Past-me wrote a promissory note for this introduction. Present-me needs to get in to the office and wants to get the blog up. So you'll have to be satisfied with the book summary itself.
Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 978-0-520-23430-7
This is an invaluable book that collects all manner of classical Greek and Roman texts relevant to homosexuality in a single volume. I doubt that it’s exhaustive, especially with regard to male homosexuality, but Hubbard seems to have made special efforts to include female-oriented material. The material is organized chronologically and by literary genre, with an introductory discussion in each section to provide historic context.
My presentation here will cover only the female-related material and will provide a summary of each item. But even though the percentage of the work involved would probably put full quotations within the scope of public domain, the variety of approaches to translation mean that the full context is important. For example, Martial’s epigrams are translated in a very colloquial, slangy style which--while it gives the emotional impact of the original--isn’t necessarily reliable for the technical content.
As an over-broad generalization, classical Greek and Roman society embraced an understanding that a preference for particular types of sex acts or particular types of partners could be an inborn, essential personal trait, either from a genetic, physiological, or astrological cause. But this understanding of “preference” was neither limited to the gender of the partner, nor expressed in a way that corresponds to modern ideas of “sexual orientation.” It was considered normal for a person to have an appreciation for the beauty of same-sex bodies, but the accepted contexts and modes for expressing that appreciation were different across the scope of this collection.
There is, of course, far more material relating to relations between men, due to the greater cultural focus on men in these strongly patriarchal cultures, and because of the effects of several layers of filtering on the material that survives for us: the filter of who had the literacy to record texts, the filter of what subjects were considered worth recording (and what attitudes towards them were popular), and the filter of which of those texts were considered worth propagating down the ages.
One significant difference between the Greek and Roman material is that the Greek tradition of pederasty as a life-stage experience (older men soliciting relationships with young men on the cusp of adulthood) was not part of the accepted core of Roman sexual morals. Roman attitudes viewed (male) same-sex sexuality through the lens of “active” and “passive” roles that were supposed to align with differences in status (men > women, free men > slaves, older > younger).
There is some indication of shifts in sexual attitudes -- or at least shifts in the rhetoric about sex -- in response to social and political upheaval. In particular, the transition from the Roman republic to the empire correlates with a number of changes in sex-related rhetoric. (Though there really isn’t enough evidence to know how this applies to women.)
[Note: there are several topics that are essential to understanding Greek and Roman sexual dynamics that are more or less assumed to be familiar to the reader. These include the relative legal status of women, and the nature of classical slavery and attitudes toward the legal and social status of enslaved persons.]
The introduction concludes with a discussion of various artistic conventions employed, especially in Greek art, that signal the nature of the relationships between the figures being portrayed. That is, given two people depicted in art, how can we know that they are being depicted as involved in a romantic or sexual relationship? The motifs specifically relevant to women’s relationships include: one person touching the chin of the other (a courtship gesture that continued with this meaning into the medieval period), two women wrapped in a single cloak, touching of the genitals. [Note: for more discussion on this topic and how to interpret such images, see Rabinowitz 2002]
Chapter 1: Archaic Greek Lyric (roughly 7-5th centuries BCE)
This is the genre in which Sappho’s poetry falls. Both for her and for a few other authors, the genre of “maidens’ songs” is particularly relevant. These were written to be performed by groups of young women, generally (it is believed) in a context of ritual initiations or marriage. Some of Sappho’s songs imply a context of a young woman leaving the homo-social company of other women, presumably for marriage, while others simply celebrate relationships within that company but usually with the implication of an age-difference relationship, as with male pederastic relationships. [Note: I caution the reader not to connect the word “pederastic” in this context with the modern meaning of “child molestation.” Although there was an age difference involved, the ideal age for the younger partner was the very beginning of adulthood, not pre-adolescence.] Some of the poems have been interpreted as reflecting age-mate relationships, as is the case for one of Alcman’s maiden songs which has been variously seen as either refering to relationships within the female chorus, or to a possible same-sex betrothal.
Alcman - First Maiden’s Song - Scholars variously interpret this as an initiation song or perhaps celebrating the betrothal of Agido and Hagesichora, the two (female) leaders of the choruses performing it. The content includes praise of the beauty and excellence of the two named women and depictions of the two together presiding over the feast.
Sappho - multiple works- Only a few poems are substantial enough to provide a detailed context for their content. Most express praise, admiration, love, jealousy, or longing for their female subject. Even aside from assuming either Sappho or a female chorus as the speaker, a few clearly indicate the emotions are being expressed by Sappho herself. In a number of the fragments, the context is clearly feelings expressed for a woman who is leaving for marriage, or other marriage-related content (such as dialog between a woman and her virginity/girlhood). These suggest the image of a life-stage association with the speaker acting as an admirer or lover. The emotion of loss is genuine, but expected. In other poems, there is no implication of marriage as the context, and the admiration may be implied to be mutual and continuing. The numbers are the standard reference numbers given to Sappho’s work. I’m only including the ones that have overt homoerotic content. For a detailed examination of the original language and its interpretation, I recommend Snyder 1997.
Anacreon - fragment 358 - The poet complains that Eros has caused him to love a woman who, being from Lesbos, loves another girl instead.
Chapter 2: Greek Historical Texts (covering a wide time period)
Primarily (putatively historical) stories about male couples whose devotion inspired those around them.
Plutarch Lycurgus (a discussion of Spartan customs attributed to the lawgiver Lycurgus) - A brief excerpt that indicates that Spartan women may have participated in a system similar to male pederastic bonds. “[Male] lovers shared in the reputation of their boyfriends, whether good or bad. ... Love was so esteemed among them that girls also became the erotic objects of noble women.”
Chapter 3: Greek Comedy, Chapter 4: Greek Oratory - nothing in these sections
Chapter 5: Greek Philosophy (covering a wide time period)
A great many texts discussing love between men. The only one relevant to women includes them as part of the symmetry of the allegory.
Plato Symposium - A long extended myth about how erotic desire came about. The story begins with a claim that originally there were three sexes: male, female, and mixed, each with a doubled body compared to how people are now. In order to weaken them, the gods cut them in half, but now the halves naturally go seeking their “other half” and try to unite with it by embracing and trying to restore their original state. That people’s natural desire will be toward the sex that was their “other half” resulting in the whole array of men with men, women with women, and men with women. People may marry against this inclination for the sake of convention or to produce children, but it doesn’t change their true desires. This myth is often cited in a very simplified form, but the original text is extensive and goes into the nature of erotic love.
Hippocrates On Regimen - A pseudo-medical treatise, using a humoral-based theory to account for how the gender and sexuality of a person is determined, operating from the principle that both mother and father contribute a gendered essence, and that the proportions and the dominance of the parents’ contributions determine the sex and personal inclinations of the child. These inclinations are described more in terms of gender expression. Thus a particular combination of parental contributions can result in a woman who is bold and “mannish”, just as a different combination can result in a man who is “effeminate”. Preference for a particular type of sexual experience or partner is not mentioned in this section, but similar texts use it as an explanation of same-sex desire (on the part of the affected person, but not their partner(s)).
7th c BCE plate from Thera - A courting scene between two women holding crowns. One touches the other’s chin.
6th c BCE - Among a group of people, two women stand facing each other, with a single cloak draped around their shoulders.
6th c BCE - Two Maenads (followers of Dionysus) present an offering of a rabbit to Dionysus. They are standing closely with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
Attributed to Apollodorus (if so, 5th c BCE Athens) - Two naked women: one stands and holds a cup(?), the other crouches at her feet in front of her and touches her genitals. Several possible interpretations are suggested, including both sexual and personal care actions.
Chapter 6: Hellenistic Poetry (covers roughly the 4th to 2nd c BCE, though extended several centuries later in terms of literary influence)
During this period, love between women is less present as a theme than previously, and is not necessarily mentioned positively. The best candidate is the female poet Nossis, who claims Sappho as her model and proclaims love to be her theme, but fills her poetry with appreciation for women’s beauty and shows no interest in men. In the work of Herondas, a woman named Nossis from context, clearly the poet) is mentioned as having borrowed a dildo, which suggests that her contemporaries believed her to have sexual interest in women.
Asclepiades - An epigram accuses two Samian women, Bitto and Nannion, of being lovers, using the goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of specifically heterosexual love whom they disdain.
Nossis - An epigram about the sweetness of kissing Cypris. Two epigrams commenting on wall paintings of women she admires. A poem in the form of a grave inscription that makes reference to Sappho and Mytilene, a city on Lesbos:
Stranger, if you sail to the land of lovely dances, Mytilene,
To catch fire from the blossom of Sappho’s graces,
Say that a friend to her and the Muses, the Locrian land
Bore me. And knowing my name is Nossis, go on!
Herondas - A satirical dialog in which a woman named Metro asks her friend who made her dildo “the beautifully stitched red leather one” and there follows a discussion of a chain of borrowings of the item, given as a present from one woman to another. (It’s possible that it was intended for solitary use, but the context is clearly one of women collaborating in sexual activity that doesn’t include men.)
Chapter 7: Republican Rome (roughly the 5th through 1st centuries BCE) - nothing relevant
Chapter 8: Augustan Rome (defined by the political prominence of Augustus from 43 BCE to 14 CE)
Ovid Metamorphoses - The story of Iphis and Ianthe can’t be considered a realistic representation of female same-sex relations in Rome. The story is explicitly set elsewhere (Crete) and possibly elsewhen--a common device for distancing the motif of female homoeroticism from the author’s culture. On its face, Iphis and Ianthe is more of a transgender story than a lesbian one. Iphis is raised as a boy due to her father’s stated intention to kill any daughter. In that guise, she and Ianthe fall in love, but Iphis considers the fulfillment of their love as impossible and unnatural. (This is in contrast to Ovid’s casual acceptance of love between men.) On the eve of their wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to Isis to intervene and the goddess transforms Iphis into a man.
Chapter 9: Early Imperial Rome (roughly, the 1st century CE)
References to sex between women in this era are hostile and depict it as involving a “masculine” woman who performs penetrative sex on her “feminine” partner.
Seneca the Elder - Discussion of a legal case involving a man who found his wife having sex with a woman and killed them both. There is an implication that a dildo was used.
Phaedrus - A satirical myth about the cause of homosexuality, attributing it to a drunken Prometheus who, when creating humans out of clay, stuck the wrong gentalia on the figures.
Seneca the Younger - Discussing things that are “against nature,” he attributes women having male-associated medical problems like baldness and gout to their having taken up masculine sexual roles. The specific example given in the text, however, is of such women performing penetrative sex on men (not on women), thus upending “nature” even more.
Martial - Most famous for his bitingly satirical epigrams. He teases both men and women for their non-normative sexual exploits, but the ones directed at women feel nastier. The translations given in this book are very far from literal, aiming to mimic the emotional impact rather than the sense of the originals. The numbers are the standard reference numbers for his works and can be used to look up other versions.
Chapter 10: Later Greco-Roman Antiquity (roughly the 2nd through 4th centuries CE)
This section covers the last group of non-Christian texts associated with the Roman empire. There was a brief revival of Greek literature in the 2nd century and a series of Hellenophilic Roman emperors who enjoyed relationships with men, which at the very least gave philosophers and satirists a lot to talk about in the realm of male-male relations. The variety of texts giving evidence for relations between women expands, although without much change in the attitudes of the male writers to it.
Soranus, as translated by Caelius Aurelianus On Chronic Disorders - A medical manual that attributes non-normative sexual behavior to the suppression of modesty and an excess of lust. He discusses tribads as being sexually active with both men and women, but preferring women and pursuing them “like a man”. He claims that, as with other vices such as drunkenness, tribads bring other women to the practice in order to relieve their own guilt over their behavior. He considers same-sex sexual activity to be a displacement for some other mental or physical ailment and not a primary disorder itself.
Lucian Dialogues of the Courtesans #5 - These are satirical works in the form of conversations, but are not necessarily intended to depict specific contemporaries. The dialog between two courtesans (i.e., somewhat high-class prostitutes) describes how one was hired to entertain two women, Megilla from Lesbos and her wife Demonassa from Corinth. After the courtesan had entertained the two with music, Megilla instructed her to join the two of them in bed. Megilla presented as masculine, including an athlete-style shaved head, asking to be called Megillus (the masculine form of the name), and saying that she was born a woman but had “the mind and the desires and everything else of a man.” The courtesan accepted several expensive gifts as inducement and joined them for a sexual encounter but declined to give precise details other than describing kissing and panting.
Artemidorus Dream Analysis - This is from a manual of dream interpretation. In a section on dreams of a sexual nature, there are two relevant entries. The first interprets dreams of performing oral sex on someone as meaning that enmity will develop between them as oral sex was considered to be impure and it would result in “no longer being possible to share mouths.” An exception is given for those who earn their living from their mouths as with flute players or orators. The second dream type is when a woman dreams of penetrating another woman. It will either mean sharing secrets (if the other woman is someone she knows) or that she will undertake useless projects (if a stranger). But if a woman dreams of being penetrated by a woman, it means she will either separate from her husband or become widowed (but will learn the other woman’s secrets).
Egyptian Love-magic Texts - Two papyrus texts that contain spells to bind a woman to love or desire the woman creating the spell. These are specific texts naming individuals and giving other personal details about them. The intent is to “attract and bind the soul and heart.” The second is a bit more intense, calling down magical threats on a supernatural assistant to force their assistance to “inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of [person 1] with love and affection for [person 2]...burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love...forcer her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving [person 2]... [let her] surrender like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions...” amid much formulaic repetition, but always coming back to a demand for “love and affection.”
Pseudo-Lucian Forms of Love - Within an extended dialogue about various forms of love and which are preferable, one of the characters argues for love between women being equally acceptable to love between men. (The punch line is that it’s meant as a reductio ad absurdum argument against male-male love. Why, if you support that, the next thing you know you’ll claim that women can love each other!) “Let women too love each other,” he suggests. “Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man. Let wanton Lesbianism--that word seldom heard, which I feel ashamed even to utter--freely parade itself, and let our women’s chambers emulate Philaenis, disgracing themselves with Sapphic amours.”
Firmicus Maternus Mathesis - An astrology manual that includes gender expression and sexual preference as possible consequences of one’s stars, but framed as clearly being “vices” and deviant from the desired state. Under the right stars “women will be born with masculine character, but men will become castrates or eunuchs or male prostitutes.” The implication is that gender identity is what is affected and that sexual expression may follow from that.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 27b - Sappho of Lesbos: The Woman and the Legend (reprised) - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/10/13 - listen here)
Scheduling gets tricky sometimes, and I found myself putting together the October podcasts without an author guest. Rather than scramble and try to pull someone in at the last minute, I decided instead to reprise the two episodes I did on Sappho back in the first year of the podcast. They’ve been among my most popular shows. It also gives me an excuse to finally get the transcripts for these two episodes posted. This week, you’ll hear what we know about the historic Sappho and her times, as well as how her story was changed and mythologized across the ages. Next week, you’ll get to hear a tour through translations of Sappho’s most complete works in different eras, as well as poems inspired by the style and sensibility of her poetry. I hope you’ll enjoy these shows, either as a new listener or returning to some favorite episodes.
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Looking back at the long history of neglect, erasure, and condemnation of women who desire women, one of the few bright spots is the ancient Greek poet Sappho. Think how marvelous it is that we--as women who love women--have an icon like Sappho who has not only given us a vocabulary to identify and talk about our experiences, but entirely apart from that, who was so talented that even the long centuries could not dim our knowledge of her genius.
I like to try to do some sort of special feature in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to celebrate Pride Month. It was June 2014 when I first started the blogging project and here we are, three years and 140 publications later! This time I thought I’d cover a handful of the books about Sappho that are on my to-do list, and do two special podcasts to book-end the month.
The first one will be about what we know of the historic woman named Sappho and the society she lived in. Then I’ll look at what Greek and Roman writers said about her, and how some of the myths about her life sprang up.
The second episode will look at the legacy of Sappho from the Middle Ages up through the 19th century. I’ll look at how she was used as an example of such different things as decadent sexuality and female literary genius. And I’ll trace the history of how her poetry was translated into everyday languages, and how poets used her themes and imagery in their own work.
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For this first episode, I give a great deal of credit to André Lardinois, whose 1989 article “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” provides a detailed and even-handed look at the historic and literary context of Sappho’s life. Other sources are listed in the show notes.
The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that we rarely question what evidence we have that Sappho actually was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? How would such an orientation have been understood in her time and culture? There isn’t a large amount of data, but there’s enough to draw a few conclusions.
Sappho lived around 600 BC on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean sea, very close to the coast of modern Turkey. Other than her own poetry, every record we have of her was written centuries later.
The earliest source materials for Sappho’s life are the remnants of her poetry (mostly in the form of fragments quoted by later writers); an assortment of fiction that included her as a character, salacious gossip and a few more reliable facts about Sappho and her poetry that are found in the works of Classical authors; and general circumstantial evidence regarding the social and historic context in which she lived.
Sappho’s body of work includes songs celebrating the beauty of young girls, ceremonial songs (including cultic hymns addressed to deities and wedding songs), satires, and songs about members of her immediate family. There is also a fragment of an epic poem.
It is the songs in praise of girls that form the primary evidence for Sappho’s erotic interests, but the ceremonial songs provide important evidence regarding the social context. Sappho’s authorship of cultic hymns demonstrates that she was an established and respected member of her community. This is the functional equivalent of writing hymns for church. Therefore if her songs in praise of girls are evidence of sexual interest, then that interest must have been acceptable to her community. Similarly, her satirical works that focus on rivalries and jealousies between women indicate that whatever relationships were involved, they were known and accepted by the community.
There are other clues in Sappho’s poems regarding social and political relationships on the island of Lesbos in her time, and the respectable position held by both Sappho herself and the girls she addressed. And yet there is a pattern of references to the girls named in the songs leaving Sappho, either with her consent or to her regret. The personal and individual nature of these references suggests the songs were works written for specific occasions. In contrast, her poems of praise tend to be generic, and don’t mention specific names, either for the narrator of the verse or its subject. (Though it should be noted that most of what survives is fragmentary and we can’t know what was in the parts that weren’t preserved.)
If you take the content of these poems at face value, they suggest a context of female pederasty in the technical, classical Greek sense. That is, a social pattern where an adult is a mentor and lover of an adolescent of the same gender, and where this relationship is expected to change in nature when the younger person “graduates” to adulthood. Sappho’s poems indicate that whatever form this pattern of relationships took, it was compatible with her respected social standing. Over the centuries, these bare facts have often been interpreted in many different ways, according to the prejudices of the interpreter.
Sappho’s poetry never touches explicitly on sexual activity with the possible exception of one fragmentary reference to a dildo--a reference that is insufficient to determine the context. But it does use the forms and tropes of erotic love poetry. There are references to activities associated with courtship, such as the making of flower wreaths, as well as ones that are suggestive of physical expressions of affection, such as the line ”on soft beds...you would satisfy your longing”. For context, these themes should be compared to poems written in the context of male pederasty, which similarly avoid mention of sexual acts (but where no one doubts their existence).
Songs praising the beauty and attractiveness of girls--even those where Sappho notes her own response to that beauty--must also be understood in the context of the songs’ performance, often as part of marriage ceremonies. Themes of praise in this circumstance may be conventional rather than personal. But turning the argument around again, later male poets such as Catullus had no qualms about quoting Sappho’s work to express their own erotic response to a woman. So there was a clear context where her work was understood to represent erotic desire.
Among the later supposedly biographic stories regarding Sappho’s life, the one used most prominently to argue against her homoeroticism (or at least to argue for her eventual and inevitable “conversion” to heterosexuality) concerns Phaon, the man for whom she is said to have made a suicidal jump from the Leucadian rock. The earliest surviving source for this is from Ovid, who wrote in the 1st century BC, and takes the form of a letter purportedly in Sappho’s voice. There is some question whether Ovid was the actual author, but no question at all that Sappho was not.
Sappho’s work also refers to a daughter, and, given that, it is unlikely that she could have held the social position she did without being married--to a man, that is. Can all these elements be compatible with homoerotic desire? References to her desire for women (albeit, often disapproving references) are common in later classical commentaries. Athenian comedies sometimes satirized her, but never for homoeroticism, rather for heterosexual promiscuity. It can reasonably be supposed, however, that the authors of the comic plays were as unfamiliar with the historic context of 6th century BC Lesbos as modern authors are. The only difference is that they most likely had a much larger corpus of Sappho’s work available to them.
So, for example, when classical authors assert that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis, a certain amount of confidence can be placed on this (the name appears in fragments of her work, and she wrote about other family members) even though the existence of a daughter by that name could not be confirmed from what survives of her work today.
What, then, are we to make of the story of Phaon and the Leucadian rock?
One strong possibility is that this is a mythic reference and a poetic trope. Phaon was the name of one of the legendary men beloved by Aphrodite (who figures prominently in Sappho’s songs). It is possible that the story arose from a poem that was intended to be understood in the voice of the goddess.
For another possibility, a near-contemporary poet of Sappho, Anacreon, mentions a “leap from the Leucadian rock” as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. As love-pangs feature regularly in Sappho’s work, it is not unlikely that she, too, may have made use of it as a rhetorical device. From such references, a later legend of Sappho’s leap of despair for the love of Phaon could have been constructed by someone not familiar with the literary motifs that were being used.
Could Sappho’s reputation for loving women also have originated in a mis-reading of poetic tropes? For this, such tropes would need to exist. And if they existed, then they would reflect prevalent and accepted practices. Did such practices exist? (And if they did, would they not be support for a position that homoeroticism was compatible with Sappho’s professional reputation?)
Sappho’s sexual reputation in pop culture changed radically over time. Sappho flourished around the early 6th century BC. In Athenian comedies of the 4th century BC, she was satirized as excessively heterosexual. Snide references by Roman writers to her “disgraceful friendships” with women began appearing around the 1st century AD.
Slang uses of the term “lesbian” in classical literature underwent similar shifts. The word always had a primary sense of “a female inhabitant of Lesbos”, but it picked up a variety of erotic connotations. Aristophanes (in the 5th c BC) used a related verb to mean “to practice fellatio” and this sense continued through late antiquity. The first known explicit association of the word “lesbian” with female homosexuality comes from Lucian (in the 2nd century AD) who writes, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” There are early medieval Byzantine references to the word “lesbia” explicitly meaning a female homosexual.
Were the shifts in Sappho’s sexual reputation a result, or a cause, of shifts in the senses associated with the word “lesbian”? Or is it entirely the wrong question to ask whether Sappho was homosexual, given that a categorical distinction and division between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism arose long after her era?
We can get some sense of what the answers might be by looking at the social and historic context of Ancient Greece. The first consideration is the social institutions that brought young girls together in groups for the sort of education in song, dance, and other activities referenced in Sappho’s works. The second consideration is the evidence in other parts of Greece of that era for institutions of female pederasty, in parallel with the more familiar male institutions.
There is copious evidence for organized institutions of young women who learned music, singing, dance, and other activities to “serve the Muses.” In addition to serving as education for the girls, these institutions would participate in religious and social rituals as a group. This organization and these activities are perfectly compatible with the many references in Sappho’s poetry, including references to beautiful clothing and other adornments. Therefore the context of Sappho’s interactions with the subjects of her poetry could easily be in one of these institutions.
Although later Roman authors generally treated the subject of female homoeroticism with distaste and disapproval, they provide occasional references suggesting that earlier Greek attitudes were different. Plutarch describes a Spartan custom whereby “distinguished ladies” had sexual relationships with younger women or girls, in direct parallel to the pederastic relationships between adult men and adolescent boys.
This claim is corroborated by other authors as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek poet Alcman wrote songs for Spartan “maiden choirs” in the 7th century BC (that is, slightly earlier than Sappho). He used the word “aïtis” for a girl in a sexual relationship, as a direct parallel to male “aïtas”, which was the official term for a boy in a pederastic relationship. Alcman’s songs for the maiden choirs include language that suggests erotic interactions (or at least erotic desires) between the girls themselves.
For visual evidence, a vase from the Greek island of Thera from the time of Sappho’s life shows two women in a stylized interaction similar to depictions of male erotic couples.
From all this, we can envision a scenario where a married female poet of high social status and impeccable reputation could enjoy and openly celebrate erotic relationships with the young women under her guidance. Such relationships could even have been an important part of the extensive social and political networks on the island of Lesbos. Only with the loss of that institution were later writers left with the need to try to make sense of Sappho’s erotic expressions in the context of her life and times.
And the next episode of this podcast will take one of Sappho’s most complete poems and use it to trace how later western cultures understood Sappho, both as a poet and as a woman.
There is nothing quite so frustrating to me as coming late to a wonderful book because the cover synopsis deliberately concealed the information that would lead me to put it on my TBR list. And given my reading habits, that usually happens when the publisher has decided to erase all but the vaguest hint of queer content.
I loved Molly Tanzer’s weird western Vermillion, so I’d idly glanced at Creatures of Will and Temper a few times in hopes of something similar, but put it down again thinking about the stacks of books already waiting for me that cheerfully embraced and telegraphed their queer female characters. Then, one day, I happened to encounter clear confirmation that some of the female characters were involved in a same-sex romance and found myself shaking my fist at the sky shouting, “Why did you think this was not important information?”
The book bills itself as inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, but other than the rather obvious naming of one character Dorina Grey, and the minor plot point of a painting that is not entirely what it seems, in a Victorian setting, I don’t see a particularly strong connection. Instead we get two ill-matched sisters: the beautiful free-spirited young aspiring art critic Dorina who is fond of smoking, scandal, and girls; and the older, plainer, more strait-laced Evadne who has just been Disappointed In Love and drowns her sorrows in fencing practice. (I love how my expectations were upended by making Evadne the dashing swordswoman.) Evadne becomes an unwilling companion on her sister’s jaunt to take in the sights of London, in care of their Uncle Basil the painter. And when Dorina becomes enraptured by Basil’s outrageously decadent friend Lady Henry, Evadne is only distracted from her growing protective outrage by the prospect of being welcomed into a prestigious London fencing school and winning the respect...and perhaps more...of one of the personable instructors.
And then there are the demons.
There are a lot of things to like about this fantasy adventure: the painfully realistic relations between the sisters in which neither is hero nor villain, The gradual revealing of who or what the demons are and the part they have to play in the eventual climax, but most especially the way the plot twists and turns and tumbles about. I was never entirely surprised that the twists happened, but I couldn’t predict what they were going to be. If I found any flaw, it would be that the climax felt ever so slightly off balance--not rushed, not slow, but like that last step that turned out not to be as tall as you thought it was.
If you want your paranormal Victorian demonic romp with a delightfully non-tragic queer encounter, this is your book. (There’s also a sequel, but I’m back to trying to guess whether it hits my “must buy” marks.)
Since I'm beginning a series of publications relating to classical Rome, it only makes sense to begin with a book that reviews the vocabulary of sex in Latin. It isn't a work that is of particularly direct use for the topic of love or sex between women, as the author gives away his attitude toward the topic with words like "abnormal." But especially given how difficult it is to extract reliable information about female homoeroticism from the surviving Latin texts, the need to understand Roman attitudes toward sex in general is unavoidable.
I should probably note that the entire series of publications that I'm covering this month will be strongly focused on the mechanics of sex as understood and discussed in Roman culture and that much of the language will be explicit and...well...vulgar. Content warnings apply.
Adams, J.N. 1982. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-4106-2
Content Note: This book's topic is the vocabulary of genitalia and sex acts. These will be discussed straightforwardly using language that might ordinarily be considered crude or offensive (especially when a crude term best represents the original sense in Latin).
Both the structure of this book and the author’s attitude toward the material work to erase any specific consideration of terminology relating to sex between women. The book is organized thematically, first considering vocabulary relating to specific body parts, then considering vocabulary for actions done with or to those body parts, with a briefer discussion of the sociological context at the end. There are scattered references to terms relating to sex between women, but in a few cases Adams discounts or dismisses homoerotic contexts in favor of focusing on potential male-oriented interpretations. (For example, he discusses two ambiguous instances of frictrix without any consideration that it gave rise to words unambiguously meaning “tribade” in later Romance languages and without discussing a homoerotic interpretation at all.)
This is the sort of book that assumes that, if you are reading it, you are fluent in Greek and Latin and therefore don’t need any of the contextual citations to be translated. While this avoids adding an interpretive layer from the author, it’s a somewhat old-fashioned approach to classical studies with a tacitly gate-keeping function. It’s also worth noting that the scope of the book is not “vocabulary relating to love and affection” and the scope of “sexual” is interpreted somewhat narrowly. For example, although some vocabulary relating to non-genital contact (touching, embracing) is mentioned, generally it is included when used as a euphemism for genital acts. I don’t think kissing gets discussed at all. So the vocubulary shouldn’t be taken as a roadmap to how Roman people experienced their romantic and erotic lives as a whole.
The general scope of the work is language used to describe or refer to sexual and excretory acts, either as the primary meaning of the words, as a standard euphemism, or as ad hoc metaphorical or poetic reference. From the context of usage, especially the nature and formality of the text, one can identify hierarchies of offensiveness. (For example, formal, neutral terms are less likely to show up in the graffiti on whorehouse walls, while crude, offensive terms are less likely to show up in love poetry.) The types of body parts and acts that appear in the texts, as well as how they are treated, provide evidence of cultural preoccupations. For example, classical Latin had an extensive and specific vocabulary to identify penetrative sex involving different orifices, distinguishing whether the act was viewed from the “active” or “passive” partner. This detailed specificity reflects the significance of social hierarchies of different roles and acts. The book primarily covers Classical Latin, but also looks at medieval Latin and vocabulary in Romance languages in some cases.
Numerically, the majority of the terms covered are metaphoric or euphemisms--suggestive rather than direct. The metaphoric language may be isolated examples reflecting an active underlying metaphor that has not yet settled into fixed expressions. In other cases, originally metaphoric language may have shifted to becoming the primary referential sense of the word, and may displace older standard language as it becomes considered dated or too offensive.
In addition to language directly about sex, or using sexual contexts for the purpose of insult or innuendo, obscene language might be used in ceremonial/magical contexts either to ward off evil influences or to invoke fertility.
The cultural focus on male sexuality (and the filtering effect of who did the writing and which writings were preserved) mean that the majority of the book is focused on terms for male anatomy and male involvement in sex acts. A great deal of the male-oriented material is preoccupied with the negotiation and maintenance of masculine status with regard to “approved” sex acts, especially when performed between men. Although it’s safe to say that an understanding of Roman attitudes toward gender and sexuality cannot but grasped without that male-centered understanding, I’ll be skipping over large amounts of that material and only touching on female-relevant vocabulary.
The first set of terms are those that can be used for either male or female genitalia (which are listed at the end of the chapter of male genitals). Veretrum (derived from a root meaning “respect”) can be found occasionally for female genitals, but in other cases clearly is restricted to men. By the early medieval period, it seems to have become scholarly and obscure. Similarly neutral in tone is verenda (plural) meaning “that which inspires awe” which is found in late Classical Latin and medieval contexts, though somewhat rare. Verecunda has as it’s primary meaning “modesty” but can also be applied to genitals of any type with a neutral tone. In contrast, pudenda (shameful thing) is gender-neutral but conveys a sense of shame or disgust. The euphemism genitale, genitalia (generative parts) can be used in polite contexts but wasn’t typically used as a technical or medical term.
Other general euphemisms indicate the saliency of sexual organs: natura, naturalia (natural parts) occurs for both sexes but most commonly for women’s genitals in medical contexts; necessaria (necessary parts) occurs for both sexes; sexus (sexual part) is fairly rare but used for both men and women. [Note how many modern English technical terms were the ordinary words in Classical Latin.]
There is a disproportionate number of different terms referring to the penis, perhaps because writers felt freer to talk about that organ, or because it had greater cultural meaning. To understand the range of euphemisms, it’s important to understand the different concept of “modesty” in Roman culture. Casual public display of depictions of the penis reflect both a lack of generalized “shame” attached to genitals (as opposed to specific uses of them) and the use of the penis as a symbol of power. In contrast, female genitals were not used (either physically or symbolically) as a threat or boast in the same way that male genitals were. When female genitals were discussed in vulgar contexts, they were often associated with disgust or revulsion. Reference to the clitoris was typically in abusive contexts focusing on unnatural size.
Vocabulary for female genitals may distinguish between the external genitals, the vagina, and the uterus, or may conflate some subset (especially the latter two) or all of those.
The basic and most common obscene term for the female genitals is cunnus. [Note: despite the similarity, there isn’t a clear connection with the germanic word that appears in English as cunt, although that is probably the best functional translation.] Cunnus can be derogatory or abusive, but occasionally seems to be neutral if used in a non-derogatory context, though it would not be used as a polite term. It appears primarily in graffiti and in satirical epigrams. [Note: the epigram was a short poem that usually satirized or poked fun at the subject. Although often written by “serious” poets, the tone of the language was typically vulgar.]
Animal metaphors can be found for male genitals but are less common for women, though this may be an artifact of the types of surviving texts. One exception is the use of porcus (pig), which seems to have been used by women to refer to the genitals of young girls in a sort of “nursery talk” register. [Note: my guess is that this is a image-metaphor based on the smooth, rounded appearance of the hind end of a female piglet.]
Agricultural metaphors with meanings like “field, garden, meadow” are common, not only inspired by visual appearance (i.e., pubic hair seen as vegetation) and the implication of fertility, but also in connection with using metaphors of ploughing and sowing of seeds for the act of sex. Some specific terms include eugium (having good soil, fertile), a Greek borrowing associated with the language of prostitutes and considered vulgar. Sulcus (furrow) also comes from this field of meaning and appears to have been inoffensive.
Similarly, from the image of interior spaces in the landscape, words like specus (cave--it could also be used for the anus), fossa (ditch), piscina (pool, fish pond), barathrum (pit, but with a negative connotation “abyss”), with the latter two mostly appearing in epigrams.
Household objects were another source of metaphor, especially ones relating to cooking. The external genitals might be called a hearth and the vagina or womb an oven. A round cookpot (olla) was another word used for “female parts” (though I wonder if the rounded shape might also be an allusion, not just the “container” aspect?). Referring to the female genitals as an altar (ara) seems to have been an ad hoc coinage rather than a standard term. Other “container” words used for the interior genitals include bulga (bag) and vas (vessel, container). [Note: somewhat surprisingly, the book does not indicate that vagina (sheath) was used for the organ with that name today, although vagina was used in a few cases as part of a metaphor for anal sex to accompany the more common euphemism of penis=sword.]
A few other metaphoric terms are mentioned that may be ad hoc coinages: the external genitals called a door (ianuam), the vagina a path or road, or a sinus (hollow space), and possibly one instance of female genitals called a ship (navis) but in a context of word-play.
Another technique of euphemism was to refer to a taboo organ with the name for some nearby body part. Thus the female genitals may be called a “lap” (gremium) or especially in Biblical Latin, a navel (umbilicus) or thigh (femur). Somewhat more pointedly, words used for the anus might be applied to the vagina as well (longuo, culus).
Similarly to some of the generic terms that could mean either male or female genitals, there are terms meaning “female parts” (muliebria, feminal) or simply “the place” (loca) or “the inner place” (interior pars, viscera).
Somewhat more crudely, we find words meaning “crack, fissure” (rima, fissa). The term hiatus (cleft, gap) appears in offensive contexts implying “a loose vagina" (presumably from excess use).
The term spurium is mentioned by classical authors as an obsolete term for the female genitals and is attributed to the Sabine or possibly Etruscan language. By the classical period, the sense had been transferred to “illegitimate (spurious) child”.
The remainder of the chapter on female genitals covers references to specific anatomic parts (whereas the above terms can have more general use).
Classical Romans understood the function of the clitoris in sex and envisioned tribades using it like a penis for penetrative sex. For this reason, identifying a clitoris as “large” was derogatory and implied pseudo-masculinity. The ordinary “proper” term for it was landica but in Classical Latin this was considered too indecent to use (although it survived into Old French). The Greek borrowing nymfe occurs but not in common use. The image metaphor nasus (nose) or crista (crest, [rooster’s] comb) appear in ad hoc use.
The labia might be called a mouth (orae) in medical literature. Terms meaning “wings” (pinnacula, pinnae) are noted as obsolete.
In addition to general terms that could be applied to the womb, the words uterus, venter, and aluus could mean either “womb” or “belly” generally. Of these uterus was the “proper” term but considered a bit too formal for everyday use. Aluus was somewhat obscure. Venter became the everyday term used in colloquial or vulgar contexts but was later replaced by more specialized words. Vulva eventually replaced uterus for everyday reference to the womb and both appear in formal poetry. Later, vulva became generalized to the female genitals as a whole. There’s an isolated example of vulva being used for the clitoris, identifiable because the object is described as tentigo (erect). In the late empire, medical works sometimes use matrix (“the breeding part”, derived from mater “mother”) for the womb.
Vocabulary for Sex Acts
[Note: Because of the way the book is structured, there isn’t a clear and separate discussion of vocabulary for sex acts between women. Also, the vocabulary of sex acts primarily focuses on penetrative sex and distinguishes the orifice, and whether the act is being considered from the point of view of the “active” or “passive” party, regardless of gender. I’m going to borrow from Williams Roman Homosexualities, which I’ll be covering shortly, to lay out the basic structure here. He uses “insertive” and “receptive” rather than “active” and “passive”. Obviously, the acts default to assuming the presence of a penis. The verbs (from which other vocabulary is derived) are as follows:
Vaginal - futuere (insertive), crisare (receptive)
Anal - pedicare (insertive), cevere (receptive)
Oral - irrumare (insertive), fellare (receptive)
[There are also nouns used for the receptive participant. Obviously, the usual noun for a vaginally receptive partner is “woman”. The case of the anally receptive partner is complicated and I’m going to skip it for now because it's mostly relevant to male-male relations. Note that both terms in the “oral” category are only referring to stimulation of the penis. See below for the complexity of cunnilingus, oral sex that stimulates a woman.]
The only context in which futuere (which can reasonably be considered equivalent to “fuck”) is used with a woman as the agent is when a woman is having penetrative sex with another woman. But Adams does a bit of reaching when considering the equivalent noun (fututor (m), fututrix (f)) in the feminine form. The entire discussion of this context is worth quoting, if only to demonstrate the author’s attitude toward the topic. I’ve added translations in brackets.
* * *
[quoted from book]
Except in the passive, futuo was not as a rule used of the female role. The woman in Martial [epigram] 7.70 (‘ipsarum tribadum tribas, Philaeni, / recte, quam futuis, uocas amicam’ [Philaenis, tribade of the tribades themselves, you rightly call the woman you fuck your ‘girlfriend’]) is a tribas who behaves like a man (cf. Seneca Epistle 95.21, where ineo [enter] is applied to the activities of similarly abnormal women); compare fututor at Martial [epigram] 1.90.6 (‘at tu, pro facinus, Bassa, fututor eras’ [But you, a crime, Bassa!, are a fucker]). But at Martial [epigram] 11.7.13 futuo (active) is definitely used of the female part in normal sexual intercourse: ‘quanto tu melius, quotiens placet ire fututum, / quae uerum mauis diere, Paula, uiro’ [Whenever you have a mind to go fuck, Paula, you prefer to tell your husband the truth]. There is no evidence that the supine was treated as indifferent in respect of voice. This example anticipates the intransitive use of fotre in Old French, of the woman. It is typically in the intransitive that verbs of this sense are transferred to the female role (cf. English she fucks).
There is also some evidence that fututrix had acquired a corresponding use (= ‘ea quae futuitur’ [she who fucks]): [examples skipped] Note too CIL IV.2204 Mula foutoutris [transcribed from Greek - Mola (female) fucker]. It is suggested at TLL VI.1.1664.61f that the reference here may be to a tribas, but that is unlikely: note CIL IV.2203 ‘futui Mula hic’ [I fucked Mula here], and for Mula see also 8185. CIL IV.4196 (‘Miduse fututrix’ [Miduse the (female) fucker]) and 4381 are impossible to interpret.
* * *
[Note: Observe how the author considers homoerotic interpretations “unlikely” or “impossible to interpret” without further comment. As well as the assumption that if Mula has been fucked (by a man presumably) she could not also be a fucker of women. The location of the graffiti in a brothel isn’t proof one way or another. The conclusion that fututrix cannot mean “a woman who fucks women” is simply assumed rather than demonstrated.]
Aside from the above examples, the vocabulary for penetrative sex acts are not relevant to this blog. So we’ll move on.
Lingo (to lick) can be used for any sex act performed with the mouth. It can default to being the standard term for cunnilingus but can be used for other acts when one wants to specify the part being stimulated (other than a penis, for which there is specialized vocabulary). The word order in the compound cunnilingo indicates that it was established early as a fixed phrase. Much less commonly, lambo is used with the same meaning for oral sex involving the cunnus, but it was not established as a standard sexual term.
The verb criso specifically meant “the movements made by a woman during vaginal intercourse” (and had a counterpart in ceveo for the movements of the receptive partner in anal intercourse). These are the basic meanings of the words in their earliest recorded examples, rather than being transferred from some other meaning. Their usage contexts indicate they were not particularly offensive. A less established term was crispo (to wave, brandish) which was used generally of lascivious movements but not associated with a specific sex act.
Metaphors for oral sex are unsurprisingly drawn from the act of eating. Many begin as vulgar slang but are then established in some of the less formal literary registers (such as epigrams). But eating can be applied to other penetrative acts where the receptive orifice “devours” the penis. This metaphor is expressed through the entire vocabulary of consumption rather than focusing on specific words.
Vocabulary for the experience of orgasm include generic verbs of accomplishment or reaching a goal. (It isn’t clear whether these apply only to male orgasm or to women’s experience as well.) These include patro (to accomplish [it]), perficio (to finish, achieve [it]), as well as more ad hoc metaphors such as sedeo (to sit, stay), pervenio (to arrive), ibo (to go), propero (to hurry), agito (to drive, impel).
Verbs referring to grinding (molo) or similar motions may be used in general for masturbation, but can also carry an implication of adultery “grinding your meal in someone else’s mill”. Similarly, to knead (depso) which appears in somewhat offensive contexts. [Note: interestingly, Adams appears to mention no examples of these verbs referring to sex between women, although cross-culturally, these activities appear regularly with that meaning. I don’t know if that sense simply wasn’t used in Classical Latin, or if examples simply didn’t survive, or if Adams has overlooked or ignored them.]
While the verb subigo (to master, subdue) was used only for the active role in penetrative sex, the derived form subigito had a more general sense of “fondle, lay hands on” as used in comic drama.
The lighter side of sex can be seen in the use of ioceri (to joke, play) as a sexual euphemism. Similarly ludo (to play a game or sport) can be used with any gender or role as the subject in contexts when sex is framed as a mutually pleasurable activity. These terms are often associated with youth.
Phrases that generically mean “to be/sleep/lie with” tended to have a neutral implication: esse cum (be with), dormio cum (sleep with), iaceo cum, con-cumbere (lie with, the latter being the source of “concubine”). Biblical Latin used phrases such as maneo cum (stay with) and noctem promittere (spend the night with).
The phrase co-eo (come together) was a standard term for the act of marriage but was also a euphemism for sex of all types and combinations (see: coitus). Verbs meaning “join” (iungo, coniungo) can be used with metonymic body parts (latus “side”, femur “thigh”, caput “head”) to refer to sex. Even more vaguely, verbs of holding and embracing (teneo, complector, amplector) can refer to sex.
As noted previously, verbs of rubbing or grinding can indicate a variety of sexual activities, not only intercourse. In addition to molo (to grind, mill) we find tero (similar in meaning but more general). Frico (to rub, the root of “friction”) is primarily used for masturbation. Adams expresses doubt that the female noun frictrix (woman-who-rubs) is (as generally assumed) a calque (i.e., literal translation) of Greek tribas and he appears to dismiss the possibility that it refers to sex between women (despite that being the dominant meaning in medieval Latin). [Note: it's also odd that Adams doesn't directly discuss tribas itself as used in Latin, despite including it in several quotations. If for no other reason, I have strong doubts that this book is a reliable guide to vocabulary specifically relevant to relations between women.]
The verb tango (to touch) is generally interpreted as “caress” but can also be used as a euphemism for intercourse. Verbs for the emotional experience of love could also be transferred to referring to sex acts: amo (love), libido (lust), venus (desire). There was sometimes a contrast between the use of venus as a neutral term for sex in contrast with stuprum which is the standard pejorative term for “shameful” types of sexual experience. But venus was an elevated word and doesn’t show up in this sense in vulgar literature.
Euphemisms for pleasure can indicated nuanced types of experience: deliciae (pleasures) had a fashion as slang for extramarital affairs, delecto (to please) referred to the pleasure a woman enjoys during sex, especially framed as something her partner does, and voluptas (pleasure) is the enjoyment that an active partner achieves in the act.
Derogatory euphemisms for sex include vitio (to spoil, violate) but doesn’t necessarily imply something imposed on a person, as Christian moral texts use it to indicate persons “defiling” themselves by participating in sex. Pecco (to sin) is also bound up with the emerging Christian view of sex. Under the Classical Roman moral system, the standard and common negative term for “shameful” sex was stuprum which originally meant something like “disgrace” in general but shifted in meaning to be specifically sexual.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 27a - On the Shelf for October 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/10/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2018.
Is it the fourth quarter of the year already? How did that happen! Just last week we released the third short story in our fiction project. Have you listened to it yet? I loved this early medieval story of older women finding love and comfort after a lifetime of putting other people’s needs first.
The Fiction Series
And as I mentioned in passing last month, it’s time to officially announce that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be continuing the fiction series next year. I thought about maybe widening the scope of what sort of stories we’d be considering, but when it comes down to it, I’d like to continue focusing on supporting straightforward historic stories, without fantastic elements, so I’m keeping the same submission guidelines as last year.
The key points--and I’ll be posting the full call for submissions on the website for you to refer to--are as follows. Length can be up to 5000 words. Stories must be set prior to 1900 in an actual, real-world time and place. If you pick a very popular setting like Victorian England or the American West, you should be doing something new and interesting that stands out from the crowd. I love seeing stories from less used eras and cultures, but I want to see cultures treated knowledgeably and with respect. Romance is optional. Romance stories should have some other strong element in addition to the romance and I’m not looking for erotica.
Let me explain that a little, because last year some people tried to second-guess why I didn’t want erotic stories. The simple fact is that 5000 words isn’t much space to introduce characters, setting, and plot, and then come to a satisfying resolution. When sex scenes come into the mix, they tend to push the other elements aside and the rest of the story often becomes stage dressing for the sex scene. Sex may be implied in the story, but leave it off the page so you have room for the story itself.
And, of course, the story should center on lesbian themes. By this, I mean that it should feature protagonist(s) whose primary emotional orientation within the scope of the story is toward other women. This is not meant to exclude characters who might identify today as bisexual or who have relationships with men outside the scope of the story. But the story should focus on same-sex relations.
Authors of all genders and orientations are welcome to submit. Authors from traditionally marginalized cultures are strongly encouraged to submit, regardless of whether you are writing about your own cultural background. Like last year, we’ll be paying industry standard professional rates of 6 cents a word--we pay our narrators industry-standard rates too. Check out the full details of the submission guidelines on the alpennia.com website and start brainstorming your stories. Submissions will be accepted during the month of January 2019. I’m looking forward to seeing what gets submitted this time!
Here’s an item that might be of interest to some. In March 2019 in France, there’s going to be an academic conference entitled “Sapphic Vibes: Lesbians in Literature from the Renaissance to the Present.” I heard about it through a call for papers, but by the time this podcast goes out the due date for submissions will be past. But if you happen to be in the vicinity of the Université de Haute-Alsace (Mulhouse) next March 14-15 and have a yen to listen to research papers on lesbian themes in historic literature (in English and in French), check out the link in the show notes for more details. It looks like they’re planning to hold a second conference on the theme in 2020 in Iceland. If I were the sort to pop off to Europe for the weekend for an academic conference, I’d be there (even though the papers in French would be lost on me).
Publications on the Blog
In September the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog covered several publications relating to the subject of last month’s essay, 17th century English gender outlaw Moll Cutpurse. And while I was on the subject of gender-crossing I decided to start this month with a delightful surprise that’s been lurking on my shelf for two decades: Mary Diana Dods: A Scholar and a Gentleman by Betty T. Bennett. This is best described as an academic mystery quest, tracking down the identity of two men mentioned in the letters of 19th century author Mary Shelley--she of Frankenstein fame--only to discover that the two men were the same person, and that person was a woman. I loved this topic so much, I’ve turned it into this month’s Ask Sappho segment.
For the rest of the month, and possibly into November, I’ll be working through some books and articles I’ve accumulated on sexuality in classical Rome. From which, you might guess that I’ll be finishing up the month with an essay on women’s same-sex relations in that historic context.
There’s only one new purchase for the blog to report this month. In fact, it’s actually a book that I ordered back in June but it never arrived and I only recently realized that and inquired. So I have a replacement copy now. The title is Same-sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts by Marie H. Loughlin. It’s a collection of excerpts and selections from a wide variety of genres, both literary and non-fiction. There’s a lot of redundancy with material I already have in other sources, but also some material that I’ve seen discussed but haven’t seen in the original previously.
No Author Guest
I don’t have an author guest lined up to interview this month. I’ve been putting out a lot of feelers but didn’t get any nibbles that panned out with the right timing. So rather than scrambling to try to nail down an interview at the last minute, I’m going to reprise a pair of shows on the Greek poet Sappho and her work that have been particularly popular.
This is my chance to remind people that I’m always looking both for authors to host on the show and for enthusiastic readers of lesbian historical fiction to talk about their favorite books. My contact information is in the show notes.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
When compiling the list of new and forthcoming historicals, I’ve been rather dismayed at how few historicals--especially plain historicals without any fantasy element--are coming out from the major lesbian presses. I haven’t been doing these lists long enough to have a sense of what “normal” looks like, but the current state of the field is disappointing.
There was one book I had my eye on with an uncertain publication date that seems to have come out in August when I wasn’t looking. Devan Johnson’s Any Other Name is an erotic Regency romance with gender disguise and a marriage of convenience. I’m going to give a couple of caveats because the cover design is absolutely atrocious and it doesn’t say “Regency” at all to me. And reviews on Goodreads indicate that there are some problems with editing and narrative structure. But for those who are hungry for your Regency fix, here’s the blurb:
It’s 1834 England. Following the sudden and tragic deaths of her father, the Duke of Ashebourne, and her twin brother, Rose Marsden disguises herself as a man and assumes her brother’s identity and father’s title. Her deception works for almost a decade, but she knows that eventually she’s going to need to find a way to procure an heir. Lady Margaret ‘Maggie’ Clayton is in trouble; her fiancé has been killed, leaving her pregnant and unwed. If society finds out, she’ll be ruined. When the Duke of Ashebourne learns Maggie’s secret and reveals her own, the two women hatch a plan that may solve both of their problems: the ultimate marriage of convenience.
There are a couple of September releases that I hadn’t noticed earlier because they came out from mainstream YA imprints. As is usual for mainstream books, the queer content isn’t very obvious from the jacket copy, but I’ve confirmed it through sources. Monica Hesse’s The War Outside, published by Little, Brown Books is a YA historical rather than a romance, tackling political questions that are unfortunately relevant to us today. Here’s the blurb.
It's 1944, and World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific. The war seemed far away from Margot in Iowa and Haruko in Colorado--until they were uprooted to dusty Texas, all because of the places their parents once called home: Germany and Japan. Haruko and Margot meet at the high school in Crystal City, a "family internment camp" for those accused of colluding with the enemy. The teens discover that they are polar opposites in so many ways, except for one that seems to override all the others: the camp is changing them, day by day and piece by piece. Haruko finds herself consumed by fear for her soldier brother and distrust of her father, who she knows is keeping something from her. And Margot is doing everything she can to keep her family whole as her mother's health deteriorates and her rational, patriotic father becomes a man who distrusts America and fraternizes with Nazis. With everything around them falling apart, Margot and Haruko find solace in their growing, secret friendship. But in a prison the government has deemed full of spies, can they trust anyone--even each other?
The queer content in Amy Lukavics’ Nightingale, from Harlequin Teen, is similarly obscured in the publicity, but present when you check out some of the Goodreads reviews. This one has a bisexual protagonist who has relationships with both women and men in the story. It wanders through the genres of horror and science fiction, as well as having a historical setting. Here’s the blurb:
At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women. June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.
Another book that overlaps both history and speculative fiction is Jane Fletcher’s Isle of Broken Years from Bold Strokes Books. It starts out looking like yet another typical lesfic pirate adventure, but takes a sharp turn somewhere in the middle. The blurb sticks to the historic setting:
Catalina de Valasco’s parents have her future fully planned. The most important step for a seventeenth century Spanish noblewoman being, of course, an advantageous marriage. Unfortunately, a series of setbacks has left Catalina unwed. On a galleon bound for the Americas and her latest husband-to-be, Catalina again finds her marriage plans frustrated. Pirates capture the ship, and she is held for ransom. The danger intensifies as they sail into seas which, one day, will become known as the Bermuda Triangle. Catalina enters a terrifying world that she could never have imagined or planned for. Yet of all the surprises awaiting her, the most unexpected one is love.
Rebecca Wilde’s Libertine, self-published through Amazon, is a very short erotic work about a highwaywoman in 17th century England. The blurb should give you a sense of what to expect.
In 1669, England’s first female highwayman robs stagecoaches, and hearts, throughout London. Armed with her flintlock pistol, the masked “Libertine” successfully seduces England’s female nobility while at the same time, attempts to rescue her longtime lover from the hangman’s noose. Join the notorious highwaywoman in her erotic adventures as she matches wits with both the local constabulary and the established criminal underworld, lending new meaning to the phrase, “Stand and deliver!”
Ann Aptaker’s Cantor Gold gangster series has a fourth installment with Flesh and Gold from Bold Strokes Books.
Havana, 1952, a city throbbing with pleasure and danger, where the Mob peddles glamor to the tourists and there’s plenty of sex for sale. In the swanky hotels and casinos, and the steamy, secretive Red Light district of the Colón, Cantor Gold, dapper art thief and smuggler, searches the streets and brothels for her kidnapped love, Sophie de la Luna y Sol. Cantor races against time while trying to out run the deadly schemes of American mobsters and the gunsights of murderous local gangs.
And to finish up the October listings, Tammy Lynne Stoner’s Sugar Land, from Red Hen Press, has a more literary feel. Here’s the description:
It’s 1923 in Midland, Texas, and Miss Dara falls in love with her best friend―who also happens to be a girl. Terrified, Miss Dara takes a job at the Imperial State Prison Farm for men. Once there, she befriends inmate and soon-to-be legendary blues singer Lead Belly, who sings his way out (a true story)―but only after he makes her promise to free herself from her own prison. Sugar Land is a triumphant, beautiful novel about the heart’s refusal to be denied what the heart wants.
If you know about forthcoming historicals, remember to drop me a note, just in case they aren’t on my list yet.
I had so much fun sorting through the story of Mary Diana Dods, mentioned earlier, that rather than answer a listener question this month for the Ask Sappho segment, I thought I’d give you a run-down on her story.
Imagine all your favorite Regency romance tropes, then toss in a few more tropes as dessert. The bastard daughter of a Scottish earl. A false cross-gender pen name to publish plays and poetry. A glamorously beautiful unwed mother. A woman living as a man. A marriage of convenience. Parisian literary salons filled with brilliant and witty people. And in the middle of it all, Mary Shelley as matchmaker. Mary Wollstonecraft Frankenstein Fucking Shelley. If this were a historical romance novel, your editor would tell you to tone it down a bit to make it more believable.
Professor Bennett’s book on Mary Diana Dods is structured as an academic mystery, tracing the story from the first dangling threads all the way through the process of teasing those threads out and then tying them up neatly. But here’s the more straightforward story.
At the very beginning of the 19th century, Mary Diana Dods--known to her friends as Doddy--and her sister Georgiana were the illegitimate daughters of the earl of Morton, a prominent and wealthy Scottish aristocrat. They were brought up amidst luxury and privilege, though never publicly acknowledged as the earl’s children. Dods certainly had an extensive education and was fluent in French, German, Italian, and Latin. Dods also seems to have had some sort of physical disability, though it’s never described beyond being a “disproportion” of her body and references to a liver ailment. She had dark short curly hair, sharp piercing black eyes, was of small stature, and looked worn down from chronic pain--and no doubt chronic worry about finances as well. For when the earl of Morton finally married--a woman younger than either of his daughters--they were kicked out of the house with an allowance that was nowhere near enough to maintain the life they’d been brought up to expect.
Georgiana was married by that time, as Mrs. Carter, and living in India with her husband, but when she returned to England, a widow with two young sons, she and Dods found themselves endlessly struggling with debt, in part due to their father’s carelessness with regard to the regularity of payment of their allowance. The sisters did their best to find means to support themselves in line with the expectations for well-bred women of the Regency era. Georgiana tried to find a position as a paid companion to some wealthier woman. Dods set up a day school with her good friend Charlotte Figg and another woman to give music lessons and such like.
Like most single women of that era, they socialized primarily with other women and were part of a complex network of friendships and support systems that provided lodging, loans of money, professional references and leads, and simple companionship and emotional support. For Dods, part of that network included the writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and through her, entrance to a larger literary world that included Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the London salon of Dr. Kitchener. Moving in literary circles, it’s not surprising that Dods decided to try her hand earning money from writing. And having seen the experiences of other literary women, it also isn’t surprising that, like many others, she decided to create a male pen name for the purpose. A male author would be taken seriously and paid accordingly. Female authors were treated as dilettantes when noticed at all. Thus, Mr. David Lyndsay was born. And Mary Shelley was happy to help Dods begin her career by writing letters of recommendation to publishers for Lyndsay.
Lyndsay had an initial burst of success, having multiple works published in Blackwood’s Magazine, over the course of a couple of years, and then a collection of dramas, also put out by Blackwood who was a prominent Scottish publisher and may have been influenced by the opportunity to feature a fellow countryman. But Lyndsay’s book flopped on the market. Blackwood lost money and therefore lost interest, though it took Lyndsay several years to get the hint when Blackwood failed to buy any more of his submissions.
When that pin finally dropped, Blackwood received a submission from another aspiring Scottish writer, one Walter Sholto Douglas, whose work was sent for consideration by his wife, Isabella Douglas. And now, we need to circle back and ask who Isabella was.
Isabella Robinson was generally acclaimed to be one of the most beautiful women in existence. Her father was a good friend of Mary Shelley’s father, Mr. Godwin, and the two families socialized regularly. Mary Shelley (who by now has been widowed by Shelley’s tragic drowning) doted on her, being on the rebound from a close romantic friendship with another friend whose marriage created distance between them.
And then Isabella Robinson became pregnant by a lover who decamped to America without having the courtesy to marry her. Having a child out of wedlock wasn’t entirely fatal--after all, Mary Shelley and any number of women in her radical circle had done so--but if there were no man in the picture, marriage or not, life became very difficult. And the lack of an assigned father for the child would be a significant handicap for its future.
In that age of the near impossibility of divorce, it was a normal--if not particularly common--practice for a woman to simply proclaim herself the wife of her current lover, adopt his name, and be accepted as such, with the assistance of geography, foreign travel, or simply the separation of non-overlapping social spheres. Official certificates of marriage or birth were useful, but one could manage without them with a bit of cleverness.
And so, somewhere around the time that Isabella’s pregnancy would have become evident, she went into seclusion away from London, began mentioning in correspondence with friends that she had married, and took up the role of Mrs. Douglas to act as secretary for the new pen name of Mary Diana Dods, that of Walter Sholto Douglas.
From the bits and scraps we know, it’s impossible to tell how long and how extensive they intended the fictitious marriage to be. In that era, pregnancy was uncertain and post-natal mortality was significant. If Isabella’s child failed to survive to birth or much beyond, it’s possible that Isabella would have returned to her London haunts remaining Isabella Robinson with only her immediate circle of friends the wiser. But her daughter Adeline was healthy and thriving, so some more long-term identity needed to be established. Mr. Sholto Douglas had a literary existence but not a physical one. For Isabella, one possible path might have been a convenient widowhood, but Dods was counting on Mr. Douglas as her new source of writing income.
And so, a daring plan was hatched. And Mary Shelley was in the middle of it. Shelley wrote to a friend of hers in London asking for a favor. She was about to travel to France in company with a group of friends: Mr. and Mrs. Douglas and their infant daughter, Mr. Douglas’s widowed sister Mrs. Georgiana Carter and her two young sons. It was inconvenient of them to travel to London to pick up passports, but passports must be picked up in person. The friend had a passing resemblance to Mr. Douglas -- could he find a woman with a similar resemblance to Mrs. Douglas and pick up the passports? Why yes, he’d be happy to. And in the mean time, Mary Diana Dods put on trousers and began practicing to be Mr. Walter Sholto Douglas.
If we were writing this as a romance novel, what follows would take a different path. But the Douglas’s marriage ran onto the rocks of some insurmountable difficulties. In particular, even though it was possible for an English couple to live more cheaply in Paris than in London, the Douglases still had the slimmest of incomes and yet wanted to move in the high-fashion society of Parisian literary salons. And the beautiful and engaging Isabella Douglas eagerly flirted with anything in pants. Anything except her husband, Sholto Douglas.
In October 1827, the Douglases move to Paris where they are accepted as what they appear to be--a married couple with extensive connections in English literary society. Two years later, Mr. Douglas is in a French prison for debt and in extremely poor health. Isabella Douglas has lost the friendship and support of her female friends with her romantic and sexual antics and returns to London the next year. Without her husband.
There is no trace of what happened to Mary Diana Dods, aka Walter Sholto Douglas. If Douglas had died in debtor’s prison, one might expect that the discovery of his underlying sex would have been worth a note in the archives. But possibly not. Or possibly friends took up a collection to cover the debts and then Mr. Douglas decided to disappear, along with Mary Diana Dods. The only later trace was that Mr. Douglas went down in historical records as the father of Adeline Douglas, a fact that most might consider relevant only because Adeline married a prominent enough man that she appears in biographical dictionaries.
Is there a love story anywhere within this tangle, much less a same-sex love story? Unclear. This is an era when romantic friendships between women were considered the norm, and the language Mary Shelley uses to talk about her relationship with Isabella is certainly emotional and romantic. Did Shelley convince her friend Dods to go to the extreme of living as Mr. Douglas for the sake of love? Dods--under the name of Lyndsay--left a manuscript poem written on the flyleaf of a copy of Lyndsay’s book that mourns a tragically dead beloved and speaks of being forever alone. But this was well before Douglas was invented and there is no clue to whether the poem’s subject was a real person or what gender they might have been, if so. Certainly Isabella seems to have had no particular emotional attachment to the person she presented as her husband, or if she did, she certainly didn’t act like it, though observers described Mr. Douglas as being devoted to her.
But if the life of Mary Diana Dods fails to provide us with a conventionally happy ending to this adventure, that doesn’t mean that we can’t see, in her life, the structures and themes of how two women might have constructed an adventure with just such a happy ending as we might crave. Just make it a little more believable than this true life story if you expect to sell it as a historical romance novel!
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As I hinted in last month's On the Shelf podcast and will be announcing officially in tomorrow's episode, The Lesbian Historic Motif Project and Podcast will be repeating this year's exciting audio fiction series in 2019! Please publicize this to anyone you think might be interested in submitting. There's a lot of buzz out there from readers who are hungry for f/f historical fiction. I'd like to do my part to give readers what they're clamoring for. As you can see from the selections we've published this year, I'm eager to support stories that take chances, stories that aren't the same thing you've read before, stories that embrace the diversity of queer women's experiences throughout history. Maybe you've been thinking of dipping your toe into historical fiction waters and just needed the excuse. Maybe you've had a story kicking around but didn't think there was a market for it. Maybe you've been reading the LHMP blog and listening to the podcast and been inspired by some real-life history. We want to see your stories so we can put together an even more stunning series in our second year.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2019 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.
What We’re Looking For
Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.
Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:
If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here are the minimum essential elements it should have:
As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)
Complicated historic stories tend to send me either to drawing up genealogies or timelines. When I finished doing my LHMP summary of Bennett's book on Mary Diana Dods, I needed to sort it all out in my head by coming up with a chronology of her identities and movements. One startling aspect is how short the time was between the first inklings of creating Walter Sholto Douglas as a husband for Isabella Robinson, and Douglas's probably fatal end in a French debtor's prison. Bennett never seems to interrogate the various references to Dods' physical ailments and Mary Shelley's rather abrupt turn from assisting in the creation of Mr. Douglas to treating him as some sort of villain with a "diseased mind". I'm not going to add my own speculations to the question of what Dods thought about the Douglas marriage project, or how she felt personally about Isabella Robinson. As story fodder, those details don't matter and as history they may be unknowable.
In the following timeline, keep in mind that Dods, Lyndsay, and Douglas are all the same person. "MS" is Mary Shelley because she appears so often I got tired of typing the whole thing.
* * *
Ca. 1814 (maybe)
1832 Mary Clarke continues to complain about the behavior of Isabella in Paris.
1840 (maybe) Isabella marries Mr. Falconer.
1842 Mrs. Carter dies and is buried in Paris.
1851 Mary Shelley dies.
1853 Adeline Douglas is married. The license lists Walter Sholto Douglas as her father.
1869 Isabella Robinson Douglas Falconer dies in Italy.
You ever imagine one of those so-crazy-no-editor-would-ever-buy-it romance plots? F/f regency romance with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a significant supporting character. Bastard daughter of a Scottish earl. Beautiful socialite whose baby-daddy fled to America. Marriage of convenience. Secret baby. Gender disguise. Beauty and the beast. Making a living by publishing under multiple pen names. Foreign travel. Brittle witty people engaging in flirtation and back-biting gossip in Parisian salons. Over-the-top Gothic poetry about dead loves. Mysterious chronic illness. Fleeing one step ahead of the creditors. Dying in a squalid debtor's prison.
One of the most consistent experiences I've had while working on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been: "How could I have had a book this marvelous sitting on my shelf for 20 years and never realized it?" I mean, really. I buy a lot of books. Books that look interesting, but then they get cataloged and put on the shelf and boxed and moved and boxed and moved. And then one day, for some reason, I pick them up and say, "Let's see what you've got." And sometimes what they've got is fireworks.
I knew--vaguely--what the topic of this book was. What I didn't realize until I started reading it was how wonderfully it was structured as a guided tour through the research process. What began as a quest to fill out the details of two footnotes turned into a research project that took over a decade and turned up a story so implausible that I'd have to tone it down to write it as fiction. I'd like to be clear that the story of Mary Diana Dods has not been proven to be a lesbian story--no more so than any early 19th century life involving romantic friendships, female husbands, and women's communities supporting each other. But it provides a model for how you could write a lesbian Regency romance that would blow expectations out of the water. I've previously emphasized how surprisingly easy it was to accomplish gender disguise in previous centuries. But Dods' story also points out how plausible it is for a passing woman to be supported in her disguise by friends and family. Too often, in historical fiction, we isolate our protagonists and depict them as struggling alone with a dangerous secret. Understanding that such protagonists could have been supported, encouraged, and protected by a community that knew all their secrets opens up a lot more plot possibilities. It also points out several avenues other than gender disguise that women could use to arrange to share independent lives together. Like: the number of women who seem to have moved to a new community and simply announced that they were wives of absent or deceased husbands and who thereafter achieved widow's privilege and respectability.
If, like me, you come out of the end of this academic mystery tour and want to look at the timeline of Dods' life in a more straightforward manner, I'll be posting my attempt at a rough timeline in a day or two and linking it both here and in the book entry below.
Bennett, Betty T. 1991. Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-4984-5
This is not so much a biography or historical study as it is a mystery novel. Rather than taking the results of a years’ long research project, organizing it logically, and then presenting it in a systematic manner, Bennett leads us step by step through the process of her research, from the first dangling threads that she tugged on, all the way through to pinning down the last details.
One thing this means is that the reader’s understanding of the historic events will shift and change along with Bennett’s pursuit through archives, publications, libraries, graveyards, and so forth. Occasionally she’ll slip up and foreshadow later discoveries, but mostly we get the same slow and confusing unfolding experience that she did. [Note: I’ll also caution that my write-up is based on the unfolding reading, so earlier material may be “wrong” in the context of the full story.] If you want to get a sense of the shape and nature of an academic research project—no matter what your subject matter interests are—this is an excellent and very readable example.
This research project began when Bennett was editing a collection of Mary Shelley’s letters. [Note: I’m going to assume that the reader either knows, or can refresh their memory, on who Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was, along with her historic and social context. To save my typing, I’m mostly going to abbreviate her as MS.] In compiling the footnotes to provide background and biographical information on the various people mentioned in the letters, she ran across two loose ends: David Lyndsay, an author of books, poems, and short stories with a growing literary reputation, and Walter Sholto Douglas, the husband of Shelley’s close friend Isabella Robinson Douglas, and an aspiring diplomat.
Lyndsay was mentioned in MS’s letters in 1822, Douglas in 1827. Around 1830, both disappeared from her letters, but left traces in history. Lyndsay continued to be mentioned in Romantic literature studies and Douglas was mentioned in various legal and biographical documents, primarily as the father of Adeline Douglas Wolff. All Bennett needed was a few more details to add to the footnotes for context. What she found connected the two men in an unexpected way. The other primary figures in the story are Mary Shelley, her beloved friend Isabella Robinson—described by many as the most beautiful woman they knew, and Mary Diana Dods, a brilliant, well-educated woman, though described as physically deformed in some way. The three women probably met around 1825 when they were all involved in salons held in London by Dr. William Kitchener. But they had other acquaintances in common, so other contexts are equally possible. By early winter of 1825, the three were close friends. By two and a half years later, the nature of their relationships were transformed. Mary Diana Dods had become both David Lyndsay and Walter Sholto Douglas.
[Note: For reasons that may not become apparent until the end of the book, it seems most reasonable to understand Mary Diana Dods as a woman who took on a male persona for economic and social reasons, rather than due to gender identity or for reasons related to sexuality. Although this is something of a “spoiler” for the book’s conclusion, I mention it here as context for how I treat Dods’ gender in this summary. I’ll be referring to Dods’ various aliases by their apparent gender with respect to the point in the unfolding story. However this is also a context where I'd like to note that Bennett’s handling of discussions of sexuality, gender identity, and possible intersex identity are not always up to today’s standards of sensitivity. While I don’t recall anything that was outright offensive, the terminology she uses is of the ‘90s, and some of her basic assumptions are narrow.]
Bennett’s research considers this story in the context of emerging studies of gender and sexuality, including the work of Helena Whitbread regarding Anne Lister, and studies of the “female husband” concept, which was not necessarily motivated by sexuality or gender identity, but often simply by economic pressure. There is a surprising amount of data on “female husbands”, which is important for the social and historical context of Dods’ life, in that the concept would have been quite familiar. Further evidence of familiarity comes from MS’s own writings involving cross-dressing (heterosexual) heroines, in her novels The Last Man and Perkin Warbeck.
Bennett began tracing the puzzle because she couldn’t find any basic biographical data for Douglas or Lyndsay. MS had written to Lyndsay’s publisher, saying that he was out of the country and acting as his go-between, so clearly he was someone she knew personally. Bennett then reviews the various works attributed to Lyndsay that he was trying to find publishers for. Bennett traced Lyndsay via those titles and found potential Scottish connections. This led to the National Library of Scotland, who turned up correspondence between Lyndsay and the publisher William Blackwood, mentioning other associates. In one of the letters, Lyndsay noted that author Charles Lamb knew him “but not as Lyndsay.” This was a clue that Lyndsay might well be a pen name, hence the lack of other references.
Having started down the track of David Lyndsay, Bennett now shifts her attention to Walter Sholto Douglas. An 1827 letter from MS mentions her good friend Isabella Douglas and her concerns about Mr. Douglas attending the funeral of “Lord M” from whose will “certainty will come” regarding their financial situation. The context suggests that the Douglases are relative newlyweds.
Bennett moves on to a general discussion of the financial difficulties that women faced at the time, as well as the pressures toward single-sex socializing. (It took more money to be able to host mixed-sex gatherings in a respectable fashion.) In addition, a male escort was necessary for a wide variety of public activities, such as attending performing arts events or travel. The near-impossibility of divorce also created difficulties. A woman who was separated from her husband and cohabiting with another man might present herself as married to her current partner in order to avoid ostracism. This, of course, was far more possible if one relocated and avoided former acquaintances.
Another of MS’s close female friends was Jane Hogg, who apparently knew all the details about the Douglases as her correspondence with MS mentioned them. MS wrote her about her emotional attachment to Isabella Douglas: “who I dearly love and who feels the liveliest affection for me.” [Note: Bennett presents herself as seeing these sentiments as potentially erotic at the time, then walking back the conclusion at a later date when she becomes more familiar with the conventions of romantic friendship.] Another letter of the time was to a male friend in London, asking a favor relating to passports. The Douglases were about to travel abroad and passports must be claimed in person in London to avoid the extra fee at the port itself. Could the friend find someone of appropriate description to go with him to the passport office in the names of Walter Sholto Douglas and his wife Isabella? MS provided examples of their signatures to forge when picking up the documents. The traveling party included on the passport consisted of the Douglases, their daughter, Sholto’s sister Mrs. Carter and her two sons, and originally was to include Shelley herself, though as it happened she traveled later.
Among other puzzles, in another letter around the context of these travel plans, MS mentions that Sholto “now seriously thinks of les coulottes” using the French for “the trousers.” Was this simply a reference to their French destination? Was it slang of some sort?
MS went to join the Douglases in Paris in 1828 in company with Isabella’s father and sister. MS had a large circle of acquaintances in Paris, some of whom mention Isabella in their letters of the time, calling her “coquettish and bored.” MS’s attachment to Isabella seems not to have extended to Sholto, whom she blamed for Isabella’s restlessness. And then after June 1828, her letters no longer mention the Douglases, although they do appear later in her journals.
The bond with Jane Hogg had begun as a romantic friendship, disrupted by Jane’s marriage. MS similarly seems to have had a romantic friendship with Isabella and later reflects that she could have been happy with her but “that dream is over.” By 1830, MS now sees Isabella as having “lost her fascination” and “not the being she once was.” What could have happened?
With regard to how MS and Isabella met, we go back to correspondence where she is speaking of her friendship with “the Robinsons” and her new delight in the friendship of Isabella’s sister Julia. MS’s father’s diaries mention entertaining “Robinson, père de Douglas” [i.e., father of Isabella Douglas] in combination with Julia Robinson and a Miss Figg. [Note: Miss Figg will become relevant again much later.] Background: Joshua Robinson was an Oxford graduate and a builder, who with his wife Rosetta had a large family, at least 5 girls and 4 boys. While poking around in various biographical dictionaries, Bennett also comes across the information that Adeline, daughter of Walter Sholto Douglas and Isabella Robinson Douglas married one Henry Drummond Wolff.
Bennett now turns to tracing the identity of the “Lord M” whose funeral and will were of interest to the Douglases. The dates and names matched that of George Douglas, earl of Morton. He left a widow but no male heirs and the estate went to his cousin George Sholto Douglas. The conjunction of names jumps out as intriguing, but a bit of research determined that the combination “Sholto Douglas” was popular in a number of Scottish families. There was no likely candidate for Walter in the Morton line. Could he be illegitimate? Bennett set out to track down Lord M’s will.
While that was in motion, Bennett had gained access to a collection of 32 letters from David Lyndsay in the Scottish archives, covering correspondence between 1821 and 1829 with the publisher Blackwood. Lyndsay’s tone is enthusiastic—a debut author flattered by the publisher’s attention and encouragement. Lyndsay suggests that correspondence to him be sent in care of a Mrs. Carter in London. He mentions various proposed publishing projects with themes that he acknowledges are parallel to some that Lord Byron was also working on, along with other authors – the Romantic authors were a bit notorious for such parallels.
A complex picture of Lyndsay emerges from the letters. He discusses publicity strategies and the importance of timing and the support of critics. He changes his in-care-of mailing address to a James Weale. He makes reference to his Scottish origins and “our nation” when addressing Blackwood. He proposes doing some theater criticism for Blackwood’s magazine, though none was ever published. In August 1822, Lyndsay makes reference to Lamb “not knowing him as Lyndsay” implying that Lyndsay was a pseudonym. He makes some snide references to Byron, Percy Shelley, and Hunt, implying that he is in their social circle. A month later Shelley dies. Lyndsay proposes providing some works translated from German, indicating fluency along with the fluency in French, Italian, and Latin that he’s already demonstrated. He refers to “my old friend Kitchener” the host of a prominent salon.
In 1825, Lyndsay mentions being acquainted with Lady Byron (in the context of Byron’s death) and “well acquainted” with Mary Shelley. He provides evidence for the latter in his discussions of her work.
And then comes the end of Lyndsay’s correspondence with Blackwood. He expresses disappointment that Blackwood hasn’t been interested in publishing any of his recent works. He spells his name Lindsay rather than Lyndsay. And the handwriting of the letter is entirely different.
Now we move to a different track. When encountering a letter to MS from a “M D Dods”, whom Bennett believed at the time to be a man, she noted that the signature had an elaborate “D” that was identical to that used by David Lyndsay. Comparing the handwriting of the two on a letter-by-letter and whole-word basis, Bennett came to the conclusion that the two hands were identical. The letters from Dods to MS were very intimate in tone, addressing her by her first name and calling her “meine Liebling” (my darling). Was Dods a previously unknown secret lover of Mary Shelley? Bennett started looking for candidates.
Now we’re back to the Blackwood correspondence, trying to find out more about Lyndsay. Blackwood contacts James Weale (Lyndsay’s mail drop) who denies being Lyndsay’s alias. Other historians had concluded that Weale wrote the Lyndsay letters himself, but that would mean that he also wrote the M D Dods letters. There were reasons to doubt that line of thinking. There follows a detailed discussion of Lyndsay’s works and thematic influences. Bennett suspects that Lyndsay (= M D Dods) may actually be the Reverend Marcus Dods, but what would the Reverend Dods, a respectable middle-aged married minister, be doing calling the widowed Mary Shelley “my darling” in German? [Note: the "Reverend Dods" connection was eventually found fruitless, but this isn't clear from the following summary.]
The earl of Morton’s will is identified and obtained, but it’s the wrong will! Dated 1858, it can’t be the will of the “Lord M” mentioned in 1827, but must instead be his heir. (This turns out to be due to a difference in how earls are numbered in Scottish records as opposed to English ones.) The will documents the magnitude of the Morton estates and includes references to lots of men named Sholto, but no Walter Sholto Douglas. The prior earl (who is the relevant Lord M) left bequests to his wife and to two married daughters, aside from the estate that went to the next earl. [Note: It is eventually determined that the earl married in 1814, so the "two married daughters" referenced in 1827 are highly unlikely to be his wife's offspring! Also, as we later see, only one of the daughters had been married at this point.] No mention of any brother or son named Walter Sholto, legitimate or otherwise. It’s the right will, the right Lord M, but no Walter Sholto Douglas granted the annuity whose continuance was eventually confirmed in the 1827 correspondence.
The pursuit of the identity of Dods was meeting with dead ends and the publication date for the edition of Shelley’s letters was approaching, so it would be left with incomplete data on the mystery correspondents.
Bennett had been pursuing the contexts for Lyndsay and Douglas as separate problems, but when the draft of the book went out for feedback, all the data was arranged in chronological order. The readers came back with a couple of questions. Bennett had tentatively identified the “Doddy” of the Douglas letters as the Reverend Marcus Dods appearing in the Lyndsay letters. But at one point MS referred to Isabella’s husband as both “D” and “Doddy,” clearly meaning Walter Sholto Douglas. But if Doddy was also the Reverend Dods, did that mean he’d left his family to elope with Isabella in a pretense of marriage? And based on the handwriting, that would also mean that Dods = Douglas = Lyndsay. Was that a possible association, much less a plausible one? And if so, what in the world was the connection with the earl of Morton?
The second review question pointed out that an 1827 letter from MS to Jane Hogg appeared to have female pronouns for a person referred to as “D” associated with Isabella Douglas. The context was possibly ambiguous. Bennett’s assumptions had led her to connect the female pronoun with Isabella but fresh eyes noted that it was much more naturally read as meaning D. But that would mean that D was a woman.
Bennett went back and read through all the evidence looking to falsify the possibility that David Lyndsay, Walter Sholto Douglas, M D Dods, Marcus Dods and Doddy were not only all the same person but that that person was female. Working through all the references in MS’s letters, only the specific references to Isabella’s “husband” and “sposo” conflict with the possibility. And to balance that, there were references such as “les coulottes” and the episode with the passport imposture that would suddenly make more sense if a cross-dressing woman were involved.
The 1827 letters build a picture. MS is in the south of England nursing an anxious and ailing Isabella until Mr. Douglas arrives with the results of Lord M’s will. Douglas is in company with a Mrs. Carter (the same name as Lyndsay’s mail-drop) who will travel with the Douglases to France, pending the arrival of the aforementioned passports. The travel party, as described in the letter talking about the passports, was to be Mr. and Mrs. Sholto Douglas (with Sholto described as “slim, dark with curly black hair”), a Mrs. Carter and her two children, and Mrs. Shelley and her son. If the passport dodge was not simply to save a little money and a trip to London, might it be to avoid having Mr. Douglas recognized as a woman? And the signature on the passport letter for Walter Sholto Douglas that their agent was to forge had the same elaborate capital D that appears in the letters of David Lyndsay and M. D. Dods.
There is a gap in the letters: the Douglases have gone on to Paris but MS arrives later and immediately falls ill with smallpox. There are rising irritations among the circle of friends. Isabella informs Shelley that Jane Hogg has been spreading gossip about the Shelleys (remember that Percy Shelley is dead at this point). MS records that she feels guilt about being “in some sort the cause” of Isabella’s “sufferings” which are not elaborated and that she will “try to extricate her”. What does she need extricating from? The Douglas marriage? But if MS is cooling toward Walter Sholto Douglas, at the very same time she is writing letters in support of David Lyndsay’s literary career.
In June 1828 we find the last reference in MS’s letters to the Douglases—a rather strange reference, written to Jane Hogg (who evidently was somewhat forgiven for the gossip?):
You speak of beings to whom I link myself—speak, I pray you, in the singular number—if Isabel has not answered your letter, she will—but the misery to which she is a victim is so dreadful and merciless, that she shrinks like a wounded person from every pang—and you must excuse her on the score of her matchless sufferings. What D. now is, I will not describe in a letter—one only trusts that the diseased body acts on the diseased mind, & that both may be at rest ere long.
It is two years before MS mentions Isabella again, and then it is in her private journal wondering, “is this the being I adored—she was ever false yet enchanting—now she has lost her fascinations—probably, because I can no longer serve her she take[s] no more trouble to please me—but also she surely is not the being she once was.”
More questions pour in. Did Joshua Robinson know that his daughter had married a woman? Why didn’t Isabella simply separate from “Doddy” if the marriage was unhappy? What was the falling out between Isabella and MS? There are no clear answers, but the many details do not falsify the hypothesis that Dods/Douglas/Lyndsay was a woman. And that hypothesis would make sense of some of the more cryptic references.
Bennett returns to the question of Lord M’s will. If Walter Sholto Douglas was a woman, how would she have been mentioned in the will, if at all? Bennett asks another researcher who has been studying the Douglas daughter Adeline and asks about anyone named Dods in connection with her research. She is immediately pointed to Miss Dods (Doddy) who is a character in Eliza Rennies book Traits of Character. The book describes Miss Dods in detail and notes that she is a good friend of Mary Shelley.
This new line of research turns fruitful after some sifting through the (non-indexed) book to determine that the reference is in the section on Viscount Dillon, not the one on Mary Shelley or the one on Dr. Kitchener. Eliza Rennie was an acquaintance and fan of MS, a member of the Kitchener circle, and makes reference to meeting MS in the company of “one whose romantic history, were it written, would transcend all of English or even French fiction” as well as a man who died before the “mystery which shadowed and surrounded him was elucidated.” Bennett speculates, could this be a reference to Mrs. and Mr. Douglas?
Looking through the decidedly gossipy memoir, there are continuing references to “a girl of the greatest beauty I ever saw” who must be Isabella, but no clear reference to Mr. Douglas. Finally, in the chapter on Viscount Dillon, the viscount urges Rennie to go to MS’s to meet Miss Dods, an “extraordinary person staying with her…so wonderfully clever and so queer-looking.” Rennie then describes Miss Dods: “Nature, in any of its wildest vagaries, never fashioned anything more grotesque-looking than was this Miss Dods.” Her hair is cropped, curly, short, and thick, “more resembling that of a man than of a woman” and Dods looks like “some one of the masculine gender” who had “indulged in the masquerade freak of feminine habiliments, and that ‘Miss Dods’ was an alias for Mr. ----.” Was this, then the answer? That Dods actually was a man but was at that time presenting as a woman? Rennie turns away from that description and continues the description of Miss Dods: “She had small petite features, very sharp and piercing black eyes, a complexion extremely pale and unhealthy, with that worn and suffering look in her face which so often and so truly—as it did, poor thing, in hers—tells of habitual pain and confirmed ill-health; her figure was short, and, instead of being in proportion, was entirely out of all proportion—the existence of some organic disease aiding this materially.” This general description does not conflict with the one given for the passport or with Lyndsay’s self-description to Blackwood. But the physical “disproportion” becomes a key clue.
[Note: I haven’t been able to find anywhere that Bennett goes into more detail on what this “disproportion” may have been, though goodness knows she speculates on a number of other points. While the description is far too meager for any hope of diagnosis, I confess that the combination of physical descriptions and “habitual pain” made me wonder if some sort of scoliosis were possible. But this is pure speculation on my part.]
Despite Dods’ physical appearance, Rennie is impressed with her talent, intellect, and faculty with languages (which correspond to Lyndsay’s skills). Rennie makes a cryptic reference that she will not “enter upon or touch” Dods’ “own wild and wonderful subsequent career.” That Dods “resided many years at Paris where ‘she died and was buried’.” (Scare-quotes on “she died and was buried” in the original text.)
Rennie describes Doddy as a woman who appears awkwardly masculine in appearance and accomplishments. This feeds into the theory that there was gender-crossing going on, but in which direction?
Additional documents relating to Lord M’s will arrive, with a codicil granting an annuity “for the love, favor, and affection which I have and bear to my reputed daughters, Mary Diana Dods and Georgiana Carter (formerly Georgiana Dods) widow of Captain John Carter.” Dods and Carter were to have equal shares of an annuity of 200 pounds. [Note: Despite the reference earlier to "two married daughters," this language makes clear that only one of them was married at the time the document was drawn up.]
That settles the question of what gender Dods was assigned at birth [note: my wording, not Bennett’s]. M D Dods and Mrs. Carter (who accompanied the Douglases to France) were both “reputed” (i.e., illegitimate) daughters of the earl of Morton. And there is the result of his will that the Douglases were waiting to hear before the traveled to France. And in the midst of it, clear proof that Mrs. Carter was quite aware of the gender-change that produced Walter Sholto Douglas, with a very sound argument that Isabella and MS were certainly aware as well. Yet the Douglases' marriage was clearly accepted by their acquaintances in Paris. Other than those who were a party to the gender change and marriage, was Douglas’s presentation a complete success? [Note: Bennett never seems to entertain the possibility that Douglas’s masculine identity was simply an accepted performance. That people might have known and chosen not to make an issue of it.] This does leave the idle question of just who was the biological father of Isabella’s daughter Adeline.
The next chapter digresses to examine the historic context of female same-sex relations, covering the illegality of male homosexuality (but not female) in England, the Ladies of Llangollen, and the separate axes of identity, desire, and performance with regard to both gender and sexuality. There is also a discussion of the position of aristocratic bastards in this era. They were typically raised in circumstances similar to that of legitimate children. The Dods sisters clearly received a quality education, even if they weren’t raised directly in their father’s household.
The topics are jumping around a bit now as Bennett works to fill in the remaining gaps in the story she’s trying to uncover. From here on out, the narrative will be a lot less coherent and much more repetitive as small bits of information are added to the existing framework.
In the next chapter Bennett explores social connections to the philanthropist Frances Wright who may have been one of the Douglases’ connections to Parisian society. Some of her interactions may shed light on the context of how MS fell out with the Douglases. Wright had become a close friend of the Douglases and picked up from them a negative impression of MS, despite being a great admirer of both of Mary Shelley’s parents. But when Wright met MS herself, that initial impression warmed and the implication is that the Douglases may have been estranged from MS and been trash-talking her. From Wright, the trail continues to her friends the Garretts, also in Paris.
The next chapter discusses a poem, handwritten on the endpaper of a copy of Lyndsay’s work that eventually ended up in MS’s possession. The poem is a lament on the death of a beloved and originally was attributed to Shelley herself, but both the date inscribed for the poem (before Percy Shelley’s death) and the handwriting convince Bennett this isn’t possible. The handwriting she now recognizes as Lyndsay’s/Dods’ own. This copy of Lyndsay’s work has annotations in two different hands, one clearly Dods (including the poem) which is largely corrections of the published text, and some notes by another hand (but not MS’s). The volume was probably Dods’ own copy, later given to MS. The poem is a Romantic cry of anguish about a “secret sorrow” that can be disclosed to none since the beloved is gone. It’s dated February 1822. [Note: I’m going to include the full text of the poem because it’s illuminating to read it through the lens of all the possible interpretations of Dods’ identity and orientation.]
There is an anguish in my Breast
A sorrow all undreamed, unguessed--
A war that I must ever feel--
a secret I must still conceal--
I stand upon the Earth alone
To none my secret spirit known
With none to sooth[e] the speechless stings
Of my wild heart’s imaginings
With none to glory in my fame
Or halo with sweet joy my name--
The Star of Love for me hath set
And I must live yet not forget
How once it shone upon my Brow
Though I am lorn and lonely now
A blighted Herb a blasted Tree
A living lie, a mockery--
A Lump of Earth that still, still glows
With so much perfume of the Rose
As will not let it meanly mete
With aught less lovely or less sweet--
Yes--thou art gone! O what to me
Can others admiration be
Then silent--sacred--on thy Bier
I place the strain thou canst not hear
To none the smile thou canst not give
My buried Love will I receive--
Genius and Taste, if such there be,
Too late, I consecrate to thee.
O what have I to do with pride
It withered when mine Angel died
And but one thought remains to me
My heart’s lone deep dull agony--
Bennett sees in the poem possible secret lesbian sentiments, disclosed in the poem knowing it would come to MS’s attention [note: but the book seems to have ended up in MS's possession much later and by chance?] or possibly imagining sentiments she believed MS might feel [note: same objection, and feel about whom at this particular date?]. But the language is hard to distinguish from that of romantic friendship and the hypothesis is put on hold. [Note: Bennett appears to draw a much stronger distinction between romantic friendship and lesbian love than I consider warranted. But see also my extensive comments on Faderman on the same topic.]
[Note: I think this is a dangling thread that Bennett failed to pursue sufficiently on its own, having picked a hypothetical interpretation already. If the poem is not simply an imaginative effort at effusive Romantic sentiment, who might Dods have felt this way about in February 1822 who had died at some date recent enough to inspire these feelings? Is the “secret I must still conceal” the literary masquerade? The date is long before Dods became Douglas in the flesh to be Isabella’s husband. Dods wished she had taken the chance to consecrate her work to...someone who is no longer alive to enjoy the honor. And Dods did have works out in the world that could have been dedicated to someone if she’d chosen to do so (and felt it appropriate). But by 1822 she felt her “star of love...had set” and she would be forever “lorn and lonely”. The relation to the poetic beloved has the solid feel of someone speaking of a woman--but perhaps I’m prejudiced in that line. One woman who appears regularly in Dods' correspondence is Charlotte Figg, but she was very much alive at this date. In any event, I think a closer consideration of this poem and the context in which it was written might shed more light on Dods’ internal life than all of Bennett’s speculations...on which more comments later.]
Returning to the salons of Paris, the evidence from the Garnett correspondence is provided via excerpts by a researcher on that topic which Bennett uses to track down the original context in the extensive correspondence. She notes that profusion of affectionate and intimate language used between women in these social circles. Bennett now recognizes that this style of language is simply the typical unmarked emotional register and not evidence of possible erotic relationships.
The next section and following chapters include a significant amount of imaginative speculation by Bennett on how various events might have happened and how those involved in them might have felt. While it makes for more interesting reading, it begins to detract from the scholarly nature of the book. We circle back again to the gathering in the south of England when the Douglases are preparing to present themselves to the world as a married couple.
Dods had perhaps a month to become accustomed to les coulottes before traveling to France. Not very long to learn a male presentation, but most people would be inclined to take clothing at face value. Bennett indulges in some dramatization of how those initial days of practice might have gone. As Isabella’s daughter Adeline was about a year old at this point, they would need to behave as if they’d been married for about two years to “make an honest woman” of Isabella. But their Parisian circle all seem to take Mr. Douglas’s gender at face value and the marriage as real and valid. We have one of the Garnetts describing Mr. Douglas as “a little deformed, but clever” (a description that echoes Rennie’s) and that the marriage is “a love match, he worships his little wife.”
Was Dods in love with Isabella? How did Isabella feel about the marriage other than relieved? Adeline is proof that Isabella had a previous hetrosexual encounter, but of course says nothing about its nature or Isabella’s desires. And Isabella’s later behavior indicates a hunger for male attention to the detriment of her female friendships.
In Paris, the Douglases are drawn into prominent intellectual circles, including that of Mary Clarke, whose letters give later evidence of their activities. There are regular references to health issues. Isabella “suffers” and Mr. Douglas “has wretched health...and may never be well.” (David Lyndsay’s letters to Blackwood made reference to suffering from a “liver ailment.”) Rennie had described Mary Dods as having “some organic disease” that contributed to her distorted body. When MS disparages Mr. Douglas later, she speaks of his “diseased body” acting to produce a “diseased mind”.
Harriet Garnett (who was at first much attached to the Douglases) now thinks Isabella “vain and affected” but notes that Mr. Douglas is “very clever and very kind” but “much out of health” and that he hopes to obtain a diplomatic position in Germany. As 1829 passes, the Garnetts are becoming less enamored of the Douglases. Isabella is becoming recognized as an incorrigible and dangerous flirt. Gossip and backbiting begin to sow discord among the various friends. Bennett speculates on Isabella’s motives: is she simply a hopeless flirt or is she actively tired of the pretense of her marriage? Is Douglas genuinely hurt by Isabella’s flirtations in front of him, or is he only concerned about how it affects his masculine image?
We again get much imaginative and fictionalized speculation from Bennett about how the Douglases might have behaved and how they might have felt about it.
After July 1829, the Douglases seem to disappear from mention among their Paris circle. There had been mentions of their plans to go to Hannover, but there is no reference to either of them by people in Hannover connected with their Paris circle, with whom they might reasonably have made connections. 1829 is also when David Lyndsay has his last correspondence with Blackwood--the letter that spells his name Lindsay and is not in his handwriting.
Isabella and her daughter are known to be in England in 1830 when MS makes a journal entry about encountering Isabella there. Bennett is about to turn her research to Parisian sources, but first there’s a literary digression and a consideration of the role that Mrs. Carter, Dods’ sister, played.
It is absolutely certain that Georgiana Carter knew about and abetted Dods’ transformation into Sholto Douglas. She traveled with the Douglases to France and was known there as Sholto’s sister. Sholto Douglas provided social cover and protection to Mrs. Carter just as he did to Isabella and Adeline. Even aside from any family loyalty, there were benefits to Mrs. Carter from going along with the marriage.
In 1828, Mrs. Carter indicated that she planned to say in Paris to be with her sons while they were in school there. But it was in Paris that she died, over a decade later, in 1842. Why did she stay well after her sons must have finished school?
Bennett searched the Paris death records for any possible trace of Dods or Douglas. There was a death certificate dated 1845 in the same set of records as the one for Mrs. Carter for a man named Douglas (no further name) born in Scotland, aged 46 years old. While the name, origin, and approximate age would work for Dods/Douglas there is no other information and no positive proof.
The last reference found for Mary Diana Dods (as opposed to any of her other identities) appears to be in June 1828 when Lord Dillon (remember it was he who introduced Rennie to Miss Dods in MS’s company) wrote to Mary Shelley sending regards to “Miss Dods” and asking her to send Dods’ contribution for a publication he was organizing. MS sent him some verses credited to “a friend writing as David Lindsay [sic].”
In November 1829, Lyndsay wrote his last letter to Blackwood in Scotland, giving a London reply address, but this letter is the one not in Lyndsay’s handwriting. So where was Lyndsay/Douglas at that time? Were they involve in writing that letter at all?
In November 1830, Isabella is back in London and MS calls her “false” and notes she’s of no further use to Isabella.
Looking through an index of Blackwood’s articles, Bennett finds an entry for a story called “My Transmogrifications” credited to a Mrs. Sholto Douglas in August 1826. This is striking because the Douglases first appear as a married couple in the fall of 1827. But a journal entry in May 1826 by Thomas Moore makes reference to Isabella being married. [Note: this would be around the time that Adeline may have been born, which would be the key date at which Isabella would want to put it about that she had been married in time for the conception.] Was the reference to a Mrs. Sholto Douglas a nonce invention by Dods for marketing purposes, or had Sholto been designated to be Isabella’s husband as early as May 1826, with the shift to Mr. Douglas making a physical appearance waiting for August 1827?
Note that by 1826, David Lyndsay’s work had stopped being accepted by Blackwood’s magazine. Perhaps that was why his writing (assuming it was his, which seems reasonable) was now being submitted by Douglas? The Douglas piece was a short first-person story of a boy growing to manhood. (A synopsis of the story is given.) The story may echo some aspects of Dods’ childhood, if she were something of a wild and transgressive child, although clearly not true in all elements. The letter from “Mrs. Sholto Douglas” accompanying the manuscript to Blackwood was found in the National Library of Scotland archives along with replies by Blackwood. Blackwood declines another story and makes reference to Mrs. Douglas’s planned trip to the continent. A June 1826 letter from Blackwood to Mrs. Douglas informs her that he’s accepted two works for publication. The July 1826 response from Mrs. Douglas is signed “Isabel Douglas” but she states that she is not the author of the work, but is only the secretary for her husband to whom she’s been married 6 months. (Having Isabella correspond with Blackwood may simply have been to avoid having him recognize Lyndsay’s distinctive handwriting.)
This date for their marriage is as false as any other (as it differs from the information given to Moore and Rennie) but is evidence that the idea was being entertained at that date. It may, however, indicate the date at which Isabella went into seclusion due to her pregnancy. In any event, they were acting as a married couple to some degree by the time Adeline was born ca. May-June 1826, though at that time there was no need for Sholto to have a physical presence. And no need to put the marriage about at all until Adeline was born alive and looking likely to survive. (Not at all a certain thing at the time.) In 1828, Isabella’s father appears to be on friendly terms with the Douglases, though there is evidence of a falling out between him and his daughter some time earlier. Due to the pregnancy? Due to knowing about the sham marriage?
The next chapter delves into the financial records of the earl of Morton and a cache of letters to him from Mary Dods and Georgiana Carter, as well as J. Aubin, one of his financial agents. The sisters take turns writing their father in begging and abject terms, asking for the regular payment of their allowance (which evidently was irregular), or for arrangements that fit better with their situation, or for lump sum payments or loans to settle their debts, which were complicated and constant. There are 39 letters in total dating between 1818 and 1824, but it took Bennett some time and access to the earl’s account ledgers to put them in order due to the lack of clear dates.
This minute accounting of the financial transactions between father and daughters is interrupted by the review of a set of copies of Blackwood’s end of the correspondence with Lyndsay dating to 1821-1829. (Blackwood kept copies of all of the letters he sent.) Initially he praises Lyndays work. He specifically notes that he’s fine with pen names (perhaps indicating he suspects Lyndsay is one such). He asks for more pieces to publish. The discussion of publishing details dovetail precisely with Lyndsay’s side of the conversation. But in early 1822, Blackwood’s enthusiasm begins to wane somewhat and he buys less of Lyndsay’s material. He has lost money on Lyndsay’s book and is hesitant to lose more, but rather than saying so outright, Blackwood more or less “ghosts” him, responding with longer delays and apologetic refusals. In mid 1824, Lyndsay mostly stops trying with him and finds another publisher. Bennett notes that there seems to be a gendered failure to read signals in the correspondence. Blackwood meant his politely distant replies to be clear refusal, but Dods failed to recognize the code and kept taking the “soft nos” as encouragement.
We return to the correspondence between the earl and his daughters which, though dry, is illuminative of their financial difficulties and the strategies they used to try to maintain themselves in the face of parental indifference. In their early life, they seem to have lived with their father in London and stayed in his home there in his absence, sometimes also living with him elsewhere, perhaps including Scotland. But around the time of his marriage (to a woman younger than themselves) in 1814, they seem to have been cut loose to live on their own. Georgiana left earlier, of course, as she married John Carter somewhere between 1808 and 1810. The Carters lived in India until at least 1815, but by 1818 Georgiana had returned to England. Her husband died that same year in India and she was left with two young sons.
After that, the two sisters mostly shared lodgings in various locations, sometimes with others. The letters are a constant litany of debt and begging for assistance, in part because of the unreliable receipt of their allowances. The Diana Dods who comes through in these letters is in strong contrast to the brash and confident persona of David Lyndsay who is being established at the same time. Dods regularly tells her father of her efforts to provide for herself financially. In addition to the writing (“not under my own name” she assures him) the two sisters set up a musical academy for young ladies with their friend Miss Figg. (Remember Miss Figg who was invited to dinner in company with Miss Robinson by Mary Shelley’s father in 1828?) In 1822, Dods mentions plans to her father for her and Miss Figg to move their music academy to Paris (around the same time that Lyndsay mentions going to France in one of his letters to Blackwood). The letters are a long tale of constant hand-to-mouth debt and dependence on a father who either had no idea what they needed to live on at even a minimal level, or simply didn’t care.
Having dipped into the early part of Dods’ life, Bennett now jumps back to the end and tries to put all the pieces together into a coherent story. She obsesses a little about trying to pin down the gender and sexuality issues, which involves a fair amount of imaginative speculation that I think she doesn’t have the theoretical background for. (Or that didn’t exist at the time she was writing about it.)
She tracks down Isabella’s fate: as Isabella Falconer, who died in Italy in 1869 at the age of 59. This item is somewhat out of place in the chronology, but I’m simply noting things in the order they appear in the book.
Bennett speculates that one purpose of the trip to Paris was to be able to establish new identities that could be based on personal contacts rather than on documentary history (that didn’t exist).
Isabella’s career in Paris in 1828 is traced by the commentary of Mary Clarke who was in love with a man who was enamored of (and evidently involved with) Isabella. So we get plenty of letters where Clarke complains to him about how much time he’s spending with Isabella. (Since Clarke had more or less proposed to him and he declined, she comes across as a bit stalkerish at this time.) In November 1829, Clarke writes her love interest with the news that Mr. Douglas is in prison for debt. She notes what appears to be a pointlessly frivolous request to a friend that he obtain for him false moustaches and sideburns--fashion accessories that were something of the rage at the time, but perhaps were more important to Douglas in maintaining the facade of masculinity.
Here Bennett includes some pointed speculation on Douglas’s mental state, deciding that he was more or less a broken man and no longer cared what happened to him. It is unclear where this diagnosis comes from. She is doing this sort of speculation more and more as the book comes to its conclusion.
Clarke’s note about the debtors’ prison comes two months after Lyndsay’s last vain letter to Blackwood offering a long poem for publication. But this is the letter that isn’t in Lyndsay’s handwriting, so Lyndsay/Douglas/Dods may not have been directly involved in writing it.
Clarke’s letters continue the complaints about Mrs. Douglas in 1832, after which neither Douglas is mentioned again among Parisian circles. But Isabella pops up again, at least in retrospect, when 1840 is given as the date of her marriage to Falconer. (Though no marriage record can be found for them and there is perhaps a question whether the marriage was formalized.) In any event, the presumption is that Walter Sholto Douglas is dead by then.
There are some interesting tidbits in British Record Office items relating to Isabella. They have her death certificate (mentioned above), a death certificate for her daughter Adeline in 1916, giving her age then as 89, and Adeline’s marriage certificate dated 1853 that lists her as a minor. But Adeline was born in 1826 (which aligns with the age given at her death) which would have made her around 27 at the time of her marriage. Why the completely implausible lie? Bennett suggests it was due to the lack of a birth record. To marry as an adult, Adeline would have needed to prove she was of the age of majority. But to marry as a minor, she only needed to prove she had her mother’s consent. Adeline’s marriage certificate includes a couple other benign fictions: the identification of Sholto Douglas as her father, and referring to him as “an officer in HM’s service.”
So, all in all, what was the reason and purpose for the various identities of Mary Diana Dods? Bennett discusses the place of women in Georgian society and how they struggled to establish identities of significance and independence in the face of legal and economic dependency. Women formed bonds to support each other emotionally and economically. The story of the “Douglases” paralleled that of Mary Shelly in a fashion, stepping outside the bounds of society, engaged in an irregular relationship, constrained in its options by the existence of an illegitimate child. MS was devoted to Isabella, perhaps seeing in her a kindred spirit as a single mother. But Isabella seems to have felt little in the way of faithfulness to any friendship or partner. MS may also have identified with Dods as a struggling author.
The bulk of this last chapter is speculation about motives. Bennett returns to the question of the relationship between romantic love (between any pairing of genders) and sexual desire. She seems determined to dismiss the possibility that Mary Shelly may have felt erotic desire (whether realized or not) for the female friends she expressed clear romantic feelings for. Bennett’s conclusion is that Isabella entered into marriage as Mrs. Douglas purely for the security and respectability it gave her, even though she immediately began violating those hypothetical marriage vows with other men.
Bennett engages in speculation about who the biological father of Adeline was, and comes up with a plausible candidate.
There is a discussion of passing women in general and the relatively minor overlap with lesbian identity. There is a sketchy high-level overview of the history of AFAB [my label] persons living as men, and their array of motivations. There is a discussion of the differences in British attitudes toward lesbian relationships versus passing women/trans men. Within the context of the 19th century, Bennett suggests that if Isabella Robinson and Diana Dods had been motivated by lesbian desire, their relationship would have been much more secure and discreet without any gender disguise. [Note: although this ignores Isabella's need to regularize her motherhood.] But when considering Dods as a possible trans man, Bennett finds no suggestion of masculine identity before the marriage other than Dods’ use of male pen names, which was relatively common among female authors at the time without any suggestion that it routinely indicated gender identity. And she notes that within the context of the 19th century, Dods would not have needed to envision herself as male to recognize and act on sexual desire for women (see, e.g., Anne Lister).
Unlike her sister Georgiana, Mary Dods never claimed a place in society via marriage. The regular reference to a physical “deformity” suggests a possible reason for not marrying, but whatever the reason, taking on a male identity gave Dods a place in the world and an independent role other than as her father’s dependent daughter. Walter Sholto Douglas and David Lyndsay were her own creations through which she could act in the world unconstrained by the limits on women.
And then we close with more imaginative speculations about how Dods may have understood herself.
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For my own reference, I’ve put together a timeline of key dates and events. I’ll be posting it separately and linking it here.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26e - Peaceweaver by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/29 - listen here)
Welcome to the third story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series!
Each of the stories we’re presenting this year has a different mood and flavor. We started with daring adventure, then shared the stumbling adventures of young love. This time, our characters are mature women, looking back at a lifetime of devoting their lives to others and wondering if there is still space to find personal joys. The story comes to us from Jennifer Nestojko, a writer and poet who lives in central California. She is a part time medievalist as well as a high school and college teacher. Jennifer likes to translate Anglo-Saxon English and write alliterative poetry, sometimes in Anglo-Saxon. She takes one of her classes through Beowulf every year, and in addition to wanting to write an epic poem about the women who have to clean up the great hall of Heorot after every one of the monster’s attacks, she has always been intrigued by the side story of Hildeburh. That interest led to this story, “Peaceweaver.”
Tiana Hanson returns to narrate this episode, having previously contributed to our debut fiction episode. Tiana was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and came to the San Francisco Bay Area to chase her lifelong dream of being a professional actress. She has narrated fifteen audiobooks (available on Audible), mostly lesbian romances, and is delighted to find a new creative outlet that allows her queer light to shine.
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.
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Peaceweaver: that had been her task. She had held to it, a young bride married off to a foreign folk, but her husband had been kind and she had been given her place as queen by his side. She brought the welcoming cup to visiting guests, she was a goldfriend to guests and nobles and the jarls; she was queen and her word carried weight. There was peace between her people, both the people of her birth and the people of her womanhood. Her son grew strong and tall, learning the ways of a warrior and a leader.
Threads break over time; sunlight frays the working of warp and weft. All things end, and peace itself never lasts long. Hildeburh had hoped, though, that the peace she had brokered with her youth and her body would have outlasted her age. Her son was seventeen when he fell in the same battle that also left her brother for the ravens to pick over and feed upon.
Hildeburh looked at the rising coastline of the land of the Danes. She had never seen it from this vantage point, and it felt strange to be seeing it now as a form of coming home. She closed her eyes to the soft light of spring, breathing the air deeply. She would not show her grief now, not in front of her kinfolk, the ones who had betrayed her husband and were carrying her home as part of the spoils of war. Finn had shown them honor in the hall, given them treasure from his own hand, and they had waited until the bonds of frost and ice had been loosened for this, their return to this coastline, this homeland. It had been a bitter winter, but spring brought no ease to her heart.
When she opened her eyes, she could make out the fort cresting the hill by the beach where they would land. She remembered rides down to the coast from her father’s hall when she was a girl; the sky here had opened up and the smell of salt and sea spoke of possibilities. She used to dream of sailing off to new lands in one of the proud ships with its sail bright against the sky and returning with new treasure. She stood up straight in the bow of the ship she now rode upon; the warriors within had to maintain its pride, as it was worn by winter winds and still carried marks from the previous fall’s battle. She was returning from another land; who knew the fulfillment of such a girlish dream would gall so? There was treasure in the hold, certainly, some given in faith, more wrested from the hands of the slain.
Son and brother both burned on a pyre, and her husband was left behind to be mourned and buried, though she was taken before the funerary rites were even begun. What was she? Was she treasure returned, or wrested from the hands of the dead? No longer was she a peaceweaver; she was the tattered remnants of the hangings above her now cold hearth.
It was in this mood that Hildeburh set foot once more upon the shores of the Spear Danes. She was silent when Ingi, who had been a small boy of three when she had been wed, helped her down the plank onto the sand. He was a warrior now, having slain Ronne, her husband’s counselor. He lifted her carefully up to the waiting horse; she stared at him impassively. Ronne had helped her when she was a new queen to the Frisians. She had learned much under his tutelage. Ingi nodded to her briefly, also offering no words, leading her horse to the road. She knew the way from here, but it was clear that she would have the courtesy of an escort within the larger group. Whether it was courtesy or caution, she cared not.
Her silence was broken only when she was escorted to her chamber within her nephew’s hall. There was no point in being rude to the handmaid who came to offer her water and a change of clothing. When she had washed and dressed and had the tangles combed from hair that was then braided with woven bands, the girl left her to sit in her room and look out the window. It was the same view that had been hers as a child; it seemed to have become smaller. She no longer recognized the figures crossing the courtyard.
There was a brief knock on the door; she turned to see it open, allowing a woman of middle age to come in. “Dota,” she cried, standing up suddenly. “I thought you had married Kaj and left for his lands long ago.” Dota smiled, the calm, secret smile that had been hers all through their growing up together.
“You,” she replied, “were the one who left for farther lands. I crossed no sea.”
“Now you have returned?” asked Hildeburh. “Shouldn’t you still be tending those closer lands?”
Dota snorted. “Do I look like a farmer to you?”
“Kaj was no farmer,” Hildeburh retorted, a bit sharply. “He oversaw farmers.”
Dota shrugged. “He oversees them no more. He died in a feud with a neighbor. The neighbor’s son now sits by my hearth and I am here.” Her shrug was dismissive, and there was a look in her eye that let Hildeburh know, from almost forgotten experience, that she would get no more out of Dota for now.
“Have you come, then, to welcome me back, now that I myself have returned,” Hildeburh asked, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Women tend the hearths, but they are easily ousted from them.
“I have come to get something from my room,” Dota replied, calmly. “It seems that we are to share once again. Just as when we were girls.” Dota opened one of the boxes on the lower shelf on the wall, pulling out a skein of wool. “I will see you in the hall at eventide.” It was not a question.
That a feast was held in honor of the returning warriors that evening was inevitable. The hall was bright with candles and the shining gear of the jarls. Cups of gold and silver at the high table reflected back the light, and Hildeburh recognized a brooch on Hoc’s shoulder as one belonging to her husband. Hoc, named after his father, was king now. He had been much younger when she had left home; she had scolded him for stealing sweets from the kitchens.
Hoc stood, silencing the hall in that motion, bringing all eyes to him. “We welcome you back,” he began. “You have kept faith with your people, bringing glory to the spear Danes and erasing the shame of the winter’s long exile.”
There was much clattering of shields and cheering from the men. Dota, who was sitting at a lower table, quirked an ironic eyebrow at Hildeburh. Hildeburh smiled to herself. She was used to sitting at high tables, her face schooled to the proper expression, but she found herself close to tears.
Hoc had been going on, praising his warriors, and he was giving out treasure, golden rings, and torques, and blades scrubbed clean of blood so that they too reflected the light. Ingi, Hildeburh saw, was given praise and a fine sword. Hoc came to the end of his gift giving and then turned to her.
“This night also gives us cause for joy,” he intoned, “for our royal princess, Hildeburh, has also been returned to us. She too is a great treasure of our house. Welcome back, dear aunt.”
Hildeburh stood. “I thank you for your welcome, and I accept the hospitality and protection of your hall.” It was a short, and to her ears, stilted speech, but the warriors applauded and Hoc looked gratified. She sat back down, toying with her cup of mead, looking into its golden depths as the skald began his rhyming.
Her returned childhood seemed to be not such a bad turn of fate later that night, when she once again shared a bed with Dota. In the darkness came the familiar touch once again, and Hildeburh turned to her old friend, embracing her as she so often had when they were younger. Then there was no harm in two friends sharing affection; now that they were both widowed, there was again no harm.
The next morning Dota was gone before Hildeburh awoke, and she spoke little to her throughout the day. They sat in the solar, weaving in silence, while the younger girls chattered about them. In the hall at supper they sat at different tables, though Hildeburh was not given a place at the high table again. She did not miss the high table, but she wanted Dota’s company. Hildeburh was sure that Dota regretted their previous night’s caresses, but that night she was woken once more in the darkness to Dota’s touch and sweet kisses.
This became the pattern of Hildeburh’s day; working in the stillroom, weaving in the solar, and wondering if the night would bring a closeness that was shunned during the daylight hours. Dota did not reach for her every night, and Hildeburh wondered what would happen if she reached out for her. She tried one night, but Dota rolled away. Hildeburh lay still in the darkness, wondering what she had done wrong.
The only time their tasks crossed was in the solar, and there was little privacy amongst the young girls weaving or plying their needles. Dota did not always come to the solar, however; she found tasks elsewhere. One afternoon, with the pale sunshine making its way across the floor, one of the young girls sat next to her. Her golden hair hung in long braids, and her clothing was modest, but of good weave. She smiled shyly, naming herself Edela. “I know you are a friend of Dota’s,” she said, after having glanced about the room. “She used to speak much of you.”
Hildeburh smiled back encouragingly. “We were childhood friends,” she said. The girl was no more than sixteen, she judged.
Edela looked down at her embroidery. “I was the daughter of one of her landholders,” she said. “I served in her household from a young age.” She hesitated. “She cared for me. “
There was more to what the girl was saying. “Is that why you followed her here?” she asked.
The girl blushed. “I could not go home. Farthin, he that took Kaj’s place, had plans to marry me to one of his men.”
Hildeburh shook her head. “Was he not a good prospect?” she asked.
Edela shrugged, a gesture very similar to Dota’s. “He had land, he was well respected. He was like Kaj, though. All temper. Dota claimed me as hers and took me away. I saw,” she faltered a bit, and lowered her voice, “I saw what Kaj did to her. I came willingly. My father died in the feuding. No one else would speak for me.”
Dota had spoken for Edela, and Hildeburh knew what courage that must have taken, so she was out of sorts at being avoided. Dota had taken to staying up late enough that there was no question of conversation or anything else in the reaches of the night. Tired of being avoided, she woke one morning before the dawn. Dota was snoring lightly beside her; for once she had not stolen away early. Her face in the new light was more wrinkled, and her body was softer now with age, but Hildeburh knew that she herself had the same marks. Dota was still beautiful to her, and Hildeburh recalled watching her in the same way so many years before. When Dota showed signs of stirring, Hildeburh turned her face away, not wanting to be caught looking.
Dota opened her eyes and frowned. “Awake so early?” she asked grumpily. She had never been fond of rising early and Hildeburh had been waiting for the morning her natural patterns to reassert themselves. The fact that Dota had been coming to bed so late had worked in her favor.
“I wanted to speak with you,” Hildeburh replied. “The day seems to bring too many tasks, so I thought to make time when all is quiet.”
“What is there to speak of?” Dota sat up and grabbed for her under tunic. She put it on and began to unbraid her hair.
“I have missed you,” Hildeburh began. Dota brushed her hair silently, her face turned away. “It is good to be sharing a room with you again.” Still Dota remained silent. She began to plait her hair, which had a few strands of grey in it now. The grey had not shown beneath her veil.
“Dota,” said Hildeburh, “why won’t you talk to me?”
Dota deftly pinned her wimple and veil into place. “What do you want me to say?” she asked.
“Anything! Here we are, once again, and I know so little about the years between. I know you, Dota, or I knew you once before. Who are you now?”
“There’s a riddle no skald can answer,” said Dota, almost angrily. “I am a widow, and that is good enough for most. My husband died dishonored, and thus I carry that mark myself.”
“My husband is now deemed an enemy; but I am not one,” Hildeburh said sharply.
“Oh,” Dota replied, “I refuse to feel stained, as a good woman should. His choices were all his own. Still, what is there for me now? Shamed widowhood and the sufferance of the king.” She shrugged, “You are a princess and therefore something to be retrieved after battle.”
“Like a gold coin lost beneath a chair, but once found thrown into the pouch,” Hildeburh agreed.
Dota looked at her finally, hearing the echo of her own bitterness in Hildeburh’s voice.
“So we have both returned,” she said, standing up. “You, however, are the only one who is the gold coin.” She moved to leave. Hildeburh grabbed her by the hand, but Dota shook her off, walking firmly out the door.
Later that afternoon the solar was quiet; it seemed that the young girls and the other women were helping with the spring cleaning of the hall. Only Dota and Hildeburh were present, each at her own loom. Dota made no move to speak. Her silence was woven between them, each thread laid down by time and distance, until Hildeburh felt wrapped in it, stifled. She wanted to rend it into pieces, but did not know what words to choose.
“Dota,” she began, “why are you angry with me?”
Dota said nothing, but continued with her weaving. Hildeburh stood up and went to her side, putting her hand on Dota’s arm. “Do not ignore me!” she cried.
“You are not my queen, to order me so,” said Dota. “You are queen only to the dead and broken, and they do not speak.” She shrugged off Hildeburh’s hand, continuing with her work, her eyes on the emerging pattern.
Hildeburh sat down, looking at her empty hands. After a long moment she said, “The broken can speak, Dota. I am queen no longer, but I learned that much.”
“The broken can scream, for all I care,” replied Dota. “They still are not heeded.”
“Who broke you?” asked Hildeburh.
“Who says I am broken?” replied Dota, looking up from her loom, her eyes fierce. Despite their fierceness, they held remembered pain. Hildeburh had seen such a look from one of her attending ladies, one who served at court as an escape from a drunkard of a husband.
“Kaj?” she whispered.
Dota held her eyes for a moment and then looked back to her loom. She once again began to weave, but her silence had changed. Instead of wrapping Hildeburh, it seemed to wrap around Dota, as if it were a shawl protecting her from the cold.
“I did not know,” Hildeburh said. “You were so far away and we heard so little news from you. Then I too was gone, across the sea. I did not know.”
Dota snorted. “We heard about you – reports reached even our holdings of your wisdom and kindness.”
“If you revile me so much,” said Hildeburh heatedly, “then why hold me at night? Or are you like a husband who ignores his wife during the day only to seek out favors in darkness?”
Dota flinched, the arrow having made its way to the right target. She studied her weaving, as if looking for flaws or dropped threads. “You responded when I touched you,” she said.
“I welcomed you,” Hildeburh agreed. “You are more of a homecoming to me than anything else could be.” She found a gap in her own pattern and carefully began to pick it out, dismayed at her lack of attention.
The light was beginning to wane. Dota carefully tidied her space and then stood up. She paused by Hildeburh’s side before leaving the room. “A poor homecoming, then,” she said.
“No,” said Hildeburh, “a rich welcome. I know your value, and always have. You are treasure beyond compare.”
Dota stared at her a moment; there were tears in her eyes. “Of course I have missed you. I have always missed you. What choices did we have?”
The tears Hildeburh would not shed in her husband’s hall, the ones she would not shed on the ship or at the high table, began to stream down her face. Dota reached out and caressed her cheek.
“I do not know,” she said, “what choices I have now.”
That night Dota came to their room quite late. Hildeburh was awake, listening for her arrival. Dota undressed, crawled beneath the blankets, and then lay on the edge of the bed, her back to Hildeburh. Hildeburh turned to face the wall, the one with the window in it, though now it was covered. She stared into the shadows all night, until dawn came creeping in. Then she rose silently, getting dressed, and leaving the room. She knew Dota was awake; there was no sound of gentle snoring, only silence.
Hildeburh made her way to the keep’s herb garden, which at this point was only a promise and hope of things to come. She sat down on a bench; the stone was not yet warmed by the sun, and its cold seeped into her. She felt a twinge in her hip; this winter’s cold had brought her ached in her joints, reminding her that her body was aging. It had been a hard winter in many ways, and spring had brought no relief. Was there any point in trying to warm Dota’s winter? Perhaps it would be best to live with frozen silences. Spring had brought death, once the thaw came. Dota’s anger brought its own pain. Hildeburh scuffed at a bit of frost on the ground by the bench. She had spent many hours in this garden as a young girl, learning herblore and tending to the plants. She loved the smells that rose when the sun warmed the plants. Those days seemed so far away, and in the cold sunshine, Hildeburh found she could not imagine the coming of summer.
There was a step behind her, and before she could look, Dota sat down on the cold bench. There were circles under her eyes, but she looked more at peace. She put her arm around Hildeburh, lightly at first. When she was not rebuffed, she moved in closer.
“Remember old Una?” she began. “We thought she was so ancient, puttering about the stillroom, telling us that happiness came later in life.”
Hildeburh smiled at the memory. “We thought she was crazy.”
“She always had a treat for us, though. And a smile. I now realize that she was not all that old,” Dota said.
“She would tell us, when I got restless, that we were going to do battle against the encroaching weeds, and that the treasures we would return with were more valuable than gold, since they cured illness.” Hildeburh rested her head against Dota’s shoulder.
Dota took a deep breath and held it for a moment, then exhaled with a sigh. “I think,” she began slowly, “I think that I am still waging war, but with no spoils worth bringing home.”
“I am one of the spoils of war,” Hildeburh said, with her own sigh. “I would be worth more if I could heal rather than harm.”
There was a long silence, while the sun warmed the garden and their bodies warmed the bench and each other.
“You brought no harm,” Dota said, finally. “I left first, those many years ago, and I would not have told you about my marriage had you been able to ask. I missed you fiercely, but we had each followed the road fate set for us. “
“Now we are back, where we started,” said Hildeburh.
“Yes,” said Dota.
“I do remember Una,” said Hildeburh. “She and Gunild shared quarters.”
Dota leaned into Hildeburh. “And much more. Right now, I have no more answer for you than that.” She stood up, once again stiff and aloof, and walked back into the keep. Hildeburh stayed for a while, trying to see the garden as it had been on summer days, as she would see it soon in the coming months.
Later that afternoon the solar was filled with chatter once more. The young girls were excited; one was now betrothed to a jarl in Geatland, strengthening bonds between the Danes and the Geats. Dota pursed her lips and looked up at Hildeburh, her eyes ironic.
Despite the gossip, the girls were attentive to their weaving, working as they were taught to mind the weft, to gauge the tension, to take thread and make it into something whole and beautiful. Hildeburh attended to her own work, warmed by Dota’s presence. She smiled to herself as she thought of the coming night, when tasks could be laid aside. She was certain that, despite last night’s cold and sleepless vigil, this night would be warmer.
She had not failed; she had woven peace between two nations as best as she could, but there could be no lasting peace when grudges were held more closely than gold. She glanced over at Dota, who was frowning in concentration and then she looked to her own pattern. There were many forms of battle, she thought, and Dota had survived a long and grievous war. They both deserved a better spring. Peaceweaver: all her life she had been taught that this was her task. Perhaps there was more than one way she could weave peace.
This article makes a nice palate-clenser to last week's piece by Ungerer. It primarily focuses on the dramatic character of Moll Cutpurse within The Roaring Girl, but also notes how Mary Frith (by way of her post-show performance) acted to underming the play's attempt to rehabilitate her character, and to re-claim her identity as a disruption to existing gender identities.
Kranz, Susan E. 1995. The Sexual Identities of Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl and in London in Renaissance and Reformation 19: 5-20.
Krantz primarily focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, with a secondary consideration of how that image relates to the historic Mary Frith. [Note: to keep the two clear with the least effort, in this summary I’ll use “Moll” for the dramatic character and “Frith” for the historic person.] She examines Moll’s ambiguous identity through three framings: prostitute, hermaphrodite, and bisexual ideal.
Moll Cutpurse stands out in the context of cross-dressed female characters in Renaissance theater in using the trope not for complete gender disguise, as with the girl-disguised-as-a-boy leads in romantic comedy, but in depicting a hybrid “hermaphroditic” character who has both male and female characteristics at the same time. The character of Moll is also complicated by the historic Mary Frith, who also challenged gender boundaries, but within a different context. The portrait of Moll in the frontispiece of the printed edition of The Roaring Girl show her key masculine signifiers: short hair, a pipe, a drawn sword, and wearing loose “slops” breeches. But neither for the historic Frith nor for the character Moll are these used for gender passing or disguise. And both in the play and in real life, her default outfit combined a feminine skirt with masculine upper garments.
Women wearing masculine garments were subject to various interpretations in 17th century England. The one that came foremost to mind, especially from official sources, was an assumption of immorality and uncontrolled sexuality, i.e., either prostitution or at least sexual impropriety. When Frith was arrested for going about wearing garments of mixed genders, but clearly not trying to pass as a man, the central suspicion and charge was that she was involved in prostitution, a charge she vehemently denied.
The character of Moll is explicitly described in a similarly hybrid outfit: Enter Moll in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard [i.e., a protective outer skirt]. With the addition of the props of a sword and tobacco pipe, the audience is given a contradictory set of signifiers to read. Moll doesn’t fit easily (or at all) into Jacobean social and sexual hierarchies and thereby points out the deficiencies and flaws in those hierarchies. She disrupts the gender binary, but does so by claiming male privilege and opting out of the marriage economy, rather than by sweeping away the existing social order.
One can’t read The Roaring Girl as a straightforward transvestite plot, with characters moving within the gender binary while reaffirming it. Standard female transvestite characters temporarily claim the independence and privileges of a man, but participate in a heterosexual marriage resolution that inevitably re-establishes the gender binary and gender hierarchy. But Moll doesn’t return to a normative feminine role at the conclusion. She neither marries nor undergoes personal transformation. Her interaction in marriage sub-plots works to establish her comic unsuitability for marriage, thereby supporting the positive outcome for the designated romantic leads.
Moll’s simple existence creates a category crisis: she exists as a gender enigma, neither adopting nor shedding her hybrid costume. The other characters recognize this crisis by engaging with her via three different sexual identities, as well as with the character’s refusal to identify herself as a sexual being. She is approached via both standard poles of female sexuality, the virgin and the whore, but also as standing outside binary gender as a “monster” or hermaphrodite, either an ungendered being who is neither male nor female, or a bisexual being who is both simultaneously.
Moll is given the attributes of a dramatic hero: physical prowess, a noble spirit, and moral certitude--but she succeeds in claiming them only by removing herself from the question of sexual identity. In the end, she is allowed to transcend gender by reference to a philosophical bisexual ideal that makes her self-sufficient and unconnected to sexuality.
Another continuing theme in the play is for other characters to misread Moll’s transgression as sexual promiscuity. Women assume she is a rival for their husbands’ sexual attention. Men assume she is available for their sexual conquest. Moll’s resistance to these assumptions is not as a virtuous and chaste woman, but as a martial champion of all women’s virtue. She confronts the male sexual aggressors, defeats them by force of arms, and chastises them for thinking that women are their natural prey. But in doing so, Moll removes herself from the category she defends. She is not susceptible to male flattery and she cannot be subjected by force.
This feeds into the reading of Moll as a “third sex” outside the gender binary. The character of Sir Alexander labels her a monstrous gender hybrid in response to Moll’s deliberate emphasizing of her masculine dress (deliberately done to deceive him). Other characters speculate on her possible physical hermaphroditism, or at least on her bisexual potential: “she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife.”
Renaissance culture was obsessed with the concept of the hermaphrodite. In terms of ordinary bodies, this manifested as a need to force ambiguous individuals into one binary category or the other. But on an abstract philosophical level, it allowed for the envisioning of a sexually self-suffient ideal being who combined the best attributes of male and female, thereby transcending the need to unify with a gender opposite to achieve perfection.
Moll rejects the reading of her as physiologically indeterminate, as monstrous. The play then invokes this hermaphroditic ideal, turning her transgressive masculine signifiers into an outward sign of her male-coded virtues. One of Moll’s speeches invokes this sexual self-sufficiency when she rejects a suitor’s overtures saying she, “likes to lie a-both sides of the bed herself”. Being both male and female, there is no place in her bed for any other.
The mythologic origins of Hermaphroditus may be alluded to in various astrological discussions of Moll (and of Frith) which invoke the sign of Mercury (Hermes) in the context of her criminal activities and her service to Venus (in Frith’s case, in running a bawdy house later in life; in Moll’s case, in helping the young lovers to their happy conclusion). But in doing so, the question of Moll’s own sexuality is removed from the question, and her performative status as a “third gender” is instead idealized as a metaphorical ideal.
The confusing contradiction of Moll’s various identities in the play is disrupted further by the appearance of Frith on stage after at least one of the performances of the place, wearing her hybrid-gender outfit, singing, and giving “immodest and lascivious speeches” including an offer to prove her female gender to anyone who would return to her lodgings with her. Frith rejects the metaphoric idealized hermaphrodite posited by the play, and invokes a physiological-essentialist position that prioritizes her genitalia over her gender performance. [Note: This framing by Krantz should be noted as speculative. Frith could just as reasonably be read as identifying as female and offering her body as contradiction to the accusation of hermaphroditism and comfortable in embracing her hybrid gender expression.] While the playwrights used Moll to advocate for social liberality and the incorporation of transgressive gender identities into society, Frith herself raises the question of whether she wanted to be so incorporated and normalized, or whether she preferred to continue as a disruptive force.