...but a good novel is more like a symphony. Or an opera.
Musical metaphors for story structure have been somewhat on my mind while writing Mother of Souls. One reason, of course, is the centrality of music as a transformative force within the plot. But more than that, I've been thinking about all the different types of emotional structure that can work effectively in a large-scale composition. One of the reasons it's been on my mind has been the suggestion that Mother of Souls needs to come out of the gate with more drama, more peril, more tension.
Starting a symphony off with a bang can work really well. Think about those famous first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Grabs you, engages you. The piece backs off later only to return for a ringing finale. Another favorite example of mine of starting with a bang is Dvorak's "Carnival Overture". Grabs you and keeps going. I listened to the Carnival Overture a lot while writing the final chapter of Mother of Souls. I wanted the climax of the book to make a reader feel the way I always feel as that piece finishes up.
But not every great piece of music starts with a bang. One beta-reader mentioned that the "Prelude" chapter of Mother of Souls reminded her a bit of the opening of Smetana's "Vltava", which has a similar theme of the sources of a river high in the mountains. There was another example I wanted to include here but although I can hum the piece from memory, I can't for the life of me recall the composer or name! Driving me crazy. Starts really slow, Subtle modulations in the bass. Builds so graduallly you barely notice until it's a pounding crescendo. Argh. If I ID it, I'll link. [ETA: see below]
Anyway. Sometimes you don't start out with cymbals and kettledrums. Sometimes it's cellos and a lonely oboe. You tease a little. Hint. Foreshadow. The kettledrums come out sometime in the second movement just briefly, then go back to counting measures of rest for a while. There's no one true shape for the music. Who wants every symphony to sound the same? Mother of Souls is not Beethoven's Fifth. I thought and thought and it just wouldn't work. But sit back and listen and I promise you, there will by cymbals.
ETA: Found it! I was thinking of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony.
In chapter 15, Sara (and the reader) enters an emotional roller-coaster of an evening. Fresh from the episode of the fourpence, the hot buns, and the beggar girl, she arrives back at the school only to become the target of secondhand rage. The cook has been berated by Miss Minchin--as we later learn, deservedly so for feeding Miss Minchin’s special dinner to her gentleman friend and then blaming the disappearance on Becky. Shit, as they say, rolls downhill.
We regularly see the question of whether one returns evil for evil or good for evil. When Cook gets crap, she’s the sort to turn around and dump it on someone else: Becky, Sara, anyone who can’t fight back. But that doesn’t mean that every time Sara returns good (or at least good behavior) for evil, that it’s out of pure virtue. Sara can be somewhat agressive in her obedience and passivity. Her internal monologue about how she only puts up with crap "because she’s a princess and that’s what princesses do and wouldn't they all be terrified if they realized she was really a princess and could have them all beheaded" can’t exactly be characterized as meek obedience.
But tonight we see a different view. Having been scolded and refused dinner out of pique, her impulse on finding that Ermengarde has visited her in the attic is to do her utmost to protect her friend from any knowledge of the bad parts of her life. And that, in the face of Ermengarde’s offhand disinterest in things Sara is starving for--both the intellectual nourishment of the gift of books that Ermengarde considers a burden, and the physical nourishment of the “care package” of food that Ermengarde had completely forgotten about.
It isn’t until the two girls eavesdrop on Becky being scolded and slapped up the stairs (due to Cook’s accusation), and Sara explodes in indignation about how hungry Becky always is and yet she’d never steal food, that it finally occurs to Ermengarde that Sara’s thinness is due to actual starvation. Unlike Sara, whose first tangible gifts to Becky are food, Ermengarde hasn’t the imagination to realize Sara might be actually hungry--nor even the reflexive impulse to share her box of food with her best friend, hungry or no.
But Sara, on being offered a share, immediately reqeusts that the invitation be extended to include Becky and then gives back in equal measure by turning what could have been a furtive snack into a dramatic historical pageant. Both imagination and a few props made from rubbish turn the attic into a castle banquet hall. [*] It occurs to me that one of the reasons for framing the feast as "banquet for a visiting princess" is to remove it from the realm of pure charity. Pretending a castle banquet hall moves the act of nourishment into the realm of make-believe. It allows Sara to give back in equal measure for what she receives. That act simultaneously allows Sara to reject the role of starving beggar (a role we've seen her reject previously in turning the Carmichael boy's sixpence into an amulet rather than spending it on food) and to remove some of Ermengarde's awkwardness in her belated understanding of Sara's situation.
The roller-coaster, having dipped low, now rides high. But the deepest plunge is just about to come...
[*] Periodically, I take note of what might seem trivial implausibilities, such as the question of exactly where Captain Crewe’s fortune came from. One such implausibility is the brief fire that Sara lights in the attic grate to provide the illusion of heat and light. If--as we are told--there has been no fire in that grate for a very long time, the likelihood is low that lighting some trash in it would result in a cheery blaze rather than billowing smoke. Even assuming that the text simply omits the step where Sara opens the damper on the flue (because if there isn’t one, then the attic would be utterly freezing in cold weather), unused chimneys of that era were notorious for collecting birds’ nests and other blockages. You just don’t light a big heap of paper and rubbish in a long disused fireplace and expect success.
I’m solidly in the middle of editorial revisions for Mother of Souls. There was a request to up the stakes a bit, so I’m layering in an additional set of magical perils across the board. It’s a bit harder to see if I can find a way to hit the reader with angst and peril at the very start of the novel as requested--it doesn’t really fit the shape I enisioned, which was more of a gradually growing realization that something has gone very wrong with the Alpennian Mysteries. In the end I’ll be true to the story, but I’d like to make my editor happy as well, if I can.
For much of the book, Luzie’s chapters are more contemplative, more about everyday relationships than about The Fate of Alpennia. I set myself several challenges with Luzie but perhaps the most difficult was depicting a woman who had experienced a happy, though tragically brief, heterosexual marriage but now finds herself unexpectedly receptive to a woman’s overtures. This plot thread--just like the peril--builds up slowly over the course of the story. At its heart is a deep loneliness of both body and spirit that we see a glimpse of in this chapter.
(You may notice that last week’s chapter and this week’s are both numbered nine. One of the editorial requests was to not number the “prelude” and “coda” framing chapters, so this is the revised numbering system.)
Chapter 9 - Luzie
Luzie hadn’t expected to return to solitude, but Issibet was still at the opera house sewing room, with the opening coming so soon. Elinur had taken to her bed with a wet cough—she would need to make sure that Silli made up some broth for her. The cough often ran through the city at mid-winter but rarely this badly. The apothecary’s physic was having some effect but perhaps she should send Charluz for a thaumaturgist. No, Charluz was out for the whole day. And there was never any telling when Serafina would come or go. A cough could turn bad so easily. It could… A dull ache began to grow beneath her heart.
The house was still except for the faint pattering of the rain on the windows again and the distant footfalls and clinks of Mefro Alteburk and the maids at their work. Luzie brushed her fingers across the keys of the fortepiano, but she’d lost all chance of denying the date. The tenth of January. Ten years to the day since Henirik’s death on yet another cold, dreary winter day.
Luzie crossed to the secretary desk and fumbled in the back of a drawer until her fingers closed on a small round object. She took it out and sat in a corner of the sofa by the front window, opening the chased cover of the pocket watch and gently touching the dark curl of hair tucked into the case. The timepiece itself had stopped ten years past and she had never re-wound it. Some day she would pass it on to Iohen.
She shut the cover again and closed her fingers around it. No portrait to gaze on. They’d always meant to have their likenesses taken, but time had slipped away. She could still see his hands—the way they drew the watch from his waistcoat pocket and clicked it open, all in a single movement—but his face had faded.
A tear slid down her cheek, then another. She no longer mourned the loss of the man she’d thought to share her life with. Now she mourned the loss of the memory of him. Life had always been as it was now. Alone. Even her sons had been given up to the dreams Henirik had traced for them. Every summer they were more and more strangers. It had seemed so important to hold on to Henirik’s home here—equally important to send the boys to the school he’d chosen. Perhaps it would have been better to remove to Iuten with her parents where she could be near them all. It would have meant giving up teaching music, but she wouldn’t have needed the income.
Luzie wasn’t sure how many hours had passed in reverie when she heard the front door open. Gerta had come in to poke up the fire but had carefully left without speaking. Luzie recognized the soft tap of Serafina’s boots, met by the quicker staccato of Gerta’s steps as she hurried to take her wet coat and parasol. A few indistinct words passed in the entry hall, then Serafina’s face appeared in the doorway. Luzie expected her to withdraw silently. She was grateful when Serafina instead crossed the parlor to sit beside her and take her hand without a word.
Having come to the end of a couple months worth of entries that I lined up in anticipation of the August crunch, I wandered into my library and sorted through my more recent acquisitions for something that wouldn't cut too deeply into my novel revision time in the next couple weeks. I confess I picked this volume up in part because one of the papers to be covered is a recapitulation of Sahar Amer's comparison of Arabic and French same-sex marriage motifs in medieval literature. I figured that would be a "quick win" in terms of coverage. But first we have a much more theoretical discussion of the context, history, and complexities of studying the collection's topic in the first place.
Traub, Valerie. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0
This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.
Traub, Valerie. 2008. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies”
Traub provides the theoretical groundwork for this collection, reviewing this historic problem of Orientalism and discussing some of the cultural and theoretical baggage brought to the topic by Western scholars. She also identifies the difficulties of studying same-sex practices from an internal point of view within Islamicate cultures, given the (inaccurate) modern perception that same-sex practices represent an intrusion of Western culture.
The collection is positioned as an attempt to create a new field of Islamicate sexuality studies, developed out of dialogues and collaborations that arise from studying social and historic particularities..
The political climate of this field is acknowledged in a discussion of how Western assumptions about the universality of sexual identities and categories, and therefore Western positions regarding the rights that should accrue to those categories, can become a colonialist position that demands alignment with a specifically Western framing of sexual identities. Though at the same time Traub critiques particular expressions of this position as misrepresenting some of the dynamics they critique. In particular, she notes that much recent Western sexuality scholarship emphasizes the cultural construction of identities and the polymorphous nature of desire--elements that align with the anti-colonial study of Islamicate sexuality.
Nonetheless, there is a stongly valid critique that Western sexuality studies assume a teleological and evolutionary progress that culminates in the “enlightened” modern concept of sexual identity (and that distinguishes concepts of sexual desire and gender identity). This assumption necessarily positions non-Western conceptions of sexuality as pre-modern and unenlighted.
Traub discusses in detail previous studies and collections on the topic, as well as the parallel concerns of historiographic colonialism in other fields and around other topics. There is a discussion and review of the texts that fall within the scope of this volume’s research. And as is usual in this sort of introductory chapter, Traub provides a brief summary and context for the papers to come. The discussions are fascinating but hard to summarize here.
The Emperor's Agent was part of the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle book promotion I recently participated in. It is both an alternate history Napoleonic spy adventure and part of a larger millennium-spanning series about a group of Companions who are reborn together again and again to re-live their fellowship at key points in history. At least, that's the understanding I was able to pick up from this book and a blurb-level familiarity with the rest of the series.
Elza, the protagonist, is a courtesan, working her way through several personal alliances among the movers and shakers of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and cast into considerable personal peril by the shifting politics of the time. Employed as an agent by one party, she betrays her employer at great risk for the sake of personal loyalty to the Empress Josephine and so comes to the attention of Napoleon who takes her on as his own agent. Among preparations for an invasion of England, she hunts for a spy who is leaking secrets to the English as well as getting drawn into an entirely different international struggle involving ceremonial magic.
The writing is enjoyable and smooth, and--to someone like me who is generally familiar with the era but not with the details--has a solid air of historicity. Despite the fantastic elements, this story will appeal most to those who love the minutiae of armies and battles and the comradeship of soldiers. The central plot seems to me to be the military drama and the question of whether the spy will be uncovered in time--as well as whether the identity of that spy will be unwelcome evidence of personal betrayal. If you thrill to the thought of a chapter describing Napoleon's elite staff playing table-top battle simulations complete with mini-figs and dice rolling, this is your book. Around that, we get the domestic drama of Elza's past affairs (both in this life and previous lives) with some of her military comrades, spiced up with several explicit erotic enounters.
This last element positions the book for a fairly specific target audience. To me, the erotic scenes felt forced and intrusive, but I'm not really in that specific target audience. Another way in which the story missed for me (and this is very much a matter of individual personal taste) was that, despite the focus on a female protagonist, it was very much a male-centered story. I'm not even sure it managed to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: the only two scenes in which Elza is interacting with other significant female characters are entirely about romatic connections to male characters and the complications thereof. For the most part, other female characters are positioned as rivals or obstacles, not as friends or allies. Overwhelmingly, the social dynamics of the book are about Elza's comradeship with the male characters, whether as a lover, or as a comrade-in-arms, or taking up a male disguise to be a man among men. (This is echoed in some of the hints of past lives when she had been born into a male body.) Having the authorial word that Elza is bisexual, I'd gone into the story expecting a bit more female presence. (I don't mean by this to erase her bisexuality. Only to note that one passing, vaguely-salacious comment to a woman didn't fulfill my own emotional needs as a reader.) Though I suppose, when you think of it, that there's a certain bisexual element in that Elza has erotic encounters with men both as a woman and when in disguise as a man.
I don't mean to dwell too heavily on the sexual content of the book, but as a reader's advisory if falls in the category of, "If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of think you may like."
Under what circumstances am I a man writing gay sci-fi?
If the above question seems nonsensical to you, consider the possibility that it is because you are the default member of most categories you are included in. I put out a brainstorming call for today’s Random Thursday blog and got a request to talk about “the generic ‘man’” in the context of writing about female characters in a patriarchal society. As usual with random prompts, I reserve the right to go off in entirely different directions with a topic than intended. So I’m going to talk about the extra emotional tax of being a non-default case.
To begin with, let’s note the categories in which I am the unmarked default. For example, I’m white. And although I’m an atheist raised in a non-conformist religious tradition (Quakers), my cultural heritage can reasonable be described as generic Protestant. So if I’m buying something labeled “flesh-tone” I can expect that the color will match the tone of my flesh. And if a workplace schedules days off to coincide with religious holidays, I can expect that they will correspond with the days I grew up celebrating as holidays. So this essay isn’t about “poor, poor, pitiful me”, it’s about using the experiences I can best speak to in making my point, rather than appropriating someone else’s experiences to do so.
Talking about the “generic man” or “generic he” is a useful starting point, because it’s a discussion many people have had at some point. You know, the one about how “man” just means “person of any gender” and should be understood as such, not made a fuss over for being off-putting and exclusionary. Because a job listing that says, “we’re looking for a man who can do X” couldn’t possibly be intended to convey “and we aren’t allowed say so but we really don’t intend to hire a woman for this job”. Except of course when it does mean that. But in some ways, the ubiquity of the “generic man” makes it less useful as an example. So let’s talk about writing gay sci-fi.
Because I don’t. Except, of course, when I do.
Navigating the online categorization and labeling of orientation-related fiction means constantly having to investigate and evaluate and ask whether “gay” means “male homosexual”[*] or whether it means “homosexual of any gender” or whether it means “anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum” or whether it means “we want the progressive cachet of claiming we’re inclusive of the whole LGBTQ spectrum but when it comes down to it male homosexuals are the only group we care about.”
[* I realize the “h word” can sound dreadfully antiquated these days, but sometimes it carries the gender neutrality one needs for the purpose.]
A good example is the small Seattle book conference “Gay Romance North-West”. When I first heard of it, my reaction was, “Well, it’s almost certainly limited to m/m books, given the name.” But because I can’t afford to ignore possible opportunities, I paid the extra emotional tax of investigating the group in detail to see if my impression was correct. I say “extra tax” because I neither had the ability assume that my work would be included nor could I rely on the efficiency of being certain that it wouldn’t. As it happened, I was both right and wrong. The name had been established when the group was m/m centered, but the conference was non-specific. So last year I attended. But in addition to the “extra tax” of determining the exact definition intended, I pay the extra tax of attending an event whose name will more easily draw attendees who assume the default topic of m/m rather than expecting (or even seeking out) books with other orientations.
More often, I pay the non-default-tax in lost opportunity. If a review site, or a publicity opportunity, or a conference, or what have you identifies itself as “gay”, I just cross if off with the expectation that 80% of the time it specifically does intend to exclude me, maybe 15% of the time my presence would be tolerated but in no way supported, and the remaining 5% of the time may participation may be actively desired be I’m going to end up being marginalized anyway for the above reasons.
So what about sci-fi?
If you want to hear religious debates, ask a wide cross-section of people whether the category “sci-fi” includes fantasy. I use “sci-fi” rather than “science fiction” advisedly, although many of the same debates can be had for the longer form. In much the same way as “man” or “gay”, the category sci-fi can always be assumed to incorporate “science fiction”, but one pays an extra effort-tax to determine whether any specific usage welcomes fantasy.
The facebook/online group Queer Sci-Fi explicitly welcomes writers and readers of fantasy. The relatively new subgenre category of “sci fi romance” has solidly established an expectation that fantasy is excluded. The acceptance of fantasy as an integral part of the World Science Fiction Convention is taken for granted today, but if you go far enough back (or scratch deep enough beneath some surfaces) that acceptance becomes more tenuous. If I am in a literary venue that identifies itself using the label “sci fi” or “science fiction”, I pay the extra tax of having to determine whether fantasy is considered off-topic.
So there you have it. Picked apart into its components, and encountered in the right context, I might be perfectly acceptable to someone looking for “a man who writes gay sci-fi”. But it sure as hell isn’t the way to bet. And if that’s what you’re advertising for, don’t be surprised if people like me don’t even bother to ask.
While A Little Princess uses a very omniscient voice, it's also the case that the majority of the novel works through Sara's point of view and her experiences. So it's a bit of a break with the flow for Chapter 14 (What Melchisedec Heard and Saw) to stand entirely apart from her. It occurs to me, though, that in a way, Melchisedec the rat is standing in for Sara's connection to the events.
For the most part, we can view the anthropomorphism of Melchisedec as part of Sara's fanciful invention. (We can also allow of a bit of authorial ignorance regarding the social biology of rats, in positing Melchisedec as the head of a cozy nuclear family, with Mrs. Melchisedec waiting at home with the children.) The title of the chapter is not the only prompt we are given that the rat is to be interpreted as our window into these events. We view the intrusion of Ram Dass and of Mr. Carrisford's secretary into Sara's attic through the rat's eyes and reactions, even as the authorial voice assures us that, "Melchisedec did not know [who they were]." And it is implied that we are made privy to their discussions there through Melchisedec's perceptions, despite acknowledgement of the rat's deficiencies as a witness. "How much he understood of the talk he heard I am not in the least able to say; but, even if he had understood it all, he would probably have remained greatly mystified."
This leaves us with a somewhat curious mystery as to why Melchisedec has been set up as our witness at all. (And that's aside from the question of whether a proper English rat would have been expected to understand a word of Hindi which--as discussed in the consideration of Ram Dass's linguistic competencies--must be assumed to be the language in which he and the secretary are conversing.)
Digression: I'm always fascinated by such narrative structures for explaining or excusing how the content of a story is transmitted to the reader. During the Worldcon panel on Shelly and Austen, I came up with a shorthand for this fascination: the fiction of a story as truth versus the truth of a story as fiction. That is, has the author created structures to create the illusion that the events of the story actually happened in real life and in real space (somewhere) and that the knowledge of those events has been conveyed via a documented "chain of evidence" such as first-hand accounts, letters, diaries, etc.? Or is the structure of the story such that the author and reader begin with an understanding that the events are entirely fictional invention, and that therefore there is no need to explain how the author became familiar with them? For example the "fiction of truth" approach, when applied to secondary worlds, requires a traveler's tale such as we see in the opening of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. The topic came up in the panel discussion in the context of the framing narrative for Frankenstein. In contrast, the "truth of fiction" approach is the default today, where no explanation or excuse is considered necessary for relating stories with no chain of transmission from the characters to the reader.
In this context, the use of Melchisedec as part of the "chain of narrative transmission" is both nonsensical and unnecessary, given that other scenes external to Sara's direct experience have been related directly and given that there is no fiction that the rat in any way conveys the knowledge of these events to another party. And yet there's clearly a sense that he is standing in for the reader's access to the events of this chapter in some fashion. But I digress...
The purpose of this chapter is for Ram Dass and the secretary to discuss the state of Sara's attic, the plans and mechanisms for how to transform it into her imagined vision of the cozy and comfortable space it could become, and a discussion of the practical logistics of how this will be accomplished in secret while she is sleeping. One thing I like about this chapter is that it shows how Ram Dass has become personally emotionally attached to Sara and how the transformation began as his idea, suggested and elaborated by him to Mr. Carrisford. I like this not only because it gives Ram Dass significant agency in the outcome of the story, but because it suggests a personal motivation beyond the superficial suggestion of a reflexive desire to serve the little girl who "has the bearing of a child who is of the blood of kings". On the occasion when Sara first meets Ram Dass, she considers that he--like she herself--might be feeling lonely and homesick in this land far from their common origins. And this chapter provides confirmation that this evaluation was correct ("I am fond of this child; we are both lonely.") and that Ram Dass's affection is based in part on this sense of connection.
From a more practical point of view, our eavesdropping on Ram Dass and the secretary turns what would otherwise have been a mystery (and still is, to Sara) to a conspiracy between the reader and Sara's benefactors. It also softens the reader's empathetic misery in the following chapter when Sara experiences a roller-coaster of emotions, because we know about The Magic that's about to appear in her life.
Although my viewpoint characters are all non-normative in their sexuality in some fashion, Barbara is the only one who habitually pushes at the edges of gender performance boundaries in her appearance. It began when she served as the late baron's armin, and wore masculine clothing for practical reasons. Given that her inheritance of the title might also be seen as a minor transgression--Alpennian inheritance law allows for women to inherit, but social practice strongly prefers male heirs--she also chooses to use gender-crossing garment styles as a marker of status and authority. She tends to be hyper-aware of the usefulness of using gender performance as part of her public persona, especially when interacting with the primarily-male movers and shakers of Alpennian politics. (Some day maybe someone will do cosplay of her military-style gown for the New Year's Court! I'd love to see how people interpret that description.) When she decides to to track down and interrogate the Austrian spy Kreiser, she chooses to do so in public, at his club, and so girds herself in a gender-blending outfit appropriate to the task. But Barbara isn't the only person who has been analyzing the way she uses gender as a tool...
* * *
Mother of Souls - Chapter 9
Tavit was far more perceptive than Brandel in the nuances of her dress. His surprise was not for the purpose of her excursion but its venue. “I thought women weren’t allowed in clubs.”
“It depends,” Barbara said. “In most, it isn’t actually forbidden, it simply isn’t done. Back before the succession debates, the dowager princess was quite familiar in the Zurik and Jourdain’s.” It was a thin precedent, but not the only one she was relying on. “I hope not to provoke a fuss, so I will be enough of a man for their comfort and enough of a woman for my respectability.”
Tavit looked puzzled but asked, “Have you any special instructions?”
Barbara picked up her gloves and hat and turned to him. “If anyone should object to my presence, don’t take it as insult or threat. I have no right to entrance. And though a man without membership might visit a friend with no comment, it will spoil my purpose if too much notice is taken. This one time, resistance shall be met with retreat. I’ll let you know if you need do anything beyond standing and waiting.”
He nodded in acknowledgment, and then after some hesitation, “Mesnera, may I ask you something?”
The edge of tension in Tavit’s voice caught Barbara’s attention. Under the strict rules of her own service, she had always asked permission to speak, but she’d never demanded that of those who served her. “Yes?” she said.
The question came haltingly. “Mesnera, have you ever thought…have you ever wished you had been born a man?”
Barbara turned the idea over in her mind. She was accustomed to the awkwardness that came with playing a man’s role as often as she did. So many things would have been easier, so many paths smoother, and yet…
She cast her mind back even further. If her father’s bastard had been a son, would he have thought it worth the cost to acknowledge him and regularize his position? How would all their lives have changed if she had been raised as heir-default to Saveze? And yet…then there would have been no reason for the old baron to bring Margerit into his plans. They never would have met. Even as an unacknowledged son, their lives might have run more like that wretched novel that had stirred so much gossip. The lost heir of Lautencourt, indeed! What if her rise in society had given her the chance to offer Margerit, not this private promise and the risk of scandal, but marriage and the rank of baroness? And yet…
They had met and loved as women. That much was certain. Who could say what else would have changed, what would have remained?
“Forgive me, Mesnera. I should not have asked,” Tavit said quietly.
Barbara shook her head. “I think…I am more than content—no, I am joyful—to be in the place I find myself. And I don’t think I could have come to this place by any road but the one I’ve traveled. If there are limits to what this body can do—” She gestured to take it in. “—they are limits made by others, not my limits. No, I wouldn’t choose to be other than what I am.”
Tavit seemed disquieted by her answer, but how could he understand? It would be a strange man indeed who could accept that one might prefer to be female despite those limitations.
When I first started working seriously on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I was delighted at how the number of relevant publications and the scope of the material kept expanding with every book or article I read. But lately I've been noticing how often I'm covering publications that largely cover themes and motifs that I've already dealt with. Sometimes they have an interesting new take on the material, but sometimes it's simply repackaged from a slightly different angle. This isn't a problem, as such. But it means that I'm sometimes tempted to summarize the work simply with a list of the topics. And in a case like the present book, the scope is so broad and the coverage so glancing that I've foregone providing a complete topical index. That doesn't mean it isn't a valuable book--far from it--especially as an entry point to the topic. But broad general works of this type can miss some of the nuances that the more in-depth articles explore.
On another topic, this seems a good time to repeat that the first monthly episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has gone live. The series is going to give me a chance to talk about some of my favorite historic people and stories in a more informal context, and the include greater amounts of some of the historic texts. The episodes are scheduled to post on the last Saturday of each month.
Jennings, Rebecca. 2007. A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500. Greenwood World Publishing, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-84645-007-5
This may be the first time I find myself at a loss for summarizing a book because it’s too jam-packed with relevant information. Jennings has set out to discuss pretty much every scrap of historic data addressing lesbians and lesbian-like relationships in Great Britain during the defined time period of 1500 to the present. Reading through it, I haven’t spotted any material that hasn’t been mentioned in other publications already covered by the project. But conversely, the concentration of this material in a single volume (complete with footnotes and extensive bibliography) makes the book an incredibly useful one-stop-shop of information.
The book does have the flaw of focusing solely on Great Britain and rarely touching on how the situation there differed from elsewhere in Europe. And I’ve spotted a few typical errors in sweeping statements, such as the claim that the word “lesbian” was not used in the sense of “a woman who desires women sexually” until the mid 20th century. But these are the sorts of flaws that are to be expected in a work with such scope.
The book is organized thematically in a manner that also reflects trends over time. Chapter 1 covers evidence for sexual desire between women in the 16 -18th centuries. Chapter 2 looks at the phenomenon of cross-dressing, “passing women”, and “female husbands”--topics that were most characteristic of the 17-18th centuries. Chapter 3 covers the theme of romantic friendship as understood in the 18-19th centuries. Chapter 4 looks at the rise of the “new woman” in the later 19th century, and the ways in which women’s demands for independence and equality conflicted with feminine archetypes of the Victorian era. Chapter 5 examines the emergence of “sexology” as a psychological study, and its effects on the understanding of same-sex desire. And chapters 6-10 cover 20th century topics outside the scope of the current Project.
I can strongly recommend this volume for anyone interested specifically of the history of lesbianism in Great Britain.
Due to the nature of the contents, I won’t be providing keyword links, as the lists would be unmanageably long.
Let’s start this series with some ordinary women. Nobody special: they weren’t scandalous aristocrats or dashing adventurers or women who set out to transgress the rules of society. All they did was love each other. Perhaps not wisely, perhaps not always well.
In southern Germany, almost on the border with Switzerland, there is a town called Mösskirch. It has relatively few claims to fame: a composer, a philosopher, a painter whose name hasn’t actually survived, a few talented brewers. In the 16th century, it was the residence of the Counts of Zimmern. But we aren’t concerned with any of them. We’re interested in a different 16th century resident, a servant-girl named Greta, who came to the attention of history in 1514 because she kept falling in love with girls.
Much of the solid historic evidence we have from medieval Europe about women who loved women is rather depressing, because the authorities only tended to pay attention to them when they’d stepped so far outside acceptable behavior that drastic penalties were invoked. And, well, we’ll talk about them some other time. But Greta’s story--as much as we know of it--is happier.
It is recorded that she loved young women and pursued them romantically as if she were behaving like a man. There’s no mention that Greta was masculine in any other way than falling in love with women--no indication that she dressed as a man, or tried to take on a masculine occupation, or that she made love to them using, as they called it, an “artificial device”. Those were the sorts of things that could draw harsh consequences. In fact, the only concern her neighbors seem to have had was to make sure that she actually was a woman.
The concern wasn’t that she might have been a man disguising himself as a woman--that would have been a roundabout way to court girls at the time! No, the problem was that her neighbors thought she might have been a hermaphrodite--something halfway between man and woman--and that this might be the reason why she felt erotic desires for women.
The idea of hermaphrodites as understood in that era is one of those odd social inventions. It probably derived in part from trying to understand intersex persons, who might have anatomy that seemed to be part male and part female. But it also derived from an inability to imagine anything other than heterosexual desire. So, as the thinking went, if a person who appeared female fell in love with or desired a woman, then that person must actually be a man in some fashion.
The idea of hermaphrodites also overlaps with transgender history. Some historic individuals used the social belief in hermaphrodites as a legal tool to gain recognition as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Some even succeeded. We’ll talk about that in another episode.
But all that is a side-note to Greta’s story. The midwives of Mösskirch, who were given the responsibility of examining Greta medically, proclaimed that she was “a true proper woman”. And as far as we know, that was an end of it. There is no mention of any legal charge against her. No mention of any consequences or punishment. And so we are free to imagine Greta von Mösskirch flirting with other girls at the market fair, perhaps saving her money to buy a hair ribbon as a gift in hopes of being thanked with a kiss, and living her life fairly happily.
Now, the second example I want to tell you about has a bit of a less happy end, though it’s likely that the women in question only came to the attention of the authorities because they got involved in a domestic dispute.
Our story happens at the very beginning of the 15th century in France. To set the stage, this is about a decade before the birth of Joan of Arc. In fact we’re concerned with a different French peasant woman named Jehanne. This Jehanne was married, as one was at the time, but it seems that at some point she had discovered the entirely different joys of making love to women. She was friends with another married woman named Laurence. One day they were walking out to the fields together when Jehanne ventured a proposition. She whispered in Laurence’s ear, “If you will be my sweetheart, I will do you much good.”
Laurence may have been a bit naive, or perhaps she’d never had the occasion to consider the question of whether enjoying a roll in the hay with a woman would be a sin--a literal roll in the hay, as the testimony indicates. She told people later that she didn’t think that there was anything evil in it, and presumably Jehanne’s offer sounded like a bit of fun. They made their way to a convenient haystack and Jehanne lay on top of her and made love to her, rubbing against her “as a man does to a woman”. The end results were satisfying enough for the both of them that the two continued to meet for erotic encounters: sometimes at Laurence’s house, sometimes in the vineyards outside the village, or sometimes even near the village fountain.
But eventually things turned sour. We don’t know whether Laurence started to get nervous about what they were doing, or if one of their husbands started asking questions, or perhaps it was just one of those things.
So one night, when Jehanne came to Laurence’s house, Laurence told her she didn’t desire her any more. Jehanne, let us say, took the breakup rather badly. She attacked Laurence with a knife and then ran away.
Although the records don’t say so in as many words, it’s likely that this attack and the consequences of it are the only reason their relationship came to the attention of the authorities. In fact, the record skips entirely over any original accusation or trial and brings us in to the story when Laurence is appealing for a pardon on the basis that the relationship was all Jehanne’s fault.
People are people, no matter what the century. And if society and the law imagines that forbidden sexual relationships to involve an aggressor and a naive victim, then there will always be a temptation to throw one’s partner under the bus when push comes to shove. Laurence’s appeal was successful and she was pardoned. This is no small matter, given that the original sentence might well have been execution. It happened that way to other women. There is no word in the record about Jehanne’s fate. It would be nice to fantasize that she ran away entirely, changed her name, got ahold of her anger management issues, and found happiness in some other woman’s arms eventually. It probably isn’t the way to bet, but we’re free to dream.
* * * End of transcript * * *