What if Persephone had been an eager bride...and Hades was a woman?
That's the basic premise of this mythic re-telling of the "abduction" of Persephone as a same-sex romance. Persephone flees Olympus to escape Zeus's tyranny and sexual advances (and starting with a major grudge against him for having raped her childhood crush, one of Demeter's nymphs, and turned her into a bush). A passing encounter with the aloof, brooding, and therefore enticing Hades, Queen of Death at Persephone's Olympian coming-out makes her fixate on Hades as her best refuge.
The premise of this story was intriguing and enticing--as enticing as that first encounter with Hades. But the story didn't live up to my hopes for it. The overall plot was meandering and episodic, like a series of isolated D&D encounters with various persons, places, and creatures of the underworld. (In fact, it made me wonder whether it had originally been written as a serial without a fixed outline.) All of the adversaries, difficulties, and crises seem to be overcome too easily (though with a fair amount of angst in the build-up) with nothing more than earnest goodwill, empathy, and a bit of belated clear communication. The final climax, when Zeus has forced Demeter into blackmailing Persephone into returning from the underworld, is so quickly and easily resolved (with un-foreshadowed powers) that it felt like a cheat.
Persephone's romantic desire for Hades never quite escapes the sense of being a schoolgirl crush, with large quantities of gushing devotion, sighing, and longing glances that remain unconsummated for the majority of the story for no clearly articulated reason, other than to draw out what is meant to be the erotic tension. The problem is, while I kept getting told (over and over, at repetitive length) about how much Persephone loved Hades (and, eventually, how much Hades loved her back), I never really felt it.
I encountered this story in audio format through the podcast The Way of the Buffalo. It's hard to tell how much the format affected my reception of the story. The narrator tended to emphasize the "breathless, gushy" tone of the text, which may have fixed that aspect more firmly in my mind. On the other hand, I suspect if I'd been reading, I would have done a lot of skimming from around the halfway point.
I really wanted to like this story a lot more than I did.
I've created a permanent page for an index of episodes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. This month's episode is about the legal consequences of a same-sex marriage in Restoration England.
The movement for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been big news for the last decade. While official sanction of same-sex marriage is hard to find in historic cultures, there were a number of ways for people to slip through the cracks. For women who wanted to marry each other, the easiest way--not to say that it was an easy choice--was for one of them to live as a man.
When we look at historic examples of “female husbands”, as this phenomenon was called, we can’t always know whether the so-called husband was using the disguise purely as a legal strategy or whether they had a transgender identity. It’s rare to get enough of a glimpse into their thoughts to be able to distinguish these. In the case of the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, both of them appear to have considered themselves to be women, but other interpretations are possible.
Arabella Hunt was a beautiful and talented musician at the licentious and scandalous court of King Charles II of England. She was a singer and lute player, performing for royalty and in operas. Poets wrote odes to the beauty of her voice. She inherited a house in Buckinghamshire around the age of 17 when her father died. This start on economic independence may have been part of the motivation for her deciding to marry a year or two later. In 1680, Arabella married James Howard in London, with her mother and two friends in attendance as witnesses. Arabella and her husband moved in with her mother in London and to all appearances lived in wedded bliss for the next six months.
The thing was: James Howard was actually a woman named Amy Poulter and she was already married--to a man named Arthur Poulter. And that’s when life gets interesting.
Because when Arabella’s marriage had problems and she wanted an annulment, she didn’t bring suit on the basis that the marriage was invalid because her husband was really a woman. Rather, she complained that her husband was a bigamist. To further complicate the issue, Arthur Poulter had died about a month before the annulment suit was brought. So although Amy was married to Arthur at the time she married Arabella, she was a widow by the time Arabella demanded an annulment. It’s possible that Arthur’s death was a precipitating event in what followed. Particularly given that Amy seems to have been strongly invested in receiving the financial benefits of being his widow.
In the legal testimony that followed, each woman told the story that put herself in the best light. And yet we needn’t assume that this means that their marriage was not originally inspired by love and devotion. Lawsuits always bring out the worst in people, divorce in particular. And the modern media did not invent the concept of “spin”.
Arabella’s spin focused on maintaining her sincere position that she had married someone she understood to be a man, and that the marriage should be annulled because that man (that is, James Howard) had already been married at the time--never mind that James was already married as a woman to a man. To support this argument, Arabella testified that Amy had “a double gender”, that is, she was a hermaphrodite with anatomy that could be understood as either male or female. And that therefore she was capable of entering into a marriage with either a man or a woman and have that marriage be valid. Thus her bigamy--once married to a man and once married to a woman--was a legal basis for annulment.
As I discussed in the last episode, the idea of hermaphroditism was one of the ways that medieval and renaissance society dealt with the idea of same-sex desire and cross-gender behavior. They believed that a person might have an ambiguous physiology and that this would lead to behavior that partook of both masculine and feminine identities. Arabella’s claim that Amy was a hermaphrodite protected Arabella from accusations that she had knowingly entered into and enjoyed a marriage with a woman.
Amy’s version of the story was that, yes, she was married to Arthur Poulter at the time of her marriage to Arabella. And yes, she occasionally cross-dressed and had courted Arabella both in women’s and men’s clothing. But, she maintained that both the courtship and the marriage had been a frolicsome prank. It had never been meant in earnest. Oh, how that must have stung for Arabella if theirs had truly been a love match! Amy agreed to the annulment, but only on the basis that it had never been a real marriage in the first place. This has a certain resonance with some of the issues brought up when same-sex marriage was just coming to be accepted in some states and not in others in the United States, and where a woman who wanted to get out of a same-sex marriage might move to a state where that marriage had never been legal, and then make claims on that basis.
Now, Amy also demanded a physical examination to prove that she was unambiguously a woman. This was an important legal point for her, because if she were determined to be “more man than woman”, as Arabella’s suit claimed, then her original marriage to Arthur Poulter would be declared retroactively invalid and she’d lose her widow’s inheritance from him.
The medical examination concluded Amy was indeed a woman, and that therefore the marriage to Arabella was invalid but did not constitute bigamy.
One might think that this outcome would have been far more mortifying for Arabella than for Amy, but as it happened, Amy Poulter died five weeks after the annulment was finalized, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest she may have taken her own life as a result of the outcome of the case. Arabella lived for another two decades, enjoying her brilliant musical career. But she never married again and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence connecting her romantically with any other person during the remainder of her life.
What are we to think from this? Was their marriage indeed a prank that went too far? Was it a desperate strategy between two women who saw the masquerade as their only hope for happiness together? Was the break-up due to Arabella suddenly discovering--after six months of sharing a bed!--that her spouse was a woman? Or was it due to discovering that her beloved wife had a husband on the side--something that came to light in the aftermath of that husband’s death?
What might have happened if Amy hadn’t already been married? Might the two of them have enjoyed a discrete and blissful marriage until death did them part? How many other couples might have married in similar circumstances, and lived happily until their deaths, and we never knew because their secret was never uncovered. The answers to that question could inspire any number of interesting stories.
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I don't know how many people have explored all the nooks and crannies of my website. Did you know I have a page with links to interviews and articles and whatnot about me on other people's sites? If you get more curious about my thought processes than my own blogging will satisfy, you might find the reading interesting.
Today, there's a new interview up at the blog Let's Get Beyond Tolerance. Check it out and read some of the other interesting posts at that site.
Here's another recent interview, talking about my writing process, at The Dabbler.
E.P. Beaumont interviewed me specifically about food as worldbuilding in Alpennia.
And if you like your interviews in audio form, Sheena at The Lesbian Review talked to me about research.
In case it isn't obvious, I love talking about my writing process, my research, and pretty much anything else I know something about. If you ever want a guest blog, hit me up!
Chapter 16 is all about…well, let’s call it “comfort porn”. It’s the reflection of Sara’s “pretends” about warm clothes and hot food and a comfortable life. Only now it’s real. Both Sara and Becky have their practical moments. At first Becky eats quickly for fear the food might melt away like fairy gold. And they both have moments when they reassure themselves that even if The Magic had been a one-off experience—if it was just for that night and then disappeared forever—it was still a miracle to treasure. Becky carefully inventories the experiences of the night to save them away against that possibility.
Sara hits on one essential component: “whoever it is—wherever they are—I have a friend, Becky—someone is my friend.” Someone outside the school—and someone with the power to make magical things happen—knows that she exists and cares for her happiness. That’s a big emotional lifeline.
The comfort-porn is leavened with interludes focusing on what other residents of the school perceive, even though they don’t have a share in the secret. We see something of a break beginning between head Mean Girl Lavinia and her BFF Jessie, when Lavinia brags about how she was the one who ratted on the girls and got them in trouble. Jessie shows that she is redeemable when she realizes the practical consequences if Sara is turned out into the street, and understands that deprivation of food is not a trivial punishment if you’re already hungry, and—more importantly—openly defies and contradicts Lavinia on these points.
Miss Minchin is once again infuriated when Sara fails to follow the prescribed script and, rather than being downtrodden and penitent, shows up the next morning cheerful and happy. Miss Minchin, of course, thinks she’s just pretending—being defiant and impertinent as usual. But for once, Sara doesn’t have to rely on her internal monologues to brace her up. She really is warm and well-fed and rested. But she’s also wiser.
Now that she has a concrete secret to keep (not just daydreams) she understands that even Ermengarde and Lottie represent a danger to it. As I noted in my discussion of timelines and character ages, at this point Lottie should be about nine years old. Even adjusting for Sara’s hyper-maturity when she arrived at age seven, it’s startling to hear Lottie still described as, “such a baby she didn’t know she was telling [secrets].” But this circles back to my observation that the other girls are fairly static stock characters. Ermengarde shows a little development in maturity and assertiveness, and I could make a good argument that Miss Minchin has a character development arc, although not a positive one, but Lottie is still the emotionally explosive, immature “baby” that she began. And she can’t be trusted to keep Sara’s secret about The Magic.
We follow Sara through the day, sparking reactions and speculations due to her failure to be miserable, until it’s time for her to return to the attic and discover whether The Magic was “only…lent to me for just that one awful night.” If it was, she has determined to be content with that. But it wasn’t…
In this series of teasers, I'm working hard at not using scenes that touch on the main backbone of the plot. Spoilers and all that. Given that the various interpersonal relations are not the main backbone of the plot, I thought this might be a nice teaser from Chapter 11. Despite all my best efforts in emphasizing that Mother of Souls is even less of a "romance novel" that the previous two, there it is listed on Amazon under "Books > Romance > Lesbian Romance" and you just know that means it will get slammed in some reviews for being a really bad example of a romance novel. Alas, there isn't much I can do about that.
While not following a category-romance structure, the Alpennia series is very much about relationships. All types of relationships. It's about the vast array of relationships that women forge with each other. Some of them would fit into a standard romance plot, but there's more to life than happily-ever-after romances. Serafina Talarico is on a quest and Mother of Souls is primarily the story of how she achieves that quest in unexpected ways. Serafina is also hungry for personal connections and faces a lot of hurdles in that pursuit, but achieving personal connection is not what her story is "about". Nor is that particular pusuit resolved in the pages of this book (which is pretty much the definition of Not A Romance Novel).
She does have some interesting adventures along the way, though...
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Chapter 11 - Serafina
The thin winter sun struggled through the narrow window in Olimpia’s bedroom, such that late afternoon seemed more like dusk. The sunny rooms were reserved for painting. Serafina rolled over and squinted trying to gauge the time.
“Must you go?” Olimpia said. She twined their legs together and buried her face in the loose cloud of hair.
“Not yet, but soon.” Serafina reached across to adjust the wick on the lamp, bringing a warm glow back to the room, then relaxed across Olimpia’s body, drawing in her heat against the chill of the room. Their stolen afternoons were a warm refuge against so many things. There was nothing of her failures here, no struggle to find her place. But the mood had been broken and she sat up in the middle of the bed. The covers slipped off her bare shoulders as she fumbled for a ribbon to tame her hair until she could braid it.
“Just like that; don’t move.” Olimpia rolled off the side of the bed and snatched up the sketchpad that was never far from her reach.
The instruction was familiar by now. Serafina paused with her hands reaching behind her head as Olimpia’s hand moved quickly across the surface of the paper. “Do all your lovers have my patience?” she asked. Talking was permitted; moving was not.
“Mihail only visits for one thing and then he’s gone,” Olimpia said, pausing with her head tilted to consider the work. “And Renoz won’t ever stay still. If I can’t capture her in three lines, she’s done. Done.”
The last was meant for her. Serafina slid to the edge of the bed and held out her hand to see. It was only a rough sketch, the sort of study that littered the walls of the studio. Olimpia had captured her as if in mid-movement: her elbows akimbo as she gathered up her hair into the ribbon, a single sinuous line following the arch of her back down around the curve of her hip to where her feet peeked out from the jumbled covers. The merest impression of dark eyes and a tilting smile. “You make me beautiful,” she said.
Olimpia took the sketch back from her. “You are beautiful. I make you see it.”
Epps, Brad. “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World” 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.
Epps, Brad 2008 “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World”
I confess I'd been hoping for a bit more new-to-me material from this collection. The article from Amer is simply a re-working of a portion of her book, and this one by Epps is more of a met-analysis of how to view such material, rather than bringing in new material relevant to the Project. (The collection has a lot more male-oriented material, as usual.) The final article that I'll be covering next week is a new topic, although falling more in the realm of friendship between women than desire.
Epps considers themes in stories from The Thousand and One Nights that compare and contrast gender, particularly in terms of evaluating gendered ideas of beauty, and cultural framings of gendered responses to another’s beauty. The initial discusion covers a debate between two jinn (one male, one female) regarding whether boys or girls are more beautiful. On test that is suggested is which gender is least able to control themselves sexually on seeing the other. I.e., that greater beauty will more easily overcome self-control in the other.
The jinns test this theory by bringing together Qamar al-Zaman, the son of a sultan, and Princess Budur, with the consequence that the two fall in love (and Budur’s loss of control gives victory to the male side of the argument). Having settled their debate, the jinns return Budur to her home and her pining sets in motion the gender-bending part of the tale that Sahar Amer has covered previously. Budur’s gender disguise to go in search of Qamar (taking on his name and identity to do so) finds herself manoevered into marriage to another princess before the real Qamar appears and marries both of them.
Epps, while noting that this later episode involves a fair amount of explicit physical affection between the two, reviews other researchers’ arguments against Amer’s framing of it as a “lesbian interlude”. Specifically, viewing cross-dressing as purely a literary trope with no implications for sexuality, and arguments on both sides that treat homosexuality as an objective category in medieval Arabic society. From there, Epps moves to the problems of vocabulary versus category in both Arabic and Western history, particularly as employed by modern historians.
The analysis then moves on to a cross-dressing episode in Don Quixote and additional discussion of the problems that arise from historians’ personal agendas influencing their interpretations. Overall, this is an article far more concerned with historiography than history, and the theoretical discussions get quite dense.
When I first saw a trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins, my immediate thought was, “Oh crap!” followed by an immediate 180 when I saw that the project was headed by Meryl Streep. Streep is one of the few people I would trust for sympathetic handling of this superficially ridiculous biography. If that’s an odd beginning for a movie review, let me jump to the conclusion and say that as the credits rolled I was crying and giving a standing ovation. (Not even so much for the movie as for the character.)
But this is a hard story to analyze. I’m still not certain whether it’s the story of the importance of art, of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of immense odds, and of the power of love and compassion, or whether it’s a story of the fine line between support and enabling, of the blunt force of wealth and privilege, and of the endless ability of people to live lies for their own benefit. I think the genius of the movie is that it’s all of those things.
Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress and socialite (1868-1944) who had what was probably an adequate musical talent (although family connections were probably more important than talent when she gave a piano recital at the White House as a child). When disability left her unable to play (Wikipedia says an injury, the movie more symbolically attributes it to the effects of the syphilis that was the only lasting legacy of her brief marriage to Mr. Jenkins) and when a sizable inheritance gave her the means, she turned her interest to singing and to the production of amateur theatricals among New York City’s wealthy elite. She was lauded for her genuine support for the performing arts, and counted many prominent musicians among her friends. At the same time, her insistence on taking the stage for her own vocal performance, combined with her complete lack of skills in pitch, rhythm, enunciation, and vocal power must have strained the limits of friendship and the ability of those friends to dissemble. Admission to her performances was tightly controlled, and a combination of genuine affection and respect for her social position (and generous patronage) allowed Jenkins to remain in ignorance of her own flaws (though it’s still debated exactly how much self-delusion was involved).
The movie revolves around the lead-up to her performance at age 76 at Carnegie Hall—a venue where she no longer controlled access and which resulted in a deluge of open mockery in the media. Five days later, she suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal.
Such are the bare facts. In the remainder of this review, I’ll be talking about the events and relationships as portrayed in the movie, without concerning myself with potential dramatic divergences from history.
The movie features her relationship with actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant)—nominally her manager, also her long-term “gentleman companion”—and with the hired pianist Cosmé McMoon who found a gravy-train in accommodating both her whims and her singing deficiencies. What makes this a tragic and heartwarming story is the depiction of how both men, though clearly anchored solidly by financial benefit, are motivated by affection to forge a balance between Jenkins’ dreams and their desire to protect her from ridicule and disappointment. Jenkins has occasional moments of self-doubt, masked as a sort of fishing for compliments, but for the most part simply bulls her way forward, secure in the belief in her own abilities.
For supporting characters (and characterizations) I also want to give a shout-out to Nina Arianda as Agnes Stark, the blonde eye-candy trophy wife (with low-class manners) of one of Jenkins’ circle who at first encounter with one of Jenkins’ performances has to be extracted, giggling hysterically, but when later attending Jenkins’ public recital admonishes the laughing audience to shut up and listen. “This lady is singing her heart out!” [paraphrased] In this, she stands in for the movie viewer who can’t help but both wince and cheer at the same time.
The storyline in the movie clearly sets up the Carnegie Hall performance as the last finale for Jenkins, with Bayfield and McMoon knowing that her health is on its last legs, wanting to help her to her heart’s desire, then trying vainly to shield her from the adverse publicity which is depicted (and perhaps rightly so) as leading directly to her death (in combination with the exhaustion of the performance).
So. Florence Foster Jenkins: icon of those striving against all odds and common sense for their heart’s desire, or walking advertisement for the Dunning-Kruger effect? All I know is that I cried at the end.
I had a topic I was thinking of doing today, but insufficient brain to manage it. I have one more chapter to revise of Mother of Souls--and then at least a couple more passes to make sure I haven't screwed up anything else in the process--and it's eaten up everything I have left over from work. Work, now there's something I could talk about. Not a lot, of course, because the details are often sensitive. But just in general terms of "what is Heather doing these days in her day job?"
As you know (Bob), I work for a major international pharmaceutical company. My department does the purification of biologic molecules used to treat a certain hereditary disease. Periodically we improve either the manufacturing process or the molecule itself so that it works better, is safer, is more effective, or some other improvement. For non-biologic chemicals, there are a lot of changes where approval just requires demonstrating equivalence. For the sort of thing we make, pretty much any change worth making gets treated as an entirely new drug. So you start out with a relatively limited developmental manufacturing process for your clinical studies that demonstrate safety and effectiveness. My department isn't involved with that. And then you design your commercial-scale manufacturing process, construct any new equipment or facilities required, validate your equipment and processes, train everyone on how to use them, and then you produce a certain amount of drug to demonstrate that you are making material equivalent to what was used for the clinical studies and that you can manufacture it consistently and reliably, meeting established standards for all your quality specifications. Oh, and we do this using a living organsim as part of our "factory" with all the complexity inherent in that.
That process is what we're just finishing up with at the moment. It's pretty intensive because all the data from this initial full-scale production will be worked over with a fine toothed comb by the regulatory agencies who decide whether they're going to approve your license to manufacture and sell the stuff. It's also intensive because there are a lot of timelines that are ticking forward to the point when you've gathered all the data from this phase and submitted it and gone through the audits and inspections until the day comes when the new drug is approved. Nobody goes into this sort of process unless they're absolutely certain it will be approved, but that doesn't mean stuff can't happen.
We went through this process recently with one new version of the drug. There's a poster in one of our buildings with a picture of the first does being hand-delivered to its user. It's a big deal. The process is long enough that you've usually working on the next improvement before the last one is in patients' hands.
Big Pharma comes in for a lot of criticism, and I'm not going to defend everything that goes on. Not by a long shot. But I get to see the inside of the process that takes an idea from "this might work to help someone" to "here's your next dose of the stuff that keeps you alive." Some of the stuff we do is f'ing miraculous. And I get to be a part of that.
And that's what I do when I'm not writing books.
The second part of chapter 15 might be thought of as the whiplash point. Lavinia, the head Mean Girl, has told tales on Ermengarde and sent Miss Minchin in an unprecedented second trip up to the attic to catch the girls in the midst of their pretend princess banquet. The extremity of MIss Minchin's anger can only really be understood as sparked by the disruption Sara brings to the proper order of things. Viewed from a distance, why should it matter that Ermengarde chose to share her food "care package" with Sara and Becky? Why should it matter that she shares her books? Why should it matter that Sara rearranges bits of rubbish that have been left in her room into a make-believe feast hall?
To be sure, there are Rules about students not leaving their bedrooms at night, no doubt. But that alone can't explain the magnitude of Miss Minchin's response, or why it is directed primarily at Sara and Becky. The only thing that explains it is the fracturing of class boundaries implicit in the fraternization (sororization?) and the evidence of Sara's continued defiance of her "proper place"--a place that doesn't include having dreams and fantasies. Peak outrage is generated by Sara's insistence on the equivalence of her position and Ermengarde's. When Miss Minchin scolds Ermengarde, "What would your papa say if he knew where you are tonight?" (i.e., in the attic with servant girls), Sara, in one of her quiet reproachful comebacks, asks Miss Minchin what her papa would say if he knew where she is tonight.
All are punished: Ermengarde confined to bed the next day and reported to her father, Sara sentenced to another day with no food, and Becky told (although falsely, as it turns out) that she will be thrown out in the street the next day. And Sara is left to contemplate the broken fragments of her "pretend" before falling into an exhausted (and still hungry) sleep, repeating (and foreshadowing) her fantasy about the attic containing a warm fire and comfortable bed and a hot, filling supper.
This is where the previous chapter comes into play, in which Ram Dass and the secretary discussed their plans. Because we can jump past the mechanics of how the attic is transformed and have Sara wake to the results of that transformation. It takes some time for Sara to assure herself of the reality of the gift, if only because it matches her fantasies so closely and so elaborately that it seems unbelievable that it could exist anywhere but in her own head.
I would quibble about the plot convenience of Mr. Carrisford identifying his gift anonymously as "from a friend" except that this is perhaps the most believable aspect of the whole non-communication of identities foundation of the plot. Carrisford wants to be the magical anonymous benefactor. It's more fun that way.
And--true to Sara's nature--once she has convinced herself of the concrete reality of the gift, her immediate response is to wake Becky and share it with her. And, as we shall see from the next visit of The Magic, Mr. Carrisford is belatedly shamed (though perhaps that's too strong a word) into explicitly including Becky in the bounty by providing her with her own dishes and transfering Sara's now unneeded bedding to Becky's room to supplement Becky's own. But this only emphasizes that The Magic isn't about simple charity, it's specifically about rewarding Sara for being a person worthy of charity. But we have gotten ahead of ourselves into the next chapter.