Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26a - On the Shelf for September 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2018.
Last month was a bit of a crunch and I’m scrambling a bit to get material lined up for the blog and the podcast for the remainder of the year. I now have a due date for turning in my current novel, the fourth book in the Alpennia series, which adds a bit of extra pressure, but I’ve just sent a novella out on submission, which is the sort of thing that always makes me feel accomplished, even if I don’t have any idea when or to whom it might sell. Last month was also busy with attending Worldcon, the annual World Science Fiction Convention, although at least this year it was practically in my back yard rather than involving international travel. I was hoping to maybe pick up some interviews for the podcast while I was there, but when I matched a shopping list of people writing queer women in historic fantasy to the list of attending authors, nobody jumped out as a good candidate. At least, nobody that I haven’t already interviewed! But I’ve made some additions to my author shopping list and we’ll see what turns up.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve coming up to the third installment of our new fiction series this month! This time the story is “Peaceweaver” by Jennifer Nestojko. It’s a tale inspired by the era of Beowulf, a bittersweet story of mature women finding peace and comfort after sacrificing their youth for the sake of family honor.
It has come up to the time for making a decision about whether to try the fiction experiment again next year. It can be hard to judge the success of a project in its first run. I hope that you’ve been enjoying these stories as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing them to you. I also hope that some of you listeners have been inspired to start thinking about the stories you might want to tell. And so I will definitely be doing another fiction series in 2019. I’ll be posting an official description and call for submissions a bit later, but you can get a sense of what I’m looking for by checking out last year’s call. It isn’t too soon to start noodling with a plot and characters. Like last year, I’ll be accepting submissions in January so you have plenty of time to get writing.
This month’s essay topic comes from one of my listener polls. Of the several historic figures I offered, I got a lot of positive response for 17th century gender outlaw Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse. So I’ll be looking at her life as presented not only in contemporary records, but as purported to be told in her own memoirs, and as fictionalized on stage. Frith is a fascinating and transgressive figure, with a number of different faces depending on how you’re looking at her. In many ways, she stands as an icon for the disruptions around gender performance that England was dealing with around 1600.
Publications on the Blog
For this month’s blog, I start by finishing up the last of the remaining short journal articles with a look at discussions of sexuality in medieval Latin scientific literature. Then I’m plunging into the material on Moll Cutpurse, including her purported memoir. I have another couple of texts discussing her that I want to cover, including Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels and two plays in which she features as a character: Amends for Ladies by Nathan Field, and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl. But I’m not sure exactly how I’ll be divvying them up between the blog and the podcast.
If I have space left in the month, I’ll be spinning off of the theme of gender-queer presentations, and looking at the biography of a member of Mary Shelley’s circle in the early 19th century, one Mary Diana Dodds, also known as David Lyndsay, also known as Walter Sholto Douglas--at least according to the investigative research of scholar Betty T. Bennett. The book, originally written in 1991, is not as nuanced in considering the ambiguous territory around transgender themes as we might wish for today. But it presents an interesting tale of gender-crossing, not within the working class examples that we more typically see in that era, but among literary and diplomatic circles, which certainly opens up new horizons in the logistics of story inspiration.
And now for a new podcast feature: the book shopping report! In the past, on my blog, I’ve done periodic posts of research book acquisitions and I thought you might enjoy hearing about things I’ve picked up for the Project, even if I may not get around to covering them for a while.
Several of my recent purchases are in support of the poetry series that I’m planning. This includes Emma Donoghue’s collection Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire, Domna C. Stanton’s bilingual collection The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present, and the slightly less useful Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing, by Ian McCormick, which alas is heavily focused on male-oriented material, though it collects up some interesting texts about women that get referenced regularly by the articles I cover.
Inspired by my coverage of publication number 200 on my blog, I decided to actually buy a copy of Queer Wales: The History, Culture, and Politics of Queer Life in Wales edited by Huw Osborne, and I used it to track down the published source of the possibly-lesbian medieval Welsh poem it mentions, which is published in the collection Beirdd Ceridwen: Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1800, that is, Ceridwen’s Bards: a Bardic Collection of Women’s Poems to Around 1800, edited by Cathryn A. Charnell-White. As the book and its contents are entirely in Welsh, it may take me a bit of time to translate the poem sufficiently to include it in a future poetic podcast. Prose is fairly easy to translate, poetry is hard.
The last book I picked up recently is Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London by Randolph Trumbach. This appears to be an expanded version of the article by Trumbach that I covered in the blog back in April. I was hoping that it might include additional material relevant to women, but it looks like I’m going to be disapointed.
I think I have another couple of books on order currently, but I’ll save them for when they arrive. As usual, I’m picking up new books faster than I have any hope of blogging them!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
In contrast to the non-fiction, I’m feeling a bit desperate at this month’s list of new and forthcoming novels. I’ve scraped up four titles, which I consider my minimum goal, but some of them are stretching the definitions a little. Plus a fifth novel where I’m having to trust the queer content based solely on rumor. If you know of any upcoming books with historic or historically-based settings, drop me a note to make sure I don’t overlook them.
Somehow I missed Alex Westmore’s Dead Man’s Chest when it came out back in July. This is the 5th book in her Plundered Chronicles, featuring piracy in the later 16th century. The series starts in Ireland but wanders over a broad scope of geography. Here’s the blurb:
“If the Croatoans on Roanoke don’t kill her, one of the many women in Captain Quinn Callaghan’s life will. Heading to the New World to bring a mysterious box to Lady Killigrew’s sister, Quinn and her pirate shipmates face dangers unlike any they have ever encountered. The journey alone is fraught with perils, but what they find when they land in Roanoke is enough to chill even a hardened pirate’s bones. But this delivery is barely less dangerous than the women in Quinn’s life--a couple of whom wish to see her dead while another reunites with her. As Quinn is forced to recognize the eventual collapse of Ireland as well as the end of some of her deepest friendships, she makes a decision that will alter the fate of both her life and her crew’s. In this fifth installment of the Plundered Series, you will be taken on a ride that will leave you breathless with every turn of the page as Quinn struggles to keep her men, her women, and herself alive.”
The other July book I’m including is the one where I have to rely entirely on rumor for the queer content. When I read the first book in Theordora Goss’s historical fantasy series The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, titled The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, it felt like it was a book that by rights ought to have some lesbian themes somewhere in it, and I was a little disappointed that none appeared. I have been assured--though I can’t remember by whom--that this second book does have some queer female characters, though you certainly couldn’t guess that from the blurb, which is a perennial problem with books from the big publishers. The underlying conceit of this series is that the daughters of an array of characters from turn-of-the-century Gothic literature come together to solve the mystery of their origins and stop a sinister plot that their fathers were involved in. Here’s the blurb:
“In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all. Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole. But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time? Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.”
As I say, I’m having to take the queer content on trust at this point, but if it sounds like something you might enjoy, check it out.
It took me a bit of following up on a chance reference to confirm that Like a Book by Bette Hawkins, which came out last month, has a historic connection by way of a character who is researching themes of Romantic Friendship in 19th century literature, although the story itself is a contemporary romance. But that connection between the present and the past makes it a natural fit for the shape of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Here’s the blurb:
“Trish Carter has found the other side of an unsatisfying relationship and is now ready to embrace a new job and a new life. She isn’t expecting to test the limits of her fresh start on her first day at work though. The striking young author, June Williams, grabs her attention from their first conversation and Trish can’t seem to stay away from her. When the two women form a pact to test the theories June is researching for her book, they quickly discover that romantic friendships are easier on paper. Their contract clearly stipulates which types of intimacy are allowed and which aren’t. Holding hands is okay—but kissing certainly is not. At first the deal seems perfect. They can be close to one another without risking too much. But what happens when they cross the line and the boundaries of the contract conflict with real life?”
The two books that I’ve found that are new for September are both fantasies that weave in themes and settings from history. Julia Ember’s The Navigator’s Touch is out and out fantasy if you focus on the mermaids, but the setting draws strongly on early medieval Scandinavian history and mythology. This book is a sequel to her earlier work The Seafarer’s Kiss. Here’s the blurb:
“After invaders destroyed her village, murdered her family, and took her prisoner, shield-maiden Ragna is hungry for revenge. A trained warrior, she is ready to fight for her home, but with only a mermaid and a crew of disloyal mercenaries to aid her, Ragna knows she needs new allies. Guided by the magical maps on her skin, battling storms and mutiny, Ragna sets sail across the Northern Sea. She petitions the Jarl in Skjordal for aid, but despite Ragna's rank and fighting ability, the Jarl sees only a young girl, too inexperienced to lead, unworthy of help. To prove herself to the Jarl and win her crew's respect, Ragna undertakes a dangerous expedition. But when forced to decide between her own freedom and the fate of her crew, what will she sacrifice to save what’s left of her home?”
A similar blend of history and fantasy is found in K. Aten’s The Saggitarius, the third book in her Arrows of Artemis series which blends mythic Amazons with classical history. Here’s the blurb:
“What is life if not the sum of all things that occur before we die? Kyri has known her share of loss in the two decades that she has been alive. She never expected to find herself a slave in Roman lands, nor did she think she had the heart to become a gladiatrix. Soul shattered, she must fight to see her way back home again. Will she win her freedom and return to all that she has known, or will she become another kind of slave to the killer that has taken over her mind? The only thing that is certain through it all is her love and devotion to Queen Orianna. Then again, certainty can only be found in those that control their own destiny.”
And not at all by coincidence, Kelly Aten will also be our author guest this month, so look forward to hearing all about the Arrows of Artemis series and how it came to be written.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from a previously featured author, Jeannelle M. Ferreira on Twitter, who asks, “Tell us about the Daughters of Bilitis.”
The story of Bilitis fits in very nicely with the theme of lesbian historical fiction because she’s an excellent example of a purely fictional figure who has become part of the historic lore and mythology of women who love women.
The story begins with the history of Sappho’s poetry, its loss, and the rediscovery of some fragments. As I discussed in my podcast on Sappho, we have reason to believe that complete manuscript copies of Sappho’s works continued to be produced up through the 6th or 7th century AD, but sometime around the 9th century, the majority of her work was lost. A few fragments and two complete works survived as quotations in other texts, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that archaeological excavations in Egypt, especially at Oxyrhynchus, began turning up scraps of papyrus with substantial additional material from Sappho. New fragments and poems continue to be identified even to this day.
But the relevant point is that in the late 19th century, the literati were familiar with the idea that previously unknown works of ancient Greek poets might suddenly turn up. Enter a French decadent poet named Pierre Louÿs.
The decadent movement in 19th century France had a number of preoccupations, but one of the things they were obsessed with was lesbian sexuality. And the reviewed interest in Sappho generated by the discoveries in Egypt meant that she and the circle of women mentioned in her poetry were popular subjects for the decadent writers and artists.
Louÿs had a fascination with ancient Greek culture and began writing erotic literature at the age of 18. He helped to found a literary review only a few years later that served as a venue for publishing some of his work. He hung out with famous men in homosexual circles such as André Gide and Oscar Wilde. And in 1894, at the age of 24, he published a volume of 143 poems under the title Chansons de Bilitis (Songs of Bilitis), presenting them as his translations of the work of a contemporary of Sappho, recently discovered inscribed in a newly excavated tomb in Cyprus. The volume also included a brief biographical sketch of Bilitis, telling of her youth in Pamphylia, her life in Mitylene on Lesbos with her lover Mnasidika, and then her career as a courtesan on Cyprus. The poems were arranged in three groups reflecting these periods and featuring themes and emotions reflecting different life stages. To digress for a moment, Mnasidika is a name that actually occurs in Sappho’s poetry, and so the reference added some verisimilitude to the story. The name Bilitis, however, is otherwise unknown, although it does a good job of being “made up to sound Greek.”
Louÿs was a classicist and famliar not only with ancient Greek literary styles but with the cultural references appropriate to the era and the Chansons were initially--if briefly--taken for the real deal: an actual newly-discovered corpus of ancient lesbian poetry. When the truth of Louÿs’ direct authorship came out, the work was still hailed as a literary masterpiece, reprinted numerous times with sensual illustrations including the most famous edition by Willy Pogany. Selections of the poems were set to music by composers such as Debussy.
Somewhere in here, you might be noticing the startling lack of any actual women--to say nothing of actual lesbians--anywhere in this story. The French decadent artists were obsessed with their invented image of what lesbians were like. Actual women? Not so much.
But given the thematic connection to Sappho, and the tragically fragmentary condition of Sappho’s own corpus of poetry, lesbians of the early 20th century may be forgiven for latching onto this French voyeur’s writings as being better than nothing.
In 1955, when lesbian activists for civil and political rights wanted to form an organization that offered an alternative meeting space to bars but could fly under the radar of public attention, they chose Bilitis as a namesake because she combined a clear sapphic connection to those “in the know” with almost complete obscurity for the general public. Even founding members Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were unfamiliar with her name when the organization they founded proposed “Daughters of Bilitis” for the group, riffing off of the names of such established organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution to fend off curiosity. Martin and Lyon were later quoted as saying, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”
The Daughters of Bilitis quickly spread from its origins in San Francisco to have branches in several major cities in the U.S., and in 1956 began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder which continued in publication through 1972. From a modern point of view, the society’s early goals may have seemed quaintly conservative and focused on assimmilation. One of their stated goals was “Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society” and their suggestions for achieving this end included discouraging women from dressing in gender-transgressive ways and encouraging lesbians to participate in medical and psychiatric studies to establish their “normalacy”. With the rise of wider civil rights activism in the 1960s, the Daughters of Bilitis began breaking away from its assimilationist origins, but at the same time, much of their prospective membership began identifying more with the rising feminist movement and feeling less identification with the tradition of unified homosexual activism, as represented by the Mattachine Society, believing that concerns specific to queer women were being ignored by the male-dominated gay rights community.
The Daughters of Bilitis more or less folded as a national organization in 1970 when internal disputes over the direction of the newletter The Ladder resulted in a separation of the two functions. The Ladder itself folded shortly after.
Bilitis as an icon is an interesting example of the popular mythologizing that often occurs in communities that feel disconnected from historic roots--or feel they have no historic roots to connect with. And I’m of two minds about the psychological usefulness of fastening your identity to a fictional invention.
If I can digress into personal history for a moment, I remember a similar thing happening when queer members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval hobbyist club, formed a social and activist group around 1990. When brainstorming for a name and symbol for the group, someone came up with a story that queer women in Renaissance Italy...or maybe among medieval French troubadours, or maybe some other time and place, it varied...had used a blue feather as a secret signal to each other. At one point the origins of this story were attributed to lesbian poet Judy Grahn but no one could ever produce any actual source. And yet for years people passed around the alleged “fact” that a blue feather had been used as a recognition symbol for homosexuals in pre-modern Europe. As if there were some monolithic unified homosexual culture at that time. In theory, the Society for Creative Anachronism was supposed to be based on re-creating actual historic research. So some of us felt a bit odd about using this piece of utter fiction as the symbol of queer history. But if you ever challenged the veracity of this “blue feather” story, and asked for some sort of proof that it had existed, you got accused of being anti-gay. I recall this myself at the time, because I was one of the people asking for evidence and never actually being offered anything.
We love having attractive symbols and common icons and a sense of shared history, but I’ve always found that the messy, fragmentary, ambiguous realities of history are even more fun than invented mythology. Bilitis was a fiction--a useful fiction, perhaps--and one invented by a man who viewed lesbians primarily as a topic of objectified titillation. I can understand why the Daughters of Bilitis found her to be a useful namesake, but I hope I can interest my listeners in the lives of actual queer women in history as well.