Every once in a while, a reader provides an opinion on the Alpenia books that makes me wish my publisher used pull-quotes. A reader posted this on Twitter this morning about The Mystic Marriage: "She has all the girls being competent and intelligent and rounded people. *hugs book* It's Ghostbusters for the Regency set." That goes in my file of "Things to re-read when I worry about whether my books are finding their audience."
One of the things I love doing as I write is to plant random details that may become relevant some day. Quite frankly, I don't always know whether they'll be relevant. And I don't want the reader to be able to tell which ones are foreshadowing and which ones are just part of the background tapestry. Some of them are character details that suggest bits of backstory. In Daughter of Mystery there was a throw-away comment from Aunt Bertrut that, yes, there had been something in her past that she had wanted badly enough to tell the world to go to hell over it, just like the things Margerit wanted. I still don't know exactly what it was, but perhaps some day she'll tell me.
More often it might be a bit of history. A reference to some past event. A description of a building. An object, described and then forgotten. There was one of those mentioned in The Mystic Marriage that comes back to bite Margerit in Mother of Souls, but to say more would be a spoiler. Here's another one, from Chapter 5 of Mother of Souls, providing a suggestion that the social "mystery guilds" prevalent in 19th century Alpennia may have had a much more practical function in the past, when craft guilds were an important part of manufacture and trade. This is a key plot element in a planned independent prequel book about the 15th century philosopher Tanfrit (the subject of the opera in Mother of Souls). The specific object mentioned here is going to be a point of minor interest in a later book, but I'll leave that just as a hint.
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[Margerit and Serafina are preparing for a detailed observation of the Tutela Mystery of Saint Mauriz in Rotenek Cathedral.]
A wistful look came over Serafina, but then something caught her eye and she pointed off toward the base of the donor’s windows where the seats had been placed for the royal family. “What’s happening there?”
Margerit stared where she was pointing. The effects were pale and masked by the light coming through the colored glass. She had never noticed anything odd about the design before, but now that her attention was drawn to it, she could see a thin rain of light drifting down from the fragments of the original window where the saint’s halo encircled the darker glass of his face . The newer portions of the glass only let through mortal light.
“I never noticed that before,” she whispered back. “There’s a legend that one of the glassmakers for the cathedral had set mysteries in the panes, but I never thought what that might mean.” Now that she was looking for it, she could see the fluctus drifting down to the dais where Princess Annek and her family would sit and pooling as it faded there. Some ancient blessing? Or a protection perhaps? Or was it chance that it fell in that spot? Had all the windows trapped fluctus like that at one time? Most were from the renovations in Prince Filip’s day.
“There’s an entire section in the Vatican library on mysteries of the craft guilds,” Serafina whispered. “I never had permission to explore it. A few people still study them, but they say most of the secrets have been lost or were never written down in the first place. If words and prayers can weave a mystery, and art is a prayer of the hands, then why shouldn’t any creation be capable of carrying the living word? I’ve always thought Mesnera Chazillen’s alchemy to have more of mystery than science to it.”
Margerit shook her head. “No, I doubt it. I know that many alchemists combine their work with meditation, but the heart of the practice is different. It must be, for so much of alchemy was learned from unbelievers. A true mystery can only come from God through the saints.”
Serafina gave her an odd sidelong glance. “If you believe that, then there must be many strange and wonderful things in the world that are not true mysteries.”
There's an exciting new development coming for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Yesterday, I delivered the first four episodes for a spin-off podcast based on the Project. At least at first, I plan for a once-a-month schedule until I get a sense of how it fits into my workload and how much suitable material I have. It will be part of an existing "magazine style" podcast, which means I don't have to do my own administration or drum up my own audience. I'm being vague here because I don't want to jump the gun ahead of the podcast owner.
While the blog is organized around reviewing and summarizing specific publications, the podcast will take a more relaxed "human interest" angle. I'll be using it to "tell stories" about the historic and literary figures I've been researching, as well as being a context for presenting some of the original texts: poetry, fiction, plays, legal and historical extracts. I may even manage to do some interviews eventually. So stay tuned for more information!
Crompton, Louis. 1985. “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)
A collection mostly of case-studies of specific historic incidents or topics relevant to the changing understandings of homosexuality. Most of the papers address male topics. Only the three relevant to female topics are covered in this project.
Crompton, Louis. 1985. “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791”
I had to go back and check several times to make sure I hadn’t blogged this article yet. It gets cited by so many works I’ve studied that it feels like an old friend. This is a foundational article on which many later writers have built, expanding the understanding of why "impunity" is technically a myth to the reasons and circumstances in which the laws might or might not be applied, thus creating the “myth” of the article’s title. That is not to say that this is a happy subject, as the evidence brought to bear concerns women being put on trial and sometimes executed for the crime of engaging in sex together.
Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.
Legal prohibitions against female homosexuality in western culture do not date as far back as those against men. Talmud treats the activity as mere “obscenity”. The only passage in the New Testament that has been interpreted as addressing lesbian acts is Paul’s condemnation of women who “change the natural use into that which is against nature,” which later was interpreted as referring to sex between women.
The earliest law that Crompton found unambiguously prohibiting sex between women in a French code of 1270, which, even so, does it in the context of an illogical parallelism with male sodomy. One passage states that a man proved to be a sodomite shall lose his testicles at the first offence, and his “member” (i.e., penis) at the second, with the third offense calling for burning. The following passage notes that “A woman who does this shall lose her member each time.” Crompton suggests this may refer to clitoridectomy (twice?) but it may simply be a nonsensical structural parallel. In literature, burning is the prescribed penalty for “buggery” between women in the early 14th c. French Romance Yde and Olive.
This somewhat extreme shift from indifference to execution seems to have been driven by an elevation of “natural law” by which non-procreative sex acts were considered inherently sinful, rather than (as in Jewish law) being taboo due to associations with pagan practices. And early commentaries on Paul uniformly interpreted his words as applying to lesbian acts
Penitential manuals begin addressing the topic of lesbian sex as early as 670 A.D. (Theodore of Tarsus) and, once introduced, the topic continues to be condemned via works such as Gratian’s Decretum of 1140 which continued in use into the 20th century. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (1267-1273) unambiguously condemns “copulation with an undue sex, male with male or female with female,” and specifically associates this with the term “sodomy”.
Classical Roman law began to be revived in medieval Europe in the 11th century via Bologna, and promulgated in particular through the works of Cino da Pistoia and Bartholomaeus of Saliceto in the 14th century. Cino interpreted a law in the Code of Justinian as referring to lesbians, although the main purpose of the law was to exclude rape victims from the category of “unchaste women”. But in noting who counts as “unchaste”, the passage “women who surrender their honor to the lusts of others” is glossed wih the note that a woman may surrender to a man or to a woman. Expanding on this, the gloss notes, “For there are certain women, inclined to foul wickedness, who exercise their lust on other women and pursue them like men.” Bartholomaeus goes further and prescribes the death penalty in this case. The influence of Roman law was such that interpretations such as this might be held to apply even when local law codes carried no similar prohibition or penalty. Roman law was being freshly incorporated into national laws as late as the 16th century in Germany and the 17th century in Scotland.
The question remains whether these laws were carried out in actual practice. Crompton assembles evidence for significant numbers of judicial burnings and hangings of men for sodomy in the 13-18th centuries. Documented prosecutions of women are much rarer. He collates the following cases which are repeated in every subsequent article on this topic:
The law code of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1532) prescribes death by burning for “anyone [who] commits impurity...a woman with a woman.”
The statutes of the Italian town of Treviso expanded on the description of male and female sodomy by noting the common terms for those who commit it: “buzerones” (for men) and “fregatores” (for women).
The standard work on medieval Spanish law, written in 1265, was glossed in 1555 in a way that suggests there was some question whether sodomy statutes applied to women. One commenter argued that lesbian acts were less serious than male ones as women could not “pollute” each other, and therefore might be punished with something less than death. This was clarified by another commenter who fastened on the distinction of whether penetration was involved and prescribed burning if they use “any material instrument”, but a lesser penalty if no instrument is involved.
Russian law of the 17th century also prescribed burning for female sodomy.
The lack of laws against lesbian acts in England was not a general feature of Protestant countries. Calvinist regions of Germany and Switzerland called for severe punishments, and an execution is noted in Geneva (Switzerland) in 1568 of a woman who admitted to sex with women.
Drafters of the first law codes in the English colonies in the New World at first included the death penalty for sodomy whether male or female, but that draft was never implemented. The rare legal cases from New England in the 17th century include a charge against “the wife of Hugh Norman and Mary Hammon” for “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed” but they were sentenced only to a public confession.
In the 18th century, the focus on “instruments” in the commission of female sodomy gave way to the new fascination with the clitoris and the possibility that it might be large enough to enable penetration. In this context, anatomy itself was considered sufficient proof of guilt, whereas “normal” anatomy was considered incompatible with the commission of sodomy. French authorities of the 18th century continued to condemn female sodomy, but no trials for it have been found in that era.
(The StoryBundle is entering its final stretch--only a few more days to go! Today's post is for those of you who might be looking to spice up your steam-punk adventures with some bad-ass women. Based on some reader reactions, "spice up" may be an apt description. It sounds like Geonn Cannon's inspiration process for stories may be similar to my own: start with a vivid and gripping "snapshot" and then figure out who these people are and how they got into that situation. Geonn has two books in the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle. I'm immensely flattered--though rather dubious--that he describes me as a "giant" among such company!)
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A Few Words About Trafalgar & Boone - by Geonn Cannon
This is a story I've told before, but it's a good one. And this will hopefully help people who are coming to my blog because of the Storybundle. To which I say...
One morning, I woke up with a segment of a dream still rattling around in my head. All I had was a single "scene": Two women, one black and one white, covered in mud, blood, dirt, and grime. One was wearing a heavy leather duster. The other was a redhead. They were joined by a man who was looking much more composed than either of the ladies. The three of them stepped into an elevator. As the doors closed, the women looked at each other and started to laugh. The man rolled his eyes, exasperated. Beyond that, I only knew that their names were Trafalgar & Boone.
It was such a strong image that I went to Twitter and sort of off-handedly described it. Three different followers pushed me to do more with the idea, prompting me into making it a steampunk lesbian Indiana Jones analog. Who wouldn't want to write something like that?! I had other projects on the table at the time so I set it aside, but I kept coming back to it. Eventually I had to start writing, and the world of Trafalgar & Boone unfolded around me. It was a world just emerging from a Great War, which had been fought with magic. It was a London with airships ferrying passengers across the Thames. And it was a world on the brink of something horrible wrought by the overuse and unpracticed use of magic during the war. Strange and powerful things are afoot in the world, and only by two former enemies joining forces can anyone hope to survive.
Since being published, Trafalgar & Boone have been the recipient of several honors from Kirkus Reviews. It was given a rare starred review, named one of their best Indie books of the month, and one of the best indie books of 2015. The covers, by Rita Fei, are so spectacular that I don't know how I lucked into getting her to do them. I'm trying not to create plots simply to see what she can do for them.
Melissa Scott has been a champion for Trafalgar and Dorothy Boone from the moment they were conceived, and I'm honored she chose to include them in this Storybundle. They're taking a position among such giants as Jo Graham, Martha Wells, Heather Rose Jones, and Judith Tarr. For less than the price of any individual books, you get FIVE great novels. And if you decide to pay a little extra, you more than double your haul.
With your purchase, you're not just supporting creators, you can help charity at the same time. You can donate a portion of your payment to Mighty Writersand Girls Write Now. So go! Pretend you're being selfish in grabbing some great reads and help support young writers at the same time! The Storybundle is only going to be available for a limited time, so get yours now!
(I was delighted to find out that Jo Graham's The Emperor's Agent--one of the books in the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle--is part of a longer series. In this blog, Jo talks about the real-history inspiration for her protagonist. Yet another example of how many real women of history have exciting stories that we rarely get to hear.)
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Since The Emperor's Agent is featured in Storybundle this week, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the fascinating real woman that the book is based upon.
Elzelina Versfelt (Elza), also known as Ida St. Elme, was the perfect Napoleonic adventuress. Courtesan, actress, medium and spy, she also fought in men's clothes for fifteen years in the armies of Napoleon, alternating between male and female personas. She was the lover of one of the leading generals of the Republic, Jean-Victor Moreau, who later became her deadly enemy, or perhaps frenemy is the better word. She was also the long-time lover of one of Napoleon's marshals, Michel Ney, a red-headed country boy who was never entirely comfortable in the highest levels of society. She was also briefly involved with Napoleon himself, though that liaison paled compared to the relationship she shared with him as his secret agent. Devoted to his cause, she never renounced him, though in later life she became a champion of the forgotten women, the women of the baggage train who the dawning Victorian era tried to erase. Her eight books written after the wars are a window on this world. Mariska Pool, of the Royal Netherlands Arms and Army Museum, said, "These women barely escaped oblivion, yet they deserve far more prominence than all those well-known noble and elegant ladies who found a place in the history books purely by reason of their family connections.... Ida gave all the women a monument, the brave ones, the unfortunate ones, the ones with no choice, the ones who really loved, the opportunists, the mistresses, the wives, and all those who had their own private reasons to sign up."
The Emperor's Agent tells part of Elza's story -- the story of how she became Napoleon's agent and how she completed her first mission in his service, in the summer of 1805. I have taken some liberties with her story, but I think Elza would entirely approve.
If you'd like to read it, The Emperor's Agent is currently available in Storybundle, where it is part of a package with a number of other amazing books. You can get the bundle for as little as $5 for five books.
(Geonn Cannon has two books in the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle, which only runs for five more days. Here he talks about how his werewolves ended up fighting Nazis in WWII. Stag & Hound is part of a series, so if you enjoy this book, there are more to track down. When we get into the final days of the offer, I'll blog about all the other books our authors have written. Note: I've made a minor edit to Geonn's original text regarding the timing of the StoryBundle offer because he first posted this on his blog a week ago.)
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Say, Say My Playmate
For one more week, you can head over to Storybundle and get a great deal on five novels – including my novel, The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone, which Kirkus Reviews named one of their best indie books of 2015. If you pay a little bit more, you also get access to six other novels. The bonus bundle includes another novel I wrote called Stag & Hound. It’s a complete standalone, but I thought I would say a few words about the greater universe in which it takes place.
Stag & Hound takes place in a world in which werewolves exist. Their species is canidae, and transforming is an ability they’re born with. They can change whenever they wish, meaning there’s no reason to wait for a full moon if they want to bring out the wolf, but there is a reason for the myth: the wolf is a part of who they are, so going more than a month without changing is extremely difficult. If they go more than three or four weeks, the transformation can happen abruptly. Canidae exist in secret after being persecuted and hunted for thousands of years by a group of humans called Hunters. Being bitten does transfer the ability to change but, if it happens when the victim is an adult, their body won’t be able to handle the transformation. The first change is a death sentence if it doesn’t happen before puberty.
I first started writing about canidae for a Halloween story invitational at Academy of Bards (a great place to find lesbian-centric fiction that grew out of the Xena fandom). I was stumped for an idea and decided “werewolves” and “private investigator” was a fun idea. So I created Ariadne Willow, a modern-day PI working in Seattle with her then-assistant, Dale Frye. I ended up liking the character enough that I wrote three stories for them. There wasn’t much of a response, so I sort of put them aside for a while. I came back when I was inspired for a fourth story, and people blew up. Commenting on the new story, telling me they’d gone back to read the others, asking when there would be more… It didn’t take long to realize there was a lot of potential in these characters and their world, so I decided it was time to turn it into a novel.
The Underdogs series is now five books strong, with a sixth on the way. When I was planning the second installment (Beware of Wolf), I came up with the idea of a historical event that Ariadne knew as a fairy tale that involved a female soldier in the Napoleonic Wars falling in love with a canidae. I didn’t want to wedge it into the story as a flashback (the novel already had two plotlines, and adding a third was just Too Much) so I wrote it out as a supplementary piece called Wolf at the Door. It allowed me to explore the history of canidae in a world just like ours without forcing the narrative on Ari and Dale.
So once those floodgates were open, I knew I wanted to write more of what I called “classical canidae.” So far the majority of them are follow-ups to Wolf at the Door, but I’ve also written stories about a canidae rumrunner and wolves in medieval times (you can find them here for free). And now, the second full-length novel featuring classical canidae takes them behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. I hope you enjoy it!
There’s a whole world of stories waiting to be told in the future for Ari and Dale, but there is also a rich history just waiting to be discovered.
The second performance in this year's Cal Shakes season is August Wilson's "Fences", part of what came to be known as his Pittsburgh Cycle, a play set in each decade of the 20th century centering around the black neighborhood where Wilson spent half his life. "Fences" is set in the '50s, focusing around Troy Maxson, a former Negro League ballplayer, ex-convict, sanitation worker, outwardly devoted husband, and well-intentioned but stumbling father.
The setting and characters are solidly rooted in the racial history and dynamics of mid-20th century America, contributing to Maxson's frustration at the sports career he feels he was cheated out of, the uncertainties of his employment when he pushes for racial equity in job opportunities, and the constraints on his sons' opportunities, both in reality and in Maxson's imagination. But there are many universals in the play as well: the ways in which each generation struggles with the disfunctions of the previous generation and perpetuates them in the next. The ways in which ideals of duty and obligation can undermine empathy and humanity. The ways we lie to ourselves and those around us to become comfortable with the choices we've made. And--especially pointed for me--the ways in which women are expected to subjugate their own dreams and desires to support and further those of the men around them.
The character of Rose Maxson , Troy's wife and the mother of one of his three children, begins as something of a cipher, performing all those supportive roles and negotiating Troy's relationships with the other characters. But by the end of the play, we're allowed to see much of what she's been suppressing to maintain that role, and she has the bitter triumph of finding her breaking point and drawing her lines. This is a great American play in every meaningful sense of the term. Although the Cal Shakes run is over, keep an eye peeled for a chance to see it when you can.
 Totally irrelevant aside: my middle name is in honor of my great-grandmother, Rose LaForge Maxson. As Herb Caen used to say, there's always a local angle.
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Ordinarily, when I get to my Friday Review slot and have more than one item stacked up, I do a bonus review over the weekend. But in this case, I'm holding off on Kelly Gardiner's Goddess until next week becuase I expect the combination of a visit from Lauri back to back with Worldcon will play hell with my media consumption. One thing I really really love about my new website is the ability to have blog posts all drafted up and saved in advance, so I only have to hit "publish".
(I read Melissa Scott's The Armor of Light back when it was first published. A delightful book, rooted deeply in one of the most intriguing historic periods I know. It doesn't take much at all to introduce fantasy and magic into Renaissance Europe. This is one of the books you can get if you buy the bonus level of the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle.)
The Armor of Light is part of the current HIstorical Fantasy Storybundle, so I thought I'd talk a bit about the history involved, and particularly the history of the magic. Years ago, Delia Sherman gave Lisa and me what is still my favorite blurb ever, for The Armor of Light. I’ve quoted it in full in the Storybundle page, but the relevant portions are “They played around with the history, saving Sidney from his Dutch wound and Marlowe from his tavern in Deptford, and punched up the magic a lot… Cecil would probably have had them silenced.”
While I’m delighted to think — from the safety of some 400 years later — that our book might have upset Sir Robert Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s spymasters, I do have to quibble just a little with the idea that we “punched up the magic a lot.” I’d say, rather, that we punched up the results of the magic; the rituals and beliefs are as accurate as we could make them. After all, at the end of the 16th century, we’re in that odd period when the modern division between “magic” and “science” hasn’t yet solidified. Things that we think of as obviously untrue, the result of superstition or category error, were repeated as well-known and obvious facts by scholars who were laying the foundations for the next century’s Scientific Revolution.
Some of this, of course, is the result of observation with imperfect tools. The Elizabethan commonplace, quoted in Hamlet, that “the sun breed(s) maggots in a dead dog” is accurate as far as it goes: dead things left in the sun will soon produce maggots. What’s missing is the stage that can’t be seen with the naked eye: the flies’ eggs that result in the maggots. Some is the result of beautiful, logical, and entirely unprovable theories, like the notion that the orbits of the planets form Pythagorean solids, and that the music of the spheres follows those rules. And some, of course, is flat-out magic, like the use of scrying glasses or the evocation of angels. But for most Elizabethans, these pieces fit neatly together into a logical system that went very far toward explaining the world that they lived in, and there are enough texts remaining to make it possible to write “magic” that any Elizabethan scholar would recognize. (He or she might not have approved of all of it — the persistent legend that an extra devil appeared on stage during a performance of Dr. Faustus speaks to that unease — but that’s another matter.) We wanted our magic to feel like Prospero’s magic as well as the darker magic of Dr. Faustus.
Of course, our results were a bit more… immediate and visible… than most Elizabethans would have expected or approved of outside the theater. But at the same time, none of it would have been dismissed as impossible. And that was something we really wanted to do with the novel: come as close as possible to the Elizabethan worldview, and build on the magic already present there.
Several times over the last couple year, I've blogged about feeling like something was missing from my pleasure-reading. As if, after my long hiatus when working on my first couple of novels, either I'd forgotten how to immerse myself in a good book, or the SFF field had moved on and stopped producing things I enjoyed reading. The feeling was most apparent when it seemed as if all my friends--people whose taste generally seemed to march with mine--were raving over a book as the best thing since sliced bread and I found it merely...good. Merely pleasant. Merely well-written. What was wrong with me that I wasn't finding anything to be OMGWTFBBQ-excited about?
Well, maybe I just don't excite on the same level other people do. Maybe I'm mistaking the dialect in which people are discussing books for the meaningful content of the language. I dunno. Maybe I have simply gotten a lot pickier about what it takes to excite me. But some things have.
I got very excited about T. Kingfisher's The Raven and the Reindeer, after all. And Beth Bernobich's fiction has been consistently passing the treadmill test. I've recently started diving shallowly into the graphic novel pool and am discovering some woman-produced, woman-centered stories that are making me reconsider my disinterest in the medium. I just finished reading Kelly Gardiner's Goddess (a fictional account of Julie d'Aubigny's life) and will be saying very nice things in my review of it.
Maybe, if I'm not getting over the top excited about the hottest new SFF property...maybe that's ok. Maybe it doesn't mean that my reading organ is failing. Maybe it doesn't mean that my taste is broken. Maybe I simply like different things than my friends do. (Goodness knows, it wouldn't be the only path in life where I'm out of step with everyone else around me.)
As an author, I regularly feel a pressure to treat my reading habits as an essential part of community involvement. But that pressure pushes me in a lot of different directions: publishing community, genre, connections of publisher, of project, of convention community, of friendship. Even when I resist that pressure, there's this looming guilt that I should be reading Book X or Book Y because: reasons. Currently I'm looking at my Worldcon panel schedule and thinking, "What if I have to admit to a fellow panelist that I've never read anything of theirs?" (Never mind that I wouldn't expect them to have even heard of my books, much less have read them.) That pressure and guilt isn't the only reason for my reading malaise, but it's one of them.
But I think...I think I might be starting to get my reading mojo back. Because on a few hot, sultry summer evenings lately I've found myself sitting out in the garden with an ebook and a cool drink until well after everything else went dark around me and the mosquitos began coming out. Some of it is because I'm in a break between major writing projects. Some of it is...well, hot summer night. Not feeling productive. But some of it is because I was enjoying that book so much that I didn't want to put it down and go to bed yet.
Today’s discussion springs off of the later part of Chapter 11 (Ram Dass) but ranges backward and forward to examine Sara’s concept of what it means to be a princess. After the encounter with Ram Dass, and being reminded of what it was like to be treated as someone rich and privileged, Sara contemplates her current expectations and makes a resolution. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
But what does that essence of princess-hood mean to her? It wouldn’t be easy to extract from the next passage, where she imagines the final days of Marie Antoinette in prison and sees her as an inspiring figure of strength, dignity, and nobility. I don’t know—maybe Marie Antoinette did become a tower of strength and dignity at the end, but she seems a very odd sort of role model, especially given the behaviors Sara invests with royal meaning. But conversely, having chosen Marie Antoinette as her icon of royal behavior, the imagery of revolution and the Bastille and all the rest provides a framework for turning the school garret and Sara’s menial duties into a Story.
It is in the behaviors that Sara performs when she is “being a princess” that we truly see her touchstones.
A princess is polite to everyone, high or low, no matter how rude or harsh other people are to her. When she was riding high, Sara always said please and thank you to the school servants. When she was riding low, she continued to do so, even when they were rude to her and mocked her.
A princess performs her duties without external complaint, even when those duties have been thrust on her without her consent. And even when she is seething inside. When Princess Sara took on the role of mothering Lottie, she didn’t always enjoy it, but she carried through. Now that her duties involving cleaning and running errands in all weather and following whatever orders the other servants give her, Sara takes pride in performing everything asked of her as best she can.
And “pride” is a good word for it. Not just the pride that one assigns to the downtrodden who have nothing left but pride, but a privately smug, self-satisfied pride. This is one of the things that humanizes Sara consistently: she is not inherently and reflexively “good”, she works hard to perform goodness no matter what she feels. We see this in Sara’s silent internal dialogue directed at Miss Minchin, “You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”
It’s clear that Miss Minchin accurately senses that hidden pride and smugness. There’s a point later in the book when Miss Minchin describes it as “defiance” and the authorial voice contradicts this, saying it was nothing like defiance. But I disagree: Sara is defiant. And we applaud her for being so. She uses her politeness and calm demeanor as a sword and shield to maintain her integrity in the face of circumstance.
A princess is generous; she grants largesse. When Sara was rich, she expressed her generosity through tangible gifts, such as the food she sneaks to Becky., but also through the generosity of spirit that led her to tutor Ermengarde, and to invite the younger students to play with her dolls, and to share her stories with anyone who wanted to listen. Now that Sara has so little to give of tangible benefit, she comes to understand the nobility in giving until it hurts, simply because you can. Because you have the ability to give and the insight to know another’s need. We will see this later on “the dreadful day” when Sara’s lucky fortune in finding a coin to buy bread turns into a challenge to her Princess Nature when she is faced with a starving beggar.
And with Sara’s rededication to this model of princess-hood, understood through a new lens, she is ready to enter the next phase: earning her reward.
The final schedule for MidAmericon II, this year's Worldcon, is up and I've added my singing signing and kaffeeklatsch events to my posted schedule. Barring a delivery disaster, I'll have Alpennia badge ribbons to hand out, so make sure to find me and ask for one!
ETA: Typo corrected. Wouldn't want to mislead folks into thinking I'd taken up filking again! Sorry about that.