Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32a - On the Shelf for March 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/03/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2019.
I am getting a bunch of really great interviews lined up for the next several months! I love how this podcast gives me both an excuse and the courage to reach out and talk to authors who are doing work that I love. I’m always looking for people who want to join us on the show. Whether you’re an author who writes queer women in historic settings, or a reader who has enthusiastic opinions about historical fiction, or a publisher who wants to talk about the field, or a historian who wants to talk about researching queer history, I’m open to almost anyone whose work intersects the themes of this podcast.
Last month, you may remember that I was feeling a bit pessimistic about submissions for the 2019 fiction series on the podcast. I did have a bunch of submissions come in on the very last day of the month and I’ve selected a line-up that I think you’re really going to enjoy. But I’m still thinking about whether to continue the series in 2020. It’ll make a difference if people let me know that they’re enjoying the fiction series and consider it valuable, whether you’re a listener, or as an author looking for new venues for your work. Promote the heck out of the podcast and let all your friends know what we’re doing here.
Publications on the Blog
The blog has been looking at some articles about the rise of the study of sexology in the late 19th and early 20th century, and especially the ways in which women’s experiences were marginalized in the construction of modern theories of sexuality. But moving forward, I’ll be turning back to the earlier material that’s my first love, with yet another article from the growing academic industry of Anne Lister studies, another of Sahar Amer’s excellent looks at studying lesbian-like themes in medieval Arabic sources, and the hazards of expecting them to align with the European experience, and then a couple of articles that touch on medieval transgender concepts and how they intersect with historic sexuality.
That last topic is also relevant to this month’s essay, which is part of my current series on interpreting the interrelationship between models of gender and sexuality in historic sources. Last month I played with approaches to breaking down our accepted notions of how gender and sexuality features get bundled into complex categories, and how those categories can vary enormously across cultures in terms of how gender and sexuality are understood.
This month, I’m jumping from the general and theoretical to the very specific. I’ll be looking at a handful of case studies of individuals whose existence challenged their cultures gender and sexuality categories, and how the outcome of those challenges give us information, not only about the structure of the cultural categories that people had available to them, but how people found ways to articulate identities that failed to match those categories, and tried to negotiate a modus vivendi even when their culture had no place for them.
This month’s author guest will be Katharine Duckett, whose debut novella, Miranda in Milan tells a possible story of what happened to Miranda, from Shakespeare’s supernatural drama The Tempest, after her father returns with her to 16th century Milan. Within the mysteries and dangers she encounters, she finds an unexpected connection with a woman with roots in the suppressed Moorish community in Spain.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The new and forthcoming book list this month has some interesting coincidental categories. As usual, I’ve collected up some books I missed from the last couple of months. So starting with January releases we have several books set during the world wars of the 20th century.
How to Talk to Nice English Girls by Gretchen Evans (Carnation Books) looks like a nice traditional romance.
In the aftermath of The Great War, everything is changing. But not for Marian Fielding. Marian’s life is quiet and predictable in the solitude of the English countryside, where she plans to remain and care for her parents. But Marian’s world is turned upside down when she meets brash, confident Katherine Fuller. Katherine arrives at the Fieldings’ estate for the wedding of Marian’s sister and immediately shakes things up. Instead of keeping an eye on the ill-mannered American girl and keeping her out of trouble, Marian finds herself magnetically drawn to Katherine’s vivacious nature, and they are swept into a whirlwind romance that will change both of their lives. But will Katherine’s unconventional behavior ruin their chance at happiness? Can Marian leave her old life behind? Will two women from different worlds find a way to be together against all odds and expectations?
As War Goes By by Aimée (Amazon digital) picks up on the recent surge of interest in the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park.
1940, England. War has a way of engineering the most unlikely encounters. When Penelope Lowes sits next to Clarissa Cartrew in the packed train, she has no idea they are both going to the same place, about which they’ve both been sworn to secrecy. Nor that her journey will take her much further than her original destination, Bletchley Park. As World War Two wreaks havoc in the world, it also makes people grow up faster. Penelope’s initiation to love during her stint as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force has not been the most auspicious, and if anything has made her even shyer and more gauche than before. Meanwhile, Clarissa enjoys the social scene, and does not lack admirers. She is decided to make the most of her opportunities, away from the constraints of her aristocratic background. When Penelope – Penny – is recruited by the Special Operations Executive to become a Special Agent, she doesn’t hesitate long before agreeing. Only the thought that she may not see her friends ever again could make her waver between heart and duty – a young driver has recently shown her the power of a simple kiss, and her friendship with Clarissa is blossoming. Duty wins, and life and war go on…No one knows what the future entails – will they get a second chance?
This next book looks like an oddball alternate history. It’s quite short -- I’d guess maybe a novelette or short novella in length -- and currently only available from Amazon. It sounds like my sort of catnip, so maybe if it’s ever released more widely I’ll check it out.
By Royal Lottery by M. Wyllie (Amazon digital)
It is the late Victorian era and, by a tradition of the country of Brittany and Greater Cornwall, a lottery has been run to find a common man of good education and standing to wed the widowed Princess Louise. Only, a young woman named Alice is chosen. While Alice does her best to act her part in all this, she is soon troubled by Louise raising the mystery of what exactly happened to her late husband, as well as troubled by her own feelings as she spends more time with the somewhat mischievous princess. All along Alice thought this would be a ‘pretend’ marriage, only to begin to wonder how far Louise wishes to take this game of pretend. It will be a long month for her until the ceremony.
The February releases start out with what look like some complicated relationships.
Sophistries of Summer Days by Jenny Lofters (Amazon digital)
Two women forge an extraordinary friendship during a time of instability, deception, treachery, and loss. Even the British West Indies are no refuge from the rising political tensions of the 1930s, but fourteen-year-old islander Cherrimina is much more interested in Dove, a pretty red-haired American who has mysteriously appeared in her remote hometown. Dove takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, and as a devastating hurricane blows in, she commits a crime—one seen only by Cherrimina. An unlikely friendship forms between the two young women, but when the storm finally abates, Dove disappears from Cherrimina’s life. Then World War II breaks out, and during those terrible years, Cherrimina witnesses uprisings, homelessness, and betrayal. Choosing to escape the nightmare that her home has become, Cherrimina flees to New York, where she is reunited with Dove. But her friend is not the woman Cherrimina remembers. As Dove and Cherrimina struggle to reconnect, they must determine whether friendship and love can weather the storms of life.
Memoirs of a Triangle by Christine Twigg (NineStar Press) is somewhat vague about how the titular triangle will end, so read at your own risk.
When Edith instigates a new game with her two best friends, May and Peter, on a warm spring day in 1869, she ignites sexual awakenings that will influence and shape the rest of their lives. Although Edith lusts for Peter, she is aware that May’s desires are directed toward her, and when their triangular involvement begins to splinter, she leaves her two best friends to begin a career in Boston. However, even after choosing what they thought was the more stable path, they learn that the past is not so easily left behind. On their separate, yet connected paths, they find themselves drawn together, experiencing eroticism, love, confusion, trust, and grief throughout the course of their lives.
The Highwayman by Eleanor Musgrove (Amazon digital) follows familiar pathways in taking its inspiration from Alfred Noyes poem of the same title. This is another very short work, somewhere in the novelette range, and leans heavily on its source material, but with a queer twist.
Bess lives a simple existence as the daughter of an innkeeper – or so it seems. But she and her forbidden lover, the notorious highwayman plaguing the area, have more secrets to keep than just their clandestine moonlit meetings. Even one overheard conversation could change both of their lives forever. Inspired by Alfred Noyes' tragic poem of the same name, this adaptation reimagines the story of the ill-fated lovers with an LGBT+ twist – and a touch of hope...
The March releases are dominated by novels from mainstream presses and especially by historic fantasy. Though this is in part a side-effect of the difficulty of hearing about small-press and self published books in advance of release. Remember that if you have, or know about, an upcoming book that falls in the scope of this podcast, drop us a note with the information. Especially if you’d like to have it included before it gets released.
The first up is by this month’s author guest:
Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett (Tor.com)
With Miranda in Milan, debut author Katharine Duckett reimagines the consequences of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, casting Miranda into a Milanese pit of vipers and building a queer love story that lifts off the page in whirlwinds of feeling. After the tempest, after the reunion, after her father drowned his books, Miranda was meant to enter a brave new world. Naples awaited her, and Ferdinand, and a throne. Instead she finds herself in Milan, in her father’s castle, surrounded by hostile servants who treat her like a ghost. Whispers cling to her like spiderwebs, whispers that carry her dead mother’s name. And though he promised to give away his power, Milan is once again contorting around Prospero’s dark arts. With only Dorothea, her sole companion and confidant to aid her, Miranda must cut through the mystery and find the truth about her father, her mother, and herself.
The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino (Touchstone) looks like a complex mix of history, adventure, and forbidden romance.
By day, Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to Charlotte Walden, wealthy and accomplished belle of New York City high society. Mary loves Charlotte with an obsessive passion that goes beyond a servant’s devotion, but Charlotte would never trust Mary again if she knew the truth about her devoted servant’s past. Because Mary’s fate is linked to that of her mistress, one of the most sought-after debutantes in New York, Mary’s future seems secure—if she can keep her own secrets… But on her nights off, Mary sheds her persona as prim and proper lady’s maid to reveal her true self—Irish exile Maire O’Farren—and finds release from her frustration in New York’s gritty underworld—in the arms of a prostitute and as drinking companion to a decidedly motley crew consisting of a barkeeper and members of a dangerous secret society. Meanwhile, Charlotte has a secret of her own—she’s having an affair with a stable groom, unaware that her lover is actually Mary’s own brother. When the truth of both women’s double lives begins to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences. Forced to choose between loyalty to her brother and loyalty to Charlotte, between society’s respect and true freedom, Mary finally learns that her fate lies in her hands alone. A captivating historical fiction of 19th century upstairs/downstairs New York City, The Parting Glass examines sexuality, race, and social class in ways that feel startlingly familiar and timely. A perfectly paced, romantically charged story of overlapping love triangles that builds to a white-knuckle climax, this is an irresistible debut that’s impossible to put down.
I still haven’t gotten to reading the first novella in the following series, but it gets the nod from reviewer Liz Bourke and that’s usually good enough for me. The queer content isn’t obvious from this blurb (which is a repeating theme in some of the following descriptions) but take it as given.
Alice Payne Rides (Alice Payne #2) by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com)
After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them. Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage. Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…
The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace) is another historic fantasy where the queer content has to be taken on trust from the rumor mill. Although in this case, the rumor mill includes direct from the author. (Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a recording date to interview her.) This is a sequel to Zen Cho’s acclaimed Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, and like that book it examines themes of colonialism and the place of people of color in Regency England.
When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.
Levitate: A Spy Novel by Geonn Cannon (Supposed Crimes) takes us back to the mid 20th century with its spies and international intrigues. Many of Geonn Cannon’s books include supernatural elements. I can’t tell from the blurb whether this one does as well.
To Cassiane Jurick, there is nothing in the world as important as The Mission. As a covert agent for Greek intelligence, she disappears into whatever role she's given. Her latest mission ends in failure and nearly costs Cassiane her life, but she is rescued and nursed back to health by her handler, Timothea Riddock. Adrift between assignments and still recuperating from her injuries, Cassiane begins a physical relationship with Timothea. Their relationship is put on hold by the arrival of another agent, Constance Grimaldi, who brings them a new mission: a Soviet chemist has arrived in Berlin with a new strain of anthrax which they believe he plans to sell to one of their enemies. As Cassiane disappears into her latest identity, Timothea finds herself drawn to Constance. From a ghost station in the shadow of the Berlin Wall to hidden strongholds hidden deep inside dark German forests, the three agents must learn to trust one another because this mission's failure would mean certain death.
And that’s it for the new crop of books. Check them out and let us know what you thought.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eh Stevens, on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group, who asks, “With the new release of Hick I was wondering if you’ve ever talked about the relationship she had with Eleanor Roosevelt. Truth to the rumors or just wishful thinking on our part that Eleanor found some happiness in her life.”
There have been a number of works in recent years covering the relationship between journalist Lorena Hickok and First Lady and prominent diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. Given the very close and warm relationship between the two women, there has been a lot of speculation whether the friendship was also romantic and possibly even erotic in nature.
The long supportive marriage between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt is not, in itself, an argument against this possibility. As the daughter of a socially and politically prominent family in the early 20th century, opting out of marriage would have been tricky. The Roosevelts--Eleanor was a Roosevelt by birth, not just by marriage--were American aristocracy. Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and he gave her away at her marriage. And as with Europe’s hereditary aristocracy, marriage was not considered a bar to romantic and sexual relationships outside the marriage. At least, for the men in the family. Eleanor and Franklin married against his mother’s wishes after a secret correspondence, but Eleanor had few options other than marriage in terms of a career. She is on record as having disliked the sexual side of marriage, and when she discovered that Franklin was sexually involved with her secretary Lucy Mercer, the only thing that kept their marriage together was Franklin’s political prospects, which divorce would have destroyed.
But the failure, for all intents and purposes, of her heterosexual marriage isn’t the same as concluding that Eleanor was inclined for the ladies. So what is the positive evidence on that side?
One of the things to keep in mind is that Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884. She lived at the tail end of the era that considered Romantic Friendships and schoolgirls crushing on each other to be utterly normal and even expected. So even if the evidence never went any farther than writing long daily personal letters to a woman with sentiments like, "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth,” I think it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that this constitutes a “romantic relationship” with a woman. Me? I’m not particularly hung up on defining the nature of people’s relationships based on the precise catalog of which of each other’s body parts they’ve touched.
But the evidence does go further than that.
Lorena Hickok was widely known to be a lesbian. She had an eight-year relationship with a fellow female journalist in the 1920s. Her orientation is not the slightest in dispute. She was not the only known lesbian in Eleanor’s life. (One can’t exactly say “out lesbian” given the times, but “known” is sufficient for the purpose.) Eleanor was greatly influenced in her teen years (and later) by the headmistress of the finishing school she attended, Marie Souvestre. A known lesbian. Eleanor was close friends with two female couples active in women’s suffrage and political activism: Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Fisher Read. So she had solid models for women sharing marriage-like partnerships based on mutual romantic love. This makes it highly unlikely that when Eleanor wrote to Hickok expressing a desire to kiss her and hold her close, she was naive about how such sentiments might be understood and responded to.
The intense scrutiny that Eleanor came under as First Lady contributed to their eventual separation, but even the nature of their conflicts and correspondence around that era have far more of the shape of a romantic breakup than friends drifting apart. Eleanor had close emotional relationships with other people in addition to Hick, both men and women. It’s common for people of a certain mindset to fasten on any attachment by a woman to a man as a basis for negating even overwhelming evidence for attachments to women. Hopefully we’re past the era of bisexual erasure and can accept that one person’s life can encompass love for both men and women. Most historians who are not blinded by willful denial have concluded that Eleanor and Hick’s relationship was clearly romantic and erotic. At this point, for me, it isn’t really even a question.