Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16b - Interview with Farah Mendlesohn
This month's author interview is with Hugo Award-winning academic writer of literary analysis Farah Mendlesohn, who is taking her first step into being a fiction author this month with her lesbian Regency romance Spring Flowering. We had a lovely discussion about the varying attitudes toward same-sex relationships in different eras and the challenges of writing historical fiction.
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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)
Heather Rose Jones: Today, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to welcome author Farah Mendleson to the show. Farah, I’m so glad you could join us.
Farah Mendlesohn: Thank you. It’s fantastic, particularly as we’re doing this across the Atlantic.
H: Yes! I’m going to start off with a slightly different opening question than I usually ask authors. Farah, you’ve written a number of critical studies of science fiction and fantasy literature. You’ve even won a Hugo award for co-editing the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. You’re currently working on a massive definitive study of the works of Robert Heinlein. So, why is your first novel a historical novel rather than a fantasy or science fiction?
F: Oh. Well, first of all, because I’ve never been any good at writing science fiction, which is what I would write if I could. I must say, here, I never intended to be a fiction writer. I may be the only person you ever interview who never wrote fiction as a child unless absolutely forced to. Did it once as an undergraduate because the alternative was a major theoretical essay that, of course, I had not understood one word of. I was teaching creative writing a few years ago and a colleague who shall be nameless turned ‘round and said I shouldn’t be teaching creative writing unless I’d written fiction.
H: Oh, wow.
F: I was a bit irritated, so I spent the next year learning to write fiction. One of the people I modeled myself on is a British Children’s writer called Geoffrey Trease because he always wrote 60,000-word books. Because I’m very much a structuralist, I could break them down, and I could see what he was doing. I used his work as a model and wrote several historical pieces because all my degrees are in history. I’m not a literature person at all. I have three degrees in history.
H: That was actually something that was going to come up later in the interview because it looked like all of your teaching work has been in Literature.
F: No, not at all. I started out in American Studies, moved into History when American Studies started to fold in the UK, which it did across the country. Then I got pulled into Cultural Studies and then somebody said, ‘We need somebody to teach horror! You know lots about science fiction!’ I have no idea what the connection is. I found myself being pulled into the publishing department because of my work on science fiction conventions and work with publishers. That’s how I ended up drifting, but I’ve hardly ever taught straight Literature.
H: What’s your specialty in History? Other than American Studies.
F: Well, I trained in 1930s American History. I have a passion for the English Civil War and my current critical book is a book about Children’s Literature written about the English Civil War, which is fascinating.
H: That’s pretty specialized.
F: Yeah, it really is riveting. There is almost nothing more exciting than the English Civil War for all sorts of reasons, not least because the rate of literacy was at an all time high and lots of people from sections of society you would not expect, either to have left documents or to be engaged in politics, left documents and were engaged in politics. I mean, how can you resist Brilliana Harley, who in one breath is telling her son to send home some socks so that she can re-knit them, and in the next is writing him about the arguments between Parliament and the King. This is amazing stuff! But the Regency, of course we all read Georgette Heyer.
F: It’s just a part of growing up and the early 19th century got more and more interesting to me through reading a book by somebody called Jenny Uglow called In These Times. It’s about Britain during the years of the Napoleonic War. Stuff I had never quite understood about that period started to make a lot more sense, which is that Britain is under siege, it’s poor, it’s isolated, and it’s insular. Also, by the end of the war it’s got a man shortage. All the things I realized I was fascinated by is that Georgette Heyer starts writing about the Regency during the man-shortage in the 20s and 30s.
H: Oh, I hadn’t made that connection. Yeah!
F: What she’s replicating is the post-Waterloo situation. The two periods actually match quite neatly in terms of the romantic stresses of the period. That, I think, might be why the stories she tells work so well for her initial audience. That’s why you have quite a lot of characters in it that are older women who missed out because their generation died on the field of Waterloo. It’s a fascinating period and it’s one that a lot of people don’t really make enough of when they’re writing that period. They always tend to focus on London or the countryside, when it’s the period that the great cities, like Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds are rising up. I come from Birmingham and if you come from Birmingham, you tend to be a bit of a patriot. It’s a lot like Chicago. If you think of the atmosphere of Birmingham of being very similar to Chicago, that sense of being a second capital.
H: Uh huh. I was thinking that what you were saying about the types of stories that get written during a man shortage that, with the American Civil War, the same dynamic was part of what contributed to women’s relationships, the whole romantic friendship/Boston marriage era. Where women were making their own households because they were extra.
F: Ooo. This is total piece of trivia. One of the writers I’ve been looking at this week is an American writer called Marie Beulah Dix, I think I’ve got her name right. She is an American, Boston woman who wrote historical fiction, which is very good, two of which are set in the English Civil War, who had close relationships with her female publisher and another writer and never got married. One of her stories is about a girl dressing up as a boy to go off to the war, because this child desperately wants to be a boy. There’s a lovely line in it about, ‘Any sensible girl has always wanted to be a boy.’ (chuckling) Little red flags going off everywhere. I think she went to Radcliffe and I’d love to find out more about her. Obviously, a late 19th century lesbian writer.
H: Let’s move on specifically to your book. I think it has become apparent in our discussion that this is a Regency romance type. Let me read the cover blurb for Spring Flowering. I got the cover blurb to work from because, at the time we’re recording, the book hasn’t actually come out yet. Though it will be out, as I understand, by the time we air. Here’s the blurb, “Everything changes for Ann Gray when her father dies, and her closest friend Jane marries and moves away. Ann must give up the independence and purpose she found as mistress of her father's parsonage in the country and move to her uncle and aunt's new-style house in the growing city of Birmingham. The friendship of Ann's cousins - especially the mathematically inclined Louisa - is some compensation for freedoms curtailed. But soon Ann must consider two very different proposals, either of which will bring yet more change. Should she return to her village home as wife of the new parson Mr. Morden? Or become companion to the rather deliciously unsettling widow Mrs. King...?” Do you follow more Georgette Heyer or are you following Jane Austen? Is it more the modern Regency romance or…?
F: I don’t know. In some ways it’s not quite either, in that there are no grand happenings in this book. It’s a very straight-forward story in which Jane’s father dies and she goes to live with her family in Birmingham. She meets people and she starts to settle in and she starts to develop. It’s quite a domestic story, so in that sense probably closer to Jane Austen. But you can’t be Jane Austen because Jane Austen is writing for people who take for granted the world she’s writing about.
H: Yeah. Yes.
F: Very often it’s actually easy to misread. Just a little example. I had a PhD student who wrote about how Jane Austen’s work reflects the esteem in which the navy was held. Having read Jenny Uglow, I was able to say to her, ‘No, Jane Austen is writing about the esteem she wants the navy to be held in.’ The navy is actually looked down on in this period. Partially because it’s a vehicle for social mobility because it lets oiks become Admirals. Tut tut tut.
H: Yeah, that comes up in a number of places, I’ve noticed.
F: It does and she’s assuming lots of stuff that we can’t. Because I can’t assume, for example, that you know the city of Birmingham. I can’t assume that you know the button trade of Birmingham. Or, okay, so I had to set the book within a particular three years because if I didn’t there’s no theatre. Why is there no theatre? Because Birmingham is a Noncomformist city, I think the Unitarians are growing so fast… No, it’s the Methodists… They’re growing super-fast that they build three separate chapels on the same site over twenty years. The chapel part doesn’t stay big enough. I had to explain things like that, the fact that the Noncomformists are actually ok with things like music hall, because that’s just performance, but they aren’t okay with theatre because that’s pretending to be somebody else and that’s untruthful.
H: Yes, in the excerpt from the book that I saw on the website, it was clear that the nuances of the various religious movements were going to be key to some of the characters.
F: Yes, and that’s the kind of thing that a 19th century reader would take for granted, but I can’t just assume that a 21st century reader will know anything about. I didn’t actually include the Quakers even though it’s a group I know most about because 19th century Quakers don’t look anything like 17th or 20th century Quakers and getting into that, people wouldn’t believe me when I explained. They’re barely even pacifists in that period.
H: When you were writing this book, were you treating it sort of as an homage to the genre of literature or more as a historical project?
F: Actually, it was a challenge. A friend of mine, Jane Carnall(?), who I’ve known for many, many years, we were having a discussion about whether we thought you could write a lesbian Regency and she felt it couldn’t be done because you couldn’t get the hierarchies of the relationships right. I thought it could be as long as I stayed within certain conventions that were an issue in the period. There’s a very good book called, In the Georgian Household [note: Correct title is Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England] by Amanda Vickery.
H: I think I’ve got that book.
F: It talks about the degree to which industrialization left families very anxious about their daughters. A lot of the reason why some women stayed unmarried was because they didn’t get to meet men. If you look at the Victorians, they tend to marry cousins and friends of brothers, but they stay very much within the family because that way you can make sure your daughter is safe in a world that is increasingly full of strangers. I realized that I could meet some of Jane’s concerns if I moved Ann into a quite tight-knit context. All of Ann’s possible suitors are either relations or business partners, either of her father, the Parson, or of her uncle, Uncle Joshua. I wanted to make that work and that was part of the challenge that I set out to do. The other challenge was that I really wanted some sex. I didn’t want to write a coming out narrative, so this isn’t a coming out narrative. Not least because I don’t think the Georgian’s would have understood it that way. To start with, they were much more sexual beings than the Victorians. They were much more comfortable at talking about sex, they knew what underneath women’s skirts and men’s trouser flaps, because, well, 80% of the population is still rural in this period. They know what animals do.
H: Yeah, one of the things that I find interesting in talking to authors of lesbian historic fiction is how many of them don’t understand the cyclicity of sexuality and think that you go back to the Victorian era and everybody was uptight, and nobody had sex and it must have been like that all the way back in history.
F: But the Victorians had big families… (laughter)
H: Yes, I’m talking myths here.
F: You don’t get big families by not having sex! But I remember my father talking to me years ago when I very first told him about my sexuality, and he told me about the nice two ladies who lived next door and only had one bed. Everybody knew, but nobody talked about straight sex either. In some ways, the most tricky point for homosexuals has been when heterosexuals talk about sex publicly. When everybody’s not talking about it, it’s actually kind of easier. One of my aunts was known as a career girl, for example, and [can’t make out] she went out with her lady friends. I had no idea what it meant, but it was a perfectly acceptable term.
H: I still remember the point when my mother casually mentioned, while working on genealogy materials, that, ‘Oh, your grand-aunt so-and-so, she was a lesbian, you know.’ It’s like, ‘What, what, what, what?’ This one in the early part of the 20th century.
F: The question that most intrigues me is, how do you know they were having sex? Well, thanks to Marie Stopes, we know that quite a lot of straight couples weren’t either. As a definition of an emotional relationship, that’s just silly. But yes, there’s also this thing that sex may be fairly similar and not change much, although even then, different practices are acceptable at different points, and desirable at different points. But the way people come together, and bond, has often got much more to do with economics. One of the fascinating things, accounts, is of William of Orange and his wife, Mary, because there’s some suspicion that both of them were gay and that both of them had partners. There’s a fascinating book, now, let me get this right, they’re not authors I particularly go for… The author of Mapp and Lucia, his father was a bishop and was quite well known for the young men he hung out with, but his wife, and she had six kids, was very clearly a lesbian.
H: I think I have that book on my list to cover for my history blog.
F: It’s a wonderful book, it’s hilarious. But it is quite clear that in a world in which, for the Victorians, women aren’t supposed to very sexual, therefore what women are doing together can’t matter.
F: Now, the Georgians think otherwise. The Georgians think of women as predatory and their approach is different. But it’s perfectly plausible that their relatively homosocial world, for men and women to just be getting on with what they want to do, while coming together to produce children within the economic unit. Unless you find that utterly revolting, which some people do, but most people kind of got on with it and then…
H: Had their fun on the side.
F: Not necessarily even thinking of it that way, just thinking of it as an intimate friend with whom they kissed, petted, and patted.
H: Yeah. This is one thing that I find fascinating, looking at the researching of lesbian history and the writing of lesbian historical fiction, have the same problem that so many modern people are looking for an exact mirror in the past, instead of embracing the past for what it was.
F: Yes, and I think people have always made their lives and that at various points that has been interfered with, with whatever the current scare was which has been expressed in many different ways. I mean, some accusations of witchcraft were probably about sexual practices, but it’s hard to tell. What we cannot assume, though, is that people did not have close emotional and physical relationships because they probably did. But how they thought of them, that’s trickier. I gave to my two a more open and clear sexuality, in part because they’re Georgians, not Victorians, they’ve not grown up protected. They’ve grown up seeing animals do things. But also because I get really bored with coming out stories. Oh, and I get really bored with the one true love trope. I’m thinking of writing a sequel and it might get a little more complicated.
H: I agree with you on coming out stories. One of the reasons that I dug deep into starting my historic research project was because I wanted to write historic lesbian fiction and I didn’t want to write just a whole series of coming out stories. I wanted to know… what did they know? What community did they have?
F: And people do construct community. People know each other, people recognize each other. I said I’m thinking of a sequel and that will involve some of that construction of community.
H: Great, I’m looking forward to that. In addition to this sequel, are there any other projects of yours that you’d like to mention for the listeners?
F: I don’t think my other work would be remotely interesting to other people. Although, the book I haven’t finished is a book on the children’s historical writer Geoffrey Trease and I’ll be working on that later next year. If you’re interested in historical fiction, he’s fascinating because he starts writing in the 1930s, he’s a genuine communist fellow traveler, by which I mean he goes to all the meetings but doesn’t join. He writes some of the first, to use the American phrase, ‘co-ed’ historical fiction. From 1940, he always has a boy and a girl. He has an awful lot of cross-dressing girls. He tries to write feminist heroines from very, very early on before it’s a norm for male writers. That might interest people, but the romance work is definitely something I think I’m going to pursue. It was rather a shock when this got picked up. I should explain: I tend to blog when I’m writing, and I do it because people asking me questions about my writing keeps me going. This was actually a Nanowrimo project and, as I was blogging and got to the end of it, Fiona Pickles asked if she could read it and I said yes thinking nothing of it. The next thing I knew, I found myself with a contract offer, thinking, ‘What? But, but, but…!’ As anybody will tell you, I have been saying for twenty years, ‘Oh, I’m not a writer, it’s just that I have things to say and the only way I can do that is to write them down.’ I’ve now been told very firmly, I am not allowed to say that I’m not a writer anymore.
H: Uh huh. I assume the book will be available through all of the regular outlets, Amazon, etc.
F: Yeah. It’s a standard kindle book. I mean, if you want a description, I would say it’s nice, slushy, bedtime reading. It was never intended to be a super exciting thriller or anything like that. It was the kind of thing I would want to read at night in bed… with chocolate.
H: On the off-chance that our listeners find you utterly fascinating like I do and want to follow you online, do you have a blog, do you want to give out your twitter handle? Facebook?
F: I have my twitter handle which is @effjayem and I will also have a webpage going live probably this weekend. It’s already live, it just doesn’t have much on it. That’s my full name, which is, unfortunately, very difficult to spell, but if you put Farah Mendlesohn, I usually come up.
H: Yeah, I’ll put all of the links in the show-notes so that people can find you easily. Well, thank you again, Farah, for joining us on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
F: Thank you very much, it’s been a lot of fun.