Sometimes this blog is a dispassionate and intellectual summary of academic research. Sometimes it's a total squee-fest about a great source or a fascinating piece of historical evidence. And sometimes it's the equivalent of rage-tweeting. This one has turned into the last. Ungerer's article is a valuable single source for most of the documentary evidence of Mary Frith's life. And it's a maddening morass of unsupported and contradictory prejudice, directed at the goal of erasing any trace of queer identity from that life (plus some snide and snarky comments directed at other researchers on the topic). Historians are human beings like the rest of us, and sometimes you just want to smack them upside the head. This is one of those times.
Ungerer, Gustav. 2000. “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature” in Shakespeare Studies, 28:42-84
It was hard to escape two underlying themes in this article, neither of them speaking directly to the scholarship: the author appears to have something of a personal grudge against Elizabeth Spearing’s edition of Frith’s biography, and he seems determined to conclude that there was nothing particularly queer or transgressive about Frith’s life—she just thought dressing in men’s clothing was a useful career move. Now, it’s not as if I don’t have personal interests in the interpretation of Mary Frith’s life, but I’m startled at the amount of evidence Ungerer feels compelled (and willing) to brush away to come to this conclusion. So this will be one of those summaries that involves a number of editorial asides, clearly identified in square brackets.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this article is the catalog of documentary references to Mary Frith, under her various names.
Ungerer notes that one of the difficulties in sorting out Mary Frith’s sexual and gender identities is the fragmentary nature of the evidence and that it is filtered through male-oriented and prejudiced records. He early stakes out a position that the memoir attributed to Frith is a complete fiction representing the “criminal biography” genre. With regard to gender and sexuality, she is contradictorily presented as “a transvestite usurping male power, as a hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” [Note: these are not as distinct and contradictory identities as he implies, regardless of their accuracy.] Ungerer goes further to suggest that the question of whether Frith might have been an entirely fictional figure is not adequately addressed, although the question isn’t treated as seriously in doubt within the rest of the article.
Ungerer’s first serious dig at Spearing comes in suggesting that she had made a mistake in doing her analysis of the full version of Frith’s memoirs and not considering the chapbook version “extracted from the original” published by G. Horton in the same year, which sensationalizes the material further. I haven’t had a chance to compare the two editions, but neither does Ungerer discuss specific points of difference. Mostly he delves into Horton’s treatment of other criminal biographies, such as that of highwayman James Hind, that include a suspicious amount of royalist propaganda. Frith, too is given a highway robbery incident in Horton’s work, which clearly seems unlikely to be truthful. But I can't seem to find that reference in the full biography. Additional mythologizing can be found in later works, such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes (1719), who seems to be the inventor of the story that Frith robbed the Parliamentarian General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath. Ungerer points out that obvious fictions such as this can’t be used to answer questions about Frith’s actual life and character.
The author then lays out the program of his arguments: that the 1662 “diary” of Mary Frith was structured to add a few historical facts to a standard template for the criminal biography genre. And that therefore the 1662 document presents a mythic construct that tells us little about Frith’s life. And that the fact that Frith is recorded as having married a man contradicts more transgressive theories about her gender and sexuality. [Because, of course, no person ever entered into heterosexual marriage who had anything other than a cis identity and heterosexual orientation.] And lastly, that Frith’s cross-dressing was entirely a deliberate professional theatrical performance and not an expression of personal identity. [Note: Ungerer argues so strongly, in the face of the evidence, against viewing Frith as a queer figure—though the word “queer” doesn’t figure in the terminology here—that it makes me curious to know what it would have taken to convince him.]
Ungerer argues (somewhat in contradiction) that the hypothetical author of Frith’s biography (rejecting the possibility that it was, indeed, based on Frith’s own dictation) didn’t have access to the archival data that modern scholars have identified (though presumably they had living memories to work from) but that on the other hand, whatever data they had was reshuffled to fit the genre, so it didn’t matter. The following points are presented as arguing against the biography’s accuracy: that it includes a standard “sinner turned penitent” speech, that it frames Frith as a royalist, that it presents her as the mastermind behind two other highwaymen, that it presents her as a popular defender of the poor, and that in contradiction to all that, it presents her as a “sexual monster”.
[Note: The suggestion that these features undermine the truthfulness of the work as a whole runs up against similar themes in documents not derived from the biography. For example, Frith’s will uses similar “penitent sinner” language. Middleton and Dekker’s fictionalized Moll Cutpurse, penned four decades earlier, present her as a defender of the downtrodden and an enemy of hypocrites. And I would argue that the degree to which Frith is presented as “monstrous” in any of these texts is simply a product of the limits of how her contemporaries could envision gender roles, not a personal indictment.]
Ungerer agrees with Spearing that the full text of Frith’s biography constitutes three separate authors, corresponding to the three separate sections of the work. (I.e., the address to the reader, the third-person introduction to Frith’s life, and then the first-person section presented as her own story which is referred to here as the "diary" section.) He notes that the structure is “three incoherent, uncoordinated, and at times contradictory parts”. [Note: It’s unclear to me how the addition of what is self-identified as a different person’s introduction to the diary is proof of the fictional nature of the diary itself.] The address to the reader acknowledges the discontinuous nature of the text, saying, “excuse the abruptness and discontinuance of the matter, and the several independencies thereof…it was impossible to make one piece of so various a subject, as she was both to herself and others, being forced to take her as we found her, though at disadvantage.” [Note: it would seem to me that this would argue for the validity of the “diary” part of the text, as otherwise why not simply write it to be more continuous and coherent?]
The second section of Frith's biography presents an analysis and commentary on Frith’s life and person with an insight that suggests personal familiarity with her. However there are clear errors and omissions. Some dates don’t align. [Note: the second writer also fails to include several facts—like Frith’s marriage—that are also absent from the diary section.] The third section is framed as a first-person narrative, forming an autobiographical confession. It begins by running through a number of pranks and anecdotes, then there is a break and the setting shifts more towards the later part of Frith’s life and includes more contemporary political events and diatribes against Cromwell and the Puritans.
The numbers for birth and death dates and for Frith’s age, as given in the various sections of the work, do not entirely align. She died in 1659 and the diary has her claim (when ill, shortly before her death) that she was 72 years of age, placing her birth in 1585. But the second writer in the work assigns her a birthdate in 1589.
Frith left a will, written in June 1659 a month before her death. But in the diary Frith asserts, “I did make no will at all,” and then relates various disbursements of her fortune that she had made while living. [Note: these wouldn’t be contradictory if the dictation of her diary occurred before the drawing up of her recorded will. But the person named in the diary to receive the remainder of her estate is not mentioned at all among the various people listed in her recorded will.]
One of the most curious omissions from the diary in any of its sections is reference to Mary Frith’s marriage in 1614 to Lewknor Markham, esquire. For all that it seems to have been a marriage in name only, quite possibly for legal advantages, Frith made reference to her status as a widow and used “Mary Markham” as an alternate name in records throughout her life (including in her will). There are several references in the diary and the 2nd writer’s discussions that refer to Frith as not only unmarried but deliberately so. This would seem to be the strongest argument undermining the diary’s authorship. [Note: Though it’s possible that Frith-as-hypothetical-narrator simply didn’t consider it interesting or relevant to mention when relating the more adventurous events in her life.]
Ungerer suggests that the strongest argument for the fictional nature of the diary section is how it follows the pattern of the fictionalized biography of highwayman James Hind, as shaped by author George Fidge in 1651-2. And that the encoding of Mary Frith as another “royalist criminal” is evidence of the deliberate fictionalization of her life as given in the diary. An “origin story” given in the diary for her nickname as “Mary Thrift” that connects it with a political event in 1639 is contradicted by evidence of the nickname being in use perhaps two decades earlier. Frith asserts various politically pointed activities and inveighs against various various parliamentarians in the diary section covering events in the 1640s. The insertion of the anecdote about Frith masterminding the robberies of James Hind and Richard Hannam is suspect, if only because Frith’s sphere of expertise was London and not the region where they operated. These highwayman exploits were expanded in Alexander Smith’s (aforementioned) 1719 treatise on highwaymen, in which Frith is credited with robbing General Fairfax. [Note: however the implausibility of this anecdote doesn’t reflect on the diary, as it is a later work.]
Another feature of the fictionalized criminal biography was the “penitent sinner” motif. This element in the opening of the diary section is offered as evidence against its fictionalization. [Note: But similar language appears in Frith’s will, and the use of penitential language is pervasive in texts of this era. So it seems a weak thread to hang an accusation of untruth on.] Similarly, the presentation of Frith as a protector of the poor against injustice is a standard feature of criminal biographies. [Note: But see similar themes in The Roaring Girl, suggesting that this motif had been a part of Frith’s legend all her life.]
In considering theories about Frith’s gender identity and sexual orientation, Ungerer entirely discards the diary and its accompanying material as evidence and turns instead to the record of her marriage in 1614 to Lewknor Markham, possibly a son of author Gervase Markham. He says that marriage, “imparted an air of cultural normalcy” to her status and erases the framing of her as unmarriageable, as monstrous, or as a hermaphrodite who refused to marry. Ungerer’s position (which he spends some effort to support) is that “She turned out to be a self-fashioning individual who had taken to transvestism as an alternative strategy for economic survival. … she was a scheming and calculating woman with an ingrained instinct for upward social mobility and determined to exploit to the full the ambiguous legal position of women under common law.”
[Note: I’m going to come back to this. Hold that thought.]
Marriage provided several changes to Frith’s legal status. A married woman could either be a feme covert, a woman whose legal identity was “covered” by her husband and who could take no independent legal or financial actions. Or, even though married, the marriage contract could specify that she would remain feme sole, in effect, a legally single woman, able to run her own business and take actions in her own name. Frith acted regularly as feme sole, especially with regard to her business as a fence. But on other occasions, she claimed to be feme covert, when it was convenient to dodge legal consequences by claiming to have no ability to act independently under law. So, for example, in 1624 when a hatmaker sued her for money owed, he was warned not to sue her as feme sole because she would only respond by claiming to be feme covert and that therefore he must apply to her (long-absent) husband for redress.
In point of fact, the testimony in that case provide strong evidence that the marriage was a polite fiction. Frith claimed that she couldn’t even remember how long she’d been married to Markham, and the attorney for the other side asserted that she had not lived with her husband “these ten years or thereabouts” (i.e., the entire period of the marriage).
Ungerer notes that engaging in marriage is in direct contradiction to the character portrayed in Middleton and Dekker’s play who rejected the very concept of marriage. [Note: As the play was published in 1611 and Frith’s marriage was in 1614, this needn’t be considered a contradiction. At the time The Roaring Girl portrayed Moll Cutpurse as disdaining marriage, the character’s namesake was, in fact, unmarried and perhaps had every intention of remaining so at the time.]
Documentation concerning Frith’s career as a licensed broker of stolen goods (a fence) makes her status as a legally independent woman clear. The article returns to her criminal and crime-adjacent career, starting with her arrests in 1600 and 1602 for theft (the literal cutting of purses for which she was nicknamed), along with the absence of any reference to cross-dressing at that time. Ungerer then asserts that Frith’s cross-dressing correlates specifically with the beginnings of her involvement with the Bankside entertainment industry and he speculates, “that her transvestism was a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income.” He continues, “It would definitely be dangerous to diagnose the case of Mary Frith as that of a lower-class woman in quest of her sexuality; hers is far more likely to be the case of a pickpocket turned transvestite for gain.” The reasoning was that Frith’s appearance on the streets in male clothing would draw and distract a crowd who would then be victims of pickpockets who would presumably share the proceeds with Frith.
[Note: the flaw I see in this reasoning is that Frith’s cross-dressing would make her highly memorable and identifiable, which surely would be the opposite of the desired effect.]
Ungerer concludes that the conjunction of her cross-dressing and her association with criminal elements means that the cross-dressing was a professional strategy, and further that this “confirms that there was a relationship between transvestism and crime.” He claims that Dekker and van de Pol’s study of female cross-dressing in the Low Countries demonstrates a “paradigm of the criminal female transvestite”.
[Note: I have no idea how one could draw this conclusion from Dekker and van de Pol’s work. They discuss a wide range of contexts and motivations for female cross-dressing, and although a few examples involve criminality, the majority do not. To focus on this one specific context and then claim that there was an inherent relationship in 17th century northern Europe between female cross-dressing and criminality is the strongest tell that Ungerer has a preconceived conclusion here that he is working hard to “prove.” Whether that preconceived conclusion stems from his own prejudice against gender transgression in women, or whether he feels a need to erase gender/sexuality as a factor in Frith’s life, I don’t know. But this was the point when I decided to discount his conclusions entirely and to flag this article as “useful only when quoting primary source material.” So from this point on, I’ll add my back-talk without bothering to flag it in brackets.]
Ungerer supports his conclusion that Frith’s appearances in male clothing were a deliberate performance with such things as her confession in the Bishop’s court that she “had long frequented all or most of the disorderly and licentious places in this city as namely she hath usually in the habit of a man resorted to alehouses, taverns, tobacco shops, and also play houses there to see plays and prizes.” Of course, many other people frequented this same list of locations and activities without doing so for the purpose of performing as an entertainer, or of participating in criminal activity. Frith certainly engaged in “pranks” like the wager that led her to ride horseback in a fully male outfit through the streets of London, as well as the sort of rude practical jokes that make up much of her biography. But Ungerer spins an invented scenario where he depicts Frith singing bawdy songs in a tavern and distracting patrons with the startling sight of a woman smoking a pipe, solely to enable her confederates to pick their pockets more easily, and then he uses this invented scenario as proof of his interpretation regardin her motivations.
The direct evidence for Frith as a professional entertainer is limited: an announcement at the end of the script for The Roaring Girl that Frith herself would appear on stage “some few days hence” to perform, and a corresponding confession in court records that she appeared “at a play...at the Fortune in man’s apparel and in her boots and with a sword by her side...and also sat there upon the stage in the public view of all the people there present in man’s apparel” during which she sang to the lute and made speeches. Ungerer plumps this up with speculative elaborations and then concludes that, “She seized the opportunity to bring home to the audience that her self-fashioned cultural identity as a public persona, that is, as a female entertainer in male disguise, was not identical with her private self. Thus, she let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind.” The sole evidence he gives for this conclusion is Frith’s declaration that she knew many in the audience thought she was a man, but she’d be happy to disabuse them of that idea if they came with her to her lodging. As if identifying as a woman were incompatible with having a “sexually ambiguous character.”
To push further on the erasure of Frith as a gender outlaw, he argues that Frith’s message was that crossing gender boundaries was not transgressive or disruptive, not immoral or reprehensible. But the authorities clearly disagreed (just as they considered the wearing of cross-gendered clothing by non-criminal women to be morally suspect--a factor that Ungerer doesn’t seem to consider).
The crackdown on Frith after her stage appearance in connection with The Roaring Girl was not aimed at her alone or even at cross-dressing women in general. In October 1612, there was a legal ban on theaters staging the performance of “jigs, rhymes, and dances after their plays” because of the disruption to the peace they often caused. (Though Ungerer implies that it was Frith’s performance in particular that drove this action.) Ungerer discusses Frith’s shift to working as a fence, accompanied by a lot of speculative “whether X was a factor is unknown” and “it would also seem logical” and “she conceivably had opportunity”.
Ungerer sums up the preceding with his predetermined conclusion: “[Mary Frith] had made a name for herself as a street and tavern performer, as a light-fingered instrumentalist and dancer of jigs, who apparently sensed that the time was ripe to confide to her audiences that her cross-dressing had nothing to do with her sexual identity and should be taken for what it was: a simple trick of the trade consisting in a costume change. In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer.”
The next section of the article discusses gendered aspects of the tobacco trade and the act of smoking. Frith’s pipe-smoking was part of her masculine performance, and her social presence in tobacco shops was another example of entering male-coded spaces. But despite a claim in her biography, she was hardly the first English woman to engage in smoking.
The last section of the article is the most useful, as it provides transcripts and source annotations for pretty much all the documentary references to Mary Frith’s life. If one sifts out Ungerer’s commentary and unwarranted assumptions about the various documents, this is the only part of the article that I can whole-heartedly recommend as useful to the researcher.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26c - Book Appreciation with K. Aten
(Originally aired 2018/09/15 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Kelly Aten recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Two young women in turn-of-the-century San Francisco come of age, struggle to find their feet, and find each other. Kerry had a rough beginning, often on the far side of the law, and more comfortable taken for a boy in trousers than playing the girl. Only a chance alliance between her father and an up-and-coming doctor gave her a chance at a way out of the rough Barbary Coast neighborhood. Beth’s strict middle-class upbringing gave her a surer future, but one where she struggled to make her own choices even as a brilliant nursing student. Both are drawn to each other, but only Kerry knows the truth of the desire they both feel.
Although Awake Unto Me is marketed as a romance, it feels much more like a bildungsroman in structure--a coming of age story that only happens to include romantic and erotic encounters as part of the two women’s exploration of the world. It may sound odd to say so, I but I would have found the story equally satisfying if those encounters had not been structured as the culmination of the plot, but had simply been an integral part of Kerry and Beth’s growing understanding of their identities and desires.
The writing style is spare and straightforward. The historic background was solidly researched if occasionally explained in more detail than necessary. I did wince a few times at historically-accurate but unchallenged bigotry expressed by secondary characters with regard to ethnicity and religion and the secondary characters tended to function primarily as setting.
Awake Until me does a good job at providing a window into a variety of women’s lives in historic San Francisco, for those interested in exploring history through women-centered lives.
In conjunction with this month's podcast essay, I'm covering a couple of publications, both scholarly articles and primary sources, about Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse. Moll is a great example of what I'm talking about regarding the details of actual history being far more fascinating than the tropes they often evolve into in popular culture. Moll wasn't simply "a woman who habitually wore male clothing," she was a woman (and proclaimed herself a woman, without any denial or concealment) who used maculine-coded garments to negotiate her relationship to society and to the misogynistic culture of 17th century England while still absorbing and reflecting that culture's attitudes and beliefs about women's nature and place. She knew exactly where the several boundaries were regarding what would be tolerated and flirted with their edges out of a spirit of daring and rebellion. But she was also socially and politically conservative, a staunch royalist during the English Civil War, expressing disgust for men who she perceived as taking on feminine attributes, and disdainful of all parties involved in sex work, even when she herself was willing to profit from them. In popular culture of her day, she was depicted both as a figure of mockery and as a champion of feminist principles. One gets the impression that Moll would have been an entertaining companion to go drinking with, but not necessarily the most restful person to have as a friend.
Stay tuned for this month's podcast essay which will include excerpts from a number of those contemporary records, including the memoir discussed here.
Todd, Janet & Elizabeeth Spearing ed. 1994. Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mary Frith Case of Mary Carleton. William Pickering, London. ISBN 1-85196-087-2
This book is a study and edition of two 17th century “real life memoirs” of women who attracted mythologizing stories due to their unusual lives and criminal contexts. The label “counterfeit” women would seem to apply more obviously in the case of Mary Carleton, who passed herself off as a foreign noblewoman and used that image to acquire financial support and attract advantageous suitors. As there are no overt queer elements to her story, I won’t be discussing that part of the book in detail. Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse), on the other hand, would seem to fit the category if one views her as a counterfeit of a woman, due to her habitual gender bending, both in dress and in profession. [Note: “Moll” was a common nickname for “Mary” at the time, part of a range of nicknames derived by a set of regular sound changes used to create variants from many base names. In this case, it’s part of the group: Mary > Molly > Moll.]
Their two biographies were published a year apart in the 1660s, shortly after the restoration of King Charles II to the throne. Both women were openly royalist and associated with images of cavalier “glamour”. Autobiography was not an established genre at the time. Both texts are framed as “novels” or “Romance”. Mary Frith refers to the picaresque tradition in literature, into which her life definitely fits! The two texts also suggest the genre of “criminal biography” that became popular in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Criminal biographies often straddled fact and fiction, echoing anecdotes and tropes from previous works in the field that are quite likely borrowed rather than true.
Moll Cutpurse appears as a character across a number of publications, but this is the only text that attempts to portray a real woman, rather than a mythic figure. It was published within three years of her death and survives in a single copy. The events in the text can be traced and corroborated with known events and places with great precision, supporting the accuracy of the contents.
The work contains three sections: an address to the reader, an introduction, and the first-person “diary.” The introduction frames the genre as moral instruction and gives a commentary on Frith’s life. Despite the work’s evident general accuracy, it’s uncertain what level of direct participation Frith had in its composition. The “diary” does appear to have a consistent and distinctive voice, similar to that found in Frith’s will. It is a distinctly oral style, suggesting that the text may have been taken down from her dictation.
Mary Frith was already notorious by the time she was in her 20s and is mentioned in a variety of contemporary texts. In popular culture, Moll Cutpurse is most familiar from Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl (1611), named after a term used for young women of transgressive and assertive behavior. The play’s protagonist wears masculine clothing, uses a sword, hangs out in taverns with thieves, but is also a supporter of the women in the play. The play’s epilogue suggests that Moll herself appeared on the stage while it was playing (although perhaps not in the eponymous role).
The Stationers’ Register (a record of texts authorized for publication) has an entry in 1610 for a work titled A Booke called the Madde Prancks of Merry Mall of the Bankside, with her Walks in Mans Apparel and to what Purpose. Written by John Day. No copy of the work survives and it isn’t certain that it was actually published.
Legal records from occasions when Moll was brought into court include her “confession” that she went about in “the habit of a man,” with boots and sword, to attend plays and taverns. This was not for the purpose of gender disguise. Moll not only openly proclaimed her female sex but offered to prove it to people. “[S]he told the company there present that she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman.” She admitted to swearing and drinking in this recorded confession and promised to reform, but she denied that she was a “bawd” (a term referring to any woman exercising uncontrolled sexuality, not necessarily a prostitute) or that she had “drawn other women to lewdness.”
But the superficial penitence she shows in the court record (and the moralizing tone of Moll’s diary) is undermined somewhat by a contemporary record of 1612 noting “...and this last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to the same place, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce.” [Note: "doubt" here means "thought, believed" rather than negating the idea.]
Moll also briefly appears as a character in Nathan Field’s 1618 play Amends for Ladies (subtitled With the merry prankes of Moll Cut-Purse: Or, the humour of roaring) and in this case it’s quite possible that Moll played the role on stage herself. The role is very brief and mostly consists of some pointed banter on her gender presentation that is otherwise unrelated to the content of the play.
There is no doubt that Moll made her living by largely criminal means, though not necessarily as directly as her nickname of “cutpurse” suggests. Crime in early 17th century London more often involved goods than coin. And as mass production had not yet made goods interchangeable, the items being stolen were easily identifiable by unique characteristics. This meant that the most profitable outcome of stealing an item was to receive a “finder’s fee” for returning it to its original owner. Thieves were understandably wary of claiming this fee themselves. Enter the profession of fence. Unlike the modern image of the fence who re-sells stolen goods to an independent party, the 17th century fence was something of a “professional finder,” a person who had plausible deniability as simply being really good at tracking down “lost” goods. The following description appears in a court record from 1621 when Moll was defending herself against a different charge.
“...became to this Defendant [i.e., Moll] and desired her to doe her endeauour to try if she could by any meanes fynd out the pickpockett or helpe him to his monie, he being before of this defendant’s acquaintance and hauinge heard how by this defendant’s meanes many that had had theire pursses Cut or goods stollen had beene helped to theire goods againe and diuers of the offenders taken or discouered...”
In contrast to the officially sanctioned feminine virtues of silence and modesty, Moll was brash, outspoken, and assertive. One feature of her diary is her rejection of the usual domestic skills expected of a woman, such as sewing. (In fact, she expresses a clear disdain for women’s lives, someone in contrast to the proto-feminist stance she is given in The Roaring Girl.) Having early rejected marriage and the usual alternatives for a single woman (food service trades, domestic service, prostitution, thieving) Moll created her own role on the edges of the criminal world.
Her life played out in a time of enormous political and religious upheaval, but also social and sexual upheaval. The structures relating the genders were being challenged and Frith’s life could be considered a representation of that. Frith’s adoption of male clothing is recognized by her contemporaries as a claim to male social power. Many of the activities she was condemned for, were not illegal per se for a woman but traditionally restricted to men. Even “walking abroad alone while female” could be cause for being brought into court on suspicion. On one occasion, Frith was charged with “unseasonable and suspicious walking” for being out alone at night, compounded by a charge of a “strange manner of...life.”
In 17th century English, full cross-dressing was illegal, but only on a few occasions did Frith wear an entirely male outfit. Her diary notes that typically she wore male-style upper garments with a skirt, a style that was not technically illegal. This was the sort of mixed signifiers in clothing that had become common enough to have inspired polemic pamphlets calling the fashion out, such as Hic Mulier. King James is recorded as having issued instructions for sermons to be given against this sort of gender mixing in clothing: “the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stillettaes or poinards, and such other trinkets of like moment.”
While Frith’s presentation resulted in descriptions of her as being “masculine” or “hermaphroditic” (a term that at the time didn’t necessarily imply intersex anatomy, only the use of a mixture of gender signifiers), she was far from unique (though perhaps extreme) in her style of dress.
There is little evidence for Frith’s sexual interests, if any. The tone of her relationships with men in her diary is one of non-sexual camaraderie. There is an episode related of a prostitute teasing Frith by accosting her and kissing her as she was wont to do with men, to which Frith reacted violently. On another occasion, Frith tells a story of seducing a woman of ill repute with kisses and caresses in order to provide her to a third party. [Note: this is a motif that occurs in plays of the era and is one of the contexts on stage for the appearance of female homoeroticism without implying the reality.] But in both cases, Frith expresses hostility and disgust for the other women, so it would be difficult to see either incident as evidence of homoerotic interests. Although the Moll Cutpurse of The Roaring Girl is sympathetic to the social plight of women, the voice of the diary is generally hostile to conventional femininity and carries a strong “not like other girls” tone, verging on outright misogyny.
Below are some excerpts from Mary Frith’s diary that particularly speak to questions of gender performance and sexuality. These excerpts do not provide a full and balanced picture of her biography but are most relevant to forming an understanding of her relationship to gender and sexuality.
* * *
From the address to the reader:
A very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in Boys play and pastime, not minding or companying with the Girls: many a bang and blow this Hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed or taken off from her rude inclinations; she could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching, a Sampler was as grievous as a Winding-sheet, her Needle, Bodkin and Thimble, she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed into Sword and Dagger for a bout at Cudgels. For any such Exercise, who but she! where she would not fail, tide what would, if she heard of any such thing, to be a busy Spectator: so that she was very well known, by most of the rougher sort of people thereabouts, when she was yet very young and little.
Her Head-gear and Handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times were for Girls to be dressed in) was alike tedious to her, wearing them as handsomely as a Dog would a Doublet, and so cleanly, that the driven Pot-hooks would have blushed at the comparison, and always standing the Bear-garden way, or some other Rabble-rout Assemblies.
She would fight with boys, and courageously beat them, run, jump, leap or hop with any of them, or any other play whatsoever: in this she delighted, this was all she cared for, and had she not very young, being of a pregnant docible wit, been taught to read perfectly, she might well through her over addiction to this loose and licentious sporting have forgot and blotted out any easy impression. But this Learning stood her much in stead afterwards.
She was too great a Libertine, and lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private Domestic Life. A Quarter staff was fitter to her hand than a Distaff, stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling ... She could not endure the Bake-house, nor that Magpie Chat of the Wenches; she was not for mincing obscenity, but would talk freely what ever came uppermost ... Washing, wringing, and starching were as welcome as fasting days unto her; or in short, any Household work; but above all she had a natural abhorrence to the tending of Children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind, equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never being made a Mother to our best information.
At this Age we spoke of before, she was not much taxed with any Looseness or Debauchery in that kind; whether the virility and manliness of her face and aspect took of any mans desires that way (which may be very rational and probable) or that besides her uncompliable and rougher temper of body and mind also, which in the female Sex is usually persuasive and winning, not daring or peremptory (though her Disposition can hardly find a suitable term for an indifferent expression of the manage of her life) she her self also from the more importunate and prevailing sway of her inclinations, which were masculine and robust, could not intend those venereal impurities, and pleasures: as stronger meats are more palatable and nutritive to strong bodies than Quelquechoses and things of variety, which may perchance move an appetite, provoke a longing; but are easily refrained from by any considerate good fellow, that knows what is the lastingest Friend to good Drink and good Company; her Motto.
She could not but know moreover (for I suppose her of a very competent discretion and sagacity of mind as well as maturity and suitable growth at those years) that such Prostitutions were the most unsatisfactory, that like an accidental scuffle or broil might end in danger, but never in Love, to which she was no way so happily formed; nor was so much a woman as vainly to expect it.
[This is followed by a discourse on the topic of cross-dressing in general among the sexes, which the author of the introduction generally finds offensive and disgusting.]
No doubt Moll’s converse with her self ... informed her of her defects; and that she was not made for the pleasure or delight of Man...she resolved to usurp and invade the Doublet, and vie and brave manhood, which she could not tempt nor allure.
I have the rather insisted on this, because it was the chief remark of her life, as beginning and ending it; for from the first entrance into a competency of age she would wear it, and to her dying day she would not leave it off, till the infirmity and weakness of nature had brought her a bed to her last travail, changed it for a waistcoat and her Petticoats for a Winding Sheet.
These were no amiable or obliging vests, they wanted of a mutual correspondence and agreement with themselves, so unlikely were they to beget it abroad and from others: they served properly as a fit Covering, not any disguise of her, (according to the Primitive invention of apparel) wherein every man might see the true dimensions and proportions of body, only hers showed the mind too.
So that by this odd dress it came, that no man can say or affirm that ever she had a Sweet-heart, or any such fond thing to dally with her. A good Mastiffe was the only thing she then affected and joyed in, in whose fawnings and familiarity, she took as much delight as the proudest she ever gloried in the Courtship, admiration, attraction and flatteries of her adored beauty. She was not wooed nor solicited by any man, and therefore she was Honest, though still in a reserved obedience and future service either personally or by Proxy to Venus.
Her Nuptials and Wedding grew to be such a Proverb, as the Kisses of Jack Adams, any one he could light upon, that is to say, as much design of love, in one as in the other: all the Matches she ever intended was a Bear-baiting, whose pastimes afforded not leisure or admittance to the weak recreations and impertinencies of Lust.
[Note: although not mentioned at all in this publication, there is documentary evidence that Moll did marry at one point, although it seems to have been in name only.]
She never had the Green sickness, that Epidemical Disease of Maidens after they have once past their puberty; she never eat Lime, Oatmeal, Coals or such like Trash, nor never changed Complexion; a great Felicity for her Vocation afterwards that was not to be afraid nor ashamed of anything, neither to wax pale or to blush.
[Note: "Green sickness" was a supposed malady of women resulting from lack of regular sexual satisfaction.]
[Mention of a close friendship with a shoemaker who took financial advantage of her, resulting in her breaking off the friendship.]
...she resolved to set up in a neutral or Hermaphrodite way of Profession, and stand upon her own legs, fixed on the basis of both Concerns and Relations; like the Colossus of Female subtlety in the wily Arts and ruses of that Sex and of manly resolution in the bold and regardless Rudenesses of the other, so blended and mixed together, that it was hard to say whether she were more cunning, or more impudent.
From the diary
[regarding her attitude toward gender-bending men]
There was also a fellow a contemporary of mine, as remarkable as myself, called Anniseed-water Robin, who was clothed very near my antic mode, being an hermaphrodite, a person of both sexes. Him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him man and woman had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the female, being but one step removed from a natural changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then counted for an artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spight in sending that thng into the world to mate and match me, that nothing might be without a peer, and the vacuum of society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the boys to fall upon, and throw dirt at him, I made hi quit my walk and habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my neighbors, who used to say, here comes Moll’s Husband.
I shall never forget my fellow humorist, Banks the Vintner in Cheapside, who taught his horse to dance, and shooed him with silver. Among other fantastic discourse, one day he would needs engage me in a frolic upon a wager of 20 pounds which was that I should ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch a straddle on horseback in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs, all like a man cap a pie. I was all for such sudden whims .... Just so it took me, I accepted the condition and prepared me with all the before named particulars against the day, and to do something more than my bargain, I got a trumpet and banner and threw it behind my back as trupeters used to wear it.
The day appointed being come I set forward, none suspecting me, yet every body gazing on me, because a trumpeter in those days was as rare as a swallow in winter, every body wondering what it meant, and taking it for a prodigy. I proceeded in this manner undiscovered till I came as far as Bishopsgate, where passing under the gate, a plaguey orange wench knew me and no sooner let me pass her but she cried out, Moll Cutpurse on horseback! which set the people that were passing by, and the folks in their shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, Come down thou shame of women or we will pull thee down. I knew not well what to do, but remembering a friend I had, that kept a victualling house a little further, I spurred my horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the adventure. In my own thoughts I was quite another thing: that I was Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso the most incomparably beloved Lady of Don Quixote and was sent of a message to him from my mistress in the formalities of knight errantry, that I might not offend against any punctilio thereof which he so strictly required; and also to be the more acceptable to my lovely Sancho Pancha, that was trained up by this time in chivalry, whom I would surprise in this disguise. These quirks and quillets and that instant possessed my fancy, but presently I had other representations. ... [the crowd is distracted by the passing of a fancy wedding party] I paced the same way back again to the winning of my wager, and my great content, to see myself thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.
[her encounter with a flirtatious prostitute]
There was a shameless Jade, as noted in this town as my self at this time, but for far more enormous actions; she was called Abigail, her way of living (she being a kind of Natural [i.e., intellectually disabled]) was by ringing the bells with her coats for a farthing, and coming behind any gentleman for the same hire, and clapping him on the back as he turned his head, to kiss him, to the enraging of some gentlemen so far as to cause them to draw their swords and threaten to kill her. This stinking slut, who was never known to have done so to any woman; by some body’s setting her on to affront me, served me in the same manner. I got hold of her and being near at home, dragged her to the conduit, where I washed her polluted lips for her, and wrenched her lewd petticoats to some purpose, tumbling her under a cock, and letting the water run, till she had not a dry thread about her, and had her soundly kicked to boot.
[During a period when the events of the English Civil War were making the fencing trade less profitable, Moll turned her hand to keeping a bawdy house.]
...there being always, which I considered both in war and peace, good vent of such commodities. The voluptuous bed is never the less frequented for those hard and painful lodgings in the camp. I saw also, that the former traffickers this way were very straitlaced and too narrow in their practice, as confining their industry in this negotiation to one sex, like women tailors, that if they were to be hanged cannot make a doublet for themselves. In this I was a little prosperous, though to make good the simile, I could never fit my self.
[Moll digresses for a bit on the question of her own sexuality.]
One time...as I was going down Fleetbridge I espied one of my neighbors Mr. Drake, a tailor God bless him, and to my purpose, he was altogether for the women, quoth I in droll, Mr Drake when shall you and I make ducklings? He quacked again, and told me, that I looked as if some toad had ridden me and poisoned me into that shape, that he was altogether for a dainty duck, that I was not like that feather, and that my eggs were addled. I contented myself with the repulse and walked quietly homeward.
[Moll returns to the story of managing sexual services of diverse types. But although one might jump to the conclusion that she’s talking about providing male prostitutes to men, she makes it clear that she’s providing them for women.]
I chose the sprucest fellows the town afforded, for the did me reputation at home and service abroad; my neighbors admiring what this retinue and attendance meant, nor would I now discover it but to unburden my conscience, and shame the private practices of some great women, who to this very purpose keep emissaries and agents to procure stallions to satiate their desires, as confidently as they entertain grooms and laundries. I will stir this puddle no longer, nor dive into the depth of it any further, lest I pollute and inquinate the reader with the filth hereof.
[Despite this claim, she continues to describe how, even when not providing organized sexual services, she lent herself as a private go-between to do sexual match-making. The following encounter was to the benefit of a “noble friend” who later would put in a good word for Moll when she was in legal trouble, as thanks for her services here.]
There was a noted lass a married wife of this time, whose story shall serve to conclude all the amorous tricks and pranks that were wrought by me, for indeed it sums up all that belongs or attends to such doings, and the account I promised; want and shame never failing to bring up the rear of lust and wantonness. She was in her youth a very curious piece indeed, but wanting a fortune competent and proportionable to it, arrived no higher at her marriage than an ordinary citizen, yet of good fame and reputation. For a while in the beginning of this state she lived continently at home, but the flies buzzing about her as they resort always to sweets soon corrupted and tainted her; this was not unknown to me, and thereupon I resolved that she was as free for my turn as for any bodies, and forthwith I accosted her, using such caresses, promises and invitations as I knew the market would bear, so that I made her entirely mine, and gratified a friend with her first acquaintance, who in short, was that noble friend that preserved me out of the hands of the people at Westminster who had resolved on my mind. He had not long after occasion to leave London, and then I bestowed her on another, and so to a third, fourth, and fifth, etc. according to my best advantage, till such time she had contracted those distempers which not long after brought her to her grave.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26b - Interview with K. Aten
(Originally aired 2018/09/08 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about
No thoughtful introduction. Posting on my phone from the middle of a big key ride. Needless to say the main entry was set up in advance!
ETA: You can tell I was posting from my phone because "big key ride" was supposed to be "bike ride".
Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1982. “Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage eds. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X
Lemay, Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings
This is an overview of treatments of human sexuality as indicated in the title. Only a very small amount of material pertains to same-sex sexuality, so this summary will be brief. The subject matter is medical, astrological, and philosophical treatises of the 12-15th centuries, either written in or translated into Latin.
In general, medical texts treated sexuality with a matter-of-fact approach and did not reflect moral judgments on their topics even when they noted social attitudes towrads them. Astrological texts also avoided moral judgments although in this case the attitude may be attributed to the deterministic approach of the field itself. If the heavens determined one’s sexuality, what was there to condemn?
Astrological evidence regarding a woman’s virginity might seem a strange place to find discussion of sexual practices, but the discussion notes that the loss of virginity is a complicated question. A woman might technically lose her virginity without having intercourse with a man by means of stimulation by her own hands or someone else’s which brought her to orgasm. (Although the text does not specifically mention same-sex activity, it touches on sexual techniquest that don’t involve a penis.)
Astrological texts recognized a large array of sexual orientations, in the sense of the types of sexual partners and preferences in sexual activites that a person prefers. The postion that a person’s sexual response will be determined at birth is in contrast to the competing medieval theory that “sodomy” was a moral failing and was something any person might fall into.
Astrological texts are unusually forthcoming in recognizing the potential for female same-sex desire, although it is typically framed in heteronormative terms. A particular stellar configuration “increases the virility of their souls and makes them lustful for unnatural congresses, when they act as if their female friends were their wives. ... they may perform these acts either secretly or openly.” Another text elaborates that “act as if their female friends were their wives’ means “they rub one another as if they were men.” One Italian tract suggests that planetary conjunctions can also cause a change of physiological sex later in life.
In medical literature, William of Saliceto was one of the first writers to advance the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire, though his version involves what appears to be a prolapsed uterus rather than the clitoris.
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher (Red Wombat Tea Company, 2018)
T. Kingfisher has enough cred as an author with me that I will give anything she writes a try. But it’s not reasonable to expect that any one author will hit your target every single time. This is a perfectly good story, excellently written, with engaging characters. It just didn’t hit my personal sweet spots in terms of story and characters. Your experience will most likely be different.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26a - On the Shelf for September 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2018.
Last month was a bit of a crunch and I’m scrambling a bit to get material lined up for the blog and the podcast for the remainder of the year. I now have a due date for turning in my current novel, the fourth book in the Alpennia series, which adds a bit of extra pressure, but I’ve just sent a novella out on submission, which is the sort of thing that always makes me feel accomplished, even if I don’t have any idea when or to whom it might sell. Last month was also busy with attending Worldcon, the annual World Science Fiction Convention, although at least this year it was practically in my back yard rather than involving international travel. I was hoping to maybe pick up some interviews for the podcast while I was there, but when I matched a shopping list of people writing queer women in historic fantasy to the list of attending authors, nobody jumped out as a good candidate. At least, nobody that I haven’t already interviewed! But I’ve made some additions to my author shopping list and we’ll see what turns up.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve coming up to the third installment of our new fiction series this month! This time the story is “Peaceweaver” by Jennifer Nestojko. It’s a tale inspired by the era of Beowulf, a bittersweet story of mature women finding peace and comfort after sacrificing their youth for the sake of family honor.
It has come up to the time for making a decision about whether to try the fiction experiment again next year. It can be hard to judge the success of a project in its first run. I hope that you’ve been enjoying these stories as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing them to you. I also hope that some of you listeners have been inspired to start thinking about the stories you might want to tell. And so I will definitely be doing another fiction series in 2019. I’ll be posting an official description and call for submissions a bit later, but you can get a sense of what I’m looking for by checking out last year’s call. It isn’t too soon to start noodling with a plot and characters. Like last year, I’ll be accepting submissions in January so you have plenty of time to get writing.
This month’s essay topic comes from one of my listener polls. Of the several historic figures I offered, I got a lot of positive response for 17th century gender outlaw Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse. So I’ll be looking at her life as presented not only in contemporary records, but as purported to be told in her own memoirs, and as fictionalized on stage. Frith is a fascinating and transgressive figure, with a number of different faces depending on how you’re looking at her. In many ways, she stands as an icon for the disruptions around gender performance that England was dealing with around 1600.
Publications on the Blog
For this month’s blog, I start by finishing up the last of the remaining short journal articles with a look at discussions of sexuality in medieval Latin scientific literature. Then I’m plunging into the material on Moll Cutpurse, including her purported memoir. I have another couple of texts discussing her that I want to cover, including Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels and two plays in which she features as a character: Amends for Ladies by Nathan Field, and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl. But I’m not sure exactly how I’ll be divvying them up between the blog and the podcast.
If I have space left in the month, I’ll be spinning off of the theme of gender-queer presentations, and looking at the biography of a member of Mary Shelley’s circle in the early 19th century, one Mary Diana Dodds, also known as David Lyndsay, also known as Walter Sholto Douglas--at least according to the investigative research of scholar Betty T. Bennett. The book, originally written in 1991, is not as nuanced in considering the ambiguous territory around transgender themes as we might wish for today. But it presents an interesting tale of gender-crossing, not within the working class examples that we more typically see in that era, but among literary and diplomatic circles, which certainly opens up new horizons in the logistics of story inspiration.
And now for a new podcast feature: the book shopping report! In the past, on my blog, I’ve done periodic posts of research book acquisitions and I thought you might enjoy hearing about things I’ve picked up for the Project, even if I may not get around to covering them for a while.
Several of my recent purchases are in support of the poetry series that I’m planning. This includes Emma Donoghue’s collection Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire, Domna C. Stanton’s bilingual collection The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present, and the slightly less useful Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing, by Ian McCormick, which alas is heavily focused on male-oriented material, though it collects up some interesting texts about women that get referenced regularly by the articles I cover.
Inspired by my coverage of publication number 200 on my blog, I decided to actually buy a copy of Queer Wales: The History, Culture, and Politics of Queer Life in Wales edited by Huw Osborne, and I used it to track down the published source of the possibly-lesbian medieval Welsh poem it mentions, which is published in the collection Beirdd Ceridwen: Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1800, that is, Ceridwen’s Bards: a Bardic Collection of Women’s Poems to Around 1800, edited by Cathryn A. Charnell-White. As the book and its contents are entirely in Welsh, it may take me a bit of time to translate the poem sufficiently to include it in a future poetic podcast. Prose is fairly easy to translate, poetry is hard.
The last book I picked up recently is Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London by Randolph Trumbach. This appears to be an expanded version of the article by Trumbach that I covered in the blog back in April. I was hoping that it might include additional material relevant to women, but it looks like I’m going to be disapointed.
I think I have another couple of books on order currently, but I’ll save them for when they arrive. As usual, I’m picking up new books faster than I have any hope of blogging them!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
In contrast to the non-fiction, I’m feeling a bit desperate at this month’s list of new and forthcoming novels. I’ve scraped up four titles, which I consider my minimum goal, but some of them are stretching the definitions a little. Plus a fifth novel where I’m having to trust the queer content based solely on rumor. If you know of any upcoming books with historic or historically-based settings, drop me a note to make sure I don’t overlook them.
Somehow I missed Alex Westmore’s Dead Man’s Chest when it came out back in July. This is the 5th book in her Plundered Chronicles, featuring piracy in the later 16th century. The series starts in Ireland but wanders over a broad scope of geography. Here’s the blurb:
“If the Croatoans on Roanoke don’t kill her, one of the many women in Captain Quinn Callaghan’s life will. Heading to the New World to bring a mysterious box to Lady Killigrew’s sister, Quinn and her pirate shipmates face dangers unlike any they have ever encountered. The journey alone is fraught with perils, but what they find when they land in Roanoke is enough to chill even a hardened pirate’s bones. But this delivery is barely less dangerous than the women in Quinn’s life--a couple of whom wish to see her dead while another reunites with her. As Quinn is forced to recognize the eventual collapse of Ireland as well as the end of some of her deepest friendships, she makes a decision that will alter the fate of both her life and her crew’s. In this fifth installment of the Plundered Series, you will be taken on a ride that will leave you breathless with every turn of the page as Quinn struggles to keep her men, her women, and herself alive.”
The other July book I’m including is the one where I have to rely entirely on rumor for the queer content. When I read the first book in Theordora Goss’s historical fantasy series The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, titled The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, it felt like it was a book that by rights ought to have some lesbian themes somewhere in it, and I was a little disappointed that none appeared. I have been assured--though I can’t remember by whom--that this second book does have some queer female characters, though you certainly couldn’t guess that from the blurb, which is a perennial problem with books from the big publishers. The underlying conceit of this series is that the daughters of an array of characters from turn-of-the-century Gothic literature come together to solve the mystery of their origins and stop a sinister plot that their fathers were involved in. Here’s the blurb:
“In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all. Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole. But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time? Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.”
As I say, I’m having to take the queer content on trust at this point, but if it sounds like something you might enjoy, check it out.
It took me a bit of following up on a chance reference to confirm that Like a Book by Bette Hawkins, which came out last month, has a historic connection by way of a character who is researching themes of Romantic Friendship in 19th century literature, although the story itself is a contemporary romance. But that connection between the present and the past makes it a natural fit for the shape of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Here’s the blurb:
“Trish Carter has found the other side of an unsatisfying relationship and is now ready to embrace a new job and a new life. She isn’t expecting to test the limits of her fresh start on her first day at work though. The striking young author, June Williams, grabs her attention from their first conversation and Trish can’t seem to stay away from her. When the two women form a pact to test the theories June is researching for her book, they quickly discover that romantic friendships are easier on paper. Their contract clearly stipulates which types of intimacy are allowed and which aren’t. Holding hands is okay—but kissing certainly is not. At first the deal seems perfect. They can be close to one another without risking too much. But what happens when they cross the line and the boundaries of the contract conflict with real life?”
The two books that I’ve found that are new for September are both fantasies that weave in themes and settings from history. Julia Ember’s The Navigator’s Touch is out and out fantasy if you focus on the mermaids, but the setting draws strongly on early medieval Scandinavian history and mythology. This book is a sequel to her earlier work The Seafarer’s Kiss. Here’s the blurb:
“After invaders destroyed her village, murdered her family, and took her prisoner, shield-maiden Ragna is hungry for revenge. A trained warrior, she is ready to fight for her home, but with only a mermaid and a crew of disloyal mercenaries to aid her, Ragna knows she needs new allies. Guided by the magical maps on her skin, battling storms and mutiny, Ragna sets sail across the Northern Sea. She petitions the Jarl in Skjordal for aid, but despite Ragna's rank and fighting ability, the Jarl sees only a young girl, too inexperienced to lead, unworthy of help. To prove herself to the Jarl and win her crew's respect, Ragna undertakes a dangerous expedition. But when forced to decide between her own freedom and the fate of her crew, what will she sacrifice to save what’s left of her home?”
A similar blend of history and fantasy is found in K. Aten’s The Saggitarius, the third book in her Arrows of Artemis series which blends mythic Amazons with classical history. Here’s the blurb:
“What is life if not the sum of all things that occur before we die? Kyri has known her share of loss in the two decades that she has been alive. She never expected to find herself a slave in Roman lands, nor did she think she had the heart to become a gladiatrix. Soul shattered, she must fight to see her way back home again. Will she win her freedom and return to all that she has known, or will she become another kind of slave to the killer that has taken over her mind? The only thing that is certain through it all is her love and devotion to Queen Orianna. Then again, certainty can only be found in those that control their own destiny.”
And not at all by coincidence, Kelly Aten will also be our author guest this month, so look forward to hearing all about the Arrows of Artemis series and how it came to be written.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from a previously featured author, Jeannelle M. Ferreira on Twitter, who asks, “Tell us about the Daughters of Bilitis.”
The story of Bilitis fits in very nicely with the theme of lesbian historical fiction because she’s an excellent example of a purely fictional figure who has become part of the historic lore and mythology of women who love women.
The story begins with the history of Sappho’s poetry, its loss, and the rediscovery of some fragments. As I discussed in my podcast on Sappho, we have reason to believe that complete manuscript copies of Sappho’s works continued to be produced up through the 6th or 7th century AD, but sometime around the 9th century, the majority of her work was lost. A few fragments and two complete works survived as quotations in other texts, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that archaeological excavations in Egypt, especially at Oxyrhynchus, began turning up scraps of papyrus with substantial additional material from Sappho. New fragments and poems continue to be identified even to this day.
But the relevant point is that in the late 19th century, the literati were familiar with the idea that previously unknown works of ancient Greek poets might suddenly turn up. Enter a French decadent poet named Pierre Louÿs.
The decadent movement in 19th century France had a number of preoccupations, but one of the things they were obsessed with was lesbian sexuality. And the reviewed interest in Sappho generated by the discoveries in Egypt meant that she and the circle of women mentioned in her poetry were popular subjects for the decadent writers and artists.
Louÿs had a fascination with ancient Greek culture and began writing erotic literature at the age of 18. He helped to found a literary review only a few years later that served as a venue for publishing some of his work. He hung out with famous men in homosexual circles such as André Gide and Oscar Wilde. And in 1894, at the age of 24, he published a volume of 143 poems under the title Chansons de Bilitis (Songs of Bilitis), presenting them as his translations of the work of a contemporary of Sappho, recently discovered inscribed in a newly excavated tomb in Cyprus. The volume also included a brief biographical sketch of Bilitis, telling of her youth in Pamphylia, her life in Mitylene on Lesbos with her lover Mnasidika, and then her career as a courtesan on Cyprus. The poems were arranged in three groups reflecting these periods and featuring themes and emotions reflecting different life stages. To digress for a moment, Mnasidika is a name that actually occurs in Sappho’s poetry, and so the reference added some verisimilitude to the story. The name Bilitis, however, is otherwise unknown, although it does a good job of being “made up to sound Greek.”
Louÿs was a classicist and famliar not only with ancient Greek literary styles but with the cultural references appropriate to the era and the Chansons were initially--if briefly--taken for the real deal: an actual newly-discovered corpus of ancient lesbian poetry. When the truth of Louÿs’ direct authorship came out, the work was still hailed as a literary masterpiece, reprinted numerous times with sensual illustrations including the most famous edition by Willy Pogany. Selections of the poems were set to music by composers such as Debussy.
Somewhere in here, you might be noticing the startling lack of any actual women--to say nothing of actual lesbians--anywhere in this story. The French decadent artists were obsessed with their invented image of what lesbians were like. Actual women? Not so much.
But given the thematic connection to Sappho, and the tragically fragmentary condition of Sappho’s own corpus of poetry, lesbians of the early 20th century may be forgiven for latching onto this French voyeur’s writings as being better than nothing.
In 1955, when lesbian activists for civil and political rights wanted to form an organization that offered an alternative meeting space to bars but could fly under the radar of public attention, they chose Bilitis as a namesake because she combined a clear sapphic connection to those “in the know” with almost complete obscurity for the general public. Even founding members Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were unfamiliar with her name when the organization they founded proposed “Daughters of Bilitis” for the group, riffing off of the names of such established organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution to fend off curiosity. Martin and Lyon were later quoted as saying, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”
The Daughters of Bilitis quickly spread from its origins in San Francisco to have branches in several major cities in the U.S., and in 1956 began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder which continued in publication through 1972. From a modern point of view, the society’s early goals may have seemed quaintly conservative and focused on assimmilation. One of their stated goals was “Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society” and their suggestions for achieving this end included discouraging women from dressing in gender-transgressive ways and encouraging lesbians to participate in medical and psychiatric studies to establish their “normalacy”. With the rise of wider civil rights activism in the 1960s, the Daughters of Bilitis began breaking away from its assimilationist origins, but at the same time, much of their prospective membership began identifying more with the rising feminist movement and feeling less identification with the tradition of unified homosexual activism, as represented by the Mattachine Society, believing that concerns specific to queer women were being ignored by the male-dominated gay rights community.
The Daughters of Bilitis more or less folded as a national organization in 1970 when internal disputes over the direction of the newletter The Ladder resulted in a separation of the two functions. The Ladder itself folded shortly after.
Bilitis as an icon is an interesting example of the popular mythologizing that often occurs in communities that feel disconnected from historic roots--or feel they have no historic roots to connect with. And I’m of two minds about the psychological usefulness of fastening your identity to a fictional invention.
If I can digress into personal history for a moment, I remember a similar thing happening when queer members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval hobbyist club, formed a social and activist group around 1990. When brainstorming for a name and symbol for the group, someone came up with a story that queer women in Renaissance Italy...or maybe among medieval French troubadours, or maybe some other time and place, it varied...had used a blue feather as a secret signal to each other. At one point the origins of this story were attributed to lesbian poet Judy Grahn but no one could ever produce any actual source. And yet for years people passed around the alleged “fact” that a blue feather had been used as a recognition symbol for homosexuals in pre-modern Europe. As if there were some monolithic unified homosexual culture at that time. In theory, the Society for Creative Anachronism was supposed to be based on re-creating actual historic research. So some of us felt a bit odd about using this piece of utter fiction as the symbol of queer history. But if you ever challenged the veracity of this “blue feather” story, and asked for some sort of proof that it had existed, you got accused of being anti-gay. I recall this myself at the time, because I was one of the people asking for evidence and never actually being offered anything.
We love having attractive symbols and common icons and a sense of shared history, but I’ve always found that the messy, fragmentary, ambiguous realities of history are even more fun than invented mythology. Bilitis was a fiction--a useful fiction, perhaps--and one invented by a man who viewed lesbians primarily as a topic of objectified titillation. I can understand why the Daughters of Bilitis found her to be a useful namesake, but I hope I can interest my listeners in the lives of actual queer women in history as well.
Set in classical Greece, the plot of this novella is fairly straightforward: upper class woman who is Not Like The Other Girls is intrigued by the beauty and defiance of an exotic (in this case, Norse) slave and purchases her in order to tame her and (as we eventually find out) with the goal of some sort of interpersonal relationship. After a period of power play, assorted hurt-comfort scenes, and jealous pining, the slave runs away because...well, because, and her retrieval results in a rescue, a joyous reunion, and her being freed, concluded by a HEA with her former owner. I don’t recall there being any explicit sex scenes, though there is one attempted rape.
I was a little hesitant about this book because the blurb implied the trope of “slavery as a context for romance”, which is really tricky to do well. As it happened, I didn’t really get to the point of evaluating how well or badly the slavery aspect was handled because I simply found the story too clumsily written to enjoy.
The prose is awkward and full of info-dumps. Point of view is handled sloppily and shifts from head to head constantly, sometimes multiple times on a page. There is an excessive use of referring to people by roles and characteristics “the Spartan woman”, “the scraggly slave”, “her owner.” And there is a lot of misuse of vocabulary--choosing the wrong homophone or using the wrong grammatical form of a word--which, along with an inconsistent wavering between a formal historical style and the use of modern slang made it hard for me to immerse myself in the story.
I would like to praise the author for the depth and detail of historic research included in this book. Although I might quibble on the interpretation of certain details and found the incorporation of the world-building both info-dumpy and opaque, the author clearly took the challenge of historical fiction seriously and did her ground work.
I received a review copy of this work.
I'm trying to make a push to get caught up with some casual reviewing as well as my review commitments. Since I'm currently still dazed from having dental work (new crown) I'll go for the casual side and more recently consumed.
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I often comment on how I'm a big fan of "throw 'em in the deep end of the worldbuilding pool and expect them to swim." When that style of story doesn't work for me, most often it's because in some essential way the story isn't for me. It not merely throws worldbuilding at me unexplained, but it assumes layers of knowledge that I simply don't bring to the story. Otherwise I'm happy to surf the wave of uncertainty and see where it takes me.
"The Periling Hand" by Justin Howe, presented on the Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcast takes that type of worldbuilding approach, but failed for me not so much in taking it too far, but in offering me very little story to go with the worldbuilding. The main character has recently suffered an accidental amputation, but fitted with a symbiotic artificial wooden arm that is somehow animated by some...substance?...applied to it. Investigates an unexpected death. And ends up sharing body space with...something...not sure what.
The story offers a wealth of unexplained terminology, concepts, entities, cultural practices, and backstory but none of it ever seems to come together to form a coherent whole. Or even an intelligible whole. One gets the impression that there is definitely a larger story structure into which this work fits, but it fails to stand on its own, not merely in terms of information but even in terms of plot. It's as if the game-play manual for an RPG were presented with a thin veneer of narrative rather than being structured in encyclopedic form.
Maybe I'm being overly harsh, but given that I know that I'm well on the far end of the scale for enjoying deep-end SFF settings, I suspect there are many people for whom this story will work even less well.