There will proably be spoilers in this review, although I'm not really going to be focusing much on plot issues--more just a jumbled collection of emotional reactions. But if you haven't seen the movie and don't want any substantial elements spoiled, don't read this.
OK, are we all still on the same page?
In a way, I guess, a jumbled collection of emotional reactions is an appropriate review for a Star Wars movie, because they have always been a jumbled collection of tropes intended to provoke emotional reactions. It's just a matter of whose reactions they're designed to provoke. When you look at the overall history of Star Wars movies, it's clear that The Last Jedi, even more so than The Force Awakens, is deliberately designed to widen and deepen the set of people whose emotional reactions the franchise cares about. And yet, on closer examination, it's still a very conservative, catch-up approach. Let's take a look at gender representation, just for a start. I've seen a lot of reactions, both positive and negative, about the "overwhelming" presence of women in The Last Jedi. Negative reactions, as in "all these girls are ruining the franchise" and positive reactions as in "yay, look at all the lovely female roles." I know, because I was part of the latter reaction.
You know that thing that’s been studied that shows that people perceive that when a group of people has around 1/3 women or when a conversation has around 1/3 female contributions that the women are over-represented?
I ran the numbers on the cast lists at imdb.com for The Last Jedi.
(Note: I find the complete absence of women from the “uncredited rest of cast” list significant. It says something about what the unmarked default remains and who is getting the bottom-of-the-ladder acting jobs that can lead to viable careers.)
Just to put it in context, let's look at female % of first 10 top billed, and % of "first billed" (all per imdb, which seems to consistently list the first 15 for "first billed") for all 9 franchise movies so far, in order of release:
This is “women taking over Star Wars”. WIth the exception of the Smurfette throwback numbers in Rogue One, there's been a slow incremental improvement. Ah, but the female characters are central and important, so the “takeover” is more obvious when you look at percent of the dialogue, right? I can’t find a dialogue-by-gender analysis for the movie yet, though this article looks at the franchise history for non-white and female representation across several factors. In A New Hope the female first-billed presence at 13% (i.e., two women) dwarfed the female dialogue presence of 6.3%. In The Force Awakens, the first-billed presence and dialogue presence were functionally identical (ca. 27%) but this only brought the dialogue presence in line with overall averages for movies that year. I have a suspicion that when the stats come out for female dialogue presence in The Last Jedi comes out, it won’t be significantly different from the first-billed representation. But at 40%, that of course means that women have successfully elbowed all men out of the franchise.
So, yes, I loved loved loved the visceral presence of women in The Last Jedi, both in terms of screen-time and story structure, but even I fell into the trap of perceiving women as dominating the movie when we're still talking about maybe one in three. And the same phenomenon carries over to the non-white presence. It's lovely, it's wonderful, it's fabulous that there were so many non-white characters driving the action on screen. But let's not see it as more than a potentially anomalous good first step that needs to be followed up across the industry on a consistent basis until perceptions match reality. If we accept the false subjective perception that 30% means "women dominate" then we'll continue to accept 20% as parity.
In terms of plot, there were a number of trope-subversions and unexpected resolutions that I really really liked. I liked that Kyle Ren stuck to his whiny, petulent emo-boy character and followed through even when we were teased with the possibility that he might be "turned away from the dark side." Because I would have been furious if we'd gotten another Darth Vader redemption-at-the-last-minute story that wiped out all the terrible things he's done both on and off screen, especially if it were driven by that really tired trope of "the love of a good woman can redeem a bad boy." That trope is one of the most pernicious ones in media throughout the ages. (Of course, there's still one movie to go in this set, so they could still fall back on it.) I'm trying to remember whose review it was that utterly tore apart the concept of the Kylo Ren redemption arc, I'd like to give credit but I'm not finding it at the moment.
I loved that there is no indication of setting Rey up for a romantic arc in any way shape or form. Yes, it's clear that Finn has a thing for her. But all her reactions and body language say "wonderful platonic friendship" and we really need more of those on the screen, especially between m/f pairs. While we're talking about romance, I'm not in the least surprised (though always disappointed) that we get not even the slightest hint that anyone in the Star Wars universe might be something other than heterosexual. And I will hate on anyone who disses Finn/Rose because they're holding out for Finn/Poe. They never were going to give you Finn/Poe. They never will give you Finn/Poe. They will toy with you in unofficial interviews and tease you and make vague meaningless promises.
"Sexuality in general is not something that's front of mind in any of these movies," writer-director Rian Johnson told BuzzFeed News. "I think [LGBT representation] is one element that we haven't done yet that we need to do."
Bullshit that "sexuality...is not something that's front...in any of these movies." Leia/Han was not about sexuality? Anakin/Padme was not about destroying the Republic because a young Jedi couldn't keep it in his pants? Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. But they will never give you that LGBT representation they're teasing you with. Because they know you'll keep crawling back like a whipped puppy whining for table scraps and being grateful that you haven't been locked out in the cold empty garage for the night. And the whole, "But this one throwaway line in a Star Wars novel can be interpreted as Admiral Holdo being bisexual"? Yeah, that's still table scraps. And when you look at the particular scrap in question, the more obvious reading is that it's talking about inter-species sex, not bisexuality. (Recall that Star Trek was perfectly accepting of interspecies sex from the get-go but peculiarly erasive of the possibility of non-heterosexuality long past the point when it was an embarrassment.)
All of which does not contradict the fact that Admiral Holdo is my emotional fave character and my heart is broken that we won't get more of her. Also: I've rarely been tempted to cosplay, but I WANT that dress. The fact that I do not have a Laura Dern body and would look awful in puce will quite probably be the deciding factor, alas.
Moving on to plot elements. I'm delighted to see the rug pulled out from under the "bad boy going off cowboying in defiance of authority and common sense" trope. A pity they had to spoil it by having Leia and Holdo have that "Isn't he so cute when he's treasonously subordinate?" moment. No. Poe Dameron isn't cute. And being a hotshot pilot on your own doesn't make up for the enormous volume of human lives and equipment he is personally responsible for throwing away. I have no confidence that he has learned any sort of lesson in the long term, or that he won't be promoted into some position of authority he is completely unsuited for. Our society is full of hotshot flyboys leaving wakes of disaster behind them and it's time we stopped framing them as the heros of the story. The Last Jedi makes a brief nod to the destructiveness of that type of character but doesn't stick the landing.
I am delighted with the implication (both by the disclosures about Rey's parentage and the closing scene with the stableboy--and of course it's the stableboy, of course it is) that we're moving away from "the Force as royal bloodline" with all the neo-monarchist garbage it promotes, and just perhaps toward showing that the salvation of the universe depends on the distributed actions of lots of "nobodies". Goodness knows, the official Resistance isn't going to save us, given that they've been whittled down to a population that can all fit on the Millennium Falcon! In the last year, people have gotten a lot of mileage from using the Star Wars Resistance as a symbol of political action for the real world. (I just might *cough* own a pink ball cap with a sequined Resistance logo on it.) But it can't be that symbol if it props up the notion that salvation will come from some official organization way off thataway in a secret rebel base. Because if that's the message we take away, then when the Resistance sends out the signal to their "supporters" throughout the empire, no one will answer.
So, as I said, a random heap of emotional reactions. I liked the movie a great deal. I liked that I didn't walk out of it with the impression that it was 80% chases, explosions, and battles, and that's pretty rare for sci fi movies these days. I would like the progressive aspects of the plot and casting if I felt they were more deeply rooted in the creative process and the deepest values of the movie industry, but we all know how tenuous such things are.
So, as always, I'll close this review with an admonition that if you want to see media that represents all genders, all sexualities, all ethnicities, and that moves beyond tired action-hero tropes, don't wait for Hollywood and other mainstream media giants to throw you the promise of future scraps. Go out and support the creative properties that are giving you that representation now, today, up front, without apology, and as an intrinsic part of their worldview.
It isn't entirely uncommon in myth and legend for a woman to become pregnant without the participation of a (human) man. It's rather less common to find stories in which pregnancy is attributed to sexual activity between women--whether, as in this case, with divine assistance, or as in the case in an early Irish text, where the sperm is leftover from one of the women's prior heterosexual activity. With all the fertility technology we have today, the idea of two women being co-genetic parents of a child is still mostly theoretical. And we're only just getting past the notion that a genetic connection (such as the one that drives this legend) is of paramount importance. There are several other stories in which the imperative for family lineage is a factor in women's same-sex relationships. One reason that the tale of Yde and Olive is "required" to have a heterosexual resolution is that it's part of a saga revolving around family lineage--the production of a genetic heir is the reason for the story's existence. But this type of narrative motivation can't simply be removed willy-nilly from the tales to leave an unadorned story of same-sex marriage-equivalent, for the lineage imperative is sometimes what drives (temporary) acceptance of the women's relationship within the story context.
Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women”
This article takes up the theme of women conceiving under difficult and or impossible conditions, e.g., virgins giving birth, and how the children of these conceptions are marked out as special. This theme appears in the context of multiple cultural traditions, e.g., Ruth and Naomi in the bible, and the mothers of Bhagirtha, who was explicitly engendered by sexual activity between two women with the help of the God of Love.
Vanita looks at three Indian devotional texts concerning how the god Vishnu and two co-wives of a king ensure his lineage continues, as prophecy requires. Most variants of the tale involve ordinary heterosexual procreation but in several 14th century versions, the king dies without children and his wives ask divine help to give him a son. The stories attribute various other motivations to the women’s actions, including same-sex desire, in which they engage in sex and one becomes pregnant.
Many types of miraculous births occur in Indian texts. The inclusion of female same-sex love is possibly motivated by a 14th century interest in goddess worship and the worship of Kama, a god of love, who blessed female same-sex eroticism. The goddess texts often featured her ability to produce children autonomously.
The figure of Bhagiratha is closely associated with one of the oldest goddesses, the river Ganga. The Rig Veda includes various references to rivers as pairs of co-mothers. The god Kama is depicted as a force of desire and the urge to create. His “energy” allows the sexual activity between the two women to result in pregnancy.
Vanita continues with a discussion of other symbolic themes present in the stories and a discussion of medical texts that show the early Hindu understanding of female sexual anatomy and behavior.
A vacation schedule affects one's sense of time even without the distractions I've had during this particular holiday season. (The sort that will make amusing family stories for years to come.) So I almost forgot it was LHMP day! This amusing meditation on the interpretation of fashionable female figures in medieval manuscripts that belonged to women as being a psychological equivalent of "barbie dolls" seems to fit in well on a day for toys and presents. I hope all my readers are enjoying whatever winter holidays they prefer.
Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections”
While some “queer readings” of medieval texts examine how God replaces a carnal beloved in courtly poetic forms, this article looks at an example of courtly images of women used to illustrate pious texts, and what the motivations and consequences of that might be. These manuscripts read as “queer” via the gaze of the women the texts are intended for [note: this is not speculation, we know who the original owners/patrons of the books were] and the use of female bodies of objects of desire and fantasy for a female viewer.
Like the Barbie doll, the images become private playthings for the viewer to engage with harmlessly. The “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (a collection of saints’ lives covering early ascetics) might be an unexpected text for plentiful illustrations of elegant women, even when the collection is expanded to include Desert Mothers. Here, the saints are not depicted as ascetics but as consumers and enjoyers of elegant culture. The women themselves are stylized to represent the ideal of beauty and sensuality of the day.
The article also considers manuscripts of various romances and a luxurious illustrated New Testament with commentary. The romances include Yde and Olive and the romance of the Comte d’Anjou. The illustrations create a world of women’s bonds that can be stronger than their presence in the text itself, with contexts ranging from homosocial to homoerotic.
This set of manuscripts were created in Burgundy and ended up in Turin, Italy via the ducal collections at Savoy. The article has a general description of the contents of the Lives, highlighting the presence and context of these female figures.
Regardless of the male-focused subject matter, the illustrations create a strong female presence and orientation for the books. There is a similar female presence in a manuscript of the Roman du Comte d’Anjou, with the scenes chosen for illustration skewing to those involving women.
The unique manuscript of Yde and Olive (from the Huon de Bordeaux cycle) includes an illustration of the central female couple in their marriage bed. The bed scene is the only illustration from this section of the longer Romance. The text also focuses on this marriage/bed scene, with extensive descriptions of the interaction between the women, including both verbal bonds (repeating the marriage vow) and physical interactions (kissing and hugging). The author makes a point that the text as the conclusion of the tale, which is typically interpreted as a divine sex-change, literally involves God giving Yde “all that a man has of his humanity (umanite)” which is more ambiguous regarding bodily consequences.
The author’s discussion of the illustrated Biblical commentary focuses on the sensual feel and appearance of the pages and the significant presence of noble women in the book’s provenance.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17d - Death did not them Depart - transcript
One of the themes that traces the lives of women who love women through history is the representation of their relationships as being equivalent to heterosexual marriage. For the most part we look for that evidence in their lives: in living arrangements, in the way their contemporaries referred to them, in the ceremonies they use to celebrate their partnership, in how they addressed and referred to each other. But another place to find the symbolism of marriage for female couples is in death.
Beliefs about the afterlife in many religions led to the symbolism of joint of family burials and memorials, representing the hope that those close ties would be replicated after death. Marriage in particular was represented by a formal vocabulary of symbolism in joint grave memorials, both by images of the deceased shown joined in some way, and by the organization and content of the text describing them.
When that same symbolic vocabulary is used to commemorate a same-sex pair, there is often backpedaling by the archaeologists and historians who describe the memorial to explain away the implied relationship. And it is true that the symbolism of marriage was often adopted to talk about intense platonic friendship--both in life and in death. But even if one accepts that the symbolism of marriage is just that--symbolism--it is still meaningful that it is applied. And it is even more significant, perhaps, that grave memorials, by their nature, represent the complicity of the surviving relatives or friends of the dead in creating that symbolism in physical form--often at significant trouble and expense. Therefore, joint same-sex memorials can be read as reflecting the knowledge, acceptance, and even celebration of same-sex relationships by others in a way that the recorded actions of the couple themselves do not.
As is often the case in the historic record, it is far more common to find examples of male same-sex grave memorials. Alan Bray’s detailed study The Friend was inspired by a study of joint grave memorials for male friends and he comments on the scarcity of female examples.
There are several reasons for this. Foremost is the greater social prominence given to men’s friendships. Society praised male bonds even when the men involved had wives and children, while women’s friendships were typically considered to be secondary to family bonds. Phenomena like the Romantic Friendship movement of the 19th century were notable specifically because they gave women a context for treating their friendships with women as primary in their lives.
But this means that when a married woman was memorialized, the default assumption was that it would be her husband and children who took pride of place in the commemoration of her life. This was also an expectation for men, but it was more acceptable for a man’s intense friendship to be memorialized even over family ties.
A second factor affecting the creation of enduring grave memorials is the typical economic disparity between men and women. An unmarried man who left instructions to commemorate a same-sex friendship at his death was also more likely to be able to leave sufficient funds to see that the memorial was created in a lasting form than a woman in a similar position would be.
And yet, as we’ll see in this brief tour of women’s same-sex joint memorials, all of those factors could be superceded to leave us a record of the special place women held in each others’ lives. I’ve arranged this chronologically but there are large gaps in time, and my sources are exclusively English in the post-classical period.
Athens, 4th c. BCE
The difficulties of interpreting memorial symbolism are discussed at great length by John G. Younger in his study of women’s grave memorials in a cemetary of the 4th century BC near Athens, Greece. After reviewing the arrangement and identification of female scuptural figures in the memorials, including the symbolic meaning of posture, dress, gestures, and accessories, Younger identifies several monuments that he believes commemorate the close personal realtionships between non-related women.
Three of the memorials are similar enough in style and arrangement that they may be from the same workshop and be a formalized representation of a female couple. In each, there is a woman standing on the left, with her left hand raised in a gesture indicating speech. The woman on the right is seated in a chair, and the whole is framed by a simple stylized house. An inscription names them: Hedeia daughter of Lysikles and Phanylla daughter of Aristoleides. Demetria and Pamphile. Kallistomakhe daughter of Diokles and Nausion daughter of Sosandros.
In another memorial statue, two young women embrace and one touches the chin of the other -- a gesture that later would become specifically associated with romantic interest, though it isn’t clear that it had that meaning at this early date.
Two grave reliefs from Thessaly in the 5th century BC use different suggestive symbolism. Both show two women facing each other. In one, a woman lefts up the left shoulder of her dress and holds out a ball of wool as the other woman reaches to receive it. The offering of gifts typically indicates a romantic scene when the participants are of opposite sexes. The second uses the more specific symbolism of flowers being offered as a gift, using a very stylized gesture with one hand raised and the other lowered. This “hands up and down gesture” is most commonly seen in Classical Greek art in scenes of male homoerotic courtship--a genre that is much more common and well studied. This parallel example between two women strongly suggests a similar interpretation.
Roman 1st century BCE
The symbolism in a Roman marble grave relief from the 1st century BC is even less ambiguous. The carving shows two women from the waist up, facing each other, and holding their right hands clasped together prominently. The inscription identifies them as Eleusis and Helena, both freedwomen formerly belonging to a woman named Fonteia. Here is is not simply their inclusion on the same memorial stone that suggests an even closer relationship. The act of joining right hands was a standard symbol in Roman art for a marriage relationship, taken from the act of joining right hands during the marriage ceremony. The gesture even had its own name: dextrarum iunctio. It is unmistakable that whoever designed this sculpture intended to portray the two women in a marriage-like relationship, perhaps even as a married couple. There are a few tantalizing references in Roman literature to marriages between women, although often in a context where it’s deprecated as a strange foreign practice in places like Egypt.
England 15th century
We jump now to England in the 15th century. One reason for the detailed information about this memorial is due to a change in materials. The fashion for marking graves with engraved brass plates, rather than carved stones, meant that the details of the inscription and artwork were far less likely to be worn away by the passage of years and feet--for many gravestones were set into the floor of the church. And when there is a strong motivation to look for alternate interpretations of a same-sex memorial, it helps to have the physical details be unambiguous.
In the parish church of Etchingham in East Sussex, there is a memorial brass that jointly commemorates two never-married women. One was Elizabeth Etchingham who died in 1452, most likely when in her mid-20s although the genealogical evidence is not certain. The church in question belonged to the Etchingham family so it’s unsurprising that this is where Elizabeth was buried. She was surrounded there by the graves of other family members.
But the other half of the brass plate commemorates the death of Agnes Oxenbridge who died almost 30 years later in her 50s. The Oxenbridge family lived nearby, perhaps 12 miles distant, but they had their own family church and even if we assume Agnes died in Etchingham, there is no reason why her body couldn’t have been taken the short distance to rest with her family. The joint burial and commemoration was deliberate. It was almost certainly done by Agnes’s express wish, but it was also only possible because of the cooperation and efforts of both families.
The layout of the design on the brass follows a format that is most often seen for a married couple, although sometimes also found for unmarried siblings. The two women stand facing each other with a block of text beneath them, divided into two portions by a vertical line in the middle. Elizabeth stands in the more important position on the left, perhaps because the memorial is in her family’s church and because her family was of higher social status. She is pictured smaller than Agnes, a typical way of indicating the difference in ages at death. The two hold their hands before them clasped in prayer and Elizabeth looks slightly upward while Agnes’s gaze is directed slightly downward so that they appear to be looking at each other. Both women have uncovered heads--a certain sign that they were unmarried. But while Elizabeth’s hair flows unbound down to her hips, signifying her youth, Agnes’s hair is pinned up in a style more suitable for a mature woman.
The inscription is, of course, in Latin. The text under Elizabeth reads: “Here lies Elizabeth Etchingham, first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, who died the third day of December, in the year of our lord 1452.” The text under Agnes reads: “Here lies Agnes Oxenbridge, daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, who died the fourth day of August, in the year of our lord1480, may God be merciful to their souls, amen.”
That seems little enough evidence on the face of it from which to hang an interpretation that the two women enjoyed a close relationship. But the overall artistic symbolism is inescapably that used for a married couple. When this is combined with the simple fact of the joint memorial in a context where that would not otherwise be expected, it’s clear that there was some close and very enduring bond that the two women shared--and one that their families supported and commemorated.
Knowedge of the typical lives of young women of the English gentry in this era can suggest a possible story. If the estimation of Elizabeth’s age at death is correctly placed in her 20s, they would have been very close in age. At that time women of their class would normally leave their families in early adolescence to live in a different household where they would learn the adult skills of running a household. They would establish and expand social networks that would serve their families in later life, and not uncommonly they would be introduced to the young men that were their most likely marriage prospects. The friendships established among these cohorts of young women and men frequently lasted throughout their lives and shaped their prospects.
Most typically, a young woman would then move on to marriage, either directly from her service or after returning to her family for a while. If she didn’t marry, she would usually remain living with parents or siblings, contributing her labor to the maintenance of the extended household. Unlike some other medieval cultures, the convent was generally not the expected fate for unmarried women of the upper class.
So we can easily imagine Elizabeth and Agnes meeting while both were placed out in the same household and forming a friendship of such depth and intensity that it was still the primary bond Agnes wanted to commemorate 30 years after death had parted them. Was that bond relevant to their unmarried state? There are any number of reasons a woman might not marry at that time, although only one in ten remained unmarried for the entirety of her life. But lack of opportunity wasn’t the only possibility. In one document giving the financial provisions for the daughters of a family at this time, there is an acknowledgement that a woman might “not be disposed to marry.” And so at least in the case of Agnes, we are allowed to imagine that she considered marriage to a man a less desirable alternative to remaining true to Elizabeth’s memory.
England 15th century
While the Etchinghams and Oxenbridges had the money for family churches and brass plaques, we can trace the desires of less well-off women to be buried together by the directions given in their wills. In 15th century London, a woman named Joan Isham who identified herself as a singlewoman--that is, someone never married--specified in her will that she be buried next to the grave of Margery Nicoll. From their names, we know they aren’t immediate family, but nothing else can be guessed about their possible relationship except that it was one that inspired Joan to spend eternity at Margery’s side.
A Crowded Grave in 1600
Bonds of passionate friendship between women might be commemorated in their grave inscriptions even when a man came between them. Mary Barber of Suffolk, England died on September 6, 1600, followed in death six years later by her beloved friend, the widow Ann Chitting, and closely thereafter by Mary’s husband Roger. It was Ann Chitting’s son Henry who arranged for their burial -- a joint arrangement of the three of them, with Mary lying between the bodies of her close friend and her husband.
The inscription that Henry commissioned declared that the two women “whose souls in heaven embrace” had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights” and so he chose to unite those two “whose bodies death would sever.”
In this case, it is clear that--however intense the relationship between the two women--both had nonetheless married. And yet that relationship was recognized as being so close that it was only right to unite them in death, and still so socially acceptable that their surviving family had no hesitation in doing so publicly.
England 18th century
Two graves among the many funeral monuments in Westminster Abbey in London commemorate pairs of unmarried women who shared a household and whose relationships were framed in terms of intense friendship that--while perhaps unusually prominent in their commemoration--fell well within what was not only accepable but expected for women of the 18th century.
The monument of Mary Kendall was commissioned by her cousin, Captain Charles Kendall, and is typically florid in its description of the deceased, shifting towards the end to celebrating the “close union and friendship in which she lived with the Lady Catharine Jones” that inspired her to request that she be buried next to the future gravesite of Lady Catharine so that they would never be separated. The full inscription reads:
“This Monument was Erected by Capt. Charles Kendall
Mrs Mary Kendall
Daughter of Thomas Kendall Esq’r,
And of Mrs Mary Hallet, his Wife,
Of Killigarth, in Cornwall,
Was born at Westm’r Nov. 8 1677.
And dy’d at Epsome, March 4, 1709/10.
Having reach’d the full Term
Of her blessed Saviours Life:
And study’d to imitate
His spotless Example.
She had great Virtues,
And as great a desire of Concealing them:
Was of a Severe Life,
But of an Easy Conversation;
Courteous to All, yet strictly Sincere;
Humble without Meanness;
Beneficent, without Ostentation;
Devout, without Superstition.
These admirable Qualitys,
In which She was eqall’d by Few of her Sex,
Surpass’d by None.
Render’d Her every way worthy
Of that close Union & Friendship,
In which She liv’d, with
The Lady CATHARINE JONES;
And, in testimony of which, She desir’d,
That even their Ashes, after Death,
Might not be divided:
And therefore, order’d her Selfe
Here to be interr’d,
Where, She knew, that Excellent Lady
Design’d one day, to rest,
Near the Grave of her Belov’d And Religious Mother,
Elizabeth Countess of Ranelagh.”
The said Catharine Jones was, indeed, buried there 30 years later. The immediate region of the chapel where these burials took place was something of a family mausoleum for the Earl of Ranelagh, with multiple members of the family buried there. The erection of the memorial by Mary Kendall’s brother and the location in an area in some sense “belonging” to Ranelagh, indicate that the “close union and friendship” between these two women was not merely recognized by their families but was considered to represent a bond between the two families. There is no indication in either woman’s memorial or in family records that either of them ever married.
Also in Westminster Abbey is the tomb of Katharina Bovey who died in 1727 and whose laudatory memorial inscription concludes with the following words:
“This monument was erected With the utmost respect to her Memory and Justice to her Character, By her executrix Mrs Mary Pope Who lived with her near 40 years in perfect Friendship Never once interrupted Till her much lamented Death.”
Some scholars have connected Katharina Bovey to a fictional character appearing in the July 10, 1711 issue of the periodical The Spectator under the description “the Perverse widow”. This widow is beautiful, accomplished, scholarly and completely uninterested in men. This same personage received the dedication of volume II of The Ladies Library. Here is how the fictional widow is described:
“You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town, to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship; she is always accompanied by a Confident, who is witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a Barr to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.”
If one removes the misogyny and male expectations of access from this description, we have a woman who enjoys reading, has a particular close female friend who is viewed as a bar to her interest in a renewal of the married state, and who while pleasant enough to attract a train of admirers, really wishes that they would learn to take no for an answer.
The identification of this fictional character with Katharine Bovey is supported by the editors of modern editions of The Ladies Library. Bovey was widowed at age 22 in 1692, after which she lived in retirement near Gloucester, devoted to charitable and religious works, in the company of her friend Mrs Mary Pope of Twickham. Pulling all the evidence together, Bovey and Pope seem to have established an independent household together, indifferent to offers of marriage, for “nearly 40 years of perfect friendship”.
Who among us would not wish for such a glowing epitaph and the chance to live the life that inspired it?
I've attended several sessions of papers at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo that discussed the overtly sensual and erotic language included in male ecclesiastical correspondence, particularly of the medieval period. When discussing male clergy of, for example, 12-14th century France, one can triangulate on the relationship between texts that strike the modern ear as decidedly homoerotic and larger social discussions and concerns regarding sexual relations between men either in monasteries or among the clergy. Robert Mill's Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages discusses that larger context for men. But differences in how people viewed women's sexuality, in the greater opprobrium for male homosexuality, and in the political consequences of having "favorites" based on a sexual relationship, mean that there isn't the same larger context of discussion for understanding women's homoerotic correspondence. (Not that there was no larger context, but it isn't as extensively documented.) This can make it more difficult to examine letters like the one discussed in this article with an eye to determining whether they did express--or would have been considered to have expressed--a relationship that had romantic and erotic components, as opposed to using the language of romance simply as a form of literary expression.
Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community”
Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.
The convent in question was founded by Saint Radegund in 522 and was a novel type at that time, bringing together women from various families rather than being an establishment associated with a specific family. While secular noblewomen were defined by family and their lives used in service to their dynastic affiliations, monastic women were (incompletely) shifted from secular to monastic family, though secular ties could disrupt that ideal.
The reading and writing of texts was an essential component of engaging in that community, many of which texts directly address the definition and negotiation of virginity as a status. Literacy was an essential focus at the monastery of the Holy Cross--a required skill. The institution became famous for its participation in literary culture of the time. Much of this celebrates a culture of female friendship parallel to that better documented among male ecclesiastics of the era. This literature of male monastic friendship could express excessive poetic sensuality because it was given license by the overt elevated purity of the context. Similarly, writing about the convent community celebrated the mutual affection and bonds of the nuns. The letter considered here represents a performance of female desire expressed through the medium of friendship and so allowed that emotional excess.
The writer positions herself as younger and subordinate, able to express desire and a wish to emulate the addressee only because the addressee herself has requested it. This permission makes the expression possible, rather than being presumptuous due to the difference in status. This negotiates the acceptability of the expression of desire, a return of attention once the writer knows she herself has been noticed.
The article discusses the literature of how women learn to be virgins, including the caution that the Biblical claim that religious virgins “become like men” should not be taken literally as license for cutting hair short, cross-dressing, or behaviors with a masculine engagement with the world. (Note, however, that this explicit admonishment suggests that some women did take the Biblical passage as license for cross-gender presentation.) Monastic women are enjoined to love each other in close community to better direct their souls to God. There is a regular theme that they are expected to form close familial-like bonds, sometimes cloaked in the language of mother-daughter or sisterhood, and that such pairs might share a cell and bed. But at the same time, they are admonished that “unchastity of the eyes” (mutual glances) leads to unchastity of the flesh. And nuns are expected to police each other’s behavior as well as their own. These concerns are then applied to “special friendships”, see e.g., the Rule of Donatus against walking hand in hand or using endearments.
Correspondence would seem to evade concerns about physical interaction and gaze, but text itself is gazed on and written endearments may stand for caresses. The letter in question does not include such endearments and shifts from the personal (I) to collective (we) in its praise of the recipient. It offers praise in Old Testament imagery, using a metaphor of virgins receiving the Word into their wombs and bearing salvation. The letter uses recurring images of this metaphor. The writer protests her unworthiness to address the recipient as “sister”, using instead Lady (domina). Thus an otherwise suspect close relationship is re-framed in a distancing way (via differences of age or authority) while retaining an emotional closeness.
It’s funny how some stories just demand to be written while others are content to noodle around in the back of your brain for a while. I actually have a handful of in-process short fiction at the moment that is waiting for me to decide that a specific story really needs to get finished. But “The Language of Roses” wasn’t quite as patient. It’s also a different length than I’ve ever written before, though goodness knows, when I’m not paying attention to length, any of my short stories has the potential to turn into a novella! We’ll see what my beta readers think about the length—whether it’s about right or a bit bloated.
Oh, and it’s finished enough to go out to the beta readers! I haven’t emailed around to ask who wants to read this one yet because the pre-holiday schedule has left me as dizzy as usual. But I’m about to have a week’s vacation, so I’ll have some breathing space (in between sessions of Settlers of Catan) to get things done.
“Roses” was inspired by several sources, but primarily by watching the live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and having the uneasy sense that someone whose initial modus operandi looks quite so similar to an emotionally abusive boyfriend is unlikely to reform quite that easily or permanently. The second primary source of inspiration was the question: what if the Beauty-character doesn’t fall in love with the beast, not because he’s a beast, but because she’s aromantic? What position does it put her in to be pressured to fall in love with someone to break a curse, when falling in love is against her deepest nature? And especially if the person doing the pressuring considers her love to be an entitlement? What if the Beauty-character agrees to pay her father’s forfeit (not knowing about the whole curse-breaking thing) simply because it saves her from the weight of social expectations? And what does a happily ever after look like for her?
As the story evolved in my head, I braided in several other fairy tale motifs to go with the additional central characters the story needed. I kept the vaguely 18th century French feel of the setting and played around a bit with the symbolic language of flowers to add more nuance than the traditional rose color symbolism. And, as I’ve blogged about before, it wasn’t until I was working on revisions that I found the voice(s) that make the prose come alive for me. We’ll see if it works for anyone else!
Don’t expect to see this story in print any time soon. Because it isn’t tied to the Alpennia series, and because novellas are a hard length to sell over the transom, I’m going to take the opportunity to try to pick up an agent for it. That’s likely to take some time, and then even more to actually sell the story if I do get an agent. But it seemed like a good opportunity to go through that exercise.
I find some interesting parallels in the concept of grouping lesbians and virgins together in a category "not women" (that is, women not sexually available to men) with the practice in some circles of the publishing world of creating projects or access campaigns on a category encompassing women, non-binary, and sometimes including trans people of all identifications. The unifying factor in the publishing approach is to recognize the historic privileged access that cis men have been given to publishing opportunities and to try to include writers who have not had access to that privilege. But on a symbolic level, the structure of these projects tends to reinforce the default centrality of cis masculinity, even when carefully avoiding defining the focus as "not cis men". It can erase the individual identities gathered under the umbrella, not only by silently defining the category in terms of what it is not, but because once you've created a heterogeneous group of "non-cis-men", the inherent and inescapable binarism in our society will result in a tendency to interact with the resulting composite category as in some way female.
In a similar way, the idea of joining virgins and lesbians into a conceptual category by virtue of their shared non-participation in the heterosexual sexual economy creates (and has historically created) some illogical conclusions, as well as reinforcing the default centrality of heterosexuality. "If you aren't having sex with men (or we a particular man) you must be / might as well be a lesbian." "If you haven't had sex with a man, then you're functionally a virgin not matter what you do with women." (One runs into this within lesbian communities sometimes. I recall one joke about how, "Being a lesbian means never being sure whether you're on a date--and never being entirely sure whether you're still a virgin or not.")
Of course, in certain segments of pre-modern society, there was official sanction for removing yourself from the heterosexual economy via virginity (religious or secular), whereas there was no such official (or even recognized) way to do it via lesbianism. This combined category of "not women", while identifying contexts that provided cover for lesbian identity, potentially erases genuine preferred virginity. And at the same time, it can erase genuine preferred lesbianism by implying that sex between women is a product of removal of access to (or by) men.
These thoughts aren't really directly relevant to the article covered here, but it sparked some ruminations that have been kicking around in my head for a while.
Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions”
Jankowski begins with lesbian imagery in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House [note: a 17th century work exploring family history that includes tropes of predatory lesbians in convents] and its challenge to the patriarchal sexual system. There is a consideration of the problems and consequences of naming historical periods and cultures. The convent as a site of sexual dissidence encompasses not only the imagined lesbian activity but the virgin’s removal from the mainstream sexual economy entirely. There, women are sovereign. She uses this as an introduction to the concept of nuns in different places and times and the place of virgin women in the medieval social hierarchy. That place was disrupted by protestantism which viewed virginity as unnatural and perverse. Jankowski considers the “virgin pleasures” in Lyly’s play Gallathea in which two cross-dressing virgins fall in love with each other and enjoy off-stage “pleasures” that do no result in a revelation of gender, that is, ones that by definition cannot involve genital activity. The play frames their desire as having “no cause” (i.e., no penis) but undermines this assertion by showing and approving of the love itself. In this, like nuns, they remove themselves from the category of “woman” to “not-woman” (i.e., virgin). The virgin/not-woman category aligns consistently with opportunities for female same-sex eroticism. The pre-modern “virgin” category has resonances with some feminist theories on the importance of opting out of the heterosexual social economy as the only pure response to patriarchy.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17c - Book Appreciation with T.T. Thomas
(Originally aired 2017/12/16 - listen here)
This week our author guest for this month, T.T. Thomas, talks about some books and authors she particularly enjoys. We also chat about the challenges that authors of lesbian historical fiction face in enticing readers within the lesfic community and the misconceptions many readers hae about the stories that can be told.
The down side of deciding to blog all the articles in a collection like this is that sometimes there simply isn't anything useful to the project at all. Sorry. This is pretty much just a completist placeholder.
Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern”
This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.
I've updated the call for short story submissions for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to include detailed information on how to submit and submission format. Remember that submissions will only be accepted during the month of January 2018. I'm looking forward to seeing what people send me!