Hey, my blog, my rules. If an article in a collection is pretty much designed to ignore the existence of women, then I'm not going to spend a lot of pixels on it unless it's genuinely snark-worthy.
Coviello, Peter. 2014. “Homobonding and the Nation” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.
Part III - Enlightenment Cultures; Chapter 13 - Homobonding and the Nation
This article connects the rhetoric of manly same-sex bonds with the development of national identity and nationalism in the 18th century and later. This image of a tight-knit national brotherhood not only trivially excludes women in the history of its development, but more consciously excludes racial and cultural “others,” relying, as it does, on an image of unified identity and feelings. I’m honestly a bit confused at how it fits into a “gay and lesbian” collection, except in the thematic connection between (white) male political solidarity and homo-affective bonds.
I thought a lot about my podcast series on favorite tropes while summarizing this article. Particularly about gendered tropes. I have several topics on the to-do list for that series that deal with pairings of character types such as "the rake and the wallflower" which feed nicely into the question of how such tropes work differently for female couples. There were a couple of references for this chapter that touch on the category of "female rake" that I'll need to track down for when I address that character trope in the podcast. And this article points out quite realistically how women who act like a libertine or a rake were viewed very differently in their historic era than men were. That doesn't mean that you can't change the rules when writing them into your own fiction, but it's something to stay aware of.
O’Connell, Lisa. 2014. “The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.
Chapter 12 - The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects
Libertine, rake, and dandy (LRD) are a sequence of persona types that emerged sequentially from the 16th to the 20th century, with overlaps, and blurring between them. They existed alongside other named character types, such as 18th-century, fops, macaronis, coxcombs, and coquettes. All are defined in relation to the “respectable” character types, such as the pious person, the bluestocking, etc. to name only a very few. The sexually-marked types of LRD don’t correspond directly to the modern concept of queerness, though some connections can be traced.
[Note: it’s also worth pointing out that LRD are all strongly male coded.]
For example, libertinism is associated with some practices that overlap with homosexuality, but is also firmly rooted in heterosexism. LRD existed both as stylized “media” images, but also as patterns of behavior that can be associated with specific men. And those specific men very often also participated in same-sex activity.
The L or D character types were, in many ways, culture-specific. The English libertine differed in some ways from the French libertine, etc. The author now acknowledges that while it would be wrong to say that the more that there were no female LRD, “Women who fit these types were derided, as whores,” rather than being, perhaps, uncomfortably celebrated as icons. Each of these roles could be split further into more specialized types. In general, these roles were strongly associated with the social elite, and lower class figures who followed similar behaviors tended to be treated with mockery. The upper class LRD represented an out of control indulgence in freethinking, sexuality, fashion, and luxury, representing the face of “modernism”.
Libertinage has its roots in the rise of pornographic literature, such as the works of Aretino, or the “dialogue of whores” genre, focusing on the use of transgressive sexual behavior, both for entertainment, and as satirical social commentary. As the social commentary function faded away, this literature settled into a purpose of sexual arousal, often using domestic settings, and the motif of sexual education, frequently of a naïve young woman, by an older experienced mentor. To the extent that these retained a satirical purpose, it was to mock the salons that upper class women held to celebrate learning, elegance, and wit. The emergence of this type of erotic literature in England included a good number of female authors.
In the later 17th century, a new form of libertinage evolved that focused more on a philosophy of the pursuit of pleasure and a rejection of religious morality. [The article here digresses into details of church history.] The Restoration court was a comfortable home for libertines, but the role came hand-in-hand with a sneering misogyny.
At this same period, the figure of the rake emerges. While the rake is similarly devoted to unfettered (and somewhat predatory) sexuality, rather than working from an inspiration of satirical or philosophical challenge to conventional morality, the rake’s persona is more about an aesthetic — a performance of nonchalant charm, wit, and irony. The rake is not rooted in heritage or profession, though he may hold to a masculine code of honor. He is usually a denizen of the city, moving among all classes of people, but evading engagement with social structures. The literary rake shuns marriage as lacking in romance.
With the passing of the Stuart dynasty in the early 18th century, the rake became less associated with courtly life, but held on as a literary trope through the end of the century, more often as an antagonist than an antihero. We see a rare example of a female rake in the character of Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who – like her male counterparts – seduces women. Some real-life rakes found their philosophies aligned with radical politics, but the more freewheeling attitudes toward male-male sex were having a harder time attracting even covert admiration.
The aesthetic and stylistic attributes of the rake migrated, in the Regency, to the figure of the dandy. Strangely enough, it’s also possible to trace origins for the dandy in the fop – who previously had been viewed as the antithesis of the rake.
The dandy – unlike these other personas – can also be traced to the inspiration of one particular man: Beau Brummell. Brummell establish the image of an arbiter (and curator) of sartorial style, with an intolerance of the ordinary and vulgar. The dandy was not a commentary on politics or philosophy, nor was he a challenge to order or authority. He is simply style personified.
(Originally aired 2023/09-23 - listen here)
I feel like I should have opened the episode with spooky music, because today I want to talk about gothic literature, both past and present. There are ways in which the gothic genre is a natural fit for sapphic stories. One might immediately think of works like Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, which introduces fairly blatant lesbian desire into a vampire story, but Carmilla isn’t necessarily typical of the gothic genre, and the sapphic potential has much deeper roots. When talking about gothic literature being written today, we need to consider how that label has expanded beyond its origin and what that means for identifying something as a “lesbian gothic.”
Like many fiction genres, the gothics existed before the genre was identified and labeled. Whether we’re talking about the earliest gothics of the late 18th century, or the later development which expanded to encompass horror and paranormal stories—before those split off to become separate categories—the essential feature of a gothic is “the vibes.” Gothic literature is about giving the reader a particular emotional experience involving mystery, fear, and being haunted by the consequences of the past.
The Origins of the Gothic Novel
The gothic genre is generally credited to have begun with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, but it quickly became associated with female authors such as Ann Radcliffe, among whose many titles are The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Dominant themes in the early gothics include characters who are haunted by the past—either by their own past experiences, or by a more distant family heritage. The past intrudes onto the present of the story in the form of ruined buildings, family ties and heritage, and framing devices such as lost manuscripts or fictitious histories. The supernatural is a presence, but not always a reality, as apparently supernatural experiences may be resolved by explanation. And over it all is the threat of everyday experiences being twisted into the unnatural or the forbidden.
The label “gothic” comes from common features of the setting, involving decaying castles, sinister monasteries, underground crypts, and other features of medieval architecture that represent the link to the past. The setting is often a foreign land—perhaps unspecified—with the action similarly displaced from the reader’s reality, though often nebulously. The atmosphere is claustrophobic—perhaps literally in the case of crypts and underground passages—but often due to the inescapable presence of figures with power over the protagonist. For female protagonists, the claustrophobia may be the threat of being trapped in marriage to an abusive man. This theme of claustrophobia may be echoed in convoluted and non-linear narratives that conceal understanding both from the protagonist and from the reader. Violence and the threat of it is a frequent motif: vengeance, imprisonment, murder, and rape or at least forced marriage. Other common tropes are character doubles and concealed identities including the revelation of hidden family connections, unnatural sounds and nocturnal landscapes or dream journeys. The motif of dangerous secrets may be present in the physical setting (with hidden rooms or secret passages) and reflected in the form of concealed information.
The Female Gothic
Although the early gothic novels written by male and female authors share many of the defining characteristics, some gendered themes emerge. Male authors often focus on male characters who break social taboos: forbidden sexual relationships such as incest or bigamy, and sometimes veiled hints of homosexuality.
Female-authored gothics can often be read as reflections of the claustrophobic nature of women’s lives, their lack of power over their own fates, and the risk that the domestic sphere—rather than being a place of nurturing and comfort—can become a source of danger especially from men who ought to be their protectors, such as fathers and brothers. The heroine may be abandoned and persecuted, fleeing from a villainous father-figure and searching for an absent maternal figure. The gothic novel became a context for critiquing male power, violence, and predatory sexuality. It created a context for the female protagonist to come of age and achieve a goal that—while it might include marriage—was not centered around marriage.
Furthermore, gothic novels offered a means for female authors to express extremes of emotion. Heroines are allowed to dread their situation – because the situation is removed from the everyday – in a way they would not be permitted to express toward everyday threats and suffering. In some ways, the heroine’s primary defining feature as a character is suffering and vulnerability. The familial structures she should be able to rely on are instead closed to her, and the women who should be her allies are either absent or dead.
Another gendered tendency among early gothic novels is for male authors to include genuine supernatural elements—hereditary curses, malevolent spirits—while female authors have their female protagonist eventually identify a rational explanation for what had seemed to be supernatural. The mysterious and supernatural is invoked to create a frisson of terror and possibility, which is then managed back into the knowable and rational. The vulnerable isolated heroine, cast into a mysterious and terrifying environment, is an exaggeration of women’s vulnerability in the real world. In the end, the true threat to our heroine is rooted in the social systems and power structures of the real world. But her education and rationality enable her to resolve her fate.
Another curious theme in many female-authored gothics is the passivity of the putative male love interest with regard to how the dangers are resolved. Ambiguously threatening father figures overlap with the “demon lover” motif provoking a sense of sexual dread. The terrors and anxieties the heroine experiences are not a displaced erotic titillation, but a manifestation of realistic and genuine fears surrounding the situation of an isolated woman in a world of male predators. The “safe” hero—the prospective lover that the heroine must win through to, is absent, feminized, and envisioned by the heroine as being in similar peril to her own. In this way, an entirely different alternative is offered to capitulation to male threat in order to obtain safety.
In Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, the love interest spends significant periods offstage and irrelevant as the heroine escapes various threats. Time and again, the heroine saves him, first from illness, and in the final climax, from execution. Similarly, in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the putative love interest disappears while the heroine resists abduction, forced marriage, and imprisonment and has successfully escaped and reclaimed her proper inheritance while her lover has lost everything until reunited with her. One can see a similar theme in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
These gendered tendencies are not absolute, and just because female authors used gothic themes to critique the state of women’s existence doesn’t mean they felt able to change their heroines’ fates entirely.
Gothic Development in the 19th Century
The 19th century saw several developments in the gothic genre. Or rather, several expansions of the scope of gothics. Contemporary settings were added to the fictional geography, as we see in the works of the Brontë sisters. Genuinely supernatural elements become more of a feature rather than being given rational explanations at the end. The “ghost story” emerged as a genre. Vampires joined the cast of characters, though today vampire stories have emerged as an independent genre.
With the rise of decadent literature toward the later part of the century, supernatural elements combined with gothic themes tying together physical and moral decay. Rather than gothic heroines prevailing though virtue, courage, and rationality, now they might alternately embrace their “demon lover” and become a lesson in the consequences of depravity.
Lesbians as Antagonists
What place do lesbian characters have in this complicated history of the gothic novel? Only in contemporary writing do we find explicitly self-identified sapphic characters featuring as gothic protagonists, but we can expand to include intimate friendships that are not explicitly erotic. This allows us to trace two roles for the lesbian character: the suffering heroine and the threatening villain who makes up part of the menacing gothic landscape.
We can trace the origins of the sapphic villain in 18th century queer-coded characters such as Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who represents the lure of sexual transgression and immorality that the heroine must resist, along with what might be thought of as “henchwoman” figures assisting the sexually threatening male character while echoing his predatory aura, such as the housekeeper in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. If the gothic heroine’s primary peril is that environments that should be safe and nurturing have turned dangerous, then the female friend who offers sexual betrayal rather than allyship strikes close to the heart.
But as intimations of lesbian desire become more overt in the later 19th century, the threat to the gothic heroine can be made clearer—and we find it sharply in focus in Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla. Set in that favored gothic location, a solitary castle in a remote foreign location, our heroine Laura encounters supernatural peril in her own home and bed from the vampire Carmilla. In something of a turn-about, Carmilla has all the hallmarks of being the gothic heroine. She is stranded due to a carriage accident and left among strangers. But this is not her story. The motif of ancestral secrets being revealed manifests in an ancient painting that is an exact likeness of Carmilla, contributing to the discovery of her true nature.
One can see a gothic inheritance in a number of decadent novels that involve a woman’s struggle between the allure of a lesbian seductress and the male protagonist, though typically these fall in the “male gothic” tradition of focusing on transgressive sexuality and its consequences for men. One of the articles I read for this podcast identifies gothic themes in Molly Keane’s 1934 novel Devoted Ladies in which a female couple’s relationship devolves into a dysfunctional gothic mess when one partner takes up the role of “demon lover” as the other refocuses on a potential heterosexual relationship. The lesbian-coded gothic villain can appear simply as one of the options for oppressing the heroine, as in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the female protagonist is menaced, not by lesbian desire, but by second-hand jealousy.
As we move into the era of the pulps, the dynamic of a gothic heroine and a semi-predatory lesbian antagonist-lover begins to soften into sympathy, though publishing conventions of the time required something resembling a moral lesson to be retained. But in the later part of the 20th century, we can finally achieve gothic novels where a lesbian antagonist can provide conflict without being forbidden any other potential role in the story.
Lesbians as Protagonists
It's more difficult to find early examples of a sapphic gothic heroine, unless one chooses to interpret the “passive boyfriend” motif as a feminized love interest. Perhaps the closest one might come is Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 Ormond: or the Secret Witness which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself in order to be reunited with her beloved female friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for this friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. I’d love to find some more 19th or early 20th century examples of gothic heroines whose escape or rescue is enabled by a close female friend, where there is no marriage plot to elbow her out of the way in the end.
But when we come to contemporary publishing, we can find a wealth of gothic plots where the female protagonist faces down all perils and threats and gets the girl in the end. Given the focus of this podcast, I’ll be looking at books with historic settings—which is perfect for the gothic tradition, which always did like to set stories in the past.
In some ways, the structure of early gothic novels adapts itself easily to sapphic plots. The heroine typically finds herself in a hostile or dangerous domestic atmosphere. Either she is a stranger, or the familiar has been made strange by a change of relationships or personnel. Typically, she is under pressure by male figures to participate in an unwanted marital arrangement—or something less formal. She feels trapped and constrained. The female figures who she ought to be able to turn to for help are either disastrously missing or are allies of the antagonist. She sees peril all around her—a peril that may be denied or ignored by other characters. The heroine currently has no social, economic, or political power to aid her, but must rely on her wits and her ability to elicit the help of strangers—strangers who may turn out to be keys to her past and heritage, or may resolve into romantic connections or at least allies.
While the traditional gothic looks to the past and moves the protagonist past a dysfunctional and abusive family structure to re-establish her in a “proper” version of her ancestral family (via inheritance, being reunited with lost relatives, or marriage), lesbian gothics expand the possibilities to include the creation a new (found) family. And while the traditional gothic acknowledges the inherent constraints and hazards of patriarchal society, but finds resolution by enduring and outwitting them, the new lesbian gothic gives heroines permission not merely to resist toxic patriarchy, but to reject patriarchy in all its forms—a permission she may not always take, but one that is on the table. Furthermore, the new lesbian gothic allows sapphic characters to inhabit all the roles—the protagonist, the antagonist, the demon lover, the failed parent, the ally, the romantic interest—and, as desired, to bundle those roles into new combinations, instead of being predestined to play the roles assigned by heteronormative narrative structures.
Some Lesbian Gothics
And how are authors exploring those possibilities? This is the part where I talk about some books I’ve encountered that fit reasonably into the category of lesbian gothic. Some of them clearly embrace the gothic label, while others may fit the themes while playing somewhat with the structures.
One thing I discovered when pulling books for this section is that my spreadsheet of sapphic historical fiction doesn’t have a coherent way of identifying gothics. Relatively few use that word in the cover copy, and my thematic coding has been haphazard enough that only one or two got tagged as gothic. So I make no claims that this list is in any way comprehensive, or even necessarily representative.
Let’s start out with the earliest publication on my shelves: The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter, published by Naiad Press in 1981. Viewed from a distance, the story is somewhat awkward, trying to stuff too many tropes into too small a space. But like many early lesbian novels it has the joy of an author expanding into a literary space that hadn’t previously been friendly. A young (but not entirely innocent) convent-educated girl is hired as a governess by a dashing but chilly widowed marquise. There are secrets and dangers around the marquise’s castle, not least of which is the protagonist’s crush on her employer who appears to be otherwise attached. The air of mystery is maintained more by people simply not talking to each other than by genuine secrets and the major threat is external rather than being part of the domestic space. But the book sets out to be a genuine lesbian gothic and succeeds at that.
Stories that fully embrace all the tropes and motifs of the early gothic romance aren’t as plentiful as one might expect, but a classic example is Shadows of the Heart by Patty G. Henderson. A respectable young woman who has been orphaned in scandalous circumstances is connected with a post as companion to the frail and invalid wife of the bullying and indifferent Lord Blackstone in a sinister castle filled with old family servants of questionable loyalties. Someone—apparently—wants to do away with the invalid and our heroine must untangle the mysteries and dangers (both to her mistress and herself) before it’s too late. The heroine is presented with two potential romantic interests. Her mistress fills the role of the ineffective character-in-distress that was sometimes filled by the male romantic lead in early gothics. But there is also Lord Blackstone’s transgressively dashing and lascivious sister, who occupies the role traditionally given to a lesbian-coded antagonist. This being a sapphic story, being lesbian-coded doesn’t automatically make one a villain, so the plot structure doesn’t predict which romantic path our heroine will follow, but the climax includes the usual chases, escapes, and near-death experiences.
Jane Eyre is a classic gothic of the Victorian era, and for reasons that may be obvious, it’s popular in sapphic adaptations. The gothic motifs are obvious from the source material, and if one slightly shifts the protagonist’s romantic fascination from Mr. Rochester to the madwoman in the attic, then the possibilities open up. And once you view the imprisoned Mrs. Rochester through a sapphic lens, it’s easy to see that she makes a natural gothic heroine, following the theme of being trapped in a claustrophobic, decaying, menacing environment in which family connections are enemies, not allies, and psychological warfare is employed to make her compliant to patriarchal goals.
A truly superb example of this group is Rose Lerner’s The Wife in the Attic, which doesn’t flinch from depicting the titular wife as emotionally disturbed—though who wouldn’t be given what she has endured? The viewpoint protagonist, as in the inspiration, is a young woman employed as governess to a girl in the household—in this interpretation the legitimate daughter of the Rochester-analogues, rather than a girl of less regular parentage. The book works the dual romantic attractions of our heroine’s employer and of the imprisoned woman, both of whom partake of the “demon lover” trope in their own ways. The claustrophobic atmosphere and sense of being trapped is present for both female characters. Our viewpoint character is constantly tormented by the unreliability of the versions of reality that are presented to her. And the climax, in some ways, only increases the feeling of looming dread. Lerner isn’t simply re-writing Jane Eyre, but rather borrowing the structure and adding several features of her own, including religious prejudice as an underpinning to the wife’s treatment.
Elizabeth Hart’s novel The Lily in the Tower takes the bones of Jane Eyre in a different direction. The parallels are lighter: the emotionally troubled character confined “for her own good” is not also encumbered by marriage, and the Jane Eyre analogue who is drawn to her appears to have no trouble choosing between this friendship and the questionable attractions of a male suitor. (I confess I haven’t read this one yet, so I’m working from the cover copy.) We see the traditional setting of an ancestral home in its decline, and a protagonist driven there by forces outside her control.
Betsy Cornwell’s novel Reader, I Murdered Him has the most direct connection with the source material. The playfulness of the title is misleading. This is definitely on the darker side of gothic, drawing in the themes of the threat of sexual violence and unwanted forbidden relationships. The protagonist is the young girl, Adele, from the original novel, now grown to a young woman and full of rage for the plight of her sex in a world where predatory men get a pass, leaving ruined lives in their wake. We see Jane Eyre after the end of her love story, resorting to denial and chosen ignorance to maintain her illusions of happiness, leaving Adele with no ally in her own quest for happiness and justice.
Many novels begin with the tropes of a young woman, cast adrift in the world in financial need, who travels far from the world she knows and what friends or family she may still have, to take employment in an isolated household, usually one decaying from a former grandeur, and then encountering mysterious and sinister people and events.
This is the framework we find in The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe, where the protagonist takes up a teaching position at a remote Yorkshire boarding school. Yorkshire is also the setting for Cathy Dunnell’s Beulah Lodge, where a young woman staying with relatives before her marriage finds mutual attraction with an orphaned housemaid, both suffering under the cruelty of the mistress of the house. In Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, the isolation is legal rather than geographic, as our protagonist finds herself sent by her brother to an insane asylum that seeks to strip away not merely her personality but her very identity, even as she clings to the one ally she finds there. I’ll note that I haven’t yet read any of these three books, so I’m absorbing the gothic vibes from the cover copy and—in the case of Marianne Ratcliffe’s book, from talking with her on the podcast.
All the previous books fall in the category of “explained mysteries” like many of the early female-authored gothics. But there are also stories that cross over to the true supernatural, such as Harkworth Hall and its sequels, by L.S. Johnson. The protagonist’s remote residence is her family home, not a place she has been sent, and the gothic figures that enter her life intrude on her territory rather than the reverse. The intruders have a peculiar interest in supernatural events and carry a sense of forboding menace. We have secret societies, strange hidden creatures, and potential romantic interest who partakes at least a little of the “dangerous demon lover” motif.
Another gothic with overt supernatural elements is Lianyu Tan’s The Wicked and the Willing. Here we have a literal demon lover in the vampiric mistress of the mansion, as well as the secondary figure of the loyal servant who might be expected to be hostile to the protagonist. But the heroine, who comes to the household as a lady’s companion, is drawn to them both. The author came on the podcast previously to talk about the gothic elements and how they play well with the colonial setting.
There are several other books that I thought fit reasonably well into the gothic category, though perhaps crossing genres a bit more. Molly Greeley’s Austen-inspired The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh sets her titular heroine in the claustrophobic and confining mansion of Rosings Park, where her day-to-day life is an opium-tinged dream with no chance of escape from her mother’s smothering concern. Many gothic trappings are present, but the plot strays a bit from the usual path. The story is less concerned with how the protagonist perseveres within her perilous situation, than in how she must escape that environment in order to have a chance of freeing herself form the physical and emotional bonds imposed on her.
Another book that intersects the gothic somewhat tangentially is The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence. The gothic tropes include an isolated and sinister manor house, mysterious prisoners, a convoluted family history that is key to the protagonist’s past and future, and a game of “is it or isn’t it” around the mechanical chess-playing device. Does the device have supernatural powers? Or is it an elaborate hoax?
The Ghost and the Machine reminded me greatly of two Sarah Waters novels that also partake of the gothic atmosphere: Fingersmith (about an elaborate inheritance scam) and Affinity revolving around the world of seances and spirits. Both could be analyzed from a gothic point of view, though they stray more broadly from the core themes.
I hope this show has convinced you that lesbians and sapphic themes are intertwined in the deep history of the gothic novel, as well as being a natural fit for more overt representation in recent historical fiction. If I didn’t have quite so many stories on my to-do list already, I’d be tempted to tackle one myself!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Another pleasant surprise -- more focus on the appearance of female homoeroticism as a result of cross-dressing plots, when I expected the article would be mostly about the homoerotic potential of boy actors playing female roles. I was planning to put this blog off another day so I wouldn't release it on top of the podcast, but I've been sluggish about getting this weekend's podcast out and decided the world won't end if I release it next Saturday, since I've already committed to delaying the September fiction episode a month due to narrator scheduling. I always worry about letting my self-imposed podcast deadlines slide because--as we've seen witht he self-imposed blog goals--sometimes artificial rules are the only thing that keeps me from dropping the ball entirely. But I've finally written up the "lesbian gothics" podcast and need to finish the segment where I talk about recent books in the genre ("recent" being "within the last 50 years"). I realized that I have no easy or systematic way of identifying which books in my master spreadsheet could reasonably be classified as "gothic", so I'm not claiming any sort of comprehensiveness. At any rate, I've been meaning to do that episode for most of the year and will be glad to get it done. But I need a few more days.
Orvis, David L. 2014. “Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.
Chapter 11 - Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage
From the topic, one might think this chapter would focus primarily on the male homoerotic potential of boy actors dressing as female roles on the early modern stage, but the choice of plays that Orvis chooses to examine clearly bring in female themes as well. Specifically: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lyly’s Galatea, and Middleton and Decker’s The Roaring Girl—three plays involve cross-dressing, not simply in the staging of the play, but also within the performances themselves, with characters appearing in disguise as a different gender, creating comedic romantic interactions.
The male homoerotic potential of boy actors playing female rules cannot be overlooked. Orvis discusses a company of boy actors whose repertoire seems to have been deliberately designed to exploit homoerotic wordplay and the eroticizing of boy actors wearing women’s clothing. However not all transvestite theater focuses on this one dynamic. And there are plenty of examples where the playing of female roles by boy actors appears to have been entirely unmarked and without erotic implications. Theatrical cross-dressing came in for moral condemnation, but more in the context of a general anxiety around the blurring of boundaries regarding gendered clothing. The stage was not the only context in which playful cross-dressing was an accepted part of society.
The twins, Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night represent an almost ungendered concept of desire, where the two are identical in every characteristic that matters, except for presumed physiological sex. They become interchangeable objects of desire within the play. Viola, disguised as the page Cesario, desires the duke Orsino. This is simultaneously a female character desiring a man, character disguised as a boy desiring a man, and underneath it all a boy actor, desiring a male role played by a male actor.
Olivia’s desire for the disguised Cesario can be read as a woman desiring a young man (the disguise), or as a woman desiring the female character underneath the disguise. The ease with which Olivia transfers her affection from Viola to Sebastian suggests that the distinction is relatively unimportant.
The play simultaneously resolves all these attractions into heterosexual marriages within the script, while underneath the surface, all relationships within the play are interacted between male bodies. What if one focuses, not on the ultimate resolution of the play, but on the interactions throughout? The reality of homoerotic desire is thus made legible. And one might point out that the play ends before any of the weddings, with the characters from one viewpoint in their original state: Orsino with the page Cesario (who is really Viola), and Olivia believing she is marrying Cesario (who is really Viola), but actually accepting Sebastian.
These dynamics are further complicated—or perhaps further simplified—in Lyly’s play Galatea, for which one of the inspirations is Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe. In Ovid’s original, the cross-dressing and cross-gendered Iphis is transformed into a boy in order to marry Ianthe. However in Galatea, we have not simply one cross-dressed girl, but two—each believing the other to be a boy, and therefore a lawful object of female desire. But their desire persists, even as each begins to realize that the other person is the same as she is, a cross-dressed girl. The two women are attracted to each other specifically because of their likeness, and male-female relations are not depicted favorably within the play.
The “structural problem” that remains at the end of the play, i.e., that the loving couple are both female, is hand-waved away by the promise of a gender transition that is postponed until after the play closes. Paralleling the desire of the two main characters is Cupid’s meddling with Diana’s nymphs, shooting them with his arrows causing them to fall in love with each other, thus strengthening the theme of female homoeroticism within the play, while still marking it as a non-natural state.
The play The Roaring Girl features a character based on real-life gender transgressor Moll Cutpurse, who figures in the plot as the mechanism by which the frustrated lovers reverse parental opposition. The male suitor seeks to change his father’s mind about the girl he genuinely wants to marry by faking an interest in Moll in order to convince his father that his true beloved isn’t so bad after all. The dramatic character of Moll Cutpurse cross-dresses and indicates a certain disdain for male suitors, and at least the possibility that she has sex with women.
Moll is not the only character in the play to cross-dress. The female romantic lead does as well, though to avoid detection by her suitor’s father, thus setting up the context for the appearance of a homoerotic kiss between the two romantic leads. Moll represents a different type of transvestite character on the stage. She does not try to pass as a man, nor is she in disguise in order to spend time with the man she desires. Rather her cross-dressing is part of her rejection of standard roles, both those of gender, and in the context of marriage.
It sort of figures that the second chapter of this book that solidly focuses on women is, functionally, a recap of a book I've already covered. I mean: it's a great book! But it means there isn't really anything new here in terms of the Project.
Velasco, Sherry. 2014. “How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
Chapter 10 - How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World
This chapter begins with a discussion of historic terminologies for women who loved women and the eternal problem of whether to use the label “lesbian”. Should the historian look for specific acts, or for evidence of emotional intimacy? And as a literary historian, should one distinguish between literary, artistic, or dramatic depictions, and “non-fictional” content in the fields of law, medicine, and theology?
An example of these themes colliding is in envisioning, a performance of Pérez de Montalbán’s 1626 play The Lieutenant Nun (based on the real-life story of Catalina de Erauso) portrayed on stage by popular actress Luisa de Robles. How would audiences have received and understood that performance in which a favorite actress openly flirted with women on stage, when depicting a woman known to have been attracted to women?
The historic record that contains unmistakable evidence of women desiring women is overlaid by the evidence of “attempts to suppress, destroy, or tamper” with that evidence.
The article then goes into a brief summary of documentary evidence from legal, medical, and theological texts. All these tended to approach the topic of lesbian sex from a heteronormative viewpoint, focusing on penetrative acts “like a man with a woman.” But other texts focused on romantic attachments, such as descriptions of — or concerns about — “special, friendships” in convents. Lesbians might be identified by a certain “look” (i.e., a masculine appearance), but also by how they “looked” at each other, betraying desire.
For all that discussions of lesbian desire in Spanish literature show discomfort or our framed humorously, they provide evidence that people could imagine such things, and were openly discussing the possibilities. The article concludes with cases where a person assigned female at birth framed their desire and actions in transgender terms, rather than same-sex ones, complicating the historic record.
[Note: for many more details on the content of this chapter see, Velasco’s book Lesbians in Early Modern Spain.]
I actually had hopes for this article once I started reading it but, well, to sum up: "Goldberg manages the feat of discussing the exclusion of women from literary history without actually managing to include them."
Goldberg, Jonathan. 2014. “English Renaissance Literature in the History of Sexuality” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
Chapter 9 - English Renaissance Literature in the History of Sexuality
This article starts out with the question, “what is literary history?” It points out that, however approached, literary history, has traditionally, avoided considerations of gender and sexuality, while focusing either on literary personalities and influences, or literary context. But this article isn’t so much concerned with literary history itself, but with the history of literary history, opening with a consideration of how Sir Philip Sydney’s Defence of Poetry and George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie approach the subject, but how questions of gender and sexuality are implicitly embedded in those works.
[Note: I can’t help but notice that, in this collection generally, if the article is not overtly framed in a specific cultural context, it defaults to English history.]
Sydney muses on a concern that poetry should be a trumpet call — inspiring masculinity — and that he finds love poetry unmoving and feminizing, a pervasive theme at the time that a man’s desire for a woman feminized him.
Puttenham, on the other hand, writes — not a defense of the worth of poetry — but a manual for how to produce it, and how to use the role of poet to succeed at social politics. He, too, touches on the claim that poetry — especially the use of poetry to please and flatter a female monarch — risks emasculation.
Goldberg help these discourses and the historical study of the relations between authors, exclude women from consideration, except is an abstract image that the men are negotiating around.
[Note: Never as actual poets themselves. In fact, Goldberg manages the feat of discussing the exclusion of women from literary history without actually managing to include them.]
The article continues from this point to discuss male poets, and the homoerotic themes in their work and lives.
I'm happy to discover that my predictions about the (lack of) f/f content in some of these articles aren't entirely accurate. This article has a few interesting tidbits and leads on a couple more sources, including the dissertation that provided the quoted material. (I think I can pull copies of dissertations through ProQuest if I go on campus -- which I haven't done since before Covid.)
Arvas, Abdulhamit. 2014. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
Part II - Renaissance and Early Modern; Chapter 8 - From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923
This chapter concerns Early Modern Ottoman, poetry, primarily about love, and primarily about love between men. This is not solely love of adolescent boys, but a wide array of male beloveds. Changes in cultural influences, especially westernization in the 19th century, reframed this dynamic as perverse. The focus of the article is Istanbul and relations between men, but one section of the article looks at female poets, and female same-sex topics.
The article surveys of the themes and genres of same-sex love poetry, including catalogs of beauty, lyric poetry, treatises on the intersection of medicine and eroticism, and humorous disputes on the superiority of one type of love object over another. One dynamic in the 19th century reframing of Ottoman love poetry was the western stereotype of Ottoman men as sodomites. (There was also a fascination in Western culture with the idea of lesbianism in the harem.) These perceptions affected western studies of Ottoman literature, including the imposition of heteronormative readings onto overtly homosexual poems, i.e., seeing them as abstract and metaphorical. Another approach was to attribute homoerotic culture to the consequences of a gender-segregated society. All these approaches get in the way of studying Ottoman literature on its own terms.
[Note: although the generic beloved in these discussions is often described as a “boy”, the texts often focus on a beloved who is just beginning to grow a beard or mustache, and some clearly indicate a mature man. This doesn’t discount pottential age and power imbalances, and the fact that love objects were often enslaved people, and so had questionable rights over their own bodies.]
Ottoman literary scholarship has rarely touched on female same-sex relations, but early travelogues regularly referred to the topic, often attributing the practice to gender segregation. Some hints on the topic can’t be found in medical or debate literature, though from the point of view of men writing for men.
The article includes several quotes from a 16th century text describing women who use masculine presentation and dildos in their sexual relations with women, but generally ignore the possibility of non-penetrative sex between women.
From the 16th century writings of Deli Birader Gazali: “In big cities, there are famous dildo women. They put on manly clothes, they ride cavalry horses, and they also ride kochis [covered wagons] for fun. Rich and noble women invite them to their houses and offer them nice shirts and clothing. These women tie dildos on their waist and grease them with almond oil, and then start the job, dildoing the cunt.”
There is a brief review of female poets, some of whose work hints at addressing a female beloved, though the language is typically ambiguous.
The article concludes with a discussion of how, in the 19th century, with increasing Western influence, as well as anti-Sufi movements, homoerotic literature became less prevalent. The article ends with something of a call to revive older concepts and vocabulary as part of modern sexuality discourse to avoid the ways in which stigmatizing concepts have shaped modern Turkish sexuality vocabulary.
Having finished reading the entire first section of this collection (ancient & medieval topics), out of 7 articles, one focuses specifically on female topics (Sappho), one includes a proportionate amount of female content (the medieval article) and 5 articles focus solely on male topics, either because of the specificity of the genre being discussed or because "there isn't much data on women and it's not what I study anyway."
I'm taking a slightly different approach to blogging this content than I have previously in similar situations. Rather than just listing the chapters/articles that don't have anything relevant, I'm creating an entry with a brief discription but not creating the usual "blog envelope." So you can read those entries by clicking through to the LHMP entry, then on the righthand sidebar, select "whole publicaton on one page."
If I had to guess from the article titles and authors, the Renaissance/Early Modern section will have 1 out of 5 articles with any relevant content, the section on "Enlightenment Cultures" is harder to guess at, so we'll see. And I think the last three sections of the book will all fall outside the temporal scope of the LHMP. So I may finish up this collection pretty quickly, except for the part where I have to read everything to see if there's anything relevant. (Sigh.)
Lochrie, Karma. 2014. “Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
Chapter 5 - Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe
Reading pre-modern literature in terms of gender and sexuality requires abandoning, modern sexual categories, even when continuities can be identified. The chapter begins with a review of major historians that shaped the study of medieval (homo)sexuality. It discusses the complicated structure of medieval, thinking around gender and sexuality. Discussion of specifics, primarily focuses on male homoerotic relations with brief nods to female relations. There is discussion of same-sex friendship in religious communities, such as beguines and convents, including poetry, between nuns, expressing erotic desire, and mention of the legends of cross-dressing saints. There is also a brief survey of secular literature, such as Le Livre de Manieres, Iphis and Ianthe, Yde and Olive, and the Romance of Silence.
The chronology of this volume starts out with Sappho and I was a bit relieved to recognize the name of the author tackling the topic. This brief chapter packs a great summary of Sappho's work and legacy into a small space!
Andreadis, Harriette. 2014. “The Sappho Tradition” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
Part I - Reading Ancient and Classical Cultures, Chapter 1 The Sappho Tradition
This chapter begins with a discussion of what is known about Sappho, her poetry, and her reputation among her contemporaries in ancient Greece. The tragically fragmentary nature of the written legacy of her work is traced, including the nine volume collection lost in the 9th century and the recovery of fragments of her work from papyrus sources in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
New work of Sappho is still being discovered up to the current date. However, due to this long gap in familiarity with her actual work, Sappho’s reputation throughout most of Western history has been based on secondhand accounts of her poetic reputation and myths about her personal life.
Only two nearly complete poems that were transmitted by other writers, the Ode to Aphrodite, and the poem, beginning “That man seems to me…”, formed the basis for translations, reinterpretations and pastiches in western languages beginning around the 16th century. Besides that, Sappho’s image was largely based on the fictional Sappho of Ovid’s Heroides, the one who was said to have given over the love of women for the ferryman Phaon, for whose sake she committed suicide.
This fictional tradition combined with the difficulty historic cultures had in reconciling the two faces of Sappho—the famous poet and the lover of women—resulted in a tradition of two Sappho’s: one desexualized and chaste and one promiscuous and lesbian. In the tradition of “there can be only one,” Sappho became the sole icon of female poetic excellence, erasing the existence of other female poets, which had the side effect of associating, female poetics with questionable sexuality.
By the early modern period, Sappho had split further into three images: the renowned poet, the example of transgressive sexuality, and the mythologized, suicidal abandoned woman of Ovid. The modern era has added a fourth image: that of the heroic lesbian pioneer and proto-feminist muse.
The next section of the article discusses the themes and content of Sappho’s poetry, and the traditions of translation that inspired an entire industry of versions of Sappho’s small oeuvre. Part of this tradition has always been, especially for male translators, to reconfigure the gender of the poetic voice such that Sappho is instead expressing desire for a male beloved, or to imply that the poetic voice of the poem is male, thus removing same-sex desire from the equation. This section includes a fairly extensive catalog across the centuries of poets who have translated or reworked Sappho’s most complete fragments. Only in the 20th century has Sappho’s legacy largely been picked up by female authors, retaining the same-sex context of the content.
The next section traces the historic reflections of Sappho’s image as a poet, as well as her transgressive sexuality, which was largely viewed negatively before recent times. Then we have a section tracing the development and legacy of the Phaon myth, and how it affected the image of Sappho, especially in the early modern period. Finally, the article closes with a section entitled “Sappho as Modern Lesbian Heroine,” which looks at the reclamation of Sappho as a positive figure, while also as an image of female homoeroticism. This is the era in which the use of “lesbian” and “sapphist” to indicate female same-sex eroticism became widespread.
For unknown reasons, I'm feeling energized and inspired to get up at my "commute alarm" time on non-commute days to work on personal projects. So let's start working though this collection.
McCallum, E.L. & Mikko Tuhkanen. 2014. “Introduction” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
The introduction discusses the definition of “gay and lesbian literature” and the problem of organizing a volume like this, in the context of a series that primarily focuses on nation, era, or genre. It discusses the focus on expressions of same sex desire, while at the same time problematizing the definition of “same-sex”. There are problems with using terms like homosexuality, much less gay and lesbian, with respect to cultures outside the relatively modern Western context in which those terms developed. As a result, the chapters in the book are sometimes in conversation with existing debates about the nature of gay historiography. The discussions do not focus solely on authors that might today be identified as gay or lesbian, but also on works that suggest same-sex eroticism, regardless of the identity of the author. The discussions recognize the distinctness that may exist between lesbian and gay literary history, and individual chapters may focus on one or the other, or treat them in separate sections of the same article. The authors of the individual chapters take a variety of approaches to terminologies, whether to use “gay” and “lesbian” in an ahistoric overarching sense, or to focus on culturally specific terms, or to avoid labels entirely. The book definitely does not work on the assumption that there is a single tradition of gay and lesbian literature. Although the chapters are grouped in sections identified by various historical eras, this is not meant to suggest a strict chronology regarding the content, but rather may indicate eras in the development of gay and lesbian literature within different cultures. Chapters vary enormously with regard to specificity and focus.