(Originally aired 2021/03/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2021.
It’s tempting to open with some comment on how it’s now been an entire year for me of living under threat of Covid. A year of working from home and having only minimal face-to-face socializing. But honestly, I’m just tired. Not too tired to keep on plugging away at what it takes to help fight transmission, but tired of having our shared experiences all revolve around this ongoing disaster.
Have you ever read a novel about the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago? They’re out there, but for the most part it’s like the world collectively flinched away from it and moved on to the Roaring 20s. But part of what made those 20s roar was a manic relief at having survived. Survived World War I, survived the pandemic, survived the historic changes that happened in parallel with them.
One of the interesting things about historical fiction is how it can fasten itself to specific events—specific stories that can only happen in one particular time and place. Oh, you can have historical fiction with somewhat generic settings. I’ve read books where it was hard to tell what century the story was set in, the details were so generic! But there are events that nail a story down to a specific time. If you set a story during the Stonewall riots, there’s only one time and place you could be talking about. And there are settings where the omission of key features says a great deal about how we, collectively, have chosen to process and remember history. If you read a Regency romance that never mentions servants—or never mentions where the wealth that supported those balls and gowns came from--the author has failed to grapple with essential truths about their characters.
A hundred years from now, if people write novels set in the ‘20s and gloss over both the immense disruption this pandemic caused, and the societal failures that made it worse, they will not be writing historical fiction so much as fantasy. Will they choose to forget? To omit? To look away? Will someone, some day, write a novel set in 2020 that mysteriously fails to take note of what we’re going through? I wonder.
2021 Fiction Series
The podcast schedule means that last month’s episode was recorded too early to be able to announce the line-up for the 2021 fiction series. And presumably those who were eager to find out what stories we selected have already read about it on the blog. But for completeness’ sake, here’s what you can expect. The first story of the year, of course, was Diane Morrison’s “A Soldier in the Army of Love” which we bought last year. So this year’s picks include what will be the first story of the 2022 season, due to the same scheduling.
Selecting stories is a complex process. Is the story well written? Is the prose solid and competent and good at communicating the author's ideas? Does the story fit with the theme of the program? You might think that would be a given, but there's a lot of room for interpretation and differences of opinion. Does the story grab me and keep me reading? Does it start and end at the right places and is the chunk of story the right size for the word-count? Does the language of the story sing to me?
I'm a sucker for just plain beautiful writing. And by that I don't necessarily mean "pretty" writing, but the ability to use words not just to explain what's going on, but in the way that an artist uses brush strokes. This aspect can be very much a matter of personal taste, and very often it's the feature that helps me make that difficult choice between two excellent stories.
And finally, how does the story fit into the overall program? Do I have a balance of settings and themes? Have I made the series as diverse as possible, given the available materials? So: here are the stories that sang to me from this year's crop.
"Palio" by Gwen Katz - The fierce competition of the famous Siennese horse race, set in the 17th century.
"Moon River" by Mandy Mongkolyuth - Two young women join forces in the aftermath of the third Anglo-Burmese war in the late 19th century.
"Abstract" by Kat Sinor - Set at the dawn of history, two artists share their visions deep in a torch-lit cave.
"The Adventuress" by Catherine Lundoff - The further adventures of the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the courtesan-spy Celeste Girard as they hunt down a certain Englishwoman who may be in a similar business.
I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have!
Publications on the Blog
On the blog, I finished up the last article in the collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, which was Leslie Choquette’s “Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in Nineteenth-Century Paris.” It’s particularly interesting to see Paris developing as a center of a public and self-conscious queer culture during the era that we associate with sexual repression in the English-speaking world.
After that, I went back to my stock of downloaded journal articles, which will probably take up the next several months and be somewhat random in topic. First is Martha Vicinus’s “They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong” which takes an interesting look at the difference between the history of modern lesbian identity and the history of women loving women.”
Another article that contrasts historic and modern experiences is Katherine Binhammer’s "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought,” which finds some interesting parallels between the sexual insecurities of early proto-feminists, and the “sex wars” of second wave feminism.
I’ll finish out the month with Nan Alamilla Boyd’s very brief essay "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person” which also addresses the idea of what it is we study when we study lesbian history.
Book shopping for the blog has picked up again, since I was looking for an unrelated second-hand book and decided to pick up enough titles to get free shipping. (The unrelated book is America’s First Lady Boss by Curtiss S. Johnson, which is a biography of my great-great-grandmother, Margaret Getchell LaForge.) One book I’ve had my eye on for a while, but wanted to find second-hand is Norman W. Jones’s Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. It’s an academic study, and probably started life off as a thesis or something, so I have no idea how interesting it will be for the lay person. But I’m rather tickled at the idea of queer historical fiction being a topic of study.
The second is Anna Clark’s The History of Sexuality in Europe: A Sourcebook and Reader which is a collection of articles on a variety of themes, probably meant for use in a college class. The third title will be a bit of a challenge for me: Marie-Jo Bonnet’s Un choix sans équivoque. Recherches historiques sur les relations amoureuses entre les femmes xvie-xxe siècle, with a title that translates to An unequivocal choice. Historical research on romantic relationships between women of the 16-20th century. Have I mentioned that I’ve never actually studied French? But depending on the topic, I can muddle my way through, and this is said to be the definitive work on the history of lesbianism in France.
Last Month’s Essay
I was reminded of Bonnet’s book when doing the background research for last month’s essay on 17th century salonnière and fairy tale author Madame de Murat. (I was also reminded that I can muddle through French a little, when I found the French Wikipedia page on Murat more useful than the English one.) And speaking of that essay on Murat…
Interview with Mari Ness
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
This Month’s Essay
I enjoy doing the in-depth biographical essays like the one on Murat, but sometimes you want to remind people of the richness of the history out there with more of a brief skim through history. This month’s essay was inspired by a discussion online about yet another historical movie with sapphic themes that seems to have gone out of its way to pick a tragic story. One big problem with the love affair filmmakers have with tragic stories is that they leave the audience with the mistaken impression that there were no happy endings in history for women who loved women. So for this month’s essay, I’m doing a shopping list of actual historic women who lived interesting lives, loved other women, and did not have those relationships end in tragedy and misery. Hollywood, take note!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the new book announcements! Newly published sapphic historicals are unevenly distributed across the calendar at the moment. When I ran my searches for this month, I found only one title published in March, but a good half-dozen February books that hadn’t turned up last month.
And we’ll start by casting back to January. S.W. Andersen has a self-published series set in the wild west with a fierce gun-toting loner heroine. A Call to Justice is the third book in the series. I’m not sure if the series as a whole has a title. The protagonist, Sarah Sawyer, has settled down at last, but a thirst for justice, when tensions rise between settlers and the native population, leads her to pin on a badge.
The first February book is one I postponed from last month’s show because it’s an Audible Original and didn’t have a pre-order link until it came out. The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner is a gothic story inspired by Jane Eyre, in which the new governess is confused and intrigued by the mysterious woman confined in her employer’s house. Next month, we’ll have Rose on the show to talk about her book. If you love audio books, this story was designed for the audio format, though it will be available in print at a later date.
It's hard to evaluate how a memoir-style novel fits into historical fiction when it spans a long era culminating in the present. Sally Bellerose’s Fishwives, published by Bywater Books, sits in the Southern fiction tradition, following a life-long couple from their first meeting in the ‘50s through a lifetime of love, conflict, and growth.
Another book set in the ‘50s is G.B. Baldassari’s self-published Flying High, which looks to be riffing off the once-popular genre of flight attendant romance, but this time matching British Chief Pursar Charlotte Thompson with Californian Claire Davis—a meeting that perhaps wasn’t meant to have happened.
For a short-story treat, try Lara Kinsey’s self-published Victorian-set “Bump in the Night,” in which a desperate wallflower has a spooky encounter with an unexpected intruder. The cover copy suggests a supernatural encounter but is it truly magic or only illusion?
We go back to a wild west setting for Ruth Hanson’s The Railwalkers from JMS Books. In the lawless aftermath of the American Civil War, rebellious heiress Violet Donovan finds escape from the expectations closing in on her when a false murder charge puts her in the hands of a diverse group of vigilantes for justice, called the Railwalkers.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this next book: The Ledge Light: New London by Diana Perkins from Shetucket Hollow Press. It appears to be set in an unspecified time maybe in the 19th century, in Long Island sound, when a farm girl seeks her fate in gender disguise and that fate takes her to a lonely lighthouse. The cover copy isn’t very clear about what the sapphic content might be, so it might be a gamble. But I’ll note that the real Ledge Light was said to be haunted, so perhaps this story explains that.
The last February book is a French title: Eleutheria: Chronique des Amazones, by Helena Manenti from Homoromance Éditions, which has been the source of several French-language titles we’ve mentioned before. Set in classical Athens, the young, aristocratic Nyssa has a chance to leave the golden cage of her marriage for the chance to escape to a feminist utopia when she encounters an enslaved woman who will turn her existence upside down.
And there’s one lonely March release in my list at the moment. A supernatural adventure slipping between times and worlds: Girls in Black, book 2 in the Ranger Paraversum series by Vesna Kurilic from Shtriga. The aftermath of World War II is complicated enough, but Lina needs to figure out how to keep her parallel-world doppelganger secret from her landlady and her employer. And then there’s the problem of how long she can stay in this world at all…
What Am I Reading?
And me? What am I reading? I’m still struggling with my fiction reading habits (and I’m making a big push to get caught up on my reviews, which I think will help) but one book that easily broke through my reading block is Aliette de Bodard’s brand new Vietnamese-inspired historic fantasy, Fireheart Tiger. This is a bright little gem of a novella, set in a Vietnam-inspired fantastic past, in which an undervalued princess meets a former lover in very awkward circumstances, and…but let’s just move on to hear what the author has to say about it.
Author Guest: Aliette de Bodard
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Aliette de Bodard Online