(Originally aired 2020/10/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2020.
I hope you’re all managing to get by in these Covid times. This year feels unreal in so many ways. I spent a lot of September being even more of a shut-in than usual due to the smoke from our fires here in California, and then from the ones in Oregon too. My brother had to evacuate from his place near Santa Cruz for a couple of weeks, but fortunately his house wasn’t touched. And then, of course, there’s the looming dread that I don’t talk about in specifics much on this podcast.
We are living in historic times in so many ways. I hope we’re all living them in a way we’ll be proud to look back on. For now, I count the time in six months of working from home, three self-performed haircuts, a quarter as many miles on my car compared to commuting, five quarts of tomato sauce preserved from my garden, three regular weekly zoom chat groups, and an ever growing list of what I want to do once we have a well-distributed vaccine. I work in the pharmaceutical industry, so I know what a good vaccine development timeline looks like, and it’s going to be a while yet, but we’ll get there.
The past month has been full of a lot of work on the new podcast site that I announced in the last On the Shelf show. I’d been planning a staycation in the beginning of the month – I mean, what kind of vacation is there except a staycation these days? But this time I wasn’t scheduling it to coincide with a convention or anything like that. It was all about setting up the new podcast account, working on formatting material for the existing legacy episodes, oh, and in the middle of that, finally taking the plunge and moving my life and my brain over to my new laptop.
Everything is chugging along now on the new podcast site. At the time I’m writing this, I have about a third of the legacy shows uploaded, and all the podcast distribution sites are live. So you can follow the show on Podbean, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, or YouTube. The direct links to the show at all those sites are now set up on the Podcast Index page on my blog. See the show notes for an easy link.
If you’re listening to this show, chances are you may have been a subscriber for some time. But if you only joined recently and want to catch up on the early shows, then subscribing to the new feed is an easy way to do that. If you’re one of the long-time listeners, then you may want to wait until the end of the month. Starting with the November On the Shelf episode, the show will be released in parallel on both sites for the last two months of the year, and then in January it will only be on the new feed. I’m feeling a bit anxious about how many people will follow me over, so you can help calm that anxiety by subscribing for the November and December shows. And if you really want to help my anxiety, give the new show some likes and reviews, especially if you’re listening through Apple Podcasts which tends to be the biggest venue.
And if you really, really want to let me know you love the podcast and blog—other than by saying so in public places where I can hear you--I have a Patreon. The current goal is for it to cover the podcast hosting fees, which it does. But it would be lovely to aspire to covering the cost of the fiction series as well. I don’t offer much in the way of special access or bonus material for Patreon subscribers—I mostly give everything away for free. But maybe you listeners could come up with some ideas for incentives. What would entice you to support the show? As long as it doesn’t involve extra time that I don’t have! I was trying out some micro-reviews for a few months, but I simply couldn’t keep up.
When January rolls around, not only will the new podcast site be completely switched over, but it will be submissions time again for the fiction series. While uploading legacy episodes to the new site, I’ve had a chance to remind myself of the great stories I’ve been able to publish in past years, and I’m looking forward to getting more great stories this time. In the interests of open communication, while I’ll be buying four stories, one of them has been commissioned, so the open submissions will be for three slots. I thought a long time about commissioning work, because I have two goals here. One is to give the listeners great fiction, but the other is to encourage writers to tackle sapphic historical stories. I’ve had the joy of being someone’s first professional sale several times and I never want to give that up. Rest assured, that if you send me a knock-my-socks-off great story, you have an excellent chance of making a sale, even with one fewer scheduling slot. For more information on what we’re looking for in fiction, check out the full call for submissions using the link in the show notes.
Publications on the Blog
As I mentioned last month, I’m tackling four thick books in a row currently, so it’s not surprising that September was taken up by two of them: Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, and Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. I’ve been tackling these with multiple posts for each book, and expect to do the same for the October books: Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928, and Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. These books touch on homoerotic desire to varying degrees, but all examine the ways and contexts in which that desire was normalized in western society in the last four centuries. And desire between women was normalized in various ways. Maybe not identically to how we view it today, but in ways that created many possibilities for successful relationships.
So what books have I acquired lately for the blog? While I don’t know whether I’ll blog it, the discussion in Rizzo’s book of 18th century courtesan Sophia Baddeley and her manager/companion Elizabeth Steele inspired me to download a copy of Steele’s biography of Baddeley from archive.org. You might not realize how valuable sites like archive.org and Gutenberg.org can be for access to early printed works. There’s been a lot of buzz recently about archive.org’s very badly thought out program of offering a “library” of recent books that are under copyright. Tensions are high enough between ebook publishers and regular library ebook lending systems without someone tossing a new “disruptive” approach into the works. They’re getting slapped down for that rather solidly, and I hope that the library of long out of copyright early printed works doesn’t become collateral damage.
Another passing reference in Rizzo’s book to E.J. Burford’s Wits, Wenches, and Wantons that evidently discusses 18th century lesbian bordellos in London inspired me to order it. Rizzo indicated that Burford provides no solid citation for the reference, but I’ll check it out for myself. I’ve run across a few other references to sex work targeting female clients and the contexts can make it hard to know fact from gossip and innuendo. But even the existence of the concept in past cultures is fascinating. Some day when I have enough information I should do a podcast on that topic. (I just added it to my ideas list.) This month’s essay is on a related topic, but there’s scope for more.
For the essay this month, I thought I’d take on an 18th century topic to go with the current blog theme. I tend to be a little resistant to the principle of “sex sells”, but maybe I can grab some ears with a discussion of the fictional 18th century French lesbian sex club, the “Anandrine Society”. I’ll see what sorts of quotations from the literature I can find that won’t be too over the top!
This month’s author guest will be Samantha Rajaram, whose debut novel The Company Daughters comes out this month. If it weren’t for quarantine, we might be doing the interview in person, since she’s relatively local to me. Alas, it isn’t to be. I’m really missing face-to-face socializing.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
We have a lot of recent and new books this month: five from September that weren’t announced yet when I put together last month’s show, and five in October. In general, the books I don’t know about until after they’re published are from indie authors, and it’s really easy for me to miss these. Or to not find them until several months have gone by and it’s too late to include them in the podcast. So if you’re an indie author with an upcoming sapphic historical—or you know someone in that category—drop me a note about the book. I hope I’m not overstating the case to say that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is an excellent opportunity to target your readership for this genre. One of the ways I love giving back to the book community is by spreading the word about the books my listeners might be looking for.
The September books include two non-English books that look interesting.
Un Amour Révolutionnaire (A Revolutionary Love) self-published by Laurie Miquel is in French and would have fit nicely into my book appreciation show last month. I’ve included the original cover copy in the transcript, but here’s a translation with the help of Google Translate.
1754, quelques années avant la révolution française, Adrien de Noailles naît. Le poids d’un nom, d’un héritage familial et d’une carrière n’est pas des plus facile à porter, d’autant plus lorsque l’on est une femme contrainte par son père de prendre l’identité d’un homme. Son titre de capitaine de la garde royale, chargée de la protection de Marie-Antoinette, requiert patience et retenue. Aux premières loges des tensions naissantes entre la monarchie et le peuple français, Adrien va croiser la route de Margot, issue d’une classe inférieure, qui l’amènera à trouver sa place et son identité. Entre révoltes, complots, devoir et amour, suivez la vie d’Adrien à une époque où les privilèges régissent le royaume de France.
1754, a few years before the French Revolution, Adrien de Noailles was born. The weight of a name, a family heritage and a career is not the easiest to bear, especially when you are a woman forced by your father to take the identity of a man. Her title is of captain of the royal guard, responsible for the protection of Marie-Antoinette, a responsibility requiring patience and restraint. At the forefront of the emerging tensions between the monarchy and the French people, Adrien will cross paths with Margot, a working class girl, who will lead her to find her place and her identity. Between revolts, plots, duty, and love, follow the life of Adrien at a time when the privileged governed the kingdom of France.
So evidently even when French people set sapphic fiction in the 18th century, it’s all about the Revolution.
The second non-English book is Plumerie, self-published by P. De Donno in Italian, but set in England. The cover copy says it’s what happens when Twelfth Night and Pride and Prejudice collide.
Ambientato nel pieno del diciannovesimo secolo a Kensington, un quartiere Londinese. Annabell Lorrain è la figlia di Claude Lorrain, ereditiero di un latifondo dopo la morte del padre. A causa dell'inesperienza di Claude, Claire viene assunta fingendosi un uomo per poter lavorare. Annabell inizia a nutrire dell'interesse nei confronti di quest'ultimo. (oppure: quando "Twelfth Night" e "Pride and Prejudice" si incontrano)
Set in the middle of the 19th century in Kensington, a London neighborhood. Annabell Lorrain is the daughter of Claude Lorrain, heir to a large estate after the death of her father. Due to Claude's inexperience, Claire is hired posing as a man in order to work. Annabell begins to take an interest in the latter.
So…not much, but something intriguing if you’re looking for something to read in Italian.
Another new mid-19th century novel is Stein Willard’s self-published The Discreet Servant.
Married life was sheer torture for Jane. She never wanted a husband in the first place—especially, not so soon after the loss of her beloved parents. However, social norms in nineteenth century England dictated that a young, beautiful heiress needed to have a handsome, successful man by her side. That was the picture perfect depiction of 19th century England. Hirsh has acted out many personas in her life, but the one of loyal, discreet servant was by far the toughest act she ever had to portray. It might’ve been easier had she not been head over heels in love with the tragic, young woman, who also happened to be her employer. For survival’s sake, she donned the cloak of discretion and submission, even though her very nature rebelled violently against the injustice playing out before her eyes.
Lara Kinsey has a second self-published short story out in her series about two older women finding each other around the turn of the 20th century: Blooming in the Sun. The previous installment came out in June.
The Riviera is vast and full of secrets. Dorothea has spent two years as Headmistress Smythe-Barney, and she deserves a summer vacation. Now she's hungry for her own legacy, and there's no better place than Italy for an amateur linguist to learn more tongues. Madame Nicolette Laurent is growing older, bien sûr, and the chance to make her mark on the Riviera is not to be missed. Can our uprooted lovers find a place to bloom?
And the final September book has only a brief description in the cover copy. This is Smuggled Love self-published by Robert Lee Davies. It looks like the author has previously published a gay male romance set during World War II, but I know nothing else about him or the book.
During World War II, two girls fall in love in a small Canadian town ... only to find themselves in a fight against the cruelty of society.
The five October books are mostly from mainstream presses, with one contribution from Bold Strokes Books, a new World War II novel from Justine Saracen: To Sleep with Reindeer.
Norwegian Kirsten Brun, a Nazi resister, has one mission: destroy the installation that produces the chemicals Germany needs for an atomic weapon. Unfortunately, her first attempt fails, leaving her injured and unconscious in the Arctic snow. The Indigenous Sami people have tried to remain outside the conflict, but when Marrit Ragnar and the reindeer she herds discover Kristen and save her life, joining the battle is inevitable. A misfit in her own culture, Marrit participates in the second destruction attempt in order to avenge the killing of her family. Kirsten’s and Marrit’s feelings for each other grow deeper, but each attack they join is costly in blood and conscience and nearly tears them apart. Should they carry on with the carnage for a questionable cause, or retreat north with the gentle reindeer?
In the same era, but a very different setting, is Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood from Random House.
It's 1942 and Willowjean "Will" Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York's best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost. When the dapper detective summons Will a few days later, she doesn't expect to be offered a life-changing proposition: Lillian's multiple sclerosis means she can't keep up with her old case load alone, so she wants to hire Will to be her right-hand woman. In return, Will will receive a salary, room and board, and training in Lillian's very particular art of investigation. Three years later, Will and Lillian are on the Collins case: Abigail Collins was found bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball following a big, boozy Halloween party at her home--her body slumped in the same chair where her steel magnate husband shot himself the year before. With rumors flying that Abigail was bumped off by the vengeful spirit of her husband (who else could have gotten inside the locked room?), the family has tasked the detectives with finding answers where the police have failed. But that's easier said than done in a case that involves messages from the dead, a seductive spiritualist, and Becca Collins--the beautiful daughter of the deceased, who Will quickly starts falling for. When Will and Becca's relationship dances beyond the professional, Will finds herself in dangerous territory, and discovers she may have become the murderer's next target. A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of 1940s New York, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fresh homage to Holmes and Watson reads like the best of Dashiell Hammett and introduces an audacious detective duo for the ages.
There’s an intriguing blend of witchcraft and suffragettes in Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches from Redhook. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it’s from her highly praised fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This book has more than a little dash of fantasy as well.
In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in Alix E. Harrow's powerful novel of magic and the suffragette movement. In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box. But when the Eastwood sisters -- James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna -- join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote -- and perhaps not even to live -- the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive. There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines from William Morrow is described as “The Favourite meets The Haunting of Hill House in this highly imaginative and original highbrow horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls, a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit—and the highly-anticipated adult debut from the award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Well, that’s quite an endorsement!
Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, author of a scandalous bestselling memoir that transforms these acolytes into bold rebels. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, a seeming paradise, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered, a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, the School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling manner. Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” gilded-age institution. Her bestseller inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells, as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.
And the final October book is from this month’s guest author, Samantha Rajaram: The Company Daughters from Bookouture.
Wanted: Company Daughters. Virtuous young ladies to become the brides of industrious settlers in a foreign land. The Company will pay the cost of the lady’s dowry and travel. Returns not permitted, orphans preferred. Amsterdam, 1616. Jana Beil has learned that life rarely provides moments of joy. Having run away from a violent father, her days are spent searching for work in an effort to stay out of the city brothels, where desperate women trade their bodies for a mouthful of bread. But when Jana is hired as a servant for the wealthy and kind Master Reynst and his beautiful daughter Sontje, Jana’s future begins to look brighter. Then Master Reynst loses his fortune on a bad investment, and everything changes. The house is sold to creditors, leaving Jana back on the streets and Sontje without a future. With no other choice, Jana and Sontje are forced to sign with the East India Company as Company Daughters: sailing to a colonial outpost to become the brides of male settlers they know nothing about. With fear in their hearts, the girls begin their journey – but what awaits them on the other side of the world is nothing like what they’ve been promised…
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? I’ve broken my slump, hooray! In the past month I read Claire O’Dell’s short story “Journal of a Plague Summer” in her Janet Watson series. And I read Lily Maxton’s Regency novella A Lady’s Desire. And I’m in the middle of Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian historic fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn, which is really excellent. I’m trying to make more of a push to read the books my guests will be talking about before we record. That’s often a tight schedule, but I’m excited about several that are coming up.
And what sapphic historicals have you been excited to read lately? Do you have a particular historic theme or setting that you’d love to talk about in a book appreciation segment? When I move to the new format next year where the interviews are included in the On the Shelf episodes, I’ll have plenty of opportunities for people to do very brief book chats. Reach out if you’re interested.
Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online