(Originally aired 2023/03/18 - listen here)
This show could almost have been a “F/Favorite Tropes” episode. But that series is aimed at examining the tropes that are popular for mixed-gender romances and how they work in a same-gender context. “School friends to lovers” isn’t a standard pattern in heterosexual historic romance, for the salient reason that co-educational schooling was not the norm in most places before the 20th century. So instead I’ll do this as a thematic episode.
The history of gender-segregated education
Single-gender institutions and communities have always tended to be a context where intense and intimate same-gender bonds could flourish and even be celebrated. One contributing cause is obvious: lack of other opportunities. This has often been cited in contexts where the women had little or no freedom to leave the institution, such as prisons and pre-modern convents. But often such bonds between “particular friends” were actively encouraged, with the understanding that close personal bonds helped to stabilize the micro-culture and to provide emotional support, especially when the inhabitants might be separated from family for an extended period.
I discussed the ambivalent attitude toward “particular friends” in convents in an earlier episode dealing with that institution. But today I want to tackle the history of passionate or romantic friendships in schools, both between students and between teachers.
The idea of mixing the genders in educational institutions is rather recent, in a historic time-scale. And there are many contemporary cultures that still prefer to keep separate male and female schools for a variety of reasons, as well as individual institutions that consider it to be a more productive way of focusing on education and personal development. I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of single-gender schools—an extremely complex topic—but rather to focus on how that environment has intersected historically with same-sex relations.
As usual, my broad generalizations will tend to focus on Western culture, due to the nature of my sources, with many of the specific examples drawn from the English-speaking world, though in this case the general pattern is similar throughout western Europe.
One reason for gender segregation in schools, especially for older students, has been the historic exclusion of women from formal education. While some women challenged this exclusion on an individual basis, in many cases, girls’ schools and women’s colleges were created to redress this exclusion as a more practical solution. But another motivation of gender segregation was to reduce the risk of unauthorized romantic relationships, or sexual encounters—especially in contexts where the girls and women were not under direct family supervision. One theme I come back to regularly in the trope shows is the pervasive attitudes that unregulated mixing of the genders created an existential risk of sexual activity. Outside of marriage, respectable women and girls did not have the social permission to say “yes” to sex, and both in and out of marriage they had very little social permission to say “no”. Thus, strict supervision, codes of etiquette, and physical segregation were all employed to reduce this risk.
In Europe, religious shifts in the 16th century that encouraged basic education for all children led to the development of local grammar schools that were typically co-educational and non-residential. But more advanced education, and especially at what we would consider the college level, was mostly residential and single-gender (and, at that time, not available to women). Such residential schools were being established for boys in the later Middle Ages. Residential schools for girls began appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Catholic countries, these were typically—though not always—run by religious orders and sponsored by convents, while Protestant institutions were set up either as philanthropic—or sometimes commercial—enterprises. Girls who had the opportunity for post-grammar school education might be sent to a boarding school or convent school that combined education with limits on their interactions with men. Here we’re generally talking about middle-class families and higher, not only due to the cost of boarding school but because it kept students out of the workforce. In urban areas, non-residential schools were also part of the educational landscape, but they aren’t the primary focus of this show.
Women’s colleges began to be established in the early-to-mid 19th century in England and the United States, with a scattering of women’s colleges elsewhere in Europe. In that era, there are isolated examples of women gaining entrance to established (men’s) colleges, but it was only with the creation of women’s colleges that higher education became generally available to women.
In the United States, public secondary education generally shifted to being co-ed in the 19th century with gender segregation continuing in private institutions, while in England secondary education typically remained gender-segregated well into the 20th century. Most Western countries fall somewhere within that range. Genuinely co-educational colleges appear at widely different times in different countries, with rare examples in the USA starting in the mid-19th century and in the UK in the later 19th century. But women-only colleges remained a significant presence into the mid-20th century.
This sets up a timeline for the social dynamics of women-only educational institutions. For secondary boarding schools, we would generally be talking about the 17th century and later, with the shift away from single-gender institutions depending on location, and sometimes on class or income. For the heyday of women’s colleges, we’re talking generally about the mid-19th century into the early 20th century. The specifics—not only of school systems, but of attitudes towards same-gender relations within them—can differ significantly within this scope, by time and culture, as we’ll discuss later.
This age of women’s colleges coincides and is intertwined with a number of other social factors that affect women’s intimate friendships and attitudes toward them, such as a significant rise in feminist movements, and the beginnings of the medicalization of homosexuality. We can see how awareness and attitudes toward homosexuality affected the perception of school “smashes” across this heyday, moving from an accepted, admired, and even encouraged practice, to one viewed with suspicion, and discouraged in its more excessive manifestations.
Romances Between Students
When we look for romances between women that began as boarding-school friendships, we can begin in the 17th century with English poet Katherine Philips. She attended a boarding school in Hackney run by a Mrs. Salmon from 1640 to 1645—when she was in her early teens—and it was there that she met Mary Aubrey, to whom she gave the classical nickname “Rosania” in her poetry and correspondence, and who was the first of her romantic objects.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Anne Lister engaged in her first romantic relationship with boarding school roommate Eliza Raine, when sent to the Manor House School in York when both were in their early teens. Although that relationship didn’t last past Lister’s departure from the school two years later, it may well have been the context in which she recognized her exclusive orientation toward women.
In the mid 19th century, future English novelist Mary Mackay (who would write under the pen name Marie Corelli) was shipped off at age 11 to be educated at a Parisian convent school, where she met Bertha Vyver. Their lives were intertwined from then on. When both women were around 20, Vyvyr moved in to care for Corelli’s invalid father. After his death, the two shared a household and supported each other’s careers for over 40 years, and Corelli left the profits of a best-selling literary career to Vyvyr when she died.
These are only a very few examples of known romantic couples who first met as schoolfellows. But finding isolated examples of female romantic couples who met at boarding school is a different matter from having an open culture of such relationships.
In the 18th century, literature about female schoolfriends didn’t tend to fantasize about their possible sexual relations in the same way it did about women in convents. But there are veiled allusions in manuals about education that suggest girls not be left unsupervised too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” These references could be either to same-sex activity or to masturbation, but those two topics were not always distinguished at the time.
By the later 18th century, it became typical (although not universal) for middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States to be sent to gender-segregated boarding schools. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was an anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family.
The Culture of School Crushes
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg includes school friendships in her study of women’s same-sex bonds in 19th century America, using family correspondence dating between the 1760s and 1880s. Although Smith-Rosenberg tends to view these ritualized female bonds as primarily non-romantic, even when couched in romantic language, we can turn directly to the relevant quotes to see how these relationships were viewed. Female friendships were expressed with warmth, spontaneity, and a sense of fun. Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged, and enjoyed dancing with each other. This sort of behavior was enjoyed openly without any expectation of suspicion or criticism. Indeed, schools often encouraged students to pair off and sponsored all-women dances and similar events.
Sarah Butler and Jeannie Musgrove met in their mid-teens in 1849 when their families were vacationing in Massachusetts. They then spent two years together in boarding school where they formed a deep, intimate friendship that included romantic gestures and the assumption of nicknames for each other. One of them took a male nickname, a pattern we regularly see among intimate female friends. They continued using those names to each other all their lives. Sarah married, but the two continued to write of their desire to spend time together, of their longing to be with each other and of how much they meant to each other. Passages from their letters include, “I want you to tell me in your next letter, to assure me, that I am your dearest.” and “A thousand kisses--I love you with my whole soul.” Jeannie married at age 37, precipitating significant anxiety between the two about how it might change their relationship. And it did result in a physical separation, though with no change in their emotional intensity.
A second pair has a similar story. Molly and Helena met in 1868 while attending college together in New York City. Over several years, they studied together, visited each other’s families, and became part of a network of artistic young women. They developed a close intimate bond that continued the rest of their lives. In their letters, they called each other dearest and beloved. They expressed this affection in kisses and embraces. After five years, they had planned to share a home together but when Molly bowed to her parents’ wishes and decided against the plan, Helena responded angrily, leading Molly to fear it would mean a break-up. The friendship cooled somewhat and both gained male suitors and married. During this time of upset, they expressed their feelings in romantic and marital terms. Molly wrote, “I wanted so to put my arms round my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her...I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken each other for life--and believe in her as I believe in my God.” And she wrote to Helena’s fiancé, “Do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so. Don’t you wonder that I can stand the sight of you.”
Martha Vicinus takes a detailed look at formalized romantic dynamics within English girls’ boarding schools in the later 19th and early 20th century in her article “Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships,” specifically looking at the practice of “smashes”—another term for “crushes” or “raves”—ritualized romantic connections between students, or sometimes between student and teacher.
While the schoolgirl friends mentioned previously involved couples of equal age, which seems to have been typical of relations in the 18th and larger part of the 19th century, the later practice of “smashes” in English boarding schools arose in a culture that encouraged an age-differentiated and more formalized love, rather than an egalitarian relationship. Note that Vicinus is focusing specifically on the era when the social perception and performance of such “smashes” was changing due to external social shifts, and they were beginning to be viewed less innocently.
It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these school friendships were conscious of an erotic aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, around the turn of the 20th century, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been as forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.
The increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools toward the end of the 19th century contributed to this new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life for women. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control, in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on an older student or a teacher, but one that was not necessarily expected to be reciprocal or egalitarian.
The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from being “gone on” someone), or flame. The vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was similar, deriving from equivalent social conditions.
In the prototypical “smash,” love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was not part of the official prototype. It would have meant a failure of the expected self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The older object of the rave or smash might recognize the underlying urge as sexual, but she was expected to help channel those feelings into emotional rather than sexual expressions, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements. These age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor, which set up a “safe” symbolic context for the interactions.
British “Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and ritualized secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussions that normalized the practice and socialized new students in how it was to be performed. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provided to the target of devotion. These acts typically didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks for her. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination. The rules for these romantic rituals might even be codified in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.
Letters from American college students describe less hierarchical and less covert practices, as in this description from 1873. “When a girl takes a shine to another, she straightaway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of ‘Ridley’s Mixed Candies,’ locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as ‘smashed.’” “If the ‘smash’ is mutual, they monopolize each other and ‘spoon’ continually, and if it isn’t mutual, the unrequited one cries herself sick and endures pangs unspeakable.”
Age-difference relationships were often by their nature temporary, as the older beloved would inevitably leave the school first. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. But some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling as their school crushes.
The language of marriage was frequently invoked between such friends. In 1892 one woman writes after the death of her lifelong friend, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages. We know there have been other such between two men and also between two women. And why should there not be. Love is spiritual, only passion is sexual.”
This last provides a hint of how the participants may have reconciled their passionate friendships with conventional ideas of morality. Kissing and embracing and snuggling in bed together were not necessarily understood as sexual. Once the idea that such activities might be sexual emerged toward the turn of the 20th century, only then were intense female friendships increasingly looked askance. And, of course, for those relationships that had been sexual, the shift in attitudes might result in suspicion focused on relationships that had previously been considered admirable.
Romances Between Teachers
Among women in teaching professions in the 19th and early 20th centuries the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: it would have been nearly impossible to pursue a career in academia while fulfilling the expectations for a wife. Even pursuing the education necessary to become a college professor required personal and professional support that women could not expect to receive from a husband, much less support in a career itself. But even more importantly, schools and colleges usually required that female faculty be unmarried. So whether women entered teaching professions already having an emotional life focused on other women, or whether they chose the profession over the possibility of heterosexual marriage and then found life with a female partner to be an attractive option, the teaching profession became a fertile field for finding female life-partners with a wide variety of forms of relationships.
Whether such relationships were viewed as having erotic potential depended on the general attitude toward intimate female friendships. At the beginning of the 19th century, Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie co-founded a girls’ boarding school in Scotland and then became embroiled in a famous legal trial when a student accused them of having a sexual relationship. While the results of the trial were complex and not entirely satisfactory, the two women benefitted from their society’s rejection of the idea that two respectable women—however close—would engage in an erotic relationship.
Around the same era, Eliza Frances Robertson ran a school in Greenwich with her beloved friend Charlotte Sharp. When the school encountered financial problems, Robertson came under attack for a strange variety of charges, but including the assertion that she and Sharp had an unnatural relationship. As a novelist and pamphleteer, Robertson came to her own defense invoking Biblical justifications for intense same-sex friendships. Without weighing in on the truth or falsehood of the specific charges, we can see that within the numerous examples of female academic partnerships, erotic potential was imaginable. But for most relationships, the question was never raised, even when they had all the external trappings of marriage. To do so would have undermined the entire economy of female education.
Publicly recognized female couples were such a fixture at women’s colleges in 19th century New England that, alongside the term “Boston Marriage,” such relationships might be called “Amherst marriages” or “Wellesley marriages” in reference to those two women’s colleges.
The book Improper Bostonians details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records, both famous and obscure. Many established couples among the female faculty of women’s colleges simply lived quietly ordinary lives, such as Carla Wenkebach and Margaretha Müller, both in the Wellesley German department in the 1890s, and Margaret Pollock Sherwood and Martha Hale Shackford, also at Wellesley.
But female academic couples include a number of rather well-known women. Katharine Lee Bates, the author of the anthem “America the Beautiful,” met her partner Katharine Coman while at Wellesley and both later joined the faculty there.
Not all romances between teachers arose at colleges. Black poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké and her beloved Mary K. Burrell met while fellow teachers at Dunbar High School, a segregated school for Black students in Washington D.C.
One particularly illustrative example is that of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. The two met in 1895 when Woolley had just been made a full professor at Wellesley College and Marks (12 years her junior) was a student. The two hit it off and from there on their lives and careers ran in parallel. That same year, Woolley was offered a job heading the women’s college at Brown University and offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, a prominent women’s college. She chose the latter and a few years later became one of the youngest college presidents when she took over at Mount Holyoke. That same year, Marks (having finished her degree at Wellesley) became a professor of English at Mount Holyoke. The complexities of a two-academic-career household were simplified somewhat by Woolley’s ability to pull strings as president. The two were recognized publicly as a couple and lived together at the Mount Holyoke president’s residence for 36 years. After retirement, they continued to live together at the Marks family home in New York.
Despite this clear evidence of enjoying a marriage equivalent and a deeply romantic attachment, Woolley and Marks were not immune to shifts in attitudes toward their type of relationship. In 1908, Marks wrote an essay entitled “Unwise College Friendships” suggesting that such romantic relationships between female students were an “abnormal condition” and asserting that only a relationship between a man and a woman could “fulfill itself and be complete.” The essay was never published, and Lillian Faderman suggests that it may have been too out of step with public attitudes in the US, which still saw schoolgirl romances as harmless or admirable. Marks left other writings showing a developing homophobia, and one is left contemplating the tragedy of embracing a change in social attitudes that negates the validity of one’s own life partnership.
A Shift in Attitudes
In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between American schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. But the combination of anti-feminist backlash, the growing field of sexology and its theories about same-sex desire, and an increasing public awareness of the erotic potential of women’s romantic friendships was gradually changing attitudes towards both schoolgirl and fellow-teacher romances in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. The public culture of school crushes or raves became a focus of psychological concern. School authorities gradually began to characterize raves as disruptive and self-indulgent, or to try to channel the same emotions into a more distant and diffuse expression. As medicalized theories of homosexuality spread into people’s awareness, even the participants in rave culture might later view their experiences with misgivings.
One American woman who novelized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush on a teacher, when writing in the 1930s, felt the need to turn the teacher’s happy, life-long Boston marriage with another teacher into a tragic love triangle that provoked the suicide of the teacher’s partner. Over the course of a single lifetime, the attitudes and understandings toward such school crushes had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.
Just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting social dynamics—especially when they expanded outside the school context—resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, whether between students, between teachers, or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. Unmarried female teachers became figures of suspicion (ignoring the context that their singlehood was often a contractual obligation) and suspected of having twisted or at least frustrated sexual desires that made them prone to exploiting student crushes.
This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant in the beginning of the 20th century did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (the British equivalent of the Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were such crushes regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.
Women’s Same-Gender School Relationships in Literature
There are several strands of academic same-sex romance that appear in historic literary works. Some come out of the culture of Romantic Friendship and depict devoted, loving couples who may or may not end up devoting their lives to each other. Some are more ambivalent, suggesting that these academic romances are transient and problematic and will give way to a marriage plot. Some engage with the motif of the predatory lesbian and the hazards of single-gender environments in bringing “innocent” girls and women into contact with predators who consider such environments a useful hunting ground. And some fall more into a libertine and even pornographic context, using the single-gender institution as an excuse for depicting lesbian interactions.
The love of schoolfellows or of a student for a teacher shows up in any number of classical novels where no suggestion of eroticism is present. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (published in 1847) deeply loves her school friend Helen as well as a compassionate headmistress. We can find devoted school friends in the works of Jane Austen, such as Anne Elliot’s attachment to her friend Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. But works in this category generally draw a curtain on the erotic potential of such friendships by marrying their protagonists off to men.
In the extensive genre of girls’ school novels, crushes and romantic behavior between students at boarding schools are depicted unselfconsciously as sweet and innocent, though when the narrative is confined to the school years, there is no need to address whether and how the relationships persist later in the characters’ lives. This genre was popular in the later 19th and early 20th century and existed in parallel with the development of darker stories in which erotic potential was recognized, and typically punished.
On the more daring side of school stories, Colette’s Claudine at School (published in French in 1900) includes a series of sexual liaisons between students, student and teacher, and between female teachers. But the depiction—though hardly involving sincere long-term romances—is playful and sympathetic, with none of the looming threat of decadence and damnation seen in other works with similarly overt erotic content.
A Sunless Heart, published in 1894 by Scottish writer Edith Johnstone includes several archetypes: the racialized student Mona who falls in love with her lecturer, Miss Grace, who in turn wavers between discouraging her and a creepy erotic possessiveness, fellow lecturer Miss Gasparine whom Mona views (evidently with reason) as a rival for Miss Grace’s affections, and the older male professor who represents the temptations of heterosexual marriage for multiple characters. The book’s position with respect to same-sex relations can be seen in the plot’s resolution in which Mona and Miss Grace, after an angsty breakup, find each other once again as they are both dying in a train wreck.
Even more hostile to same-sex love is the 1917 novel Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane, in which the predatory boarding school teacher Clare Hartill courts and lays claim to younger colleague Alwynne Durand, gradually isolating her from other contacts until Clare’s controlling behavior finally drives Alwynne into the arms of a convenient male suitor. The novel ends with Clare contemplating possible candidates for her next conquest at the school.
The punishment of same-gender school liaisons with nervous exhaustion and mental breakdown is a contribution to the genre from the French decadent writers, where the motif shows up earlier than in the English literary world. In Adolphe Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (published in 1870), the point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, a young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. When the two women are forced to separate by their husbands, the wife goes into a decline caused by sexual exhaustion and dies. Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, during an era when writers in America were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal.
The depiction of such passions as understandable but doomed, appears in Christa Winsloe’s 1933 novel (originally in German) The Child Manuela, later filmed in more than one version as Mädchen in Uniform, in which the entire girls’ school has a crush on the most personable and kind of their teachers, but Manuela believes she has been given reason to believe her love is especially returned and makes a public declaration, triggering a crisis. The teacher, already under suspicion of same-sex interests, gently rejects her, resulting in Manuela’s suicide (though the movie version has the student saved from death at the last minute).
The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in the works of some authors. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and making assumptions about the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian.
A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.
A work mentioned earlier, Olivia by Dorothy Strachey Bussy was based on the author’s own school experiences around the turn of the 20th century when she had a crush on a teacher who had a romantic partnership with a fellow teacher. But by the time Bussy fictionalized her experience in the 1930s, the student crush and declaration of love becomes the catalyst for the breakup of the academic couple, resulting one partner’s death.
In summary, the culture of girls’ and women’s educational institutions, beginning in the 17th century, not only created a context in which many women found romantic attachments that might shape the rest of their lives, but came to encourage an unselfconscious public culture of courtship-like behavior. The social dynamics around women in academia similarly encouraged the creation of female partnerships that fell on a long sliding scale between friendship and marriage-equivalents.
Social changes toward the end of the 19th century began to introduce elements of doubt and suspicion into these dynamics, for both students and teachers, that eventually eroded the public culture of school crushes and undermined the acceptability of the “Wellesley marriage” arrangements previously popular among faculty. But these changes were gradual, taking different shapes in different countries, and one can find both positive and negative takes on women’s academic romances overlapping across several decades.
All of this makes the school environment a rich source of potential for sapphic historic romances full of angst and drama, but with the potential for happy endings.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2023/03/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2023.
I feel like I have very little to discuss this month, but the extensive list of recent books makes up for that in content. And I felt inclined to ramble a bit in the “what I’ve been consuming” section, to make up a little for how far behind I am in posting book reviews.
News of the Field
I do have another podcast I’d like to direct your attention to. I can’t say a “new” podcast because evidently they’ve been broadcasting for five years or so at this point, but new to me, at least. The show is “Queer as Fact” and is based out of Australia. Their content tends to be relatively modern topics (that is, “modern” from the point of view of my interests), but the most recent episode caught my attention because it’s on women loving women in Classical Rome—a topic my own show has tackled. There’s a link to the podcast in the show notes. If you enjoy it, drop them a note to let them know where you heard about it.
Publications on the Blog
I’ve managed to get through February without reading anything new for the blog. This wasn’t my intent, but other aspects of life have been a bit intensive. Not all of them bad! I spent a lot of time in February processing my overly abundant Seville orange crop and now have the year’s supply of marmalades, candied orange peel, and other preserved items put away. Nature has a habit of reminding us that the seasons turn as they will and you need to get with the program and catch up.
I did acquire one new book that I may mention in the blog, though the queer content is extremely minimal. This is The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega, subtitled “Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society” from which you may understand that it’s a popular-oriented work on women’s history in the middle ages. It appears to be a collection of material from the author’s blog and looks very readable, if you’re in the market for some basic grounding in the subject. But it only has a couple pages of content touching on same-sex issues, and is very basic on that topic.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The meat of this episode is going to be the new book releases. The list has some catching up to do, not only because the Harper Collins strike has been settled and I’m finally doing their books from the last few months, but also because I turned up some titles that I missed or had mis-categorized. So we’ll start with a couple of December books.
A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar from Harper Collins appears to be something of a girl-gang heist story, using a setting that seems to attract stories like a magnet.
Josefa is an unapologetic and charismatic thief, who loves the thrill of the chase. She has her eye on her biggest mark yet—the RMS Titanic, the most luxurious ship in the world. But she isn’t interested in stealing from wealthy first-class passengers onboard. No, she’s out for the ultimate prize: the Rubiyat, a one of a kind book encrusted with gems that’s worth millions. Josefa can’t score it alone, so she enlists a team of girls with unique talents: Hinnah, a daring acrobat and contortionist; Violet, an actress and expert dissembler; and Emilie, an artist who can replicate any drawing by hand. They couldn’t be more different and yet they have one very important thing in common: their lives depend on breaking into the vault and capturing the Rubiyat. But careless mistakes, old grudges, and new romance threaten to jeopardize everything they’ve worked for and put them in incredible danger when tragedy strikes. While the odds of pulling off the heist are slim, the odds of survival are even slimmer…
Evil's Echo by Jane Alden from Desert Palm Press seems to blend romance with a noir detective story.
In her heart, Eleanor “Butch” Tracy is a crime reporter. Her city editor at the Gazette doesn’t see it that way. He believes women should be covering society parties and fancy weddings, not chronicling murder victims and evildoers. Butch gets her shot at the crime beat when a mysterious killer chooses her to narrate his cold-blooded serial execution of prominent New York citizens. To fully report the crimes and prove herself up to the opportunity, Butch must find the connection among the victims. She partners with the striking NYPD detective Christine Carr to discover the link between the deaths of a judge, a billionaire, and a plastic surgeon. Will they be in time to prevent the final murder? The answer lies buried in the Gazette’s clippings morgue, deep beneath the streets of New York City.
There are several January books to catch up on, both new discoveries and those previously held back. We’ll start with the first of two French-language novels I turned up this month.
Aimer Mathilde self-published by Laurence Tardi is a romance set in Victorian-era Montreal.
Montréal, 1865, deux femmes, un amour... possible? Mathilde Hébert, une jolie blonde enjouée de 19 ans, fille de notaire, rencontre par hasard Elizabeth Rice, 25 ans, immigrante irlandaise vivant seule en chambre dans un quartier industriel. Mathilde est plus que ravie d’avoir enfin rencontré une jeune femme qui s’intéresse à autre chose qu’au mariage et à la mode. Leur sentiment l’une pour l’autre naîtra dans le décor d’un Montréal en plein développement, pourtant encarcané dans une rigidité de mœurs toute victorienne. Leur amour pourra-t-il trouver sa place ? Comment accueilleront-elles leurs propres sentiments ? Comment leur entourage réagira-t-il ? Comment, dans ce contexte, pouvoir aimer Mathilde ? C’est là toute l’histoire de ce roman.
Montreal, 1865, two women, one love...perhaps? Mathilde Hébert, the pretty, cheerful, blonde 19-year-old daughter of a notary, has a chance meeting with Elizabeth Rice, a 25-year-old Irish immigrant, living alone in an industrial district rooming house. Mathilde is delighted to meet a young woman interested in something other than marriage and fashion. Set in Montreal, their feelings for each other emerge hemmed in by rigid Victorian morality. How can they find a place for their love?
When We Lost our Heads by Heather O'Neill from Penguin Random House is—quite by coincidence—also set in 19th century Montreal. With the contrast of careless privilege and civic unrest, it seems the protagonist shares much with her namesake, as alluded to in the title.
Marie Antoine is the charismatic, spoiled daughter of a sugar baron. At age twelve, with her pile of blond curls and unparalleled sense of whimsy, she’s the leader of all the children in the Golden Mile, the affluent strip of nineteenth-century Montreal where powerful families live. Until one day in 1873, when Sadie Arnett, dark-haired, sly and brilliant, moves to the neighbourhood. Marie and Sadie are immediately inseparable. United by their passion and intensity, they attract and repel each other in ways that set them both on fire. Marie, with her bubbly charm, sees all the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie’s obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Soon, their childlike games take on the thrill of danger and then become deadly. Forced to separate, the girls spend their teenage years engaging in acts of alternating innocence and depravity, until a singular event unites them once more, with devastating effects. After Marie inherits her father’s sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city’s gritty underworld, the working class begins to foment a revolution. Each woman will play an unexpected role in the events that upend their city—the only question is whether they will find each other once more.
Your Goyle and Mine (The Magickal Underground #1) self-published by Nan Sampson mashes up several historic eras, thanks to a sprinkling of magic.
It’s 1921. The Great War is finally over, but trouble is again brewing for Paris’ most defiant witch. When Father Dominic knocks at Celeste Bérenger’s door asking her to find Eddie, one of the last living gargoyles, she jumps at the chance. For the last fifty years, she and her life partner, Astrid Tollefsen, have run an apothecary shop on the border between the hidden Magical Quarter with its cornucopia of magical denizens and the mundane streets of post-war Paris. Fifty years of punishment for a devastating natural disaster that wasn’t entirely Celeste’s fault. But this is her chance to feel useful again. Helped by her friend, the undead Lord Byron, Celeste’s hunt for Eddie leads her from the casinos and brothels of the Magical Quarter to the Bohemian intelligentsia of Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salons, and into a devious web of danger woven just for her. To protect Byron, save Astrid, and rescue Eddie, Celeste must defy the rules again and draw on forbidden magic…before time runs out for all of them.
The boundaries between fantasy set in history and fantasy with the flavor of a historic setting can be very fuzzy indeed. And as I’ve noted previously, I struggle to be consistent in what I include or exclude with these listings. The Daughters of Izdihar (The Alamaxa Duology #1) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager could have gone either way. The setting is strongly based on recent Egyptian history, though set in a fictional land. You’ll just have to accept that sometimes I include books that are purely fantasy on a whim.
As a waterweaver, Nehal can move and shape any water to her will, but she's limited by her lack of formal education. She desires nothing more than to attend the newly opened Weaving Academy, take complete control of her powers, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. But her family cannot afford to let her go--crushed under her father's gambling debt, Nehal is forcibly married into a wealthy merchant family. Her new spouse, Nico, is indifferent and distant and in love with another woman, a bookseller named Giorgina. Giorgina has her own secret, however: she is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. She has no money and no prospects. Her only solace comes from her activities with the Daughters of Izdihar, a radical women's rights group at the forefront of a movement with a simple goal: to attain recognition for women to have a say in their own lives. They live very different lives and come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think. The cause--and Nico--brings them into each other's orbit, drawn in by the group's enigmatic leader, Malak Mamdouh, and the urge to do what is right. But their problems may seem small in the broader context of their world, as tensions are rising with a neighboring nation that desires an end to weaving and weavers. As Nehal and Giorgina fight for their rights, the threat of war looms in the background, and the two women find themselves struggling to earn--and keep--a lasting freedom.
Now we move on to three February books. A Defiant Devotion (A Truth Universally Acknowledged #2) self-published by E.B. Neal rather transparently advertises one of its inspirations in the series title. Although this is the only volume (so far) featuring a female couple, the series as a whole is very diverse in terms of race and gender. I get a little bit of a sense that the author is trying to capture the dynamics of the Bridgerton tv series.
The year is 1812, and Miss Katherine Knight has no desire to debut, let alone find a husband. An independent, feisty young woman, Katherine prefers hunting and horseback riding to dining and dancing, and spends most of her time eavesdropping at closed doors. When her eldest brother, Lucas, jeopardizes their family’s already precarious future, Katherine uses her talents and intellect to do what she thinks will save her family from ruin. But all her plans threaten to unravel when she meets Lady Rebecca Alwyn, a mysterious and captivating young woman from Amsterdam whose family’s meteoric rise in British society arouses suspicion. Katherine and Rebecca fall headfirst into a deep and intimate friendship, testing the bounds of propriety and morality as they sink ever-deeper into an attachment that might be their undoing. Together, they must tackle their complicated family legacies and come to terms with the actions they take in order to protect the ones they love most — including each other.
Our second French-language title this month is La Femme Falaise self-published by Hélène Néra.
Alice est tombée éperdument amoureuse de Lucia, son amie d’enfance. Leur liaison orageuse a bien failli provoquer un immense scandale dans la haute société anglaise du début des années 1920. Les proches d’Alice, pressés de mettre fin aux rumeurs, l’ont forcée à quitter Londres et à s’installer à Paris où elle tente tant bien que mal de panser ses plaies et de surmonter la perte de Lucia. Après deux années d’une existence solitaire et morose, Alice fait la rencontre de la princesse Sonia de Malanset, une figure du Tout-Paris qui semble prête à lui ouvrir les portes des cercles mondains. Alice tombe très vite sous le charme de Sonia qui l’entraîne dans un tourbillon de fêtes et de musique dans le Paris des Années folles. Mais malgré la promesse d’un nouveau départ, Alice demeure hantée par le souvenir de Lucia et de leur amour sacrifié.
Alice fell madly in love with Lucia, her childhood friend. Their stormy affair threatened a scandal in the high society of 1920s England. To suppress the rumors, Alice's relatives sent her from London to Paris, where she struggles to recover from the loss of Lucia. After two lonely, gloomy years, Alice meets Princess Sonia de Malanset, who seems ready to draw her into Parisian society. Alice falls under Sonia's spell amid a whirlwind of parties and music in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties. Despite this new beginning, she remains haunted by the memory of Lucia and the love they lost.
The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes from William Morrow Paperbacks goes a little bit overboard in setting up the backstory in the book’s cover copy. So bear with me.
Berlin 1933. Following the success of her debut novel, American writer Althea James receives an invitation from Joseph Goebbels himself to participate in a culture exchange program in Germany. For a girl from a small town in Maine, 1933 Berlin seems to be sparklingly cosmopolitan, blossoming in the midst of a great change with the charismatic new chancellor at the helm. Then Althea meets a beautiful woman who promises to show her the real Berlin, and soon she’s drawn into a group of resisters who make her question everything she knows about her hosts—and herself. Paris 1936. She may have escaped Berlin for Paris, but Hannah Brecht discovers the City of Light is no refuge from the anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizers she thought she left behind. Heartbroken and tormented by the role she played in the betrayal that destroyed her family, Hannah throws herself into her work at the German Library of Burned Books. Through the quiet power of books, she believes she can help counter the tide of fascism she sees rising across Europe and atone for her mistakes. But when a dear friend decides actions will speak louder than words, Hannah must decide what stories she is willing to live—or die—for. New York 1944. Since her husband Edward was killed fighting the Nazis, Vivian Childs has been waging her own war: preventing a powerful senator’s attempts to censor the Armed Service Editions, portable paperbacks that are shipped by the millions to soldiers overseas. Viv knows just how much they mean to the men through the letters she receives—including the last one she got from Edward. She also knows the only way to win this battle is to counter the senator’s propaganda with a story of her own—at the heart of which lies the reclusive and mysterious woman tending the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in Brooklyn. As Viv unknowingly brings her censorship fight crashing into the secrets of the recent past, the fates of these three women will converge, changing all of them forever. Inspired by the true story of the Council of Books in Wartime—the WWII organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors to use books as “weapons in the war of ideas”—The Librarian of Burned Books is an unforgettable historical novel, a haunting love story, and a testament to the beauty, power, and goodness of the written word.
Finishing up with six March books, this may be the longest collective list I’ve ever included. Starting chronologically, we begin with a pair of books set in ancient Greece—a Greece that, as usual, includes a heavy overlay of mythic fantasy.
Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood from Harper Teen.
Each spring, Ithaca condemns twelve maidens to the noose. This is the price vengeful Poseidon demands for the lives of Queen Penelope’s twelve maids, hanged and cast into the depths centuries ago. But when that fate comes for Leto, death is not what she thought it would be. Instead, she wakes on a mysterious island and meets a girl with green eyes and the power to command the sea. A girl named Melantho, who says one more death can stop a thousand. The prince of Ithaca must die—or the tides of fate will drown them all.
As is often the case, that description doesn’t give any indication of the book’s sapphic content, so you’ll have to trust in the tags in Goodreads. The second Greek book is a bit more forthcoming: Now the Wind Scatters by J Donal from Asteria Press.
Iphigenia seems to have it all. As the eldest daughter of the House of Atreus and princess of Mycenae, Iphigenia has had an idyllic childhood despite her family's bloodstained history. She is the darling of the people of her city, and at her side are her endearingly annoying sister Electra and adorable baby brother Orestes. As she comes of age, however, that fragile peace is threatened by strange, burgeoning feelings for her handmaiden. Amidst this crisis of identity, another looms as an ancient goddess only Iphigenia can see simmers beneath the surface of reality. All of this falls to the back burner when war with the Trojans looms high on the horizon, and Iphigenia's father summons her with a proposal of marriage she would go to the ends of the earth to avoid. In a desperate attempt to circumnavigate her fate, Iphigenia discovers a dark truth: the altar her father intends for her is sacrificial rather than matrimonial. It is only by an act of divine intervention that she survives, and it is by divine retribution that she will have her revenge. It is from the desecrated shores of Aulis that Iphigenia will embark on a journey that will take her from the furthest reaches of the ancient Mediterranean to the underworld itself. Amidst romances with goddesses and her own terrifying deification, Iphigenia plots. Despite the pleas of everyone around her, she vows that blood will soon stain the marble halls of the House of Atreus once again. Vengeance is sweet, but as Iphigenia soon discovers, it comes at a price that could cost her everything.
When Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt from MIRA turned up in my search terms, it had all those vague queer-coded descriptions like “the secret wishes of her heart.” Fortunately I was able to confirm with the author that it definitely has sapphic content.
Nantucket in 1846 is an island set apart not just by its geography but by its unique circumstances. With their menfolk away at sea, often for years at a time, women here know a rare independence—and the challenges that go with it. Eliza Macy is struggling to conceal her financial trouble as she waits for her whaling captain husband to return from a voyage. In desperation, she turns against her progressive ideals and targets Meg Wright, a pregnant free Black woman trying to relocate her store to Main Street. Meanwhile, astronomer Maria Mitchell loves running Nantucket’s Atheneum and spending her nights observing the stars, yet she fears revealing the secret wishes of her heart. On a sweltering July night, a massive fire breaks out in town, quickly kindled by the densely packed wooden buildings. With everything they possess now threatened, these three very different women are forced to reevaluate their priorities and decide what to save, what to let go and what kind of life to rebuild from the ashes of the past.
Some real women from early Hollywood inspired Well Behaved Women by Caroline Lamond from One More Chapter.
When Maybelle Crabtree, a God-fearing farm girl from Kentucky, has a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger, her life changes forever. With an invitation to join the infamous Alla Nazimova and her Sewing Circle, Maybelle’s eyes are opened to a life of decadence and glamour. Able to freely discover her own sexuality, Maybelle embraces all that Hollywood has to offer in the hedonist roaring twenties. But both Maybelle and Alla have secrets that threaten to bring their gilded lives crashing down. Hearts will be broken, careers destroyed and friendships shattered because what happens behind closed doors, doesn’t stay hidden forever… A compelling story inspired by the real life of silent movie icon, Alla Nazimova.
World War II is a popular setting for sapphic romances, but usually more in the European theater. To Meet Again by Kadyan from Bold Strokes Books takes up the wartime setting in south-east Asia.
London, 1938. Evelyn has only one dream: to become a singer. Fleeing an arranged marriage, she leaves for Singapore in pursuit of a future brighter than the conventions of society could offer her. Evelyn performs in a Chinatown cabaret to survive, where she meets Joan, a young Australian doctor and avid fan. Little by little, Evelyn and Joan form a close bond that leads to a love stronger than either has ever known. But history has other plans. The Japanese army invades Singapore, and Evelyn must flee while Joan refuses to leave her patients. From prison camps to the deep jungle, through encounters and tragedies, Evelyn and Joan struggle to survive and to find each other again.
Gothic novels are all about atmosphere, and A Dark, Cold Touch by Megan E. Hart from Howling Unicorn Press has it in plenty. What it doesn’t have is a clear indication of where or when the story is set, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The position of lady’s companion at the grand, isolated Hemford House was meant to save Estelle Glass from the scandal of her own making. But when she arrived at the mansion and was greeted by the stern, mysterious and intimidating Mrs. Blackwell, Estelle began to see what had been meant as a punishment might possibly become more like a reward…if only she could manage to find her place in the dreary household and the service of Mrs. Virginia Hemford, the childlike beauty Estelle had been sent to serve. Soon the secrets of Hemford House begin to reveal themselves, one by one, as Estelle tries her best to take care of Ginny and avoid her confusing feelings for the intimidating Mrs. Blackwell. Estelle finds herself caught up in a web of rules designed to keep Ginny “safe”…but safe from what, exactly? Or from whom? What accident claimed the life of Ginny’s previous companion? Why does Mr. Hemford avoid his wife’s company, no matter how charmingly she tries, and fails, to seduce him? And who’s reaching to take Estelle’s hand in the night with that dark, cold touch? Only when Estelle learns the deadly secret everyone at Hemford House has been keeping can she truly understand what it means to take care of Ginny Hemford…or to be cared for by Rachel Blackwell. Can the women of Hemford House escape the hauntings of its ghosts, or will the past consume them all?
That feels like a good set-up for the special show on sapphic gothic stories that I hope to do this month.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? Although I’m currently in the middle of reading two titles in print, the works that I’ve finished in the last month were all audiobooks, dominated by going on a K.J. Charles spree. K.J. Charles, who specializes in gay male historic romances, sometimes with a fantasy element, might seem an odd obsession for someone like me who is focused so strongly on sapphic fiction. But the simple fact is that K.J. Charles is an amazing writer—she has an ability to create vivid and nuanced characters that fit their historic settings and yet are recognizable, and varied, “types” that resonate with this modern reader. And she finds ways for her same-sex couples to be together despite the challenges of the times. All of which makes me rather disappointed that the couple of times she’s written female couples, she just doesn’t seem to have found them as interesting to write about.
But another interesting aspect of reading KJ’s work is that, because I find her writing itself so satisfying, the books provide me with a useful way to define and calibrate how I feel about degrees of sexual content in historic romances, and various types of relationship dynamics. Overall, KJ’s books have far more sexual content, and it’s far more central to the story, than I’m interested in. It isn’t even a matter of the gender of the people involved—I’d feel the same way about that level of sexual content for a female couple. I’m willing to put up with it for the sake of the characters and story, in the same way that I’m willing to put up with boring fight scenes in superhero movies for the sake of the underlying story and characters.
But that means that when the relationship in question doesn’t work for me, the premise that the characters are fated to end up together because of their mutual sexual desire isn’t enough to make it believable. Or perhaps, “believable” isn’t the right word, because I’m quite willing to believe that people end up in bad relationships because the sex is good—I’ve seen it in real life among people I know. But it means that I become much less invested in the story because, for me, great sex isn’t sufficient motivation. So, for example, the central relationship in books 2 and 3 of the Magpies series (A Case of Possession, and A Flight of Magpies) is like pebbles in my shoe. The two characters profess their love for each other despite conflicting goals, lack of trust, and poor communication, based solely (as far as I can tell) on the fact that their sexual kinks are complementary. Mind you, I love the fantasy worldbuilding in this Victorian-set series, with its magically-based thriller/mystery plots. But I’m simply not invested in the couple.
There’s a similar theme in Spectred Isle, another fantasy-infused romantic thriller, this time set between the world wars. The protagonists not only deal with the legal persecution of gay male relationships, but with deep personal distrust of each other and very little in common other than being drawn into the same plot. So, in order to bend the plot to a romance, it’s necessary for sexual desire—unrelated to affection or admiration—to be an overwhelming force. That dynamic works better for me in The Henchman of Zenda, KJ’s alternate take on the classic novel The Prisoner of Zenda, because the central characters are not framed as a romantic couple, but as rivals, possible adversaries, and only incidentally fuck-buddies. (The listen inspired me to check out a couple of video versions or the original story, and I have to say, I love KJ’s spin on the “true story” much better.)
So aside from my immersion in gay male historicals, I listened to two audiobooks that cheered me up in their inclusion of incidental, casual queerness in genres that are only gradually allowing the reader to expect that as a possibility. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott is a YA historic fantasy, inspired significantly by the social and political dynamics of Greco-Roman Egypt. The protagonist is marginalized due to her mixed-class heritage and gender, but hopes to find fulfilment in a ritualized athletics competition. Personal and high-level political upheavals disrupt that plan but her training gets put to good use. The book puts a number of interesting plot developments in train for the sequels. In the background, we see how the same socio-political dynamics disrupt her sister’s sweet romance with another girl, and I’m looking forward hopefully to see if they’re allowed a reunion.
The queer elements in Lucy Holland’s Sistersong are much more overt. Inspired by a cross-over between Britain in the midst of the Saxon invasions, and the folk song about a murdered sister who is converted into a harp that sings her fate, we follow three very different sisters with magical connections to the land: one whose disfigurement makes her hungry for love, one whose self-centered spite brings disaster, and one who is destined to cross gender boundaries and become king. It’s a complex story with many twists and turns, revealing key elements of the past and present in a gradual fashion. (I did spot some of those keys in advance, which added to my enjoyment of the book.) The story was slow at first, and the conflict between Christian and non-Christian elements was a bit overdone, but the story picked up as it went along.
I’m not sure why I felt inspired to be more talky about my reading for this month. I guess I miss being in the habit of doing reviews regularly. Maybe I’ll go back and comb through these podcast notes and do something more formal. I hope your reading is giving you something to think about, too!
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
Evidently at some point when I wanted an anchor to tag for talking about the next Alpennia book, I arbitrarily pencilled in an expected release date of March 2023. So if you happened to view the front page of this website at some point in the last four days, you may have gotten your hopes up that Mistress of Shadows had magically acquired a physical existence.
Alas, no. I'm not sure I'm going to get any substantial writing done before I retire at this point. The day-job seems to take more and more out of my brain all the time. At one time, I estimated that I might be able to finish the whole planned Alpennia series before retirment. Ha. Ha.
The books are all still clamoring to get out of my head, but they have to fight their way past the failure investigations and the new managerial duties and the constant pressure to get the work done with fewer and fewer personnel.
Two years and two months. That's the target. I love my job, but I want a life again too.
(Originally aired 2023/02/18 - listen here)
It might seem a bit odd, when doing these shows on tropes in sapphic historic romance, to combine the “friends to lovers” and “enemies to lovers” tropes into a single discussion. But it seems to me that both tropes can be explored in a more interesting fashion by contrasting them with each other, while simultaneously contrasting them with how the tropes work in mixed-gender couples.
To review briefly (because you never know who might have just stumbled on this concept for the first time), a trope is simply a recurring, conventional literary device or motif. And in the context of romance fiction, it has come to mean any of a variety of fixed structures or scenarios involving the romantic couple that is used regularly enough that it has come to carry a weight of expectation and meaning, and that connects the story in the reader’s mind to other stories that have used the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
Historic romance readers love their tropes, and in this series of podcasts, we look at how some of the more popular tropes function for female couples in historic settings—how they change the dynamics of the plot due to social expectations, prejudices, or assumptions around gender relations that are specific to the setting.
As usual, my examples tend to be drawn from Western culture. If you’re writing your story in a significantly different cultural setting, you should research what the differences might be with regard to expectations for friendship and for social conflict between women. However for this particular set of tropes, I’m going to be discussing general dynamics more that specific historic examples.
It helps to begin by dissecting how the “friends to lovers” and “enemies to lovers” tropes work for mixed-gender couples, and how they work differently in historic settings than in contemporary stories.
“Friends to lovers” plots for male-female couples lean heavily on the cultural expectations and stereotypes around the imperatives of sexual desire. Men and women in close social proximity—so the model goes—will invariably find desire entering the picture unless there’s an overwhelming counterforce. That counterforce could be a lack of physical attraction; it could be a significant social taboo such as a pseudo-sibiling relationship between two people who have interacted closely since childhood; it could be a matter of social classification, where the other person has been tagged as “inappropriate for romance” for any number of reasons.
As has been noted in previous installments of this series, there have been large swathes of cultural history in which non-sexual friendship between men and women was considered implausible as a concept, or at least only possible within very narrow contexts. (Contemporary settings are more open to the idea, of course.) So for a historic romance, there can be a significant hurdle to arranging for your protagonists to be non-romantic friends in the first place, if you have a male-female couple. And once a friendship is established as existing, there needs to be an ongoing barrier that initially prevents the characters from recognizing (or at least acknowledging) the romantic potential.
In contrast, a mixed-gender “enemies to lovers” trope often tends to lean into seeing romance as conflict. Whether the conflict is a generic “war between the sexes” where personal desires are in conflict, or whether there’s an external clash that gets personalized, the underlying theme tends to be that the heightened emotions of conflict is re-interpreted by the body as arousal. Arousal, in turn, when embraced, forces a reanalysis of the underlying emotional state.
In a historic context, the initial conflict sometimes stems from the coercive dynamic of courtship and marriage itself. A woman who—for any number of reasons—feels disinclined for marriage in general, or for marriage to the other protagonist in particular, may view the courtship itself as a hostile act. In a context where courtship is inherently an unequal and adversarial dynamic, setting up your characters to be in conflict can be extremely simple. Of course, they may also be in conflict over other issues: politics, personality or history, misunderstandings, conflicting loyalties. But maneuvering them through that conflict and into romantic alignment is, to some extent, simply an exaggerated version of default courtship negotiations. If one partner is expected to resist, and then to be won over, the reasons for the resistance don’t necessarily change the shape of the plot.
These dynamics of male-female conflict and resolution come from culturally-driven assumptions about gender essentialism, but keep in mind that even if you toss biological essentialism out of the mix (or even better, hurl it with great force), we’re still placing our characters into cultures that were steeped in essentialist beliefs. And those beliefs will shape what your characters are dealing with and how they react.
I’m going to digress for a moment for a personal note. I have to confess that I have a hard time wrapping my brain around enemies-to-lovers romances when the enmity stems from aversion and distaste for the other person as a person. Even the ones that aren’t flat out “I totally hate you” but are just “you’re annoying, go away.” My basic attitude is, “Given all the perfectly reasonable people in the world, why would you put all that effort into fighting through dislike to see if maybe there’s love on the other side?” And don’t get me started on the topic of hate-sex. But that’s probably because I’m asexual and simply can’t imagine why you’d want to get intimate with someone you don’t even like. So stories that are basically, “I hate you but the sex is so great that readers will stick with our story up to the last chapter where we decide we actually love each other after all” … um … just not working for me. The enemies-to-lovers stories that work for me tend to be ones where the conflict is external—where the characters are set up by their personal histories to be in conflict, but where they see things to like and admire in the other person before desire enters the picture. Take this as context as we move on to look at female couples as friends and enemies, because I have some serious gaps in my awareness as a result.
Friends to Lovers
A regular theme of these sapphic tropes discussions is the simple fact that, all other things being equal, historically, women were more likely to do their default socializing with other women rather than with men. When it comes to friendships, there are pervasive expectations that women will be friends with other women. Those friendships may include elements of romance and sensuality, but the two aspects are not considered to be in conflict. So the same factors that make it challenging to set up a male-female couple as friends first, before there’s a romance, often don’t exist for a female couple. There may be other social factors in their lives that make this particular friendship difficult or unlikely, but it won’t be because of gender.
And in certain social contexts (like the romantic friendship phenomenon) there was an assumption that friendships between women could and would partake of romantic feelings and displays of physical affection. Whether you’re looking back in history or listening to contemporary stories of how female couples got together, you hear time and again that they were friends who came to realize that what they felt for each other was a different flavor than how they’d been viewing it. (I’m working very hard here to use language that doesn’t frame romance as being more or better than friendship.)
So the difference in the trope comes when one or both of the couple comes to the realization that what they feel or what they want is different from what their culture categorizes as friendship. Or maybe they don’t? We’ve talked a lot about how the emotions and displays of affection between female friends were often given license to be overtly romantic. In a mixed-gender “friends to lovers” romance there are generally behaviors that signal the tipping point. But in many historic contexts, those behaviors were part of a continuum of behavior between female friends. This means the “recognition point” when the relationship irrevocably becomes erotic (or moves toward an exclusive marriage-like arrangement) can occur much further along the scale.
Of course, there are also historic cultures where friendship behavior has more narrow limits, or in more recent times, when a hyperawareness of theories of sexuality makes it harder to put off that recognition point. These are factors that you need to investigate and consider for the particular setting of your story. What’s the normal range of behavior for female friends? At what point would your characters feel the need to discuss a realignment of their relationship? A major part of Lillian Faderman’s book Surpassing the Love of Men focuses on the gradual turning point in the early 20th century when that “recognition point” shifted significantly.
How would reaching that recognition point change the couple’s expectations for the future? Would that change be apparent to their community as a qualitative difference? How does this shift in their relationship affect how they act with other women they’ve categorized as friends? Do they consider the shift in their relationship to create an expectation of exclusivity? If so, exclusivity in what sense? They’re still likely to be leading lives centering around a female community, so a drawing away from other friends might be viewed negatively if they don’t feel able to be open about being lovers or whatever feature their exclusivity revolves around.
In this episode, I’m primarily focusing on the relationship itself, and not on external features like living arrangements, which have been discussed previously.
As noted earlier, for male-female couples, even when the initial relationship is understood to be a friendship, there will tend to be a social pressure to turn it into a romance, or simply an assumption that that will be the natural progression. But for female couples, the pressures and assumptions are different. There may be an assumption that long-term friends will tend to become closer and more devoted over time, but there isn’t a looming cultural expectation of erotic entanglement. At least, not necessarily, though such expectations may exist in specific subcultures. And the couple is less likely to have easily available social scripts for recognizing and negotiating the shift to an erotic or exclusive relationship. (Though, again, in some specific cultures, such scripts existed. For example, the late 19th and early 20th century culture of same-sex crushes in women-only educational settings.) This means that the most interesting complications, misunderstandings, and crises in the romance plot are likely to happen in a different part of the relationship arc than they would for a mixed gender couple.
Enemies to Lovers
So how about those enemies-to-lovers stories? Where are we going to see differences for our female couple?
One factor that drops out of the equation is the stereotype of the “battle of the sexes” — that is, the assumption that men and women will inherently be in conflict. Even when there’s a butch-femme dynamic to the relationship, it’s a different power negotiation from a mixed-gender couple.
Another factor that drops out—or at least is muted—is the external social pressure for the conflict between the protagonists to resolve in couplehood. Not only do the protagonists have to work past their mutual antipathy to find romance, but they have to do it without the support of societal expectations that interpersonal conflict is simply another form of courtship.
Sources of Conflict
So what are potential sources of conflict that could resolve into romance (or at least be worked through in the process of finding romance)? The basic one, which I’ve touched on already, is simple conflict of personality. Their surface presentations grate on each other—or perhaps it’s a one-way grating. This can intersect with some of the personality-based tropes, like “grumpy-sunshine”. But at a deeper level it can fall into the category I don’t really grok, the one where they genuinely despise each other personally, but some situation forces them into a proximity that sparks desire.
Another version of this—and it’s another one that I have some trouble getting into—is the stereotype of women jockeying for social status and identifying other women as enemies in this sort of rivalry. This is a motif that is too often seen in popular media of the “there can be only one woman” variety, the sort where female characters don’t seem to have friends and communities and always view other women as enemies. Quite frankly, it feels artificial and unrealistic to me that a conflict of this sort would resolve into romantic desire. But maybe that’s just me.
I think there’s a lot more promise in situations where the two female protagonists are rivals for some goal, but the resolution can involve discovering that they can both achieve their goals, or that the rivalry was misdirected. The 19th century socialites who vie for prominence as a hostess but end up combining their talents. Two business rivals who discover the joys of collaboration (and perhaps of monopoly once they aren’t trying to steal each other’s customers). And keep in mind that women have always been active in business in all ages, though the nature of the businesses open to them might vary. A similar dynamic can be seen in a competition for resources, such as an inheritance or a desirable job, where the conflict doesn’t come from personality but from desperation and need.
In a romantic comedy, there could be a lot of potential in overlaying the default heteronormative expectations with a same-sex romantic arc, where two women are set up to think they’re competing for the same man but realize they prefer each other. Or it could be even more complex if they’re each trying to arrange marriages for siblings or friends and come into conflict over misunderstandings about who is being matched with whom. (Think about every complex Shakespearean romantic entanglement plot you’ve ever seen and then add a layer where resolving into a same-sex couple is one of the options.)
One eternally reliable source of enemies-to-lovers stories is conflict that derives from family or national loyalties. Whether it’s the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, connecting in spite of feuding families, or the spies who loved each other, or complex diplomatic negotiations that turn personal, a romance where there is no personal animosity but a vast external pressure arguing against the connection provides a satisfying storyline that brings in both internal and external conflicts. And stories like this can be set in almost any age and at any level of society.
Structuring historic romances between women using a friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers trope offers a wide scope of story possibilities—wide enough that I’ve barely skimmed the surface here. Many of the enemies-to-lovers possibilities will be very similar to those available for mixed-gender couples, though without the overlay of the whole “battle of the sexes” nonsense. But friends-to-lovers stories operate out of a very different dynamic than the one that makes sense for male-female romances, due to the historic differences in how same-gender and mixed-gender friendships were viewed. And either of these will likely be combined with other tropes that address how the couple organizes their future life together, in contrast to the standard mixed-gender marriage plot. So find a context in the setting of your choice that either brings your couple together as friends or that sets them in conflict as enemies and let them have at it!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
I hadn't expected to be able to announce this quite so promptly! Often it takes a few days to get the contracts sent out and returned, but things got turned around immediately. Now that all the responses have been sent out, here are the acceptances (in no particular order).
First off, a commissioned story from Catherine Lundoff, "The Pirate in the MIrror", another Celeste and Jacquotte story in the continuing series.
From Rose Cullen, we have "Battling Poll" a story of female prize-fighters in 18th century England. I'm particularly delighted to be able to buy this story as it had almost made the cut in a previous year and came back with revisions that made it an immediate "yes".
B. Pladek sold us a historic fantasy, "The Salt Price," involving salt-smugglers in 18th century France and a fairy bargain.
And Annemarie KD provides us with "To the Fair Muse Who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More" dreaming up some sapphic adventures for poet/playwright/spy Aphra Behn in the Low Countries of the 17th century. When this submission came in, I immediately thought, "I hope it lives up to the title because I'm in love with the title" and it did.
The fiction episodes are scheduled for April, July, September, and December this year. My next task is to start finding narrators who will best suit the stories.
(Originally aired 2023/02/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2023.
There’s a temptation to wait to record this episode at the very last minute in order to see if I can include the new fiction line-up announcement. As I’m writing this, there are still two days left in the submissions period (and I’m hoping for the same last-minute flood I’ve received in past years to bring the numbers up to the usual level). But while I’ll almost certainly have started reading submissions by Saturday, chances are I won’t be ready to make an announcement. If you want the up-to-the-minute news about the line-up, make sure to follow the blog.
News of the Field
In news of the field, I’m still holding off on promoting books from Harper Collins imprints, to support the ongoing strike by their workers. The list of postponed books is up to 4 titles now, but the company has recently entered negotiations with the union, so perhaps by next month I’ll be in a position to do the catch-up listings.
When working on the annual roundup of statistics on lesbian and sapphic historicals, I’ve been digging into the various connections and relationships between imprints to be able to give a more accurate picture of who’s publishing what. My database—which goes back at least 20 years, though much more spottily in the first half—includes slightly over 300 named imprints, with an average of 2.3 titles per imprint.
But that average doesn’t give an accurate picture at all. Almost 200 of those imprints have only a single book listed in the database, while the most prolific has 71 titles. Out of the 11 imprints that have 10 or more titles, 9 are specifically queer small presses.
But, again, that doesn’t show the whole picture because of the way mainstream publishing is a small collection of conglomerations of specialty imprints. So, for example, by my count, the Harper Collins group accounts for 15 different imprints in my database, for a total of 28 titles. Penguin/Random House accounts for 25 different imprints for a total of 51 titles. And Hachette, while including only 6 imprints in my database, accounts for 20 titles.
So while it might seem as if, on the basis of individual named imprints, the small queer presses are the major players, when you view the mainstream publishers as unified entities, you can see that they’re a significant presence in the field.
This is, of course, both a good and a bad thing. It’s a good thing that mainstream publishers are embracing books with queer content. Their books have larger reach. They’re more accessible to the general public through bookstores and libraries. But the down side is that, as more queer books are available from major publishers, their books are beginning to dominate some online book discussion spaces. There are practical reasons for this that I’ve discussed in previous shows, having to do with the way information flows within the literary ecosystem. But never forget that small, independent queer presses were what created the space for that to happen.
Publications on the Blog
In January, the blog delved into George E. Haggerty’s Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. It’s a look at how various categories of transgressive desire shaped literary genres in the 18th century that helped give rise to the gothic novel. It’s one of several books I selected to prepare for a podcast on lesbian gothics, though I’m not sure I’m ready to do that one this month.
I went on one of my periodic online book shopping sprees, inspired by a calendar reminder to order a book that came out late last year: Wendy L. Rouse’s Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women's Suffrage Movement.
While I was shopping, I followed up on a couple other notes and discovered that there was now an affordable paperback edition of Thomas A. Abercrombie’s Passing to América: Antonio (Née Maria) Yta's Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire. Like many biographies of so-called “passing women,” this falls more in the category of transgender history, but remains a continuing interest for the blog in order to provide context for one of the more popular tropes in sapphic historical fiction.
For similar reasons, I picked up Norena Shopland’s A History of Women in Men's Clothes: From Cross-Dressing to Empowerment. This work is from a publisher that specializes in popularized history, rather than an academic press, and a brief skim through the table of contents suggests that a more accurate title would be “a history of women in men’s clothes in the 19th century and later.” But I’ll review it and let you know if I think it would be useful.
The last item from the shopping trip is a collection edited by Ruth Vanita: Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. As the collection is broad in scope in terms of eras and identities, I expect that maybe one or two articles at most will be of interest to the Project, but I’m always on the lookout for non-Euro-centric studies and Ruth Vanita has done a lot of good work in the field.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Now let’s move on to new and recent fiction. I found only one January book that I’d missed previously, so I’ll just fold it in with the February books, rather than separating it out, and follow my usual format of tackling titles in chronological order of setting. I don’t know if people notice that I do that! And sometimes I’ll do a thematic group out of order.
This month has another relatively invisible feature: it’s the first month since I started actively avoiding Amazon links when I was able to get a non-Amazon url for all the current listings. My ideal goal is to be able to provide an author, publisher, or Books2Read type link for every book, even if it’s simply the author’s website that itself has an Amazon link. The advantage is that it delivers your eyeballs to the author’s own information which may include other titles, blogs, or mailing lists.
She Who Would be King by Kim Pritekel from Sapphire Books is a historic fantasy that combines some solidly real-world grounding with an imagined country where the story largely takes place.
Cateline is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a nobleman in fourteenth-century France. It's a time when children aren't seen as those to be loved and cherished, but instead are used as pawns and bargaining chips on the chessboard of control and privilege. She is married off to a prince in the country of Sursha, a Gaelic-speaking island nation near Ireland. Fergus, her betrothed, is next in line to take over once beloved King Carthac dies. Or is he? Fallon, the youngest royal child and only girl, has been raised as one of the king's sons her entire life, for reasons she has never fully understood. A natural fighter, she was raised to be a warrior and head the Crown's Elite Guard assigned to protect her boorish brother Fergus. Forced to fill in for her brother in an unexpected way, an instant attraction between Fallon and Cateline forms. In a game of thrones filled with deception and betrayal, even the most secret love can mean death.
The Pirate's Pursuit (Sapphic Seas #2) by Wren Taylor from Epicea Press introduces two new characters to the series, but has intersections with the couple from the previous book.
Lisbet Clarke knows how to fend for herself in the growing pirate haven of Nassau, and is quite content doing it. When a woman from her past steps back into her life, she is forced to finally contend with old memories and betrayals. Yet, she can’t help but wonder what might have been had things ended differently between them. Kit Murphy never thought she would see the island she grew up on again. But face to face with her first love, there is no place she would rather be. Kit is eager to make amends and rebuild a connection with the only person who understood her, even if fate seems to have other plans. Thrown together on a dangerous voyage, Kit and Lisbet must fight for their lives… and their love.
Blood in the Tea Leaves, self-published by Beka Westrup, is another overtly real-world/fantasy intersection, in this case involving vampires. It’s a companion novella to another book by the author.
Marie is a woman sold into a loveless marriage in a 1700’s, secondary-world France. Under the close tutelage of the esteemed Lady Colette Valand, Marie has sewn a small corner of life for herself in their little town in the country-side. She even manages to find love and companionship in a secret affair with a prostitute, Alice. But Lady Colette has a few secrets of her own, and they all come to light on one fateful night, when their bodies and futures are forever changed by a mysterious tin of tea leaves.
The Secret Life of Spinsters: A Sapphic Regency Romance (Desiring The Dexingtons # 2), self-published by Renee Dahlia, is yet another case of a family-saga type historic romance series that includes one sapphic entry. The format is becoming something of a publishing category on its own!
Confirmed spinster Elspeth Dexington works in the Dexington family linen manufacturing business dealing with logistics. She believes that machinery will make clothing cheaper for the people, and therefore everyone can afford new clothes, not hand-me-downs and turned cuffs. But when her father declares they will stop manufacturing linen and shift to cotton, she has a new fight on her hands. Producing affordable clothing shouldn’t come at such a great human cost. Help comes in an unexpected form. Florencia Waulker is the daughter of one of the Luddite organisers. She does all her blind father’s correspondence, but when he orders an attack on the Dexington factory, she realises his belief in the need to rid factories of machines have gone too far. She sneaks out to warn the daughter of the factory owner, only to find herself caught up in a conspiracy. Can two spinsters work together to prevent a disaster, or two? Or is falling in love the real problem?
Dangerous Flames (Good Neighbors coda), self-published by Stephanie Burgis, probably requires reading the four stories in the main series first for context. Again, this is a historic fantasy, in this case somewhat lightly anchored in a vaguely late 19th century not-quite-England.
No killing until the wedding's over. No killing... It's such a simple, temporary rule - but Carmilla, the notorious Countess Cardenza, will still find it hard to follow when she's confronted by her most dangerous old flame at Mia and Leander's wedding. With appallingly respectable neighbors, shambling zombies, and old enemies on every side, will her reunion with Eliza de Mornay end with murder or kissing - or both?
For Lamb by Lesa Cline-Ransome from Holliday House is a young adult novel more on the literary side and dealing with heavy themes.
The book follows a family striving to better their lives in the late 1930s Jackson, Mississippi. Lamb’s mother is a hard-working, creative seamstress who cannot reveal she is a lesbian. Lamb’s brother has a brilliant mind and has even earned a college scholarship for a black college up north-- if only he could curb his impulsiveness and rebellious nature. Lamb herself is a quiet and studious girl. She is also naive. As she tentatively accepts the friendly overtures of a white girl who loans her a book she loves, she sets a off a calamitous series of events that pulls in her mother, charming hustler uncle, estranged father, and brother, and ends in a lynching.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading? It’s been half and half print and audiobooks this month, with the print titles both being novellas that I could finish in one sitting.
I listened to Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey, which I enthused about when it showed up in the new book listings. The story is inspired by the real life story of two young women in 17th century Peru who became sword-wielding vigilantes to fight crime. While the premise of the book is absolutely my cup of tea—or maybe mug of ale in this case—the story never quite grabbed me. The language felt repetitive and slow, and the main characters had a lot of anachronistically modern attitudes. Sometimes that sort of thing is a deliberate authorial choice to provide the reader with a more solid connection to the story, but in this case it felt like the author really wanted to be writing about modern teenagers, but dressed them up in costumes.
I definitely enjoyed Olivia Waite’s new short romance Hen Fever, in which two lonely women bond and fall in love over breeding chickens for the local poultry show. It had a lot of complexity for such a short work. The setting is several decades after her Feminine Pursuits series so I don’t think it’s meant to connect to it, at least not that I noticed.
Another shorter work that I read was Nhi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, which is a re-working of The Great Gatsby focused around the character of Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker. Jordan is re-imagined as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, but the story also throws magic into the mix, including explaining Gatsby’s rise as being due to a bargain with demons. My reading notes say, “Vibes, all vibes!” It’s very much a story where atmosphere is a central character, and I suspect that if you aren’t at all familiar with The Great Gatsby you might stumble in places trying to follow the plot.
I finished up the month listening to yet another of K.J. Charles’s gay male historic romances, The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting. Like pretty much every book of hers that I’ve read, the prose and character studies are excellent…and like many of them, I feel like she leans in a little hard on “hate sex turns into true romance.” But as usual, the characters have good intentions even when they have conflicting goals and everything works out.
And that’s it for this month’s On the Shelf. For the essay show, I probably need something quicker to script than the gothic fiction episode I’m working on, so you’ll probably get another “Our F/Favorite Tropes” episode. And watch the blog and my social media to hear about this year’s fiction line-up. The first fiction show will be in April, so I have time to get things set up…I say with a hollow laugh knowing that I always mean to get the fiction episodes set up well in advance and often fail.
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
(Originally aired 2023/01/28 - listen here)
I’m a firm believer in celebrating round-number anniversaries of things. With a podcast, it’s good to mark those milestones with something special. I have no idea how many episodes of this show I will have created by the time I decide to set the project aside. At the current rate of production I’d hit 500 episodes in another nine years, but that’s probably an unlikely goal. But if I celebrate the multiples of 50, that’s a milestone every two years or so, which feels like an appropriate rate.
I was casting around for an idea for a special episode and hit on the idea of posting my Arthurian fantasy short story “All is Silence” – which made me realize that I’d never done a regular episode about the medieval text that inspired it, the Romance of Silence. That gave me an opportunity to do last week’s show to set things up, not only in terms of content, but to make the episode number come out right. (This one’s a bonus episode outside the regular schedule.)
Medieval epics and romances continually re-worked existing material, adapting characters to new stories, revising the events and outcomes for new audiences, or moving the settings, either to make them more familiar or to make them more strange. I feel no qualms whatsoever in making my own adaptations to this story of a character caught between genders and struggling to find a path that will serve both honor and truth. Giving Silence two companions was a trivial change. The most drastic choice I made was to redeem the character of Queen Eufeme. In the original, she is a cartoonish villain: an adulteress, a woman who uses accusations of sexual assault for revenge, someone who will kill rather than be seen as less than a paragon. The original King Eban is less villainous, but he is weak, wishy-washy, and concerned more with his own reputation than the truth or falsehood of his wife’s claims. I have changed him only a little. It fits easily with his character that his jealousy and thirst for revenge are still unconcerned with truth or falsehood.
Silence, I feel I have changed very little, except in giving the character a different possible happy ending. Where the original text alternates between using Silence’s assigned gender and performed gender, I wrote the story in the first person specifically to allow Silence to tell the story without taking a stand on the question. My Silence is non-binary and most probably bisexual, though I think that aspect is still sorting itself out.
I love playing with these old stories and participating in claiming them for queer audiences. There’s a whole list of medieval texts that I’d love to write my own take on at some point. For now, I hope you enjoy my Silence.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
This story was originally published in 2020 as part of the “New Decameron Project” curated by Jo Walton and available through Patreon as a fundraiser for Covid relief in the early days of the pandemic.
ALL IS SILENCE
by Heather Rose Jones
All is silence in the forest when the path opens from the realm of men to the other world. The birds hush and even the leaves make no sound underfoot. They named me Silence, thinking stillness would be my safety and my refuge, but I will speak. I first entered that waiting hush when I left the solid stone walls of Tintagel, in Cornwall, and rode out to seek my fate. That time, I sought answers and found only more questions. How could it have been otherwise? I rode into silence and found only Silence. So it had always been: I knew who I was, but not what.
King Eban had been the cause of that first journey, too, though not in the flesh, as he was today. Before my parents met and married, a quarrel at the court between sisters had provoked his judgment: women would no longer inherit lands and titles. And so, when it came to pass that a child was born to the Count and Countess of Cornwall, that child must be thought to be a son, raised to know the grip of a sword, skilled with courtly words and graces and all things that befit a noble knight.
When I first strayed into that otherworldly stillness on leaving Cornwall, the path led through the Drowned Lands and released me at last across the sea. This time I recognized it the moment my horse stepped off the road toward the dappled shadows. That first time I had been alone. This time Elider rode at my side, as he had in the tournaments in France and when we fought in battle beside Hoel of Brittany. This quest had been laid on me alone, yet he would not be left behind.
I glanced back before we entered into the trees and the towers of Herincestre could be lost entirely to sight. That was how I saw Rosete slip out through the postern gate and hurry along the paths of the pleasure-garden, separated from the margin of the wood only by a low hedge. I would not have waited but that I saw she carried my harp in its bag across her shoulder. I had thought it lost to me, left behind in the queen's chamber that fateful day.
"Did she send you?" I asked when she approached.
A flush crept across Rosete's cheeks where tangled dark curls escaped her veil. "Do not blame the queen, Sir Silence," she said softly.
Elider said what no one had dared to voice in the court. "The queen lied."
"Of course she lied." Rosete answered him impatiently. "What else could she do?"
The queen could have done so many things. She could have asked me to sing for her in the open hall, not in her chamber. She could have invited me on a day when King Eban had not gone hunting...or one when he did not return unexpectedly. She could have told the king his suspicions were foolish and insulting. She could have told him that it was Rosete I gazed at when I sang, and not at her.
She could not have told him what only I knew.
The king would not have believed any of the things that she could have told him. But he would believe that I pursued the queen against her will and so that was what he heard.
"Let it be, Elider," I said. "I will hear nothing against Queen Eufeme."
"And so you keep silence."
I laughed at that. "What can I keep but Silence? Silence is all I am and all I have. And the queen will keep her virtue and keep her life. If silence can serve her in that, then Silence will serve."
I leaned down to take the harp case from Rosete's hands and slung the strap across my shoulder. It was no burden--small and light for traveling and for singing in a lady's chamber. She offered up a pair of saddlebags as well. The aroma of fresh bread and roasted capon escaped the leather flaps.
"The queen sent this?" I asked.
Rosete looked down and blushed again. No, not the queen.
"Peace be on you," she whispered. Another might have said God keep you, but Rosete's sire had come from Saracen lands.
On impulse, I pulled off a glove and leaned down to give it to her. "To remember me by, if I don't return," I said. What harm could there be in the gesture now? I had seen her long for some such token when I sang Toute Ma Joie as I gazed at her. I'd felt no right to offer it before, even though the gift made no promise beyond what I could keep. Now there was no need to ponder what else I might offer if I could, or to whom.
The silence brushed against us as the path led under the trees. Soon we were enfolded on all sides. Elider reined in his horse and glanced around, as if trying to locate the source of that stillness. "Do you hear...?"
"We are crossing over," I said. Having felt it once before, I recognized the gate. "Do you want to turn back?"
His look was half affronted pride and half humor. "And leave you to earn all the glory of the quest?"
But there was something else as well: something more than loyalty and less than...less than what I dared not claim. Perhaps this quest was an answer to that as well--to wondering what I would claim if I dared. We had grown comfortable together in our travels. Shoulder to shoulder in battle. Wits sparring with the other courtiers at the French king's court. Voices twined above the strains of the harp when the queen commanded our presence. The queen. There was the end to our idyll.
We urged our horses forward into that stillness and through the slowly rising mist, but they whinnied in fear and danced sideways. When we dismounted to lead them, they fought as if in the presence of wild beasts.
"I cannot see the path," Elider said. "There's nothing but this cursed fog."
I could see it leading out before me: a clearer space in the shining brightness where the forest litter could still be seen at our feet. The sign was clear.
"Elider, this is for me alone." I tied a cloth over my horse's eyes so it could be led, but Elider still stared around wildly. Even at so close a distance, I was already beyond his ken. "Let your horse lead you back to the world of men. Wait for my return when I have found the wizard."
I reached for his hand and his fingers grasped mine where they touched. "Be sure you do return," he said. "You know what the prophecy says: no man can force Merlin to his will; he has never been captured but by a woman's wiles."
"I know," I answered as my hand slipped from his grasp.
Time passed like the mist on the path before me: in drifts and tendrils with no edges, no beginning, no end. My horse had quieted into trust after the first few steps. Its feet made no more sound on that ground than my own. An hour? A day? Not that, surely, for the body has its own means of counting time. When I judged it must be near to dusk in the world outside, we came upon a widening of the road where a narrow stream veered closely to it, kissing the roots of an ancient oak, with tufts of grass offering rest.
I turned the horse's blindfold into hobbles and relieved it of saddle and pack. There were fallen limbs enough for a small fire, though it only turned the surrounding mist into a wall of white, rather than beating it back. And Rosete's provisions, though cold now, made a festive board of the gnarled tree root I perched on.
King Eban had called it a quest, but we all knew it for something else: a sentence, a test, an exile. The crime I had been accused of called for death, but in this way Eban could pretend to mercy. He'd said, I have business left unfinished with Merlin. Capture him. Bring him to me and all this will be forgotten. No one sent to capture the wizard of Celidon had succeeded. The others, at least, had enjoyed the freedom to return. No doubt the court expected me to accept it as exile, perhaps to return home to Cornwall in quiet disgrace.
How could I do that? I am the deeds I perform, the renown I achieve, the name I make for myself. That name may be Silence but I will not let it be silent. The wizard was somewhere here within the wood and the wood had revealed itself to me and allowed me entrance. If it were a test, I had passed the first gate.
Between one moment and the next, a figure appeared at the edge of the mist. His dark hair and beard were matted and tangled with sticks. The mass flowed down over his shoulders to merge with the rough skin tunic he wore, making him look more beast than man except for the knobbed staff he leaned on. My hand measured the distance to my sword but I stayed it, recalling the value of courtesy in places such as this. The wildman's lips parted, perhaps in memory of speech. His tongue moved restlessly and he stared at the remains of my meal.
I gestured in welcome toward the food, and in a crabbed, suspicious, scuttling movement he snatched it up and crouched just at the edge of the fire's circle to wolf it down. By the time the last crumbs of bread disappeared, the wildman's movements had become more deliberate and his eyes more human as they darted across my belongings and came to rest on the harp case where it lay beside me. He pointed a bony finger at the instrument and his lips moved again. This time a croaking sound emerged from his mouth and resolved itself at last into a question. "Sing?"
I nodded and drew the harp out to test the tuning. Without Elider to take the lead, I chose a song best suited to my voice: one of the old lays I'd learned in Brittany. And as I sang I could swear I saw tears well up from the wildman's eyes, though if they did, they disappeared into the tangle of his beard.
At the end, when I set the harp down, he sighed and his words came more easily. "I had forgotten."
"Have you spent a long time here in Celidon?" I asked, thinking he might have seen something of the wizard I sought.
"A long time, yes," he replied, though he might only have been echoing my words. "I had forgotten there were things beyond this wood worth knowing." His fingers curled to rake through the knots of his hair, seeming only now aware of them. He frowned. "Would you..." He seemed to be searching for lost words. "Have you a razor?"
"I have a knife," I replied. "And a comb."
Though I shrank from what I might find within that tangle, I bent to his request and parted him from the signs of his wildness.
When that task was accomplished, he ran his hands once more over his head and face, then down across the filthy skins he wore for clothing. "Have you a garment suitable for a man?" he asked.
There was nothing in my bags but one spare linen tunic, but the wildman's emaciated body was slight enough that it would cover him. I offered it, then turned back to arranging the bag to spare him shame at his nakedness, should he feel it.
"Who may I thank for these gifts?" he asked, his voice more assured and no longer with the creak of disuse.
"I am Silence of Tintagel," I said. "Count Cador is my father."
He nodded and his eyes took on a crafty, calculating look. I might have thought the madness was returning, but he said, "I have been in Tintagel, long long ago."
In that moment I knew him. I should have known from the moment he appeared in the firelight, but I had been seeking a wizard, not a woodwose. Was I now bound by my hospitality? How could I draw a sword and compel his return after having fed and clothed him? After dressing his hair as if he were a youth taking service with me? And yet he too might be bound such rules. "Merlin," I commanded, "you owe a debt to my lineage for the wrong you did to Gorlois, my ancestor."
He laughed--a high-pitched giggle that was ill at odds with his new dignity. "And what wrong do you think that was?"
"You know well: when you set his face and his form on Uther the king, so that he could sate his lust for Ygraine, of whose line I come."
He smiled at some secret joke. "Ah yes, that wrong. I did indeed transform Uther. But tell me this: if the man in Ygraine's bed had the body and the face and the form of Gorlois, then who was it who truly sired Arthur the king? If we are not our bodies, what are we?" Merlin watched me closely, his mouth still crooked in mocking laughter.
Now I did pick up my sword. "King Eban has sent me to bring you to Herincestre. You have refused his command and his messengers before." And I told him of the quest that had been laid on me and the reasons for it. "Will you come easily or must I compel you?"
"I will come," he said and laughed again. "Oh, I will come indeed to see what nest of hornets Eban has stirred up."
When we came out of the mist I saw the towers of Herincestre far in the distance. The wood had released us in a different place than I entered and we walked along its edges by the high road until I came to where Elider sat waiting for me. Joy and relief mingled in his eyes. Together we escorted the wizard past the guards at the portcullis and into the hall where King Eban waited.
When we were announced, it was not the king, but the queen, who caught my gaze. She sat white-faced at his side, with Rosete and the other ladies clustered frozen behind her like hens when a buzzard passes over. But surely...
"Tell us how you captured the wizard!" Eban demanded.
He expected a tale of valor and peril. I bowed before him and told the truth while the other knights--those who had failed the quest before--looked on in disbelief. But though I told of the mist and the meal, the harping and haircutting, I did not say plainly that I had not captured Merlin at all. That he had come for some purpose of his own.
The wizard stood quietly throughout the tale, still with his secret smile.
"Have I fulfilled everything you required?" I asked. Would King Eban find some other excuse to be rid of me?
"In prevailing, you have proven your innocence before God," the king said. He turned to Queen Eufeme. "And what have you to say to that, my lady? Either you or Sir Silence were faithless to me and God has judged. How is it you caused me to send an innocent knight to what should have been his doom?"
Oh innocent indeed! How could I not have seen that my vindication must be her guilt? I thought to throw myself on my knees before the king, but in that moment Merlin began to laugh, long and loudly, as if at the greatest jest in all the world.
King Eban turned on him angrily. "Be silent, wizard! Do you see humor in my queen's betrayal?"
When Merlin could contain his laughter, he answered, "I see many things, my lord king, but I see no faithlessness unless there can be adultery among women."
The court fell silent in confusion but Queen Eufeme grew even paler than before.
"Speak plainly, wizard," the king demanded.
"Arthur's was not the only birth I attended at Tintagel," Merlin said. "I was there again to mark the birth of Count Cador's daughter Silence."
They all stared at me and I tried to read each face in turn: the king's affronted chagrin, Rosete's startled wonder, and Elider...his face alone told no story. But in Queen Eufeme's face I saw despair.
I could not have saved the queen. No one could have saved her. The false accusation was only an excuse. Everyone knew it was King Eban's jealousy and her barrenness that had condemned her. And I? For the first time in my life I was a coward. I fled to the farthest corner of the castle. There I sat stone-faced within the niche where the windows looked out to the west, with only Elider for company.
He stared at me as if with doubled vision. Did he hesitate to speak, not knowing what name to use? The silence that once had made us companions now stood as a wall between us.
"Sir Silence," he said at last, retreating into stiff formality. "You bear no blame in this. The queen is guilty--not of adultery, it's true, but of lying to bring about your destruction."
I shook my head. "The queen is guilty of nothing except wanting to live. We all share that guilt."
"Honor is more important than life!" he answered hotly.
"Honor is for men," I returned. Yesterday I would have added, like us. "For women, honor is a cage, not a banner to raise on the field." He wouldn't understand that. He would never feel the bars of that cage weaving themselves about him.
Elider's voice turned stiff again. "You have only to command me and my sword is yours. There will be confusion in the court. If we act quickly and have swift horses waiting..."
"And what?" I asked. "Carry Queen Eufeme off by force? Here in the heart of Eban's lands? Like Lancelot abducting Guinevere? Eban is no Arthur; he would not stand aside. His knights would cut us down before we'd gone five leagues."
Even so far away, I could hear the voices in the courtyard. Or perhaps I only dreamed I heard them. In my dream I watched while Rosete cut the queen's hair to leave her neck bare, and receive the gown that slipped from the queen's shoulders to leave her naked in her shift, and stand beside her, tight-lipped, as she knelt before the block. Today I was a coward, but Rosete was not.
I was summoned before the king three days later, after the queen's body had been laid to rest.
"The law is reversed," he said. "No longer will I bar virtuous and worthy ladies from receiving the legacy of their birth. You will be Countess of Cornwall after your father. Now take up again a woman's proper garments and habits and be counted among the noblewomen of this court." And he commanded Rosete to attend me, now that the queen had no need of her.
It was hard to face her--harder than facing an army at Duke Hoel's side. Her eyes were red from weeping and she obeyed Eban's command as if facing her own doom. I would have thought myself the cause of her sorrow but that I saw the glove I had given her still tucked into her girdle.
I fingered the fine linen and golden samite the king had sent. Take up again a woman's proper garments. There was no "again," all these were strange to me. Rosete's hands shook as she unfastened my belt and fumbled with the clasp at the neck of my tunic. A crimson blush spread across her face and she said haltingly, "I have never--"
She was a maiden; she had never undressed a man. And I had never undressed before a woman...or any other since I was a child among those who knew my secret. Would she ever look at me again as she had when I gave her that glove in token? I turned away and hurriedly stripped off tunic, chausses, and braies, down to my skin, and then wrapped my arms around myself tightly, feeling the air play over my bare skin.
"My lady--" Her voice was tender--as a lover's voice might be tender--but I took it for pity. "My lady, your shift."
I held out my arms but did not raise my eyes until the linen settled down to hide my limbs. The gown was next, well-cut and fitted closely with lacing. A fillet on my brow and shoes of red cordovan. But when she would have tied a girdle of woven silk about my waist I reached instead for the battered leather belt that had held my sword. It settled on my hips with a familiar weight.
"Thus am I girded for battle," I said in what I meant for a jest, and Rosete rewarded me with a hesitant smile. Oh, to see her smile again for me as she had when I sang for the queen! I would never again know that innocent pleasure. And innocent it had been, for I knew it even then for impossibility.
The time came when I could hide no longer. I stood at the entrance to the hall and everyone in the court turned to watch me enter. I felt the weight of their gaze. Beneath my skirts, I was conscious of my bare limbs as the air stirred around my legs. I felt that every eye could see those parts I had been accustomed to keep covered. In that crowd, the only face I sought was Elider's. But when he came toward me, his every line and movement spoke of change. The doubled gaze was gone. The man who once had been my brother and my friend (but nothing more--surely nothing more) now came a stranger to my side, bowing and reaching to kiss the hand I did not think to offer.
"What shall I call you now, my lady?" he asked.
Silence. "I am still Silence, as I ever was," I answered at last.
He led me to the high table where the king seated me at his right hand. And throughout the banquet King Eban praised me for my loyalty and my valor and my virtue and my beauty and I believed not a word of it. My face was too brown and weathered for beauty and my loyalty had been for Queen Eufeme. So how could I trust any word from his tongue?
At the end of the evening, Rosete led me again to the chamber I had been given. She unbound the fillet from my hair and unlaced my gown and whispered, "Lord Elider sees you in a new light now, I think."
"Yes," I said, my voice thick with misery.
"Surely it is cause for joy," she offered, "to have had such a companion who hopes to be so much more?"
How could I explain? My mind could trace no path within this wood. This much she might understand. "My mouth is too rough for kisses," I said. "My arms know only battle and not embraces. I would look a fool in any game of love. I cannot be the lady he desires."
And then Rosete took my face in her hands and pressed her lips against mine.
"Not so rough," she murmured when we both could breathe again.
Somehow my arms had found that they knew how to embrace after all. I tore myself away. "Rosete..."
"I know," she said. "And now it is I who look the fool."
With that, she left me alone to spend a long and restless night.
I spent the next day in an agony, not knowing whether I wished Elider to speak or to hold his tongue. King Eban took that choice from both of us when he called all the court together as witness.
"I will redress the wrong that was done to Lady Silence," he said, "by making her my queen. She will give me fine sons to rule after I am gone." And then he took a ring from his finger and put it on mine as a pledge before any chance for yea or nay to pass my lips.
I sat at the king's right hand again when we dined. When he dined. I could scarcely bear the thought of food passing my lips. From across the hall, Elider watched me. And from my side, King Eban watched Elider and then looked at me and back again. And even when I was released at last, I dared not speak to my former companion, but sent Rosete as my messenger.
"Tell him to leave the court as soon as may be. I will not have his death on my hands. I cannot escape, but he must."
"And if he refuses?" Rosete asked. "If he will not abandon you?"
"Then ask if he wishes to have my death on his hands!" I said. And more softly, "Take my harp to him. Tell him to remember me when he sings."
I had not meant to see Elider again, but Rosete had returned with his promise to go if he could but speak to me once more. And so I rose before the dawn and went to walk in the garden beside the road that led away from Herincestre. Rosete kept sharp watch as I went to meet him at the gate. He had my harp slung across his shoulder and led two horses, not one.
"Come with me!" he urged.
I shook my head. "Do you think King Eban's knights ride more slowly today than they would have on the day Queen Eufeme died?" I would not be his death. Cruelty was my only weapon now. "Why do you think I would leave with you when I could wear a crown?" My voice betrayed me and he reached to take my hand but at Rosete's soft call I cried, "Go! Go!" and hurried from the gate.
But it was only Merlin, come to disturb our solitude. Perhaps his years in Celidon had left him with no love of walls, but his days here at Herincestre had left me with no love of him. I turned on him, demanding, "Why did you come with me only to make trouble?"
He did not laugh this time, nor even smile. "I came because you asked and the king commanded."
"You could have held your tongue," I said. "It would have made no difference to the poor queen and every difference to me."
Merlin leaned on his staff and stared into me as if he could see my very soul. "I speak truth when I am commanded. That is my nature. And it is the nature of kings to be angered by truth."
"I cannot marry him," I said, allowing my dread to show.
"Because it is not your nature?"
Truth, he had said, and there was none but Rosete to hear. "Because he murders his queens when they fail to please him," I snarled. "And I will fail. I cannot help but fail. I do not know how to be a woman, much less a queen."
Merlin considered my answer. "Do you recall the tale of Blanchandine?" he asked.
I blinked at him in confusion, but Rosete nodded and told the story. "Blanchandine loved Tristan of Nanteuil, and because she would not be separated from him, she dressed herself as a knight and rode as his companion."
It was not a tale I had heard before. "What is that to me?" I asked Merlin.
Rosete continued, "When Tristan was thought to be dead, the disguised Blanchandine was loved by the Princess Clarinde and commanded to marry her."
Merlin took up the tale. "And knowing of my skills, Blanchandine came to me and begged my aid to make the marriage possible. I could do the same for you, this time to make your marriage to King Eban impossible. I could change you to be truly what you seemed before."
I thought of what he offered. To be safe from Eban's desire. To be again Sir Silence and know the easy companionship I had enjoyed with Elider. To see again the worship in Rosete's eyes and know I had a right to claim it. And yet...
"What then of the law?" I asked. "What of my honor and my renown?" I looked to Rosete as if she held the answers. "Whatever I may be, these are the arms that won in tournament against the French king's champions. These are the hands that defended the Duke of Brittany against his foes. I won the king's promise that this body could inherit. Should all that be held at naught?" Looking into Rosete's dark eyes, I remembered the touch of her lips against my own. These were the lips she had kissed. Would that too be lost to me?
I turned back to Merlin and demanded urgently, "Who was it who truly sired Arthur?"
Merlin shrugged. "When a man takes up Excalibur from the stone and claims the crown of Britain, does it matter who lay in his mother's bed?"
I looked back toward the gate. In defiance of my command, Elider still waited. And there Rosete stood before me, clutching my glove to her breast as if it were a holy relic. Behind them, I could see the edge of the forest.
"Merlin," I begged. "If ever you owed me a boon, let it be this: open the way to Celidon."
Merlin laughed, and with that laughter a mist began rising from the ground. I held out my hand to Rosete and together we hurried through the garden gate.
Rosete sat pillion behind me as we entered the wood. Elider still carried my harp for I could not have both at my back. The mist curled around us, leaving the path bare ahead, and our horses took it, sure-footed. Perhaps it would lead back to Cornwall, perhaps to Brittany. It scarcely mattered. We would be far from King Eban's reach. The birdsong grew faint behind us and the leaves ceased to rustle underfoot. For now the way was open, leading us I knew not where. I was content, for in the forest all is silence and Silence is all.
A bonus fiction episode to celebrate episode #250: “All is Silence” by Heather Rose Jones, narrated by the author.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
I'm continuing focus on books that provide useful background for a podcast on lesbian themes in Gothic literature. While I found this work not as on-topic as I'd hoped it would be, it does includes some really useful discussions of the ways in which Gothic novels created a context for depicting the realities of 18-19th c women's social hazards -- hazards that it wasn't polite to talk about directly. I think that will be a useful angle, because it touches on how the Gothic was an overt depiction of covert realities, and how it deconstructed the premises of the "marriage plot" even when the stories themselves still resolved in marriage at the end. If one takes the premises and mood of a Gothic novel and rejects the notion that marriage to a man provides the only eventual safety and happiness (even if that is a conditional and tenuous safety), then there's more scope for the transient and often unreliable female alliances within the stories to emerge as a viable alternative.
Haggerty, George E. 1998. Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. ISBN 0-253-21183-2
This book turned out to be significantly less interesting -- or perhaps I should say, less relevant -- than I expected given the title and cover copy. It was interesting to read it in conjunction with last month's book, Danterous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel, as they cover much of the same era and content, but often with rather different interpretations.
In the second half of the 18th century, women established themselves as writers of novels in dramatic numbers, thus the genre is imbued with a diverse array of women’s concerns. The novels discussed in this book tell stories often at odds with the official cultural narrative. Within that diversity, they contribute to a common tale of women’s options and how they negotiate them.
An emergent theme is that of transgressive desire – desire that operates against cultural values and the boundaries of what was considered “natural”. This includes themes that can be considered feminist or lesbian, but does not align with them universally (although this is a particular interest of the author). More generally, the themes emerge in a variety of forms of resistance to heteronormative values that can also include incest, cross-class relationships, and interracial relationships. The author also investigates how these transgressive stories were pushed out of the dominant fiction of the era in favor of ideals of feminine domesticity.
Haggerty discusses a theory involving “fracture points” that reveal the underpinnings of cultural motifs. For the later 18th century, a major theme was excess female sensibility. With women confined into the realm of sensibility and emotion, the fracture points in the narrative become hysteria and psychosomatic illness. Sensibility was coded as feminine but also as degenerate. But that coding gave women license to use sensibility to explore and express the desires they were otherwise denied. In this context, women’s exploration of male characters in their fiction sheds additional light on female explorations of gender and desire. Between women, sensibility becomes the vehicle for expressing emotions that carry an inherent erotic charge, when erotica itself is denied a place on stage. Thus friendships and familial bonds between women become a stand-in for sexual activity.
The remainder of this introduction covers a general theoretical background and a discussion of the scope of female authorship in the 18th century, in particular, the ways in which fictional transgression can support, rather than undermine the social structures it transgresses against. Even when fit into the “marriage plot” in overall structure, these novels resisted by a focus on what comes before – on the heroine’s struggles and journeys – that fall outside the skeletal narrative of the normative female life. The stories are often about the avoidance of marriage even when marriage is the conclusion. The “family” is more often a problem than a solution. Romantic tropes undermine realism and emphasize possibility. Fictional heroines have more freedom and agency than their female readers.
The book is structured in thematic sections: family values, love and friendship, and erotic isolation. Within each section, Haggerty considers a few specific works in detail. [Note: I will probably be skimming the material from a high level, focusing on the more overtly sapphic themes.]
Part 1: Family Values
Chapter 1: Brotherly Love in David Simple
This chapter is not of interest to the Project.
Chapter 2: Female Abjection in A Simple Story
This chapter is also not of interest to the Project.
Chapter 3: Female Gothic (1): Friends and Mothers
The “Female Gothic” genre concerns women’s fears around intimacy and the claustrophobic nature of their lives, in particular fears about husbands and fathers. Real anxieties generate a literary genre that then can be used to manipulate and manage the concepts. However this framing works better for 20th-century genre works than 18th-century gothics that arose in a context of female silencing.
18th century female authored Gothic depicted men as the “other” and expanded women’s pleasure and experience beyond what society allow them. Women writers adapted and helped codify the conventions of the Gothic novel – a genre that broke free of “realism” even when mimicking its literary conventions.
Gothic tropes are full of terrifying secrets: empty rooms, locked containers, hidden manuscripts. But the sensible heroine finds the natural explanations behind the apparently unnatural terrors. The mysterious and supernatural is invoked to create a frisson of terror and possibility, which is then managed back into the knowable and rational. The vulnerable isolated heroin, cast into a mysterious and terrifying environment, is simply an exaggeration of women’s vulnerability in the real world. It is her education and rationality that enable her to resolve her fate.
But besides that, the “suffering heroine“ becomes a means for authors to express extremes of emotion. Landscape and setting are another key feature of the Gothic and are used to create the emotional tone via the heroine’s experience and perception of them. Heroines are allowed to dread their situation – because the situation is removed from the everyday – in a way they would not be permitted to express toward everyday threats and suffering.
While the heroine endures via rationality, the motif of destructive female emotionality may be assigned to a secondary, antagonistic character. The Gothic heroine may be victimized, but she can escape becoming a victim by grounding herself in her relationship to, and understanding of, the natural environment. The suffering at the center of the Gothic acknowledges the realities of women’s experience and promises the possibility of escape.
Part 2: Love and Friendship
Chapter 4: Sisterly Love in Sense and Sensibility
Haggerty looks at the entanglement of homo-social bonds with heterosexual relations, and the asymmetry of how that entanglement plays out for men and women in Western culture. Male–male relations are “public, visible, and … congruent with the dynamics of patriarchal power” while female–female bonds are “private, invisible, and structurally opposed … to the sex-gender system itself.”
This public-private contrast, he argues, is why women’s most intense same-sex relations emerged within the family. But when sisterly or mother-daughter love is confined to the family, it is assimilated into the structure of the family. To ascribe eroticism to such relations evokes accusations of perversity (either on the part of the literary critic or on the part of the subject). But as an invisible force within the family, such female-female bonds can act to resist the “exchange of women” economy that is the heart of heterosexual marriage.
Bus (taking us back to Sense and Sensibility) Elinor’s love for Marianne undermines and challenges Marianne’s for Willoughby. More widely, by structuring female-female bonds as analogues of familial bonds, any eroticism they contain becomes invisible. If one is forbidden to imagine sisterly affection as erotic (even in contexts where brother-sister incest can be imagined) then all possible evidence for eroticism can be denied.
This section brings in Terry Castle’s interpretations of the correspondence of Jane and Cassandra Austen as reflecting erotic attachment. This is the context in which Haggerty analyzes the relationship between the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, and how it pushes the boundaries of “sisterly” affection. But that sisterly love is positive, healthy, and nurturing in contrast to Marianne’s excessive emotional response to Willoughby, which leads to a near fatal emotional and physical decline.
In exploring the nature of the sisters’ relationship, Haggerty discusses the various ways in which the contrast in their personalities plays out. Marianne is all sensibility while Eleanor is sense, Marianne spontaneity and sincerity while Eleanor provides the “social lies” and management of the public-private interface necessary to succeed in society.
The medicalization of “sensibility” and its relationship (in excess) to hysteria and madness are noted. And although Freud had yet to describe such excess sensibility and hysteria to sexual frustration, the erotic context of Marianne’s affliction is overt. Although Eleanor’s care and love brings Marianne through her crisis, it is Marianne’s own shift to “sense” – to identifying her own personality and reactions is the source of her problems – that allows a productive resolution of her recovery.
Marianne’s reconnection and realignment with Eleanor is the heart of her recovery. The shift in the sisterly bond from one of conflict and contrast to one of mutual connection is the central emotional resolution of the novel. The subsequent marriages of the sisters to the rather passive and largely absent male suitors are inevitable, but anti-climactic. Marianne’s sensibility has not been the only force driving a wedge between the sisters. Eleanor regularly tries to manage and criticize Marianne’s public behavior toward a more socially acceptable form, rather than embracing her individuality.
Chapter 5: “Romantic Friendship” in Millenium Hall
Like Sense and Sensibility, Millenium Hall addresses the not-so-clear boundaries between female self-control and female hysteria, and how both can resist the constraints of patriarchy and the false dichotomy of de-/hyper-sexualization. By presenting narratives outside the normative family structure, Millenium Hall offers alternatives to male models of female power and sexuality. Even the structure of the novel – a male-voiced framing narrative containing female-voiced personal narratives – subverts the literary expectations as does the successful resistance to a marriage plot resolution.
Haggerty reviews a number of interpretations of the (potential) intersections of romantic friendship with eroticism. These framings run the whole range from an assumption that F/F relations could only be non-sexual to an assumption that they were always sexual. This gamut exists not only in modern scholarly analysis but in contemporary depictions, such as the contrast between the non-sexual Millenium Hall and the hypersexual Satan’s Harvest Home, which reads “criminality” into all F/F personal displays of affection.
There is an exploration of the language and imagery in Satan’s Harvest Home and how it indicates that F/F eroticism was quite visible in the 18th century imagination. Satan’s Harvest Home sexualizes the same behaviors that romantic friendship apologists proclaim inherently non-sexual.
The various narratives in Millenium Hall depict the hazards for women in patriarchal society and how the resolution can be achieved through F/F romantic friendship. These romantic friendships can be framed as standing in for female relationships absent in the narrator’s life (such as the death of a mother) where that absence made the woman vulnerable. A female friend standing in for the absent maternal role is inherently desexualized. Or, conversely, she eroticizes maternal-type relations. Within Millenium Hall, such maternal-model friendships create the context for personal merger, including merging of economic resources, distinct from the forms of marriage.
Male figures are introduced into the scenario representing traditional social roles – father, guardian, suitor, friend – in order to expose the assumptions and failures of the traditional narrative. The guardian crosses the line from father to suitor, forcing the narrator into a position of unacceptable sexual awareness if she is to articulate her resistance. The self-serving paternal figure becomes a staple of Gothic fiction, but Millenium Hall demonstrates the “Gothic” character of women’s ordinary experiences. In Millenium Hall, this abuse does not drive the woman into hysteria, but makes her defiant and moves her to rely exclusively on women for support.
Subversive presentation of the other male figures in this narrative is further explored.
The “evil stepmother” in the narrative sides with patriarchy to maintain her own domestic power, and she is the one who raises suspicions about the narrator’s romantic friendship as a “strange intrigue” likely to lead to a “sullied character”. Again – as with the erotic advances of one woman’s guardian – there is no way to refute the insinuations of the stepmother except by betraying a degree of sexual knowledge that itself sullies her character. The bond between the women must be broken lest it prove stronger than the intended marriage. Marriage temporally parts the two, but when freed of that state, they reunite with an intent to retire to country life (a romantic friendship trope), a plan that then develops into the founding of Millenium Hall.
Haggerty argues that Millenium Hall exemplifies the (positive) lesbian plot. [Note: This is in contrast to other analyses of the work that see it as smotheringly anti-sexual.] The narrative of the founders is only one of the sub-stories making up the novel. Haggerty more briefly reviews the other stories of patriarchal hazard and escape to Millenium Hall.
Chapter 6: Wollstonecraft and the Law of Desire
Wallstonecraft’s novels, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, explore a range of transgressive possibility, if relegating them to fiction. Haggerty uses these works and Wallstonecraft’s life to explore the gender politics of novel-writing. He suggests that neither of Wallstonecraft’s fictions or “a novel” but in this he seems to mean they diverge from the narrative conventions attached to novels at that time. Those conventions constrain what a female character is allowed to do, whereas Wallstonecraft uses her characters to make political arguments.
In Mary the narrative requirement for the early death of a sentimental friend undermine the protagonist search for a successful romantic friendship, resulting in an underlying message that female friendship is illusory and impermanent. [Note: This conclusion seems to ignore the autobiographical aspects of the novel and the fact that the woman on whom the protagonist’s friend is based did die young. So I don’t know that you can draw conclusions about a prescriptive philosophical position from it.]
Part 3: Erotic Isolation
Chapter 7: Self-Love in The Female Quixote: Romancing the Ego
The general topic of this section is how romance novels were felt to give readers unrealistic expectations for the romantic lives, thus spoiling them for relations with real men. [Note: A charge still often made against the genre!] This deflecting of desire onto a product of fantasy is depicted as a type of self-love. But if the actual men in a woman’s life represent danger, then isn’t it a means of safety to reject them in favor of an unattainable fictional ideal?
The protagonist of The Female Quixote is isolated both geographically and due to family circumstances, but her reading of novels gives her a larger world and models for evaluating the (un)acceptability of the options she is offered.
[Note: This chapter doesn’t intersect much with same-sex issues, so I’m stopping there.]
Chapter 8: “Defects and Deformity” in Camilla
The novel Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, concerns a group of young-ish women of comfortable circumstances, but within which the title character is unexpectedly isolated, due to the well-meaning but wrong-headed actions of those around her. Camilla is told to doubt her own feelings and desires in order to align with paternal authority. The men in the circle, will striving to make the women happy, only cause misery, due to being fixated on their own understanding of the world.
[Note: Again, not much of relevant interest in this chapter.]
Chapter 9: The Pleasures of Victimization in The Romance of the Forest
Radcliffe, while a major figure in the Gothic novel in her own day, is taking less seriously by later academics than her more literary contemporaries such as Austen. Haggerty approaches this well-known work of hers as “an extreme statement about the limits on female expression and the ruthlessness of paternal concern.”
Gothic novels were able to explore different types of desire than the realistic novel. In this way they are able to cross the limits placed on ordinary experience. Gothic novels often revolve around a dead or spectral mother, but The Romance of the Forest fixates on a fantasy of conflicting paternal models, as the heroine fleas from the sphere of one man to another. The heroin status as victim is not simply a convention of the genre, but in some ways her primary defining feature as a character. The core “sensibility” of her experience is suffering and vulnerability. The familial structures she encounters are closed to herm and the women with whom she might make alliance fail to create those connections.
Potential father figures overlap with the “demon lover” motif and a sense of sexual dread. The terrors and anxieties provoked by the heroine’s situation are not a displaced erotic titillation, but a manifestation of realistic and genuine fears surrounding the situation of an isolated woman in a world of male predators. The “safe” hero – the prospective lover that the heroine must win through to, is absent, feminized, and envisioned by the heroine as being in similar peril to her own. In this way, and entirely different alternative is offered to capitulation to male threat in order to obtain safety. [Note: There follows a great deal of semi-Freudian analysis.]
Afterword: Female Gothic (2): Demonic Love
This chapter looks at two women’s novels from the early 19th century that take the themes of the Gothic and push them to extremes. Manfroné or the One-Handed Monk combines the common tropes of the motherless heroine, the sinister and aggressive suitor, a castle riddled with secret passages in dungeons, mysterious monk, and a controlling father. The heroines eventual lover, rather than being heroic, must suffer injury and near death to earn the right to rescue her in the end. In this story the heroines grim determination to resist is her defining features, rather than the experience of the perils she is resisting.
The second book, Zofloya, or The Moor, takes a different path to conclusion. Here it is the heroine’s desire that leads her into degradation. [Note: Also, the story structure is build around serious racism.] Rather than the “demon lover“ pursuing her, she does the pursuing. That desire gives the “demon lover” character the hook to lead her into increasingly depraved actions, destroying all around her, and putting herself into the power of a man who eventually destroys her.
The chapter concludes with a thematic summary of the book – the ways in which transgressive desire in various forms shapes the development of the Gothic novel across the 18th century.
(Originally aired 2023/01/21 - listen here)
People who have a passing familiarity with medieval European literature will know about the cycle of Arthurian romances – Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, Merlin, Gawain, Percival, and the like. Perhaps you’ll be familiar with the Roland cycle, built around the historic court of Charlemagne. But there are many less familiar tales of this type—some surviving only in fragments or secondary references, or perhaps only in a single unique manuscript.
The fascinating Romance of Silence certainly deserves to be more widely known, and it’s of particular interest for its startlingly unexpected explorations of gender concepts and gender presentation. Themes that are particularly relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project include gender disguise, characters assigned female who display martial prowess, and situations that flirt with the appearance of same-sex desire due to disguise and/or ignorance. Not all of these themes are unproblematic, as we shall see, but they offer a glimpse into imagined possibilities that medieval authors and audiences were familiar with.
Because most listeners will be unfamiliar with this work, I feel the need to begin by explaining that “Silence” is the name of the central character, though it is also a theme of the work—of the inability to speak of one’s identity or of one’s innocence. In the original text, the name is used in distinct feminine and masculine forms, as “Silencia” and “Silencius,” which adds another layer to the marking of gender identity and presentation.
The Romance of Silence survives in a single manuscript dating to the 13th century, written in French, and attributed to an almost certainly fictitious author Heldris of Cornwall—a name borrowed from a character in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. The translator of the edition I’m using, Sarah Roche-Mahdi, suggests the possibility that the author may, in fact, have been a woman, based on a distinctly feminine sensibility in the text. The attribution of original works to fictitious authors or historical figures was common in medieval literature—rather the opposite of the modern dynamics of plagiarism.
The plot and characters have clear connections with the Arthurian cycle, particularly in the involvement of the wizard Merlin, although King Arthur himself is mentioned only in passing as a historic figure. The action takes place in the time of King Eban of England, who is not a historical figure, and it would be a mistake to try to estimate what relationship the setting has either to Arthurian chronology or actual history.
Here is the plot, in a nutshell. Due to a fatal quarrel at court between two men who married sister-heiresses, King Eban has declared that women may not inherit lands. So when Count Cador of Cornwall and his wife have a daughter rather than a son, they decide to raise the child, named Silence, as a boy for the sake of inheritance. On reaching adolescence, Silence learns of this unusual situation and, after listening to a debate between the personifications of Nature and Nurture regarding which gender to inhabit, Silence decides to live as a man, feeling ill-prepared to live as a woman. Silence runs away to France, becomes a minstrel and then gains fame as a knight, and eventually comes to the court of King Eban and Queen Eufeme. Eufeme is, as we learn, a piece of work, taking multiple lovers, including one man who maintains access to her in disguise as a nun, and sexually harassing young men she’s attracted to, including Silence. Silence rejects her and she takes revenge by accusing Silence of having tried to rape her. As a punishment that is intended to be fatal, Silence is ordered to capture the wizard Merlin who—according to prophesy—can only be taken by a “woman’s trick”. Silence successfully brings Merlin back to court but Merlin reveals Silence’s assigned gender, as well as revealing Queen Eufeme’s adultery. The queen is executed. Silence is required to begin living as a woman and King Eban marries her and makes her queen, as well as restoring the right of women to inherit, in her honor.
So, as you can see, we’ve got some very problematic tropes here, including the idea of men disguising themselves as women for sexual access, the position that anatomy trumps gender identity, punishing women’s sexual transgressions with death, and the notion that marriage to a king is supposed to be a happy ending despite all the foregoing.
But what I want to focus on in this episode are the scenes in which traditional ideas about gender and identity are challenged in ways that are surprising for the era, and on how motifs like gender disguise and accidental same-sex desire are introduced.
I’m going to be providing extensive excerpts—far more than fair use would allow with regard to Roche-Mahdi’s translation. So I’m going to render the meaning in my own words to respect her copyright, but I want to make it clear that my paraphrasing relies very strongly on her work, even when I refer back to her edition of the French text for inspiration.
The treatment of Silence’s gender in the text is eclectic. Sometimes it follows the gender Silence is presenting at the time, sometimes it follows the gender that a point of view character considers Silence to be. And let us keep in mind that Silence is a fictional character whose gender treatment is based on authorial decisions, not a historic person where we are guessing about self-identity. To the extent that the text provides clues about Silence’s internal gender identity, we are seeing the author’s worldview as displayed through a fictional character.
From a modern perspective, Silence can either be viewed as transgender, but eventually pressured into accepting an assigned gender. Or Silence can be viewed as gender-queer, due to a cross-gender upbringing, and trying on various identities. Or Silence can be viewed as a cis woman, forced by a misogynistic social structure to adopt a male social presentation for specific purposes. Because of these ambiguities, I’ll generally be following the gendered language chosen by the author (Heldris or whoever it was), which will vary between feminine and masculine.
Is that enough of an introduction? Then let’s get on with the fun parts.
You need to understand that Count Cador and his wife (who is also named Euphemie, like the queen, just to confuse the issue, but she’s out of the picture fairly quickly) are very very much in love. There’s, like, over a thousand lines of verse leading up to Silence’s birth that’s all about how much in love they are. And Silence’s mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. When she becomes pregnant, the two discuss the possibility that they might have a daughter rather than a son, in which case their child would inherit nothing. Cador comes up with a plan. When it comes time for the birth, the countess will be attended only by one woman, a cousin of Cador’s who is completely loyal to him and will keep his secrets. If the child turns out to be a girl, they’ll raise her as a boy with no one the wiser.
As we’re waiting for the birth, we get an entire little essay in the voice of the personification of Nature talking about how Nature is going to make the baby into the most beautiful and perfect creation ever made.
Silence is going to be Nature’s own little girl, made from the finest of materials that she’s saved up when making lesser babies. Nature has a chest full of a million baby molds for making different types of babies, but there’s one mold that she’s never used before because she was saving it for a very special baby. We are given a long poetic passage in which Nature describes how she forms each and every feature: curly golden hair, wide-set eyes, red cheeks, a tiny mouth with white teeth, a long neck, small hands with long fingers, a rounded breast and hips and soft legs—I think maybe Nature has forgotten that we’re making a baby here, not a grown woman!
In any event, the child is born, it’s a girl! But the count’s cousin comes out into the hall in the presence of all his barons and proclaims, “Congratulations, you have a son!” When Count Cador goes to his wife and learns the truth, he tells her he loves the child as she is, and wouldn’t exchange her for a son.
Well, except that he turns her into a son. Just in case they have no further children, you know. He describes just how this will be done: they’ll cut her hair short and dress her in breeches and tunics with split skirts. But first they’ll send her off to be raised by a relation of the countess in an isolated house in the woods with only the count’s cousin to care for her. The two adults will know the truth, but there will be no one else who might ask or inspire questions as Silence grows.
Nature vs Nurture vs Reason
We now get a long rant by the personification of Nature, raging about how “You have insulted me by treating Nurture as more powerful than I am! I made Silence into the most perfect girl there could be but they’ve turned her into a boy! Nature will always out! If a man does good things because of how he was nurtured, eventually he will turn out bad if that’s his true nature. And if a good man is hardened and turned bitter because of his nurture, he can be saved though only with great difficulty.” We haven’t met the personification of Nurture yet at this point, but Nature frames Silence’s upbringing as the actions of this personified force.
I think Nature is selling herself short, though, because as Silence grows older and is educated in all the proper learning and skills for a boy, Silence is just naturally better at everything than other children. It’s a gift from God! He’s more valiant and more noble and more honorable, just as much as he’s more beautiful than everyone else. The author is tipping the scales here in Nature’s favor, even when that nature is manifested in male-coded virtues.
But eventually Count Cador decides it’s time to let Silence in on the secret. The text says this happens, “when the child was old enough to understand he was a girl,” which perhaps we may understand to be puberty. Cador explains about the fight over the heiresses, and how King Eban disinherited all the women in England because of it, and that’s why Silence is being raised as a boy. And Silence replies, “Ok, if that’s the way it is, I won’t tell anyone and will continue being a boy.”
Silence is getting more physical training now that they didn’t have to worry about him accidentally revealing or learning about his assigned sex. Riding and hunting, wrestling, jousting, and swordplay. He is twelve years old and better than everyone he meets. But Silence is starting to worry that living as a boy is a form of deception, and that’s when Nature and Nurture show up to have a little chat with her.
“I made you into the most perfect, most beautiful woman,” Nature says, “And you’re ruining it all by running around in the sun and wind, spoiling your beauty. There are a thousand women madly in love with you because of your beauty, but don’t you think they’ll feel deceived if they find out you don’t have the essential thing it takes to be a man?”
There are two interesting things going on here. First up, it’s clear that Nature is annoyingly bio-essentialist. But then, perhaps it’s just in her nature to be so? Little joke. But the second thing is that we’re seeing how ideals of beauty are presented as non-gendered. This is a regular trope in medieval romance (and medieval art, to some extent). The characteristics that are idealized as representing beauty are described in similar terms for both female and male characters. Nature has made Silence exceedingly beautiful, but that beauty is causing women to desire him. It isn’t a different flavor of beauty, just a different audience. And though the text doesn’t pursue this angle, it raises the question of whether those thousand women would still desire Silence if they perceived her as a girl. This, too, is a repeating trope in medieval romances: that superficial appearance as “the opposite sex” is sufficient to trigger desire.
But Nature isn’t just bio-essentialist with regard to appropriate targets of desire, she also has strict opinions about restricting the sexes to gender-segregated behaviors and berates Silence, “You have no business jousting and riding and hunting! Go to a chamber and take up sewing! That’s what you’re supposed to be doing!”
Silence, being obedient and biddable, begins to be swayed by Nature’s arguments and contemplates giving up her hope of inheritance for the sake of learning to sew. But in the nick of time, Nurture shows up and says, “Whoa! Hold on there! What’s going on?”
Silence explains, “Nature has convinced me that I should change my ways—that none of my foremothers have ever behaved as I am. So I’ll take up feminine habits, stop cutting my hair short, stop wearing breeches. I’ll stop hunting with bow and quiver, and I’ll stop playing boys’ games, even though it makes the other boys call me a sissy. As it is now, every time I get undressed, I’m afraid someone will find me out. Perhaps I should let all this go and live quietly as a woman.”
Nurture is outraged. We shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Nurture is personified as female, just as Nature is. This is, to some extent, a consequence of linguistic gender, as the underlying concepts are grammatically feminine. Nurture exclaims, “Leave my child alone, Nature! Silence will always resist you. I can make a thousand people turn from their nature through nurture.” We may wince a bit at Nurture’s next statement, that she has “turned a noble child into a defective male.” But this is the author’s phrasing, we must remember.
A third personification takes the podium. This time it’s Reason, and she lays out the case why, if Silence abandons what she has gained through Nurture to stick only to Nature, it would be as bad as suicide. “Buck up,” Reason says. “If you listen to Nature, you’ll never train to be a knight. You’ll lose your horse and chariot. And never think that King Eban will change his mind about disinheriting you.”
If Nature is an annoying gender-essentialist, and if Nurture (who doesn’t get much air time) seems indifferent to the actual specifics of one’s upbringing, for good or ill, Reason is a pragmatist. “Look, kid,” Reason implies, “we live in a misogynistic world and right now you have the upper hand. Do you really want to give that up?”
And Silence thinks to himself, “If I’m on top, why would I want to step down? As a man, I’m valiant and given honor. Would it be taking the easy way out to be a woman? Besides, I have no practice in being feminine. I don’t know how to kiss or caress softly. And I don’t know how a woman is supposed to act in bed. Besides, I’d turn my father into a liar for telling the world that I’m his son.”
So Silence determines to continue living as a man, but has a certain amount of lingering inner conflict.
Life as a Minstrel
This is the point in The Hero’s Journey where it’s time for our hero to go out into the world, and just in the nick of time, two wandering minstrels headed for Brittany stumble across the manor house in the woods where Silence is being raised. After listening to the minstrels, Silence thinks about how he doesn’t know what the future will bring—whether he will need to live as a man all his life, or whether King Eban will die and women will be able to inherit again. But if he’s not going to learn feminine arts, and if he isn’t certain he could succeed as a knight, maybe he should go with the minstrels and learn their trade so he can make a living that would work either for a man or a woman.
So Silence sneaks off and goes with the minstrels to Brittany, leaving his parents and guardians in deep despair. Silence is, once more, the best at everything he tries, and within three years he’s better at minstrelsy than his companions, which makes them jealous and angry. At the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Silence gets all the praise and adulation and the other minstrels plot to kill him, but…well, we’ll make a long story short and say it doesn’t happen and his former companions take themselves off.
Silence has become homesick and heads back to Cornwall, traveling as a minstrel. But there’s this problem: you see, the Count of Cornwall has a grudge against all minstrels because a pair of minstrels kidnapped his only child years ago, and minstrelsy is punishable with death! Silence is hauled before the Count for judgment, but fortunately an old man recognizes him, and by means of a unique birthmark, Silence proves his identity and is joyfully welcomed.
King Eban’s Court
King Eban—you remember King Eban, the one who disinherited all women?—hears of Silence’s fame and summons Silence to his court to join his household. But immediately there is trouble because Queen Eufeme falls in lust with Silence and schemes to get him alone when the king goes out hunting. Now perhaps—our narrator says—if Silence had looked like a girl, the queen wouldn’t have desired him, and much could have been avoided. This brings us back to the question of what it means to “look like a girl” if both male and female beauty is described in similar terms. Throughout the romance, the only absolute gender marker is clothing, given that appearance is ungendered and Silence’s behavior is consistently male-coded. But in any event, the queen gets Silence alone and confesses her desire for him though, the narrator notes, she’d never get more from him than a kiss and would only be even more upset once she learns Silence can’t perform sexually as a man.
The queen embraces and kisses Silence. “Just relax,” she says, “and kiss me.”
Silence, recognizing the hazard of making the queen angry, kisses her chastely on the forehead. The queen goes back for five more very passionate kisses and when Silence tries to get away, she protests that she’s offering her body to him completely. She starts to undress. Silence protests, “Look, lady, I’m your husband’s vassal. What you’re asking me to do is sin and treason.”
“What a monk!” the queen jeers. “Go tell your father you’re ready to take your vows.” She turns sweet and angry by turns. Silence is in an impossible situation. She could reveal that she is a girl and be free of the queen’s lust, but then she would lose her inheritance. The queen, seeing she’s not making any headway, says, “Ha ha, just joking. If I’d really been serious you wouldn’t have refused me.” But she’s furious and determined to get back at Silence. She can’t understand why Silence would refuse her. It can’t be out of a sense of honor and duty, it must be because he’s gay. Yep, the medieval text actually says that. Which is interesting because while the author recognizes that a man might have an exclusive homosexual orientation, there’s nowhere any hint that the “thousands” of women who desire the male-presenting Silence might continue to desire Silence-as-a-girl.
In any event, the queen assures Silence that the whole episode was just a test to find a vassal who was the most loyal and honorable for a special assignment, and Silence passed the test, so they’re all good, right? “Thank God,” says Silence and naively thinks everything’s ok. But the next time the king goes off hunting, the queen gets Silence alone once more and when Silence again rebuffs her, the queen hits herself until she bleeds, and tears her clothing, and screams rape until the king comes back and the queen can accuse Silence of assaulting her. She demands the king’s vengeance, and meanwhile Silence feels like she can’t say anything because it would be disobedience to the queen.
But the king doesn’t want to put Silence to death. After all Silence is the son of one of his important vassals. Besides which, he argues, if he punishes Silence severely, then people will believe that the queen was, in fact, compromised, and surely she wouldn’t want that, right? The queen fumes but can’t find a good argument. The king says, “I’ll send Silence to the French court, that should take care of things.” Which, if you think about it, had Silence actually sexually assaulted the queen, that’s the sort of shell game that we still see so often when men in power abuse their authority.
In any event, the king has his chancellor draw up a letter of recommendation to the French king, suggesting that Silence should be welcomed and knighted, and at the same time the queen writes her own letter, which she substitutes for the king’s, which says, “Kill the bearer of this message.”
The French Court
But remember that Silence just has this shining charisma that makes everyone love him, so when he hands the letter to the French king’s chancellor, the chancellor thinks, “OMG, I can’t allow this noble youth to be executed, I should lie to my king about what the letter says, but that would be dishonorable and maybe get me killed, what shall I do?” He brings the dilemma to the king and explains that he thinks it would be a dreadful thing to kill such a noble youth. And the king has also fallen for Silence’s charisma, but he’s already welcomed Silence to his court and given him the kiss of peace and his reputation would be shot if he turned and executed him after that. The king consults with his advisors and they spend pages and pages of verse arguing over whether the more honorable thing to do is to kill Silence or to let him live. Finally one advisor says, “Look, this is a bit out of character for King Eban. What’s the chance the letter is a forgery, created by someone with a grudge against Silence? Maybe you should write back to King Eban for confirmation and include the original letter?”
So while Silence is all in ignorance of this, the query is sent off and King Eban says, “What the fuck?” and throws his chancellor in prison for screwing up the letter so badly. But the chancellor, after wracking his memory for a while, recalls that the queen had handled the letter before it was sealed and dares to suggest to King Eban that maybe his queen was the one who was trying to get Silence killed. Yeah, that makes sense, thinks the king to himself, but he still wants to conceal what happened between the queen and Silence so he blames someone else. But he sends his chancellor to France to explain the mixup and that they’re all good.
So Silence joins the French court and, as usual, is better at everything than everyone else. The French king knights him. And our narrator seems to be softening a little toward the side of Nurture, noting, “[One] might well say that Nurture can do a great deal to overcome Nature, if she can teach such behavior to a soft and tender woman. Many a knight unhorsed by Silence, if he had known the truth at the time she knocked him down, would have been terribly ashamed that a tender, soft, faint-hearted woman, who had only the complexion, clothing, and bearing of a man, could have struck him down with her lance. And do you know what I really think? One should behave properly every day… Many act dishonourably every day, but if they…had been raised with [honor] from infancy, they would reject base deeds. If they behave improperly, they can’t help it; they’re only practicing what they’ve learned. Silence had no regrets about his upbringing, in fact, he loved it.” In other words, if Nurture guides you into correct behavior, it becomes an inherent part of you. You aren’t stuck with exactly and only what Nature gave you.
Back to England
But in the meantime, war broke out in England against King Eban and he decided he needed as great a warrior as Silence had become, and never mind how the queen felt about it. So Silence returned to King Eban’s court with a troop of thirty warriors. With their help, King Eban defeated his opponents (though this takes many more words in the original than I’m using here) and the French troops were sent home with gold and glory.
That leaves Silence back in the same court as Queen Eufeme. And the queen still bears a grudge. She tells the king that Silence is still pestering and harassing her, and suggests that the way to deal with him without sullying either the queen’s or king’s reputations is to send him on an impossible quest. Merlin the magician, she says, is wandering the woods as a madman and it’s said that he could never be captured except by a woman’s trick. So tell Silence that you need Merlin to interpret a dream for you, and send him out with instructions to bring Merlin back or never return. That way we’ll be rid of him.
Silence realizes that this is all Queen Eufeme’s doing and is in despair. I guess either Silence hadn’t heard the bit about a “woman’s trick” or thinks it doesn’t apply to her? In any event, Silence wanders in the woods for half a year and then happens to encounter a man with long flowing white hair at the edge of a grove. Now you might think that this was Merlin, but no, this is the mysterious old man who explains to Silence how to capture Merlin.
“Here’s the deal,” he says. “I’ll give you wine, milk, honey, and meat. Go to this place where Merlin hangs out and start a fire and start grilling the meat. That will attract Merlin. When Merlin shows up, fade back into the woods. Oh, and make sure the meat is very salty, so it will make him thirsty. Now place the honey, the milk, and the wine at intervals leading away from the fire so that he encounters them in that order. He’ll drink the honey first, then the milk, which will make him bloated and even more thirsty. Then he'll drink the wine straight down. And because he’s no longer accustomed to drinking wine, he’ll go right to sleep. Then you can grab him.”
As Silence begins following the old man’s instructions, Nurture and Nature show up and start quarreling again. I keep envisioning this as a comic bit in a stage play. In any event, Merlin is being tempted by the roasting meat but Nurture tells him, “Look, you’ve been living off raw plants and herbs in the forest for years and have become accustomed to them. Nature may tell you to eat cooked meat, but surely Nurture will trump that and you’ll walk away from the fire.” Which is a rather odd argument, when you think about it, because surely eating random raw foods direct from the land is what Nature gives us, while the cooking of meat is a cultural skill that we’re taught by Nurture? Let us not forget that the author’s ideas of Nature and Nurture are themselves culturally conditioned.
In any event, Nature and Nurture get into the verbal equivalent of a knock-down drag-out fight over which of them is responsible for the Fall of Adam and Eve. And whether the logic and theology is sound or not, in the story, Nature wins the argument, then grabs Merlin by the scruff of the neck (literally, I mean, that’s what the medieval text says), and shoves him toward the meat roasting over the fire. He gobbled the meat, then drank down the honey, milk, and wine in turn, then passed out drunk.
Silence grabs him and as Merlin is going, “Wait…what?” the plot takes an unexpected turn. Silence proclaims, “I want to kill you, because you caused the death of my ancestor Gorlain, duke of Cornwall, when you disguised King Uther in Gorlain’s appearance so he could seduce Gorlain’s wife and conceive King Arthur.”
Merlin (who seems to have gotten over his wild-man phase) says, “So what? The ends justify the means and King Arthur was a highly justified end.”
And somehow Silence is ok with that and drops the matter, simply hauling Merlin back to King Eban’s court. Merlin is ok with that because he’s looking forward to stirring up a few hornets’ nests. There’s this interesting sub-plot as they return where Merlin bursts into laughter at three seemingly inappropriate circumstances. He’s brought into the king’s presence laughing uncontrollably and uproariously. King Eban is furious that Merlin won’t explain why he’s laughing and throws the magician in prison to think about it for a while. In a few days, he hauls him out and Merlin is more amenable to talking but demands that the king won’t punish him for anything he says, because he isn’t going to like it.
So Merlin explains the hidden meaning behind the three things he laughed at. The king is somewhat mollified, but protests, “But Merlin, you’re a false prophet, because you prophesied that you would never be captured except by a woman’s trick and yet here you are. You lied!”
In the meantime, Silence is standing there sweating because she knows what’s coming. She’s brought her own doom to court. And Merlin explains that he was captured only because he was tricked into thinking that Silence was a man, but that she is a girl under her clothes and that was the woman’s trick. (There’s also a sidebar where Merlin exposes the queen’s male lover who has been hanging out in her apartments disguised as a nun. But we’re coming to the climax so let’s not get distracted.)
The king is furious at various of them for various reasons. He has both the nun and Silence brought forth and stripped to expose the bodies beneath the clothing. Silence is required to explain herself (though one hopes that she was allowed to put something on first) and not only the reason for her gender disguise but the basis for the queen’s enmity is laid out.
King Eban says, “Silence, you’re loyal and virtuous – a precious treasure. You have saved yourself, and on your behalf I’ll reverse the law against women’s inheritance. But Queen Eufeme, you have betrayed me. Both you and your lover will be executed. Oh, and Silence, since you’re so beautiful and virtuous, you’re going to be my next queen.”
And so ends our story. This isn’t a story with clear conclusions or morals about gender and virtue. Not even really about Nature and Nurture. But it’s a medieval romance that talks more about issues of feminist interest than most do. And if the triumph of Nature within the framework of the story doesn’t align well with modern notions of gender identity, the simple fact that the author is framing gender as something where the influence of nature and nurture can be debated is intriguing.
One shouldn’t interpret gender-crossing characters like Silence as indicating a completely open mind about women who cross-dressed or who engaged in male-coded behavior. Even in the context of the story, Silence is very aware of how people would react to her if her full story were known. Medieval people were ok with praising fictional gender-crossing characters while looking askance at those who behaved similarly in real life. But a story like the Romance of Silence can expand our understanding of the medieval imagination and the identities they could conceive of existing, even if they didn’t embrace them.
When I read stories like this, I’m often inspired to think of ways they could be adapted with just a little tweaking into something that retains the feel of the original but is more queer-friendly for a modern audience. I’m not the only person to have reimagined Silence in this way and authors have envisioned Silence with a variety of gender identities and story outcomes. My own version is titled “All is Silence” and will be featured in a special bonus fiction podcast next week, to celebrate hitting episode number 250. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
I've been meaning to set up a cumulative index of all the fiction episodes on the podcast for quite some time. This weekend, thanks to being removed from my usual to-do list (since I'm hanging out at my father's house unexpectedly) I decided to do it. I suppose I should really get together with my webmasters and figure out how to set up an automatically-updating index. (Because Drupal is good at that sort of thing.) It would probably mean adding more tags, since I use the "fiction series" blog tags for meta-posts about the series, and I don't currently have data fields set up to track author and title. It's always interested to try to identify the balance point between "it's less work to do this manually" and "it's less work to set this up to be automatic." My webmasters tend to get twitchy when I propose new features that weren't part of the original site design, and I can hardly blame them.
This is an index, by author, of all the fiction episodes on the podcast. It is updated manually.
Ferreira, Jeannelle M.
Jones, Heather Rose
Katz, Gwen C.
Pinkard, Miyuki Jane