I finally have the projected publication date for Floodtide (by virtue of simply asking about it). It's on the Bella Books schedule for October 2019. My mind immediately goes to thinking about where that falls with respect to conventions and whatnot. It won't be out for Worldcon (which in some ways is easier, because I can talk it up without the anxiety of having actual books in hand), but it should be out in time for Sirens (which I hope it's a good fit for in terms of readers, though not an event where I'd feel comfortable holding a launch party). Ok, planning brain, time to rein you in a bit. I have a pub date! Now you can officially put Floodtide on your list of "anticipated books for 2019."
One of the topics looming over this blog (though likely to be addressed in the podcast) is the historic ambiguity between the expression of gender identity and the use of gender presentation to accommodate heteronormative expectations in the context of same-sex desire. Or, to put it in less academic terms: the conflict between interpreting a historic individual as a trans man or a cross-dressing lesbian. One of the approaches to mapping out this territory is to gather individual life histories that provide examples of how people on the gender/sexuality spectrum behaved and discussed their lives, as well as exploring the social structures and attitudes that they were inhabiting and engaging with.
Thomas(ine) Hall provides one of those stories, all the more interesting for occurring in the early colonial history of North America. Hall’s case also provides a context for examining the phenomenon of modern individuals desiring to “claim” historic persons for a specific gender or sexuality category. Depending on which parts of the story and testimony one finds most compelling, Hall could be seen as a trans man who had been assigned female at birth, as a cis woman who sometimes passed as a man for economic and sexual purposes, as a trans woman (who somehow escaped being assigned male at birth), as a cis man who had been raised in a female role and was comfortable returning to that role at times, as an intersex person who was trying on various gender presentations to see what fit, or as someone (regardless of anatomy) who had a non-binary gender identity and was struggling to express that in a society that required a fixed binary identity. Although some of these possibilities don’t fit as well with the evidence as others, trying to come up with a single, definitive classification inevitably requires erasing key aspects of Hall’s life history and self-expression--much in the way that Hall's contemporaries erased key aspects in order to assign a gender category. Lives like Hall’s may be a better context that simple sexual orientation for considering the changeability of gender/sexuality categories over time.
Brown, Kathleen. 1995. “’Changed...into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:2 pp.171-193.
[Note: Content advisory for coerced physical examination to determine sexual category.]
In 1629, in a small settlement just across the river from Jamestown, Virginia, 22 years after the first settlement at that location, Thomas Hall was accused of fornication with a servant girl. This fairly ordinary offense became more complicated and interesting after the community took it on themselves to investigate exactly what had happened.
Hall was a recent arrival (though there’s some confusion due to another individual of the same name being recorded earlier) and Warrosquyoacke was a small community, so it’s understandable that the residents were dismayed to find that they didn’t know their neighbors’ business as well as they thought they did. As well as the local investigation, the case was eventually taken to the Virginia Colony’s general court at Jamestown and the following story emerged.
In England, Hall had worn women’s clothing and practiced the traditionally female trades of needlework and lace making. After emigrating to Virginia, Hall sometimes wore male clothing and performed traditionally male occupations, but also sometimes wore female clothing. (Virginia still had a fairly low female population at this time.) During the investigation of the fornication charge, Hall was asked “whether he were man or woman” and replied “both.” When asked further what the reason was for the women’s clothing, Hall answered somewhat obliquely, “I go in women’s apparel to get a bit for my cat.” [Note: Google does not turn up any other context for the phrase “get a bit for my cat” but that doesn’t mean it may not have been an obscure bit of slang that had a clear meaning to hearers, even if we are befuddled.]
As was typical in the early modern period, the primary social crisis that Hall sparked was the need to determine exactly what gender category to place them in. Ambiguity was not acceptable and alternation was right out. In any event, whatever Hall’s true gender, it was clear that some sort of punishable offence had been committed. It just needed to be determined which one.
Eventually the local officials in Warrosquyoacke threw up their hands and sent the case to Jamestown, where the details of the existing investigation were recorded for posterity, including efforts by community members to obtain physical evidence on the question. Hall provided a detailed and candid personal history and these records are essentially all we know of the case. But the records include details of the responses of Hall’s community that shed light on popular beliefs among ordinary people about sexual difference, in contrast to the opinions of professionals, which are the more common source of information for this period. In the absence of relevant medical and/or legal professionals in the colony, community members did their best to gather physical and behavioral observations and interpret them in light of their understanding of what constituted male and female identity.
The scientific/medical understanding of sex difference in this era still followed the Galenic “single-sex” model that emphasized physiological parallels between men and women and the belief that women were “imperfect men” but had the potential to undergo spontaneous sex change. This theory held that strenuous activity or masculine performance could cause a woman’s organs to “emerge” from the body as a penis and testicles, constituting a genuine change in physiological sex. At the same time, the clear legal distinction of personal status based on sex made it necessary to establish a person’s “true sex.” But the means of establishing this was left to community custom and individual performance.
Performative gender was established through customary distinctions in clothing, names, occupations, and the participation in heteronormative relationships. [Note: This last is one of the things that complicates applying concepts like “homosexual” or “transgender”. If heterosexuality is considered a fixed universal, then participation in apparently same-sex relationships can only be considered as evidence for gender identity, not for sexual orientation.] Medical literature recognized a physiological continuum of sexual morphology (treated under the concept of the “hermaphrodite”) but the law did not allow for such ambiguity. As Brown notes, “the courts, which were mainly concerned to preserve clear gender boundaries, rather than explore anomalies, had the power to coerce individuals to alter their gender performances.” The legal pressure was to pick one clear gender identity and stick to it, rather than to identify a “true” anatomical sex.
In the 16-17th centuries, transvestism was recognized as different from the anatomical ambiguity of “hermaphroditism” and treated, perhaps, as even more threatening to society, as it undermined the ability for clothing to define and stabilize gender identities. [Note: Brown simultaneously claims that transvestism was primarily a matter of women dressing as men, but then notes the English tradition of transvestite theater, which would have been primarily men dressing as women. So I’m a little confused in this section.]
Returning to the legal records of Hall’s case, one confounding aspect in interpreting the records is that the language followed the needs of the legal setting, which dictated certain elements of the descriptions. The court pursued Hall’s personal history and past performance to answer the question of their gender identity, while the community investigation had inquired far more directly into what was in Hall’s breeches. Curiously, their investigation was inconclusive as there was disagreement as to the meaning of their findings.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Hall’s testimony is that Hall treats gender identity as malleable and opportunistic. Gender identity could be claimed by the simple expedient of a change of clothing, and justified by the opportunity for gender-segregated employment. Hall’s narrative does not align with a sense of stable, internal gender identity from which public gender performance was a passive consequence. Rather, Hall seems to treat gender as an actively chosen self-presentation that is distinct from any issue of personal identity. And given the overtness of Hall’s gender transgression, the legal penalty that eventually was applied was comparatively mild.
Brown discusses at length the social and political context of the community that underlay certain of the gender dynamics of Hall’s situation and resulted in the responsibility for investigation falling in the hands of ordinary community members, including the gender politics of women claiming responsibility for the task.
The Warrosquyoacke settlement had existed for less than 7 years when Hall arrived and--like most of the English colony in Virginia at the time--was focused primarily on the economic project of producing tobacco for export. Most of the population were recent arrivals, including a number of enslaved African people diverted from a different destination. A few had been in Virginia for a longer period, which helped to establish personal authority among the residents. Among the named individuals in the court record was Alice Long, a married woman who had been in Virginia since 1620, and Dorothy Rodes, another married woman who assisted her with the physical investigation, who may have been there for several years. Another key figure was John Tyos who was a former employer of Hall’s at a time when Hall was presenting as a woman. (To complicate the historic trail, several years earlier, Tyos had shared living space with a different Thomas Hall, a man, at a time when the relevant Thomas Hall was hypothetically present in the colony. This is presumed to be a coincidence of names on the assumption that Tyos would have recognized his former servant even if presenting as a different gender.)
Female authority in the investigation was claimed by Long and Rodes in their roles as midwives and matrons, with the responsibility to perform physical examinations of women for legal purposes. (Legal purposes such as determination of pregnancy or childbirth, or to identify evidence of sexual activity if, for example, a husband were accused of impotence.) Their roles depended on the acceptance of sexual categories and gender boundaries and assumed that women who interacted with female bodies in intimate ways (e.g., childbirth) would have special authority in interpreting those bodies. But this authority only applied to the extent that Hall’s body was accused of being female.
At the time Hall was accused of fornication with the maidservant of Richard Bennet, John Tyos claimed that his servant Thomas Hall was female (evidently despite wearing male clothing and performing male work). This provoked the community matrons to take the authority into their own hands (without the request of a court) to examine Hall with regard to this question. The matrons asserted, based on this examination, that Hall was a man. Tyos continued to maintain that Hall was female and the question was escalated to the local landowning authority, Captain Bass.
Bass took the perhaps radical approach of simply asking Hall “whether he were man or woman” to which Hall, as noted above, replied “both” and explained further that this answer was based on having what was described as a very small penis but that “he had not the use of the man’s part.” Bass chose to define maleness in terms of the ability to successfully perform penetrative sex with a penis and assigned Hall a female gender on this basis, ordering Hall to put on women’s clothes. This aligned, to some extent, with the Galenic view of gender: Hall might be a little bit masculine but insufficiently male to be granted categorical male status.
This decision was challenged by the matrons who had performed the examination and were still convinced of Hall’s male nature. To them, a male Hall now going about in women’s clothing (per Captain Bass’s legal requirement) was an insupportable breech of gender categories. They demanded a second inspection from Hall’s new employer (who was convinced enough of Hall’s female presentation that he referred to Hall with female pronouns in the record, where everyone else used male pronouns). On further interrogation of Hall, this time with regard to the presence of female anatomy, rather than the inadequacy of the male anatomy, Hall claimed to have “a piece of a hole” but the investigating women failed to confirmed this on examination.
This shifted the official position. Hall’s new employer then ordered that Hall “be put into” male clothing and be punished for impersonating a woman. When Hall had been classified as female (or even potentially female), social rules had restricted the physical investigation to women, but now having been officially categorized as male, Hall was subject to some spontaneous (and forcible) confirmatory investigations by men. These did not contradict the male classification.
Setting aside the appalling nature of the investigation methods, we see a whole sequence of attempts to define the nature of maleness and femaleness. Was maleness something that had to be achieved above a certain threshold? Or was there a clear and uncrossable physiological dividing line between male and female? The result had major consequences for Hall’s day to day life, determining what occupations were allowed, what responsibilities were imposed, and what socializing was permitted. (Brown also hints that being classified as male protected Hall from sexual advances from his new employer and others, that might have been a hazard when classified as female.)
Brown provides a discussion of the socio-political stake the various parties had in both the process of the investigation and its conclusions. She notes that one key party--the maidservant that Hall had been accused of fornication with--was not called as witness, with several speculations on why this might have been the case. In any event, the question of gender transgression was more important to them than that of irregular sexual activity.
Having come to a decision on Hall’s gender categorization, the authorities in Warrosquyoacke were stuck on an appropriate punishment and passed the case along to Jamestown. The governor reviewed the testimony and then elicited Hall’s own biographical narrative.
[Note: at this point, I’m going to follow Brown’s lead and shift pronoun gender in alignment with Hall’s shifting presentation, except when quoting from Hall’s testimony. I hope this finds a balance between clarity, sensitivity, and narrative function.]
Hall was christened Thomasine (an unambiguously female name) when born in England and grew up living a female life and wearing female clothing. At age of 12, she was sent to London to live with an aunt (it was typical at that time for adolescent girls to be “placed out” to learn the skills of a housewife) for the next ten years. When Hall was 24, her brother was pressed into military service and she “cut off her hair and changed his apparel into the fashion of a man” to join the English forces supporting the Huguenots in France. On returning to England, Hall “changed himself into women’s apparel” and took up the (feminine) profession of needlework. She lived in the port of Plymouth, which may have inspired the next step in 1627 when she “changed again ...into the habit of a man” and sailed to Virginia.
After considering all the evidence and testimony, the court imposed the following sentence: Hall was required to take a male identity and wear male clothing, with the exception of being required to wear a (feminine) coif and apron. That is, the court enforced Hall’s gender ambiguity, not in the serial form that Hall had performed, but as a permanent hybrid presentation. The judgment that Hall was “a man and a woman” was to be published to the inhabitants of Warrosquyoacke so that they “may take notice thereof.” This suggests that rather than following the long legal tradition of requiring a fixed and unambiguous identity following the gender binary, the court had to some extent recognized Hall’s elusive non-binary nature and, instead, chose to enforce that non-binary identity.
The question of the original charge of fornication was not addressed, but neither was the question of the consequences for Hall’s future sexual activity. The ruling also problematized how Hall was to be treated within the gendered work and social environment of the community.
The article concludes by situating Hall in the context of other gender transgression narratives of the 16-17th century, including Elen@ de Cespedes, Catalina de Erauso, and Mary Frith. Unlike most such narratives, rather than the eventual conclusion being that the subject was a “hermaphrodite” or female transvestite, Hall was concluded to be male.
I want to focus on part of Brown’s analysis that I think needs to be interrogated. She says, “Hall’s atypicality...alerts us to another possible explanation for his otherwise difficult-to-fathom behavior. In a world in which dressing as a man brought women expanded economic and political opportunities, Hall found it difficult to suppress his female identity. ... Despite the attendant risks and disadvantages of being female in the seventeenth century, Hall found it personally useful, necessary, or comfortable to dress occasionally as a woman.” And then, after further discussion, “Perhaps ‘his’ female identity was so deeply embedded as a consequence of a childhood and adolescence of female training and identification that he could not shed it.”
I think this analysis overlooks two key aspects. One of them is what Brown notes: Hall was raised from birth to adulthood in a female role, treated as a woman and interacting with the world as a woman. To require some extraordinary explanation for Hall being comfortable returning to that performance smacks a bit too much of gender essentialism for comfort. To the extent that gender is performance--and Hall’s life story suggests a personal sympathy for that position--is it the historian’s place to impose a judgment that performing the gender one was raised as is “difficult to fathom”? The second aspect that is absent from this article is a consideration of Hall as potentially intersex. Brown invokes the early modern concept of the “hermaphrodite” as it was used in the discourse around gender categories and gender performance, but doesn’t seem to recognize the most plausible context in which an infant would be classified as female but then would present with under-developed male genitalia as an adult. Setting aside the question of whether physiology does (or should) attract one to a particular expression of gender performance, being intersex might well have motivated Hall to “try on” different genders and feel equally comfortable (or equally uncomfortable?) in each.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30b - The State of Lesbian Historicals in 2018 - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/01/12 - listen here)
One of the things I’d like to do this year with the podcast is to start looking more broadly at the field of publishing lesbian-relevant historical fiction. I’ve also started using the phrase “lesbian-relevant” to describe my topic because it seems to better sum up my organizing principle of using the lesbian gaze. Both in the blog and the podcast, my content isn’t defined in terms of historic facts or personal identities, but rather in terms of topics, individuals, and texts that are likely to have resonance for lesbian readers. Not that I have any problem with having non-lesbian readers and listeners too!
One of my back-burner projects has been to try to compile a comprehensive list of current lesbian-relevant historical fiction. Quite a daunting task! I started off with the contents of my own library, a list from another long-time collector of lesbian historical fiction, and several Goodreads lists on relevant topics, as well as mining the back catalogs of lesbian presses. But at this point I can’t claim my database is anything close to comprehensive except for the last year, when I stared hunting down new releases systematically.
With those caveats in mind, here’s an overview of what’s getting published in lesbian-relevant historical fiction and who’s publishing it. Keep in mind that I include historicals that have fantasy elements as long as they’re set in an identifiable time and place.
For books released in 2018, I’ve identified a total of 83 titles. Slightly more than a fifth of them don’t have a named publisher (other than Amazon Digital, which is not so much a publisher as a distribution service). Many of the named publishers are one-author shops, but I’m not in the business of evaluating the line between micro-presses and self-publishing.
The remaining 65 titles were put out by 46 different named publishers, with 3/4 of them putting out only a single relevant title. Some of those are major publishers, but I’m only interested in the historical titles with lesbian relevance. Only 3 publishers put out 3 or more relevant titles in 2018, and it won’t surprise anyone familiar with the field to know that those were Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and Regal Crest Enterprises. But together, those three presses only put out 14 historicals in the year. Just a smidge more than one a month.
How does that compare to the last couple decades of publishing? Publishing via Amazon Digital may have increased substantially, but self-published books are the ones I’m most likely to have missed prior to this past year. The overall rate of singe-title publishers seems fairly constant. And when looking at the top producers for my entire data set, the top three come in the same order, with Bold Strokes Books at double the number of its nearest competitor, Bella Books, and Regal Crest coming in about half of Bella. The next competitor is Naiad Press, which is a pretty strong showing given that Naiad closed in the mid ‘90s!
So when and where are the stories being set? Several popular topics emerge: stories set in a mythic early Greece, pirate adventures in the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerns generally involving a woman passing as a man or simply dressed like one, Victorian-era steampunk adventures, women who find a chance at love during the two world wars.
About 80% of the stories published in 2018 are set in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority being generally from the “wild west” era through World War II. I use those landmarks advisedly because the settings cluster strongly around key events and genres. And where are they set? Other than a cluster of stories set in the Greco-Roman mythic past, settings are dominated by the British Isles up through the early 19th century, after which American settings take over. Settings outside the British Isles and US are mostly related to World War II and its aftermath.
In my complete data set covering the last couple decades, the distribution is about the same, except that we’re currently getting a bit more coverage before the 19th century. There’s a lot of literary territory there for the claiming if you want to write something other than British Regencies, American Civil War and Wild West stories, and books set during the two world wars.
I have a more detailed breakdown by geography and timeframe, but currently a lot of this data is my best guess from the book blurbs, so I’ll spare you. Eventually, I hope to keep track of themes and tropes, which should make for some interesting analysis of how people imagine the lives of lesbians in the past. I plan to continue adding to my master database and will try to find a way to make it a searchable resource once the meta-data is a bit more complete.
What does all this mean for readers--and for authors, for that matter? With 83 titles, there’s certainly plenty to read. I’ve only read a tenth of the 2018 books, though several others are queued up on my iPad. But with the titles distributed across so many publishers -- most of them either self-published or micro-presses -- it can be a full-time job to try to track them down. Hint: that’s why it’s a great idea to follow this podcast!
For authors, I think one of the take-home messages is that if you want to stand out from the crowd, pick a setting before the 19th century or somewhere other than America or the British Isles. Of course, there are reasons why those settings are popular. They’re familiar, or they match popular genres in mainstream romance, or they match our own family backgrounds. But there’s so much more to explore!
For publishers, I think one message is that authors of lesbian historicals aren’t finding a place with you. I have no idea whether historical authors prefer to go independent, or whether publishers generally aren’t picking up historical titles. For that matter, I don’t really have the comparative data for other genres to know how the numbers compare. But I do know that readers who are hungry for historicals find slim pickings from the more recognizable presses and that creates a downward cycle. In mainstream romance, historicals are a booming business. I’d like to think that there’s a similar potential for people looking for romantic lesbian stories set in the past. And someone who focused on that might find a wide-open market niche.
As I note at the beginning of this entry, I'm a bit uncertain about the viewpoint of this article. That's one of the reasons why I placed it at the end of the series on Indian topics, after several by authors working within their own cultural context. In general, I try to be careful about using sources for non-western cultures because of the colonial legacy even when western academics are studying gender and sexuality from a positive point of view. In practice, this has often meant that the Project has included embarrassingly little material from outside Europe, the Mediterranean, and Euro-American cultures. I try to keep my eyes open for promising sources to counter that imbalance but not at the expense of the quality of the contents. This one was a bit on the edge for me, though I'm a little more comfortable with it after reviewing Thadani's work.
Penrose, Walter. 2001. “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a ‘Third Nature’ in the South Asian Past” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39.
[Note: I have some reservations about this article because it feels very much like a western outsider using primarily western/translated sources to try to say big-picture things about gender and sexuality in South Asia. There is a fair amount of speculative language (“such women could have...”) and conflation of historic evidence from wildly disparate times and places whose primary common theme is “not part of western Christian culture.” Take it for what it’s worth.]
Penrose looks at a variety of evidence to see if he can reconstruct a picture of variant gender and sexuality roles for women in South Asia (primarily the Indian subcontinent) in the pre-colonial past. In modern India, colonial attitudes (to some extent, reinforced by the interests of Hindu nationalism) have suppressed traditional roles falling outside a gender binary. Traditional roles such as hijras have been re-framed as falling into western concepts of transgender rather than being seen as distinct and independent from male or female.
Modern Indian society has no role parallel to hijras for women (or to be more precise, for persons assigned female at birth “AFAB”) and modern Indian women who identify as lesbians come into conflict with strongly patriarchal cultural imperatives toward marriage. But Penrose traces historic remnants and suggestions of “third gender” and gender-variant roles for Indian women in the past, starting with anthropological data from isolated traditional societies, references in ancient Sanskrit texts, and later historical documents.
Penrose begins by reviewing a theoretical framework for studying third/fourth-gender roles in indigenous North American societies which can be defined by the following characteristics: economic specialization (that is, specific economic roles apart from those associated with men or women), special ritual/religious functions, and gender difference or same-sex relations associated with non-procreation. Within Native American societies there are a variety of gender role systems that may include either a third gender or both a third and fourth gender, depending on whether AMAB and AFAB non-binary people are treated as a single category or two different categories. When considering third/fourth gender categories worldwide, it becomes clear that the development of variant gender categories is not related to the degree of gender difference within the society as both highly patriarchal and more gender-egalitarian societies may have them. Further, non-binary gender roles do not automatically correlate with non-heterosexual activity, as variant genders may include the renunciation of sexual activity.
The first category under consideration for India, and the one with the strongest surviving tradition, is the hijra, most typically involving AMAB (assigned male at birth) people who typically undergo castration, but can also include intersex people or non-menstruating women. Hijras typically dress in female-coded clothing or a mixture of male and female garments and engage in special ceremonial roles associated with births and weddings, as well as in prostitution (with men). Social attitudes towards hijras have changed under colonial influence and hijras themselves may be redefining their understanding of their identity. Historically, the role was an accepted part of society in part because it was viewed as a group identity rather than an individual one, and in part because it was viewed as being part of individual spiritual evolution within the cycle of reincarnation.
When looking for parallel or equivalent female (or AFAB) roles, one encounters the strong pressure on women to marry and the negative social implications of refusing or failing to do so. But there are remnants of established roles for non-married women in some isolated traditional societies, such as the sadhins among the Gaddhi people in the Himalayan foothills. The root of the word means “a holy person” but unlike the masculine sadhu it doesn’t identify someone with religious obligations but rather a “sworn celibate woman.” Such women renounce marriage but continue to live with their families, retain female names, and are referred to with feminine language. They may socialize as women but may also on occasion socialize as men. The renunciation must occur at puberty, in contrast to other female ascetics who may change their status later in life after marriage or widowhood. A sadhu who later changes her mind and has sex with men is stigmatized.
The more common form of Hindu female aseticism involves a renunciation of the material world performed later in life, which does not follow the usual understanding of a separate gender role.
There are records in the 1890s of a category of Hindu women called basivis who would be given male privileges and be allowed to wear male clothing in order to bury their parents and pass on the family name, which by definition also involved being permitted to have sexual relations and bear children. (It isn’t clear whether this would be a life-long role or a temporary one.)
The sadhins don’t meet the three-part framework for a “third gender” established above as they take on male economic roles (rather than a specialized separate economic position), do not perform ritual functions, and are not associated with same-sex activity.
A different context is associated with a group of “transvestite” men and women in southern India associated with devotion to the goddess Yellamma who change gender presentation in terms of clothing and are considered to have changed sex (rather than being a distinct and separate gender category), and are known respectively as jagappa (for those AMAB) and jagamma (for those AFAB). Membership in this group is considered to be divinely mandated and is signaled by a set of conventional physical symptoms. On accepting membership, a jagamma will typically change to wearing male garments, but they do not typically adopt male names, use male pronouns, or take on male professions. Both jagammas and jagappas participate in public ritual functions associated with membership.
Leaving the possible modern examples, Penrose looks for deep historic roots for third-gender functions, starting with physical artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization and then looking for potential connections with Mesopotamian and Sumerian traditions from the Bronze Age. [Note: In my opinion, this is reaching a bit and smacks of “all ancient civilizations can be equated with each other. Penrose suggests similarities between hijras and the galli associated with various mother goddess cults in the Mediterranean region. Like I say, I think he’s stretching here.]
Early legendary material from India includes divinely mediated change of sex, in contexts where the change is motivated by misogynist or heteronormative imperatives. A queen who had given birth to seven daughters and no sons was told her next child must be a son. The resulting daughter, Amba, was raised as a boy. When she married, her true sex was discovered but she was able to become physically male by exchanging sex with a supernatural creature. In various stories, a princess is disguised as a prince and changes sex (by entering a body of water) in order to marry another woman. [Note: if I were reaching widely across cultures and time periods for thematic connections, I might note the motif of the bath in the context of magical sex-change in the story of Yde and Olive.]
Sanskrit religious and medical texts provide ambiguous and confusing hints at possible third-gender roles for women. The confusion is increased when western translations of the works impose ill-fitting categories on them via vocabulary choice. References to a tritiya prakriti (third nature) “one with neither masculine or feminine nature” have been interpreted as applying only to AMAB people who may take on female clothing or may undergo castration, but other interpretations suggest it includes cross-gender roles for both sexes. As the term appears in the context of sexual texts (the Kama Sutra), the term may be concerned specifically with roles associated with sexual activity. Within this context, the female term purushupini for a “third nature” may be connected with terms discussing “virile behavior in women” or women who take a “masculine role” in sex (e.g., penetration of either male and female partners). But much of the ambiguity comes from the focus in the text on male sexual activity and appropriate sexual partners for men, thus the possible implications of female same-sex relations are not explored.
The Kama Sutra does explicitly discuss female same-sex activity as a situational behavior when men are not available (e.g., in sex-segregated environments), but this doesn’t invoke a distinct gender category.
Another social category with sexual implications is sanvahika “women who do arduous work, women who carry burdens” but it isn’t clear that this is a gender category rather than an economic/class one.
The sexual role of svairini (who can take on a penetrative role) is problematic in translated works, which generally try to shoehorn it into meaning “lesbian”. Contextual examples seem to imply a meaning more like “a woman who operates sexually outside the normative female role.” For example the svairini is listed as a type of prostitute (or, at least, a type of woman with whom it’s permitted to engage in certain sex acts). But elsewhere it’s noted “Svairini are independent women who frequent their own kind or others.” (But does the “own kind/others” distinction mean “other svairini / non-svairini women” or “women/men”?) In another passage, “The svairini is one who refuses a husband and has relations in her own home or in other houses,” which could imply simple marriage resistance while rejecting celibacy. And elsewhere the svairini is specifically described as engaging in sex with women, but specifically in a penetrative role. So is the svairini a gender role or a sexual one?
Sanskrit medical literature touches on categories of variant women who may be infertile or who lack sexual desire (treated as functionally equivalent) due to actions by the parents during conception or before birth. But these are not consistent with a concept of a distinct gender role.
Penrose follows this with a long discussion of various gender-linked occupations that contradict traditional gender roles, such as female bodyguards and warriors, or “wandering nuns” who were not bound by traditional restrictions of female movement and association. The various passages on female guards/warriors are fascinating, but fall more in the category of occupation than gender category, despite the masculine coding of the underlying activities. There is, however, a passing reference to an Indian tradition of a (legendary) Amazon society known as Strirajya whose members engaged in same-sex erotics.
Women entering various ascetic religions traditions often left behind feminine-coded behaviors, e.g., by cutting their hair and no longer being considered sexual objects (though not necessarily renouncing sex).
The next section of the article discusses same-sex relations within homosocial environments such as harems and other sex-segregated palace arrangements. These institutions might recognize (and in some cases try to regulate) sex between women and might have institutionalized systems for women to educate each other in sexual techniques (either for their own satisfaction or for the benefit of their husbands). This might include some of the women or their female attendants dressing in male garments as part of sexual relations. (Which is the tenuous connection with the theme of the article, i.e., variant gender roles.) Examples are brought in from similar social arrangements in the Mediterranean Islamic world (of questionable relevance). This section includes a lot of speculative language regarding sex between women in harems that I’m skipping over.
Under British colonial rule, many of the social structures around variant gender roles were deliberately eliminated and traditions disrupted to the point where modern Indians often consider female same-sex relationships to be a Western import. This suppression on western “moral” grounds has, to some extent, been continued in the interests of Hindu nationalist identity, emphasizing hyper-masculine identity for men and an image of self-sacrifice and chastity for women.
But there is enough evidence to support an understanding of a variety of “separate gender” roles for AFAB people in the past, some with religious functions, some with economic basis, and some associated with specific sexual interests. The degree to which these roles were self-chosen may have varied. While the concept of a “third nature” was viewed, in some circumstances, as an inherent trait, there is no clear unifying single model, nor do the Indian examples clearly align with “third gender” roles in other traditional societies worldwide. The Indian subcontinent was settled by successive waves of invasion or migration across a long period and the disparate “third gender” roles may represent the remnants of many different traditions (and tend to be geographically localized). Even before the effects of colonialism, cultural influences that resulted in the decline of Buddhism and those associated with the Muslim invasions altered the nature and understanding of third-gender roles.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30a - On the Shelf for January 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2019.
This podcast has now been running for 29 months and 86 episodes! I’m planning to do something special in April--I think it’s April if my math is correct--for the 100th episode. I don’t know exactly what yet, but maybe you listeners have some suggestions to consider? It would be lovely to be able to include listener feedback about what your favorite episodes have been or how the podcast and blog have changed how you think about love between women in history.
The beginning of the year is a good time to think about format changes. Last year I introduced the quarterly fiction episodes, where we present original audio short stories. I’m continuing that series for a second year and submissions are currently open. I’ll be accepting stories for consideration through the entire month of January. So if this is the first you’re heard of the series, you still have time to give it a try. We pay professional rates of six cents a word for stories up to 5000 words. See the link in the show notes for the detailed call for submissions, which has the full description of what we’re looking for in the way of lesbian historical fiction.
I’m making another minor change in format this year. When I expanded to a weekly show back in 2017, I set up a rotating schedule with this On the Shelf roundup, an author interview, a book appreciation show, and then a historic essay. I’m keeping the On the Shelf and essay shows as they are, but I’m going to loosen up a bit for the other two shows. In addition to author interviews, I’ll include interviews with publishers, book reviewers, historians, and other interesting people who are relevant to the field.
And while the book appreciation show will continue to include book-love from our interview subjects, I’m planning to open it up to more people who are simply enthusiastic readers of lesbian-relevant historical fiction. If you think this describes you and you’d like to come on to the show to talk about some of your favorite reads, please drop me a note. It doesn’t have to be your all-time favorites--it could be your favorites in a particular setting or with a particular theme. I expect to be doing more shows of my own topical favorites as well.
Publications on the Blog
So what’s new on the blog? In the latter part of December and into January, I’ve been reviewing a series of publications about same-sex history in India or generally in Asia to go along with Gurmika Mann’s poignant story “At the Mouth” that ran last week. Before that, at the beginning of December, I finished up with a mini-series of articles on 18th century topics from the Journal of the History of Sexuality. To finish up January, I’ll be continuing with articles from that source with a couple of items on 17th century topics.
Only one new book purchase this month, though as I’m recording this, I have a week of vacation in which I might do some on-line shopping! The new book is an edition of Delariver Manley’s The New Atalantis, about which, more when I discuss this month’s essy. I’m also being very tempted by a new book by Thomas A. Abercrombie titled Passing to América: Antonio (Née María) Yta’s Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire from Penn State University Press. Set around 1800 in South America, this is a biography of a person whose life intersects transmasculine and gender passing themes. It’s a bit pricey, so I’m still thinking.
At the time I’m writing this, I don’t have an interview guest pinned down yet. I confess that this is one of the reasons I’m loosening up the format plans for the podcast. While I have a lovely shopping list of people I’d like to interview, and tentative plans with a number of them, actually getting the interviews recorded can be a logistical tangle, especially around the holidays. And especially when much of my creative focus is currently on revisions on my novel Floodtide. So rather than hold to the strict plan regarding interviews, I’m officially allowing myself more freedom to fill the episodes with what I have to hand. I do plan to include a joint movie review of The Favourite with another historic movie fan at some point. Beyond that, we’ll see what I come up with.
The January essay is a reading and discussion of some extended extracts from Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, which I mentioned in last month’s essay on Queen Anne. This is a fascinating political and social satire that includes the envisioning of an all-female cabal in an invented society on the island of Atlantis which is something of a roman-a-clef for upper class circles of late 17th century England. While the original purpose of the work was satirical, and the portraits are not always flattering, it depicts how a woman of that time might envision the lives of women with same-sex interests.
Recent and Forthcoming Lesbian Historical Fiction
What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned?
This month’s roundup is nearly all self-published works, many of them fairly short. There’s nothing that jumps out at me to recommend strongly, but maybe some of these will hit your sweet spot.
In November, we have Violets from K.C. Ebanks, published through Amazon digital.
Set in 1950s Nashville, when Rose Brown moves to Nashville with her family after an "incident" in her hometown, she resolves to never end up in the same position again. But with the beautiful Peggy in her school and mysterious violets appearing in her locker, she may just end up right back where she started.
The online blurb for Hattie's Homestead: The Other Legend by Marion Grace from Leafgate Publishing is really long and gives away a lot of the plot, so rather than my usual practice of quoting the original, I’ve condensed it down a bit. The book is published in two parts and the links in the show notes are only to the first volume.
In 1904 Hattie is in her last year of finishing school and hates it – she’d rather be a pioneer. A marriage proposal takes her to homestead in New Mexico Territory, but when she falls ill, Rosalinda enters her life as her caretaker. They find an attraction to each other that neither fully understands or dares to express. How do Hattie and Rosalinda survive in a town where they once were loved and accepted but are now endangered by their feelings for each other? In part 2, Hattie and Rosalinda continue the struggle to find a way to share their love and their lives. Unforeseen catastrophes are on the horizon and they’ll need help, but who can they turn to?
This next short story appears to have a historical setting, though the blurb and excerpt don’t give any specifics of the time and place. The title is The Duelist and Her Lover - A Historical Lesbian Adventure Romance by Esther J Autumn from Amazon digital.
Always steady and reliable, Agnes was prepared for anything that threatened her idyllic if somewhat boring life. She couldn't have possibly prepared for Kay. Rushing in to break up a sword duel turned to slaughter, Agnes ends up rescuing a young woman - Kay. As she helps hide Kay and patch up her wounds, they form an unexpected bond. Only, will Kay's mysterious past get in the way of their tentative relationship...? Capable of wiggling her way out of any situation, the daredevil Kay has weathered most of life's storms on her own. While her new stiff companion Agnes offers endless possibilities for teasing, she impresses Kay more with every step. As they rush from the pan and into the fire, will Kay's heart be able to resist and fly away, as she always has...?
The next book is listed as a December publication, but I’m not certain it’s actually new. The author has several new historical releases listed on Amazon that seem to have been released previously in a different edition. This is An Irish Heart by C.M. Blackwood from Amazon digital.
This is the story of Katharine O’Brien, who comes of age in English-occupied World War I Ireland. It’s 1914, and Kate is a young woman with a violent father and an uncertain future. Things start to fall into place, though, when she meets Theodora Alaster: a woman with whom she finds love and, for the first time, a real home. But when Thea is taken by the English during a trip to Dublin, Kate is left alone to navigate through additional loss and betrayal. She comes nearer than she ever wanted to her country’s hot politics, and suffers the consequences. And yet, through all of these hardships, the hope of one day finding Thea never leaves her heart.
The other two releases or re-releases from the same author are Madam Tellier's Lover, set in turn of the century New Orleans, and The Grey Rider, which claims to be set during the Norman conquest of England but looks like it might be better considered as a secondary world fantasy. I’ll put links to them in the show notes, too.
Post-war France comes in for romance in Madeleine by Emma Nichols from Amazon digital.
Madeleine isn’t like other grieving war widows. Claudette isn’t like other young French women. As their lives collide, Madeleine and Claude will discover a depth of connection and desire they never knew could exist. Can their love flourish in post-WW2 France or will their past derail their future? If you like your novels with strong leading ladies, smouldering chemistry and an epic love story that twists and turns, then you’ll love Emma Nichol’s latest lesbian romance.
One of the perennial problems with tracking down book release information for works that fall outside the romance or lesfic publishing communities is how coy the cover copy can be about exactly what goes on in the book. This month’s example is Love’s Refrain: A Victorian Ghost Story self-published by Steven Glick.
A ghost from the past. A chance meeting in the present. A terrifying séance. Charlotte Stanton’s perfect married life is turned upside down when a secret love she buried long ago hauntingly returns. Still the question remains: are the supernatural events intruding upon Charlotte’s life happening only in her mind? Is she heading down a slow, curving path toward madness? Set in Boston’s Gilded Age and accompanied by period drawings and silhouettes, Love’s Refrain explores one woman’s search for love, and the power of the past to emancipate the present.
If you’re looking for a tropey Western short story, it looks like Book’s Pass by Lara Zielinsky, published by LZ Media might fit your interests.
Drifter Emmeline Soule stumbles into a conflict between the brothel owner, Reina Suarez, and the townspeople of Book's Pass. A lesbian romance set in the post-Civil War American West.
And the only actual January publication currently on my spreadsheet is Temper CA by Paul Skenazy published by Miami University Press, which looks to be something of a family saga story with a bit of a cross-time feel.
Joy Temper grew up wandering the woods of Temper, CA, a Gold Rush town her family helped establish in the 1840s. When she returns to Temper for her grandfather's funeral, she discovers that the stories she's long traded on about her hippie upbringing have little to do with reality. Her struggles to face who she once was, and what she now desires, force her to confront family secrets and long-suppressed memories in a novella both familial and romantic, contemporary and historical.
If you know of any historical fiction with lesbian relevance that’s coming out in February, or anything already out that I’ve managed to miss, please do drop the podcast an email or comment on the blog and tell me about it. At this point, I haven’t found any February publications and I’d hate to leave this segment of the show empty.
The bin of listener questions for the Ask Sappho segment is still sadly empty, so once again you have to put up with me rambling about some topic I find interesting.
I’ve been putting together a database of lesbian-interest historical fiction that some day I hope to make available in a user-searchable form. One part of the project is identifying themes and tropes that people might want to search for. And one fascinating pattern I’ve found that I’d like to talk about is the number of stories that involve some sort of cross-time connection. I’ve been trying to develop a terminology for these--ideally one that corresponds to terms that other people use.
All of these approaches have the effect of telling a story that follows events in more than one point in time and that makes connections between the different time periods, either directly in the story, of in the reader’s understanding. Sometimes the framework is an entirely historical story, sometimes it involves non-physical connections between people in different times, such as past life memories, dream states, or a sort of astral projection. And sometimes it involves physical time-travel of the protagonist (or some other major character).
Wikipedia has a great survey of time-travel motifs in fiction but it doesn’t include my first category, which I’ve taken to calling the “cross-time story”, although other people use that term in a number of different ways in describing plots. When I describe a book as a cross-time story, I mean that it involves two different sets of events at different times where a meaningful connection is made that supports the theme of the story. Often this involves a modern protagonist researching past events that then change her understanding of her own life, or even simply her understanding of the past. Some examples of this motif are Sandra Moran’s Letters Never Sent where a woman discovers a packet of never-mailed letters written by her mother which changes her understanding of her mother’s life. Another good example is Robin Talley’s Pulp which just came out a couple months ago, where a high-school student is researching an author of lesbian pulp novels, and we get both lives depicted. Several of Caren J. Werlinger’s books have cross-time motifs, though often with supernatural elements as well.
The traditional definition of a time-slip story is any story involving time travel where the focus isn’t on the mechanism of the travel and the character has no control over the process. This is more or less how I used it, though I expand it a little to include psychic connections across time. For me, a time-slip story involves two time-lines just as in the cross-time category, but where the protagonist is somehow present in consciousness in both times. This might involve remembering a past life. It could involve connection with a ghost or other lingering psychic remnant of the past. Or it could involve the character being projected into the past to experience events in real-time. When Justine Saracen isn’t writing World War II novels, she’s usually writing stories with this type of time-slip element, such as in Sarah Son of God. Catherine Friend’s Spark is another example, where a modern woman’s consciousness is exchanged with that of a woman in Tudor England, although this might also fall in the time-travel group, as the mechanism of the exchange is a significant plot element. When the connection is purely psychological and, indeed, can be read as being a purely internal experience of the character, this category can sit at the edge of being a realistic story (if we consider the character to be imagining things) and being a fantasy story.
Out-and-out time travel stories are necessarily either fantasy or science fiction depending on how they treat the mechanism of travel. Catherine Friend also has a good example of the plain old time-travel motif in the series starting with The Spanish Pearl, where a modern woman bodily travels into the past, has adventures there, and then moves back and forth between times as part of the ongoing plot. A recent book that uses time-travel themes is Jane Fletcher’s Isle of Broken Years, although I hope saying so isn’t a spoiler! And there’s a novella series in the process of coming out from Tor.com that clearly falls in the time-travel category: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield, soon to be followed by the second in the series Alice Payne Rides.
What is the appeal of cross-time and time-slip stories when writing lesbian characters in historical fiction? I can only speculate, but one thing these themes provide for the reader is a way to bridge the gap between our contemporary understanding of sexuality and gender, and the sometimes very different understandings of those concepts in the past. We are shown how the protagonist grapples with integrating those different concepts. Or sometimes it’s as simple as dodging the question of how a woman in history would understand same-sex desire by putting a modern character into the role--someone who share the same understanding as the reader. For the cross-time stories involving a character researching the past, it can sometimes recapitulate the author’s process of discovering and exploring same-sex themes in history. A way of sharing the delight in making those connections on a personal level. Whatever the reasons, cross-time, time-slip, and time travel stories make up a significant proportion of the lesbian historicals I’ve been cataloging. Let me know if you enjoy lesbian stories that play with time and what some of your favorites are.
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Recent and Forthcoming Books
Books Mentioned in the Ask Sappho Segment
I’ve gotten in the habit of doing a year-end summary of my creative output, if only to convince myself that I really have accomplished something after all. It’s funny: people have a tendency to react as if I’m boasting, or making the lists to try to make other people feel bad. But for me it’s an emotional survival tool. What have I done? What do I have to show for all the time, energy (and money) I’ve poured into the projects of my heart? Am I putting those resources into things that bring return? The intangible returns are the connections and friendships I make. The unknowable returns are the difference I may have made in other people’s lives. But the only thing I can actually lay out in a blog are the words.
As in previous years, this doesn’t cover the specific calendar year of 2018, but rather picks up after the close of last year’s post which was written on December 12. This year, I’m close enough to the end of the year that I’ll just write it up with the remainder of the year's posts and set it to go live on January 1.
In 2018 I had one work of fiction published, and wrote 7 installments on what was intended to be a 25-part serial to promote Jae’s Lesbian Book Bingo challenge. I dropped the serial because of insufficient reader interest. (While I do many projects just for my own enjoyment, when push comes to shove and I have to choose priorities, I’m always more likely to prioritize projects where I have tangible evidence of reader interest. Keep that in mind.) I also finished and polished my novella “The Language of Roses” and sent it off on submission. I sincerely hope that in the 2019 round-up, I’ll have something further to say about it.
This year there was a drastic drop in how much I blogged outside of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Part of that was the increased work being put into the LHMP, part of it was the sense of talking into the void. I honestly don’t know what to do about that. A major part of my social interactions occur online, and blogging has always been part of that. But I'm not into sitting in the corner mubling to myself. In any event, I wrote 5 posts about my own writing projects, participated in 7 guest appearances either as a host or guest, wrote 5 miscellaneous essays, and posted several blogs about the LHMP fiction series. I like doing the random blogs, especially on philosophical topics, but it really does feel like mumbling to myself these days.
Lesbian Historic Motif Project
The vast majority of my non-fiction writing energy was poured into the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. I posted summaries of 62 publications of which 15 were books and the rest individual articles, bringing me up to a grand total of 228 publications for the project. Three of this year's posts involved translation (for which I had support from my very talented friends). Back in the 1990s when I first had thoughts about something like the Project, you never would have convinced me that I could find 228 publications relevant to lesbian history, much less the 600 or so in my master database. I long ago gave up the idea of turning it into some sort of overall synthesis, but in this past year, my mind has been turning back to that idea. I'm starting to think that I might have enough of a grasp on the Big Picture of how lesbian-relevant themes have been understood over time (at least in western Europe) to create something of a road map from all these individual snapshots.
The Podcast maintained its weekly schedule (the links below include 55 shows since the beginning of this summary period was in early December). I interviewed 15 authors or readers, presented 4 original short stories, recorded 13 long-form essays, as well as 9 mini-essays as part of my monthly round-ups, announced 61 new fiction publications of lesbian historical interest, and gave shout-outs to several conferences and podcasts that my listeners might be interested in.
On my blog, I reviewed 10 works of fiction with significant lesbian themes, 4 additional works in the SF/F category, 3 books that fall in neither of those (and that weren’t part of the LHMP reading), 2 movie reviews, 1 theater review, and a couple of round-up posts with shorter reviews of tv, movies, and books purchased but not yet read. I posted 36 reviews of short audio fiction at SFF Reviews and then fell off the wagon in...oh dear...April. (Once I get out of the rhythm on a project like that, I get anxiety attacks about getting caught up and the longer I wait, of course the more there is to catch up. I may need to just clear the mental cache and start from an arbitrary new point.) I started reprising some of my book reviews at The Lesbian Review (so, things I also blogged, but in a different format) and posted 11 reviews there.
I once again did my “live-blogging Kalamazoo” posts, summarizing the papers presented in 9 sessions. (I’m not certain I’ll be able to continue this as the Medieval Congress is implementing a new policy about blogging/tweeting sessions and it might involve getting active consent from the speakers -- which is not a bad thing, all in all, but might complicate the logistics too much.) Although I attended my usual number of conventions, I only really blogged reports from 2 of them. (I’m finding that travel wears me out more than it used to, so the post-con travel time when I might otherwise post a summary it a bit more useless these days.)
So how does all that compare to last year? (Keeping in mind that I shuffle the categories around every year based on what I’m doing.)
All in all, as I noted above, my output has shifted significantly from general blogging (and especially blogging about my writing) to work put into the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, especially the podcast. Is this sustainable? Who can tell? I’ve committed to continuing the podcast in its current format for another year and that will take me through and past my 100th episode, but I can envision deciding to cut back at some point.
Detailed List with Links
About My Writing
Guest Blogs (both as host and guest)
Lesbian Historic Motif Project (Blog)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast
Reviews: Books/Fiction - SFF
Reviews: Books/Fiction - Lesbian
This is a dense and wide-ranging study of lesbian-relevant themes in Indian history, literature, religion, and politics, covering the entire range of history from the earliest written records up through the present day. I'll confess that I'm not familiar enough with the literary and religious traditions to be able to take in a lot of the nuances, but Thadani does a great job of providing both an overview and deep dives within an amazingly compact volume. This is the sort of book that can really only be written from within a culture, as she tackles the ways in which modern Indian nationalism adapted and built on the colonial legacy of misogyny and homophobia for its own purposes. Although the chapters on the experiences of lesbians in modern India come across as fairly depressing, keep in mind that this book was written over 20 years ago. It is foundational, but far from the last or most recent word on the topic.
This post brings 2018 to a close, and it makes a good time to reflect on the state of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. I'll be including this year's content in my "What Hath She Wrote in 2018" blog that goes up tomorrow, but this is more of a "where have I been and where am I going?" thing.
I started the LHMP in the middle of 2014, and a simple count of the publications covered dodges the fact that sometimes a book has been covered in multiple posts (I think Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men took the longest with over two dozen separate posts) while other times I've covered a book of similar length in a single blog. But here are the raw statistics:
I've been trying to reconstruct how my "to do" list of publications has grown over that time, but I'm not sure the information can be retrieved. I think that back in 2014 when I first populated my database from the books already in my library it had about 50 books in it. In early 2016, I drew up a "to do" list from the database of material I knew about but hadn't yet covered, which had 177 items listed (some of which were collections that were covered as multiple publications). So if you combine that with the 111 items I'd covered in the blog by then, we get a total of 288. Or, roughly, I'd added 2 titles for every one I blogged. The database currently has a total of 605 titles, so in the last two years I've added a little over 300 and covered 91, for an addition rate of 3 titles for every one I blog. I think you can see where this is going.
Did I know what the potential scope of this project would be when I started? Back in the 1990s when it was only a twinkle in my eye, not only did I not envision how many publications would be available, but most of them literally didn't exist back then. I've recently added a field for "year published" to the database so I could look at the distribution -- although keep in mind that my database contents are far from random or even necessarily representative, given that I tend to add new titles mostly from the bibliographies of existing ones. It isn't necessarily that fewer relevant thing were published in the last decade, but that I may not know about them because they were published after the material I've been blogging recently. It does seem to be true, however that the '90s were a glorious time for works on the history of gender and sexuality!
One of the things I hope to add to the Project in the near future is the beginnings of a synthesis of what I've learned about trends, motifs, and patterns in the expression of lesbian-relevant history. (I've started using "lesbian-relevant" rather than "lesbian-like" in talking about the project because in many ways it better fits the subjective focus on "useable" history for the purposes of creating historical fiction.) One of the more daunting projects is to tackle the complex intertwining of gender and sexuality around the motif of transmasculine expression, especially with an eye to helping authors create historic lesbian characters that employ gender disguise or butch/femme dynamics in ways that don't erase or disparage transgender framings of the same themes. Another daunting project is to create something of a timeline (at least for a European context) of expressions and receptions of female same-sex relations that gives an idea of what types of stories fit well into different historic contexts.
I'm also interested in hearing from readers about what would make the Project more useful to you. Both the tag system and the search function are intended to make it easier to find relevant content, but I'll confess that I'd love to be able to include a multi-factor search (e.g., "16th century AND Germany") which isn't currently possible.
On a separate path, I'm getting closer to massaging my database of lesbian-relevant historical fiction into usability, and by the end of 2019 I hope to be able to present it for others to use in identifying works falling in a particular historic context or with particular themes. (I currently have 430 titles in it and I'm sure that there are large gaps due to the random nature of my current sourcing system, i.e., mostly Goodreads lists and combing through the catalogs of the major lesfic publishers.)
As I'll be explaining in next week's podcast, I'm loosening up the structure of the podcast slightly to include more variety in the mid-month shows, so ideas for podcast content are also welcome and appreciated (including people interested in appearing on the podcast to talk about books or themes).
And that's what I'm thinking about on this New Year's Eve.
Thadani, Giti. 1996. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. Cassell, London. ISBN 0-304-33452-9
This book is, in many ways, a political analysis as much as a historic and literary one, tracing the ways in which the “invisibility” of lesbianism in modern India derives not only from defining “lesbian” narrowly as a specific Western phenomenon, but from the influence of male European and Orientalist elements in the study of Indian history to erase woman-centered traditions, in collaboration with Indian nationalist elements that continue the control of the historic narrative by elite men. More recent feminist approaches have challenged this dominance with regard to gender but done little to challenge the heteronormative default.
This book tries to work around those political forces by focusing on desire between women rather than on personal identity. The introductory material includes a glossary of relevant vocabulary from the older texts in order to avoid the necessary blurring of meaning involved in translation or substitution.
Chapter 1: Lesbian Invisibility
The book starts with a concrete example from contemporary times of how female-centered traditions are literally replaced by or converted into male-centered spaces, practices, and deities: the actual re-carving of the statue of a female deity to remove its breasts and other female signifiers, after which it was re-labeled with the name of a male deity.
Thadani identifies multiple examples of overlaying male identity on traditionally female deities and the denial of female divine presence and agency, especially by converting pairs of female divinities to male-female pairs (a god and “his consort”). In other examples, a temple structure where a group of figures or structures representing female divinities had previously surrounded a deliberately open space is re-focused on male presence by placing the statue of a male divinity in the center of the focal space. Thadani documents this as an ongoing modern process even affecting sites that are theoretically protected as of historic significance. Another approach is for images with obviously feminine characteristics to be described in official literature as masculine. There is a long tradition of independent female deities being appropriated as male or converted into the “consort” of a male deity.
Hindu nationalism has invested in the artificial construction of a homogenized and monolithic Hinduism (historically, in reaction to and as a bulwark against invasions by Islamic and European cultures). This monolithic structure necessarily erases the traditions of independent female deities. And the selective editing of older religious traditions has systematically reconstructed “Indian tradition” as monolithically heterosexual. Thadani presents a structural discussion of how patriarchal assumptions impose patriarchal conclusions on otherwise neutral data.
Indian nationalism promoted the view that homosexuality was an invasive tradition by external “others”: Greek, Islamic, European. This attitude also erased traditional concepts of a plural-gendered self which allowed for myriad gender interactions.
Historical and philosophical arguments are structured to frame desire as always for the “other”--a position that presumes that women can only worship a male god and that goddess traditions can only be viewed via the mediation of a male worshipper or male deity. Even Tantric traditions that emphasize a merging of male and female within the self present the process from a male point of view.
Thadani discusses whether the word “lesbian” is appropriate to use in exploring earlier Indian history, but settles on claiming the term “lesbian” as a political choice--not as an identity, but as an experience of desire. She uses the image of Kali standing on the corpse of Shiv as a symbol of women rejecting submissive subordination. But this image also represents the difficulty of trying to create a unified Hindu tradition without conflict over, and erasure of, the essentially contradictory traditions that appear in the source material.
This book works chronologically through various historic traditions, showing how they interacted and evolved. There is a discussion of key points of linguistics that manifest in how deities are identified. One key process is creating masculine forms of feminine terms that appropriate the underlying concept as masculine. The generic feminine is expressed in grammatically plural or dual forms, indicating different aspects of the goddess. But dual forms (especially in translation) get reinterpreted as masculine singular terms. Another process is for word roots that are not inherently gendered, but can be expressed in either masculine or feminine forms, to be converted into an inherently masculine word root that then is feminized via suffixes. This results in a linguistic “male default with subordinate feminine forms” rather than equivalent male and female derivatives. [Note: To envision what Thadani is talking about here, think about all the agentive nouns in English where the root form defaults to male and the female form is created by adding “-ess”, although there has been an effective movement to address this issue--poet/poetess, actor/actress, steward/stewardess.]
Chapter 2: The Dual Feminine
[Note: The earliest written literature from India are the Vedic hymns--religious texts in an early form of Sanskrit.]
The earliest written records are not “original” in any meaningful sense but reflect complex, contradictory layers of tradition. Earlier cosmologies can only be approximated by identifying patterns and discontinuities in the material. Thadani references Marija Gimbutas’s theory of a shift from gynefocal to patriarchal societies around 4000 BCE. [Note: Gimbutas was an archaeologist and anthropologist focusing on Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in Europe. The theory referenced here is not universally accepted.] “Excavating” earlier traditions fromt he Rig Veda (as the collection of Vedic hymns are collectively known) requires recognizing that it doesn’t represent a coherent system.
Later interpretations projected a pattern of subservient female consorts to male deities, but that pattern fractures when the material is analyzed in detail. Traces of earlier, independent feminine symbologies are still present, in particular in the form of female divine pairs in contrast to male-female pairs. These dual feminine figures are not “lesbian” as a whole, but can include lesbian-relevant figures.
The dual feminine is the basis for feminine genealogies in the Vedic traditions--part of a continuum of female-female bonds and relationships that can’t be reduced to sexual encounters.
Thadani explores one motif-group associated with the figure of Usha: a female symbol of light, imagined as a complex woven structure. Contrasts of dark-light and stillness-movement are transformed continuously one to the other, not set up in binary opposition. They are represented by dual sisters sharing the same space. Key terminology of this representation includes jami (twins, though not necessarily implying biological relationship), dyava (dual female deities), and language implying union, togetherness, kissing, as well as the image of dual mothers. Dyava comes from the dual feminine linguistic form of dya (light). The full dual is dyavau and the root dyava implies a single unit with dual identity. This divine female pair can be seen as lovers, mothers, or sisters. In this era, divine pairs are not identified as male-female pairs but as same-sex jami (twins), either male or female.
The dual female deity comes together with the earth as a feminine generative unit, creating various patterns of female genealogy. The Rig Veda includes many dual feminine divinities, especially Usha and Nakta, representing the revolving/shifting change of existence, not as a binary opposition but as a continuous alternation. Within this cosmology, humanity (both female and male) is generated from a female pair who give birth without being impregnated and are both mothers. Social structures based on this cosmology involve kinship based on collective motherhood. Specific instances of female-female relationships in the Vedas include paired mothers, mother-daughter pairs, or paired yuvati (lovers). The pervasive term jami (twin) doesn’t necessarily indicate biological twins but the idea of a linked, equal couple.
Poetic imagery often involves sacred animals, such as pairs of cows sharing the nurturing of a calf, or paired mares.
[Note: Thadani goes into a fair amount of technical detail on linguistic derivations of terms, such as specific words for “sister”. While I haven’t had time to follow up on this in detail, I’m reserving judgment on the linguistic validity of the derivations, as opposed to these being traditional etymologies in the extensive Sanskrit linguistic literature.]
Jami sexuality is seen as a flowing together, a fusing of diverse streams, a transformation as a result of joining. Mother-daughter symbolism is more extensive than simple biological kinship. There is extensive symbolism using the erotics of breast-centered fecundity, milk as life/nourishment. Womb symbolism includes caves, tides, and regeneration.
Female dualities interact with Earth to generate a third space: a material fertility embodied as the revolving alternation of the dyad and the material force that drives them.
[Note: OK, that’s a lot of general imagery, summarized by me very superficially. This is a complex and detailed text and the best I can do is give you an impressionistic idea of it.
Chapter 3: The Myths of Usha and Urvashi
This chapter uses the female pair Usha and Urvashi to illustrate the shift to a male-centered cosmology. It opens with a hymn depicting the male god Indr overthrowing, defeating, and raping the light-goddess Usha. This can be seen as embodying the disruption of an earlier worldview of movement-fluidity, and imposing the image of a directional defeat of one force over its polar opposite, rather than a continuous alternation. Similarly disruptive imagery is seen in myths of the killing of the goddess Danu and her son, which is presented as “heroic deeds.”
Concrete imagery in these hymns includes splitting mountains, possessing bodies of water, killing feminine deities and sybols, penetration and violent victory. Light is depicted as a conqueror of darkeness rather than an alternation. Diversity becomes opposition. The focus shifts to semen as a generative force and a system of binary opposition, culture versus nature, sacrifice as the basis of creativity.
Rather than Usha being the dual-feminine “daughter of light” she is changed into primarily being a mother of sons. Divine female figures who cannot be attached to male deities as adjuncts are literally “demonized.”
The tension between matrifocal and patriarchal society continues to play out in the mythic material, as illustrated by the myth of Urvashi and Pururvas. Urvashi “the expansive one” is a water goddess. Pururvas is the mortal son of the goddess Ida (born without reference to a father figure). This tradition includes the earliest known reference to the root shiva (a feminine form, and appearing prior to masculine use).
Pururvas is depicted as raping and impregnating Urvashi, who berates him for acting against the feminine cosmology. Urvashi maintains her unobtainable essence--the immortality Pururvas desires to obtain from her--and he is condemned to mortality. Pururvas demands that the Ushas (the dual-feminine deity) offer their benefits to the patriarchal family, while Urvashi rejects the supposedly claiming act of rape/penetration. Urvashi’s natural state of immortal existence is in contrast to Pururvas’s “other/beyond” state, representing death. In contrast, the patriarchal world that Pururvas attempts to claim her for is “exile” to Urvashi. (That is, this is the symbolic language used in their dialogues.)
In later versions of the story, rather than this conflict being presented as a dialogue between Urvashi and Pururvas, a male narrator is inserted into the story who takes over presenting Urvashi’s voice. In that version, Urvashi’s departure from the patriarchal arrangement, which results in the ego-death of Pururvas (death and immortality) is re-interpreted as a “rescue” by other forces rather than a self-rejection.
The story involves a complicated symbolism of death/separation (Nirriti) imagined as a passage between lives or worlds, the “beyond”. This image became linked to female desire and sexual fluidity as contrasted to “virility/manhood.” “Virile” sexuality was focused only on reproduction, not as an experience of desire. Nirriti is framed as an anti-virile, feminizing force. This view of sexuality automatically excludes ecstatic experiences and same-sex sexuality in the jami mode, which latter comes to stand for any non-procreative sexuality.
Chapter 4: The Control of Lesbian Sexuality
(In the middle of this chapter, we have a selection of photos of art--sculpture and painting of a variety of eras--depicting sexual activity between women or illustrating some of the mythic material discussed in the text.)
In mythological stories, ascetic mysticism represented a tension between male chastity and female sexuality, with the latter represented by an unconsorted female deity living among a community of women. This uncontrolled, free female sexual energy was contrasted with the “dharmic” ascetic man. His abstinence was fear of the feminine erotic. His only approved purpose for sexuality was the production of male offspring. Outside of that purpose, sexual desire was impurity and a weakening force.
Theology structured the world as a male (by definition) lord and his domain, which was represented in female terms. Within this system, there is no place for female self-determination and will. The female aspect represented material nature, the lower, earthly aspect of the world. This contrasts with the earlier gynefocal cosmology. This shift is also established via legal, medical, and mythic texts.
Dharma -- “right conduct” -- was defined in specifically patriarchal terms. The parameters were established in philosophical literature around the 5th century BCE through the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
Legal texts established the heterosexual family as the only recognized mode of kinship. Caste boundaries were enforced. During this era, laws against lesbian sexuality were established, focusing on the potential for sex between women to destroy virginity or for the potential of sexual initiation of a younger woman by an older one. For example, one text gives two relevant laws: if a virgin (kanya) has sex with another virgin, she pays twice the bride price to the other’s father and is beaten. If a woman (stri) deflowers a virgin, her head is shaved or two fingers cut off and she is publicly shamed.
The emphasis here is on “virginity” as a commodity under the patriarchal marriage economy, for which a father must be compenated. The question arises, in the first case of two virgins, who is the “active” partner who is viewed as the perpetrator? The language itself does not require an asymmetric act and could cover non-penetrative activities as well as penetrative ones. The emphasis is on the concept of “deflowering” but can include self-penetration or non-vaginal sex. Legal commentaries suggest interpretations such a assigning the perpetrator role to the woman of higher caste. There is an emphasis on women’s inability to legally consent to sex or to control her own sexuality. Women are not supposed to be sexually initiated by another woman, only by a husband within marriage.
Inter-caste and adulterous relationships are also prohibited, illustrating the overall system’s focus on restricting sexuality to approved marriage pairings. Non-procreative sex of any type is disparaged.
Within marriage, medical literature provides detailed rules and instructions for how to perform approved types of procreative sex for the desired effect (a healthy male child). This same literature provides catalogs of types of sexual “defects” that either prevent achieving this desired effect or are the result of improper sexual behavior. This includes various categories of male homosexuality, as well as the claim that sex between two women will produce a boneless fetus. (These descriptions, however, provide specific descriptions of sexual acts between women, such as “when one woman...mounts another woman like a man and rubs herself against the other woman.” A tendency toward lesbian sex is identified as an “illness” of the vagina due to improper sex at conception or to embryonic damage due to defective gametes. Lesbians are conflated with the inability to beget children in the epithets applied to them: man-hater, breastless, incapable of menstruation, possessing no ovum. But at the same time, medical literature of this era considers it possible for a woman to impregnate another woman via the clitoris which is recognized as a penis-analog. (The most famous example of this scenario is in the birth of Bhagirath from the sexual union of two women.)
Medical terminology distinguished the procreative yoni from the external genitalia (bhag) relevant to sexual pleasure. Thus a verb indicating sex between women sambhog, which is found in one version of the Ramayan in which the god Ganesh is born from the union of the queens Chandra and Mala. Variants of this motif occur in other stories, often involving the co-wives of a dead king producing an heir for him after his death. Mythic versions often include motifs of water deities where the merging of bodies of water symbolizes sex.
(This chapter includes extensive details of sexual theology that are difficult to summarize, as well as an extensive list of divine names and attributes that incorporate the element bhag.)
The cosmology involving rigid structures around caste, gender, and sexuality were revised with the (re)introduction of a divine feminine principle, shakti. This provided an opportunity for older female divinities that had been converted into consorts of male deities to return to an autonomous state in which the concept of procreative sex was inverted or subverted. (Various mythic/heroic stories involving autonomous female figures who disrupt patriarchal expectations are discussed.) These stories also include sex-change motifs, as when two kings pledge that their not-yet-born offspring will marry, only to have both children be girls, with the conflict resolved at some point via magical sex-change. Some stories, however, resist a heteronormative resolution, as in the tale of Brahmani and Ratnavati which concludes with the two women spending their lives together as a couple.
Chapter 5 - Legacies of Colonialism
This chapter covers the effects, not only on gender and sexuality cultures in India, but on knowledge about historic cultures, from the colonial legacy that erased “disapproved” cultures or imposed new interpretations on them that adhered to western views of gender and sexuality. Gender politics played a role in how colonizing powers legitimated their own actions (e.g., “rescuing” downtrodden Indian women). Even modern social historians trying to reconstruct older structures too often valorize variant and androgynous traditions of masculinity while ignoring or demonizing variant or androgynous women. In the case of India, the latter often invokes the “Kali spectrum” of non-consorted goddesses.
Both colonial appropriation and Indian nationalist movements had a stake in focusing on the “Aryan heritage” that privileged the patriarchal Vedic, brahmanic and kshatriya traditions. And both movements collaborated on relegating women to be the keepers of tradition and those responsible for managing sexuality. The woman-focused shakti traditions were ignored or appropriated as consorts of male figures. Female independence, education, and self-realization were framed as being due to western materialism, in contrast to the self-sacrifice, chastity, and maternal devotion expected of women by nationalist movements. The existing mythic and religious traditions are sifted through for female imagery that supports and emphasizes these themes, discarding traditions that contradict it. This theme is expanded on at some length with examples.
Thadani then turns to the fate of marginalized woman-focused traditions in this era. For example, the cult of Sakhibhavas, those who worshipped Radha (often presented as the female lover of Krishna) as devoted female friends (sakhis) of Radha. Sakhi was one of the forms of bonding between women that included an erotic aspect. The Sakhibhava cult included male participants who expressed their devotion to Radha through a feminine identity. The core principle of Sakhbhava was a woman-woman fusion that can be categorized as lesbian. This movement diverged from the tradition of the Krishna-Radha romance approved in the dominant canon, though the Purana literature includes references to Kali kissing Radha that can be seen as part of the alternate tradition. From this point of view, the Krishna-Radha story can be seen as a man (Krishna) intruding into a female-inhabited space and forcibly making himself its center.
There is a discussion of how the canonical Krishna-Radha story imposed gendered interpretations on traditional religious dance and even created a template for pop culture depictions of courtship and romance that centered on the agressive pursuit by an entitled male figure of an "innocent" independent and disinterested woman whose sexuality is awaked by his successful pursuit.
The division of female expressions of gender and sexuality in terms of motherhood into the “good mother” and the “bad/destroying/consuming mother” required absorbing even the pre-Vedic non-consorted non-material apsara deities into this binary division, requiring all such figures to be “bad mothers.” There’s a discussion of how this imagery was used in some takes on Indian psycho-sexual analysis. Examples are given at some length and how it affects the cultural expectations for both boys and girls as they mature.
Despite the cultural expectation in modern India of homosocial spaces, there is a lack of language to describe and emphasize woman-woman sexual and kinship structures. There are no contexts for independent female goddesses or cosmolgonies. Outside of the patriarchal, monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Islam, the Hindu tradition is built entirely on a deliberately male-centered reconstruction of older traditions into a monolithic patriarchal religion. Words that in earlier ages carried sexual meaning or invoked a female-oriented worldview, such as bhagini, sakhi, jami have been stripped of those senses to mean simply “sister”, “female friend” and the like. The words shanda/shandali are translated in male-centered terms as indicating a masculinized woman or an unfeminine woman, not as a woman-desiring woman. Neutral words for “lesbian” are generally new coinages that literally translate words such as “homosexual.” Only in rare cases does an academic historical dictionary allow for the contextual meaning of these words in shaktic traditions.
The British colonial imposition of anti-sodomy laws in India did not explicitly include lesbian sex (as it was not explicitly included in the original British laws) but were worded in such a way that it could be (and was) applied to lesbianism. (“Carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any ... woman...”) Colonial sex-related laws were not discarded by post-colonial India but rather adapted to the purposes and goals of nationalist gender ideology. In the case of lesbians, reaction against the concept of women having a sexual life independent of male control, combined with a definition of masculinity focused on procreation, creates a hostile climate that assails both lesbian relationships and relationships including a transmasculine partner.
A number of anecdotes and new articles are presented giving the context for modern attitudes towards same-sex sexuality in the later 20th century, but on an official level and within the family.
Chapter 6 - Westernization
Further examples and discussion of lesbian images and experiences in contemporary India.
Chapter 7 - Love and Death
This chapter discusses various motifs of female lovers in traditional and modern literature, and how those affect individual expectations and behavior, including a significant rate of suicide among lesbian couples who see no other option.
Folk tales (and the older mythic tales they evolved from) include stories of marriage between women, typically due to the vow by two fathers that their not-yet-born children will wed. When both are born girls, perhaps one is raised semi-secretly as a boy in order to fulfill the vow. After the marriage, the women discover the truth of their gender, as well as recognizing their love for each other. In the older tales, this would typically be resolved with a magical sex change, but in a more modern folk tale (Teeja and Beeja), they instead leave home together to seek their fortune in the world. After adventures and an attempt to return home (and including a magical sex-change, after all, that doesn’t work as intended as is reversed), they live happily together as women.
This resolution was possible in the older religious traditions that included mystical unions that did not require particular gender roles. But when those traditions have been invoked in modern India (examples are given) the concept is rejected. Indeed, arguments for woman-woman spiritual unions have sometimes resulted in backlash against emotional bonds between women in general. An example is given of a rural tradition of a formal “friendship pact” (maitri karar) that had a long traditional history being used to formalize women’s unions, but that such traditions were beginning to be regarded negatively.
Even more than the often arbitrary application of laws, the greatest barrier to women’s romantic relationships is familial rejection (or, more often, coercion into heterosexual marriage, including by violence, or even murder of one or both partners).
Chapter 8 - Lesbian Identities
This chapter discusses the difficulties for women in modern India to construct lesbian identities.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 29e - At the Mouth by Gurmika Mann - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/12/29 - listen here)
Welcome to the fourth story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series! I’ve been so happy with the response to the fiction series and I’ve been delighted to be able to do my part to put more lesbian historical fiction out into the world. As you already know if you’re a regular listener, I’ll be running a second fiction series in 2019. Submissions will be open for the month of January. Check out the link in the show notes if you think you have something we might be interested in.
Our author, Gurmika Mann, is a queer Punjabi-Canadian woman living in Alberta. She studied English Literature and Psychology at McGill University. When she isn't writing, she loves picking apart narratives in pop culture - especially in TV, movies and video games. Her interest in historical culture, religion and mythology is reflected in her first published piece, "At the Mouth". You can follow her on twitter: @gikhee.
Our narrator, Maya Chhabra, is a poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Mythic Delirium, and The Cascadia Subduction Zone, among other venues. Her novella Toxic Bloom is forthcoming from Falstaff Press, and her novelette Walking on Knives is available from Less Than Three Press. Her translation from the Russian of Marina Tsvetaeva's Fortune was published in Cardinal Points, Volume 8. She can be found on twitter @mayachhabra.
I’ll have links for both our author and narrator in the show notes.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
* * *
At the Mouth
Ramya was the one who told her after morning prayers. “The old ladies were saying Jaya is getting married to Raju.” They were sweeping the temple courtyard together before old man Balaji told them to come inside and begin their practice.
Aayushi squinted. “Raju’s father owns their house.”
“Of course he does. He owns half this temple too.” Ramya clicked her tongue. “You’re so slow.”
“Jaya wouldn’t want to marry him,” said Aayushi, hiking up her sari to lean over, sweeping along the far wall of the courtyard. They were getting closer to the gate, both of them managing to push along an ever-growing pile of dust, grains, rice, and flower petals that had scattered from the morning prayers. “Tell Balaji I’m going out. I ripped a seam in my blouse.”
“You’re full of shit,” said Ramya, but she was grinning. “Get one of those sweets next to Jaya’s house.”
“You’re always eating!” Aayushi scolded, pushing open the gates of the temple and hurriedly sweeping the threshold clean. She dropped her broom at Ramya’s feet, smoothed out her sari, and dashed away from the temple, following the downhill path into the village.
Kargal wasn’t a big village but it boasted a temple devoted to Indra with six devadasis paying homage to the deity along with a dozen brahmin that oversaw the complex. The temple was situated at the open mouth of a river, and the jungle spread around it, lush and thick. As Aayushi picked her way down the path from the temple gate to the main road of the village, the thunderous roar of the river began to fade out behind her, replaced now by the clamour of voices as the village got on with yet another day of business.
Aayushi passed the sweets shop first where Nandini wrapped up two maladus and then snuck an extra for her as she pointed to the open window of Jaya’s shop. “Did you hear she’s getting married?”
“No, she’s not,” said Aayushi before bidding her goodbye and crossing the road, into the open door of the clothes shop. There was already incense burning near the open windowsill of the shop, and Aayushi thought of kicking it over.
“Aayushi,” said Jaya from behind her.
Aayushi startled. “You scared me!”
Jaya laughed, her smile wide and her eyes crinkling. “If I can scare you, then you must be feeling off.”
“I’m fine,” she said. Jaya was wearing a green sari today, folded impeccably over her waist, the long piece coming over her shoulder elegantly, naturally. Her hair was in a long, black braid as usual, but there were flowers - small and white - tucked just behind her ear. When Jaya limped past her, Aayushi could smell the incense lingering on her skin. It was awful.
“So you are getting married.”
Jaya’s home was covered in fabrics - wool, cotton, silk - all dyed in bright colours, but still uncut and unembroidered. From the entrance all the way to the back, Aayushi could see the piles of neatly folded clothes, all carefully arranged by shades. She had been here when customers came in, watched how the new brides immediately crouched near the reds next to the windowsill, and the mourners who arrived would go to the pile of untouched whites near the back door. Aayushi always loved green, and Jaya kept it against the wall next to the red, said that’s where the devadasis liked to linger and gossip as they watched the new brides fret over which shade would suit them best.
“To Raju,” said Jaya as she limped out through the door into the back courtyard where Aayushi knew was her small stove. “He’s the only who didn’t ask for a dowry.”
“Your house is his dowry.”
With Jaya no longer in her sight, Aayushi pressed a fist against her stomach, willing the pressure to ease, but all she felt was a hopeless terror. Slowly, she made her way past the clothes into courtyard, where there was a cot under the shade, next to a stovetop and dishes.
Jaya was already seated on the cot, her bad leg propped along the length of the cot, as she busied herself portioning out water in two cups to make tea. The briquettes in her stove burnt hot, and Aayushi could smell the incense here too. It made her grimace as she crouched down next to Jaya. “Jaya…”
“I finished your sari for the next full moon,” said Jaya, not looking up while she poured the water from the cups into a pot. “It’s blue and gold. I sewed bells on the edges of the sleeves for when you dance.” She placed the pot on the flat clay of the stove and began to stoke the briquettes with a long stick.
“Don’t marry Raju,” said Aayushi softly. Her hands were fisted in the skirt of her orange sari, the colour reminding her too much of the fresh marigold garlands Jaya would have to wear at her wedding.
“I put flowers all along the hem of the skirt. The white ones you like that grow near the river.”
“Jaya,” said Aayushi, a little more loudly, desperately.
The water was slowly beginning to bubble. “Your blouse is silk, even though you asked for cotton, but it will match. I put in hooks at the sides in case you get fat with maladus before you put it on.”
The joke had Aayushi laughing, surprising herself, before looking up at Jaya. Jaya was moving to put in the tea leaves into her boiling water, a pinch of fennel and two pieces of crushed clove. Aayushi usually left by now to get goat’s milk from Nandini to use for the tea, but instead she felt stuck here, watching Jaya’s face, how Jaya refused to look at her even as she spoke.
“And there’s fish. On the shoulders.” Jaya sighed as she watched the water darken from the tea leaves and spices, letting out a smell that was much more comforting to Aayushi than the incense. “They’re climbing up against the waterfall, trying… trying to touch you.”
It was the way Jaya’s jaw was clenched so tight... Aayushi couldn’t help herself; she reached out, cupped Jaya’s cheek in her palm, and it was so easy and so familiar. Jaya leaned into the touch for just a moment before pulling away to lift the pot off the stove. There was no milk.
“I can get some from Nandini.”
Jaya shook her head. “I can drink it like this. Do you still…?”
“Yes, I’ll have some too.”
Carefully, Jaya poured the tea out into two cups, and poured some fresh water inside of the pan so the tea leaves would float instead of getting stuck along the inside. “I have no choice.”
Aayushi winced. Holding the cup meant she couldn’t hold Jaya, and the distance seemed immeasurable at that moment - with her on one side of Jaya’s cot and Jaya on the other, Jaya’s bad leg between them, tucked under the long green sari.
“I knew,” started Jaya, still not looking at her, “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“You don’t have to,” she said, staring at the unfinished chai in her hands.
“Raju didn’t ask for a dowry and he doesn’t mind my leg.”
“I don’t mind your leg either!” Aayushi stared up at her, hopeless. “Just because his father gave you a storefront after your parents died doesn’t mean you need to marry his son!”
Jaya reeled back, and her heavy brows drew together in anger. “I made you that sari for you to seduce some rich brahmin, Aaya. You will marry too. This - whatever this is - isn’t forever.”
“But you don’t want it!”
“It’s not about what I want!” Jaya’s shoulders were drawn tight and Aayushi couldn’t help remembering when she would massage them, knowing exactly how warm Jaya’s skin was under her touch, how she always grew so tense as she worked deep into the night to get her embroidery perfect on her saris. “It’s… It’s what’s required.”
Her small mouth was turned down at the corners. Aayushi wanted to kiss her. “Let’s run away to Bengalore, where the rajput lives.” Jaya stared at her, but Aayushi continued, unhindered. “We’ll join his harem, and be like Ravana’s wives, who kissed each other when he couldn’t kiss them.”
Jaya’s expression was soft with affection, but still she seemed so far away. “Silly Aaya.” She gestured to the house. “This isn’t a story. I am going to make more saris for you - when you’re married and when you’re pregnant and when you dance for Indra with the other devadasis. And you’re going to bless my marriage as the nitya sumangali and you’ll dance for Indra to not pass on this leg to my children.”
Before she could stop herself, Aayushi began to cry. “Just tell me what you want first.”
“I…” Looking at her hands, Jaya shook her head. “I want to prove I’m the best - at clothes, at embroidery, at sewing. I want to show everyone I can get by with this leg.”
“By getting married for money,” said Jaya, rolling her eyes. “Really, Aaya.”
“Okay.” Aayushi wiped at her face, cleaning her tears, before putting the chai down and standing up. “I’ll give you money.”
“Aayushi!” Jaya snapped. “I don’t need your charity!”
“But I’m a devadasi - I have money. I can give you money.”
“The rest of us aren’t like you!” She shouted, startling Aayushi for a moment. Sucking in a deep breath, Jaya seemed to regain her composure, but her entire frame shimmered with anger. “The rest of us can’t live like a carefree child like you. The rest of us have responsibilities.”
“I’m not a child,” said Aayushi, stung. She was twenty, a fully-fledged devadasi, who knew the sacred dances and could sing Lord Indra’s praises. “But I’m not so scared to hide behind a some man instead of seeing I could be something more.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Jaya, her voice flat, her gaze turning cold. “How could a child understand anything of an adult woman’s reality.”
The words felt like a physical blow. Aayushi stepped back, incomprehending for a moment. Still, Jaya sat there, her back straight, her dark eyes under her heavy brows meeting Aayushi’s as if to challenge her. She didn’t want Aayushi there. Aayushi didn’t want to be there anymore either.
She left, leaving her unfinished chai behind, and returned to the temple.
Before the full moon, the women in Kargal had fasted all day and arrived just after sundown at the temple for blessings of longevity and happy marriage and healthy children. Aayushi and Ramya had been busy all day with preparations - cooking and decoration and cleaning the temple along with the other devadasis - before Balaji and the other brahmins had summoned them to dance in the courtyard. As the crowd of women gathered to pay respects to Indra and the moon, Aayushi danced the familiar steps, listening to the cheers and claps from the audience, and was grateful it was over soon. She needed to find Nandini’s mother.
Though the majority of the village crowd were women, Aayushi saw some of the landowning men talking to the brahmins. Balaji was with Raju’s father, but Aayushi couldn’t spot Raju himself. She knew Jaya didn’t like making the walk to the temple in the evening where it was hard to see where to step with her bad leg. Instead, she usually sent her offerings with Nandini, who Aayushi finally spotted standing next to the statue of Indra, where the smoke from the burning incense wafted around her moon-round face. Her mother was next to her, and Aayushi ducked around the other devadasis to talk to them.
“Aaya!” Nandini’s mother was just as large and soft as the maladus her family sold. Aayushi bowed to touch her feet, bracing herself for the conversation to follow. “Jaya sent me up with her sari for you. The rajput’s sons are coming to Kargal for the winter solstice?”
“I wanted to look my best for them,” said Aayushi. “Did Raju come?”
“He’s somewhere around here.”
“He’s marrying Jaya.”
Nandini’s mother beamed. “She’s twenty-two, it’s overdue. And Raju is a good boy. His family is going to pay, so Jaya doesn’t have to worry about a thing. Now we just have to find a boy for you next.”
“And offend my true husband Indra-dev?” Aayushi relaxed as Nandini and her mother both laughed. Nandini crouched down next to the basket they had brought and got out of the silk sari for Aayushi.
Aayushi thanked her as she held the silk, feeling it slip between her fingers. “Jaya is only getting married for money.”
Immediately, Nandini’s mother clicked her tongue. “That’s not how women speak, Aayushi.”
“But it’s true,” insisted Aayushi, having braced herself all day for this conversation. “She wants to continue being a seamstress, but she thinks getting married is the only way she can keep doing that.”
“Aaya,” said Nandini quietly. “It took a long time for my ama to secure this match.”
Aayushi gripped onto the sari to keep it from sliding out from her arms. “We can - I can - help her. She doesn’t have to do this. She’s skilled enough to make double what she does now, but she lives in Kargal, not Siddapur or Sagar.”
Nandini’s mother shook her head, one soft hand cupping Aayushi’s cheek. “But that is not how women live, Aaya. Jaya said the same thing but she understands now what must be done.”
The topic was clearly too uncomfortable for Nandini’s mother as she soon moved away to go talk to the other older women. Nandini stood next to her basket of offerings, reaching out to snag one of Aayushi’s bangles on a finger and tugging her closer.
“Ama had to argue with Jaya day and night too.” Nandini’s face was cast half in shadow, and her chin tilted downwards, saddened. “But we don’t have any money for Jaya to borrow and Raju was there.”
“What if I gave her money?” Aayushi asked suddenly, turning towards her, the sari clutched tightly to her chest. “Then what?”
“Then nothing,” said Nandini, shrugging. “Jaya would still get married. It’s not about money anymore, Aaya. It’s just… what’s done.”
“But she doesn’t want it!”
“We have no choice!” Nandini didn’t raise her voice but she stared wide-eyed and imploring at Aayushi before looking away, embarrassed. “I mean, me and Jaya. You’re a devadasi. You are already married to a dev.”
Aayushi looked at Nandini’s finger still caught around her bangle on her wrist and felt so, so tired. “I’m a woman too.”
“Yes,” said Nandini, letting go of the bangle now. “But you’re not like us.”
The winter solstice would be coming in less than one full moon’s turn. Jaya would get married then, just before the rajput’s arrival here with his sons on his tour to see the temples. In the meantime, Aayushi tried on the new sari in her room with Ramya within the temple. Ramya clicked her tongue when she saw the embroidery was missing on one corner of the hem.
“You pay this girl for incomplete work?”
Aayushi smacked her arm but frowned. “She’s never done this before.” Changing back into her other sari, she carefully folded the blue silk back up. “I should get it fixed.”
“Don’t come back crying like last time,” said Ramya, waving goodbye.
Aayushi mustered a smile as if to reassure but felt it fade away as she left the temple to make her way into the village proper. The days beforehand, she had Ramya sell off a few of her jewellery in exchange for coin when the brahmins had sent them down for grocery shopping. Now, Aayushi had a small heavy purse full of coin that she tucked between the folds of the blue sari, and she could only hope Jaya would even see her much less accept her… her charity.
Still, Aayushi had to try.
The sweets storefront was being managed by Nandini’s little brother this time. He waved to Aayushi as she crossed the road to Jaya’s home. Swallowing down her anxiety, Aayushi stepped past the threshold, to be surrounded and swallowed by the piles of fabrics around her. Jaya was sitting near the open window, sewing the edges of a blouse together. Her bad leg was stretched out in front of her with a blanket thrown overtop, and her sari this time was coloured a pale yellow like the small flowers that dotted the path between the village and temple. Her rough, worked hands held the needle delicately as she sewed, her head bent downwards in concentration, her thick dark hair braided in a neat plait as usual. Standing there watching, Aayushi could recall how it felt when her fingers had carded through Jaya’s hair, how it felt like the earth after it had rained - so soft, so heavy. She could even remember the touch of Jaya’s calloused fingers, even as Aayushi massaged oil and butter into the skin to soften it, scolding her for working too hard.
“Jaya,” she called out. Immediately, Jaya jerked in surprise, head snapping up in attention. She had been so focused that she hadn’t even heard Aayushi come in.
“Aaya,” Jaya said, still clearly surprised.
“The sari,” started Aayushi before the words died away in her mouth.
Jaya looked down finally to see Aayushi holding the blue silk before gesturing for her to put it down next to Jaya. “Is there a mistake? Let me look.”
Aayushi handed the silk over, and Jaya’s precise fingers unfolded the length of it with an ease and familiarity that Aayushi wondered anyone else could imitate. It only took a few moments for the coin purse to fall out into Jaya’s lap as she spread the silk and Jaya paused, looking down. Immediately, Aayushi could feel all her awkward laughter and excuses pile behind her teeth, trying to come out, to pretend this never happened. This was a youth’s indulgence; Jaya would get married and Aayushi would continue to get her clothes done by her, and Aayushi’s frantic attempts to seemingly save Jaya would just be a pebble in the stream of their lives together.
Except Jaya didn’t look twice at the coin purse. She found the corner with the missing embroidery instead. “I haven’t done this before.”
“You haven’t,” agreed Aayushi eventually. “That’s why I had to come see you.”
Jaya looked up, a faint smile on her mouth. “That’s the only reason? Come, sit.”
Helpless, Aayushi sat down next to Jaya’s bad leg, sliding the palms of her hands over the ocean of silk spread between them. “I liked the fish on the blouse.”
“I’m glad.” Jaya put down her needle and thread for the other blouse and focused on the sari. “I can’t wait to see you dance in this.”
“You only ever come to the temple when I’m wearing something of yours.”
Jaya grinned, shameless. Aayushi couldn’t stop herself from staring at how beautiful Jaya was in this moment, looking perfectly at ease and content with her life, bantering with Aayushi as if this was any other day. As if there wasn’t a fat coin purse sitting right in her lap.
“If I take this purse,” interrupted Jaya, looking up at her from beneath her heavy brows. “If I take it, then I can never come back.”
“I…” A part of Aayushi wanted to be confident, wanted to say, “yes, of course, I knew that,” but no part of her was ready. She thought back to Nandini and her round face, her large imploring eyes. Isn’t this what she meant? That girls like Nandini and Jaya would always have to cave to the wants of the village - married off with their own aspirations relegated to the dusty corners of the courtyard. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“If I stay, I get married.”
“I don’t want you to get married either.”
Jaya sighed. “Then what do you want, Aaya? Silly girl.”
Fiddling with the silk, Aayushi looked out the window of the storefront. “I want you to be happy.”
“I’m happy with you.”
“No, you’re not.” Aayushi turned back towards Jaya. “You’re happiest… when you work. And I make you the happiest when I can show your work off.”
She doesn’t expect Jaya to reach out, her familiar rough hands cupping Aayushi’s palms. “You…” Her face was tipped down now, and Aayushi could see her long lashes cast shadows down her cheeks. “You’re like the sun. You’re so bright and warm and good. You think you can make everyone happier. You make me happy.”
“Please,” Aayushi choked out.
Jaya’s small mouth twisted in a frown. She shook her head but didn’t let go of Aayushi’s hand. “After you left last time, I was so upset. I didn’t know what to do. I only knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want you to be angry at me anymore. I didn’t want you to be… disappointed in me.”
“I would never,” she said quickly, tangling their fingers together and squeezing.
She received a wry smile in return; Jaya was looking up at her, her dark eyes bright. “I’m sorry. I might have purposely sent an unfinished hem so you would see me.”
A laugh came to her unbidden, had her watching Jaya helplessly, holding onto her hand. “I would have come back eventually.” That was the truth of it: if Jaya thought Aayushi was the sun, then Aayushi couldn’t help but think she was the ground beneath her feet, the steadiness in knowing every day the sun would set and the moon would rise and Jaya’s eyes would glitter like the stars in the sky.
“I love you,” said Jaya softly.
That should have been the end of it. The coin purse should have been ignored. They could stay together - here. Aayushi would wear her blue silk sari and seduce one of the rajput’s sons into marrying her and she could live out her life as a devadasi surrounded by wealth as she practiced her craft. And Jaya? She would stay here, married to Raju, the rich son of the village, who would let Jaya continue to be a seamstress that would impress Aayushi’s future husband. They would be bosom-buddies, gossiping and giggling behind veils, waiting until one of their husbands was out of sight before Aayushi could press her mouth to Jaya and revel in how Jaya gasped and pressed back.
But it wasn’t enough. It never would be. Jaya would languish under the toil of housework and never have her skill recognized apart from being Raju’s limping wife with the clever hands. Aayushi had her duties to her lord-husband Indra-dev as a devadasi; she could not play second-wife to Jaya no matter how much she loved her. This wasn’t the end Aayushi wanted for them, and it was terrifying.
“But,” said Aayushi. “But I can’t keep you.”
The hurt was clear on Jaya’s face: her brows drew together and her jaw clenched. She tried to withdraw her hand but Aayushi held on.
“You deserve more.” She believed it with her entire being, as sure as she was of her dance, her song, when she prostated herself for Indra-dev in the temple courtyard. “So you need to go.”
“You’ll let me go?” Jaya asked.
“Yes,” said Aayushi, nodding to the coin purse still in Jaya’s lap.
It took a moment for her to recognize that Jaya was tearing up, her expression twisted up as she cried. Panic flared in Aayushi’s chest as she launched herself across Jaya’s lap to hug her, press her face into the crook of her neck. Jaya held onto the skirt of Aayushi’s sari, heaving shuddering breaths against Aayushi’s collarbone.
“Nandini,” she started, “Nandini has a cousin in Kodkani, and she wants… She came back from the temple that night and she said she would help me leave, if I wanted.” It took a moment for Jaya to pull back, look up at Aayushi. “If I take your money, I can take my best saris and get to Kodkani, then make my way into Siddapur.”
Aayushi nodded. “I’ll help you. We all will.”
Jaya gave a watery smile. “Thank you.”
It was a sweeter phrase than her confession.
The rajput’s sons were delayed by three turns of the moon due to the monsoon season. The brahmins were slick in a sheen of anxiety as they made sure to clean the temple as best they could before the arrival. The rajput’s sons came with an entourage - their soldiers, bodyguards, servants, slaves, and select women from the harem. Ramya was gossiping with the other devadasis when Aayushi finally got on her blue sari, and they crowded together in fascination as the temple gates opened to welcome the royalty.
Aayushi danced - in honour of Indra, in honour of the rajput, in honour of the village of Kargal - along with the other devadasis, keeping beat with Ramya’s high, clear voice as she sang. The sun was low in the sky by the time the welcoming festivities came to a close to the bloody sacrifice of a goat and the serving of food. The devadasis sat aside from the rajput’s sons and brahmins, but the harem women came over to chat.
It was only when one of them got close enough that Aayushi spotted a familiar embroidery of flowers along the hem of one of the women’s sari. Already, her heart was in her throat, her hand reaching out to brush against the silk as the harem women sat around them.
“Who did this?” Aayushi asked without preamble.
Ramya smacked her arm. “She meant your sari is very pretty.”
The other women laughed. The one wearing the sari sat next to Aayushi and looked at the hem. “It’s strange, isn’t it? She put fish instead of flowers, but it’s beautiful.”
“Who?” Aayushi pressed.
The woman tipped her head in recollection. “I got this one while we were in Sagar. There’s a seamstress apprentice there who makes strange designs but they’re popular. I had to get one for myself.”
Ramya leaned forward. “Sagar is south of Siddapur.”
Aayushi scoffed. “I know.” But Ramya was holding her hand now, squeezing her fingers, and Aayushi squeezed back. “That apprentice is going to be famous one day.”
The woman traced her fingers along the embroidered fish before catching the same design over Aayushi’s blouse. Her smile seemed knowing then. “She told me it was made with love.”
Aayushi ducked her head, shy.
Suddenly, the devadasis erupted in whispers as Aayushi looked up to see one of the rajput’s sons walking towards where they were sitting. His eyes were on her. Aayushi let go of Ramya’s hand and straightened her posture. Jaya was working hard to do what she loved; Aayushi wouldn’t fall behind.
# The End #
I wish I had time to go into more detail about the individual readings collected in this volume, rather than simply summarizing the explanatory material. But if you have any interest in finding out more about the rich history of same-sex relations on the subcontinent--especially before the colonial era--it would be worth tracking down this volume. The editors are working from within their own cultures and have personally created many of the translations included here.
I'm particularly happy to cover this book in the week before the podcast presents a story set in 10th century India involving a devdasi and a seamstress. Many of the themes discussed in Vanita & Kidwai's collection are present in the setting of Gurmika Mann's "At the Mouth", which I hope you will take the opportunity to listen to.
In many parts of the world, the cultural experience of same-sex love struggles against both local prejudice and persecution--often a direct consequence of colonialism, and not a "home-grown" attitude"--and against Western constructions of "the homosexual experience" that assume (or even impose) a specific type of cultural understanding, while excluding other ways of understanding same-sex love from the modern "queer" experience. It's a joy and delight to find scholarly work on non-Western histories that is written by academics working within their own cultures, who have managed to navigate around both types of challenges. Too often, that work is being done by a small number of scholar, and too often they are talked over by the Western queer studies establishment while simultaneously being ostracized by institutions in their own cultures who have yet to untangle the legacy of colonial prejudices.
And for me, in identifying publications to cover, the difficulties include identifying those scholars and their works in the first place, and struggling to have enough understanding to present them in the same critical fashion that I do the more euro-centric material. I'm always happy to take recommendations for publications on cultures and regions of the world that I haven't covered yet.
Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, eds. 2000. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. St. Martin’s, New York. ISBN 0-312-22169-X
This is an anthology of literature, rather than an analytic text. The organizing principle for selection is examples of love between men or between women who are not biologically related. Literary texts often don’t overtly show the truth of relationships or how those participating in the relationship understood themselves, but they can show how such relationships were represented and expressed.
The passionate attachments represented in these readings may or may not be sexual, but that applies to similar male-female relationships as well. The focus here is on love, not necessarily sex, and the distinction is not treated as important. It also should be noted that same-sex relationships were considered compatible with participation in male-female marriage and with procreation. (Though, at least in the legendary material, procreation doesn’t always require the former.) Only in modern times has an expectation developed that a heterosexual spouse will also be a person’s primary emotional outlet. This collection is also not concerned with depictions of sex that have no emotional or erotic content, for example, the use of sex in power dynamics or same-sex rape.
For the purpose of this collection, “India” is defined geographically, even though the writers of the material often wouldn’t have seen that as their identity.
Same-sex history is often studied in a gender-segregated way, due to the different experiences of men and women. But some approaches identify common factors, hence the decision to include both in this volume. And some of the included texts support the idea of looking at men’s and women’s same-sex experiences together in the context of Indian history, for example, the Kamasutra’s catalog of sexual practices suggests parallels, and texts involving cross-dressing and gender ambiguity are most usefully considered in a common context.
The editors have found no evidence that same-sex love generated significant disapproval or persecution before the 19th century (i.e., before the colonial period) thought it was often treated as inferior to male-female love, or simply ignored.
All the texts in this collection are translated into English (except those originally written in English, of course) and represent most of India’s major languages. The volume has been arranged roughly chronologically. In order to avoid the problem of bias or bowdlerization, the editors have done their own translations of the Hindi and Urdu texts, as well as most of the Persian ones, and have worked closely with the translators for other languages.
There is a discussion of how sexual terminology is handled, both in the discussion and in translating the texts.
The material is presented in three periods: Ancient, covering ca. 1500 BCE through the 8th century CE; Medieval, covering the 8th century up to the British colonial period (roughly the late 18th century); and Modern, covering the period beginning with British rule. There are some absences and asymmetries in the source material, in part due to differences in availability and in part due to access, based on the editors’ own cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
The collection is aimed at general as well as scholarly readers and tries to challenge the myth that same-sex love is a “Western import” to India.
This material tends to focus on the ideals of friendship and the intertwining of same-sex friendships with male-female relationships. Many are stories of divine heroes and their extended families. They deal with the relationship between friendship and marriage, or with asceticism and friendship. A prominent motif is miraculous births, including birth from a single parent (female or male) or from a same-sex couple (of either sex), or with the nurturing of a child by a same-sex couple. A related motif may be group marriages or group parenting where same-sex relations are included. Creation myths in the Rig Veda regularly include dual mothers or a group of mothers. Another motif is pairs of mothers who co-nourish each other’s children.
Same-sex relationships may involve or arise from cross-dressing or sex-change situations. A cross-dressed woman may enter into a relationship with another woman, but commonly there is also an element of supernatural sex-change, especially involving the intercession of a forest spirit. A relationship may begin as the marriage of two women and then subsequently involve one of them becoming a man.
In sex-change stories where women become men, the change is generally permanent, while in those where men become women, it is often temporary (for the purpose of procreation) and then later reversed. These gender-change motifs are treated differently in the medieval period.
In Buddhist texts, sex-change may be a symbol of liberation from the expectation to marry. Religious communities were often gender-segregated and the same-sex attachments that developed within them were felt to be less “worldly” than male-female relationships. Gender may be treated as an illusory construct (in some ways, like the modern idea of gender as performance) but within a system that aligns “male” with “enlightened”. This created a space for allowing non-heterosexual relationships.
Sexual categories in legal and medical literature had a different approach. There was a long tradition of recognizing a “third sex”, primarily for men who desired men. Legal texts about sexual crimes tended to focus on sex with an inappropriate subject or with the loss of virginity, and women’s actions were considered less problematic than men’s. Same-sex acts are treated as a minor issue unless rape or loss of virginity was involved. Most same-sex acts were not treated as criminal. Compare, for example, with cross-caste sex acts which were far more stigmatized.
Pseudomedical theories addressing the causes and consequences of same-sex desire are contradictory and unsystematic. This literature provides some terminology for same-sex topics, but nothing that suggests an established concept. They also reflect a general tolerance for same-sex desire. There is more distinction made between sexual activity and celibacy than between same-sex or male-female relations.
Erotic and medical texts provide some explicit references to same-sex acts. Women are described participating in embraces, oral sex, and gender play.
The motif of re-birth is sometimes used to justify unexpected love or desire, whether same-sex or cross-caste. Attachment in a former life was thought to carry over to persons who, in their current incarnations, would be considered inappropriate partners.
(I won’t be listing the specific texts and their contents in detail.)
While the ancient texts are represented only by Sanskrit literature, in the medieval period there are several different cultural traditions to consider, in particular, the introduction of Islamic culture, but there is a general diversity of regional and religious cultures. Arabic, Persian, and Urdu traditions join Sanskrit, and the topics include religious stories, epics, historical chronicles, and devotional poetry. Some specific genres include the Bhakti tradition, involving mystical loving devotion to a specific deity (that is, one selected from a number of options, not a type of monotheism).
The medieval literature includes commentaries on older texts. The Puranas introduce a new pantheon who edge out the Vedic gods, among other religious shifts. The everyday observance of sexual taboos coexist with stories of divinities who exist outside those taboos. There is a re-emergence of veneration of mother goddesses which provides a context of bonds between female divinities.
The literature continues themes of sex change and of the children of same-sex couples (of any gender) as well as same-sex marriage.
The depiction of devotional relationships to divinities is more fluid. For example, the female Janabai mystics envisioned god as a loving female companion. Religious monasticism often took the form of marriage resistance, but did not preclude sexual relations and allowed for same-sex relations. Female devdasis entered into a spiritual marriage to a deity (either male or female) and lived outside the marriage structure. This sometimes resulted in matrilineal religious communities.
The emphasis on procreation in marriage could be used to sanction same-sex marriages that produced offspring (either miraculously or via sex-change). Love between women was also depicted in the context of polygynous marriage, and stories told of female lovers marrying the same man in order to stay together, or love developing between co-wives after the marriage.
Within the Persian/Urdu tradition, there is a significant increase in same-sex material in the later medieval period, but it is overwhelmingly male-oriented and associated with Islamic culture. Islamic legal traditions were officially against same-sex relations but cultural traditions contradicted this and elevated love between men. Islamic communities in India did not adhere to conservative Islam, possibly in part due to being always in a minority position. The Sufi tradition focused on love as the core of spirituality. A common poetic motif was for male poets to use a female voice to address a male beloved.
A great deal of the introduction to this part of the book covers they ways in which British colonial culture altered attitudes toward same-sex love, as well as discussing recent social and political activism.
One curious genre is that of Rekhti poetry, an Urdu form in which a male poet writing in a female voice addresses love poetry to a female beloved. Scholars disagree on the extent to which this reflects the lives of women in same-sex relationships as opposed to the male imagination, but material from the courtesan tradition of “aliyan” (female friends) suggests that women performed Rekhti poetry for each other, and accounts of female same-sex relationships from colonial reports include terminology that matches the vocabulary of Rekhti poetry. So the tentative conclusion is that the genre has some use for understanding women’s lives.
There is a discussion of sexual techniques as reflected in this literature. Then a long discussion of changes in same-sex culture in India under British rule. Modern fiction has introduced a number of tropes that reflect the realities of same-sex relationships, such as the married woman who yearns for her (female) childhood sweetheart. But western influences have also introduced negative depictions of same-sex relations.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 29d - Queen Anne - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/12/22 - listen here)
Inspired by the release of the movie The Favourite, I decided to do this month’s essay on its subject: Queen Anne, her circle of female favorites especially Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham, and the rumors of lesbianism that circled around them. Originally, I was going to include a review of the movie as part of this episode, but the essay ran long enough that I’m saving the review for later.
The Historic Outline
Queen Anne of England reigned for a bare dozen years at the very beginning of the 18th century, marking the end of the Stuart dynasty and participating in the complex wrangling over the intersection of politics and religion that had disrupted much of the later 17th century and would continue in the unsuccessful claims of the Catholic branch of the Stuarts well into the mid-18th century. All this has only the barest relevance to the topic of today’s essay, but it may help to set the stage a little and lay out the major players and timelines.
Anne was the younger daughter of King James II of England, who had succeeded his dashing brother, King Charles II. Charles had restored the monarchy to England after the English Civil War, and the label Restoration with all its licentious associations covers the period of Anne’s birth and childhood. Though Charles fathered over a dozen children by his various mistresses, he left no legitimate children to inherit the throne.
Charles had treated religious adherence as something of a political strategy, flirting with Catholicism when it might secure French support, but bowing to Parliament’s pressure to support the Anglican church. But his brother James had converted to Catholicism in mid-life, which didn’t sit well with the English establishment, which was virulently anti-Catholic at a time when religious and political loyalties could not be entirely separated. James’s Catholicism and support for the inclusion of Catholics in government led to his ouster only three years after his coronation, in what was called “The Glorious Revolution.” The idea of deposing monarchs was still a touchy subject after the execution of Charles and James’s father, King Charles I earlier in the century. The Glorious Revolution was led by James’s Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, resulting in the co-rule of William and Mary. The degree to which William came down on the anti-Catholic side still leaves traces today in how both the name and color Orange is associated with anti-Catholic political groups in Northern Ireland.
To appease the anti-Catholic elements in parliament, King Charles II had required that James’s two surviving children from his first marriage, Mary and Anne, be raised in the Church of England, while allowing the children James had from his second marriage to be raised Catholic. Religion would complicate the succession in various ways.
William and Mary had reigned jointly as equal monarchs -- an unusual approach, given that typically the monarch’s spouse would not have any independent claim to the throne. When Queen Mary died childless, William continued reigning but with the stipulation that if he re-married, his children from that marriage would come after Anne’s children in the succession. This left Anne and her descendents as the next in line. But by 1700, Anne had gone through 17 pregnancies that ended in 7 miscarriages, 7 stillbirths or deaths within a day or so of birth, and 2 early deaths from smallpox. The only child who lived beyond his first couple of years had just died at age 11. The 18th century was not a kind time to be a monarch trying to produce heirs. Anne and Mary were the only survivors of their mother’s 8 pregnancies. Mary did not bring any pregnancies to term.
Faced with the prospect of the next prospective heirs being Catholic, an Act of Parliament stipulated that after Anne the succession would pass to her cousin, Sophia of Hannover, and Sophia’s protestant descendents (thus the sequence of King Georges). A year later, at William’s death, Anne came to the throne. She just barely missed having to deal with the continuing claims by her father James, who had died the year before. Her half-brother James Stuart, known later as “The Old Pretender” was supported by several Catholic monarchs on the continent, but saved most of his active opposition until after Anne’s death in 1714.
So. That’s the political and family background of Anne’s life and reign. So why are we talking about her in a lesbian-themed podcast?
Passionate Friendships and Libertine Sex
You’ll often hear about the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship in the context of the Victorian era--the later 19th century. The term describes a social context where women were expected to have passionate same-sex friendships that were expressed in language and behavior similar to that expected of male-female romantic couples. In fact, female pairs could be even more intense in the expression of their emotional bond than was considered proper between heterosexual couples.
But there have been regular cycles throughout history of a public culture of passionate friendships between women. One of those cycles occurred in the second half of the 17th century. It can be seen expressed in the “Society of Friendship” of Katherine Phillips and the poems she addressed to her closest female friends, or the somewhat more erotic poetry of Aphra Behn. It can be seen in the préciosité movement brought from the Paris salons and associated with Queen Henrietta Maria (the wife of Charles I) that elevated women’s platonic friendships over marriage and heterosexual lust. And it can be seen in female authors toying with the idea of women-only societies, such as in Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, though not so much in a utopian sense in the latter work as a satirical one. We’ll come back to The New Atalantis in a little bit.
Especially among the aristocracy and literati, the idea of passionate attachments between women was normalized. So when a young Princess Mary (Anne’s sister) wrote the following to courtier Frances Apsley, it was not considered outside acceptable forms of expression:
“I love you with a flame more lasting than the Vestals’ fire. Thou art my life, my soul, my all that heaven can give. Death’s life with you; without you, death to live. What can I say to persuade you that I love you with more zeal than any lover can? I love you with a love that ne’er was known by man. I have for you excess of friendship--more of love then any woman can for woman and more love then even the constantest lover had for his mistress. You are loved more than can be expressed by your ever obedient wife, very affectionate friend, humble servant, to kiss the ground where once you go.”
The young Princess Anne had passionate correspondences with several older female friends (including a rivalry with her sister over Frances Apsley’s affection). There’s some indication that those around her felt that some of these attachments were more intense than was desirable. Mary Cornwallis was a Lady of the Bedchamber (a type of lady in waiting) to Princess Anne but was dismissed from service by Anne’s father due to concerns about the relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean sexual concerns--there are always reasons to be concerned when someone appears to have an undue influence on a potential heir to the throne--but King Charles was later said to have commented that “No man ever loved his Mistress as his niece Anne did Mrs Cornwallis.” which certainly has suggestions of erotic overtones.
But Anne’s deepest and longest lasting such relationship began when she was perhaps six years old with a girl named Sarah Jennings who would have been eleven at the time. Sarah was a great beauty, ferociously intelligent and witty, and politically savvy, though not without her blind spots. The friendship must have seemed something of an odd couple, though the later stereotype of Anne as dull, frumpy, and overweight does her something of a disservice, and comes in part from the biased memoirs Sarah wrote after their break-up. Anne would become a dedicated and knowledgeable participant in government, and in later years she dealt with crippling chronic pain and illness which contributed to her physical problems. But I get ahead of myself.
18th century society interacted with women’s same-sex relationships on several different layers. There was the mode of intense platonic friendship that might use the language of romance but was treated as being sexless. There was something of a middle ground where people might acknowledge erotic possibilities but deflect their potential in various ways. This can be seen in a poem of 1670 about two women in a “marriage of two beauties” written by a male author in a female voice. The poem’s persona expresses jealousy of male rivals and laments that the “too great resemblance” between her and her friend prevent any romantic success. Other poems written from a male point of view address intimate female couples urging them to consider their love impossible to fulfill so that they will accept the poet’s attentions instead. I’ve included these poems in a previous podcast on homoerotic poetry of the 17th century.
But this was also the era of libertine sexual excess and an era when the concept of binary sexuality--the idea that one had either heterosexual or homosexual desires--had not yet taken solid hold. In the court of Charles II it was no secret that women might engage in sexual affairs with other women. A French visitor to the court reported on love affairs between the maids of honor to the queen and the king’s mistresses. When King Charles discovered that his mistress Hortense Mancini was having an affair with Anne, Countess of Sussex, his disapproval was only because the Countess of Sussex was his illegitimate daughter. (I had fun including this affair in my historic novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer.”)
This isn’t to say that there was no stigma attached to same-sex relationships. Anne’s brother in law, King William also attracted rumors of homosexual relationships with close friends after Queen Mary’s death, in part because of his lack of female mistresses--a striking lack in that era--and in part because it was a popular political weapon against relationships that were felt to exert undue influence or reap undue rewards such as titles. When Anne’s favorites came in for criticism, the primary reason was due to their political influence. Accusations of lesbianism were only a tool to bring to bear on that concern. On the other hand, extra-marital relationships with the opposite sex were similarly looked askance when influence and profit were involved. It’s unclear whether there was any basis to the rumors about William’s relationships, but they contribute to our understanding of the socio-political climate of the times. Note that, unlike sexual relations between women, those between men were a crime under English law.
This climate of romantic and even sexual possibilities between women doesn’t mean that we should interpret the subjects of rumor as being “lesbian” in the modern exclusive sense. Both Anne and Sarah were happy in their marriages, though of course they would have had little choice but to marry even if they hadn’t been. There is plenty of evidence that Sarah and John Churchill were passionately in love and during their long separations due to his military career, their correspondence smoulders so furiously it’s a wonder it didn’t spontaneously combust. Anne was, perhaps, less overt in expressions of affection to her husband, but she regularly supported Prince George against the criticism of her family. And Anne’s 17 pregnancies in their first 17 years of marriage attest to a consistently active sex life.
I’ll discuss further evidence for the public image of women’s same-sex relationships a bit later when I talk about Delariviere Manley’s political fantasy The New Atalantis.
Having looked at the social context of sexuality in the later 17th century, let’s introduce several other major players besides Anne.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Anne’s childhood friend Sarah Jennings married an able and ambitious army officer named John Churchill and devoted much of her energy to furthering his career. Shortly after, Anne married her cousin, a Danish prince named George, (she almost married a different cousin George--the Hanoverian prince who would later succeed her as George I) and as a married woman, she was entitled to set up her own household. Sarah Churchill became Anne’s Lady of the Bedchamber, serving not only as friend and confidante but as an able and loyal advisor--though one who made no distinctions between what she wanted and what she thought the princess should want. The position of Lady of the Bedchamber always had political implications due to the direct access it provided to royal women. Anne’s father James disapproved of Sarah’s appointment, fearing that the strong-willed Sarah would dominate his daughter’s opinions and decisions. He wasn’t wrong. Anne was infatuated with her friend Sarah and several times defied pressure to send her away. But Sarah, in turn, provided a rock of loyalty and support in a turbulent social context when Anne had few people she could rely on that utterly.
Princess Anne wanted the illusion of equality between the two of them in private--the ideal concept of platonic philosophy. A year after Anne’s marriage she wrote to Sarah, “Let me beg of you that you not call me your highness at every word, but be free with me as one friend ought to be with another, and you can never give me greater proof of your friendship than in telling me your mind freely in all things, which I do beg you to do.” They had pet names for each other to emphasize this informality. Anne was “Mrs. Morley” and Sarah was “Mrs. Freeman.” For the rest of Anne’s life, both the strength and weakness of their relationship was that Sarah took her at her word and told her her mind freely in all things, speaking without distinction of rank.
Two years after Anne’s marriage, her uncle King Charles II died and her father James came to the throne. Three years later, King James was deposed by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William. Through the turmoil of the transition, Sarah was at Anne’s side, advising her to distance herself from her father and helping her escape the palace by night, to go join the opposition. Sarah was also behind Anne’s maneuverings to achieve a financial independence from William and Mary’s purse strings, and as a result contributed to a falling out between the sisters that rebounded on her. The Churchills were moving up in the world--he had been named Earl of Marlborough--but between Queen Mary’s hostility and the work of political enemies they had a reversal of fortunes. Marlborough was accused of conspiring with the exiled James and dismissed from his post, though the accusation was later found to be based on forged documents. Anne’s loyalty to them was unshaken and she moved out of the palace rather than obey Queen Mary’s command to dismiss Sarah from her service.
Anne wrote to Sarah, “I have a thousand melancholy thoughts, and cannot help fearing they should hinder you from coming to me; though how they can do that without making you a prisoner I cannot imagine. But let them do what they please, nothing shall ever vex me so I can have the satisfaction of seeing dear Mrs Freeman; and I swear I would live on bread and water between four walls, with her, without repining; for as long as you continue kind, nothing can ever be a real mortification to your faithful Mrs Morley, who wishes she may never enjoy a moment’s happiness in this world or the next, if ever she proves false to you.”
In a presentiment of the later dynamics of their relationship, when Sarah suggested they might go along with Queen Mary’s demand that they separate for a time, Anne replied, “If ever you should do so cruel a thing as to leave me, from that moment I shall never enjoy one quiet hour. And should you do it without asking my consent… I will shut myself up and never see the world more but live where I may be forgotten by human kind.”
The royal sisters never reconciled from the conflict over Sarah Churchill and Mary died of smallpox two years later, leaving no living children. Anne was now officially the next in succession.
Abigail Hill Masham
Now we come to Abigail Hill Masham.
At some point during this period--I haven’t been able to pin down exactly when--Sarah Churchill took into her household a poor relation named Abigail Hill along with two of Abigail’s siblings. The impulse may have been one of charity, but the two must have developed a close and strong relationship because Sarah was happy to promote Abigail’s career. I haven’t found a reference to what position Abigail held in the Churchill household, but some time later Sarah got her appointed as one of Princess Anne’s bedchamber women.
To be clear, there was a distinction between Sarah’s position as Lady of the Bedchamber and the post of Woman of the Bedchamber, which was less ceremonial and involved more of the duties of a personal maid. But both were positions typically filled by upper class women and involved regular intimate access to the person they served.
In addition to whatever family loyalty prompted Sarah to place Abigail in this position, she clearly expected Abigail to serve as her surrogate and representative in Anne’s household, especially when Sarah’s other obligations took her away from court for extended periods. This would be a mistake. Sarah’s other major mistake with regard to Abigail was to assume that they were aligned on the same political side. I’ll talk more about that when we move on to the political context.
Unlike for Sarah Churchill, we don’t have much documentary evidence from Abigail herself regarding her life and position. Contemporary descriptions of her personality and motivations align very strongly to political allegiance: those who considered her an ally said she was, “a person of a plain sound understanding, of great truth and sincerity, without the least mixture of falsehood or disguise, of an honest boldness and courage superior to her sex, firm and disinterested in her friendship and full of love, duty and veneration for the queen her mistress.” Those on the opposite political side described her as, “exceedingly mean and vulgar in her manners, of an unequal temper, childishly exceptious, and passionate.”
Since we don’t have Sarah’s letters sent to Anne--only the memoirs she wrote after they became estranged--we don’t have an even-handed image of what she thought about Abigail before they became rivals. And after that estrangement, Sarah’s opinions were sharply personal, viewing Abigail as a traitor and a viper who failed in proper gratitude to Sarah for furthering her career.
Some time after Anne became queen, Abigail married Samuel Masham, but that belongs to the discussion of how Anne and Sarah began falling out, so we’ll come back to it later.
Another woman who is useful for understanding why lesbian rumors stuck to Queen Anne’s court is a writer named Delariviere Manley, who combined entertainment with political satire and walked a perilous line between being a paid political operative and drawing legal censure for the pointedness of her works. Manley was not a member of Queen Anne’s circle--quite the contrary--but she was a sharp observer of the court.
In 1709--near the middle of Anne’s reign--Delariviere Manley published a roman à clef The New Atalantis, which was a satire of British politics set on the fictional island of Atlantis. Manley so clearly depicted the targets of her critique that she was arrested and questioned about it in preparation for a libel case against her. She steadfastly maintained the work was entirely fictional and the case was eventually dropped, but no one was fooled. The primary targets of her satires were the ruling Whig party, and in particular the Marlboroughs. Among the material incorporated into The New Atalantis was a skit entitled The Secret History of Queen Zarah--that’s “Zarah with a Z”, which gives you a sense of how flimsily disguised the characters were.
The New Atalantis focused heavily on sex and relationships as an alleged driver of the workings of government and of the aristocratic social circles that were intertwined with the official structures. Delariviere knew something of interpersonal drama herself. After a peripatetic childhood accompanying her father’s military postings, at his death she and her sister became wards of a cousin, John Manley. Within a few years, Manley had married her, apparently forgetting that he was already married. A few years after the birth of their son, Delariviere left her husband for the household of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the one-time mistress of King Charles II. Villiers threw her out half a year later, allegedly for flirting with her son. Delariviere spent several years after that writing plays, but only became famous after the publication of The New Atalantis. From there she moved on to a career as a political pamphleteer, though she returned later to drama and sensational novels.
Although the criticisms encoded in The New Atalantis were wide-ranging, the section that concerns us here focuses on a group of women identified as “The New Cabal.” The work makes clear the homoerotic sexual exploits of the group while entirely avoiding any description of specific physical acts, invoking the reader’s imagination to fill in the silences. The targets of this satire are Queen Anne and her court, especially her female favorites. Manley perhaps felt more free to write about the topic than most authors of the day because her own moral position was fairly abandoned, but she was also writing from a position of criticism, rather than depicting desires she shared. The crucial aspect of her writing is that it reflects ideas and images that were in currency during Anne’s reign.
Although the descriptions of the women’s activities in the novel mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the New Cabal not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).
The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) don’t mention gender role play or cross-dressing (cross-dressing wasn’t yet a trope strongly associated with lesbian relationships) but there are a few exceptions. One woman is described as mannish in behavior (though not in dress), and another is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of a butch-femme relationship, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment. But for the most part, the women described in the satire are feminine-presenting and partner with other feminine-presenting women.
The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.
One thing in common between all the women depicted in this satire is that they were associated with the Whig political party. And now it’s time to talk about English politics around 1700.
Politics and Power in the Reign of Queen Anne
I’m going to really, really oversimplify this discussion, but it’s kind of important to have at least a vague idea of the sides. At the time, England was only starting to develop something identifiable as political parties. The underlying power struggle between absolute and constitutional monarchy was in full swing--keep in mind that the 17th century was when Parliament flexed its muscles and executed a king--so general interest groups and affinities were just starting to aggregate and align as fixed political parties that competed for control of Parliament. Ministers of State were still generally appointed directly by the monarch, though influenced by the practical need to gain cooperation for goals and policies. The concept of a Prime Minister hadn’t really gelled yet. But we can identify two named political parties during Anne’s reign and the direct competition between them set the stage for the more personal conflicts within Anne’s household.
The Whig party--which, by the way, had nothing to do with the male fashion for wearing elaborate artificial hairpieces at this time--played a major role in ousting James II in the Glorious Revolution. They were strongly anti-Catholic (although that changed in later centuries), often aligned with commercial interests and Protestant dissenters, and promoted the concept of constitutional monarchy.
Their rivals, the Tory party, supported the primacy of the Anglican church against a more broadminded acceptance of religious diversity, and were more inclined to support royal power, having their origins in royalist elements during the English Civil War.
Although the key players during Anne’s reign sometimes fell indeterminately in the moderate middle between these parties and sometimes shifted allegiance, I’m going to oversimplify and identify them by party affiliation toward the latter part of her reign. Three powerful men were the core of Queen Anne’s first government: Sidney Godolphin as First Lord of the Treasury and the Duke of Marlborough--did I mention that the Churchills were elevated to a duchy when Anne came to the throne? He was named commander of the armies. Both had begun as moderate Tories but became increasingly associated with the Whigs due to that party’s support for the ongoing wars on the continent. Oh, and due to Sarah Churchill’s overwhelming support for the Whig party. So let’s just consider them functionally Whigs for the purpose.
The third important man in Anne’s initial government was Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, who started out a moderate Whig but then shifted to Tory allegiance, so we’re going to consider him the primary Tory figure in this struggle. Confusing, I know.
Queen Anne leaned toward the Tories--that whole royalist thing, you know--but was under significant pressure, not only from Sarah Churchill, to appoint more Whigs to her administration. This pressure was all the more painful as she personally disliked some of the prominent Whig leaders.
Harley initially came into power through the influence of Godolphin and Marlborough but as their interests diverged, he engaged the power of political writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Delariviere Manley to influence public opinion toward the Tory side via satirical pamphlets. He also engaged the services of a cousin...Abigail Hill, now Abigail Masham after marrying one of Prince George’s grooms.
Sarah Churchill was perhaps the most influential person at court at the beginning of Anne’s reign--far more influential than the official ministers. Marlborough and Godolphin treated her as a political equal and she was trusted to represent Marlborough’s interests at court while he was abroad with the military. Sarah not only had the queen’s ear, but she was a powerful gatekeeper. She could decide who the queen had time and interest to meet with and who she was too busy for.
Sarah Churchill’s power was not only unofficial. Anne had named her Keeper of the Privy Purse--the official in charge of finances for the royal household. If Wikipedia is to be believed, in the entire history of the English monarchy, only one monarch has ever named a woman to this post: Queen Anne. And she named two: Sarah Churchill, and then later as her replacement, Abigail Masham. The anxieties around the queen’s favorites were not simply about social influence but about real financial and political power. And to some extent about men freaking out over women holding that power and excluding them from the innermost circles of decision-making.
So when Sarah threw her considerable influence in on the side of the Whigs, people took notice and worried. And when Harley saw a chance to counter that influence with an agent inside the queen’s inner circle of favorites and confidantes, you can bet he took that chance, especially after he was forced out of office in 1708 by Whig pressure. By then, Abigail Masham was displacing Sarah Churchill in the queen’s affections, though Sarah hadn’t realized that yet. Abigail might have family feelings and personal loyalty for Sarah, but her own political inclinations were solidly on the Tory side. She didn’t need persuading to act as Harley’s agent within the court.
And with that, we move on to how the inter-personal dynamics played out as Abigail displaced Sarah in Queen Anne’s life.
The relationship between Anne and Sarah had always been lopsided, but not always in the same way. As noted previously, Sarah was beautiful, brilliant, savvy, and charming. She also had, as one historian puts it, “an almost pathological inability to admit the validity of anyone else’s point of view.” She was certain of the rightness of her opinions and positions and considered it her duty to make Anne see the light and agree with her. She had promised Anne that she would always treat her as an equal and be forthright with her.
But Anne didn’t always want brutal honesty; sometimes she wanted support, companionship, and comfort. Sarah had provided that support and companionship in Anne’s youth and that built up a lot of credit. But when Anne came to the throne, Sarah’s advice and persuasion was no longer directed at helping Anne navigate tricky political waters from a vulnerable position, now it was directed at shaping Anne’s government and policy into the Marlboroughs’ desired form. Sarah ordered Anne to appoint her own Whig allies to cabinet posts, lectured her about affairs of state, and generally treated her like a child.
Anne wanted to please her closest friend but she had her own ideas about government and was developing the will and stubbornness to pursue them. And Sarah was increasingly spending her time away from the court, something that became a sore point between them. Anne’s independence caused immediate friction. In the first year of her reign, a courtier noted, “The dutchess of Marlborough has lately had two terrible Battles with the Queen and she came out from her in great heat, and when the Queen was seen afterwards her eyes were red, and it was plain she had been crying very much.”
Such conflicts were all the more painful because of the bond between them. What we know of the internal dynamics of Anne and Sarah’s relationship comes largely from Sarah’s memoirs written at a time of separation and bitterness. But that bitterness itself gives evidence of the depth of Sarah’s attachment, even if not as single-minded as Anne’s was to her. Anne was besotted with Sarah, writing, “If I writ whole volumes I could never express how well I love you.” Sarah later complained that Anne “desired to possess her wholly.”
Anne was jealous of Sarah’s other female friends, and her expectations regarding Sarah’s attention and presence would become part of their fracture. Anne wrote, “I know I have a great many rivals which makes me sometimes fear losing what I so value.” And regarding one specific friend, Lady Anne Sunderland, “You have often told me that I have no reason to be jealous of her and therefore I will not complain any more till I see more reasons for it, but I assure you I have been a little troubled at it.”
The earliest surviving mention of Abigail Hill in the correspondence Sarah received from Anne appears to portray Abigail as one of those other friends that Anne is jealous of. (Keep in mind here that references to Mrs. Freeman are to Sarah, and Anne’s references to Mrs. Morley are to herself.)
“My fever is not quite gone and I am still lame, I cannot go without limping. I hope Mrs Freeman has no thoughts of going to the opera with Mrs Hill, and will have a care of engaging herself too much in her company, for, if you will give way to that, it is a thing that will insensibly grow upon you… for your own sake, as well as poor Mrs Morley’s, have as little to do with that enchantress as ’tis possible and pray pardon me for saying this.”
But Anne herself was already under the spell of the enchantress Abigail Hill, though her enchantments may have been as simple as being attentive and kind and far more circumspect in how she attempted to use political influence with the queen. By around 1706, the queen’s irritation with the Marlboroughs led her to turn to their rival Harley for political advice. And though they weren’t aware of it at the time, Abigail was a conduit for those communications. This personal and political defection may have given Anne something of a guilty conscience.
In a letter to Sarah she wrote, “I cannot forbear telling you why I disowned my being in a spleen this morning and the cause of my being so. My poor heart is so tender that I durst not tell you what was the matter with me, because I knew if I had begun to speak I should not have been fit to be seen by anybody… The reason of my being in the spleen was that I fancied by your looks and things you have sometimes let fall, that you have hard and wrong thoughts of me. I should be very glad to know what they are that I might clear myself, but let it be in writing for I dare not venture to speak to you for the reason I have told you already… don’t let anybody see this strange scrawl.”
Sarah later annotated this letter with, “she was under the witchcraft of Mrs Hill, however she says she does not deserve the hard thoughts I may have of her and… she adds that she will not be uneasy if I would come to her and calls me unkind, but nobody of common sense can believe that I did not do all that was possible to be well with her, it was my interest to do so. And though I had all the gratitude imaginable for the kindness she had expressed to me for so many years, I could have no passion for her that could blind me so much as to make me do anything that was extravagant. But it wasn’t possible for me to go to her as often as I had done in private, for let her write what she will, she never was free with me after she was fond of Mrs Hill, and whoever reads her letters will find a great difference in the style of them when she really loved me, from those where she only pretended to do so.”
What were the “extravagant” things Sarah declined to do? Was it only a matter of not feeling required to dance constant attendance on the queen? Historians have sometimes seen coded references in texts like this, but it’s hard to be certain. What is certain is that Sarah felt hurt and rejected...even if the reason for that hurt was Anne’s refusal to obey and forgive her at every turn.
A year later in 1707 Abigail’s betrayal became overt. While Sarah was absent from court, Abigail Hill married Samuel Masham, a member of Prince George’s household. It was something of a secret wedding--secret at least from Sarah Churchill, though not from the queen who was present as a witness. But Sarah was blindsided and belatedly came to understand how solidly embedded Abigail was in the queen’s confidence.
Sarah recorded her outrage that ''her cousin was become an absolute favorite, that the queen herself was present at her marriage in Dr. Arbuthnot's lodgings, at which time her majesty had called for a round sum out of the privy purse; that Mrs. Masham came often to the queen when the prince was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her; and I likewise then discovered beyond all dispute Mr. Harley's correspondence and interest at court by means of this woman.'' (I’ve seen some writers interpret the bit about Abigail “coming to the queen and being private with her” as referring to sexual encounters, but it looks more ambiguous to me. The simple personal intimacy of private time together would be enough of a challenge to Sarah’s position.)
The Duke of Marlborough, more wisely, cautioned Sarah to let things be, writing, “What you say of [Abigail] is very odd, and if you think she is a good weather cock, it is high time to leave off struggling; for believe me nothing is worth rowing against wind and tide; at least you will think so when you come to my age.” But Sarah had no intention of ceding the field so easily. She raged, “To see a woman whom I had raised out of the dust put on such a superior air and hear her assure me by way of consolation that the queen would always be kind to me! At length I went on to reproach her for her ingratitude and her secret management with the queen to undermine those who had so long and with so much honour served her majesty. To this she replied that she never spoke to her majesty on business.”
Whether or not Abigail was truthful about not advising the queen on the business of government, Sarah saw her hand at work in Anne’s loss of confidence in the Whig leaders and pressured Marlborough and Godolphin to force Harley to resign from his government positions. But she was no more successful in pressuring Anne to dismiss Abigail than anyone had ever been in pressuring Anne to dismiss Sarah herself.
With relations strained, the beginning of the end came in 1708 in the context of a church service celebrating a significant military victory on the continent. As part of her formal office for the queen, it was Sarah’s duty to select the jewels that Anne would wear for the event. In the coach ride to the church, she discovered that the pieces she’d chosen were not being worn and she concluded that Abigail had contradicted her directions. She and the queen had a terrible quarrel, spilling over in public as they arrived at the Cathedral. And Sarah did an unforgivable thing: impatient with Anne’s continued argument, she told the queen to “Be quiet!”
Even Sarah realized she’d gone too far. She tried unsuccessfully to apologize but Anne refused to respond to her letters or allow her into her presence, saying that she had been told to be quiet and therefore she would give no answer. The only reason that Sarah was not immediately stripped of her court offices was to avoid a public break with her husband who was still a vital part of the war efforts.
If that weren’t bad enough, later that year, Prince George died, and even as Sarah used the logistics of the funeral as a context for coming back into contact with Anne, she made the event all about her continuing conflict with Abigail. And we now get a glimpse of Abigail’s viewpoint, in a letter to an ally indicating that she, too, was more concerned about using Anne’s bereavement as a site for their power struggle, rather than being concerned about comforting the queen.
The break played out in correspondence for some time, with Anne alternately begging for a reconciliation and standing fast against Sarah’s demands that she dismiss Abigail. Some of Abigail Masham’s enemies even suggested putting the matter of her influence over the queen before Parliament, though one prominent Whig objected, “it is impossible for any man of sense, honour, or honesty to come in to an address to remove a dresser from the Queen… only to gratify Lady Marlborough’s passions.” Perhaps even Sarah realized that her campaign against Abigail could only bring ridicule and ruin on herself.
By the end of 1710, Sarah had lost her official positions at court. The prestigious post of Keeper of the Privy Purse was given to her rival Abigail while the posts of Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole were transferred to a new favorite, Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Like Abigail, Seymour’s closeness to the queen made her a target of political attacks. Even as Sarah lost her struggle, Seymore was moving into Abigail’s place as favorite, due to the latter often being away from court on family business, although there’s no evidence that the two of them had the sort of personal rivalry that had marked the transition from Sarah to Abigail.
With the end of the war in Europe, the Duke of Marlborough became somewhat more dispensable and by the end of 1711 he too had lost his government offices, based on a trumped up charge of embezzlement. With the decline of the Marlboroughs and the Whig party, Harley again climbed in power and influence though his resurgence was short-lived. He fell out of favor shortly before Queen Anne’s death in 1714. But this essay isn’t about the men.
Where Did the Accusations Come From?
Emma Donoghue’s book Passions Between Women opens with the contradictory use of the word “passion” in the correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill. For years, their letters had concluded with salutations assuring each other that they were “most passionately and tenderly yours” and speaking of “a sincere and tender passion” felt between them. But when Sarah turned her poison pen against Abigail Masham, she warned that people were linking Anne and Abigail’s names together with descriptions of “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women” with additional insinuations that made it clear that sexual relations were the topic.
Did these two uses of “passion” have separate and distinct meanings to the two women? Or did they represent two points on a continuum of meaning for the word? If Queen Anne became associated in the public mind with lesbian relationships with her favorites, the irony is that Sarah Churchill was one of the sources of that association, even though she herself was an obvious candidate for the same suspicions.
How was that association built? And do we have the evidence to determine whether it was true, either in Abigail Masham’s case or in Sarah Churchill’s? Donoghue’s book tackles the general background to the relationship between romantic friendship and sexual relations across the long 18th century. But we’re concerned with a narrower slice of history here.
The dichotomy between an acceptable image of chaste but emotional friendship between women and an unacceptable image of sordid same-sex erotics has often been used to shield the upper class women who participated in the culture of romantic friendship from accusations of lesbianism. The argument is that the openness and pervasiveness of romantic friendships must mean that they could not have been accompanied by sexual desire or sexual activity. This thinking has a strong streak of “nice girls don’t” in which women capable of expressing the elevated sentiments of friendship in literature or in their own lives are thought incapable of engaging in anything so perverted as lesbian sex. These interpretations are not only complicated by the prejudices that modern historians bring to their studies, but also by the different attitudes and language used by women in history for physical expressions of love. When women speak of “chaste kisses” it can mean something rather different for a woman who classifies only penetrative sex with a man as unchaste.
Suspending judgment regarding any sexual component of the relationship between Anne and Sarah, it’s clear the overall shape of that relationship--including its intense expressions and fierce jealousies--is indistinguishable from a romantic and sexual one. And yet Sarah Churchill was a major source of the rumors that Abigail Masham participated in a lesbian relationship with the queen--or at least that their relationship was being interpreted as such.
Sarah wrote to Anne warning her, “I remember you said… of all things in the world you valued most your reputation, which I confess, surprised me very much, that your majesty should so mention the word after having discovered so great a passion for such a woman, for sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange and unaccountable… nor can I think that having no inclination for anyone but one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.”
That seems quite unambiguous in terms of what is being implied. The word “unacountable” is something of a code-word for sexually suspect relationships between women. But the word often brings in issues of class as well as gender. When Sarah complains of “so great a passion for such a woman” is it specifically the homoerotic aspect of the relationship that she’s targeting? Or might there be an element of considering Abigail too low-class to be worthy of the queen’s affections? Although Sarah and Abigail were cousins, there was a clear distinction of birth between the two branches of the family.
As I noted earlier in this essay, the sexual possibilities between women were solidly in evidence in the Restoration court that Anne was born into. Given this, can Sarah’s accusations be taken as evidence that her own relationship with Anne was not sexual? Or was Sarah simply so deeply invested in using any tool necessary to dislodge Abigail that she was unconcerned with the implication? After all, Sarah derided Abigail as an ungrateful bitch, a viper, and concerned with her own political interests above the queen’s welfare--which all could reasonably be applied to Sarah as well.
In any event, Anne’s response to the previous was “Sure, I may love whom I please.”
But Sarah wasn’t done. An anonymous ally--quite probably her secretary Mr. Mainwaring-- wrote an long scurrilous ballad ranting about Abigail Masham’s offenses: her ingratitude, her political connivance with Harley, her devoted allegiance to the Anglican church, and with only the thinnest of veils over the suggestiveness, the assertion that she performed “sweet service” and “dark deeds at night” to gain her place. The publication of this ballad was no longer a serious campaign to win back Anne’s attention, it was intended to discredit Abigail and to hurt and humiliate the queen in revenge for the slights Sarah believed herself to have received.
The ballad is given “to the tune of Fair Rosamund” and here are a few of the more suggestive of the 35 verses. I’ve expanded the coded references that were given as initials in the original. The ballad tune itself carries meaning, as the Rosamund of the title (and the original ballad) was a mistress of King Henry II and the song tells of how she was poisoned by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Did Sarah see herself as the avenging spouse, poisoning her partner’s mistress?
A new ballad to the tune of Fair Rosamund [the tune is also known as “Flying Fame”]
When as Qu[een] A[nne] of Great Renown
Great Britain’s Scepter sway’d,
Besides the Church she dearly lov’d
A Dirty Chamber Maid.
O! Abi[gail] that was her Name,
She starched and stitch’d full well,
But how she pierc’d this Royal Heart,
No Mortal Man can tell.
However for sweet Service done
And Causes of great Weight,
Her Royal Mistress made her, Oh!
A Minister of State.
Her Secretary she was not,
Because she could not write;
But had the conduct and the Care
Of some dark deeds at Night.
The Important Pass of the Back-Stairs
Was put into her Hand;
And up she brought the greatest R[ogue]
Grew in this fruitful land.
And what am I to do, quoth he,
Oh! for this Favour great!
You are to teach me how, quoth she,
To be a sl[ut] of State.
And so on at great length, concluding with a hopeful, if irrational, prediction that the subject of the song would be rejected and cast out.
Another likely output of Sarah and Mainwaring’s collaboration was a pamphlet entitled The Rival Duchesses with an imagined conversation between Abigail Masham and Madame de Maintenon, the official mistress of King Louis XIV of France. In it, Abigail boasts, “Especially at court I was taken for a more modish lady, was rather addicted to another sort of passion, of having too great a regard for my own sex, in as much that few people thought I would ever have married. But to free myself from that aspersion some of our sex labor under, for being too fond of one another, I was resolved to marry as soon as I could fix to my advantage or inclination.”
At which Madame de Maintenon asks, “And does that female vice, which is the most detestable in nature, reign among you, as it does with us in France?”
To which Abigail responds, “O Madam, we are arrived to as great perfection in sinning that way as you can pretend to!”
Having almost certainly participated in the creation and circulation of these two items, Sarah Churchill then called them to the queen’s attention, writing with studied casualness, “I had almost forgot to tell you of a new book that is come out: ... the subject is ridiculous, and the book not well written, but that looks so much the worse, for it shews that the notion is extensively spread among all sorts of people. It is a dialogue between Madame Maintenon and Madam Masham...and there is stuff, not fit to be mentioned, of passions between women...”
Sarah even brought Anne’s physician into the matter, confiding to him, “I hear there is some [pamphlet] lately come out, which they said were not fit for me to see, by which I guess they are upon that subject that you may remember I complained to you, and really it troubled me very much upon my own account as well as others, because it was very disagreeable and what I know to be a lie, but something of that disagreeable turn there was in an odious ballad to the tune of fair Rosamund, printed a good while ago… but that which I hated was the disrespect to the Queen and the disagreeable expressions of the dark deeds in the night.”
Sarah was not the only one implying lesbian goings on among the court. As noted before, in the midst of the conflict between Sarah and Abigail, Delariviere Manley’s satire The New Atalantis was published, implying romantic and erotic relationships among an all-female cabal who were clearly identifiable with prominent women of the Whig party. (I plan to do an entire episode on The New Atalantis at some point, so I won’t hunt down excerpts for this episode.)
Were lesbian relationships actually common in those circles? Or was it simply a smear tactic? Was the satire inspired by Anne’s close relationships with her female favorites? Or was it simply one more example of anxieties about power and class being translated into anxieties about sex?
When King William III was rumored to have a homosexual relationship with a close male friend, one can trace some of the motivation for the rumors in jealousy over the man’s rapid rise to high rank. The power and influence that both Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham had with the queen certainly provoked jealousy and anxiety, not only in each other, but among the male establishment, who felt shut out of the largely female structure of Anne’s household. Sexual accusations have always been handy weapons to use against women who are felt to have risen above their rightful station.
This isn’t to say that the free-floating motivations for people to make sexual accusations against Anne and her favorites makes those accusations untrue. Only that it provides a context in which the rumors stuck, to the point where the Dowager Duchess of Orleans in France, writing after Anne’s death, reported, “English men and women depict Queen Anne horribly here, saying she would get drunk, after which she’d make love with women, being, however, fickle and changing often. Lady Sandwich did not tell me anything, but she told my son. I had little contact with her, because she disgusted me, admitting that she had allowed herself to be used for such perversions.”
Queen Anne gets something of a bad rap in all this. She seems through it all to have been doing her best to balance personal desires with what she believed to be the good of the State, all while suffering in terrible pain from chronic illnesses. If she shifted her affections regularly from the women who left her to the women who were there to comfort and support her, who can blame her?
When one digs through the coded language, the self-deception, the imagery, and the strength of the emotional reactions, it seems quite plausible to me that Anne’s relationships with women had an erotic component. And that the gymnastics gone through to exclude that possibility in historic analysis most often reflect the biases of the analyst.
Even if one takes an extremely conservative position that the sexual allegations were all politically motivated, it’s undeniable that Anne’s deepest and most lasting emotional relationships were with women like Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham and that those relationships existed in a cultural context where other women with such bonds definitely were engaging in sexual relationships.
So, lesbian or not? The distinction seems scarcely worth making.
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