I love getting reader questions as blog prompts, and given the sort of people I hang out with, I get some really fascinating ones! Here's a question that Riia sent in for the blog. I've known Riia through the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) for a very long time and have been following her professional travels and adventures from Alaska to California to Tasmania (am I remembering that correctly?) to Italy to Sweden doing research with lasers and garnets (among other things). She broke her rule about "I'm only reading novels in Swedish because I need the practice" in order to start the Alpennia series. And she was curious about the following (edited slightly for clarity):
The bit in Mother of Souls where they notice the fluctus from some of the panes of stained glass made me wonder if the difference between the glass that has it and the glass that does not is measurable with other tools than a sensitive person. My new research project will be using the geochemistry of steatite to try to determine where people were getting their kitchen tools from during the Viking age. One of the tools I am considering using for this project is Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR), an entirely non-destructive analytical technique which measures the reflectance of light off of an object. It can be used to distinguish between compositionally different yet visually similar materials. It is being increasingly used in archaeology, and on my recent trip to Umeå to meet with colleagues there, they showed me how they were able to distinguish between different types of quartzite and different types of quartz just by effectively taking photos of the rocks while shining a light on them. They haven't published that study yet, but the attached paper is from their applying the technique to studying rock paintings.
So now I can't help but wonder how early people started playing with the earliest forms Near Infrared analysis. I guess much too late for your books, I would think that it is more like Marie Curie's time period before science starts experimenting with that kind of thing.
On the other hand, it could be interesting to read a story about a couple of modern day girls who study at the university that the Tanifrit Academy grows into, one of whom is hard science and using NIR in her research, the other of whom is studying things that would have been more of interest to Margerit, and who has been reading some of Margerit's preserved writings/notes who decide to apply NIR to the window glass Margerit wrote about (assuming that it survives the revolution that is looming, and then a couple of World Wars, which could happen, depending on the course of battles, fire, etc.).
I love it! And that would make a great fan-fic idea! I don't plan to write anything in Alpennia past the lifetimes of the major characters. (I have this weird superstition about fictional characters that if you don't write their deaths, then they're alive forever. It's one of the things I hated about Tolkien's appendices. Everyone dies eventually so now they've always been dead.) But I wouldn't at all mind other people playing with the idea.
So would it work? There's a constant tension in the Alpennian stories between mechanist ideas, the notion that mysteries--or whatever similar phenomenon one is considering in a non-Christian/religious context--can be analyzed down to a mechanical and scientific set of principles, and a more, well, mystical understanding of the underlying fantasy elements. As an author, I try to aim for an agnostic approach within the stories themselves. Some characters view what they're doing from an entirely mechanical point of view (though the intervention of divine powers may be part of the mechanism), while others view what they're doing from an entirely mystical viewpoint. And within the story there are enough confounding factors that no single definitive answer emerges.
But for me, as the author, from an external point of view, in order for the story to be fantasy rather than a type of science fiction, there has to be a non-rational, non-causal underpinning. And for my world-building to work within a large scale the way I need it to, there must be a clearly subjective aspect to any sort of mystical talents. There's a certain amount that can be analyzed and translated into rules and logical structures, but there will always be a point at which those rules and structures must be translated through...well, I'd say "a human talent", but it isn't simply a matter of specific magical people. There are also non-corporeal forces in the world that can provide that bridge between mystical cause and effect.
Here are some examples of the underlying "rules" I've set up that may help illustrate what I'm trying to say.
In Daughter of Mystery, Margerit and Barbara have some conversations about historical linguistics, and why the words used in mysteries are affected by the interaction of the specific vocabulary and the saint being invoked. While the specific historic semantics and the societal context in which language is associated with particular saints for particular purposes can be traced and utilized, the fact that those associations have an actaul effect on whether the mystery "works" or not operates on a non-rational plane. It just is.
In The Mystic Marriage, when Antuniet and Margerit are fiddling with the specific orientation of the alchemical furnace to get the alignment right for a specific formula, Margerit's talent for visions means that she can sense intuitively when the alignment is right, while Antuniet's weaker ability can only recognize it when it happens, and Anna has no talent for vision at all. Anna can use the resulting calculations and rules to create successful alchemical processes, but it's unlikely that she could ever develop new formulas on her own, even with a detailed experimental record of "what works." In a context like this your NIR question is similar to a question of whether scientific instrumentation could substitute for Margerit's vision to guide purely experimental manipulations to that point where it clicks and "works."
In a future story, there will be a character who has a talent for "seeing ghosts." That is, she can perceive (and interact with) intangible remnants of dead people. And there will be a clear implication that those intangible remnants have the ability to produce effects in the "real" world. She understands what she's seeing as "ghosts" because of the social framework she's operating in and because of the specific experiences and entitites she's interacted with. But at some point her talent will intersect with Margerit's talent for visions and it will come out that this person can "see" manifestations of saints at work during mysteries, even (although this is at the authorial-knowledge level) if those saints were never actually living people. But she doesn't have visions of fluctus or the other types of mystical perception we've been introduced to. It's specifically in the context of...I'd say "embodied" personality, except embodiment is definitely not what we're talking about here! And the entities that she senses have an existence outside of her perception of them, even if few other people perceive them in the exact way she does. It isn't a matter of a literal afterlife, and she isn't seeing "souls" (although she and Margerit will have some interesting theological debates about that).
I see the original question as having two sides. One is: within my understanding of the world I've built, is it possible for a purely mechanical instrument to detect the types of mystical effects that I call fluctus as a substitute for how talented human beings detect them? The second is: if that is possible, could a person who has no inherent mystical talent use the results of those instruments to create mystical effects? Similarly to how Anna can produce alchemical gems by following formulas. (To be sure, we don't actually know that Anna has no mystical talent at all, simply that she doesn't seen visions or perceive fluctus in any other noticeable way. But let's work on the assumption that she has no mystical talent at all.)
I think my answer is that somewhere in the process, there must be an introduction of the numinous. It may be in the design of the process, as in the alchemy formulas. It may be in the execution of the process, as with nonsense charms that can be made to work anyway by someone with the right talent. It may be in the amplification of the process by the participation of a community that includes a sufficient presence of trace mystical talent, as is the case with many of the traditional church mysteries. With specific regard to Near-infrared Spectroscopy and similar instruments, I think that they could work if a talented person were involved somewhere in the process. So, for example, someone with a very weak talent for visions might be able to use them to enhance that talent. Or a mystically talented engineer might be able to build an NIR device that could detect fluctus even when used by a non-talented technician. (But then another engineer without that talent might build a device from the same exact specifications that wouldn't work the same way.)
From a world-building and story-structure point of view, the magic of Alpennia only works if it's not entirely mechanical. Otherwise it would have been possible for talented people over the ages to create a sustainable body of knowledge and experimental work that would survive shifts in personnel. The basic shape of history, society, and technology can only function in the way I've set it up if the unpredicatability and instability of individual talent undermines the potential to build that sustainable knowledge-base. Margerit is going to try, and she will succeed to some extent precisely because--at some level--she recognizes that the key is being able to identify talented people in a systematic fashion. But magico-technological progress that relies on trusting an "invisible" talent that is distributed randomly with regard to social and political power structures has a really hard mountain to climb. That's one of the escape hatches for "why isn't the world of Alpennia a lot more different from our own than it is?" It's the same reason that aristocracies and hereditary oligarchies aren't sustainable in the long run: because the characteristics that put people in power in the first place are not inheritable in a direct sense, so the structures of power/knowledge/ability are left in the hands of people who don't have the skill to use them but have an investment in retaining those structures even when they no longer have the ability itself.
I've dropped a few hints that there have been many ups and downs in the history of effective systematic use of magic in my fictional world. If I ever write my "real story of Tanfrit" I may explore one of those "ups" in the context of the intersection of craft guilds and mystery guilds. But at the same time, as with the mystical stained glass, I've indicated that the "downs" in that history can leave all manner of clearly magical artifacts and practices scattered around where knowledge of how they were made or used has been lost.
But now I would like to read that fan-fic about the NIR lab at Tanfrit University analyzing the magical glass.
I’ve chosen two biographies of Charlotte Cushman to synchronize with the podcast about her. The one in this entry directly engages with Cushman’s same-sex desires and relationships and examines how she curated her own reputation with regard to her personal life, as well as examining how changing attitudes toward same-sex relations after Cushman’s death may have contributed to a deliberate erasure of her legacy. The second biography that I’ll be covering next week is a more conventional, conservative approach that can be seen to participate in that erasure (at least as far as her personal life is concerned).
Merrill, Lisa. 2000. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-0-472-08749-5
A biography of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman that particularly examines her romantic relationships with women.
At the height of her career, Charlotte Cushman was considered America’s greatest actress. She was a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world, though contemporary sources reflect contrasting views of her. As a woman who had no romantic entanglements with men, she could be viewed as “pure” and a model of propriety in an occupation (acting) that had a reputation of impropriety. But to early feminists, she was a model of the economically independent woman who claimed male privilege along with playing male roles on the stage. Her physical appearance was both praised and derided for not being conventionally “feminine”.
Cushman curated her own image, both in public and via private letters and diaries--even in how she staged photographs taken of her. Her performance on the boundary of gender was only one aspect of how she communicated how she wished to be seen, as well as negotiating her same-sex desires. Her private correspondence helps draw back the curtain from assumptions about the nature of 19th century “romantic friendships” between women.
But as a performer, another facet is how her spectators attributed meaning to her presentation, and used the act of viewing her performances to engage with their own potential lesbian desires. Similarly, her depiction on stage of strong women, in the context of her own life, became a lens for public attitudes toward changing gender roles. Interestingly, European reactions to her often attributed her transgressive presentation to national character (as an American) rather than to gender.
Chapter 1: Crossings
The biography opens at a crucial turning in Cushman’s life: her first voyage to Europe to perform on the British stage. (The next chapter will step back to review her life from the beginning.) In 1844, at age 28, Cushman traveled to Britain for her first non-U.S. performances. In her diary from this period, she writes of how she misses her lover, the painter Rosalie Sully. While Rosalie was dependent on her parents and living in their home, Cushman had become the supporter of her family, not someone supported. Cushman’s experience as a lesbian was not only in terms of the women she loved, but in her “opting out” of the conventional path of marriage or partnership with a man.
The trip to Britain was a significant step, even in a career that had already made Cushman both a lead actress and manager of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater. Playing opposite British tragedian William Charles Macready inspired her and helped give her connections for an English tour that she felt was essential to her continued career. But while on ship, depression and self-doubt rose. She not only wanted professional acclaim, but the security to live life her own way. Money was one bar to being able to share a household with Rosalie, even though such a household would give social sanction to their relationship.
Though British actors were lauded in the U.S., career success in the other direction was hampered by social prejudices. Americans saw the British as “high culture” while the British considered Americans to be impetuous, direct, and unrefined. One advantage Cushman had was that her forceful personality that was considered “masculine" at home was merely considered “American” abroad. Paradoxically, male Americans in Britain might be considered boorish and uncouth, but Cushman’s assertive personality was considered admirably full of masculine vigor. But Cushman also had to contend with greater social prejudice against actresses in Britain than at home.
Merrill compares the intense physicality of Cushman’s writing about Rosalie in her diaries to Faderman’s assertion that Romantic Friendships (expressly including Cushman’s) were non-sexual. Paradoxically, Cushman’s fame for playing male romantic roles was combined with a reputation for good moral character (because of a lack of male lovers). Romantic friendship gave her an accepted context for her relationships with women, but her own writings make it clear those relationships were erotic. [Note: Merril mistakenly accepts the position that the term and concept “lesbian” didn’t exist before the late 19th century rise of the sexologists, suggesting that without language for it, Cushman and her circle would have no sense of self-identity as women who loved women.]
Cushman’s writings make clear that she and her circle of women friends were constantly analyzing and negotiating how public they could be in their relationships, undermining the idea that they perceived their love as “innocent”. Cushman viewed her bond with Rosalie as a marriage, having given her a ring and used the specific word “marriage” in relation to it in her diary. The diary recounts her erotic dreams of Rosalie and she writes about their devoted bond and looks forward to being reunited.
Alas, Cushman’s British tour would last much longer than the original six month plan, and Rosalie would die before she returned.
Chapter 2: The Hero in the Family and on the Stage
Having begun at the crucial start of Cushman’s British tour, the biography now circles back to her youth and beginnings.
In her own memoir, Cushman notes that she was a “tomboy,” using that word, and notes how the term was used to constrain independent-minded women, though she embraced it. Cushman’s writings both private and public show a process of creating a narrative about her life, identity, desires, and career. She selectively and deliberately created several different personas to manage different aspects of her life. Cushman came from two generations of strong-willed, independent women. She was tall and not conventionally pretty. Her father--a generation older than her mother--had family connections with the Mayflower and early Puritans, which gave her a cachet of the archetypal American pedigree, as well as softening British prejudices against actresses. Cushman elaborated on her “tomboy” origins, noting her intellectual and physical interests, and she showed an early dramatic flair. When she was still a child, her father suffered business losses and functionally abandoned the family. Her maternal uncle encouraged her interest in theater. She excelled in amateur theatricals, including her signature “trouser roles” playing male parts.
The family’s financial situation gave Cushman the narrative framework for the social acceptability of her theatrical career. At age 14, she began performing professionally to help support the family and attracted patrons and teachers by her talent. At first, she trained for the opera. The official story became that her voice was strained by being forced to sing soprano parts with a contralto voice, but this can be seen as a metaphor and excuse for her unsuitability for “traditionally feminine” roles. Her initial reviews were negative for singing roles, but more positive for dramatic parts, and she reached a turning point in the role of Lady Macbeth, playing her as a forceful domineering figure. Spending several years in stock roles in New York, she seized the attention of the critics who helped propel her to success. Her appearance in trouser roles was especially popular. She turned a talent for poetry into a cross-promotional opportunity, using published poems to draw attention to her performance and establish her as a more cultured lady, not simply an actress.
During these early years, she several times had to contend with male patrons who wanted to derail her career toward something more refined (such as literature) or toward marriage. Her rejection of one of these patrons was fastened onto by later biographers as “explaining” her decision to remain unmarried, and her emotional disinterest in male suitors. [Note: this is extremely common in conservative biographies of unmarried professional women. Biographers will sometimes go to great lengths to dig up a potential failed heterosexual romance in order to explain a lack of interest in marriage. In Cushman’s case, the man that biographers chose for this was never even mentioned by name in her memoirs. Just a passing reference to her rejecting someone whose intentions turned out to be “not honorable.”]
In the later 1830s, Cushman played many male roles, which were clearly more memorable than her equally competent performance in female roles. The popularity of actresses in male roles is sometimes attributed to the male audience’s eagerness for the sight of a woman’s legs, but Cushman was equally popular with female spectators in these roles.
Part of Cushman’s legend was a series of key roles that--as framed by her--she fell into or had thrust upon her, but which she then turned into iconic, powerful performances. These included Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist, to which she applied a proto-“method” acting approach, studying people in a New York slum to prepare. Rather than focus on glamorous and feminine roles, she used unattractive, unfeminine roles to display her acting prowess.
By the early 1840s, Cushman was the sole support of an extended family and able to demand better terms for her contracts, even in a weakening theatrical market.
Chapter 3: “Is Such Love Wrong?”
This chapter looks at the background of Cushman’s romantic relationships during her early career. She took over as manager (and leading actress) of the Walnut St. Theater in Philadelphia in 1842 and declared her intention to make it a “respectable and cultivated” place. Her intent was to avoid the more dubious reputation of theater and attract a more cultured audience. This represented a turning point in Cushman’s deliberate construction of her public image.
She wasn’t the only female theater manager of that time. Women managers used the myth of “female respectability” to change the middle class reception of the entertainment. They encouraged treating performances as a formal social event, with appropriate dress and attending as families. Cushman’s romantic disinterest in men helped her image as an icon of respectability and morals.
Despite her busy life, Cushman had the time for deep friendships, infatuations, and at least one love affair with a woman in Philadelphia. Because she socialized predominantly with women--as was normal for women of her class at the time--her life was viewed as following conventional norms. Before her intense mutual love affair with Rosalie Sully, she had other close relationships (not necessarily erotic), most notably with writer Anne Brewster and actress Fanny Kemble. (As noted later, the relationship with Kemble seems to have been more hero-worship, and Kemble became increasingly uncomfortable with Cushman’s attention.) Her ability to engage in these relationships was aided by her decision to establish a separate household from the one where she was supporting her extended family.
With Anne Brewster, Cushman shared a love of literature and poetry. They read to each other and discussed favorite texts. Anne described their love as “pure and elevated” though her language was often strongly sensual. But Anne’s brother was suspicious enough of the nature of their relationship to demand that Anne break it off. Cushman’s diary references to Anne are less intense than Anne’s writings about the relationship, or at least more circumspect. Cushman’s interactions with Fanny Kemble were different in part because Kemble had been something of a mentor to Cushman early in her career.
A general economic downturn led to Cushman resigning as manager at the Walnut, but a new opportunity came in the form of an invitation from prominent English actor William Charles Macready to play opposite him on a U.S. tour. Cushman and Macready had a turbulent and variable professional relationship. She impressed him at first both professionally and personally--in part by flattering his ego--and her desire to impress him drove her to improve her performances and acting style. He provided both a role model and some direct coaching. But at various times in their long association, he was affronted by Cushman’s attitude that she should have equal standing with him in performances and decisions. He was also jealous of how the friendly New York critics responded to Cushman’s performances, and he became less enthusiastic about working with someone who could be a rival to him in reputation. Their increasingly prickly relationship resulted in Macready declining to include Cushman in his tour of the American South. Cushman instead toured New England and was struck by the contrast in professionalism from what she had become accustomed to in New York and Philadelphia.
Returning to Philadelphia, Cushman became increasingly occupied with paying court to Fanny Kemble, who was finding her marriage to a wealthy American Southerner unhappy. Cushman showered Fanny with gifts and invitations and was overjoyed at Kemble’s reception of her. There was a mix of both idolization and desire. The sources of Kemble’s marital discomforts were multiple. Kemble’s husband was hostile to her professional interests, and his family’s participation in slavery-based businesses appalled her. In addition, he was regularly unfaithful. Cushman longed to be Kemble’s savior and to help her achieve the divorce she wanted without losing custody of her children. Cushman’s inability to provide this function revealed the one-sidedness of Kemble’s interest in her and they had a bitter falling out.
Rosalie Sully came into Cushman’s life after Cushman commissioned a portrait from Rosalie’s father. Rosalie differed from Cushman’s previous relationships in returning her devotion in equal measure. Cushman’s diary notes the occasions on which they “slept together” with delight, and though this was probably not a euphemism for sex specifically, it was clearly a meaningful emotional step in their relationship. (That is, not saying that they were not involved sexually at the time, but that the phrase “sleep together” was unlikely to be a direct reference to sex, and simply literally meant sharing a bed overnight.) Cushman later destroyed her correspondence with Rosalie, but the reflections in her diary entries on the voyage to England indicate an intense emotional and physical relationship.
Cushman performed with Macready again on his return to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and she sometimes attributed to him the idea of touring England (though she had been discussing the idea in her correspondence for years). She had a common pattern of creating official stories for some of her professional decisions that might otherwise be viewed negatively. So claiming that Macready was the one who had encouraged her international tour was in line with this myth-making.
Rosalie’s family seems to have been entirely supportive of her relationship with Cushman. Her father came with her to New York to see Cushman off on her voyage, not knowing when they might see each other again.
Chapter 4: Embodying Strong (-minded) Women
This chapter looks at the reception of Cushman’s signature roles and how that reception was associated with social attitudes toward strong women and toward her American identity.
On arriving in London, Cushman declined an invitation to join Macready’s company as he refused to offer her leading roles, already having a leading lady in the company. She struggled to find an entrance to British theater (despite a wealth of letters of recommendation and introduction), largely due to not being considered conventionally pretty enough for the leading female roles. She convinced one theater manager to give her a chance by putting on a spontaneously melodramatic performance in his office. Once she’d gotten a foot through the door, she was able to set her own terms to debut as a star rather than co-star in a performance of Fazio. She played on the British perception of Americans of both genders as representing “masculine vigor” and used melodrama as the vehicle to show off her talents and forceful performance style.
Cushman was pronounced a brilliant success in her debut and then agreed to play opposite American actor Edwin Forrest, though her own abilities were judged vastly superior to his. Cushman’s Lady Macbeth and other “strong female” roles delighted everyone except her male co-stars, who often felt both physically and theatrically overshadowed. Cushman was particularly well received by female viewers for these features. Her performance wasn’t merely a direct outgrowth of her personality--she had been deliberately studying interpretation and delivery with prominent British actors on tour in the States, and this paid off in a style of delivery acceptable to British audiences while other American actors were judged incapable of properly portraying iconic words (such as Shakespeare) on the British stage.
The chapter continues with a survey of Cushman’s most iconic female roles: Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, in addition to Lady MacBeth.
Chapter 5: Wearing the Breeches
This chapter looks at Cushman’s male roles on stage and how she used them as personas for flirting with women offstage.
Comments on Cushman’s performance as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet point up some of the moral contradictions of the times. One reviewer, after seeing her, suggested that Romeo should only be played by a woman, because two women together could best portray passionate love “without suggesting vice.” That is, a clear distinction was made between elevated, pure romantic passion (which was considered acceptable between women, and was considered the purest distillation of the ideals of romantic love) and sexual desire (which was not only popularly considered to be only possible between man and woman, but was considered to be inescapably present between man and woman). This attitude held that a man playing Romeo inescapably led the viewer to contemplate sex (vice) as the outcome of love, whereas a woman playing Romeo ruled out the possibility of sex (according to the official party line) and therefore allowed the focus to be on romantic love. This is the same philosophy that allowed women’s Romantic Friendships to flourish and be praised, as long as it was possible to pretend that there was no “vice” involved.
Women playing male roles on stage was normal at the time, though not necessarily common. The popularity of “trouser roles” was in part that they could be played to titillate male audiences with the display of a female body in revealing masculine clothing. But Cushman played the role as a desiring, rather than desired, figure. To prepare for debuting her Romeo in England, she sent for her mother and her sister Susan so that she could play opposite Susan as Juliet, as she had in the States. One of Cushman’s official fictions was that she played Romeo only to give her sister a supportive co-star for her Juliet. This would provide a plausible excuse if her performance were seen as too transgressive. (Never mind that Susan had been pulled into acting only to perform with Charlotte.) The creation of this official narrative was urged by some of Cushman’s friends and supporters. Cushman was not the only actress of the era who worked self-consciously to create an image of respectability to counter the general bad moral reputation of the profession. And trouser roles were a crucial point of contention due to the way they potentially sexualized actresses.
Audiences loved Cushman’s Romeo and praised her “manly passion.” Romeo was the role that pushed her from American curiosity to mistress of the English stage. One critic--perhaps in all innocence--lauded her performance as “Sapphic,” referring to the association of Sappho’s poetry with the sensation of love as a physically overwhelming experience (without necessarily meaning to evoke same-sex erotics).
Just as the conventions of the times saw the expression of passion between women as acceptably “chaste,” Cushman was able to use that framing to express her desire for women offstage as well as on. She began adding masculine touches to her ordinary wardrobe (which did lead to some speculations about her personal life). Other women in her social circle were similarly adopting masculine touches that represented their emancipation from traditional feminine constraints. (We aren’t talking about complete cross-dressing here, but things like masculine tailoring, or masculine hats.)
Cushman’s performance (both on stage and off) was a code that could be deciphered by other women with similar desires. And there were men who found her presentation unsettling specifically for that gender-crossing, calling her performance “unsexed,” “epicene,” “monstrous,” and “a perversion.” These reactions came more from American critics. British critics tended to see her “masculine” performance as simply “American.” Other stereotypes came into play that affected the reception of her Romeo, such as Romeo’s “Italian passion” being viewed as best depicted by a woman based on British stereotypes of Italian men as being unrestrained and too demonstrative (in a feminine fashion). (British ideals of masculinity leaned toward hyper-control over emotional display, which was another factor in considering American masculinity to be “uncouth”.)
Throughout Cushman’s career, female fans would write to her of their passionate response to her performances, expressing sensual and near-erotic fantasies involving her, including jealousy of her leading ladies. She discussed these responses in letters to her female partners, including addressing the possibility that those partners might be jealous of her costars and fans. (And, as we will late see, her partners had some valid concerns about the attractions of star-struck female fans!) In addition to Romeo, two other notable male roles that Cushman played were Hamlet (obviously in the play of the same name) and Cardinal Woolsey in Henry VIII. Cardinal Woolsey was not one of the traditional “trouser roles” (in contrast to Hamlet), and because Cushman was equally famed for her Queen Katherine in the same play, it was a striking choice.
Chapter 6: Scribbling Circles and Strange Sympathies
This chapter discusses Cushman’s reception in England by a community of cultured women, including many who shared intimate relationships, and looks at specifically female views of her life and work.
As soon as she arrived in England, Cushman gathered friends and supporters from a set of artists, writers, and intellectual women. Their correspondence shows a network of friends and lovers who worked each other’s lives into their art. Creative women in 19th century society struggled for success, acceptance, and the ability to do their work in the face of stereotypes of appropriate female behavior. Women were typically each other’s strongest supporters. These were not just upper class intellectual women, but also radicals and reformers.
Cushman benefitted greatly from the support of these women, both emotionally and socially. They showered her with laudatory poetry and invited her to social events. Among the notable members of this circle were the poet Eliza Cook, with whom Cushman developed a passionate relationship. (During this period, Cushman’s correspondence with Rosalie Sully back home appears to have cooled significantly, though Cushman wasn’t always careful throughout her life about breaking off one relationship before starting another.)
Cushman’s intimate friendships were rarely exclusive, and her correspondence often shows an awareness that letters sent and received might not be entirely private and that the contents must be circumspect within the bounds allowed to romantic friendship. Another close friend was Geraldine Jewsbury, who for a while transferred her affections to Cushman from Jane Carlyle (wife of historian Thomas Carlyle--there was an even wider web of ties and jealousies involved). The correspondence among women like this shows how they understood (and misunderstood) and negotiated the nature of their emotional relationships.
In the summer of 1847, Rosalie Sully died. The news struck Cushman badly and within the same timeframe her relationship with Eliza Cook was fading. Having been assisted by her circle of female friends, Cushman’s rising success meant she could support them in turn. Radical author and feminist Matilda Hays was a beneficiary of Cushman’s support and became her lover. Contemporaries such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to their relationship as a marriage, though confidently asserting that they were celibate. Cushman and Hays were noted for dressing identically, wearing masculine-influenced fashions.
Hays returned with Cushman to the U.S. in 1849. In contrast to the British admiration for her “American” forcefulness, Americans now started saying she was too Anglicized in her performance style. That return also brought a renewed relationship with Anne Brewster. But in the summer of 1850, Cushman received word that Eliza Cook was deathly ill in England and immediately returned there, which caused quite a stir in the press. After being assured that Cook was not at death’s door (though she would never entirely recover), Cushman returned to her U.S. tour. [Note: one interesting side issue I noticed in Cushman’s life is how many trans-Atlantic journeys she made, often on short notice and for only brief stays. Although such voyages were never trivial at the time, they were far more common than one might think.]
While in Boston, Cushman and Hays befriended 21-year-old sculptor Harriet Hosmer and formed an immediate attachment. As Cushman and Hays planned a retirement to Italy with other close friends, they invited Hosmer to join them.
Chapter 7: Building a Community
This chapter talks about Cushman’s circle of friends and lovers in Rome, where she was establishing a second home (or rather, a third one, perhaps).
Cushman arrived in Rome in 1852 with her partner Matilda Hays and her personal assistant Sallie Mercer, as well as several female friends, including journalist Grace Greenwood and sculptor Harriet Hosmer (who brought a friend and also her father as chaperone).
A brief note about Sallie Mercer. Cushman first hired the young African American woman as a maid to accompany her on her initial voyage to England. Mercer continued in Cushman’s employ until Cushman’s death, increasing in responsibilities and scope until the title “personal assistant” in the modern sense is the best description for her. (She had far more power and responsibility than “housekeeper” would imply.) Descriptions and photographs of Cushman’s social entertainments in Rome show Mercer as a participant, not only as a servant. One gets the impression that Mercer’s story would be fascinating on its own. She was perhaps the one constant presence in Cushman’s life and accompanied her on all her travels. On those occasions when they were in the U.S. and Mercer took leave to visit her family, Cushman often comments on how essential she was to the smooth running of the household. I feel a little guilty about not mentioning the book’s regular references to Mercer, but she doesn’t directly figure in either the theatrical or romantic arcs of Cushman’s life.
Rome was a popular destination for both English and American travelers and expatriates, due to the combination of the ability to live well on a small budget and the city’s function as a place to study art and sculpture. Certain other American expats in Rome took unsettled notice of the woman-centered, emancipated community that Cushman and her friends were building. There seems to have been a sort of “taking sides” between those who welcomed her and those who disapproved of her. Cushman’s circle became a magnet for other independent and creative women and her forthright activities to promote the careers of her artistic friends contributed to some of the reaction.
Cushman and her immediate circle shared a house in an expat community in the neighborhood of the Spanish Steps. In Italy, the expectations of feminine convention could be abandoned to some degree. Hatty Hosmer delighted in her independence and freedom, supported somewhat unusually by her father. This paternal congeniality was attributed by contemporaries to the fact that the entire rest of the family had died of illness, and Mr. Hosmer felt that allowing Hatty free rein for her active and tomboyish impulses was a way to build up her physical resilience. But his support went even further than unconventional physicality, for he supported her in her sculpting interests. He was comfortable enough with Cushman that he returned to the States, leaving Hatty in her care. Hatty found a teacher for her sculpture career, which, assisted by Cushner’s professional and personal support, began to take off.
Somewhat to Cushman’s disquiet, perhaps not only because she was used to being an unrivaled center of attention, Hays and Hosmer developed an increasingly close relationship. This may have been part of the impetus for Cushman to return to the English stage the next spring, taking Hays with her, though Cushman would repeatedly go though a cycle of “retiring” and then returning to the stage.
The seeds of Cushman’s Roman colony remained, including Hosmer and Greenwood and adding Virginia Vaughan and novelist Isa Blagden, as well as their extended network of artistic friends. Hosmer had had passionate female friendships in her past, including a now-married childhood friend Cornelia Crow, whose father was one of Hosmer’s patrons. (Remember the name Crow. Another of his daughters becomes relevant later.) So it isn’t entirely startling that the growing tension between Hays and Cushman resolved with Hays returning to Rome to be with Hosmer. Cushman threw herself back into performing. Observers commenting on Hays and Hosmer often praised the two in masculine-coded language, much as they did for Cushman herself. Hosmer seems to have been regularly described as “queer” (using that word) in reference to her gender presentation: “the funniest little creature, not at all coarse, rough or slangy, but like a little boy” and “[I had] never seen anything as innocent as Hatty, nor so very queer.” In comparison, reactions to Cushman from her female admirers ranged from the clearly erotic to hero worship to admiration.
Hays became increasingly unhappy away from Cushman and returned to England after four months to apologize and take up their relationship again, though it was cooler now. Cushman’s correspondence with her closest friends about these romantic upheavals urged caution and circumspection regarding revealing the details publicly. Clearly she felt there was something in it that might draw disapproval. There was much she explicitly declined to commit to writing.
Cushman and Hays settled into a home in London together for the next two years before returning to Rome. There, their relationship would be irretrievably damaged by the introduction of American sculptor Emma Stebbins to their circle. Among much coming and going of old and new friends, Cushman and Stebbins began spending a lot of time together and Cushman and Hays were increasingly apart. This time, Hays was the jealous one. They argued and fought. It was when Hays brought their conflict into the open before witnesses that Cushman made the final break. Hays had violated the veil of silence and deniability over the nature of their relationship.
When Hays left Rome, she initiated a “palimony” suit against Cushman, claiming that she’d set her own literary career aside to support Cushman’s career. Cushman gave her a monetary settlement and shortly after was living with Stebbins. Hays returned to London, writing and publishing in support of women’s rights. She later fictionalized her relationship with Cushman in unflattering terms in a bitter novel, Adrienne Hope.
Stebbins was middle aged, wealthy, and a “lady artist.” She had come to Rome to study sculpture, as Hosmer had, and she was immediately entranced by Cushman. In Stebbins’ company, Cushman became somewhat more staid. She began dressing more conventionally and assumed the persona of matriarch of her little community, addressing Hosmer as “dear child.” (It's interesting that Cushman's relationship with Hosmer seems to have survived the drama around Hays.) The relationships between the women in Cushman’s household were variously romantic, erotic, platonic, and professional, and the language they employed to describe their relations sometimes muddies the water, refering to themselves as bachelors and old maids, other times as wives and married partners (and not always aligning those terms with their established partnerships).
Stebbins and Hosmer bonded over their shared interest in sculpture, even as Stebbins and Cushman emulated a traditional middle class marriage. The context of Cushman’s circle brought together other female couples such as Frances Power Cobbe and sculptor Mary Lloyd, as well as women and couples challenging gender norms, such as George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. Cushman had a specific interest in supporting women sculptors. In addition to Hosmer and Stebbings, there was cameo artist Margaret Foley and sculptor Edmonia Lewis who had black and Native American heritage. Lewis’s work was often overtly political and reflective of her ethnic heritages, and as a black woman she faced more than the usual barriers to her studies. Both Cushman and Stebbins worked to gain her recognition and clients.
One fly in the ointment of Cushman and Stebbins’ relationship was the disdain that Stebbins (like Hays before her) had for the stage as a profession. And in the midst of this, Cushman began planning a return to the American stage, partly for financial reasons and partly simply because she missed the adulation and fame.
Chapter 8: The Sapphic Family
This chapter covers the period in Cushman’s life when things really got complicated.
In 1857, after five years abroad, Cushman returned again to the States. Stebbins and Sallie Mercer came with her, though various friends had warned Cushman that Stebbins might find a cool reception in the American circles that hadn’t previously met her. (But recall that Stebbins herself was American and had wealthy relatives in Boston.) Cushman’s reputation is seen in the success of her professional activities during this tour, even in the uncertain economy.
Stebbins remained in New York when Cushman traveled to performances in Chicago and St. Louis. In the latter location, while consulting with Wayman Crow, the patron of Hatty Hosmer, whom Cushman intended to employ as her financial advisor, she met his daughter Emma Crow and sparks immediately flew. Emma was 18 and described the 42 year old Cushman in her memoir as “the incarnation of the ideal lover” in her role as Romeo.
[Note: I know I’m being inconsistent in whether I refer to individuals by given name or surname. As there are going to be two Emmas in Cushman’s life from here on, and as Emma Crow’s father will also be a continuing figure, I’m going to refer to Emma Crow as “Emma” to distinguish from Mr. Crow and from Emma Stebbins, whom I’ve been calling “Stebbins.”]
Emma spent all the time she could in Cushman’s presence for the two weeks she was in St. Louis, although she received little attention in return. But by Cushman’s departure, she was calling Emma “little lover” and began a voluminous correspondence with her that would continue for the next 18 years. Cushman expected that Emma’s infatuation would soon fade, but that was not the case, and Emma was consistently the more assertive in pursuing their romance. Emma kept all Cushman’s letters to her, despite the latter’s requests to burn them, though her own side of the correspondence is lost due to Cushman’s ruthless curation of her legacy. Cushman offered a constant stream of assurances of love, endearments, and descriptions of kisses and caresses. Cushman stopped in St. Louis again on her return from her tour specifically to see Emma again. Their letters had been growing increasingly passionate, but Cushman felt the need to have a serious talk with Emma about the nature of those passions and about Cushman’s existing emotional commitments.
Emma wanted to join Cushman in her hotel room and sleep with her during her stay. Cushman suggested that it would be more socially acceptable for her to visit the Crow house and join Emma there. This is just one example of the careful negotiation of the expectations and limits of romantic friendship. The allowance it provided covered much, but not everything. That same careful negotiation is seen when Hosmer, in a letter to Emma’s father (and her patron) spoke approvingly of Cushman and Emma being “lovers” while only a few months later Hosmer was expressing jealousy of the relationship and indicated to Crow that if Emma accepted Cushman’s invitation to join them in Rome, she would take responsibility for keeping a eye on them. In one passage she suggests to Emma that if she “kept on as she was” (implied: with Cushman) she might never get a husband, citing her own example, though there’s no indication that Hosmer actually wanted a husband and she regularly expressed the position that marriage to a man was incompatible with an artistic career for a woman.
Cushman echoed this opinion of marriage in a letter to Emma, while referring to her relationship with Stebbins with the word “marriage” and mentioning the ring she wore as a token of it. At the same time, she indicated to Emma that she wouldn’t abide rivals for Emma’s affections. Cushman’s letters to Emma increasingly dealt with how to frame and balance both relationships. She repeatedly urged Emma (in vain) to burn her letters, lest they fall into hostile hands. (The letters were eventually donated to the Library of Congress after both their deaths and are a major source of information about the details of Cushman’s personal life during this period.)
Cushman returned to Europe with Stebbins in 1858. She wrote to Emma’s parents suggesting that Emma and her sister (a different sister from the one Hosmer had been involved with) come for an extended visit in Rome, dancing around assurances that Hosmer (who was framed as something of an adopted daughter of the Crows) would watch over their reputations. Stebbins may have been expressing unease at this prospect. In one letter to Emma, Cushman playfully suggests that Stebbins may have failed to mail Cushman’s last letter to her. But Cushman seemed determined to maintain both relationships.
Shortly before Emma and her sister came to Rome, Cushman’s sister Susan (the one who had played Juliet to her Romeo) died unexpectedly. Some time before, Cushman had adopted Susan’s son Ned (by the husband who had deserted her around the time of the birth) and this shift in family dynamics may have given Cushman a new idea. Emma and Ned should marry, giving a veil of respectability to Emma’s presence in the household. The original notion seems to have been for the marriage to be in name only, though that fell by the wayside.
Cushman’s letters increase their cautions to be discreet, both in writing and in public. Although Emma appears to have been the initiator in their relationship, Cushman knew she would be blamed more if the public decided there was something improper between them. Ned would provide a useful “beard” not only to the general public, but perhaps to Stebbins. Ned, for his part, seems to have been attracted to Emma, while Emma agreed to the marriage but was still focused on Cushman. Wayman Crow had concerns about these plans for his daughter but they primarily concerned Ned’s lack of a profession and his immaturity. (Ned was entirely supported by Cushman.) In the end, it came together. The whole group returned to the States late in 1860 to prepare, and Cushman did some performances as well. Wayman Crow had become her investment manager, to further tie the families together.
Ned and Emma married in April 1861, scheduled around Cushman’s performance schedule, which in turn was arranged around Stebbins’ professional needs. The married couple settled in Boston while Cushman toured New England to perform. Cushman had now begun referring to Emma as her “daughter” as well as “my little lover,” showing the complexity of roles between them. Cushman’s correspondence to Emma was now being actively self-censored to avoid potentially damaging interpretations if others read the letters. Cushman reluctantly left Emma behind in the U.S. to establish the marriage when she returned to Rome with Stebbins, acknowledging that it would be emotionally hard for her to be present during that stage of the marriage.
Emma became pregnant shortly and Cushman’s letters framed the child as hers and Emma’s, noting that it would bear her surname, and discussing the benefits of a gender-neutral upbringing for children as ideal. Their letters continued to express erotic desire, but Cushman regularly cautioned about causing Stebbins pain or attracting social disapproval. For these reasons, they put off a reunion. Stebbins was working on a commemorative sculpture of Horace Mann, Hosmer was working on a similar monumental project, and Cushman did not feel free to travel to the U.S. under those circumstances. Unfortunately, Emma had a miscarriage. She traveled to England for a brief stay to recover where Cushman joined her.
Emma and Ned wanted to return from Boston to St. Louis, but by now the Civil War had started and Cushman was concerned for their safety. Against Stebbins’ wishes, Cushman accompanied them back to the States to visit and do some charity performances for the Sanitary Commission before returning to Rome. In Rome, Cushman’s household was shifting. Hosmer had moved into her own house, perhaps being too much in professional competition with Stebbins for comfort. (They were sometimes competing for the same sculpture commissions and Cushman was forthright in preferentially championing Stebbins’ career.) Cushman was working on arrangements to have Emma and Ned join her in Rome. One significant question was a job for Ned and Cushman pulled strings with her personal friend, Secretary of State Seward, to appoint Ned as the American Consul in Rome--a position that was primarily symbolic.
Emma was pregnant again and it was decided that she (and Ned) should join Cushman in London for the birth. Cushman would be present to support Emma during the birth of all four of her sons. The plans moved forward after that and Emma and Ned moved into Cushman’s house in Rome as he took up the position of Consul. The continuing difficulty was to reassure Stebbins of her secure place in the extended family--being the only member of the new household configuration with no official legal tie to Cushman.
One form that reassurance took was for Cushman and Stebbins (and Sallie Mercer, as always) to travel to the States together, leaving the married couple in Rome. There are some hints during this time that the erotic passion between Cushman and Stebbins had declined from what it once had been, though the romantic attraction and loyalty were still strong. Emma gave Cushman that erotic charge, but Cushman had no intention of leaving Stebbins and Emma had flashes of jealousy over that loyalty. At the same time, Emma expressed some regrets over the choice to marry Ned, as it had created a barrier between her and Cushman.
In the midst of all this, in 1869, Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite treatments, including surgery, the cancer persisted and her health began a long gradual decline. (She would live for 7 more years.) Cushman decided to return to the States with Stebbins to convalesce after the surgery. Rome had lost its attraction due to the tension between the two Emmas and the disintegration of her friendship with Hosmer. When Seward resigned, Ned lost his job as Consul and the family moved back to St. Louis, ending the Cushman presence in Rome.
Cushman and Stebbins moved into the Stebbins family home in Boston. (Sallie Mercer was still with them and there seems to have been some awkwardness over her position, now that Cushman no longer had a household for her to preside over.) Cushman even returned reluctantly to the stage, playing Queen Katherine against Edwin Booth, as well as in other signature roles. Her growing ill health led her to switch to doing dramatic readings rather than full stage performances beginning in 1871. In 1874 she began a series of “farewell performances” accompanied by a sequence of retirement galas, concluding in June 1875.
That winter her condition worsened and in February 1876 she died, with Stebbins at her side.
Chapter 9: The Backlash and Beyond
This chapter discusses Cushman’s post-death legacy and how public views of her changed with the rise of the sexologists and increased focus on “morbid” relationships between women.
Cushman was mourned as a national celebrity. At the time, she was perhaps the most famous woman of the English-speaking world. [Note: One might argue that Queen Victoria had an edge on her, but I’ll allow Merrill her hyperbole.] Eulogies of Cushman noted the respectability she brought to the acting profession, her “purity” (i.e., lack of male attachments), her lack of radical religious or political causes. She was praised for not being a suffragist, though she had worked hard in her own way to give women the right to economic independence. Her lack of connections to men, combined with her divergence from the feminine ideal of the day was framed positively, calling her “complete in nature” combining male and female virtues. People attributed to her “character” the pure and devoted friendship she inspired in so many women.
At the time of her death, her independence from men, her female friendships, and her androgyny were all seen as postive virtues. Those same traits were viewed differently as the attitude toward autonomous “masculine” women became pathologized. In Cushman’s era, the gender segregation of society meant that her all-female household went unremarked. The popular myth that women were incapable of sexual passion meant that their love must be “innocent,” i.e., non-sexual. Women were lauded and encouraged in having intense same-sex friendships, especially if they were unmarried. At the same time, dangerous erotic passion was attributed to working-class women, passing women, and non-European women.
Private writings such as Cushman’s letters and memoirs demonstrate that even so-called “respectable” women could be aware of their erotic feelings and might employ complex strategies to avoid breaking that willing suspension of disbelief on the part of society. These social framings created a space in which women could love each other, within boundaries that were constantly watched and negotiated.
Stebbins undertook a memoir of Cushman’s life “lest unworthy and careless hands undertake it.” She continued Cushman’s work of shaping her public image very consciously. Having filtered out the more hazardous aspects of Cushman’s life, the result was meager. Cushman’s various lovers were demoted to “devoted friends” or omitted entirely. This self-censored result sheds a different light on the alleged acceptability of romantic friendships.
Even toward the end of Cushman’s life--and definitely after her death--attitudes were turning against independent unmarried women and especially against “mannish” women. With the rise of the late 19th century sexologists, characteristics that had been praised became seen as deviant. Descriptions of Cushman shifted in tone, aligning with this reframing. The absence of men in her life was called an absence of love, and her lovers were entirely erased from the record. Like other female partners of the day, such as Cushman’s friends Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle, the passion was edited out of their biographies, lest post-Freudian readers view it as “morbid.” Later theater critics began to describe Cushman as ridiculous and monstrous--in clear contradiction to the contemporary reception of her work. And thus, the most famous actress of the 19th century, a celebrity known throughout the English speaking world, and the core of a thriving community of women artists and intellectuals, faded in the historic record.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19c - Book Appreciation with Ellen Klages
(Originally aired 2018/02/17 - listen here)
Ellen Klages returns to the podcast to talk about some favorite lesbian historical stories.
No transcript is available for this podcast.
The theme for the current Lesbian Book Bingo square is "Fantasy" and Daughter of Mystery is featured as suggested reading, though of course the Alpennia books would work for any number of thematic squares. See my first post in this series for information about the Bingo challenge and to find the start of my series of mini-stories on the themes of the bingo squares. I'm doing a piece of flash fiction (well, sometimes almost verging into short story territory) for each theme, with the added challenge of placing them all in a historic setting and linking all the stories together loosely as a single narrative.
As with the "historical fiction" square, I've taken up the challenge of creating what my late 17th century characters would consider to be fantasy. This was exactly the era when the creation of literary fairy tales was a favorite pastime among the salonnières of Paris, so what better fantasy tale than one of fairies and magic? Isabel and Laura, who were introduced in the last story, are now back in Paris and invited to the salon of the eventually-to-be-infamous Madame de Murat. I'd originally made Madame d'Aulnoy the hostess of my salon, but by complete coincidence, Mari Ness's series on fairy tales at Tor.com had an essay as I was writing this on Madame de Murat. And when I saw the click-bait description of her as "a lover of women, and who, authorities insisted, needed to spend some quality in prison, and who, she herself insisted, needed to dress up as a man in order to escape said prison" how could I resist handing the reins over to her? She may well return in a future story.
The telling and re-invention of fairy tales was a favorite activity of late 17th century salons and resulted in several of the significant collections of the genre from this era. I don't think it was done in the sort of "shared world story-telling" method I portray here, but the tale itself is also my own invention, though cobbled together from recognizable patches. I hope you're enjoying this little tour through the genres.
I've also indulged in a reference to a recent online conversation, spread across twitter and blogs, about the all-too-frequent trope of dead mothers in fantasy. I won't say more, but those in the know may recognize a guest appearance by a certain French fantasy author.
Three White Doves (Lesbian Book BIngo: Fantasy)
After the hardships of the siege of Montigny, Paris seemed like a wondrous fairyland. And once I was strong enough to go about in society, nothing was a more certain key to the gate of that land than the invitation that I hurried to share with my beloved Laura. Perhaps, I thought, it would lift the melancholy that had settled over her since our return. Perhaps it would drive out of her memory the sight of the men she had tended on the battlefield, if that was what lay behind her moods. No woman could help but be wounded to the heart at such sights.
Laura looked up from her reading with a start as I waved the folded paper at her, then relaxed when she saw my own smile. “What is it Isabel? You wouldn’t need a letter to tell you if the baby had cut his first tooth and it’s too early for him to have babbled something that you took to be ‘Maman.’ Who has sent you news?”
“Not news at all,” I told her. “We are invited to the salon of Madame de Murat!”
I could tell that Laura had no idea what honor had been conferred on us, though I was certain it was only for her sake that I’d been invited at all. I was neither witty nor learned enough to have caught de Murat’s interest, but Madame Laura Alberti, who had trained as a physician at the University of Bologna—now there was a prize for any salonnière!
We were escorted into Madame de Murat’s chamber by a pair of black pages, both dressed in scarlet coats and turbans, but the girl in skirts of course, and the boy in breeches and shoes with curled-up toes. The boy announced us in a soft rich voice, “My lady, here are Baroness Isabel de Maricourt and Madame Laura Alberti.” The girl brought refreshments and showed us to our places. Not in the place of honor, near to where Madame de Murat held forth on her bed, but in comfortable chairs by the window.
I was tongue-tied at the faces that turned to greet us. There was the famous Madame d’Aulnoy and her dear friend, and so many more that I had heard whispered of or seen in passing when I was presented at court. But I managed to return the greeting and make my curtsey without sounding so dull that de Murat would change her mind. I only hoped that I would not be asked to recite or to give my opinions on philosophy.
After an hour, as the conversation moved from poetry to strange sights seen traveling in far lands, Madame de Murat announced, “We shall now play the fairy tale game. Who will give us something to start?”
The tall man standing close at the side of Madame d’Aulnoy called out, “Doves! The tale must have three white doves.” And everyone laughed because they knew that his mistress bore three doves on her family crest.
“A poor girl who marries a king,” suggested another.
“That’s no help at all,” de Murat chided. “Half the stories begin or end with a poor maiden marrying well. But we shall use it. I will give you the beginning and then choose who will continue the tale. Once upon a time, there was a rich merchant who had a beautiful daughter—now, now you must not interrupt me, she will become poor before she marries, I promise you! There was a rich merchant who had a beautiful daughter but her sorrows began early and as she wept on her mother’s grave, there came—”
“Fie! I must protest!” The interruption came from Madame de Bodard. “We’ve had too much of dead mothers in these stories. “Let her mother be alive.”
Madame de Murat seemed both amused and affronted but she nodded. “As you will. There was a rich merchant and his wife, who was most assuredly not dead, who had a beautiful daughter named Isabel.”
I started when she spoke the name, but mine is a common name—there was at least one other Isabel in the room—and no reason to think she singled me out.
“At the girl’s christening, a ragged child appeared and asked for broken meats from the christening feast. The merchant felt generous because of the joyful day and commanded that the poor child be seated with the other guests. When she was seated at the table, the rags fell away and all could see by the shining garments she wore that she was of the fairy kind. It came time for the guests to bring gifts to the newborn and the fairy opened her hands to show three white doves that fluttered and cooed, tu-tur tu-tur. ‘On the day that you need your heart’s desire,’ the fairy said. ‘Whisper it to one of the doves and toss it into the sky and it will come to fetch me.’ As the girl Isabel grew, the doves were always at her side, fluttering and cooing, until she thought no more about them than one might of a cat. Now Charles,” she said to the tall man, “you may continue the tale and tell us how she came to be poor.”
The story continued as each voice that Madame de Murat chose took up the thread. The shape of these stories was familiar to us all, and I thought that even I might acquit myself fairly in the game, though I hoped to be spared.
The merchant experienced a reverse of fortunes. First one ship, then another was lost at sea. Just when his daughter was nearing an age to be wed, not only had her dowry been lost to their creditors, but they were near to being driven from their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But when fortune was at its lowest, Isabel’s mother remembered the fairy’s promise and she came to her daughter and said, “Isabel my dearest, you see how it is with us. We have fallen low in the world. But your fate, at least, can be assured. Send one of the white doves to the fairy and tell her that your heart’s desire is a dowry so that you can escape your poor parents’ doom.”
Isabel called one of the doves to her finger. It cocked its head as if it were listening as she leaned closely and whispered, “My father needs only another chance to make his fortune again. I will not seek to escape their fate. Please send enough gold that my father can buy new ships and cargoes to fill them.” She raised her hand and let the dove fly off into the heavens.
The next day, the dove returned and fluttered down the basement stairs into the farthest darkest corner of the store rooms. When Isabel followed where the dove had gone, she found a beautiful maiden, a few years older than herself, sitting on top of an ancient iron-bound chest. “Is gold your heart’s desire?” the fairy asked.
Isabel shook her head. “I want no gold for me. My heart’s desire is to take this burden from my father and to save my mother from being driven out of her home. I want nothing for myself.”
“Then you shall have what you ask,” the fairy said and she became a dove and flew back up the stairs and disappeared through a window into the sky.
The chest had stood in that corner since Isabel was a tiny girl and she had never seen it open. Now she unclasped the fastenings and struggled to lift the heavy lid and found it was filled to the brim with gold.
Madame de Murat crooked her finger at another of her guests. “Now it is your turn, and I suggest you remember that our beautiful Isabel must wed a king.”
The merchant quickly paid off his debts and financed two new ships to return his fortunes. Isabel and her mother had new silk dresses and they moved to a larger house in the center of town with a garden where the two white doves perched on a fountain all day and cooed, tu-tur, tu-tur. The merchant told no one whence the money had come, but his wife became tired of turning away the curious questions of their neighbors and said as a joke, “How did we get so much gold? Why, my daughter spun it from straw, of course!”
Rumor went around the town quickly that the merchant’s lovely daughter could spin straw into gold. Soon there were offers of marriage and the merchant thought he had only to choose the best of them to assure her happiness. But before the choice had been made, a messenger of the king arrived and commanded the merchant’s presence.
“The king has come to know that your daughter can spin straw into gold,” he said.
And what could the merchant say in return? It’s a perilous thing to call a king a liar. So he said nothing.
“The king wishes to see proof of this wonder,” the messenger continued. “If it is true, he will wed your daughter and make her his queen. If it is false, he will send you all into exile for your lies.”
The merchant took counsel with his wife and daughter and told them the king’s command. “It was foolish to claim such a thing, even in jest, and see where we are now. But daughter, send a dove to the fairy and tell her of your plight.”
“How can I do that?” Isabel asked. “I can’t tell her that it’s my heart’s desire to be able to spin straw into gold or to wed a king. I can only tell her that I wish all of us to be safe. Perhaps the safest thing to do is take ship into exile.”
They argued through the night, but Isabel would not be budged. And in the morning the king’s men came and built a house with locks on the doors, and they placed the merchant’s daughter inside with straw and a spinning wheel and told her to summon them when it had been turned to gold.
At first Isabel wept, sitting among the straw without a soul to comfort her, not even the doves. But just as the church bells chimed for midnight—
With a mischievous expression, Madame de Murat held up her hand to stop the speaker and waved it to point at the next teller of tales who looked flustered and took several starts to begin.
Just as the church bells chimed for midnight, there was a rustling in the pile of straw and a strange little man in ragged clothing crawled out, rubbing his eyes as if waking from a long sleep. When he saw Isabel, he asked, “Why do you weep? There’s no rest for a body with you wailing so loudly.”
Isabel told him the tale, about her mother’s joke and the king’s command, and the impossible task she had been given. She didn’t tell him about the fairy or the doves, though she couldn’t have said why.
“Straw into gold? That’s easy enough!” the little man said. “What will you give me if I do it for you?”
Isabel tried to think of what the strange little man might want. “My father could build you a house so you needn’t sleep in a pile of straw,” she offered.
The man shook his head. “I could have a house any time I chose.”
“My mother could make you a suit of clothes, finer than any you’ve ever seen,” Isabel said.
“I could have whatever clothes I want,” the man said, and as he said it, he snapped his fingers and he was wearing a suit of green silk brocade.
“What do you want?” Isabel asked in despair. She didn’t really want to be sent into exile, and now that hope was in sight she was thinking that it might not be such a bad thing to marry a king and become a queen, though she would never have called it her heart’s desire.
The man said, “My magic cannot work on the living. I long to have a child of my own. Promise to give me your first-born daughter and I’ll spin the straw into gold for you.”
Isabel was horrified at the demand, but then she thought to herself, “I have no child yet and who is to say I’ll ever have one? And if I become queen, I’ll have guards and ladies in waiting to protect me.” So she agreed to the bargain.
With that, the little man set to work and long before the cock crowed, every scrap of straw had been turned to gold. “Remember your promise,” he said and he disappeared up the chimney just before the king’s men opened the door at Isabel’s call.
So Isabel married the king and became queen and she and the two white doves went to live in the palace. And in a year and a day, Isabel knew she was with child.
Madame de Murat held up her hand again. “A trifle unimaginative, perhaps, but it will do. And who shall continue the tale?” This time she turned to my beloved Laura. “Madame Alberti, have you seen how our game is played? You’ve guided children into the world,” with a nod to me, “let us hear what you can do with this one.”
Laura looked in my direction as if asking for permission and I gave a faint nod, though I didn’t know what I was agreeing to.
In a year and a day, Isabel knew she was with child. Fearing the bargain she’d made, she went privately to her mother and confessed the whole to her. “Tell me what to do,” she begged. “If my husband the king knows I’ve bargained away our child he will cast me off. You’re so much more clever than I am. What shall I do?”
Isabel’s mother kissed her and said, “It was a foolish bargain you made, but I can see by the way you’re carrying that the child will be a boy. You bargained only for a first-born daughter. If your first-born is a son, then you will be free of your promise.”
That cheered her heart and Isabel returned to the palace and made ready for the birth of a son. But Isabel’s mother couldn’t resist telling her friends how clever she had been and word of it came to the strange little man who had spun straw into gold. He went up to the castle and rapped on the door to the queen’s chamber. Rat-a-tat-tat. Nor all the ladies in waiting could keep him out. When he came to Queen Isabel he demanded, “Will you keep your bargain with me?”
“I will,” she said. “I promised you my first-born daughter. And if my first-born is a daughter—” she laid her hand protectively across her belly, “then she is yours. But if I bear a son as my first-born, then we are quit.”
The little man stormed forward, his face blazing with anger and he laid his own hands on the queen’s belly and knew that she indeed bore a son. “Then he will never be born,” the man said. And with a cry, Isabel felt the child die within her. Her ladies gathered round to tend to her and no one saw the strange little man leave.
I stifled a little sob. So it had been with my first. I knew when he had quickened and I knew just as surely when he stilled within me. But Laura continued the tale.
Queen Isabel was ill for many months, but in time the roses came back to her cheeks and the smile to her lips and then one day she knew she was again with child. This time she sent no word to her mother and she told none of her ladies in waiting. But in time her belly swelled so much that the secret could not be kept. Soon the word went around in castle that there would be an heir. From the castle it went to the marketplace, and from the marketplace to the ears of the strange little man.
Once again he came rat-a-tat-tatting on the door to the queen’s chamber, and once again he would not be gainsaid. “Will you keep your bargain with me?” he asked Isabel.
“I will keep my bargain,” she said hollowly. “But I do not know whether I bear a daughter or a son.”
Again the little man laid his hands on the queen’s belly and again he cursed and swore. “A son! But neither will this one be your first-born if I have to do with it!”
Isabel twisted to get away from him, but he dug his fingers into her belly as if he were reaching through to the child within and with a great gout of blood, she felt the child still within her and swooned to the ground.
Madame d’Aulnoy said, “This seems a dark and terrible tale. Perhaps we’ve heard enough for one day.”
But Madame de Murat answered back, “The world can be a terrible place. I shall let Madame Alberti continue with her tale.”
Laura bowed and she looked at me with the same compassion I’d seen in those long days of anxious waiting.
The third time that Queen Isabel felt a child quicken within her, she knew that she bore a daughter, and she despaired. She kept the secret for many long months, until she knew it was in vain. Then she remembered the white doves. It had been so many years and she had never been certain what her heart’s desire might be, but she knew that she couldn’t bear to lose another child, either in life or in death. She took up one of the doves and whispered to it, “Go find your mistress. Tell her my heart’s desire is to be freed from the bargain I made and to keep this child.”
The dove flew up into the sky and many days passed with no sign of an answer until Isabel felt the pangs of birth beginning. As she labored, Isabel cried out for her mother and for the fairy of the doves. Her mother was at her side, but the fairy did not come, even when they laid the crying infant in her arms.
“Where is my dove?” Isabel cried. “What shall I do when the spinning man comes?”
But then a waiting woman came in all pale and trembling and she said, “Out in the courtyard, come see.” Though she was still weak from the birth, Isabel was helped out to see what was in the courtyard. And there was a vast flock of snow-white doves, fluttering and cooing around a small heap of rags. The birds were pecking at it as they would at a heap of corn in the field but there was nothing else to be seen when they rose up in a great cloud and circled three times before flying away. The strange little spinning man was never seen again.
Laura was watching me as she told the tale and I knew it was for me. There had been no strange magical man stealing my children before they were born, only my own weak body. But even so my own guardian fairy had vanquished the curse. I thought of my son in his cradle at home.
“Now that seems like a fitting end,” Madame de Murat said. “But one dove remains. Perhaps our own Isabel will tell us what became of it?”
She looked at me and I could feel my tongue tripping over itself. I would make a fool of myself before all these people, but I would do it for Laura.
One day, Queen Isabel was sitting in the garden when the king had gone off hunting, watching her daughter play among the flowers and holding her newborn son in her arms, and a snow-white dove flew up and settled onto her shoulder singing tu-tur, tu-tur and bobbing its head. In that moment, she knew there was only one thing left as her heart’s desire. She whispered it to the dove and watched as it flew up into the blue heavens.
In an hour, just as the sun was fading from the sky, she heard a fluttering of wings and turned to see the fairy of the doves standing before her in the garden.
“Why have you called me, Isabel,” the fairy asked. “What is your heart’s desire?”
“Hasn’t the dove told you?” Isabel said.
The fairy shook her head. “All it would say was tu-tur tu-tur.”
“But that is my heart’s desire,” Isabel said. “Tu, you. You are the only thing that would make my happiness complete. You have been with me as a dove since the day of my christening, only asking what you could give. And now there is nothing else I want but your company at my side.”
The fairy smiled at her and took her hand and they were never parted again in this world.
I looked up at Laura to see if she had understood my meaning and I could see the weight of melancholy drop from her shoulders. Had she doubted that I wanted her? Had she thought I valued only the service she had rendered? Would she believe what I had never before found words to say?
“An odd tale,” Madame de Murat said, “but it will do. Perhaps I will add it to my collection. I’m writing a book, you know.”
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
In this second novel in de Bodard's "Dominion of the Fallen" world, that world expands much further to encompass the dragon empire under the Seine and its political complexities and entanglements with the Houses ruled by fallen angels. As before, we get a dystopia of ruthless power and magic and the precarious position of ordinary mortals whose only safety is to tie their allegiance to a stronger being. But things are always more complex than that, as we see through the experiences of Madeleine, one of the carry-over characters from the first book, who hates and fears the head of her House but finds herself bound by both magic and loyalty to work for that House's stability.
The other major continuing character is the Annamite immortal, Philippe, who fails in his goal of keeping his head down and out of trouble. With another key character being a member of the dragon court, working as a spy in House Hawthorn, we get a deep immersion in the cross-cultural dynamics of de Bodard's magical Paris. My personal favorites (for obvious reasons) are the fallen angel Berith and her pregnant mortal lover Françoise. For me, the casual queer relationships in these novels are a major draw. And despite the constant violence and cruelty, there's never a whiff of queer tragedy being used to manipulate the reader's experience.
I fell like I'm not really tallking about the story, as such. De Bodard has a top-notch talent for world-building and efficient exposition. Her characters are complex and--well, "human" isn't always the right word--but believable, with motivations that drive the plot without ever feeling contrived. One of the other big things I love about these novels is how surprising they are. There are no well-worn tropes or predictable twists, and yet even the most unexpected turns make perfect sense and have been rooted in what came before. If you want to read something that is going to be a different sort of fantasy that any you've read before, check them out!
Lace and Blade 4 comes out today! The important contents, of course, is my new Alpennia story "Gifts Tell Truth", but here's the full table of contents:
The submissions have all been read and sifted through, the contracts have been sent out and signed, and now it's time to announce the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast's 2018 original fiction line-up! When I finished the first read-though of submissions, I knew immediately that I had a problem: there were just too many good stories that I wanted to buy. Fortunately, I could solve this with an executive decision. Rather than buying two stories for a half-year trial run of the fiction project, I'd just go ahead and buy four to cover all the "fifth Saturday" episodes for the entire year. That will also give me more data to see whether and how I want to extend the fiction project in the future.
The first story will be airing at the end of March and I'm already in negotiations with one potential narrator. I haven't decided on the order of appearance for the whole season yet, but here are the selections in chronological order of setting:
I'm especially happy that after I'd identified the best stories I'd received, I found I also had a broad variety of time-periods, cultures, and types of story. We have young love and love returned to late in life. We have adventure and quiet friendship. We have women who transgress gender norms and those who find love within conventional structures. We have happy endings, bittersweet ones, and stories where the eventual end is yet unknown. I'm so excited to be able to bring these stories to my podcast listeners!
Sexual activity has a long and creative history of being described and referred to by slang and euphemism. But when the source domain of the euphemism--the "literal" meaning--is an equally ordinary everyday action, the ambiguity creates problems of interpretation. And in a field like the study of historic same-sex relations, where there is a long tradition of going to some contortions to deny even the scraps of available evidence, euphemism has long been interpreted selectively depending on the genders of the participants. "They weren't, you know, sleeping together, they were just sleeping together."
This article examines one of those euphemisms in a context where both the wider use of the phrase and supporting evidence from the text argues for an unambiguously sexual interpretation. (The article also gives me a new historic text to try to track down.)
Watt, Diane. 1997. “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia and 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.
Watt, Diane “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century”
This article examines the context of the phrase “clippyng and kyssyng” that occurrs to describe physical interactions between the female protagonists in the early 16th century English translation of the tale of Yde and Olive (in the Huon of Bordeux cycle). The translation is from an early French text, but this article is specifically concerned with the 16th century English context.
Although “clipping” (hugging, embracing) and “kissing” could occur in non-sexual contexts generally without erotic implications, in the tale it is juxtaposed with the emperor’s reaction that, if the two individuals engaging in it are indeed both women (which is true, but an unproven accusation at this point in the tale), then what they are doing is “boggery” (buggery) and deserves the death penalty. The article summarizes the context of the story (for which, see items tagged with Yde and Olive) and discusses the general context of women crossdressing in religious and secular literature. In general, the disguise is a means to an end, especially one that inolves freeing oneself from female roles and hazards. But Watt considers Yde and Olive to stand outside this tradition to the extent that it overtly creates a context for homoerotic feelings and actions, especially Olive’s choice to continue as a loyal and loving wife after she discoveres Yde’s female identity.
“Clipping and kissing” are common as an activity in Middle English texts and both words can cover both sexual and non-sexual contexts. In heterosexual contexts the phrase can be used as a eupehmism for sexual intercourse. The actions occur in this tale in a context where physiology is not revealed--Yde’s identity as a woman is disclosed verbally later. But the emperor’s assignment of the word “buggery” makes it clear that he sees the clipping and kissing as sexual. At the time of the original French text (which also uses a form of the word buggery) the word buggery had implications of heresy as well as sodomy.
Watt discusses the oft-proposed idea that a lack of terminology for female same-sex relations indicates their non-existence. She notes the OED as a basis for the late entry (late 19th century) of the words “lesbian” and “sapphist” into English but then gives a nod to Emma Donoghue’s work that identifies earlier examples of both words. Watt indicates that no similar vocabulary survives in English from the 16th century but notes that texts such as Yde and Olive demonstrate that the concept of sex between women didn’t require specific terminology. As another example, she cites Brown’s work on the trial of Benedetta Carlini (early 17th century Italy) where a wide variety of language is used to refer to same-sex acts that--from the descriptions--are clearly sexual.
The artcile has a survey of European medieval and Rennaissance penalties for women’s same-sex activity but Watt notes the significant differences between continental and English legal traditions. She concludes with a discussion of how, based on the evidence, women’s same-sex relations were considered transgressive to the extent that the women were considered to be claiming male prerogatives, rather than for the sexual acts themselves.
I've gotten a little behind on the Book Bingo story schedule, as this post was meant to go up over a week ago. I need to work harder at these ficlets being easy off-the-cuff things! The most recent square for Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo was "doctors and veterinarians" so I got a little tangled up in researching the state of woman physicians in western Europe in the 1690s. ("Tangled up" as in, found a new reference book I didn't have time to hunt down for the story, but will now go after and then will need to write something else to use it.) For those who have grown attached to my pair of soldiers, I hope you won't mind that the stories are going to drift away from them for a while. It would be nearly impossible to hit all the themes with only a narrow set of characters! I'll be circling back to Martijn and Lena/Pieter later. For now, they provide the cross-over to some new characters.
The Lesbian Book Bingo challenge is a fun year-long communal reading project to fill bingo cards with various popular themes and tropes from lesbian fiction. There are prizes for completing rows and entire cards, as well as a chance to win books by participating in the blog posts. In addition to filling out my own card (4 squares so far!) and having my books featured as suggested reading, I'm playing along by writing one of these mini-stories for each square, all loosely connected in a historic setting (to prove that pretty much any story can be a historical story). And just to remind folks, although Daughter of Mystery is being featured for the "fantasy" square, my books hit a lot of the themes and you can use them for anything they fit.
I could tell when the gates were opened by the change in the sound of the crowd below in the town square. Early in the morning, the sight of Marshall Luxembourg’s relieving forces in the distance beyond the fortifications of the Grand Alliance had raised a muted cheer from the people of Montigny. The siege had left them too wearied for louder joy.
All through the day the noise of the battle had filtered past the town walls and even deep into this fortified tower from which Baron de Maricourt had led the defense. The sounds of the fighting had faded at last and now the streets were filled with the joyful shouts of our saviors. It was a consequence of my profession that behind the shouts I could only hear the groans of torn and wounded men and see blood and shattered limbs.
Luxembourg could have relieved us at any time he chose, but Montigny was no Mons or Namur, no important bone for the hounds to squabble over in a great show. We’d been left to hold for ourselves. Rather, de Maricourt and his people had. I had been caught up in the siege for a different reason entirely.
“What is it? I heard shouting.”
I turned from the narrow window that looked out on the square and rushed to Isabel’s side where she leaned on the doorway from the inner chamber, clutching the edges of her dressing gown together.
“What are you doing out of bed?” I demanded, softening my tone to tender chiding.
Isabel shook her head but she didn’t refuse my arm as I helped her across the small room to the cushioned seat in the window embrasure.
“I thought I heard the baby,” she said. “But then I realized the noise came from out in the streets.”
“You can trust the maids and the wetnurse to see to the baby.” And then I was sorry I’d said it, for Isabel’s mouth twisted. Not that a woman of her station would have been expected to nurse her own child, but expected and unable were two different matters. “You shouldn’t have been put though this at all,” I said fiercely. “De Maricourt should have sent you to safety in Reims or even Paris before this all began.”
Isabel took my hand and pressed it to her lips. “But I had you, Laura, so I knew all would be well. I had the best woman physician ever trained at Bologna. I had both you and Henri at my side and I knew my duty. I am where I was meant to be.”
There was no point in reminding her that I was one of the only women trained in Bologna in recent times, or that a good midwife could have done as much for her as I had. De Maricourt had decided his wife needed the best of care, and as I could receive no license in France, my skills lay fallow. But I had no complaints that fate had led him to my door, and me to her bedside. No complaints except for the unknown future, now that my skills were no longer needed. So many things were uncertain. How could I have the courage to face the possibility that Isabel and I would be parted forever?
I bent down and cupped her face in my hands and claimed her lips with my own. Isabel responded with an eagerness at odds with her frail form. She reached for me and I settled onto the cushion at her side, my arms finding a place between support and an embrace. There had been so few chances of late simply to enjoy each other’s presence.
We hadn’t expected the siege to last so long or the outcome to be so much in doubt. De Maricourt could see to it that his pregnant wife never went hungry even when the rest of us tightened belts or laced stays more closely, but he couldn’t shield her from the knowledge and guilt that he’d done so, or from the worry of what would happen if we were forced to surrender the town.
“You did more than your duty,” I said as we separated at last and I stood, offering my hands to help Isabel rise. “You gave de Maricourt a son—a healthy son—and now that you’ve done that, your duty is to get well yourself. So back to bed and rest.”
I couldn’t rest, though, not with what I knew lay outside the walls. So I called for one of the maids to help me change into a simple gown of black frieze, covered by an apron borrowed from the kitchen, and to pin my hair up under a linen cap. I still had my instruments and medicines, even if I had no license. And a battlefield forgave many transgressions.
* * *
Casualties within the town had been few today and addressed well before the gates were opened. I made my way against the flow of men and carts bringing supplies in for the townsfolk until I came to the open space before the walls. Tents were being erected on the broken ground that had been no man’s land the day before. The shelters where the wounded had been carried were easy enough to find from the sounds—and from the line of shrouded forms laid out behind them.
A man in the blue of Marshal Luxembourg’s guard stopped me at the entrance, looking suspiciously at my surgeon’s case.
“Who is that to be delivered to? I’ll have it taken in—this is no place for a woman.”
I stiffened my spine at looked him in the eye. “I am Madame Laura Alberti, Baron de Maricourt’s personal physician. I’ve come to help with the wounded.”
He disappeared for a few moments and returned, followed by a balding man wearing a blood-soaked apron.
“Madame, with all respect to de Maricourt, we haven’t time to waste with vapors at the sight of blood. There will be time enough to need help with the nursing when this butchery is done.”
Vapors. Did the man have no idea how much blood women dealt with every day? How closely a childbed could resemble a charnel house if matters went wrong? I kept my voice even. “I have been trained in surgery at the University of Bologna—”
He raised a hand to cut me off. “Madame, I haven’t the time. But perhaps they will be desperate enough for your services.” He gestured off to the other side of the broken ground where the remnants of the Alliance forces were gathering their own wounded, without even the benefit of a shelter against sun and wind. Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared back into the tent and the guard returned to a position that barred my way.
Well, a wounded man was a wounded man. I would help where I was permitted.
No one barred my path when I reached the field where the Alliance wounded were laid out in haphazard groups. There was no path to bar and no one with a moment free to do the barring. The groans of the men were a cacophony of Dutch, German, English, Spanish, and the more familiar French, but bullets and shattered bones needed no translation. I set to work with knife and saw, pressing into service as an assistant whoever stood nearby who seemed less injured than the others. Half of my patients died under my hands.
The other surgeons—or those acting as such—scarcely noted my presence except to point to where a pile of dirty linen was being torn into strips. As twilight turned to darkness, someone brought me a lamp. The ranks of the wounded were thinning as the dead were carried away in one direction and those who might live were taken up by their fellows to the meagre shelter of the prisoners’ camp.
Out at the edge of the thin lamp-light I’d noticed two patient figures, a wounded man half-propped by his companion with a bloody rag tied closely around one outstretched leg. The unhurt man’s air of resigned patience had argued against urgency when the ground had been full of groans and screens, but now I gathered my things and moved in their direction.
One of the other surgeons stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Don’t bother. He’s been refusing treatment ever since his fellow dragged him over here under protest. Save your skills for those that want them.”
I nodded thanks, but continued over to crouch beside the pair and opened my bag before starting to loosen the bandage.
The wounded man’s eyes fluttered open. He muttered something first in Dutch, I think. Seeing me, fear crossed his face and he changed to French. “No! No madame, let it be. Don’t touch me.”
I looked him over with a professional eye and a long day’s practice in the sort of hurts the battle had brought. He hadn’t the grayish cast of deep wounds or broken bones—not a musket ball then, or at least one spent before it hit. Perhaps the work of a blade, perhaps splinters from what a cannonball had struck.
I closed my bag and stood. “If the thought of a woman physician treating your wound is so distasteful you’d rather risk losing the leg when it turns putrid, the choice is yours.”
As I turned, I heard the other man talking rapidly, pleading. But all I could make out was the wounded man’s name: Martin. And then, with a scrambling movement, his companion was at my side, pulling at my sleeve and begging. I didn’t need any Dutch to guess the direction of his pleas.
The man…no, a boy really. The thought struck to my heart. Giovanni had been no older than this when he marched away so many years ago, though he’d seemed a man because I had only been a child. I remembered the feel of father’s hands on my shoulders, keeping me from running after him. But in truth he’d been little more than a child like me. A boy fallen on a battlefield such as this, never to return home. For the first time that day, the soldiers were more than broken flesh. A lump rose in my throat and I ruthlessly dismissed it. Fie on me for being what they’d warned me of: a weeping woman pretending to a man’s occupation!
I knelt down again at the man’s—Martin’s—side. “Be still and let me work.”
The crude bandage was cut off quickly. Martin protested again when I worked at the the fastenings of his breeches to expose the leg more plainly. Such modesty for a battleground! One might think he…ah, no. Not modesty alone!
I sat back on my heels looking him…her…in surprise. I’d heard of such things. Of women passing for a soldier. What could drive someone to such a life? The two watched me closely, frozen like cornered rabbits. Realization dawned. Both of them. Not boys, but not men either. Two comrades watching each other’s backs against the world. And for what? I saw how they looked at each other. Yes, that I could understand.
I looked around to see if anyone else was watching and Martin said in a quiet pained voice, “Please, madame.”
I returned to removing the breeches and gestured to the second soldier to move around to Martin’s far side to block any view from where the other surgeons were working, though I doubted anyone had a thought to spare beyond their own tasks.
With the leg laid bare the problem, too, was exposed. Centered in a smear of gore, a large splinter of wood from a gun carriage was driven deep into the muscle of the thigh. That gave me more hope. Extraction and cautery and a good chance it wouldn’t putrefy. I showed Martin’s companion how to hold her down. No amount of mere courage would carry her through what came next. Then I set to work.
* * *
Dawn was lightening the battlefield when I finally raised my head to see no more wounded to attend. There would still be those lying out in the field with no one to carry them in for treatment. Others might seek them out, but I had other duties to return to. I looked around, at the last, for the two female soldiers but they had been taken away with the other prisoners still capable of walking.
The image of them stayed with me when I returned to the fortress to strip off my bloody gown and scrub away the blood and dirt. It was impossible to keep the war entirely away from Isabel, but there was no need to bring its signs before her so clearly.
Isabel was sitting up in bed, having broken her fast on a far better meal than any of us had enjoyed in a month. She was holding the babe in her arms, but handed him away to the nursemaid when I entered.
“Oh, Laura! The told me you had gone out into the battlefield!”
I settled myself on the edge of the bed and reached for her hand. “Not the battlefield itself, only to help with the wounded outside the walls.” I thought of the worries that had plagued me. The fear that Isabel was convalescing too slowly. The expectation that I would be torn from her side now that my work was done. The hint of jealousy for her newborn son. They seemed such quiet, homely fears now.
“Let me tell you a story of courage,” I said to her. “Of great courage and of love.”
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
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.