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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 27a - On the Shelf for October 2018

Saturday, October 6, 2018 - 09:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 74 (previously 27a) - On the Shelf for October 2018 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2018/10/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2018.

Is it the fourth quarter of the year already? How did that happen! Just last week we released the third short story in our fiction project. Have you listened to it yet? I loved this early medieval story of older women finding love and comfort after a lifetime of putting other people’s needs first.

The Fiction Series

And as I mentioned in passing last month, it’s time to officially announce that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be continuing the fiction series next year. I thought about maybe widening the scope of what sort of stories we’d be considering, but when it comes down to it, I’d like to continue focusing on supporting straightforward historic stories, without fantastic elements, so I’m keeping the same submission guidelines as last year.

The key points--and I’ll be posting the full call for submissions on the website for you to refer to--are as follows. Length can be up to 5000 words. Stories must be set prior to 1900 in an actual, real-world time and place. If you pick a very popular setting like Victorian England or the American West, you should be doing something new and interesting that stands out from the crowd. I love seeing stories from less used eras and cultures, but I want to see cultures treated knowledgeably and with respect. Romance is optional. Romance stories should have some other strong element in addition to the romance and I’m not looking for erotica.

Let me explain that a little, because last year some people tried to second-guess why I didn’t want erotic stories. The simple fact is that 5000 words isn’t much space to introduce characters, setting, and plot, and then come to a satisfying resolution. When sex scenes come into the mix, they tend to push the other elements aside and the rest of the story often becomes stage dressing for the sex scene. Sex may be implied in the story, but leave it off the page so you have room for the story itself.

And, of course, the story should center on lesbian themes. By this, I mean that it should feature protagonist(s) whose primary emotional orientation within the scope of the story is toward other women. This is not meant to exclude characters who might identify today as bisexual or who have relationships with men outside the scope of the story. But the story should focus on same-sex relations.

Authors of all genders and orientations are welcome to submit. Authors from traditionally marginalized cultures are strongly encouraged to submit, regardless of whether you are writing about your own cultural background. Like last year, we’ll be paying industry standard professional rates of 6 cents a word--we pay our narrators industry-standard rates too. Check out the full details of the submission guidelines on the website and start brainstorming your stories. Submissions will be accepted during the month of January 2019. I’m looking forward to seeing what gets submitted this time!


Here’s an item that might be of interest to some. In March 2019 in France, there’s going to be an academic conference entitled “Sapphic Vibes: Lesbians in Literature from the Renaissance to the Present.” I heard about it through a call for papers, but by the time this podcast goes out the due date for submissions will be past. But if you happen to be in the vicinity of the Université de Haute-Alsace (Mulhouse) next March 14-15 and have a yen to listen to research papers on lesbian themes in historic literature (in English and in French), check out the link in the show notes for more details. It looks like they’re planning to hold a second conference on the theme in 2020 in Iceland. If I were the sort to pop off to Europe for the weekend for an academic conference, I’d be there (even though the papers in French would be lost on me).

Publications on the Blog

In September the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog covered several publications relating to the subject of last month’s essay, 17th century English gender outlaw Moll Cutpurse. And while I was on the subject of gender-crossing I decided to start this month with a delightful surprise that’s been lurking on my shelf for two decades: Mary Diana Dods: A Scholar and a Gentleman by Betty T. Bennett. This is best described as an academic mystery quest, tracking down the identity of two men mentioned in the letters of 19th century author Mary Shelley--she of Frankenstein fame--only to discover that the two men were the same person, and that person was a woman. I loved this topic so much, I’ve turned it into this month’s Ask Sappho segment.

For the rest of the month, and possibly into November, I’ll be working through some books and articles I’ve accumulated on sexuality in classical Rome. From which, you might guess that I’ll be finishing up the month with an essay on women’s same-sex relations in that historic context.

Book Shopping!

There’s only one new purchase for the blog to report this month. In fact, it’s actually a book that I ordered back in June but it never arrived and I only recently realized that and inquired. So I have a replacement copy now. The title is Same-sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts by Marie H. Loughlin. It’s a collection of excerpts and selections from a wide variety of genres, both literary and non-fiction. There’s a lot of redundancy with material I already have in other sources, but also some material that I’ve seen discussed but haven’t seen in the original previously.

No Author Guest

I don’t have an author guest lined up to interview this month. I’ve been putting out a lot of feelers but didn’t get any nibbles that panned out with the right timing. So rather than scrambling to try to nail down an interview at the last minute, I’m going to reprise a pair of shows on the Greek poet Sappho and her work that have been particularly popular.

This is my chance to remind people that I’m always looking both for authors to host on the show and for enthusiastic readers of lesbian historical fiction to talk about their favorite books. My contact information is in the show notes.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

When compiling the list of new and forthcoming historicals, I’ve been rather dismayed at how few historicals--especially plain historicals without any fantasy element--are coming out from the major lesbian presses. I haven’t been doing these lists long enough to have a sense of what “normal” looks like, but the current state of the field is disappointing.

There was one book I had my eye on with an uncertain publication date that seems to have come out in August when I wasn’t looking. Devan Johnson’s Any Other Name is an erotic Regency romance with gender disguise and a marriage of convenience. I’m going to give a couple of caveats because the cover design is absolutely atrocious and it doesn’t say “Regency” at all to me. And reviews on Goodreads indicate that there are some problems with editing and narrative structure. But for those who are hungry for your Regency fix, here’s the blurb:

It’s 1834 England. Following the sudden and tragic deaths of her father, the Duke of Ashebourne, and her twin brother, Rose Marsden disguises herself as a man and assumes her brother’s identity and father’s title. Her deception works for almost a decade, but she knows that eventually she’s going to need to find a way to procure an heir. Lady Margaret ‘Maggie’ Clayton is in trouble; her fiancé has been killed, leaving her pregnant and unwed. If society finds out, she’ll be ruined. When the Duke of Ashebourne learns Maggie’s secret and reveals her own, the two women hatch a plan that may solve both of their problems: the ultimate marriage of convenience.

There are a couple of September releases that I hadn’t noticed earlier because they came out from mainstream YA imprints. As is usual for mainstream books, the queer content isn’t very obvious from the jacket copy, but I’ve confirmed it through sources. Monica Hesse’s The War Outside, published by Little, Brown Books is a YA historical rather than a romance, tackling political questions that are unfortunately relevant to us today. Here’s the blurb.

It's 1944, and World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific. The war seemed far away from Margot in Iowa and Haruko in Colorado--until they were uprooted to dusty Texas, all because of the places their parents once called home: Germany and Japan. Haruko and Margot meet at the high school in Crystal City, a "family internment camp" for those accused of colluding with the enemy. The teens discover that they are polar opposites in so many ways, except for one that seems to override all the others: the camp is changing them, day by day and piece by piece. Haruko finds herself consumed by fear for her soldier brother and distrust of her father, who she knows is keeping something from her. And Margot is doing everything she can to keep her family whole as her mother's health deteriorates and her rational, patriotic father becomes a man who distrusts America and fraternizes with Nazis. With everything around them falling apart, Margot and Haruko find solace in their growing, secret friendship. But in a prison the government has deemed full of spies, can they trust anyone--even each other?

The queer content in Amy Lukavics’ Nightingale, from Harlequin Teen, is similarly obscured in the publicity, but present when you check out some of the Goodreads reviews. This one has a bisexual protagonist who has relationships with both women and men in the story. It wanders through the genres of horror and science fiction, as well as having a historical setting. Here’s the blurb:

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women. June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

Another book that overlaps both history and speculative fiction is Jane Fletcher’s Isle of Broken Years from Bold Strokes Books. It starts out looking like yet another typical lesfic pirate adventure, but takes a sharp turn somewhere in the middle. The blurb sticks to the historic setting:

Catalina de Valasco’s parents have her future fully planned. The most important step for a seventeenth century Spanish noblewoman being, of course, an advantageous marriage.  Unfortunately, a series of setbacks has left Catalina unwed. On a galleon bound for the Americas and her latest husband-to-be, Catalina again finds her marriage plans frustrated. Pirates capture the ship, and she is held for ransom. The danger intensifies as they sail into seas which, one day, will become known as the Bermuda Triangle. Catalina enters a terrifying world that she could never have imagined or planned for. Yet of all the surprises awaiting her, the most unexpected one is love.

Rebecca Wilde’s Libertine, self-published through Amazon, is a very short erotic work about a highwaywoman in 17th century England. The blurb should give you a sense of what to expect.

In 1669, England’s first female highwayman robs stagecoaches, and hearts, throughout London. Armed with her flintlock pistol, the masked “Libertine” successfully seduces England’s female nobility while at the same time, attempts to rescue her longtime lover from the hangman’s noose. Join the notorious highwaywoman in her erotic adventures as she matches wits with both the local constabulary and the established criminal underworld, lending new meaning to the phrase, “Stand and deliver!”

Ann Aptaker’s Cantor Gold gangster series has a fourth installment with Flesh and Gold from Bold Strokes Books.

Havana, 1952, a city throbbing with pleasure and danger, where the Mob peddles glamor to the tourists and there’s plenty of sex for sale. In the swanky hotels and casinos, and the steamy, secretive Red Light district of the Colón, Cantor Gold, dapper art thief and smuggler, searches the streets and brothels for her kidnapped love, Sophie de la Luna y Sol. Cantor races against time while trying to out run the deadly schemes of American mobsters and the gunsights of murderous local gangs.

And to finish up the October listings, Tammy Lynne Stoner’s Sugar Land, from Red Hen Press, has a more literary feel. Here’s the description:

It’s 1923 in Midland, Texas, and Miss Dara falls in love with her best friend―who also happens to be a girl. Terrified, Miss Dara takes a job at the Imperial State Prison Farm for men. Once there, she befriends inmate and soon-to-be legendary blues singer Lead Belly, who sings his way out (a true story)―but only after he makes her promise to free herself from her own prison. Sugar Land is a triumphant, beautiful novel about the heart’s refusal to be denied what the heart wants.

If you know about forthcoming historicals, remember to drop me a note, just in case they aren’t on my list yet.

Ask Sappho

I had so much fun sorting through the story of Mary Diana Dods, mentioned earlier, that rather than answer a listener question this month for the Ask Sappho segment, I thought I’d give you a run-down on her story.

Imagine all your favorite Regency romance tropes, then toss in a few more tropes as dessert. The bastard daughter of a Scottish earl. A false cross-gender pen name to publish plays and poetry. A glamorously beautiful unwed mother. A woman living as a man. A marriage of convenience. Parisian literary salons filled with brilliant and witty people. And in the middle of it all, Mary Shelley as matchmaker. Mary Wollstonecraft Frankenstein Fucking Shelley. If this were a historical romance novel, your editor would tell you to tone it down a bit to make it more believable.

Professor Bennett’s book on Mary Diana Dods is structured as an academic mystery, tracing the story from the first dangling threads all the way through the process of teasing those threads out and then tying them up neatly. But here’s the more straightforward story.

At the very beginning of the 19th century, Mary Diana Dods--known to her friends as Doddy--and her sister Georgiana were the illegitimate daughters of the earl of Morton, a prominent and wealthy Scottish aristocrat. They were brought up amidst luxury and privilege, though never publicly acknowledged as the earl’s children. Dods certainly had an extensive education and was fluent in French, German, Italian, and Latin. Dods also seems to have had some sort of physical disability, though it’s never described beyond being a “disproportion” of her body and references to a liver ailment. She had dark short curly hair, sharp piercing black eyes, was of small stature, and looked worn down from chronic pain--and no doubt chronic worry about finances as well. For when the earl of Morton finally married--a woman younger than either of his daughters--they were kicked out of the house with an allowance that was nowhere near enough to maintain the life they’d been brought up to expect.

Georgiana was married by that time, as Mrs. Carter, and living in India with her husband, but when she returned to England, a widow with two young sons, she and Dods found themselves endlessly struggling with debt, in part due to their father’s carelessness with regard to the regularity of payment of their allowance. The sisters did their best to find means to support themselves in line with the expectations for well-bred women of the Regency era. Georgiana tried to find a position as a paid companion to some wealthier woman. Dods set up a day school with her good friend Charlotte Figg and another woman to give music lessons and such like.

Like most single women of that era, they socialized primarily with other women and were part of a complex network of friendships and support systems that provided lodging, loans of money, professional references and leads, and simple companionship and emotional support. For Dods, part of that network included the writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and through her, entrance to a larger literary world that included Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the London salon of Dr. Kitchener. Moving in literary circles, it’s not surprising that Dods decided to try her hand earning money from writing. And having seen the experiences of other literary women, it also isn’t surprising that, like many others, she decided to create a male pen name for the purpose. A male author would be taken seriously and paid accordingly. Female authors were treated as dilettantes when noticed at all. Thus, Mr. David Lyndsay was born. And Mary Shelley was happy to help Dods begin her career by writing letters of recommendation to publishers for Lyndsay.

Lyndsay had an initial burst of success, having multiple works published in Blackwood’s Magazine, over the course of a couple of years, and then a collection of dramas, also put out by Blackwood who was a prominent Scottish publisher and may have been influenced by the opportunity to feature a fellow countryman. But Lyndsay’s book flopped on the market. Blackwood lost money and therefore lost interest, though it took Lyndsay several years to get the hint when Blackwood failed to buy any more of his submissions.

When that pin finally dropped, Blackwood received a submission from another aspiring Scottish writer, one Walter Sholto Douglas, whose work was sent for consideration by his wife, Isabella Douglas. And now, we need to circle back and ask who Isabella was.

Isabella Robinson was generally acclaimed to be one of the most beautiful women in existence. Her father was a good friend of Mary Shelley’s father, Mr. Godwin, and the two families socialized regularly. Mary Shelley (who by now has been widowed by Shelley’s tragic drowning) doted on her, being on the rebound from a close romantic friendship with another friend whose marriage created distance between them.

And then Isabella Robinson became pregnant by a lover who decamped to America without having the courtesy to marry her. Having a child out of wedlock wasn’t entirely fatal--after all, Mary Shelley and any number of women in her radical circle had done so--but if there were no man in the picture, marriage or not, life became very difficult. And the lack of an assigned father for the child would be a significant handicap for its future.

In that age of the near impossibility of divorce, it was a normal--if not particularly common--practice for a woman to simply proclaim herself the wife of her current lover, adopt his name, and be accepted as such, with the assistance of geography, foreign travel, or simply the separation of non-overlapping social spheres. Official certificates of marriage or birth were useful, but one could manage without them with a bit of cleverness.

And so, somewhere around the time that Isabella’s pregnancy would have become evident, she went into seclusion away from London, began mentioning in correspondence with friends that she had married, and took up the role of Mrs. Douglas to act as secretary for the new pen name of Mary Diana Dods, that of Walter Sholto Douglas.

From the bits and scraps we know, it’s impossible to tell how long and how extensive they intended the fictitious marriage to be. In that era, pregnancy was uncertain and post-natal mortality was significant. If Isabella’s child failed to survive to birth or much beyond, it’s possible that Isabella would have returned to her London haunts remaining Isabella Robinson with only her immediate circle of friends the wiser. But her daughter Adeline was healthy and thriving, so some more long-term identity needed to be established. Mr. Sholto Douglas had a literary existence but not a physical one. For Isabella, one possible path might have been a convenient widowhood, but Dods was counting on Mr. Douglas as her new source of writing income.

And so, a daring plan was hatched. And Mary Shelley was in the middle of it. Shelley wrote to a friend of hers in London asking for a favor. She was about to travel to France in company with a group of friends: Mr. and Mrs. Douglas and their infant daughter, Mr. Douglas’s widowed sister Mrs. Georgiana Carter and her two young sons. It was inconvenient of them to travel to London to pick up passports, but passports must be picked up in person. The friend had a passing resemblance to Mr. Douglas -- could he find a woman with a similar resemblance to Mrs. Douglas and pick up the passports? Why yes, he’d be happy to. And in the mean time, Mary Diana Dods put on trousers and began practicing to be Mr. Walter Sholto Douglas.

If we were writing this as a romance novel, what follows would take a different path. But the Douglas’s marriage ran onto the rocks of some insurmountable difficulties. In particular, even though it was possible for an English couple to live more cheaply in Paris than in London, the Douglases still had the slimmest of incomes and yet wanted to move in the high-fashion society of Parisian literary salons. And the beautiful and engaging Isabella Douglas eagerly flirted with anything in pants. Anything except her husband, Sholto Douglas.

In October 1827, the Douglases move to Paris where they are accepted as what they appear to be--a married couple with extensive connections in English literary society. Two years later, Mr. Douglas is in a French prison for debt and in extremely poor health. Isabella Douglas has lost the friendship and support of her female friends with her romantic and sexual antics and returns to London the next year. Without her husband.

There is no trace of what happened to Mary Diana Dods, aka Walter Sholto Douglas. If Douglas had died in debtor’s prison, one might expect that the discovery of his underlying sex would have been worth a note in the archives. But possibly not. Or possibly friends took up a collection to cover the debts and then Mr. Douglas decided to disappear, along with Mary Diana Dods. The only later trace was that Mr. Douglas went down in historical records as the father of Adeline Douglas, a fact that most might consider relevant only because Adeline married a prominent enough man that she appears in biographical dictionaries.

Is there a love story anywhere within this tangle, much less a same-sex love story? Unclear. This is an era when romantic friendships between women were considered the norm, and the language Mary Shelley uses to talk about her relationship with Isabella is certainly emotional and romantic. Did Shelley convince her friend Dods to go to the extreme of living as Mr. Douglas for the sake of love? Dods--under the name of Lyndsay--left a manuscript poem written on the flyleaf of a copy of Lyndsay’s book that mourns a tragically dead beloved and speaks of being forever alone. But this was well before Douglas was invented and there is no clue to whether the poem’s subject was a real person or what gender they might have been, if so. Certainly Isabella seems to have had no particular emotional attachment to the person she presented as her husband, or if she did, she certainly didn’t act like it, though observers described Mr. Douglas as being devoted to her.

But if the life of Mary Diana Dods fails to provide us with a conventionally happy ending to this adventure, that doesn’t mean that we can’t see, in her life, the structures and themes of how two women might have constructed an adventure with just such a happy ending as we might crave. Just make it a little more believable than this true life story if you expect to sell it as a historical romance novel!

Show Notes

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

Major category: