Today I have a reader question from Andrei, who has kindly allowed me to answer in this blog:
I really enjoy your books. Lately I've been reading a history book on pre-Revolutionary France and it noted that the Christian message that was preached to the masses by the post-Reformation Catholic Church was one of a angry God, a God of vengeance and wrath that demanded penitence and misery. This sermon that Yves Michel Marchais delivered to his congregation in Western France in the 1780s is quite illustrative:
"The joys, the pleasures, the happiness of life are always dangerous and almost always fatal; the games, laughter, and amusements of the world are like the mark of damnation and are given given to us by God in his anger. Whereas tears and suffering are the signs of God's pity and a certain promise of salvation"
With that dully noted, how do characters like Margerit, Barbara, Antuniet and Serafina, who have studied theology (in depth, I presume) in order to work mysteries, reconcile their sexuality with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma? I'm asking because at this time in history, the religious climate seems to have been hostile to legitimate "earthly pleasures", let alone illegitimate ones.
I've stacked the deck for my answer a bit in the title I gave to this post. But the answer can be broken down into several questions:
1. To what extent do the positions of religious extremists affect the self-perception of devoutly religious persons?
2. Do views like the one quoted above reflect the general beliefs about worldly pleasures among the educated classes of the time?
3. Did women who loved women in the early 19th century consider that to be a qualitatively different moral problem than other possible moral lapses in their lives?
For the first, in every age we can find ascetic extremists who feel that suffering is the only moral good and that any sort of non-devotional pleasure (and sometimes even the devotional pleasures) is sinful. And in every age you will find lay people who take those views to heart and lay people who dismiss them. Consider that many of the philosophers that contributed to the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of humanism were Catholic and found no inherent contradiction in that. (Or, in some cases, resolved the contradiction by drifting away from a strong adherence to the religious hierarchy in favor of more general philosophical principles, such as the deists.) I think that if you take issues of sex (much less sexuality) out of the question and ask, "how did people who had studied theology in depth in a philosophical context reconcile the enjoyment of 'joys, pleasures, games, laughter, and amusements of the world' with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma?" I think the simplest answer is that, historically, obviously many of them did, though some could not. So I don't feel the need for special pleading with regard to my characters on that point.
In general, the extent to which extreme religious positions are taken to heart depends a lot on what other theological and philosophical arguments a person or a society can bring to bear in dialectic. And the extent to which people turn away from sensory pleasures to embrace asceticism often reflects the overall tenor of the times: whether people feel hopeful or fearful, optimistic or pessimistic. Pre-revolutionary France was obviously a time of great social unrest and hardship--if it hadn't been, there wouldn't have been a revolution. Some of those factors were specific to the political and social situation in France. Consider also that the church was, to some extent, viewed as part of those hardships, not necessarily as a solace for them. Alpennia is hardly a social or political paradise, but it didn't experience the specific forces and conditions that led to revolution in France in the later 18th century. And therefore the specific religious undercurrents present in France don't necessarily apply either.
Moving on to the more specific topic of moral attitudes towards sex and sexuality, it's important to keep in mind that different ages have different frameworks for thinking about these things. In the specific case of lesbian sexuality, there have been many eras in western history when the dividing line between what counted as non-sexual acts of affection and love and what counted as sexual acts have been drawn in very different places. There's a long history of theological positions that only penetrative sex counts as "fornication" (as well as a long history of contrary arguments, it must be admitted). So it's not only possible, but fairly certain, that many pre-modern women enjoyed what we would consider a sexual relationship without themselves considering what they were enjoying to be "sex" in the context of moral prohibiltions.
I did include one interaction between Margerit and one of the nuns at Saint Orisule's convent where it's clear that the nun specifically disapproves of the nature of Margerit and Barbara's relationship. And Margerit's answer to her is that she considers the love she has with Barbara to be the best means she knows by which she can understand God's love. It isn't necessarily a solid theological argument in the specific form presented, but it does have roots in historic theology regarding the divide between praiseworthy and suspect forms of affection between unmarried individuals (regardless of gender). As a scholar, she would have more access to those arguments than an average person would, so it makes sense that she might bring them to bear on a relationship that she very much wants to feel good about.
Social disapproval of women's romantic relationships in the 18-19th centuries in western Europe more often focused on whether those relationships interfered with women's availability for marriage, rather than on the question of the nature of their physical relationship. Another aspect of disapproval focused on whether a woman appeared to be claiming a masculine role, either in society in general, or specifically in the context of the relationship. Both of these concerns are reasons why Margerit and Barbara experience social disapproval without anyone involved necessarily bringing sexual activity into the question. They accept that there are those who consider their close friendship suspect on the grounds of proper gender roles in society, but that holds true as well for their interest in women's education and for Barbara's eager participation in politics in her own name (rather than marrying and handing off the political duties to a husband). They wouldn't necessarily extrapolate that social disapproval to moral self-doubt.
For another example, consider Antuniet's attitude toward her two different types of sexual experience: the incident in Heidelberg when she traded sex to a man for protection and assistance, and her sexual relationship with Jeanne. It should be clear that she views the first as a moral failing, but her concerns about the second are much more to do with emotional insecurity and her precarious social position at the time of their courtship. Having sex once with Gustaf made her a "fallen woman", having an ongoing sexual relationship with Jeanne makes her an "eccentric".
And as an overall consideration, all of my central characters are living lives of comfort and pleasure, within the scope of their individual means. In the case of Margerit and Barbara, those means are considerable and they enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. If their theological studies led them to question the pursuit of earthly pleasures, there would be a lot more of those pleasures to consider rejecting than just the erotic ones.
Now, as it happens, Margerit is due for something of a crisis of faith in the aftermath of the events in Floodtide (the book I'm currently writing), as well as certain other events. That crisis won't be specifically about her sexuality, but her general uncertainty about whether she's chosen the right paths in life will probably end up touching on that aspect as well. So stay tuned to see how she works through that crisis and what her conclusions are about living a moral and ethical life that includes both magic and the pleasures of the flesh.