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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 33b - On the Shelf for April 2019

Saturday, April 13, 2019 - 09:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 101 (previously 33b) - On the Shelf for April 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/04/13 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2019.

No, you aren’t imagining things, this month’s On the Shelf episode is airing the second Saturday of the month, not the first Saturday. Horrors! It’s all due to the timing of our 100th episode special last week.

A hundred episodes. Wow. That would have been hard to imagine when I first started doing this podcast. But then, when I first started collecting materials for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project--although I wasn’t calling it that yet--I figured that it would be a short-term project because, after all, there wasn’t that much to be known about queer women in history, right?

I think there’s a general lesson to be learned about the amount of what we currently know on a topic compared to the amount there is to be known. Maybe it’s on a personal level: just because you personally aren’t aware of books on a particular topic, or written by a particular group of people, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. But the lesson also operates on a societal level: just because we don’t currently have available information on a topic doesn’t mean it might not be out there to be discovered. And--somewhat more carefully--just because information about a certain topic hasn’t survived directly doesn’t mean that understanding about it can’t be teased out of the material that has.

Now, don’t interpret that as me saying that everything and anything is possible in history and the absence of evidence for it means nothing. That’s not what I mean at all! But we need to look at the reasons for absences, for erasures, for gaps--whether it’s a matter of what gets published in history books or of what and who gets published in current fiction. Don’t assume that if you can’t find a particular type of story to read that it’s because it isn’t being written. The current fiction market is a maze of individual communities and ongoing discussions. I can’t count the number of times I hear people begging, “Why isn’t anyone writing X?” and then I turn around and see, “I want to keep writing X but everybody tells me it doesn’t sell.”

Before you take any of those impressions as fact, reach out and listen broadly across the world of books. You might hear some delightful things.

Publications on the Blog

So what have we been discussing on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog lately? In March, the theme was mostly 19th century people, with articles looking at author Eliza Lynn Linton who combined militantly reactionary social politics with some surprisingly sympathetic proto-lesbian characters in her novels. She’s a good example of looking beyond the superficialities to tease out an understanding of sexuality in the past. Another article looked at the sources that Anne Lister had for exploring and expressing her understanding of her own sexuality, with a challenge to theories that see only explicit namings of identity as true representation in the past. The article on Lord Byron’s sexuality was a bit disappointing, given that it invoked the slang term “Tommies” in the title. I’m going to explore the history of that term in the Ask Sappho segment later.

The last of the March blogs and the April entries don’t follow an identifiable theme. This is the inevitable fallout of coming to the end of the set of articles pulled off JSTOR from the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Having started off with almost 30 articles to consider, it was fairly easy to find thematic groups. But now I’m left with the handful that didn’t fall into a convenient grouping: another of Sahar Amer’s explorations of lesbian-like figures in medieval Arabic literature, a discussion of how the 12th century Renaissance examined gender categories, a couple of meta-commentaries on Carolyn Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (which has pointed out to me that I really need to move that book up in my reading list), an examination of secular-clerical interactions around accusations of sodomy (both male and female) within the church, and a look at gender-crossing figures in medieval French romances.

I’ll be finishing up the last couple of articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality in May, and then it’s time to go back to tackling some of the books that have been calling my name.

Book Shopping!

Speaking of which, I have a couple new acquisitions for the blog. One is A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, edited by Noam Sienna. While the relative male and female representation in the collection is predictably unbalanced, this is a topic I’ve been searching for material on for quite a while. I’ve also received a review copy of Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890–1918. The 19th century is full of intriguing correspondence between Romantic Friends that would no doubt provide interesting reading. In this case, that interest rises to the level of academic attention and publication because Rose Cleveland was the sister of US president Grover Cleveland.

It feels a bit odd to be offered review copies of works I can use for the blog. This is the second one I’ve received--the other hasn’t been blogged yet, though I reviewed it. Mind you, I’m not receiving them personally because of the blog, but rather through The Lesbian Review website. It makes me wonder whether it would make sense to reach out to publishers about review copies in the future. On the one hand, if I find a book useful as a personal reference, I really prefer to keep a hard copy. On another hand, this sort of non-fiction publication often comes with a painfully high price tag, though I’m usually willing to pay it. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m so backlogged in material already on my shelves to cover!

Author Guest

This month’s author guest is Molly Tanzer, who writes weird fantasies that straddle the line between historical and paranormal, sometimes with a touch of romance. We’ll be talking about a couple of her books: Vermillion and Creatures of Will and Temper as well as discussing her research.

[Note: the schedule changed after recording this. the April guest is Zen Cho. Molly Tanzer appears in May.]


This month’s essay will return to my mini-series on historic models and categories of gender and sexuality. This time I’ll be looking at the real-life stories of some specific people who stepped outside the norms for gender or sexuality of their day, and what the reactions of those around them can tell us of what those norms were. When someone doesn’t fit neatly into a culture’s gender and sexuality categories, what features of their life are considered most important in trying to classify them? How does their culture try to restrict or change their life to better fit those categories? And how do their reactions to those attempts give us information about their own internal identity?

When considering people in the past, there can be a temptation to take one of two extreme positions: either to try to match them up with our modern categories--to “claim” them for a specific modern identity--or to throw our hands up and say, “We have no way of knowing how they would identify.” Both extremes tend to ignore the admittedly scanty evidence we have of their own testimony and lives. We may not be able to know for certain how they understood themselves, but we can make approximations. And when we try to fit them neatly into the boxes we’re familiar with, how is that better than what their own contemporaries tried to do to them?

I hope you’re enjoying these philosophical musings. I may have one more show in the series before returning to more biographical shows.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Time for new and forthcoming books!

I’ll start with some books that came out back in February that I’ve only just found out about. I wouldn’t have known about this first one except for a reader’s mention that it includes a lesbian relationship.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn from William Morrow Paperbacks starts with the World War II story of the Russian “night witches”, female bomber pilots who have been captivating the imagination of a number of historical authors lately. The book’s blurb doesn’t mention the same-sex content, so I don’t know how extensive it is or which of the characters mentioned here is involved.

Bold and fearless, Nina Markova always dreamed of flying. When the Nazis attack the Soviet Union, she risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on the invading Germans. When she is stranded behind enemy lines, Nina becomes the prey of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, and only Nina’s bravery and cunning will keep her alive. Transformed by the horrors he witnessed from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials, British war correspondent Ian Graham has become a Nazi hunter. Yet one target eludes him: a vicious predator known as the Huntress. To find her, the fierce, disciplined investigator joins forces with the only witness to escape the Huntress alive: the brazen, cocksure Nina. But a shared secret could derail their mission unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it. Growing up in post-war Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride is determined to become a photographer. When her long-widowed father unexpectedly comes homes with a new fiancée, Jordan is thrilled. But there is something disconcerting about the soft-spoken German widow. Certain that danger is lurking, Jordan begins to delve into her new stepmother’s past—only to discover that there are mysteries buried deep in her family . . . secrets that may threaten all Jordan holds dear. In this immersive, heart-wrenching story, Kate Quinn illuminates the consequences of war on individual lives, and the price we pay to seek justice and truth.

There are a few other February books that I’m only now hearing about.

Sleight of Hand by Ilse V. Rensburg aka Jason Hes published by Sera Blue sets a supernatural story in the era between the two world wars.

Destroy the magicians. Destroy all unnaturals. New York City. 1926. Demento, a young magician with a sinister past, becomes the target of a secret organisation when a string of bizarre murders leaves the nation perplexed. Gwen Cavanagh, an agent of the October House, is sent to investigate the brutal crimes. She poses as an eager magician’s assistant, wanting nothing more than to relish Demento’s demise. What both ladies discover not only shakes the very fabric of their realities.  It could bring about the end of the world, as their journeys take them through the crumbling nickel empire that is Coney Island, to the ritzy ballrooms of the American upper-crust, glamorous theatre halls, and the soulless alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen.

One of my favorite f/f fairytale retellings takes on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”. S. T. Gibson has tackled the same material in the self-published Robber Girl. The specific historic era of the setting isn’t clear from the cover copy.

In a Sweden wracked by war and haunted by folk stories so dark they can only be spoken of in whispers, Helvig has been raised by her brigand father to steal whatever treasure catches her eye. When her men ambush a strange girl on the road with hair pale as death and a crow perched on her shoulder, Helvig cannot resist bringing home a truly unique prize: a genuine witch. Drawn irresistibly into the other woman's web, Helvig soon learns of Gerda's reason for walking the icy border roads alone: to find the Queen who lives at the top of the world and kill her. Anyone else would be smart enough not to believe a children's story, but Helvig is plagued by enchantments of her own, and struggles to guard the sins of her past while growing closer to the other woman. As Christmastide gives way to the thin-veiled days when ghosts are at their most vengeful, the two women will find themselves on a journey through forest and Samiland to a final confrontation that will either redeem them or destroy them entirely.

My usual Amazon keyword search for lesbian historicals turned up A Vengeance of Spies: A WW2 Novella by Manda Scott, which is self-published. Although the cover copy doesn’t confirm the search-term results, I’ve read a number of Manda Scott’s previous mysteries and they often have queer female characters so I’m willing to trust on this one.

My dear Elsa— You are grieving and I am sorry, but there are things you need to know…  Because this is not only a confession. It is an accusation.  So, in case you get no further, here is the bald fact.  I killed your grandfather. War hides many secrets and some of them are better kept. But the secret of Hut Ten was never that kind: it could have been leaked and a life would have been saved.  One man could have made that difference. He didn’t - and vengeance has taken forty years to catch up with him. Set in the same world as, A Treachery of Spies.

The month of March gives us books from a variety of time periods.

A delightfully surprising entry into the field comes from Courtney Milan in the self-published Victorian novella Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure. This is part of an ongoing family saga series but can be read independently.

Mrs. Bertrice Martin—a widow, some seventy-three years young—has kept her youthful-ish appearance with the most powerful of home remedies: daily doses of spite, regular baths in man-tears, and refusing to give so much as a single damn about her Terrible Nephew. Then proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, a sprightly young thing of nine and sixty, crashes into her life. The Terrible Nephew is living in her rooming house, and Violetta wants him gone. Mrs. Martin isn’t about to start giving damns, not even for someone as intriguing as Miss Violetta. But she hatches another plan—to make her nephew sorry, to make Miss Violetta smile, and to have the finest adventure of all time. If she makes Terrible Men angry and wins the hand of a lovely lady in the process? Those are just added bonuses.

Diana Robbins has put out Liliana, a self-published novel set in late 19th century Hawaii. I can’t tell from the cover copy how the book handles the rather serious issues of colonialism at that period, given that we’re offered an upper class white Bostonian as our viewpoint character.

Liliana, a historical novel set in the year 1891, is the journey of Lillian Baldwin, a woman whose humble behavior is astounding for a lady so breathlessly beautiful. Her passion for the Hawaiian Islands catapults her into a brave decision; to leave Boston for the paradise she has only experienced through literary tales. It is there she meets an educated, handsome Hawaiian woman. The secrecy in which they must live is ultimately compromised with unimaginable consequences.

Usually these book listings stick to English language works, but the following title popped up in my search and doesn’t appear to have an English translation. I thought it looked interesting enough to include. Forgive my dreadful accent in German.

The book is Die Frau des Zuckerhändlers by Nathalie C. Kutscher from Telegonos-Publishing. The following is the German cover copy:

Bailee Winters’ Leben ist die Hölle. Gekettet an die Ehe mit einem grausamen Mann lebt sie in einem goldenen Käfig. Doch dann rettet die Bordellbesitzerin Jade ihr Leben. Zwischen den ungleichen Frauen entsteht mehr als nur Freundschaft. Es ist eine Verbundenheit, die tiefer geht als alles, was sie kannten. Schon bald überschlagen sich die Ereignisse und ein folgenschwerer Fehler zwingt Bailee auf eine gefahrvolle Reise nach Amerika.


A rough English translation might be:

Bailee Winters' life is hell. Chained in marriage to a horrible man, she lives in a golden cage. Then brothel owner Jade saves her life. Between the very different women, there arises something more than friendship. It is a bond that goes deeper than anything they knew. Soon, events overtake them and a momentous mistake forces Bailee on a dangerous journey to America.

No Man's Chattel self-published by Lee Swanson steps outside the more popular times and settings for lesbian historicals.

The thought of trading her subservient role in her father’s home for that of being the dutiful wife of someone she had never met caused her to shudder with revulsion. No, she thought to herself, what I crave is the opportunity to adventure across the sea, to behold strange and wondrous sights far beyond the city walls of Lubeck. To do that even once would almost be worth submitting herself to a loveless marriage based solely on familial advantage. But not quite, she admitted to herself. For if there was one thing of which Christina Kohl was certain, it was that she wanted her independence even more than adventure. Yet, these can only be childish dreams for a daughter of a wealthy merchant in 14th century Lubeck, Germany. Even at sixteen-years-old, Christina grudgingly accepts her existence is to be shaped and limited by the men who do and will control her life. When unexpected tragedies befall her family, however, she is presented with an unlikely opportunity to at last become her own person. The freedom of her new life is fraught with peril as she attempts to succeed in a role for which she is ill-prepared, all the while keeping secrets that, if exposed, will certainly bring shame, financial ruin, and perhaps even death. “No Man’s Chattel” is an exhilarating coming-of-age novel set in the medieval commercial centers of Lubeck and London, England. It is not so much a story of the societal norms of the era as of one young woman’s struggle to defy them.

The next book looks like something of a romp and has a rather awkwardly complicated title: *S h e r l o c k i a n * Desdemona Valentina - A Femme Fatale Mystery - 1 (Desdemona Valentina Mysteries) self-published by S.L. Freake. (If you’re reading along in the transcript, yes, the very odd letter spacing and punctuation is part of the title.)

Join sapphic, Private Detective/Civilian Consultant to Scotland Yard; Desdemona Valentina with her colleague and moon eyed friend on their adventures while sleuthing and ‘detecting’ hardened yet upper-crust, jewel thieving, sexy criminal Eden Benedict. Can Graham, Valentina’s colleague keep her out of the cat house long enough to solve a case? This girl’s got an appetite for solving crime and almost anything in a skirt! Get in on the blackmailing between a closet lesbian Princess, marrying for money and freedom and the cross dressing that some are driven to, to get ahead in a man’s world of 1888 London, England.

I have to confess I have something of a weakness for the late 17th century, so I’d be tempted to check out this next book if I could find a way to buy an epub version: Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing self-published by Saga Hillborn.

France, 1696. Adélaïde of Savoy is only ten years old when she arrives at the glittering court of Louis XIV to be married off to the King’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. Eager to please and charmingly youthful, she soon enchants both the aging monarch and the nobles--but it turns out her grand marriage is not everything she hoped for. As she grows older, Adélaïde discovers that rivalries and twisted conflicts lurk beneath the glamours surface of Versailles. Europe is rumbling, the most powerful nations are on the verge of bloody war. The people of France are divided; the commoners live in squalor, while the elite surround themselves with decadence. Colette, the daughter of a paint craftsman, has escaped her abusive home to become a servant at Versailles. When she encounters Adélaïde, both girls think they might have found love at last--but what could be the consequences of such a forbidden relationship?

Moving on to April books, we have a cross-time story Love’s Portrait by Anna Larner from Bold Strokes Books.

Newly appointed art curator Molly Goode is committed to diversifying her museum’s collection. When Georgina Wright, the museum’s aloof benefactor, asks for Molly’s help in identifying the provenance of a 19th century portrait of social activist Josephine Brancaster, Molly welcomes the opportunity, even if it means spending time with the standoffish financier. But passions soon flare as the women uncover the heartbreaking story of doomed lesbian love behind the watercolor painted by Josephine’s lover, Edith Hewitt. As their love blossoms, Molly is determined to display Edith’s portrait of Josephine and to tell their story in the museum, but she needs the influential Georgina to help convince the board. When an unforeseen twist in the painting’s provenance forces Georgina to confront her own painful past, will history repeat itself, or can Molly and Georgina’s love prevail?

The burgeoning field of lesbian pirate novels gets an addition from Bonnie Wormsley in The Cursed Heart from Regal Crest. The precise date and setting of the story is unclear from the cover copy.

Katherine Tanner is the captain of the pirate ship The Widow, which prowls the seas by night preying upon innocent ships. With her faithful tiger companion Saida by her side, Katie boards a ship one night with her crew to find something unexpected – a young blonde woman held captive in a filthy cell. She frees the young woman and brings her aboard The Widow. Katie soon realizes she has a strange attraction to the young woman, whose name is Hannah. When the ship makes port the next day, Katie thinks Hannah will leave. She is secretly relieved when Hannah decides to join her crew and allows the young woman to stay with her in her quarters. As the mutual attraction between them continues to grow, will Katie and Hannah be able to overcome their pasts and learn to trust and love one another?

There’s a tie-in novel for the upcoming BBC miniseries about Anne Lister titled Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, published by Penguin Books. This book and the series appear to be unrelated to the 2018 book of the same title by Angela Steidele, translated by Katy Derbyshire. When I talk in my blog about there being something of an Anne Lister industry going on these days, these multiple publications are the sort of evidence I’m working from.

Anne Lister was extraordinary. Fearless, charismatic and determined to explore her lesbian sexuality, she forged her own path in a society that had no language to define her. She was a landowner, an industrialist and a prolific diarist, whose output has secured her legacy as one of the most fascinating figures of the 19th century. Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister follows Anne from her crumbling ancestral home in Yorkshire to the glittering courts of Denmark as she resolves to put past heartbreak behind her and find herself a wife. This book introduces the real Gentleman Jack, featuring unpublished journal extracts decrypted for the first time by series creator Sally Wainwright and writer Anne Choma.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I can get ahold of the mini-series to review without having to subscribe to the BBC cable channel. I may have to make friends with someone who watches tv more than I do.

This next book sounds intriguingly different in setting. God's Children by Mabli Roberts is published by Honno Press.

'Kate Marsden: nurse, intrepid adventurer, saviour of the lepers or devious manipulator, immoral and dishonest?' As she lies on her deathbed visited by the ghosts of her past, who should we believe, Kate or those who accuse her of duplicity? Memory is a fickle thing: recollections may be frozen in time or distorted by the mirror of wishful thinking. Kate’s own story is one of incredible achievements, illicit love affairs and desperate longing; those of her accusers paint a very different portrait – of a woman determined on fame and fortune. The reader navigates a narrative as fractured as the Siberian ice Kate crosses in search of a cure for leprosy, and as beautiful as Rose, her lost love, as the full picture emerges of a life lived when women were not expected to break the mould.

Well, that’s it for this month’s book listings. If you have an upcoming release or know of one that you think I may not stumble over on my own, drop the blog a note and let me know.

What Am I Reading?

I’m always trying to think of new little regular features I can include in the On the Shelf show and it occurred to me that I could let listeners know what queer historical stories I’ve read recently. Of course, this means I’ll expose myself if I go through a reading slump! I try to review everything I read, but if you’re interested in those thoughts, check out my blog. I won’t be doing detailed reviews here, just mentioning titles.

So what have I been reading in the last month or so? First off was an anthology, Rainbow Bouquet edited by Farah Mendlesohn, from Manifold Press. This collection of queer stories includes both male and female protagonists, and about half the stories have historic settings. It’s a recent release and is probably a good introduction to some of the authors that Manifold Press publishes.

I also zipped through the brand new novella, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure, by the well-known historical romance author Courtney Milan, which was mentioned in the new books segment. Although Milan has included some lesbian--or lesbian-coded--background characters in previous books, I think this is her first foray into centering a story on a female couple.

At the moment, I’m I just finished reading Miranda in Milan, a historical fantasy novella by last month’s author guest Katharine Duckett. And I have recently started reading The True Queen, by Zen Cho, who will be appearing in a future podcast interview.

What historical stories have you been enjoying lately?

Ask Sappho

This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eden on facebook, who asks, “What’s the history of the slang term ‘tommy’ for a lesbian? And how is it connected to ‘tomboy’?”

This is an excellent question. If you’re familiar with the modern use of “tomboy” to mean a girl who behaves in ways stereotypically associated with boys, especially in enjoying active, outdoor pursuits, then it might seem natural to associate “tomboy” with the image of a young butch lesbian. But the connection, if there is one, is somewhat more muddled.

In fact, in the written record, “tomboy” has a much older lineage than “tommy” in the sexual sense. Using the Oxford English Dictionary as my source, in the mid 16th century we find “tomboy” used to mean “a rude or boisterous boy” as in the quote “Is all your delight and joy in whiskying and ramping abroad like a tom boy?” But not long after the earliest known application to men, we find is used for women, meaning “a boisterous woman” as in the following example from 1579, “Saint Paul meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboys, to be short, they must not be unchaste.” And more specifically, it means a woman who behaves like a romping, boisterous boy. So: a girl who behaves in masculine ways, especially in a wild, uncontrolled manner. This sense appears continuously up to the present. I know that I was called a tomboy as a child for enjoying things like climbing trees and for preferring pants to skirts.

There seems to be a connection here with the use of “Tom” for a generic male person or animal, much the same way that another common male name “John” gets used for the generic man. But a “tomboy” isn’t simply a generic boy, but one who has characteristics associated with an uncontrolled masculinity. And the transfer of the term to women again emphasized behavior that was considered both masculine and uncontrolled.

Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary has about 8 different senses for the word “tommy” but none of them are the definition of “female homosexual”. One could imagine several possible explanations for this. Perhaps they considered it a slang word rather than one in ordinary use. Or perhaps the compilers of the dictionary were uncomfortable with the sexual implications. In fact, there is documented evidence that the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary deliberately excluded language about female homosexuality. I even have a link about this in the show notes. The first edition of the dictionary didn’t even include the word “lesbian” at all, and it was deliberately excluded.

Fortunately, we can turn to other sources than the dictionary to find clear examples of “tommy” indicating sexuality. The earliest known clearly sexual example is from an English poem published in 1773 that reads in part:

“Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:”

In that same decade, a satirical poem addressed to sculptor Anne Damer, made extensive reference to Sappho and her homosexual proclivities, calling her “the first Tommy the world has upon record” in a context that makes it clear the term is equivalent to “lesbian”.

I can’t find clear evidence for how long the term was in common use. Sarah Waters uses “tom” in the same sense in her Victorian novels. But it would take a more extensive search through obscure literature to create a full map of the word’s usage.

In any event, the connection between “tommy” meaning lesbian and “tomboy” is unclear, except that they likely both derive from using the common male personal name Thomas to stand for generic masculinity, and thus to label gender-transgressive women.

Show Notes

Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: