Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19b - Interview with Ellen Klages
(Originally aired 2018/02/10 - listen here)
I talk with Ellen Klages about her novella "Passing Strange" and her love of 20th century history.
No transcript is available for this show at this time.
“The Price of Meat” is a horror novelette set in a mildly alt-historical London with casual inclusion of both female and male same-sex couples while definitely not being a romance in format. The setting and characters have the feel of being spun off of an existing alternate history setting--as if we’re expected to be familiar with the two men and their backstory, and with the points of historical divergence established economically in the opening paragraph--but the author indicates otherwise. It doesn’t in any way detract from the story, which is complete in itself, but I guess I was a bit disapointed that there weren’t any other stories about the daring Joanna Oakley and the imperiled heiress Arabella Wilmot waiting for me out there.
From a realistically-sketched Victorian madhouse to a more industrialized version of Sweeney Todd’s *ahem* food service supply chain in a lawless London underworld neighborhood, there’s just enough horror to keep the reader squeamish without going too far for my sensibilities. (I personally don’t care much for body horror. There was a smidge of that, but not too graphic.)
I’ve been aware of K.J. Charles as a celebrated writer of gay male historical fiction and fantasy for quite some time and enjoyed having this excuse to try her work where it intersected with my own interests. The writing is excellent and the historic setting feels solid and inhabited. It makes me jealous that she doesn’t write more stories focusing on female characters.
My friend Karen periodically holds a "backyard writing retreat" for a small circle of friends. The idea is to set aside the day for actual writing, not chit-chat (though we do some of that) or web surfing (though that happens too) or getting caught up on ancillary tasks (yup, check). So for this past Sunday's writing retreat, I committed to actually starting the revisions on Floodtide, which has been "fermenting" in messy first draft since...oh my goodness, since before last year's Worldcon? I'd have to check.
What do I mean by "messy"? In addition to a number of significant changes to specific plot points based on discussions as I wrote, there are still a lot of placeholders (**insert the conversation Roz has with the housekeeper about not getting her back pay when she's fired**). There are duplications where I still have both (or more) versions of what I drafted (#1 Nan sneaks out and tells Roz how they got caught; #2 the footman who's been macking on Nan comes out and tells Roz he got her fired; #3 Roz is left completely in ignorance of how they got caught and why Nan didn't get fired alongside her until a later point in the story). There are many characters to name (Roz's aunt back in Sain-Pol to whom she was sort-of-apprenticed to learn the laundry trade and who used her connections in Rotenek to get Roz her position...and for that matter I have no idea yet what Roz's surname is, and the housekeeper needs a different name because it's too similar to an existing character in the sereis). And all that is just in the first scene.
Sunday I started by making an official backup file of the draft-as-is (although Scrivener and TimeCapsule both have backups--I'm just a belt-and-suspenders-and-superglue sort of person). Then I skimmed through the entire file deleting or moving around editorial notes as necessary, stripping out the timeline framework from where it overlapped with Mother of Souls, deleting the files for scenes that never got any content, highlighting sections that I know for certain need to be entirely changed, moving some scenes around that I hadn't been sure where to place when I wrote them, and adding some reminders for things I glossed over in the first draft (e.g., Liv has a service dog that needs to be included in the casual description a lot more, not just when it's doing something plot-relevant).
Currently the file is 89,000 words. That's significantly shorter than any of the previous books (which all ended close to 150,000 words) but may actually be more than I end up with, if I'm ruthless. Floodtide is meant to be different in structure: more of a YA story, single point of view, and able to be read independently of the existing series. So the wordcount needed to follow multiple primary points of view, or to bring the reader up to speed on What Has Gone Before aren't going to drive the length (as much).
I've already made some changes to the original plan in support of that. For example, originally I had included Anna Monterrez as part of the "group of teenagers" that I wanted to focus the story on, but Anna really isn't part of that age cohort, as the overall series has evolved. She's one of the adults, for all practical purposes. And every time I got to a point in the outline where originally I thought she'd be intersecting the plot of Floodtide, it just didn't work. There was no plot-based reason for her to be present in Roz's life, and setting up who she was and what she was doing there would have taken the plot off sideways. She'll get mentioned tangentially in a couple of places, but she isn't on stage. (So some of the key things that are going on in Anna's life during this period are going to go into a shorter story focused entirely on her that primarily parallels the time-frame of Mistress of Shadows.)
One of the main things I need to clearly set up, in terms of structure, is exploding any sort of reader expectations that Floodtide is a "romance" in structure. And that's going to be hard, because my publisher has this notion that books need to be framed as romances to get people to read them. Never mind the grief I've gotten from readers who went into the books expecting the primary, dominant plot to be a HEA romance and deciding they were badly written books because that wasn't what they got.
Roz starts off being unwillingly separated from her girlfriend. Being a pragmatic (and red-blooded) sort, she gets over it and falls in love again...with near-disastrous consequences. She runs into her original girlfriend once more and they definitely do not get back together. She has a lot of interactions with another character that might end up romantic if this were a romance novel, but it never goes in that direction. And the primary emotional relationship she develops over the course of the book is not (currently) romantic and teaches her some important things about the breadth of possible relationships one can have in one's life and how not everything needs to be about pants-feelings. At the end of the book, Roz has a number of very strong bonds with people of rather different types, but none of them are (currently) erotic and she's ok with that for the moment. How do I set readers up to see that as a happy ending?
That's what I mean by "messy", from the trivial to the over-arching.
What's my plan? I'd thought that I needed to go through and layer in lots of editing notes so I wouldn't lose track of things, but as I skimmed though the file, I could feel the future structure coalescing under the current surface. I think I can just wing it as far as that goes. So my plan is to start from the very beginning and simply rewrite from start to finish. Not "rewrite" in the sense of opening a new file, but going through each and every bit of text and treating it all as mutable. The clay is there, but I'm not quite ready to fire up the wheel. I think this is still the stage of wedging and kneading. But I can see the shape of the pot already.
I’ve interleaved a fair amount of criticism and corrections inside my summary of this article, simply because I feel that the material involves so many gaps and oversights that it moves from “flawed” to “misleading”.
Bonnet, Marie-Jo. 1997. “Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love” in Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia & Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510471-4
A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.
Bonnet, Marie-Jo “Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love”
This article looks at French historical terminology for women who loved women to consider whether changes in the prevalent terminology reflected social shifts in attitudes toward such women, on the basis that “naming grants recognition”. Unfortunately the article is deeply flawed by unfamiliarity with earlier examples of some terms, and by overlooking terms that were as common as the ones considered (if not more so). This results in conclusions based on faulty premises.
For example, the author fails to consider Brantôme’s 16th century use of “lesbienne” in the modern sense and identifies only “tribade” as being in pre-modern use in French, dating it only to the mid 16th century. She entirely ignores the distribution of “fricatrice” and “fricarelle”.
When considering language deriving from Sappho and Lesbos, she mistakes iconicity with causation, calling Sappho “the founder of lesbian love”. She considers the early absence of terminology derived from Sappho to be due to patriarchal suppression of the idea of egalitarian female same-sex love.
The author is also unfamiliar with the complex semantic history of “sodomy” and related terms and erroneously claims that there is “no specific term for women’s [same-sex] sexual practice in the Middle Ages”. She views the medieval church as uninterested in women’s same-sex behavior unless there is appropriation of male attributes (ignoring penitential evidence for that interest).
She attributes to Henri Estienne the first use in French of “tribade” and see this as a consequence of the revival of interest in Greek and Latin texts (as opposed to reflecting a shift from Latin to French for the types of records discussing such topics). She seems to accept at face value the claims by writers such as Estienne that displaced lesbian relationships into the classical era, asserting that such behavior in the 16th century was novel and unheared of. Rather than tracing the continued use of derivations of Greek/Latin “tribade” through the ages, she considers it a Latin invention (from Greek roots) with no Greek antecedent. And--noting that all the classical citations of the word “tribade” are from male authors, in combination with the absence of Sappho-based terminology, interprets this as a specific preference for male antecedents for sexual models. While a preference for male sources is quite possibly true, she overlooks medieval and Renaissance references to Sappho in the context of same-sex love, which would contradict this interpretation. This curious blindness also appears when she quotes Brantôme extensively while failing to note that he contradicts her claim that “lesbienne” was a later invention.
Brantôme’s discussions of lesbian love make it clear he considered it a “harmless game”, but she notes that women who made more transgressive life choices, such as marrying women in male disguise (see e.g., Montaigne) were punished more harshly. In this context, she considers that the focus on condemning only the “active” sexual partner and the alleged preference for the term “tribade” (which she sees as reinforcing an active/passive distinction) was a deliberate program to undermine a hypothetical egalitarian same-sex love associated with Sappho.
The author considers the changing dictionary definitions of “tribade” during the 18th century to reflect an ongoing philosophical debate around the meaning of the term and sees the driver of these changes as the rise of socially and culturally elite women who openly expressed their passion for othr women. [It seems odd to me that a linguist would treat dictionary entries as a reflection of contemporary usage and debate, rather than being conservative, prescriptive sources.] She considers expressions of passionate friendship in the 18th century as presumed to indicate sexual relationshps. She views the French revolution as constituting a cultural break between Renaissance culture and 19th century women who led a new wave of sexual openness that shifted into decadence and scandal. George Sand’s Lelia is presented as a turning point.
The author attributes the modern sense of “lesbienne” to Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, suggesting that it was the association of the word with decadence and damnation that made it acceptable for general use (by men, presumably). Unfortunately this theory is undermined by the documented earlier use of the word as far back as the 16th century. She reviews lesbian terminology that has connotations focusing on the absence of men, such as “anti-homme” in L’Espion Anglais and “anandrine” in Revolutionary-era literature, and compares these terms to the root senses of “virgo” and “parthenos”. And finally, the author traces the rise of the word “homosexual” in parallel with the medicalization of sexuality in the early 20th century.
The article cites an early example of a prosecution for cross-dressing that I don’t think I’ve seen published elsewhere, so I thought I’d quote it here. It appears to refer to two separate events and there is no indication that there were sexual transgressions involved.
“In the thirteenth century, two women were burned at Péronne by Robert le Bougre for having porté l’habit d’homme (worn men’s cothing).” [Cited in the notes as: “These events ocurred between 1235 and 1238, notes Michèle Bordeaux, Professeur de Droit at the University of Nantes, to whom I am endebted for providing me with this information.”]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19a - On the Shelf for February 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/02/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2018.
By the time you listen to this, the submissions for the podcast’s fiction project will be closed and I’ll be in the middle of the difficult task of sorting out which stories I want to buy. But at the time I’m recording, that deadline is still in the future and I have no idea what I have yet to receive. So you’ll have to wait for next month’s On the Shelf episode to find out what the results are.
I had a bit of a “duh” moment recently and realized that this monthly roundup should include mention of new releases of lesbian historical fiction. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, since I’ve had a couple of author guests that I scheduled around new releases. But my excuse is that I haven’t been doing the weekly format very long and I’m still settling in. So here’s the deal: each month I’ll tell you about what’s new in the world of lesbian historical fiction that I know about. And that’s the catch. I can only talk about it if I know about it. I’ll be monitoring the websites of the lesbian publishing houses that I know have published historicals in the past. And I’ll keep my eyes peeled for announcements online. And I’ll put out a regular reminder on twitter and facebook asking people to send me information. But I can’t guarantee I’ll catch everything, so if you have a book or story coming out that you think my listeners would be interested in, let me know. The contact information is in the show notes. And don’t agonize too much about whether the book you’re telling me about counts as historic. Give me the information--the blurb and the description--and I’ll decide if it fits. I’ll definitely be including historic fantasy and alternate history and may include stories with settings inspired by historic cultures even if they aren’t technically set in real-world history.
While I’m doing general announcements, I’d like to give a shout-out to the Lesbian Book Bingo reading challenge that Jae is organizing. This is a year-long fun challenge to read books fitting 24 specific themes (plus one free square) on a bingo card, with a chance for prizes for those who complete rows and squares and who participate in the book recommendations on her blog. One of the squares is for historical fiction, but a lot of them have to do with particular types of characters and plots, so you could fit a lot of historic titles in if you’re clever. I don’t know if I’ll manage to get any bingos, but I’ll be cheerleading for the challenge throughout the year. And as a special bonus, I’m writing a mini-story for each of the categories, all tied loosely together in a historic setting. Check my blog every two weeks for a new installment.
The New “History is Gay” Podcast
A few weeks ago, I saw on Twitter a notification for a brand new queer history podcast, and I have invited the proprietors of that podcast on to tell my listeners about it.
Gretchen: Yay, thank you so much for having us!
Leigh: Yeah, thank you so much!
Gretchen: This is exciting!
Heather: So tell my listeners who you are, and and what the name of your show is.
Leigh: I am Leigh.
Gretchen: And I’m Gretchen.
Leigh: And our podcast that just launched is called “History is Gay.”
Gretchen : Where we are examining the underappreciated and overlooked queer ladies, gents, and gentle enbies that have always been there in the unexplored corners of history. ‘Cause history’s not as straight as you think, and we want to shed light on that.
Heather: And it looks like we have a fairly similar intent in the program except that you cover a much wider spectrum of the queer world.
Leigh: We were really fascinated by the fact that we have such a wide breadth of experiences and intersections in our community and a lot of other communities, and it’s sad that there isn’t a central place that we can go to talk about these things or find information. It’s a lot of digging around and piecing things together and creating kind of a global timeline and global community. And so we kind of want to look at all the different experiences we can and show people ways to find those commonalities and that comfort in knowing that what they experiences is not new.
Heather: Yes, it’s the “We are everywhen” phenomenon.
Leigh: Ooh, I like that!
Gretchen: I like that too! Yeah, exactly. Like a huge part of why I first wanted to do this podcast, and led to a conversation between Leigh and I, was I had an interaction on Twitter where someone was going off on, like, you know, “All of these gender identities are all new,” and you know blah, blah, blah, whatever noise. And I said, like, “No, like, we’ve always existed. We’ve always been here. And it was at that moment that I realized that most people don’t know that. That there are a lot of people and--even within our own community--who were never told that Egypt had three genders, or--
Leigh: --that people you’ve heard stories about, and read their entire repertoire of work. Suddenly you’re like, “Wait, hold on. That person carried on a relationship with a person of the same gender for twenty years? And no one in school taught me this? No one anywhere, no book that I ever read said anything about this?”
Leigh: I was looking through one of our texts last night and--just flipping through the pages--and was like, “Wait! What?”
Heather: And I know that there has been an explosion of academic research in the field of history of sexuality in the last twenty years or so, but so little of it has trickled out to the general public.
Gretchen: Mm hm, exactly. And that’s really what we want to do, is like, we have the time and the energy and the interest and the training to look through all of these sources and find them all and compile them and then share them with people. And if we can make people happy, and help people understand that there’s a tradition, there’s a story that we can all connect to that tells us who we are, and we can situate ourselves in history, and in ourselves and our identity. Like that’s what we want to do.
Leigh: We also really want to make it accessible. The great thing about the internet and about podcasts and being able to make content like this is that everyone has a really easy time getting access to it, and these long, breadthy discussions aren’t locked up in an ivory tower of academia any more.
Heather: So, tell the listeners where they can find your podcast. I know you’re on iTunes because that’s where I’m subscribing. And what other places?
Leigh: We’re pretty much anywhere you can find podcasts. We’re on iTunes, Stitcher, any of the other podcatcher apps. We have an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we also have lots of different social media that Gretchen can tell you about.
Gretchen: Yeah, we are on Twitter as @HistoryisGayPod, on Tumblr as historyisgaypodcast, and you can always go to our website, which is historyisgaypodcast.com. And you can always listen there. Plus that’s where we have our awesome show notes and we’ll often have, like, images and poems and things that we can’t always have time to talk about. And we put all of that in our show notes on our website.
Heather: And speaking of show notes, I will put all of these links in my show notes so people can find you easily. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your show with us.
Both: Oh, thank you for having us!
Gretchen: We’ll have to have you on our podcast to talk about yours.
Heather: That would be fabulous!
Publications on the Blog
In January, the blog finished up covering the articles in the collection The Lesbian Premodern, which concluded with a series of considerations on the place of lesbian history in academia, and various approaches to how to study and write about it. This was followed by three articles from a collection centered around linguistics. Randy Connor looks at language used for homosexuals in 16th century France. Marie-Jo Bonnet tries to connect shifts in the terminology used for homosexual women in French with changes in social attitudes toward them. And Diane Watt looks at the phrase “clipping and kissing” (that is to say, hugging and kissing), used in a 16th century English translation of the story of Yde and Olive, and lays out the social context of whether and when these terms indicated sexual activity.
After those articles, I move on to a couple of publications about 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, who was famous for playing male roles on stage to the swooning delight of female fans, and who was the center of a colony of artistic woman in Rome, including several of Cushman’s lovers and various other female couples. This is one of those occasions where I’m coordinating the blog with the podcast essay, because at the end of February I’ll be doing a program on Cushman and her circle. I’ve come to the conclusion that we really really need a tv mini-series on Cushman and her social circle. So if you have any connections in Hollywood, see who you can poke to get the idea circulating!
This month’s author guest will be Ellen Klages. Ellen is known for stories that skim lightly across the fantastic and follow fascinating people caught up in unexpected events. She’s written about everything from the Manhattan Project, to women’s baseball leagues, to swamp monsters in Florida, and the focus of our interview, her 2017 novella Passing Strange, set in San Francisco at the time of the World’s Fair on Treasure Island during World War II. Listen to the interview to find out more about her stories.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
So what’s new in lesbian historical fiction that’s coming out in February?
There’s an anthology of queer young-adult historical stories coming out this month titled All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages, edited by Saundra Mitchell and published by Harlequin Teen. This covers a whole range of queer identities. The blurb reads: “Seventeen of the best young adult authors across the queer spectrum have come together to create a collection of beautifully written diverse historical fiction for teens. From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth-century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.” Kirkus Reviews notes that the contents focus heavily on the 20th century and the United States, although the casts are ethnically diverse. It’s hard to tell from the table of contents how many of the stories involve girls who like girls, but I see names like Tessa Gratton, Malinda Lo, and Dahlia Adler who might be good bets.
I’ve been hearing for a while about a blog titled The Comfortable Courtesan that presented the fictional memoirs of a Regency-era courtesan, whose interests are bisexual and whose social circle includes lesbian and gay figures. The blog is now being published in several volumes as The Comfortable Courtesan: Being Memoirs by Clorinda Cathcart (that has been a Lady of the Town these several years), by L. A. Hall, published by Sleepy Wombatt Press. Volume 1 is already out, and volumes 2 and 3 will be released shortly, or perhaps may be out already by the time you hear this. The book has a witty tone that matches the historic setting and looks to be a delightful read if you’re ok with a fairly pansexual approach to relationships.
I can’t believe I forgot about this next story and had to come back and splice this in! There will be a new Alpennia story coming out in the anthology Lace and Blade 4 edited by Deborah J. Ross. Set during the Napoleonic occupation of Alpennia, this is one of several planned stories about the early life of Jeanne Vicomtesse de Cherdillac. “In The Mystic Marriage, Vicomtesse Jeanne de Cherdillac tells another character, ‘I have loved—truly loved—only four women. One of them is dead. One never found the courage to say either yes or no. You were the third.’ When I wrote those words, I knew relatively little about those first two women, but I had the first inkling that Jeanne might have some interesting stories to tell. This is not the story of either that first or second love, but of the time between them when grief and regret had not yet been replaced by archness and a cultivated sophistication.” Lace and Blade offers a bouquet of sensual, romantic, action-filled stories.
There are works that are hard to classify as either being historical or not historical. I figure I’ll have three categories of publications that I include in my forthcoming books. The first will be strictly historical works. The second will be historical fantasy; stories that are set in a particular time and place in history but have fantastic elements of some sort. This would include stories with time-travel and alternate histories as well as stories with magical elements and that sort of thing. The third group would be what I call historically inspired fantasy. This includes stories that are clearly not anchored to our world, but where the world-building has drawn on elements of historic cultures. The last two works I want to mention this month fall in this category.
First is the ongoing serial Tremontaine, based on the Riverside novels by Ellen Kushner and written by a whole team of authors, with episodes coming out weekly during each run from Serial Box Publications. Riverside is both clearly based on a vaguely 18th century-ish Western Europe, and very clearly not a real-world historical setting. The serial is packed full of queer characters, with the majority of the female point of view characters having same sex relationships at some point (generally with each other). The story is packed with intrigues, politics, romantic adventures, and a great deal of sex of all types. The current season has just concluded, but you can still get all three seasons, either in text or audio format. I really enjoy listing to the audio version. Each episode covers one day’s commute listening very nicely!
Another historically inspired fantasy coming out this month is the second book in G. L. Roberts young adult “Shieldmaiden” series, title Jewel of Fire, published by Bella Books. The world of the setting draws on medieval European cultures of the British Isles and Scadinavia, but stitched together in new ways and with a splash of magic, as you might be able to tell from the blurb, which reads, “In the highlands of Alban near the waters of the Inbhir Nis, Lady Athebryn waits for her dragon to bring word of the enemy across the sea. At her side is her beloved Princess Thalynder. Once handmaiden to the Princess, Lady Athebryn now stands ready to lead the hastily gathered army of clanns and kingdoms to battle against the marauding Vík Ingr. If they are successful, Lady Athebryn will win the hearts and minds of all, uniting Alban under one banner. But if they fail, then all hope for a united Alban may be forever lost.”
If you know of books of interest coming out in March, or know of something I missed this month that I should come back and mention, please let me know. My contact information is in the show notes.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is another one from podcast fan Amy Herman-Pall on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group. She asks, “I believe that your area of study and expertise is mostly European in nature, but I wonder if you know of any historical accounts of lesbians in other cultures, especially in Asia, or the Indian sub-continent?”
It’s true that my personal interests are focused primarily around Europe and the Mediterranean area. People have probably noticed that my coverage is a bit lighter even on American history. That’s just a natural consequence of the fact that I have to do the project for my own satisfaction to stay motivated. I’d always be happy to have other people contribute entries for publications on cultures they’re interested in.
But I have run across research on other regions of the world in the course of my work and I can give pointers to a few useful starting places. One thing to keep in mind when straying outside Western culture is that many of the organizing concepts of the study of homosexuality in history are very specific to Western culture and revolve around assumptions and interpretations that don’t necessarily make sense in other cultural contexts. So often the best and most reliable work in the field is being done, not by people who are looking for practices and lives that resemble those of queer people in Western culture, but those who are working within the dynamics of those cultures to understand varieties of sexuality and gender within their own cultural context. For example, although I’ve run across a few articles that discuss historic same-sex relations in sub-Saharan African cultures, I hesitate to recommend the ones I’ve seen as I have concerns about some of the racist and colonialist underpinnings in them that even I can identify. And this is another concern I have: my ability to read and summarize critically for cultures and topics outside my own field of knowledge. So I do my best to include non-Western cultures when I have confidence in the sources I’ve found, but I’m more cautious outside my expertise.
With that in mind, I have to say that one source I don’t recommend--which is a shame because it’s very ambitious in its coverage--is Leila Rupp’s Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women. Although she tries to tackle the entire history of the world, from the Ice Age to the present day, and covering every continent, her discussions feel very Western-centric and she has a habit of conflating modern traditional cultures with historic practices in a way that makes me very suspicious and uneasy. To some extent, the enormous scope of the work means that no particular culture can be covered in a nuanced fashion, but there are flaws even beyond that (which I go into in more detail in my blog entry on the book).
One region of the world that I have some excellant sources on is the Arabic-speaking and Islamic-influenced cultures around the Mediterranean Sea. And this is largely due to the excellent work of two specific academics. Sahar Amer has written some extensive comparative studies of medieval Arabic and French attitudes towards love between women, especially as depicted in heroic literature in her book Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures. She has a number of other publications drawing on the same research. In the course of this work, she provides a detailed background of medieval attitudes towards woman and sex in the Arabic-speaking world.
The second writer that I was delighted to find working in this area is Samar Habib, who has put together something of an exhaustive catalog of pre-modern Arabic writings on love between women in her book Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality: 850-1780 A.D. In addition to the catalog of references to love and sex between women in historic Arabic literature, with a discussion on the historic, literary, social, and religious context of the material, she also provides an insider’s analysis of the problem of studying homosexuality in Islamic cultures when done from a European framework.
I have a couple of good insider sources on the Indian sub-continent. The two articles that I’ve covered in the project at this point are both by Ruth Vanita, who discusses lesbian-like themes in historic Indian literature and religious traditions. Vanita seems to be a major figure in this field because my “to be read” list for the project includes several other works and collections she was involved in, including Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, and co-editing Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature with Saleem Kidwai. Let me pause a moment to order those. [pause] OK, I’m back.
Based on a few scraps I’ve seen, I’m fairly certain that there is interesting history to be uncovered from Chinese history--and of course many other cultures where I haven’t even found scraps yet--but I haven’t yet found a good entry point. One of the things about academic literature is that once you’ve found one good source, you can follow the trail of breadcrumbs in their bibligraphy to find out who else is working on the same topic, and then look at their bibliographies to find more sources, and so on, and so on. That’s one of the ways I find interesting new sources to track down. But because my starting point tends to be from works focusing on Europe, the branching bibligraphy trails tend to circle around the same topics. So I appreciate getting questions that push me outside those specific circles. Thanks, Amy!
As usual, all the publications mentioned here will be linked in the show notes.
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Lesbian Book Bingo 2018
History is Gay podcast
The musical Hamilton has quite deservedly stirred up a lot of interest in the Revolutionary War era and, from a separate angle, in history as experienced through lives that don’t fit the straight white male Christian default. The collection Hamilton’s Battalion operates at the intersection of those two topics, being a collection of three historic romance novellas focusing on respectively a Jewish couple with the woman joining the army passing as a man (“Promised Land” by Rose Lerner), a same-sex male couple, one of whom is black (“The Pursuit of...” by Courtney Milan), and a same-sex female couple, both of whom are black (“That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole). And additional unifying theme is a direct personal connection to Alexander Hamilton via the framing device of Mrs. Hamilton’s quest to collect stories and anecdotes about her husband after his death. This is a review only of the third story, though I intend to read the others at a later point. [* But see note below.]
Mercy Alston works as a maid for Mrs. Hamilton as well as a part-time secretary, taking and transcribing dictation of the interviews that are being collected. Her past includes a childhood in an orphanage and a series of romances with women that were shipwrecked on the rocks of the absence of social models for their permanence. She’s buried her romantic dreams along with her earlier ambitions as a writer. Andromeda Stiel appears in her life bringing her grandfather’s story to add to Mrs. Hamilton’s collection, as well as bringing a free and open sensuality and a definite interest in breaking through Mercy’s cynical pessimism and capturing her heart.
This was an absolutely lovely story that wove a strong historical knowledge of the lives of singlewomen and the Revolutionary-era African American experience in New York City with a believable and positive romantic arc that felt true to its times in almost every aspect. (And I’m not going to quibble over the few things that felt a bit modern-minded to me, because there was quite a variety of experience of women’s same-sex relationships in that era.) The personalities and past experiences of the two women created enough conflict and tension to give the romance time to develop and the requisite speedbump late in the story was neither artificial nor avoidable. It’s too easy to say, “This could have been avoided if people had just talked things out” when you’re dealing with a modern world that has expected paradigms for same-sex relationships. I felt that Mercy’s reaction to the “speedbump” was perfectly in character given the times and her own history. [** See also note below.]
Cole’s writing is beautiful and lyrical and I could wish that she’d turn her hand to writing romances between women again...and soon.
* * *
*Note 1: It's been brought to my attention that Mercy Alston makes appearances as a minor character in the first two stories via the narrative frame, and that this can affect how one reads her own story. So you may not want to follow my lead in reading "That Could Be Enough" in isolation like this!
**Note 2: Having seen some other reviewers' reactions to the "they should have just talked things out when the problem came up" I'd like to toss in a plea from a different life experience, and one that isn't necessarily specific to the precarious position of women who loved women in pre-modern settings.
It's all very easy to say, "If the person you've fallen in love with has done something that gives the appearance of treating your relationship as being of no lasting value, as being a passing fancy to be discarded and left behind, obviously what you should do is to challenge them about it and risk having your worst fears and self-doubts confirmed from her own mouth (as your last lover did), rather than keeping your mouth shut, burying your hurt, and pretending you aren't wounded." Very easy, right? Wrong.
It may be easy for certain personality types, but if I'd been in Mercy's situation? I'd have kept my mouth shut, buried my hurt, pretended I didn't care, and added it to my past experiences as a confirmation of how the world works and that I'm not worthy of love and loyalty. And everyone who says, "This is an idiot plot. This isn't believable." is saying that I am not a believable character. There really are people who react like this in real life, and we deserve to see ourselves reflected in fiction and promised our happy endings despite our paralyzing anxiety over emotional confrontations.
The submssions period for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast closed last night. When I woke up, my in-box contained one last item. (Being in California, I could set the cut-off as "when I wake up on the 1st" and know that I'd included all time zones up through midnight.)
I'll start reading submissions this weekend, but in the mean time, here are some interesting stats on what came in. Since I asked people to include the time and place of the setting in the header information, I can survey those topics before reading.
In total, I received 24 submissions. A solid number, though I confess I wouldn't have been surprised to receive a lot more than that. (There's an old saying in the short fiction publishing business that if you announce a new magazine, on the first day you'll get five subscriptions and 500 submissions.) One third arrived during the first 20 days of the month. The second third arrived in the next 9 days. And the last third showed up on the 30th and 31st. So you can see why I indulged in a bit of nail-biting!
The word-count limit was 5000 words, and almost a third came in right at the limit (which--if the authors are like me--probably means that they were frantically editing to get down to that length) and a total of 10 were somewhere in the 4000-5000 range. Six were in the 3000-4000 range, and the rest at shorter lengths, down to some flash-length pieces. (If my top choice stories include a couple of shorter works, I may expand my buying, but being shorter won't give a story an advantage in being selected otherwise.)
I strongly encouraged people to explore settings outside the popular choice of 19th century Anglophone countries. At the point when half the stories had come in, only 2 had pre-19th century settings. (And 3 were disqualified for failing to follow the guidelines and having 20th century settings.) Somewhere around that point, I mentioned in the publicity that I really really hoped to see a bit more diversity to choose from, and maybe that encouraged a few writers because the second half of the submissions included only 2 19th century settings. Overall, I have 5 stories set in eras up to the 10th century, 4 in the 11-16th centuries, 3 in the 17-18th, 9 in the 19th century, and 3 disqualified for being 20th century.
There was a lot more diversity of location from the very start. Within the first half of the submissions, stories already covered 4 continents, with a 5th continent being added in the later half of the submissions. No stories set in South America or Antarctica. (Antarctica might have been difficult, given that I can't find any evidence of women among the 19th century explorers of that continent.) But even within the continental distribution, the only countries for which more than one story was submitted were the USA, England, and Ireland, and each of those only had 2. Very heartening!
As I emphasized above regarding length, story quality (and fit within the other content guidelines) will be the determining factor in which stories I select to buy, but it's hard to buy stories with non-default settings if no one submits them. So at least I can be happy on that point!
As noted above, I plan to do the first read-throughs this weekend. I hope to have the stories I want selected by the weekend after that. Announcements won't be made until after contracts have been signed.
Today's the last day to submit your lesbian historical short stories for consideration for the podcast. It's probably a little late to decide to write one from scratch, but if you've been working on something, make sure you don't miss the deadline. (In practical terms, anything I've received by the time I wake up tomorrow will be accepted -- that way I cover all possible time-zones -- but don't push it!) Submissions have been picking up a little as the deadline nears: a quarter of what I've received has come in within the last few days. If trends hold, I'm expecting something of a flood today, which would be delightful, if a bit nail-biting.
About a week ago, I mentioned on Twitter that most of what I'd received at that point were 19th century Anglophone settings. I don't know if that kicked some people into gear or if those writing in earlier settings just happened to be still working on things, but I'm happy to report that the variety of times and places is a bit more varied now. (Story quality is what guides the selection, of course, but I can't choose stories that I didn't receive!)
And then tomorrow (or more probably this weekend) I start reading and making the difficult decisions. And I'm delighted to project that it will be difficult!
The next three LHMP entries are all taken from the collection Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, which focuses on linguistic data and analysis. I'd picked the book up back in my linguistics grad school days, so it wasn't shelved with my gender and sexuality books and I hadn't realized it had relevant articles until I saw the title in a bibliography I was mining and said, "Hey, wait, I think I own that book!" The first two of the articles definitely show some limitations from the authors not having a deep historical background. I may be being a little unfair--looking at the date of publication, a lot of the significant work on the history of sexuality that I take for granted now hadn't been published yet. This particular article has a rather intriguing glossary of terms associated with queer sexuality in French, although anyone planning to use them in historic fiction would do well to understand the more complex and non-sexual uses of the words as well.
Conner, Randy P. 1997. “Les Molles et les chausses: Mapping the Isle of Hermaphrodites in Premodern France” in Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia & Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510471-4
A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.
Connor, Randy P. “Les Molles et les chausses: Mapping the Isle of Hermaphrodites in Premodern France”
This paper starts with a rather poetic framing of the French language of sexuality in the 16th century as “cornucopian in abundance”. The general theme is that this is an era when popular and slang terminology for same-sex and gender-transgressive behavior reflected this sense of expansive abundance in its variability and prevalence.
There is a brief review of various myths of same-sex origins know in 16th century France, such as neo-Platonic interpretations of Plato’s “other half” myth. This is followed by a discussion of the varied and shifting meanings of “sodomite”. The article explores contexts in which “sodomite” is narrowed to cover specifically same-sex activity, including the account by Henri Estienne where he applies it to women. There is a focus on contexts where male and female same-sex activity were treated equivalently. Next there is a consideration of terms that distinguished “active” and “passive” participants, focusing primarily on men, especially the origins and uses of “bardache”.
Vocabulary used for female same-sex relations is taken from Montaigne’s journal and from Brantôme, who provides a wealth of examples including tribade, lesbienne, fricarelle, fricatrice, as well as terms for the sex act such as “donna con donna”. Brantôme specifically uses “lesbienne” for women in same-sex relationships, not only in reference to France but elsewhere in Europe as well as in Turkey. He also equates it with “fricarelle”, a derivative of Latin “fricatrix”. There is a list of historic women from classical to Renaissance times thought by the early modern French to have had lesbian relations (from authors such as Juvenal, Martial, Lucian, Brantôme, and Sappho).
There is an extensive discussion of the terminology of male same-sex relations in naval contexts, including piracy. There was a French perception that same-sex relations were introduced to France from Italy, especially by the court of Catherine de Medici. Court life was generally associated with cross-gender behavior and gender transgression. The article concludes with a list of the terminology discussed in the article with contextual definitions, although it should be understood that the sexual sense may not have been the primary meaning of the words.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 18d - (Un)Conventional Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/27 - listen here)
There is a long, complicated, tangled, and contradictory history in Western culture between the idea of love between women and the institution of women in cloistered religious communities. That relationship has been inspired, in part, by the dynamic of a single-sex community, populated by women who by definition are not in sanctioned relationships with men, and who have a certain amount of internal autonomy in arranging their lives. It shares this dynamic with institutions such as gender-segregated schools, especially boarding schools and colleges that form a 24/7 community, but also to a lesser degree with gendered professions, especially those that form a separate community as well as providing a livelihood.
But the second factor in the association between lesbians and convents in the popular imagination has been the shifting stereotypes about women’s sexuality, and about the psychology of women who are officially removed from the mainstream sexual economy of marriage and from easy access to and by men. With the rise of the Reformation in the 16th century, cloistered women became a target of a particularly nasty combination of anti-Catholic sentiment and misogyny that added new twists to the image of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism.
But I’d like to look at the historic evidence and motifs from a position that strives for a positive understanding of both the religious and sexual contexts. And here I’m going to take a moment to emphasize and acknowledge that people in our culture can have some strong feelings and deep prejudices both on the topic of of lesbians and on the topic of organized religion and even specifically about the Catholic church. In doing this episode, it is in no way my intent to play into prejudices or to dismiss people’s negative experiences with respect to these topics. Given the audience for this podcast, it’s fairly easy to say, “We all know that many people in the past viewed lesbians negatively and portrayed them as being deviant or sinful, but we’re going to acknowledge that as the context of our historic records and move on to find a positive history for same-sex love in spite of it.”
I can’t assume the same uniformity of attitude from my listeners to both the reality and the fiction of the history of the Catholic church and its institutions. I have close friends who are Catholic; I have close friends who have had very traumatic experiences with organized religion and in some cases with Catholic institutions specifically; and as an atheist I have a somewhat privileged position of standing outside both those dynamics.
So to everyone listening, please believe that my intent here is to treat all my listeners’ experiences and beliefs as valid and worthy of respect. And if I fail--especially if I fail through my approach of treating the subject of religion dispassionately and clinically--I am happy to have those failures pointed out to me so that I can try to do better in the future.
In considering how the intersection of lesbianism and convents have been treated in literature across the ages, it’s important to separate out the experiences of individual people and the meaning given to those experiences by the society around them. Just as today we view desire between women as just one type of expression among the whole spectrum of normal experiences, regardless of how it was framed by past societies, similarly we need to recognize that the structures and ideals of Catholic religious institutions both shaped and were shaped by the times in which they existed, and that depictions of them in historic sources are not value-neutral, both for good and ill.
From the very beginning, Christianity has encouraged an ideal of transferring the emotional bonds typically associated with romantic and sexual relationships to a relationship with God. There has also always been an ideal of asceticism and the deliberate refusal of sensual pleasures as a way of elevating the mind and spirit. And, not to put to fine a point on it, Christianity has always had a bit of a hang-up about sex in general. These themes have manifested in different ways at different times, but as an overall guiding principle, it has meant that Christian ideals have tended to treat sexual pleasure as something that distracts from religious devotion and is to be constrained to specific acceptable circumstances and modes if it is to avoid condemnation.
This hasn’t always meant celibacy--even the requirement for Catholic priests to be celibate wasn’t strictly required until reforms of the 12th century, although it had been maintained as an ideal from the beginning. But the nature of Christian monastic orders meant a de facto expectation of celibacy, and the use of gender-seregated communities, even in orders that were open to both men and women, was intended to make it easier to live up to this ideal.
The hitch, of course, was that people didn’t always enter religious communities because of a vocation. Men might become monks or members of the clergy as a career path. Women might enter a convent--or be pressured into doing so--if their culture lacked other approved lifestyles for unmarried women and marriage were not an option for whatever reason. This wasn’t the case in all Catholic cultures in all eras, but in those where it was, young women with no religious vocation at all might find themselves warehoused in convents.
Furthermore, even those who did have a positive religious vocation were not exempt from the attractions of interpersonal emotional bonds with specific individuals. This was something that convents acknowledged and tried to manage with rules addressing behavior, the appearance of favoritism, and access to privacy. The concern was not always for the possibility of erotic relationships, but also for the challenges to community cohesion and the potential disruption of management hierarchies that romantic pairings could represent.
And then there is the issue of sex drive. European cultures have had many changing attitudes towards women’s sex drives and the hazards they might pose to social order. People who are familiar only with the Victorian myth of women as sexless beings might be surprised to learn that the pop culture attitude in the middle ages in much of Europe was that women had a much stronger and more overwhelming sex drive than men did, and that the primary concern was to control and manage women’s sexual desires such that they didn’t lead men into sin.
There is a regular theme in popular literature of medieval Western Europe that cloistered women were so frustrated by lack of sexual access to men, that they would take any and all opportunities to act out their desire. This resulted in endless jokes and ribald tales of orgies in convents between nuns and their priests--the men who always had access to religious women no matter how strict the rules. The mirror image of this motif was that women who didn’t have easy access to men for sexual encounters would be so driven by their desires that they would have sexual relations with each other to make do. The medieval imagination tended to have a hard time imagining women having erotic desires for women as a first preference.
One of the large set of problems that inspired the Reformation and the establishment of various Protestant churches was a recognition that the strict rules of religious celibacy in various Catholic institutions set a vast number of people up to fail in their religious ideals. In general, Protestant institutions preferred to emphasize “continence within marriage” over the more absolute approach of the Catholic celibate ideal. But this divergence of practice around the question of celibacy also led to many Protestant movements focusing on celibate institutions within the Catholic church as being both iconic of Catholicism and inherently problematic. One focus of this animus was on the idea of convents as creating an unnatural woman-only culture that inherently led to sexual deviance between the women involved, and especially led to predatory relationships between the women in the convent power hierarchy and young novices who were portrayed as “innocent victims” not only of the convent structure but of the Catholic church in general. Victims to be treated as damsels in distress who might be rescued by bold, virile Protestant men.
But enough of the historic background to all this, how did these themes play out in the historic and literary record?
One type of data that I’ve discussed in previous episodes has been convent regulations that tried to manage and control the possibility of special emotional relationships between nuns. There were guidelines about avoiding the possibility of two nuns being private together, especially not having private time sharing the same bed. Signs of affection, such as using endearments or physical contact like hand-holding or kissing might be discouraged. The concern was not only sexual but the potential for jealousies and favoritism among the nuns, or simply for distraction from a focus on God.
But the possibility that signs of affection might signal or lead to forbidden behavior were not solely a feature of religious same-sex institutions. The 16th century Ventian “Casa della Zitelle” was a secular institution that trained at-risk girls in approved household and job skills. Among their regulations was one that said, “When it is noted that one of the zitelle is too affectionate with another girl, the two must be separated from each other and accompanied by others.” This type of policing of affectionate behavior is a recurring, though never consistent, theme in all-woman institutions, up through girls’ school of the early 20th century.
Guidelines in convent handbooks for penances acknowledged the potential for nuns to engage in sexual activity with each other, often under vague terms like “practicing vice” but sometimes specifically mentioning the use of penetrative instruments. Based on the types of penances assigned, this activity was considered less serious than heterosexual transgressions, and much less serious than homosexual activity between men.
The evidence for sexual relations between nuns also includes investigations of specific cases, not all of which appear to have been consensual, so the later stereotype of the predatory abbess is not entirely a figment of anti-Catholic sentiment. The most sensational cases, such as the early 17th century investigation records of Bendetta Carlini in Italy, may have provided fuel for rumors of convent scandals as well. Benedetta had extensive sexual contact with a nun assigned to be her companion, while claiming that she was acting under a sort of possession by an angel.
There is also plenty of evidence for close emotional bonds between nuns creating concern or being noteworthy, even when there’s no mention of sexual concerns. Correspondence between the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and her close friend and protegée Richardis of Stade is full of passionate and even erotic language, and the conflict that arose when Richardis left to become abbess of another institution has all the air of a romantic breakup. Whatever the private nature of their relationship--and Hildegard elsewhere records disapproving opinions of women who “play a male role in coupling with another woman”--the disruption and bad feelings that fell out from their emotional relationship is a clear example of the sort of problem that convent regulations were trying to prevent.
But there are also examples of expressions of deep love and desire between nuns that are entirely positive in context. In the podcast episode I did on medieval love poetry between women, I included a 12th century poem translated from the Latin from one nun to another expressing sentiments and desires that are clearly both romantic and erotic yet show no evidence of either guilt or negative consequences. And correspondence between religious women in various centuries couch their relationships in the language of more than sisterly devotion. Although convents may have had valid concerns for the disruptive potential of romantic bonds, that doesn’t mean that romantic bonds were always disruptive or always repressed. It’s only that we’re more likely to have records of the occasions when they were.
This shows up particularly in the use of convents to warehouse young women in an environment protected from male attention, even when they weren’t intended for a religious life. This type of situation provides the occasional example of sexual hijinks between women that no doubt played into popular stereotypes. In the 17th century when the husband of Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin wanted to break up her love affair with another young woman, both of them were sent to a convent to cool off. Though the tactic might have been more successful if they hadn’t both been sent to the same convent, where they played pranks on the nuns and escaped together. A similar failure of a convent to protect a young woman from female attentions features in the early life of 17th century opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny, who infiltrated the convent where her lover was being kept and set fire to the place to cover their escape together.
The concerns about romantic and sexual relationships between nuns that can be traced within Catholic institutions--and especially those found prior to the Reformation--demonstrate that the motif was not solely a product of anti-Catholic prejudice in more recent times. Consider, for example, the fictionalized story used by Erasmus, a Dutch Renaissance theologian and Catholic priest, where a girl who expresses a religious vocation is warned not to enter a convent with the allusion that “there are more there who copy Sappho’s behavior than share her talent.” There is a streak of cynicism as well as garden variety misogyny, but it tends to be aimed at individuals rather than institutions.
But the most extreme literary examples of lesbian nuns include outright pornography as well as political assaults and function to attack Catholicism as an institution, whether penned by those promoting Protestant views, or by those criticizing organized religion as a whole. Up through the Renaissance, literary depictions of lesbianism within convents mostly focused on the motif of insatiable female desire. Women were portrayed as having such strong sex drives that if men were not available, then women could fill the need.
One example of this genre is the anonymous Venus dans la Cloître, or “Venus in the Covent”, originally published in 1683 and later republished and translated in expanded editions. The work takes the form of a dialogue between two fictional teenaged nuns, Sister Agnes and Sister Angelique, in which the elder, Angelique, comes upon the newly arrived Sister Agnes in the middle of masturbating and decides to give her a more formal instruction in sexual pleasure. As is typical in this sort of “sex education” genre, the scenario is depicted as an older, sexually experienced woman initiating a younger, sexually naive one who makes a show of being reluctant or embarrassed. Angelique’s past sexual experience is not limited to women but the convent setting provides the context for the description of same-sex acts. The work has a certain air of criticizing the sexual repression encouraged by the convent structure, but primarily it is simply a work of pornography. In fact, an English translation in the early 18th century may have been the subject of the first legal conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom.
After the Reformation, a new theme emerges: that convents are an inherently corrupting force. This more polemical and specifically anti-Catholic approach can be found in Andrew Marvell’s poem “Upon Appleton House” which frames itself as a family history of his patron, centered around the eponymous Appleton House, which began life as a convent. The family connection is made through the patron’s ancestor who--in a fictionalized incident--is depicted as pursuing marriage with a young woman who is contemplating a life of religious devotion. But the convent, it turns out, is a hotbed of same-sex erotic activity, and the suitor not only “rescues” the object of his attention from this fate, but arranges for the convent to be legally dissolved and handed over to him, thus becoming the family seat.
Written in the mid-17th century when England was rife with religious conflicts of several flavors, the descriptions play up anti-Catholic sentiment and attribute the convent’s downfall to the alleged practice of vice, when in actual fact, it was privatized as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries after his schism with Rome. But religious history aside, we see the motif of the predatory abbess, taking advantage of the innocent girls in her charge. Somewhat unusually, here it is the innocent young girl who is encouraged to imagine herself as a future abbess, and tempted with the advantages and attractions of life in the convent:
"Here live beloved, and obey'd:
Each one your Sister, each your Maid.
And, if our Rule seem strictly pend,
The Rule it self to you shall bend.
Our Abbess too, now far in Age,
Doth your succession near presage.
How soft the yoke on us would lye,
Might such fair Hands as yours it tye!
Rather than offering her a life of pure devotion, they entice her with images of “pleasure mixed with piety” using the image of infusing fruit with candied syrup.
"Nor is our Order yet so nice,
Delight to banish as a Vice.
Here Pleasure Piety doth meet;
One perfecting the other Sweet.
So through the mortal fruit we boyl
The Sugars uncorrupting Oyl:
And that which perisht while we pull,
Is thus preserved clear and full.
"For such indeed are all our Arts;
Still handling Natures finest Parts.
Flow'rs dress the Altars; for the Clothes,
The Sea-born Amber we compose;
Balms for the griv'd we draw; and pastes
We mold, as Baits for curious tastes.
What need is here of Man? unless
These as sweet Sins we should confess.
The true meaning of the candy pastes they offer is intimated by the assurance, “What need is here of man?” And if that weren’t clear enough, it is followed by a suggestion that she will enjoy the nightly companionship of other nuns:
"Each Night among us to your side
Appoint a fresh and Virgin Bride;
Whom if Our Lord at midnight find,
Yet Neither should be left behind.
Where you may lye as chast in Bed,
As Pearls together billeted.
All Night embracing Arm in Arm,
Like Chrystal pure with Cotton warm.
This isn’t the pure pornography of Venus in the Convent. The purpose is not to arouse the listener, but to lay the groundwork for the suitor’s legal assault on the convent, in language that can only be justified by the presupposition of some enormous wrong.
Oft, though he knew it was in vain,
Yet would he valiantly complain.
"Is this that Sanctity so great,
An Art by which you finly'r cheat
Hypocrite Witches, hence avant,
Who though in prison yet inchant!
Death only can such Theeves make fast,
As rob though in the Dungeon cast.
"Were there but, when this House was made,
One Stone that a just Hand had laid,
It must have fall'n upon her Head
Who first Thee from thy Faith misled.
And yet, how well soever ment,
With them 'twould soon grow fraudulent
For like themselves they alter all,
And vice infects the very Wall.
"But sure those Buildings last not long,
Founded by Folly, kept by Wrong.
I know what Fruit their Gardens yield,
When they it think by Night conceal'd.
Fly from their Vices. 'Tis thy 'state,
Not Thee, that they would consecrate.
Fly from their Ruine. How I fear
Though guiltless lest thou perish there."
This text may seem rather tame by erotic standards. But it demonstrates how the two themes of anti-Catholicism and same-sex erotica became entwined in literature. A much more explicit form of that combination can be found in Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse or The Nun, published in 1760. Again we have the motif of the expreienced, predatory, older authority figure taking advantage of a rather improbably naive religious novice.
Susan, the object of the predatory Mother Superior’s attention, goes beyond all believability in maintaining her ignorance of the sexual nature of those attentions. At the same time, her seducer seems bent on inducing some recognition or response from Susan, not merely taking advantage of her position for her own gratification. When Susan is accused of having a “suspicious intimacy” with another nun and of enjoying improper desires, she protests that she doesn’t even understand what they could be talking about. It is after that incident (which primes the reader for the topic) that she comes under the authority of the predatory Mother Superior who immediately fastens on Susan as her new favorite, giving her compliments and caresses and undressing her.
Susan’s protestations of innocence and ignorance are somewhat undermined by the way she uses her influence over the Mother Superior to win concessions and favors for others, by offering and allowing her kisses and caresses. There are two scenes where a shared erotic encounter involving kissing bosoms and “squeezing all over the body” results in orgasmic swooning of both parties…which Susan still fails to recognize as sexual in nature.
It isn’t until the Mother Superior is pressuring Susan to admit her own erotic awareness that Susan finally recognizes their encounter together in bed as something that falls in the category of sin. There follows much angst and finally self-realization, at which point Susan flees the convent and immediately comes to a bad end.
Here is an excerpt that gives a sense of the depiction.
[Mother Superior] shed tears and then said: “Ah Sister Suzanne, you don't love me!"
"I don't love you, dear Mother?"
“Tell me what I must do to prove it to you.”
"That you will have to guess."
“I am trying, but I cannot think of anything."
By now she had raised her collar and put one of my hands on her bosom. She fell silent, and so did I. She seemed to be experiencing the most exquisite pleasure. She invited me to kiss her forehead, cheeks, eyes and mouth, and I obeyed. I don't think there was any harm in that, but her pleasure increased, and as I was only too glad to add to her happiness in any innocent way, I kissed her again on forehead, cheeks, eyes and lips. The hand she had rested on my knee wandered all over my clothing from my feet to my girdle, pressing here and there, and she gasped as she urged me in a strange, low voice to redouble my caresses, which I did. Eventually a moment came, whether of pleasure or of pain I cannot say, when she went as pale as death, closed her eyes, and her whole body tautened violently, her lips were first pressed together and moistened with a sort of foam, then they parted and she seemed to expire with a deep sigh. I jumped up, thinking she had fainted, and was about to go and call for help. She half opened her eyes and said in a failing voice: "You innocent girl! it isn't anything. What are you doing? Stop..." I looked at her, wild-eyed and uncertain whether I should stay or go. She opened her eyes again; she had lost her power of speech, and made signs that I should come back and sit on her lap again. I don't know what was going on inside me, I was afraid, my heart was thumping and I breathed with difficulty, I was upset, oppressed, shocked and frightened, my strength seemed to have left me and I was about to swoon. And yet I cannot say it was pain I was feeling. I went over to her and she once again motioned me to sit on her lap, which I did; she was half dead and I felt as though I were dying myself. We remained in that peculiar state for some time.
It should be acknowleged here that this genre of literature typically is not portraying entirely consensual sex. There is generally a context of coercion or at least abuse of authority involved. And the interpretation of the scenarios as having anti-Catholic motivations must also be considered in the historic context of actual sexual abuse within hierarchical religious institutions--just as such abuse has existed within secular hierarchical institutions. In the same way, within a more general context, the fact that accusations of lesbian activity have historically been thrown at women who held positions of power--especially those, such as women within the convent hierarchy, who had some independence from male authorities--it did not mean that all accusations of lesbian activity within convents was motivated by animus. Here I’m focusing not on the truth or falsehood of the motifs, but on why they became part of popular literary culture.
One might expect the motif of lesbian nuns to figure more heavily in the French decadent literature of the 19th century, given the hostility of those writers to conventional morality and virtue, but I haven’t run across any obvious examples to share. The single-sex environment of convent schools was occasionally employed as a shorthand for implying lesbian desires. In the novel Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife, Adolphe Belot attributes his character’s fatal lesbian obsession to a relationship begun in a convent school.
Although it doesn’t fit within the historic theme, I think no discussion of the complex history of lesbians and nuns would be complete without noting the 1985 book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, by Rosemary Curb and originally published by Naiad Press, that shared the lives and experiences of modern women dealing with the intersection of religious vocation and desire for women.
It brings us around again to a recognition that the ways in which these two themes have intersected or been played off against each other across the ages has been a function of social attitudes and assumptions about the nature of women’s lives in religious orders, and contrasting attitudes and assumptions about the nature of same-sex desire. As those attitudes have shifted across the ages, women’s desire for each other within the convent has been seen as a binding force, as a disruptive distraction, as a sign of human frailty, as an emotional relief valve, as an inevitable consequence of repression, as a subject of voyeuristic speculation, and as a weapon of political accusation. Each interpretation reflected the anxieties and preoccupations of its own era, with consequences for the actual women who found themselves targetted at that intersection.