Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16c - Book Appreciation with Farah Mendlesohn
Farah talks about two novels by Ellen Galford that she really enjoys for their historic elements. (And incidentally inspired me to add Moll Cutpurse to the topic list for the podcast.)
* * *
(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: Farah Mendlesohn, author of the Regency era romance, Spring Flowering, is joining us again this week to talk about some of her favorite historic novels featuring lesbians or bisexual women. Welcome, Farah!
Farah Mendlesohn: Hello!
H: Tell me about some of your favorite historic stories.
F: Okay, so the one I picked is one of my favorites; it’s Ellen Galford’s Moll Cutpurse.
H: Oh, yeah.
F: Which, I don’t know how many people will have read it because it’s not in print anymore as far as I know. Although, I think it might be available in ebook. It’s set in 17th century London and I’ve already mentioned [see: episode 16b] that the 17th century is an absolute passion of mine. It’s actually the Restoration period and Moll Cutpurse is actually a character originally devised by Daniel Defoe, who I think is so much more interesting than most people realize. [Correction: Daniel Defoe’s character was Moll Flanders, who was entirely fictional.] He was a social satirist. A lot of his stuff is taught straight when actually it’s more like Dickens, it’s coruscating criticism of society. But he has this character, Moll Cutpurse, who is a thief, a runner of thieves, a general bad girl who dresses in men’s clothing and smokes a pipe.
Ellen Galford, who’s a feminist writer who did most of her writing in the late 80s, wrote this lovely take on her, in which she’s essentially a very butch lesbian, very sweet, shy sixteen year-old who is terribly jealous of a man who seduces the girl she loves until she meets the apothecaries daughter who says, ‘Actually, I much prefer women and let me show you what having a woman’s body can be like.’
What I loved about it was it’s not a coming out story in the conventional sense, there is none of this discussing, ‘Oh, we are this separate thing.’ It’s much more… this is something that women do, and some women only do it and some women do things with men too, but here is how we can enjoy ourselves. And that, within the thieves’ society, they set up a relationship that everybody around them respects and just kind of takes for granted. In terms of the 17th century and the Restoration era, to start with there is a man shortage. I don’t know if most people realize this, but the death rate of men in the English Civil War is higher than in the first World War. It’s something like one man in every ten is dead.
F: Okay, there’s lots of surplus women. Pepys talks in his diary about desperately trying to find a husband for his sister, dowries are shooting up, but one of the things Defoe talks about in Moll Flanders, that’s a book that’s often described as a romp, but it’s actually about the sexual exploitation of a young girl in a period when men can have their pick and do. [Note: this is accurate for Moll Flanders but not for Moll Cutpurse.] The king, of course, is setting the tone. That’s often written about as if that’s nice and jolly. I find it fascinating, Victorian writers don’t approve, but writers of the 60s often do. Actually, it’s a nasty exploitative period and one of the things Galford manages to do is to show how the relationship between the two women helps protect them from that. That it actually gives them family, community, people to be with.
It’s just lovely and I love the fact that it’s not explicit in the pornographic sense, but there’s a scene in it when Moll’s lover, whose name I can’t remember, I’m afraid, is touching her breasts and lifts her breasts in a way that struck me as a very female on female thing to do. That sense of feeling breasts as kind of part of somebody, rather than just admiring them, looking at them in the way that you find in a lot of heterosexual romances. The only way I can describe it is, you can feel the weight of Moll’s breasts in her hand and that sense of weight of them is… I don’t know, whenever I read lesbian erotica that’s one of the things I always see that I don’t see in heterosexual erotica and romance, if that makes sense. That physicality of the female body.
I just love the book. Oh, and it ends with the traditional scene of Moll Cutpurse in the pillory and she has to give this speech and she turns it into what we would now think of as almost rap music. Because in the 17th century we start seeing the convention of the confession speech.
F: It’s a genre in itself, it really is. There’s lovely book called The Victorian Invention of Murder that talks about this. In this book, Moll Cutpurse uses that talk about herself to frame herself, to narrate herself in what we would now think of as quite a post-modern way but is actually more common to the 17th century than it is to the 19th.
H: Yeah, and another thing I love about stories about Moll Cutpurse is that the historic figure, to the extent that we have information on her, was just as wonderfully outrageous.
F: Oh, she was clearly a character. One of the other things about the 17th century, of course, is that the second half, from the Civil War onwards, is the period of News scenes, it’s when newspapers are growing up. They start to create what we would now call celebrity culture.
F: They wanted to write about the likes of Moll and the likes of Moll realized that they could use the newspapers. They can use these journals and you can see that lovely give and take. She’s not a victim, she creates herself and Ellen Galford really puts that over.
H: Yeah, and there’s, not just in England, but in the 17th century there’s Spanish examples where using the cultural celebrity was a way of protecting yourself if you were a gender outlaw.
F: Absolutely, you become bigger than life. You become somebody that they can’t touch because the stories are so wild, they cannot possibly be true and that’s a very good way to hide reality.
H: I think you mentioned that there was another of Ellen Galford’s books that you really enjoyed.
F: Yes, when you first suggested this to me, I didn’t quite realize you wanted historical novels. I thought we’d just on the romance and I adore Fires of Bride, which does have a historic element. So that’s about an artist who paints these amazing pictures of saints for her first exhibit and then loses all kinds of impetus and takes up an offer of a female Scottish doctor to go and reside in this woman’s castle… It’s all terribly gothic, where they have a torrid romance for the winter and then get bored of each other. The doctor moves her into an area on the island where she starts creating artwork from bits of scrap metal. Then they discover the old abbey that was they’re in the early-medieval period, the kind of last outpost of Christianity before it’s nothing but dragons and sea monsters, and they discover the buried skeleton, or the abandoned skeleton, of a young woman and get flashbacks into the Viking raid that destroyed the convent.
H: Yeah, I thought I remembered the historic part.
F: Yeah, and there’s romance in there and a real sense of women as a community. The things that really come through in that book is women acting for each other. At one point the local tourist factory essentially gets taken over by a women’s co-op to turn out political Scottish tea towels, talk about witch burnings, and throwing stools at priests. Although there are men in the book, the entire book is very woman-centered. The men kind of drift to the background right the way through. There are several torrid romances and there is also love. What I loved about that book is that they’re not the same thing and I found that really interesting because I’m very much somebody who decided in her life that torrid romance and love and actually getting on with my life didn’t necessarily go together. I quite like a quiet life, thank you very much. This book very much tackles the different ways of loving, the different ways of being in love, in ways that are just fantastic. Again, it’s very earthy, it’s very physical. I think I’m very attracted to writing that gets the physicality of women. A book that I love, but never quite fell in love with, was Tipping the Velvet.
H: Uh huh.
F: I don’t think I ever quite fell in love with Tipping the Velvet because it’s almost too unphysical for me. I know there’s descriptions of sex in there, but what there isn’t, is that sense of the scent and feel of a woman. There isn’t that visceral-ness. What I look for in romantic writing is that connection to the visceral. We’re not talking erotica here, just that sense of the other person’s physical being that I think Ellen Galford gets beautifully.
H: Well, thank you so much for sharing some of your favorite books with us. All the books that were discussed here will be linked in the show notes for people to follow-up on them, and thank you again, Farah, for joining us on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
F: Thank you.