Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 28c - Book Appreciation: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/11/17 - listen here)
Every month you get to hear our guests talking about historical fiction with queer women that they’ve particularly enjoyed. But hey, what about books that I’ve enjoyed? In the past, I’ve talked about books centered on particular themes, like Civil War settings, or featuring highwaywomen, or Regency romances. And if you want to know what my personal all-time favorite books are, you can read the book reviews on my blog. But this time I thought I’d introduce you to some books that ask you to step outside your reading comfort zone--whether in terms of content, or in terms of the narrative style--but that will be well worth the effort if you choose to do so.
These three books all ask you to leave behind any lingering bi-phobia you might have, because they feature women who have relationships with women and with men. But they also present you with less common narrative forms that may not be what you’re used to. None of them are conventional romance novels, but all of them include romantic and erotic relationships between women as a significant element of plot or character.
Two of the books I’ll be talking about involve actual historic women. Somewhere in a file of possible story openings, I have a line that goes something like, “Any person’s life can be a comedy or a tragedy, it’s all a matter of where you end the story.” The shape of a biographical novel depends on which parts of the person’s life the author chose to focus on. And when a novel takes in the entirety of a life, it will inevitably end in death. But does that necessarily make it a tragedy?
The life of 17th century opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny, known as Mademoiselle de Maupin, is the stuff of which legends are made and it’s a crime that so few authors and film makers have taken up the challenge of depicting it. I put her into my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer” and podcast guest Catherine Lundoff wrote her first published short story about Julie d’Aubigny. But the only full novelization of her life that I’ve run across so far is Kelly Gardiner’s Goddess.
So, that bit about leaving bi-phobia behind? Here’s the thing about queer historical fiction: the idea of sexual orientation involving an exclusive interest in only one sex has always been a minority position even in those eras when the idea existed at all. And that’s all to the good, because it means that there are vast swathes of history in which striking up a same-sex relationship was considered an ordinary possibility for pretty much every woman, not just for those who considered themselves separate and apart from the norm.
But it does mean that when you’re looking at women in same-sex relationships in history, most of them also had relationships with men at some point in their lives. Maybe it was that pesky problem that economics and social politics made marriage an awkward thing to avoid. But in most cases, those women in history had the same spectrum of interests as bisexuals do today. They might lean toward preferring one sex or the other, or enjoy them both equally. They might fall for specific individuals, or might appreciate them all. They might be in a position to focus their lives on a particular relationship, or might find that--just like those in heterosexual relationships--they had to find a balance between desire and practicality.
But the thing is: if you only want to read about women in history being exclusively lesbian in orientation then you’re either going to miss out on a lot of great stories, or you’re going to misrepresent history.
And Julie d’Aubigny would be an unfortunate story to miss out on. In my utterly biased opinion, anyone who encounters her biography and is not utterly fascinated by her needs to re-examine their life choices.
Goddess by Kelly Gardiner
I approached Kelly Gardiner’s novel Goddess with a combination of excitement and dread. It’s hard not to have mixed feelings when someone tackles the story of a real historic figure with whom one is already in love. That’s the first reaction many people have on encountering the biography of 17th century swordswoman and opera star Julie d’Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin. The second reaction tends to be “Nobody would find her believable as a fictional character!”
Goddess is solidly in the literary fiction genre, as opposed to all the other possible genres the story might inhabit. While the historic setting is solid, the novel doesn’t have the feel of historical fiction--more like history is the vehicle rather than the focus. Gardiner enjoys playing games with voice and mode and does it well. The chapters alternate between d’Aubigny’s monologue to the priest who has been sent to hear her deathbed confession--which eliminates a certain amount of suspense for those not already familiar with her early death--and passages told in a third person present tense that fill in the details of her life. This technique sometimes plays at the edges of confusion, particularly when d’Aubigny’s disguises are presented externally through viewpoints that take the disguise at face value. But the alternations in voice always bring us back to the through-line.
It did take me a while to relax about how d’Aubigny’s sexuality would be portrayed. In the initial chapters, her relationships with men are the focus, though often based more on pragmatism than desire. Her desire for women is depicted either as tragically unfulfilled (in the escapade with her first girlfriend in a convent) or conveyed only through teasing innuendo in her narration to her confessor. But never fear, we get unambiguous descriptions of her relationships with women, from the Comtesse who taught her how to make love, to the close sisterhood of opera singers, to the Marquise who becomes the great love of her life. Yet the several men in her life who combine the roles of friend and lover are also sympathetically portrayed.
There is an air of the picaresque novel here—not at all surprisingly. A biography is hard to fit into the outlines of an over-arching plot, and it’s hard enough to turn the jumble of episodes from d’Aubigny’s life into a single coherent narrative without trying to find deeper meaning. Gardiner has nudged the story to somewhat greater coherence by means of combining two characters: the woman that d’Aubigny fought three duels over, precipitating her exile to Brussels, and the Marquise de Florensac, her greatest love. I think this combination is a fictional invention, but since d’Aubigny’s definitive biography has yet to be written in English, I’m not entirely certain.
Gardiner has done a masterful job of turning d’Aubigny into a believable, three-dimensional character. One who is flamboyant, unrepentant, and larger than life, but with flaws and motivations that unify the disparate elements of her life.
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Next up is The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue. I've been a fan of Donoghue's academic works on the history of same-sex relations between women, but although I've collected up a number of her novels, it took me years to start reading them. One essential thing to know, going in, is that a Donoghue novel about romantic or sexual relationships between women in history is not a "lesbian historical romance." These don’t follow a romance formula with a happily-ever-after ending. They're fictional versions of the lives of real historic women. Messy, complicated lives that don't resolve easily into feel-good endings. But neither are they necessarily tragedies. Where Gardiner’s story about Julie d’Aubigny took the historical facts as a mere jumping-off place, Donoghue is writing more in the tradition of dramatizing, but not inventing, a set of historical facts.
The Sealed Letter interprets the life of Emily Faithful (nicknamed "Fido"), a 19th century English feminist, writer, and printer, who became tangled up in the scandalous divorce trial of a friend, alternately being accused of abetting the woman's infidelity and--by extremely veiled suggestions--of being part of the woman's infidelities. The setting of the story explores the precarious lives and careers of women who tried to expand the options for women in all fields of life, while having to dodge accusations of being "unwomanly" for doing so and struggling for the necessary financial support. There is also a great deal of exposition regarding divorce law in England at the time.
All this necessary exposition sometimes crosses the line between presenting historic research in the guise of fiction and providing a fictional story with the necessary background for the reader. I thought it kept the right balance, but as a fan of historical research I may have a fairly high tolerance in this area. To some extent the story works best as a mystery: doling out clues to how the present state of affairs came to be, through the lens of an entire cast of unreliable narrators. (I don't think there's a single viewpoint character who is entirely honest with the reader.) This unreliability delivers a delightful payload at the very end of the story when we're treated to one last tidbit about Fido and her divorcing friend that throws the puzzle pieces up in the air and leaves them to settle in an entirely new configuration.
The narrative challenge in this work is that the book is written in multiple first-person present-tense viewpoints. I stumbled over this technique in the first several pages because it left me confused and uncertain about exactly how the people and events that were being discussed related to each other. I had to re-read the first few pages several times to catch the rhythm, but then this aspect of the writing style faded to invisibility for me. But knowing the reactions I’ve seen other readers have to even a straightforward first person voice, you may need to open your mind a bit to give it a fair chance.
The shifting first person approach worked excellently to show the skewed and filtered understanding that each character had of reality, allowing the reader to build their own understanding of what might have happened. I thought this worked particularly well given how the story is based on actual fact--but a set of facts that are themselves incomplete and ambiguous.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
The history lying underneath Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is the horrendous colonial brutality of the Belgian Congo in the later 19th century. And even though Shawl has turned her talents to wrenching it into an alternate timeline with a more positive future, she doesn’t soften the original facts.
The book is intricate and sprawling--if that isn’t self-contradictory. An alternate history of how key aspects of African politics might have evolved differently in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, given the right nudges. It also calls on steampunk themes and in the process critiques the often unexamined colonialism in that genre. Everfair makes the point that technology and gadgets do not change essential human nature and human relations.
The basic story is that British Fabian socialists raise the money to buy a chunk of the Belgian Congo to try to set up a political and social utopia, as well as a foothold for undermining what they (rightly) see as the exploitive hellscape that King Leopold of Belgium has created. This planned utopia, christened Everfair by its British founders, rapidly becomes central to a broad struggle that eventually wins against Belgium and shifts the balance of power in Africa against colonialism. This is made possible, in part, by the introduction of several of the darlings of the steampunk genre: dirigibles, creative use of small-scale steam power, and mechanical prosthetics. But it also brings in some more fantastic elements, such as what is clearly meant to be some sort of small-scale nuclear power, plus the assistance of a reluctant god-ridden warrior, and spying talents that are enabled by spirit transfer to animal bodies.
The worldbuilding is ambitious and stunning, though the large cast of viewpoint characters were sometimes hard to keep track of. Given that the story covered decades of action it sometimes took on the feel of a historical narrative and the overall shape of the plot is more diffuse than a typical novel.
So why is it here in a podcast on queer women in history? Because within that expansive cast of characters are several same-sex relationships that are grounded in historical reality. We have social radicals who believe in “free love” setting up polyamorous families. We have women brought together by activism struggling with the conflict between the personal and the political. and we have an unflinching look at how racism touched every interaction and relationship and how difficult people found it to step outside the attitudes they were raised with, even for the sake of love.
For all that romance is not the focus of this story, the many types of relationships that bind people together form a thread that connects the whole. Don’t look for happily-ever-after endings but find an understanding of new ways of being happy even when the world is burning around you.
These three books aren’t always easy reads, both in terms of structure and in terms of where the relationships go. But they all solidly take on the representation of queer women in historical settings, and they’re definitely worth giving a chance.