Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 18a - On the Shelf for January 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2018.
Fiction Submissions Open
It’s new year with a lot of exciting things to look forward to. By the time you’re listening to this, the submissions period for our new fiction series is well underway. The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be presenting original audio fiction in our occasional 5th week episode. Submissions are open duing the month of January and we’ll be buying at least two stories to produce. For more details and submission requirements, go to alpennia-dot-com and look under the LHMP tab for the call for submissions, or look for the link in the show notes.
One of the purposes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has always been to promote and encourage the writing of great lesbian historical fiction and we’re really excited to do so in this very direct fashion!
Publications on the Blog
For the last month and continuing on through January, the blog has been covering articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which combines a variety of approaches to lesbian themes in history with a consideration of the nature of historic research and analysis. The authors ask important questions about the importance of lesbian history, especially when challenged both from the directions of “what do we mean by lesbian?” and “what do we mean by history?”
I’m doubling up on the articles, since many of them are either short or addressing topics that are tangential to the focus of the Project. In December we covered thoeretical considerations from authors like Valerie Traub, Anne Laskaya, Lara Farina, and Carla Freccero. There are comparisons of how lesbians and dedicated virgins presented similar challenges to the male power structure and the ways in which women-only communities such as convents created a context for bonds between women. Several articles look at examples of non-traditional relationships that have resonances for lesbian history, such as same-sex relationships that result in pregnancy in Indian legend, and grave memorials in England that commemorate same-sex pairs using symbolism reminiscent of marriage.
Moving into January, Helmut Puff looks at how the language used to talk about same-sex desire gives us clues to the prevalence of knowledge about non-normative sexuality in early modern Europe. Heike Bauer returns to a more theoretical concern in looking at the concept of periodization in historical study and how this framework acts to center men’s experiences and erase women’s. Lillian Faderman discusses the advantages and problems with having a personal stake in the pursuit of history while Elizabeth Freeman looks at historical theories as a type of philosophical or religious practice and challenges the ways in which queer theorists have often forgotten the roots of their movement in lesbian and feminist historical studies.
The collection moves on to a series of articles summing up the topics and looking to the future. Linda Garber examines the political consequences of historical frameworks while Martha Vicinus reflects on how the life of Victorian author Vernon Lee embodies many of the problems of analysis. Robyn Wiegman addresses the ways in which movements in historic study represent chains of reaction against what came before and challenges claims that the very concept of lesbian history is anachronistic--or at least any more anachronistic than other topics covered under queer studies.
I found this collection to be dense and challenging, but not in a bad way. When I read about the debates and conflicts in academic considerations of the history of sexuality, I see regular parallels with the treatment of history in lesbian fiction. I would love to have a chance to bring authors and academics together to explore those parallels.
This month’s author guest will be Kathleen Knowles who has written a series of connected novels set in the San Francisco Bay Area around the time of the Great Quake. A bit of trivia: although Kathy and I only recently reconnected around the topic of lesbian historical fiction, we worked for the same biotech company back in the ‘80s and I was delighted to have a chance to include her in the interview series.
This month’s As Sappho question is from Nina, via the Lesbian Review facebook group, who writes, “Can anyone recommend older literature with subtle (or not so subtle) sapphic undertones? I just read Cousin Bette and really enjoyed the little lesbian romance going on between Valerie and Bette. Apparently the Victorian era had lots of these covert lesbian romance narratives, and I need more!”
For those who are interested in 19th century literature with lesbian themes, there are several books that discuss the topic and have many examples you might be interested in tracking down. Emma Donoghue’s book Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature traces several running themes in Western literature from the Renaissance through the 20th century and has an extensive list of works mentioned. Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men looks extensively at how women’s relationships are treated in fiction, especially during the 18th through 20th centuries. If you want to look at some excerpts before tracking down old novels, Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism includes many excerpts, along with a discussion of the context in which they were written. Another anthology of this type is Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian and Bisexual Literature from the 17th Century to the Present, edited by Lillian Faderman. Also useful is Jeanette H. Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature.
In the 19th century, there are two very different strains of literature that include sapphic undertones. Cousin Bette published in 1846 by French author Honoré de Balzac, represents the themes of lesbian desire as shocking and decadent. Either the reality or the implication of desire between women was used by these authors as the epitome of predatory evil. The supposedly innocent women who are drawn into the coils of their lesbian protagonists descended into madness, drug addiction, and death unless rescued at the last minute by the jealous and possessive love of a man. (Alternately, the women triumph leaving the male protagonist in suicidal despair.)
Novels in this strain were generally written by men and intended primarily for male audiences. Another novel by de Balzac that falls in this genre is The Girl with the Golden Eyes, published in 1833. Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire novel Carmilla published in 1872 is an example that has gained some renewed popularity. Other so-called classics in this field are Emile Zola’s Nana (1880) about lesbian relationships among the French demi-monde. A book that stops somewhat short the usual tragic or catastrophic climax is Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin published in 1835. It is inspired extremely loosely by the life of 17the century biseuxal opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny but has turned her into something of a gender-queer rival of the protagonist in a romantic triangle.
The other genre of 19th century literature with sapphic themes comes out of the Romantic Friendship movement and is dominated by female authors, though men wrote in this field as well. Here, the sexual aspects of the relationships tend to be more sublimated and the focus is on the development of an intense emotional partnership that rivals--though not always successfully--the expectation of heterosexual marriage. In this genre we find a few rare stories that both depict women’s relationships positively and allow them a happy ending. There are many excellent examples of this genre from the 18th century, such as Sarah Scott’s utopian A Description of Millennium Hall from 1762, but I’ll focus here on a few from the 19th century.
The Rebel of the Family published by Eliza Lynn Linton in 1880 depicts relationships among a group of women involved in the early suffrage movement. It’s likely that a modern reader will view the protagonists more favorably than the author intended. And the depiction of the women forming passionate same-sex households will have different resonances today. Henry James’s The Bostonians written in 1886 covers similar themes of early feminism and the rivalry between a woman and a man for the love of the female protagonist. The man wins in the end, but the women’s love is depicted in a postive light. There is a film version of this story people might be interested in.
A much more positive outcome--at least by the standards of the audience of this podcast--comes in Florence Converse’s 1897 novel Diana Victrix. As one might guess from the title, here the women’s love is victorious against assault by a male suitor.
In a departure from my usual custom of putting buy links on the show notes, this time I decided to include links to Project Gutenberg, a site that offers free e-books of texts in the public domain. Rather annoyingly, I found that of the 9 books I mentioned, all 6 of the books with male authors were available there, while only 1 of the 3 with female authors was there. I don’t think this is random coincidence. For the last two books I’ve linked to archive.org. And because I often find that older literature is easier to manage in audio format than on the page, I’ve also linked to audiobook versions at the free crowd-sourced public domain site Librivox.org, which I highly recommend to those who enjoy both audiobooks and classic literature.
Faderman, Lillian (ed). 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian and Bisexual Literature from the 17th Century to the Present. Viking, xx. ISBN 978-0-670-84638-4 (not yet blogged in the LHMP)
Gautier, Théophile. 1835. Mademoiselle de Maupin. (ebook)
Zola, Emile. 1880. Nana. (ebook)
Novels of Romantic Friendship
Converse, Florence. 1897. Diana Victrix. (ebook)
Linton, Eliza Lynn. 1880. The Rebel of the Family. (ebook)
Scott, Sarah. 1762. A Description of Millennium Hall. (ebook)