Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 14a - On the Shelf
(Originally aired 2017/09/02)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2017.
Recording this is a bit of a surreal experience because I’m recording it in mid July and it won’t air until the beginning of September. You see, I’m going to be spending three weeks in August traveling to Europe for the Worldcon - the World Science Fiction Convention - in Helsinki Finland, and then traveling around visiting friends. Some of whom I’ve known online for over a decade but have never met in person yet. And while I’d love to burble a bit about the convention and my trip in this update, I’m looking at the calendar and suspecting that I’ll be too wiped out to record anything in the few days between when I get back and when this episode will have to air. So you’ll just have to imagine me telling you all about my travels through Europe.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent the month of August finishing up the last five chapters of Sherry Velasco’s Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. This book is an example of the rich trove of historic data that can be made available by someone willing to sift through records outside the well-worn tracks that most general histories of sexuality touch on. There are summaries and excerpts from the very extensive trial records that provide details of the everyday lives of lesbians in 16th through 18th century Spain, including an indication of how their relationships were viewed by their friends and neighbors, and under what circumstances they might be accepted or at least tolerated. There’s a discussion of three individuals who become something of gender-outlaw celebrities in 16th and 17th century Spain, including the part that race and class played in how they were treated. As touched on in discussions of Catalina de Erauso, upper class women in early modern Spain basically had two options: marriage or the convent. And not all women in convents were there because they had a religious vocation. Velasco looks at how these women-only institutions dealt with the inevitable “special friendships” that developed between nuns and to what extent they were concerned with preventing sexual relationships specifically. For a culture seen as being conservative and strait-laced, drama and fiction in Spain was chock full of women disguised as men and the inevitable romantic entanglements that caused. But there were also works that explored romantic relationships between women that didn’t rely on mistaken gender identity.
While the publication list forthcoming for August is still being finalized, my plan is to do a couple of tie-ins with the last history episode and cover books about the concept of Boston Marriage and the queer history of Boston in general.
This month’s author guest will be Genevieve Fortin whose historic novel about Canadian immigrants to New England in the early 20th century was released just a couple months ago.
The Ask Sappho segment this month comes from a question on the Lesbian Talk Show Chat Group on facebook. (As of the time of recording, I hadn’t received permission to mention the requester specifically, but if you’re out there, I hope you’re listening!) This was a request for lesbian historical novels set at the time of the American Civil War.
Since there isn’t already a specific Goodreads list set up on this topic that could be pointed to, I thought I’d throw something together. Of course, now I will make it into a Goodreads list. This is largely taken from sifting through Goodreads lists of lesbian historical fiction to find the books with the desired setting. To narrow things down, I’m specifically focusing on books and stories that have the war as a background, not simply ones from the same general time period. I’ve tried to summarize reviews of the books that I haven’t read myself. And most of these, I haven’t read myself.
But I hope I’ll be forgiven for starting off with an anthology-sister. The short story “Emma” by Priscilla Scott Rhoades in the anthology Through the Hourglass edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson is a sweet love story set on the cusp of the American Civil War involving a girl who disguises herself as a boy to run away from home and who takes a job as a handyman at a school for the deaf. Complications from a budding romance with one of the students motivate her to enlist in the army. I really liked the voice in this one (it’s told in something of a diary style) and the historic context was quite believable.
Firefly by Whitney Hamilton follows the intersection of two southern women during and after the war, one a widow struggling to keep her farm going, the other a woman who served in the Confederate army in male disguise. Reviews on this book are passionate in several directions. Many readers were drawn in by the story, but several were concerned that it painted a too-rosy picture of social and political issues underlying the war particularly with regard to race.
Promising Hearts by Radclyffe also hinges on a character who participated in the war in disguise (this ends up being a very strong trend in this set of books). This time the woman is a surgeon who comes out of the war wounded in body and spirit and heads West where she encounters an archetypal madam with a heart of gold. Reviews were impressed with the intensity of the story but some felt the short length was a bit too packed with details to do justice to the characters.
House of Clouds by K. I. Thompson has the set-up for an enemies to lovers romance with a staunch Union loyalist and actress turning spy until she’s confronted with the need to betray the woman she loves--the daughter of a Confederate officer. Reviewers seem to agree that it’s more of a strong historical novel--full of nuanced and accurate details--that has a romance sub-plot, but is not primarily a romance story.
Words Heard in Silence by T. Novan and Taylor Rickard blends the two popular motifs of a woman serving in the army in male disguise and throwing two people from different sides of the conflict into close connection. Charlie Redmond--the soldier in disguise--commands a troop quartered at the Virginia farm of widow Rebecca Gaines. Their growing attraction threatens Charlie’s secret. Most reviews were enthusiastically positive, though with few details. Some felt the book’s origins as an episodic serial could have been cleaned up a bit more.
The War Between the Hearts by Nann Dunne braids together three of the popular themes in this group: gender disguise, spying, and romance between two women on opposite sides of the conflict. Sarah is a spy for the Confederate side, in male disguise and Faith the beloved enemy who betrays her and threatens any hope of a future. There weren’t a lot of reviews to judge by, but there seems to be agreement that this should be approached as a historic novel with a romance plot rather than as a category romance novel. This book has a sequel The Clash Between the Minds which follows the characters after the war as they struggle with the violence of the reconstruction era and face suspicion about their relationship now that gender disguise has been abandoned.
Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger isn’t precisely a Civil War novel. Teenage Connemara in the 1960s starts having visions of her Civil War era ancestor, an Irish indentured servant whose legacy involves a mystery and a curse for her to solve. Reviews are generally positive, but the focus of the story is split between the two eras, so it may not answer the original request for Civil War stories.
Divided Nation, United Hearts by Yolanda Wallace once more brings together the themes of a woman serving in the military in male disguise and sparks between two women on opposite sides of the war. Reviews were very mixed on this book with some loving it wholeheartedly and others feeling the pacing was off and the romance thread rushed and weak.
Beguiled and Her Beguiling Bride by Paisley Smith are a series that starts with the requisite Union woman in disguise as a soldier ending up wounded in the hands of the mistress of a southern plantation. The second volume continues into the Reconstruction era when the two must make hard choices to keep their land. Unlike most of the books in this list, these fall solidly in the category of erotica, and some reviewers who were expecting something more in the line of historical fiction felt a little short-changed. Comments suggest that these are both more novella length than full novels.
Sabre by Rhavensfyre is another very short erotic piece, following the familiar themes of a soldier in male disguise and the woman who discovers her secret. Reviewers seemed to feel that it should have been longer and the comments weren’t detailed enough for further evaluation.
For those who feel the whole motif of women cross-dressing as men to become soldiers and spies in wartime is a bit over the top in terms of believability, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project reviewed an article on the narratives of real-life crossdressing women in the 17th through early 20th centuries that includes figures from the Civil War era like Ellen Craft, a black woman used a combination of gender-disguise and the fact that her skin was fairly light to play the role of a white southern slave owner in order to enable her darker-skinned husband, William to escape slavery. And Cuban-born Texan Loreta Janeta Velazquez who accompanied her lover in battle in disguise, after his death continued serving the Confederacy as a spy. Although these women were not lesbians, their lives demonstrate that the motifs used in these novels are within the realm of historical accuracy.
You can find links to all of these publications in the show notes.