye.
Her mind made up, Celeste rose slowly. She could manage to stay awake another few hours, if needs must. Delahaye’s inn was not so far away, not if she borrowed a horse. She tugged the hidden panel in her trunk open, pulled out some garments and began getting dressed again, this time in a costume more suitable for meeting with pirates.
Jacquotte leaned back against the wall and watched the inn’s door open and shut behind each new arrival and departure. Her instincts told her that either Celeste or De Vries, possibly both, might seek her out tonight. Granted, De Vries had small reason on the surface to come to her, but there had been an eagerness in his manner that suggested a need for adherents.
Perhaps the Vicomte and his friends found him too boorish, his plans too impractical. Whatever the reason, she had sensed a certain reserve from the others when he spoke enthusiastically about his plans, this great alliance that he envisioned.
As for Celeste, well, she had a left a trail for her to follow. If she had read Marie correctly, she would pass on a warning and Celeste would be unable to resist investigating further. Perhaps she had already recognized Jacquotte. Either way, she would come here to learn more. All Jacquotte had to do was wait.
And wait. Finally, she yawned, too tired to stay awake any longer and weary of fending off the tired glares of the innkeeper and his serving wench. She walked quietly up the rickety stairs to the dark hallway beyond, barely lit by the stub of candle in her hand. That the inn was a place of assignation was made clear by the noises from behind the closed doors that she passed. She chuckled quietly and unlocked the door to her room.
The blow, went it came, was fast and hard. There had been a soft rustle of fabric just before her foe struck and that had been enough for her to pull back, to catch the cudgel on her shoulder instead of her head. The candle dropped from her fingers and sputtered out as she was dragged into the dark room, the door slamming behind her. Instinctively, she struck out with her left arm even as the pain of her wounded right shoulder made her bellow an oath.
Navigating by the moonlight leaking in through the shutters, she jerked her wounded arm free of her attacker’s grip and staggered away. The cudgel whistled past her head again and she struggled to free her dagger from the sheath on her belt. If only she had her damn cutlass! She would have made short work of this fool then.
Jacquotte cursed the impulse that had sent her to this misbegotten island and even more the one that inspired her to drop her guard. Bracing herself against the wall, she moved abruptly from side to side, hoping to elude the next swing by her attacker. But the next blow caught her in the ribs, sending her crashing to the floor. She writhed in pain, barely conscious for a moment.
But instinct drove her to attack as much as she could and a fortunate kick caught her enemy on the leg. He cursed and lurched sideways.
Jacquotte dragged her dagger free and tried to catch her breath for an attack. She would not sell her life so easily that an anonymous sell-sword with a club could kill her like any landlubber. She got to her knees, ribs and shoulder screaming with the motion and she gritted her teeth as she threw herself forward, her dagger aimed at his legs.
The door shot open, knocking her over and her assailant back against the far wall. Whoever the intruder was held a lantern and a sword and by its light, she could see that her foe was none other than Anton De Vries himself. That was before a wave of pain took her and she lost her senses for a few breaths.
When she could see and hear again, the sounds of sword clashing against wooden cudgel soon brought her back to the danger she was in. She crawled backward, trying to wedge herself in a corner away from the combat and observe. Her fingers still clutched her dagger, to her relief. Her would-be rescuer was giving a good account of themselves, being small and light of foot. But De Vries was a large strong man and the cudgel blows were falling dangerously close to their head.
Jacquotte squinted against the lamplight and her own swimming vision. If De Vries were pushed back, even a few steps, closer to her, then she and her dagger could make short work of his legs. She pressed two fingers into her mouth and whistled sharply, the way she would on a noisy deck to get a crew’s attention. Her ally faltered, seemingly startled by the noise, and caught a blow to the leg as a reward.
A distinctly feminine cry burst from the figure’s lips and Jacquotte nearly laughed, despite the peril they were in. Of course, Celeste had come to her rescue. Who else would have done so? But now, it could not be denied that they were both in mortal danger. De Vries’s swings were growing more frenzied as he tired but they still had the full force of his broad shoulders behind them.
Jacquotte forced herself upward so that she could crawl into combat, if not walk. A harsh scream told her that Celeste’s blade had struck home. De Vries stumbled, tantalizingly close and Jacquotte slashed out at his ankle. He scrambled forward in an effort to avoid her and caught another wound from the edge of Celeste’s blade for his trouble. The double attack sent him off balance and Jacquotte slashed again, this time slicing through his stocking and reaping the reward of gushing blood and a high-pitched scream.
This time, Celeste stabbed him hard in the stomach and he dropped the club to the floor, crumpling down beside it a moment later. Celeste awkwardly kicked the club aside before limping heavily to Jacquotte’s side. “Can you stand?” Her voice was breathless, raw with pain and exertion but she did not seem badly wounded.
Jacquotte shook her head. “Not without assistance.” She forced herself back against the wall into a sitting position. Her ribs screamed and her shoulder howled, but she could not suppress a weary grin at the sight of Celeste in breeches. “Can you help me?”
Celeste shook her head, but then she limped over to the window and flung open the shutters. She signaled to someone below and a few moments later, Marie entered, looking wary and wide-eyed at the crumpled man on the floor and the blood. But it was not enough to stop her from picking up the cudgel and compelling Jacquotte to use it as a crutch so she could stand up.
Together, they limped or lurched out the door and down the inn’s rickety stairs. Jacquotte tossed the innkeeper a small bag of gold. “Try to hold your tongue better than you did ere now unless you’d like to meet my crew.” He paled like a ghost and sent them out the back door toward the stables where a cart and horse awaited them.
Jacquotte wondered if the cart had been intended for De Vries, then decided it no longer mattered. She was not surprised when Marie stepped into the driver’s seat and took up the reins, but her heart leapt a little when Celeste climbed into the back next to her. “I need to go to Martinique. Your ship will be faster than the one that docks here.”
She shrugged at Jacquotte’s grin. Jacquotte looked from her to Marie as the cart lurched forward. “Marie, had you thought of turning pirate? Mademoiselle may have mentioned something of this…” Celeste laughed as they moved toward the harbor and The Lioness.
I've long had a peculiar love for Regency romances (ask me about my complete collection of Georgette Heyer). Every time I've gotten wind of a Regency featuring a romance between women, I've done my best to track it down. Some have been very enjoyable, some have been adequate, some have been disappointing. But I now have a reigning favorite in this admittedly small genre: Jeannelle M. Ferreira's The Covert Captain: Or, a Marriage of Equals. Captain Nathaniel Fleming--once Eleanor--has returned from the Napoleonic wars shaken and emotionally damaged, a state she shares with her comrade and commanding officer Major Sherbourne. What she has never shared is the secret of her true gender. Fleming has long known her attraction to women, but when the woman in question is Major Sherbourne's spinster sister, there are some hard decisions to make and even harder consequences to deal with.
The Covert Captain has a strong command of its historic era, including how the varieties of sexual orientation were understood and treated at the time. The writing is rich, immersive, and solid. But where the book truly caught my heart is in the complex layerings of the plot. This isn't a simple, straightforward girl-meets-girl-disguised-as-boy story. The experiences of Captain Fleming and Major Sherbourne during the war are detailed (through flashbacks) in a realistic and incisive way that roots the motivations and reflexes of the characters and provides one set of both obstacles and resolutions to the romance. There are multiple hazards to Captain Fleming's decision to reach for love, not simply Harriet's reaction to the somewhat belated disclosure of her secret. And Harriet has secrets of her own to unravel.
I loved how their relationship progressed from shy friendship to dawning desire to misunderstanding to commitment and beyond it to a devotion that out-lasted all barriers. There is plenty of time for the reader to believe in their attraction and to watch them struggle past all the social and economic realities of the setting. I also enjoyed how the text gave us just the lightest taste of their erotic relationship without taking detours for extended sex scenes that would have felt out of place in this genre.
I'm trying very hard here to come up with logical and dispassionate explanations for why I love this book, but when it comes down to it, I have fallen deeply, madly, passionately in love with the story in a way that I would never consider believable if that love were between two fictional characters on the page. I've grown too used to being patient either with lackluster writing, or with an absence of queer characters, or with genres I'm not really into in order to get two-out-of-three in my reading. The Covert Captain does not require me to make any compromises in my love. That's a rare thing, but I dream of it becoming ordinary.
The sixth category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Celebrity Romance. I'm a bit late in posting this story due to travel and illness.
As I've explained previously, I figured I'd liven up my promotion of the challenge by writing a mini-story for each bingo square, using a historic setting and tying them all up loosely in a single overall story. Those who recognized the mention of famous (or notorious?) opera singer and swordswoman Julie d'Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin in the previous story might have correctly guessed that she would be the celebrity in question. The current installment looks at the line between love and obsession, between loyalty and desire. And for those who might worry about Marie and Lisette's future, I'll point out that the very last bingo category of the bingo challenge is "second chance romance". It will be a good opportunity for wrapping up stories into their happy endings, if it hasn't happened before that.
As a reminder, my book Daughter of Mystery was one of the featured book suggestions for the fantasy category, but my work fits in a lot of different categories on the bingo card. For those who might be visiting here for the fiction and brainstorming for ideas for their bingo squares, here's a brief rundown of what categories the Alpennia books and my self-published novelette fit into.
As you can tell, my goal of writing "mini" stories is slipping badly. I've kept three of the stories under 2000 words, but the others have been 2300, 3600, and now 4000. Ah well, a story wants to be what it wants to be.
Family is Something You Do (Lesbian Book Bingo: Celebrity Romance)
I didn’t dare look out past the footlights to see if Marie were watching until the opera was finished and La Maupin and the others were basking in the applause. I was in the second row of dancers, so there were that many bodies to peer past out into the rows of boxes. I knew where Madame de Murat’s box was and I knew that Marie had said she would be waiting on her tonight, but I could only have faith that she’d seen me in my stage debut.
Then the curtain fell and the stage turned into chaos as singers and dancers scattered toward the dressing rooms. I caught La Maupin’s hand as she passed and kissed it, saying, “Thank you, Mademoiselle! Thank you! I can never repay you!”
She stopped, looking bemused as if she didn’t remember that it had been entirely because she’d put in a word that I’d been allowed to rise from dresser to opera dancer. Not merely to fill out the ranks during rehearsals when one of the regular dancers was missing, but to take my place on the stage and dream of something more. It wasn’t impossible that even a black girl like me might make her name with the right friends, the right patron. And no one could be a better friend right now than Mademoiselle Julie d’Aubigny, known throughout Paris as La Maupin. If it weren’t for the thought of Marie, I’d be wildly in love with her. Everyone was—the gallants whose billets doux we all laughed over in the dressing rooms, the ladies who swooned when she played the gallant for them in turn, escorting them about town in a cavalier’s garb with a sword at her side.
La Maupin smiled at me—oh that smile!—and kissed the air by my cheek so as not to smudge our powder and rouge. “Lisette, ma chérie, you were marvelous. I knew you would be. Now come, let’s see who brings me flowers tonight.”
I was still her dresser, after all, so I scrambled out of the wide panniers of my costume and into a plainer gown to be ready to attend on her when the admirers arrived. There was no point to trying to slip out to catch a word with Marie because she’d be following after Madame de Murat, side by side with her brother Charles in their matching scarlet coats and golden turbans, to carry madame’s little spaniel or to open doors or whatever else a page was expected to do. I’d steal a moment with Marie soon enough. For now, I added to my dreams of opera success the goal of catching a rich patron so that I could set up an apartment of my own with Marie at my side. We’d talked about it so often but always as an idle fancy.
The singers’ dressing room was crowded as always, but the prima donnas like La Maupin had a corner screened off for themselves where there was already a small crowd of men in satin and velvet coats eyeing each other like jealous cockerels.
“François!” she cried, “you have remembered my favorites!”
She took the bouquet of lilies from his hand and passed them smoothly over her shoulder to me as she allowed the young vicomte to kiss her hand then clasp her just a little too familiarly about the waist. I slipped the flowers into the place of honor in a waiting vase.
“But fie on you, Henri,” she continued, snatching the proffered flowers from the next man. “How can you be so tedious.”
She tossed a nearly identical cluster of lilies over her shoulder with a laugh. I knew my part and caught them before they could fall then laid them on the dressing table. La Maupin might make light of the gifts, but it would never do to insult the gentlemen without need.
“Ah, and who have we here?”
I knew most of those who clustered around La Maupin like bees around the flowers they offered—we laughed and teased about them afterward, even the ones she chose to favor. But this was a new face. The girl was young, so newly come to court that she didn’t know it wasn’t done for an innocent maiden to join the libertine crowd in the back-stage. La Maupin’s female admirers invited her more discreetly to their parlors.
I could tell she was well born, not simply a fancy dressed whore, not only by the quality of her gown but by her manner that spoke of a terrified boldness. Her chestnut hair was pinned up in a puff with a simple bit of lace and she had only the faintest trace of rouge on cheeks that needed no powder. Looking at her, I touched my own cheek enviously. There was nothing to be done for being brown as a berry, but I wished I could powder away the freckles that flocked across my nose like a flight of starlings. It wasn’t fair for her to be pretty as well as rich.
La Maupin gazed at her like she might at a dainty jewel. “Ma chère—Mademoiselle de Laval is it not? And what have you brought me?”
Hélène de Laval—I knew who she was now. She must have slipped her leash and no doubt someone would come hunting her in the instant. Her marriage prospects were the talk of Paris, even in the streets and taverns. Seeing the hungry way her eyes fastened on La Maupin I wondered if there would ever be a marriage. Some girls aren’t made for men, though not all of us get to choose.
“I…I loved to hear you sing,” she began. “Your voice pierces me to the soul. I want—”
And then a harsh voice was calling, “Hélène! What are you doing, child?”
Mademoiselle de Laval looked wildly over her shoulder, then plucked the nosegay of violets out of the corsage of her gown and held it out wordlessly to La Maupin.
La Maupin took it with a smile that would melt any woman’s knees and buried her nose in the delicate purple flowers. “So kind.”
“I must see you,” Mademoiselle de Laval said in a low, urgent voice as a tall, angry woman pushed her way through the dressing room crowd toward us. And then there was no more time and the girl bowed her head meekly to a scolding and let herself be led away.
La Maupin watched her go with a far-off look in her eyes. I’d seen that look before, but this time it could mean trouble. She glanced down at the violets still clutched in her hand, then tucked them into her own bosom, resting between the swell of her breasts. “Enough! Enough!” She waved dismissively at the rest of her suitors and turned to sit before her mirror. “Lisette, where is my dressing gown?”
I draped the gown around her shoulders and began to work out the pins in her hair as the gentlemen scattered from their dismissal. “And will you see Mademoiselle de Laval again?” I asked.
“But of course! Isn’t she an angel? Tomorrow no doubt she will be at Madame d’Aulnoy’s salon. And if not there, we shall meet somewhere. Paris is not so large a place—not the parts that matter.”
* * *
They must have met again, though not in the backstage of the opera house. That was not at all suitable for an unmarried girl. But La Maupin had that distracted air she got when she had a fresh suitor, and if the new lover had been a man he would have strutted around the dressing room after each performance like a cockerel, letting all know whose hen-yard they were in.
Then one afternoon when the dancers had finished our rehearsal, one of the porters called me aside and said, “There’s a lady says she must speak to La Maupin and won’t take no for an answer from me. Perhaps she’ll listen to you.”
I followed him out to the little office by the back doors and wasn’t at all surprised at who waited there. I gave her my best curtsey and said, “Mademoiselle, she is not here. We only rehearse the dances today.”
She lifted the lacy veil from her face. It wouldn’t have done a thing to keep her from being recognized, but one played these games. “You are La Maupin’s servant, yes?”
There wasn’t any point to correcting her.
“Yesterday—she promised she would see me and she did not come. You must tell her…I cannot survive longer without a sign, a token. I must know that she loves me. I could bear it all if I know her heart is mine.”
I wanted to tell her to forget La Maupin. That it was a game to her—a flirtation, nothing more. La Maupin was a blazing candle and they were all just moths to singe their wings. But it wasn’t a thing that could be spoken, not from me to her. So I only said, “Have you a message you want me to bring to La Maupin?”
“Monsieur gives a ball tomorrow night. I will be there. If she does not prove her love for me, I may do myself a harm.” She clutched at my wrist as if she were drowning in the Seine and I was the only one who could pull her out.
I gently twisted my arm free. “I will tell La Maupin,” I said.
* * *
If I’d thought La Maupin had tired of the girl, her reaction to the message set me right.
“La! Won’t that be an adventure! I will come as Hélène’s chevalier. Lisette, you must help me choose my clothes from the wardrobe. I will claim a kiss and a dance right under the eyes of the duc d’Orléans!” For that was the “monsieur” that de Laval meant, it wasn’t necessary to call him more than that.
When La Maupin went about town in men’s clothing, she usually wore her own, but that wasn’t sufficiently fine for a duc’s ball. And though the garments kept for the stage belonged to the singers who wore them, they could be generous about sharing if talked to sweetly. So we chose a fine green satin coat and breeches with a plumed hat to match.
“And you must come as my page, Lisette,” La Maupin said, holding up her own second-best coat. “It isn’t the sort of ball where I can arrive unattended!”
“Oh, no, mademoiselle, I can’t!” I protested. I would feel scandalous walking around in men’s breeches anywhere but the stage! La Maupin might think nothing of it, but La Maupin could fight duels with anyone who dared to call her a strumpet—fight duels and win. In the end I agreed, simply because she was La Maupin. I owed so much to her and there was nothing I wouldn’t do if she asked.
The glittering splendor of the ballroom would have rooted my feet to the floor if I’d never seen such a thing before, but I whispered to myself that it was just another opera house and I was simply playing another role. I watched La Maupin swagger through the ballroom doors and past the lackeys meant to announce the guests until she disappeared into the crowd. Even the rumor that King Louis himself was present failed to disturb her confidence.
I looked around in the gallery for a quiet corner away from the other attendants where I wouldn’t be noticed until she returned, but my heart leapt to see a scarlet-coated figure approaching.
“Lisette! Mon Dieu, what are you doing here like this?”
“Oh, Marie!” I threw my arms around her, nearly knocking my hat askew because I wasn’t used to wearing one. “I hadn’t hoped to see you here.”
“Madame de Murat has come, so of course Charles and I must follow after.” She nodded her head toward the far end of the gallery. “He’s off playing dice. The evening looked to be so tedious, but now you’re here. But why are you here?”
So I told her about La Maupin’s affair with Mademoiselle de Laval and the girl’s demand for an appearance. “It won’t go well, I fear,” I added. “For I think La Maupin has grown weary of her and only came out of daring. But what I wouldn’t give to see it play out!”
“But we can!” Marie said and seized me hand, drawing me toward a small doorway. “Up here—there’s a tiny balcony that overlooks the ballroom. No one uses it any more but it’s never locked.”
We climbed up a narrow, dark stair and Marie eased open the door at the top, peaking around to see if anyone else had thought to escape there. She placed a finger to her lips for we could hear the sounds of music and laughing drifting up and no doubt those in the ballroom might hear what went on above.
It took me a few minutes to find La Maupin among the crowd. There were at least five coats of the same green and though she was tall for a woman, she was not so tall as a man. Not that she was trying for disguise this time, except as much as people wouldn’t look past a coat and breeches.
“There,” I whispered to Marie and pointed. We watched La Maupin swagger around the edges of the wide room, nodding at those who seemed to recognize her and acting for all the world as if Monseiur had invited her himself. I saw her stiffen—not in fear, never that, but the way a hound might when it first sees something to chase. Then she worked her way easily to a small crowd that had formed around Mademoiselle de Laval. Though they were too far for us to hear a thing about the chatter, I could tell when de Laval had seen her by her sudden movement. And then La Maupin was bowing over her hand and leading her out into the dance.
They danced together once, twice, and against all custom (and to the fury of de Laval’s other suitors) a third time. The evening was wearing on and I wondered if Mademoiselle de Laval was satisfied yet by La Maupin’s attentions. Perhaps La Maupin was uncertain as well, for when they had finished the reverence after the third dance, she swept off her plumed hat, took de Laval into her arms, and kissed her with a passion that would have drawn applause as the curtain came down.
But this wasn’t the opera house, and men that might have cheered La Maupin if she played the dashing lover on stage felt differently about a rival in the ballroom. I couldn’t hear the words that were said, but I could see the ripple of their effects spreading out through the room, like circles around a stone dropped in a pond. Then a circle cleared and I could see La Maupin standing between three young gallants of the court, with several gloves of challenge lying at her feet. In a moment’s hush I heard her carefree laugh.
“Marie, I need to go!” I didn’t know what would come of this, only that I had come as La Maupin’s attendant and must be at her side if she needed me. Marie was staring down at the ballroom with her mouth gaping open. I closed it with a quick kiss as a promise and then clattered down the narrow stairs.
I met La Maupin and the three courtiers as they crossed the gallery toward the doors.
“Ah, Lisette! Come, I’ll need you to hold my coat.”
I fell in beside her, looking warily at the three men. They were dandies, fops, with nothing of the soldier about them. But still… “Do you mean to fight all three?” I whispered urgently. “At the same time?”
“Of course,” she laughed. “The fight must be fair!”
“Julie!” My fear spilled out in my use of her given name. “Julie, dueling is against the king’s law! Everyone saw that challenge.”
“Oh, pooh! What can one do? I must defend the honor of Mademoiselle de Laval.”
It was more to defend her own pride, I knew, but that made no difference. She had made her name as a duelist long before her fame on the opera stage. To refuse to fight would have been unthinkable.
La Maupin’s challengers had called for link boys and when we had found a congenial place, they made a ring with the torches where the fight would take place. I helped La Maupin shrug off her satin coat then folded it carefully across my arm and stood back. I wished Marie was there so I’d have someone’s hand to squeeze tightly when the fighting began, but she must be ready at all times to attend on Madame de Murat. Mademoiselle de Laval had not followed us. No doubt her chaperone had taken her firmly in hand after that scene.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to see every movement. I was certain La Maupin would prevail. I feared for her life. She danced. The steel flashed and sparked. She spun. She drew them first one direction then the other, forcing the link boys to scramble out of the way. She ducked. One stumbled, swearing to his knees. A quick movement that I couldn’t see and another reeled back clutching his arm. Now there was only one man facing her. He backed away, moving the tip of his blade in small circles. La Maupin smiled and followed and with one swift stroke his blade clattered on the stones.
No deaths. Thank God there were no deaths, only blood. But blood might be enough. The men spoke no word as they gathered to hastily bind each others’ small wounds and then, with poisonous glances, left the square.
La Maupin cleaned her sword then let me help her back on with her coat and hat. But when I thought she would head in the direction of her lodgings, she turned instead back toward the palace.
“Mademoiselle!” I protested.
“But my dear Lisette, Mademoiselle de Laval asked for a sign of my devotion. How will she know what I’ve done for her unless I return?”
I shook my head silently. She was mad. But I had always known that and I loved her for it.
We paused at the entrance to the ballroom and silence fell as all heads turned. I hoped Hélène de Laval was still somewhere within the crowd to gain her reward but we could go no further as King Louis himself strode out to stand before us.
La Maupin swept into the deepest bow I had ever seen her make. I wasn’t sure whether to follow my clothes and bow or to follow my sex and curtsey and in the end I merely bobbled in place, but no one was paying any attention to me.
“You are the…opera singer, La Maupin.”
It wasn’t a question and I wondered what other description he had considered giving her.
“Do you not know that I have forbidden men to duel on pain of death?”
A second man in equally splendid clothing came up beside him and whispered in his ear. Marie had pointed him out earlier: Monseur le duc d’Orléans, the king’s brother, the host of the ball. Whatever he said brought an amused smile to the king’s lips.
“Monsieur, my brother, has reminded me that you are not a man. Perhaps my law does not apply to you. But I think it would be wise if you were not found in Paris by the morning. Indeed, I think that France may be an uncomfortable home for you for a time.”
He turned away without another word and La Maupin bowed again before we withdrew.
If I had expected her to be distraught I would have been mistaken. La Maupin seemed no more dismayed than she ever was.
“Mademoiselle, what will you do? Where will you go?”
She grinned at me but I could see the relief underneath the bravado. “A friend has urged me to perform in Brussels.”
“But what about Mademoiselle de Laval?”
“It’s for the best. She will forget me.”
I wasn’t so certain about that. Who could love La Maupin and then forget her? But perhaps it was for the best.
La Maupin seized my hand, though not with the flourish she had used with Mademoiselle de Laval. “Do you have a mind for travel? I’d dearly love to have a faithful friend with me. No one has been more faithful than you, Lisette. I will see that you become a famous dancer.”
My heart leapt. I could see it in my mind: the great Maupin and I, taking the stage by storm side by side in Brussels. To think that she would want me there, but…
“Marie,” I whispered.
“Tell her to come with us.” She made the offer lightly, as if we were taking a promenade in the gardens.
She knew about Marie and me, of course. She was the only person I could tell about our dream of sharing our lives some day. And Marie had been talking about how she and her brother were grown too old to be pages much longer.
“I think she’s still waiting on Madame de Murat back at the ball. I could—”
“I need to take these clothes back to the opera house,” La Maupin said. “Go talk to her then meet me there.”
* * *
I found Marie and Charles still in the gallery with the other waiting attendants. A red-haired lackey in a coachman’s coat stopped me and said, “Hey, you—you were with that jade Maupin. What can you tell us?”
I shook free of him with a scornful glance. How dared he speak of the great Maupin that way? I pulled Marie off to one side away from the others and explained the offer in a low hurried voice.
“She’s leaving for Brussels before the morning. She…I…come with us? Oh, Marie! She says she’ll make me a famous dancer. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Come with us! You said you’d be leaving de Murat’s employ soon.”
“Lisette…” Marie sounded dismayed, and no wonder with it all happening so fast. She looked over her shoulder to where her brother waited. “Lisette, I can’t leave Charles—”
“He’ll do well enough. Haven’t you always said that?”
“And Tante Jeanne. How can I leave her?”
I was nearly boiling with impatience. She hadn’t talked about these doubts when we’d dreamed about my rich patron and having an apartment on the Rue de la Marche. “And what about me? What about us? This is our chance to see the world together. To make our fortune. And you told me that Tante Jeanne isn’t even really your aunt. And Charles—”
But Marie shook her head. “Oh Lisette, can’t you understand? Family isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Blood doesn’t matter. They’re my family and I need to take care of them.”
I wanted to shake her and to ask what about me? But I did understand. I didn’t have a Tante Jeanne, but I had La Maupin and she’d become the sister I’d always dreamed of having. “And La Maupin needs me to take care of her,” I said. “For now, at least. Oh Marie!”
I threw my arms around her and held her without caring who might see.
“I love you so much, Lisette. But—”
I stopped her words with a kiss. I was certain in my heart it wouldn’t be the last kiss we shared. “We’ll come back. Sooner than you think. They’ll be begging La Maupin to return to the Paris Opera and the king will relent. Wait for me?”
Marie nodded and I tore myself away before I could start crying. La Maupin would be waiting for me at the opera house. I had my own few things to pack and the dawn would come before we knew it.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)