The mentions of late 19th and early 20th century poetic "collaborators" with Sappho provided some suggestions for yet another poetry podcast. (I rather like doing poetry podcasts.) It's interesting, though, as Gubar points out, that even woman-loving women who looked to Sappho as a role model had a tendency to set her apart as a distant ideal--a symbol of all the lost women poets over the ages--while often disparaging the non-lost women poets of their own time in favor of more "masculine" verse. Internalized misogyny is a bitch.
Gubar, Susan. 1984. "Sapphistries" in Signs vol. 10, no. 1 43-62.
Gubar looks at the ways in which poets and writers have used and reinterpreted both the poetry and the image of Sappho across the ages, particularly in the context of sexuality. In the early decades of the 20th century, as translators were shifting to honoring the female pronouns in Sappho’s work and classicists were re-examining the myths of her life, a wide range of women writers focused on Sappho as an inspiration and model for their own work.
This focus included rejecting images of Sappho as chaste or the myth of Sappho’s suicidal leap for rejected love of a man. Virginia Woolf held up Sappho’s era as supplying an essential context for women’s literary accomplishment: artistic predecessors, membership in a group where art is discussed and practiced, and freedom of action and experience.
The flip side of this was that even literary women sometimes held up Sappho as a sole exception to the rule that “women’s poetry...is simply awful” (Edith Sitwell). Sappho could be held up as a lost ideal while failing to challenge contemporary dismissal of women’s poetry in general. At the same time, Sappho could be used to stand in for all the lost literary women in history (without having to champion any particular non-lost women).
The massive gaps in Sappho’s surviving work inspired rather than intimidated women by creating the need for a “contemporary collaborator” to fill in those gaps. Such different poets as Renée Vivien and H.D. could collaborate with Sappho to produce wildly different images of the lesbian experience. Vivien embraced the French decadent image of a sadistic and devouring Sappho (there is a long discussion of her writing in this context), while H.D. is more lyrical and yearning, addressing the contradiction for a woman poet between the artist and feminine socialization.
The article covers (at less length) several other authors who embraced Sappho’s tradition, including Amy Lowell whose sapphic poetry celebrated her lifelong companion Ada Russell, and a wide variety of writers contemporary to this article (i.e., 1980s). Gubar concludes that “early twentieth-century lesbian poets had to reach back into antiquity to find a literary foremother...empowered to do so by the formation of autonomous female communities that the friendships of nineteenth-century women poets could only adumbrate.” She sees 19th century women poets as isolated and the rise of modern sapphic poetry as enabled by new types of erotic unions and female friendships starting around the turn of the century.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43c - Book Appreciation with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/02/15 - listen here)
Links to Stephanie Burgis Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
Today I'm hosting a guest blog from Edale Lane, who talks about the reserach behind her Italian Renaissance f/f superhero historic adventure Merchants of Milan.
One thing about historical fiction–the author must do her research! Fantasy you create, contemporary you live, but historical requires hours upon hours of research. I’d love to say I whisked off on a plane for Italy and toured all the historic sites, saw the artists’ masterpieces up close, but sadly that was not an option. Instead, I explored hundreds of websites souring for each detail I needed for a scene.
Merchants of Milan is set in 1502 shortly after Leonardo da Vinci left for France. Leonardo and his work was a focal point of this novel as the central character, Florentina de Bossi, grew up learning from him as her father served as his assistant. While Florentina and her father are fictional characters, it was common for Master Leonardo to have an assistant or two and several apprentices at any given time, and a minor character, Cesare da Sesto, was an actual student of his who was recorded to be one of the artists to paint replicas of the Last Supper. Unlike what I did in Heart of Sherwood incorporating a cast of historical figures into the story, most characters in Merchants of Milan are fictional, with the notable exceptions of political rulers and generals.
I knew I wanted Leonardo da Vinci to be central (although the reader never meets him in this book) and Milan needed to be at war. Therefore, my preliminary research was aimed at selecting the right year. I chose Milan, even though Florence boasted more art (and don’t worry, our characters will visit that great city before the series ends), because of its wealth and importance to trade. Italy, though not a unified country yet for a few hundred years, was where cities and towns grew first in Europe thrusting it out of the feudal Middle Ages and into the era of knowledge and advancement known as the Renaissance. It was the wealth of the merchant class that paid the artists and architects, financed voyages of exploration, and built great universities. While these powerful men (and a few women) were not technically nobility, in the Italian city-states they were regularly richer and more influential than the counts, barons, dukes, and so forth. Additionally the Italian city-states from time to time enjoyed a type of representative democracy not envisioned or allowed in other parts of Europe.
Researching Leonardo da Vinci was a labor of love. My mother introduced me to the great master at a young age and I have always admired him. Florentina, who watched and learned from Leonardo, kept some of his sketches and used ideas from his inventions to create her own arsenal. The flying machine was one of Leonardo’s unrealized passions; Florentina combined elements from his flying machine, his parachute, and the parasol to create her “wings.” She also took ideas from da Vinci’s early take on a Gatling gun to improvise a multi-fire crossbow. He was knowledgeable in the medical field as well so she learned about potions, chemicals, drugs, and first aid. History does not record that Leonardo had discovered the lost formula for Greek Fire, but it is highly probably that he did just on principle but did not write it down lest it fall into the wrong hands. The story also includes little-known facts about the Last Super and a peep into da Vinci’s character.
Researching the politics was not so enjoyable, but equally important to setting the stage. The ruling family of Milan, the Sforzas, had brought da Vinci to the city and commissioned great building and art projects. Milan flourished economically under their policies, but in 1500 Milan’s army was defeated by France, who was competing with Spain to gobble up the rich Italian city-states. The reins of power were passed to the French, and the Milanese were now expected to support French armies against Spain. Fortunately, none of the fighting actually reached the city of Milan and commerce continued unhindered.
The plot also hinged on historical research. At that time period in Italy wealthy merchants and bankers held the role that oligarchs do today, wielding their power in an almost mafia type style, and the vendetta was an important part of the culture. They did not have police forces as we do today; instead it was up to the family--traditionally a father, brother, or son–-to avenge a wrong done to one of its members. Florentina was an only child and a girl, so Don Benetto thought he acted with impunity when he dispatched her father. While women, particularly of the upper class, had more rights and power in Italy than most countries in Europe, they were still not expected or allowed to engage in most activities designated for men. Therefore, Florentina, an only child, found it necessary to create a disguise, a secret identity with which to carry out the family vendetta. Thus the Night Flyer was born!
How does a lesbian romance fit into the time period? Renaissance Italians of education and prominence prided themselves on being Humanists, enlightened individuals who took their cue from the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since Classical Greek society (and to a lesser but still notable extend the Romans) saw no problem at all with same-sex relationships–as long as a man had a wife to grant him legitimate offspring and she performed that duty acceptably–neither did the sophisticated Humanist. However, the Catholic Church did frown upon such relationships and society at large gossiped and may exclude people they found to be too unsatisfactory. Of course if one was rich or important enough, people looked the other way. Homosexuality and bisexuality were fairly common and accepted within the artist community; no one cared as long as their paintings or sculptures were first rate.
Setting the scene also required hours of research. I wanted to make sure every plant, every piece of furniture, meal, and article of clothing was correct for the time and place, along with geography and climate information. Fortunately, we have the internet! As for language usage, that was much easier to accomplish for Heart of Sherwood because it was set in England. I had no problem locating terms and expressions even for the 12th century, but Italy… that’s a whole different language. Therefore, I sprinkled in a few familiar Italian words and tried to steer clear of words and phrases that sound too modern. They would have had slang back then too, but that was harder to pin down. I selected “dribble” and “pinnacle” because the terms are old enough and they seemed to fit. As for profanity, all the colorfulisms of today were in full use during the 16th century.
Having earned a master’s degree in history, I am no stranger to research. It is my goal to make every aspect of the story as authentic as possible, enveloping the reader in the setting, educating as well as entertaining–even when giving a girl wings and teaching her to fly!
Blog Tour Promotion
Edale Lane has a new FF historical romance out, book one of the Night Flyer Trilogy: Merchants of Milan.
Three powerful merchants, two independent women in love, one masked vigilante.
Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives.
Merchants of Milan is the first book in Edale Lane’s Night Flyer Trilogy, a tale of power, passion, and payback in Renaissance Italy. If you like gadgets and gismos, rich historical background, three-dimensional characters, and fast-paced action with a slow-boil lesbian romance, then you are sure to love this series. Buy this one of a kind novel today and let the adventure begin!
Edale is giving away a $20 Amazon gift card with this tour. For a chance to win, enter via Rafflecopter: a Rafflecopter giveaway
In the next instant Maddie placed a caressing hand to her face, leaned in, and kissed her. Although she had been anticipating this very possibility for hours, it came on her as swift and unforeseen as a summer storm. The sensual heat of those urgent lips melded to hers ignited something deep within Florentina’s core that sprung to life for the very first time and exploded throughout her being, a sensation so phenomenal, so novel that she had no context in which to place it. Breathless, her mind went totally blank, and she simply savored the moment.
When Madelena withdrew she whispered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”
“Sorry?” Florentina’s heart sank and her head spun. How could she be sorry? “Why? I’m not.”
“You’re not?” Maybe Maddie was as uncertain as she, as overcome with raw emotion and not knowing how to express it. “It’s just that–and I have contemplated this–with me being your employer and all, I don’t want you to expect you must do something you aren’t comfortable with. I would never pressure you-”
It was Florentina’s turn to be impulsive. She silenced Maddie by repeating the gesture, tasting again those full, cherry lips that flooded her mind, body, and soul with sensations. When it broke, they gazed into each other’s eyes looking for confirmation. “I understand I am only a servant in your household.”
“Don’t say that!” Maddie replied firmly. “That is not how I view you. Please, Fiore. How can I explain?”
The earlier butterflies began to settle in Florentina’s stomach and the fog of trepidation evaporate. She could perceive that the beautiful wealthy widow did regard her with esteem, did have feelings for her. This was not a mere dalliance she realized. “I care for you also,” she spoke softly and stroked Maddie’s luxurious strands. “Do not think you press me to do something I have not wanted to do since the moment I first saw you.”
Relief engulfed Madelena’s expression, and she brushed her cheek to Florentina’s then nuzzled her neck with moist, eager lips. A euphoric sigh escaped Fiore’s mouth at the intimate touch and she pulled Maddie closer. When their lips found each other’s again she opened to the honey-sweet tongue that was impatient to delve into it. Without willing them to do so, she realized her fingers were wound in those silky red strands while her other hand slid down Madelena’s back as far as the bench would allow. She could perceive her heartbeat against her own heated breast. This is what she had dreamt of and it surpassed her expectations. All she wanted to do was touch, caress, explore, and please this singular woman. Even as she was rendered breathless from the physical passion, her heart was telling her head that what she felt was far more, endlessly deeper. It was a very dangerous cavern, a bottomless pit that could spell her doom; she was falling in love.
Madelena realized she was making a mistake. She had acquired a good tutor for her children and a new friend to share meaningful experiences with, but a romantic affair? Where could that possibly lead? What would her brother think or do when he found out, and she knew he would, eventually. Hadn’t she lived a well-disciplined life? Could she not control her desires for more than a few weeks?
As her mind was blaring at her all the reasons to say no, her heart had been pleading an opposing case. Yes, she had found a teacher and a friend, but in Florentina she had discovered abundantly more. She was interesting, witty, talented, intuitive, and compassionate. She opened whole new worlds to the widow whose entire education was meant only to prepare her to be a merchant’s wife. For the past six months she had felt lost, as if she had no place and no purpose. She had helped Alessandro with the bookkeeping and personal relations with customers, but she had also spent her nights alone speculating on what the future may hold for her. She still could not answer that question, but she had spoken honestly when she said that Fiore made her feel real and alive. Since growing closer to the dark-haired inventor’s daughter she had begun to experience so many things. And today–today had likely been the best day of her twenty-eight years on this earth! Then the emotion of sharing her story, it was just all too much to expect her to maintain self-control. But now that she had initiated this passionate encounter, what would she do next?
Presently, she drew back from those sultry lips trying to regain some restraint. “Have you ever been with a woman before?” she asked to fill the silence.
Florentina shook her head. “If you mean sexually, I am quite inexperienced with anyone, male or female. Years ago when Cesare told me he was attracted to men, I mentioned that I was more drawn to women. I didn’t think he’d ever say anything; it’s not like we talked about it much, but now,” she paused casting starry eyes at Maddie, “I’m glad he did.”
She smiled and stroked Florentina’s cheek. “So am I.”
“I know you have experience,” she noted. “So, what do we do next?”
What indeed! Madelena considered. “Take one step at a time. May I suggest we try to get some sleep and take a night to process it all? I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment.”
“You’re overwhelmed?” Fiore laughed. “I’m not certain my legs will carry me upstairs!”
Maddie hesitated to move, as the tug of an invisible cord was drawing her back to her newfound treasure. Neither was Florentina was moving away. One more kiss and you must move. Give both of us time to think. She touched her lips to Fiore’s and closed her eyes. What makes one kiss a sloppy flop and another a driving, sensuous pleasure? Is it one’s mental perception or a physical current that connects two individuals who are similarly charged? I can feel the energy pass between her and I unlike any other before.
“I shall see you in the morning.” She released Florentina and pushed herself to her feet with a sheer force of will. Florentina followed saying her good-nights and Madelena closed the bedroom door behind her as she left. Alone once more, she glanced around her empty chamber and wished her lover could have stayed all night.
Edale Lane is the penname used by Melodie Romeo for LGBTQ fiction novels. She is a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree in History from the University of West Florida.
Ms Romeo is a retired school teacher who currently travels the country as an over the road truck driver. Her first book, Vlad, a Novel, an historical thriller, was published in 2002. She has had short stories published in anthologies by Seventh Star Press, Charon Coin Press, Alban Lake Press, Less Than Three Press, and Past and Prologue Press.
Edale Lane’s first novel, Heart of Sherwood, is an historical retelling of the Robin Hood story supposing that the hooded outlaw had been a woman: https://www.pastandprologuepress.lpages.co/Sherwood1/
In addition to driving and writing, Melodie is also a musician who plays the French horn, composes, and has spent many years as a choral and instrumental director. She aspires to be a successful enough author to quit driving and devote herself to writing fulltime. Melodie resides in Utica, MS with her longtime partner, Johanna.
Some of her works can be found at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00WFFFEA4
In 2019 Melodie founded Past and Prologue Press. Please visit her website.
I've sold two stories to the fantasy audio fiction podcast PodCastle -- both in a planned four-part series based on queer re-imaginings of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi. The first story, "Hoywverch" is a classic "wooing and winning" story in which a woman plays a risky trick on her lover's suitor to win her hand. The second, "Hyddwen" draws on the tradition of a debt to the Otherworld and impossible tasks to win one's freedom. I've known for some time that the fourth story would be riffing off of Culhwch and Olwen, with another wooing and winning story (involving the child of the original couple and with the theme "sometimes the answer is polyamory"), but also drawing on motifs of transformation from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I've had it pretty solidly plotted out for a couple of years, but needed to get through the third story first.
All I knew about that third story was that it would be inspired by themes of the desired/lost child from the First and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogi (blending themes from Pryderi and Lleu), but I hadn't gotten much past the opening scene where Elin and Morfydd spend the night on top of a gorsedd and discover a mysterious child whom they adopt as their own. I knew the rest of the story would involve consequences of the child's origins, and the interference of some Otherworld figures from previous stories, but I didn't have the "queer hook" to inspire the throughline of the series.
This morning, on my drive in to work, I realized what the hook was and how it would make everything else fall into place. And in my coffeeshop writing session, I set up the Scrivener file for "Gwylan" with all the scenes and their summaries. Not entirely sure how I'm going to keep this down to 6000 words (which is the standard limit at PodCastle, which will of course be my market of choice) but it's a goal.
So what's the peculiar coincidence? Today PodCastle re-released "Hoywverch" as a Tales From The Vault episode. How's that for an Otherworldly seal of approval?
I'm not finished with my "foundational weighty tomes" project, but for the next few months I'm interspersing them with shorter articles on similar themes in order to catch my breath. This one starts a month of articles organized vaguely around the theme of Sappho.
Andreadis, Harriette. 1989. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15(1):34-60.
I should really do a podcast about Katherine Philips sometime, because she's a great example of how debates over how and whether to apply the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from examining the ways in which same-sex desire were expresed in different contexts. It does equal damage to her historic realities to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of wehther she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence and dismiss both the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.
The English poet Katherine Philips, writing in the mid-17th century achieved a significant reputation during her own lifetime, one of the earliest English female poets to do so. Despite a bourgeois background, her personal charm and talents brought her entry into court and literary circles. Her reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. Her significant body of poetry written for friends and associates was published only after her death, though later re-edited with additional non-poetic material including translations of plays and correspondence. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era. In addition to the evidence of the passionate poems dedicated to her female friends, the evidence of her correspondence, especially with her close friend Sir Charles Cotterell, traces the intensely emotional connections she had with a series of women--connections that were explicitly set in conflict with the marriages of those friends, and contrasted with Philips’ decidedly tepid relationship with her husband.
Since the 18th century, her importance has been trivialized or overlooked and is worth a close examination. The core of her work is her emotional focus on other women and the passionate feelings for them that inspired her poetry. In this, she was creative in manipulating both the conventions of heterosexual love poetry, and that of platonic male friendship (with homoerotic overtones) in ways that can only be read as same-sex love between women.
In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. She framed her emotions in the context of neo-Platonism and although she drew on the conventions of the précieux tradition of the French court, she did not indulge in its exaggerated imagery. After the Restoration, her poetry had moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it.
Several women feature prominently in Philips’ poems. The first was Mary Aubrey, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.
Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.
Philips’ personal life must be considered when interpreting her literary output. The daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, at 16 she married the much older James Philips (54). Although the marriage was amicable, the two had many differences. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. She was a royalist, he was a parliamentarian. (This worked to both their advantages, protecting her during the interregnum, and giving him an advocate after the Restoration.) Separation from her husband (and children) never provoked the anguish that Phlips expressed when separated from her romantic female friends. Her relations with him were described as “duty.”
Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing one on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” A third focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.
Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. [Note: Andreadis suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queeress=death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.]
The public poetry that Philips wrote later in her life retained the forms of her friendship poems while lacking much of their passion and are not counted among the foundation of her genius. The combination of her life story and the content of her poetry makes it clear that it would be wrong to classify her poetry as anything other than homoerotic. She was also conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature, as evidenced by her philosophical correspondence with various men on the topic of the nature and limits of friendship. Their answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.
These responses failed to daunt Philips and her dedication to the topic drew comparisons with the classical poet Sappho, not only for the subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. Interestingly, her contemporaries often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, “solid...and manly.”
This comparison to Sappho was shared with contemporary Aphra Behn, and both were referenced by other woman writers of the time as being an inspiration and model.
The phrase “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to Philips’ work was coined in 1905 in an introduction to a new edition of her work. The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity. There is little direct evidence regarding erotic relations between women in 17th century England, but plentiful literary evidence of what people imagined was possible (see, for example, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Delariviere Manley’s “new Cabal” in The New Atalantis).
One might consider the shift noted by several historians in the later half of the 17th century for male same-sex erotics from an accepted (if not approved) facet of a variety of social institutions, to an increasingly isolated “sub-culture” with the development of molly houses and similar phenomena. The suggestion these historians make is that, before this shift, homosexuality was unacknowledged in import, but not unusual. [Note: but beware of assuming direct parallels between male and female culture.] Regardless of how such relationships were understood by the participants and their society, it is clear that women’s erotic same-sex relationships existed. (Andreadis discusses this in the context of various approaches to modern theories of sexuality and identity.) Philips’ texts can certainly be identified as “lesbian” regardless of one’s position on her own identity.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43b - Interview with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/02/08 - listen here)
Links to Stephanie Burgis Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
The contracts are all signed, so here's the 2020 fiction series for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast! The order of appearance isn't set yet, so this is alphabetically by author.
Jennifer Nestojko's story is perfect for a Halloween tale, and I'm flipping a coin between Caitlin Flavell's and Catherine Lundoff's for the February story. One of the stories will be scheduled for January 2021 since I'll need to line it up before the next Call for Submissions is finished. I have a lead on a narrator for the Morrison story, but I'm looking for someone to narrate Ferreira's work--which requires a solid comfort level with Yiddish vocabulary and names. If you think that might be you, contact me and we can arrange a voice audition. (This is a paying gig.)
Thank you to all the authors who trusted me with their submissions. I'm really excited about this year's fiction series, which fulfills my goal of expanding to include historic fantasy.
I think I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve read from Stephanie Burgis, though I haven’t real any of her middle grade series. When preparing to recording an interview with her for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast on the occasion of the release of Moontangled, I read the entire series leading up to it. Herewith are some briefer-than-usual reviews of the component parts.
Usually I copy my blog reviews in their entirety over to Goodreads, Amazon, and iBooks, but to avoid awkward repetition, this time I’ll do a general background review that only lives on the blog and then individual “likes” on each book for the commercial sites.
The series posits an alternate history in which 1) magic exists, and 2) during the Roman invasion of Britain, Boudicca was able to successfully repel the occupation, teamed up with her magic-wielding second husband, establishing a model in which women fulfill their natural role in government as the practical, hard-headed sex (selected to join the ruling Boudiccate), supported by their magical husbands who are better suited to the more emotional realm of sorcery.
In the only alt-historical aspect that I had to work to get past, this has made little disruption to the basic outlines and flavor of society in succeeding centuries such that we arrive in the early 19th century with a culture that is recognizably “Regency”, softened by Angland’s international affiliations being due to extensive trade rather than colonial conquest. Probably best not to poke at the questions too sharply (especially for someone like me who did much the same thing in my own alt-Regency series).
The central through-line of the series revolves around Cassandra Harwood, born to a prominent political family but far more interested in learning magic than strategy. Because, of course, it’s not the case that women can’t do magic, only that they don’t. Just as it’s not the case that men can’t be practical and logical, only that they aren’t asked to be. Cassandra--and her brother who similarly bucks gender expectations by declining to learn magic--begins the process of upending the structure of her world by winning the right to study formal magic. And then the consequences start arriving.
Oh, and there are elves and fairies and supernatural creatures with whom the human residents of Angland have very tenuous peace treaties...
In the aftermath of a calamitous magical mistake, Cassandra Harwood is trying to put her life back together in the middle of an unnatural snowstorm as the treaties with the fair folk are fraying dangerously. I very much liked how the initial social conflict (“Argh, my family are trying to throw me together with a man I’m trying to avoid!”) isn’t at all what it seems and we’re led through several different understandings of their back-story as the main conflict progresses. The world-building is intense without taking over the plot and the conflicts never feel manufactured. Charming and intriguing.
A prequel best read after you’d been introduced to the Harwood Spellbook series. The (future) sister-in-law of the central character of Snowspelled is a strong-willed woman who goes after what (and whom) she wants and brings about a satisfying conclusion by refusing to abandon the dreams of any of the people she loves. I particularly enjoyed the casual ethnic diversity of the characters.
Cassandra Harwood has established her girls’ school for magic but the accreditation board arrives with a magical curse in their wake. A bit of light mystery, more details of the engagements between human and supernatural characters in Burgis’s alt-historical Angland, and a quiet set-up for my favorite characters in the series to get their own story. I really enjoy how this series solves plot conflicts with good will and the building of bridges.
Juliana Banks and Caroline Fennell have been secretly engaged for...well, for the last couple books, but there’s one major obstacle to their love. No, not the fact that they’re both women, but the fact that in order to have a successful career as part of the ruling Boudiccate of Angland, Caroline must marry a magician. And until the establishment of the Thornfell (Women’s) College of Magic, only men were magicians. Now that Juliana is a star pupil at Thornfell, why has Caroline grown cold and distant? This is an engaging romance of miscommunication and mistaken self-sacrifice, complicated by a meddling wood-fairy who has her own agenda. A fun and heartwarming romance that pushes all my Regency fantasy buttons.
Well, there it is: my final thoughts on Foucault. I'm glad I read it, but not sure I've taken away much of value except renewed skepticism.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8
With this third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality it’s time to sum up my impressions. And mostly I’m just confused why the big take-away that has made a mark in the study of sexuality is the whole thing about “pre-modern people didn’t have a concept of sexuality, they focused on acts not identities.” Because that’s not the theme I take away from this work at all. Oh, to be sure, in the first volume Foucault argues strongly against the pre-modern existence of “sexualities” in the sense of “personal identities that correlate with a particular sexual experience”. But I’m not sure he demonstrates that non-existence unless we’re defining “sexual identities” as only and specifically the set of identities considered standard today. I see evidence and arguments for identities throughout Foucault’s arguments, they just aren’t identities narrowly defined by the gender (or sex) of one’s partners, or by engaging in particular types of sex acts. I’ll agree that to understand sex in the past it’s necessary to break free of assuming that modern sexual identities are fixed, unversal, and exclusive. But I don’t see the evidence that it’s necessary to discard the concept of sexual identities entirely and to view all experience in terms of isolated acts and random expressions of personal taste.
The second take-away I get from reading Foucault (and which I suspected I was going to get before reading) is that any pretensions this work has to presenting some sort of philosophical truth are fatally undermined by the functionally exclusive focus on elite male experiences. Further, by the lack of any genuine self-awareness that this exclusive focus might be a problem. There are places where Foucault appears to acknowledge the narrowness of the population he's studying, but no acknowledgement that this negates any claim that he has to identifying a "truth" about sexuality in general.
In the first volume of this work, Foucault makes a strong point about how the supposed age of Victorian prudery was actually an era of obsessive, excessive focus on sex. He points out that “sexual repression” as a concept is actually a question of enforced control over who is allowed to talk about sex and how they’re allowed to talk about it. It’s unclear that he took these questions to heart and considered what topics he engaged in an obsessive, excessive focus on. How he was part of the social apparatus controlling whose voices on sexual topics were amplified and whose were suppressed.
At any rate, I have paid this part of my dues. But if reading The History of Sexuality changes any aspect of how I discuss sexuality research in the future, I suspect it will be that I drift away from using “Foucaultian” as a shorthand for “social-constructionism”. Because viewing sexuality as shaped by social constructs is a more expansive topic than the position he puts forth, and it embraces possibilities he argues against. And I don’t think that social-constructionism is necessarily in conflict with an understanding that some aspects of sexual desire are innate. But that’s a topic for another day.
Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures
This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.
Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.
Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]
As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.
There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.
The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]
Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.
[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]
These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.
Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self
[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]
The book shifts to a consideration of a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.
Part 3: Self and Others
The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.
On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.
Part 4: The Body
This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.
Part 5: The Wife
This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.
Part 6: Boys
In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.
[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]
The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.
It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.
Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.
Yesterday I read through all the story submissions, winnowed them down to a short-list, then made the hard choice of which five to buy. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I sent out responses to everyone, drew up and set the contracts for the five stories selected, and by this morning had most of the contracts signed and returned. SInce I'm still waiting on one, I won't post the titles and authors yet, but I thought you might be interested in some trends in what types of submissions I've been getting over the last three years.
I still haven't matched the total number of submissions from the first year (24), but this year's 19 were more gratifying than last year's worrisome 10. To the extent that there's a pattern in when they arrive, I see a small bump around the end of the first week, and then things really take off in the last week of the month. Between a quarter to a half of all submissions come in on the very last day. So I guess deadlines are a way of life for many people!
In terms of length (given that I have a cap of 5000 words), a fairly consistent 40-50% of submissions fall within the 4000-5000 word range. But shorter lengths are also well represented. This year was unusual in having only a single story come in under 2000 words, whereas in other years 25-40% have been in that range.
The 19th century has consistently been the single most popular century for settings, and taken together the 17-19th centuries dominate with 50-80% of submissions. Earlier settings sometimes come in odd clusters: in 2018 I had three in the 15th century, this year I had three in the 13th.
In terms of geography, Europe is a heavy hitter with 40-80% of the stories, but I've consistently received stories set in several Asian cultures. North America is used as a setting less commonly than one might expect. Of course, receiving stories set in a diversity of cultures doesn't mean they'll all make the final line-up, but it's a necessary condition for that.
This was the first year that I opened up to including certain types of fantastic elements in submissions and (depending on quite how you define fantastic) maybe a third of the submissions included something of the sort (which roughly matches the proportion in acceptances).
I'd be curious to know how the submitters heard about the Call, but it isn't a type of data I collected (and I'm not sure I'd want to collect it because it feels intrusive). In addition to getting the CfS listed in several of the commonly-used aggregators (like Submisions Grinder), and promoting it heavily on Twitter and Facebook (as well as on my own blog and podcast), I know that people were passing it along on their own sites and lists. I suspect the biggest problem for the 2019 series was that I didn't plug away enough, for long enough, in enough places. This year I'll make a point of starting the push in mid-year again.
Now I just need to choose which story will appear at the end of the month and get recording!