Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 34a - On the Shelf for May 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/05/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2019.
May is always a very busy month for me--busy enough that even though my birthday falls in May, I generally wait to have a party in June. Though I always joke that the annual medieval conference in Kalamazoo is just one big birthday party for me, since that’s usually where I am when it happens.
This year I’m presenting a paper at Kalamazoo that comes directly out of my research for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, although it isn’t specifically about sexuality. The paper is titled “Passing and Failing: the Role of Clothing in Gender-Disguise Narratives.” I’m looking, not so much at the social context of records and stories of women disguised as men, but specifically at whether and how clothing is mentioned in those texts. Is it as simple as saying that a person “put on men’s clothing” or are specific garments mentioned? If the gender disguise fails, does clothing play a part in that? And are there distinctions in how clothing is discussed between disguise narratives and incidents of gender transgression? If, by some chance, any of my listeners will be at Kalamazoo this year, be sure to say hi, even if you aren’t able to get to my paper.
This past month I finally did something I’ve been dithering about for a couple of years. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project now has a Patreon so people can sign up to support the show. It's a bit of an impulse thing. Evidently Patreon is changing it's contract structure this month to something a bit less beneficial to users, but people with an account set up prior to that are locked in to the current structure. Since I'd been toying with the idea of a Patreon for a while, this information made me think it might make sense to set up an account, even if I didn't seriously intend to push it.
You see, I feel a bit weird about soliciting financial support through venues like Patreon because I don't need the money. Even with the added expenses of the audio fiction series, what with royalties and narration fees, and the expense of commissioning podcast transcripts, I'm quite capable of funding the thing out of pocket. But on the other hand, having a Patreon gives people an opportunity to make a concrete statement that they find what I'm doing valuable and worth supporting. And since I've currently set up only a single support tier (at $1 per month) with no benefits other than good will and thanks, it's not like I'm going around begging people for more than a token statement.
In theory, between the fiction series and commissioning transcripts of the interview shows, I'm out of pocket about $150 per month. This doesn't count general overhead for the blog. I certainly wouldn't ask people to underwrite my rather extravagant book-buying habits. And the podcast hosting is currently covered by The Lesbian Talk Show which has it's own Patreon. If you’re interested in supporting the podcast, I’d urge you to begin with the Lesbian Talk Show Patreon which supports the whole group of shows.
I'm not asking people to support the LHMP Patreon because I'm in financial need, or because the blog and podcast won't continue without the support. Trust me, they'll keep going as long as it makes me happy to do them. But if you support things on Patreon already, and you find the LHMP (and especially the podcast) of value to you, and you wanted a concrete and low-effort way to give me that feedback. Then pledging a dollar a month on Patreon is one way to send me that message. The message that you find what I do valuable is far more important to me than the money.
If you have any ideas for Patreon benefits for higher support tiers (that wouldn't involve significantly more time for me), feel fee to suggest them. The Patreon account is “LHMP” and you can find a link in the show notes.
Believe it or not, it’s almost time for me to start talking about next year’s fiction series. Several people have suggested that one reason for the low number of submissions this year may have been that I didn’t talk it up enough in advance. There’s a fine balance between “enough publicity” and “publicity fatigue”. So maybe this year I’ll try erring on the side of too much. Keep your ears open and start thinking about what sorts of historical lesbian short stories you might be interested in trying.
Publications on the Blog
The blog is winding up our long series of articles taken from the Journal of the History of Sexuality with several articles looking back on Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, a look at the medieval church-state interface around accusations of sodomy among religious personnel, and odd topics like love magic in early Egypt and formal cross-gender roles in the Balkans. I haven’t lined anything up for the last couple weeks in May, so it’ll be a surprise--maybe even a surprise to me!
But I’ve been picking up several new publications that will make their way onto the blog at some point. The first is:
Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890–1918 edited by Lizzie Ehrenhalt & Tilly Laskey, which I’ll also be reviewing for The Lesbian Review. Here’s the cover copy:
"You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us. I am bold to say this, to pray and to live by it."—Rose Cleveland to Evangeline Simpson, May 6, 1890. In 1890, Rose Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland, began writing to Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy widow who would become the second wife of Henry Whipple, Minnesota's Episcopal bishop. The women corresponded across states and continents, discussing their advocacy and humanitarian work—and demonstrating their sexual attraction, romance, and partnership. In 1910, after Evangeline Whipple was again widowed, the two women sailed to Italy and began a life together. The letters, most written in Cleveland's dramatic, quirky style, guide readers through new love, heartbreak, and the rekindling of a committed relationship. Additional correspondence by the women's friends and relatives supplies valuable perspectives. An introduction and annotations by editors Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey provide the context for same-sex relationships at the time, discuss the women's social and political circles, and explain references to friends, family, and historical events. After Rose Cleveland's death, Evangeline Whipple described her as "my precious and adored life-long friend." This collection, rare in its portrayal of LGBTQ nineteenth-century history, brings their poignant story back to life.
The other two new acquisitions are both electronic texts freely available online. There is finally a edition and translation available of the medieval romance of Yde and Olive. This is only one of the three versions of the story that appear with slight differences in the plot, but it’s the primary text, part of the extended medieval genealogical romance of Huon of Bordeaux. The translation is by Mounawar Abbouchi, published by the Medieval Feminist Forum in 2018. The entire work is available for free online and I’ll have a link in the show notes.
The other text is a little less accessible! While working on the script for last month’s essay, I discovered that the primary source for the trial records of Anne Grandjean is available through Google Books. It is, of course, in 18th century French. It’s short enough (and very long out of copyright, of course) that I hope to be able to post the original text and translation as a blog entry at some point. Again, I’ve put a link to the downloadable file in the show notes.
I totally screwed up last month when I announced that the April interview would be with Molly Tanzer. I’d intended to organize the interviews around the special episode 100 show, so in April I needed someone who’d done the regular interview and not the book appreciation show. So the April guest was actually Zen Cho, talking about her wonderful new historic fantasy, The True Queen, set in early 19th century Malaysia and England. And Molly Tanzer will be this month’s guest, really truly. But of course, you come to listen to all my wonderful author guests, no matter who they are, right?
So what’s this month’s essay going to be? OK, I confess, I have no idea at this point! I’ve been scrambling to meet deadlines so much that I haven’t had a chance to think about it. And if the month goes on as it currently does, I may end up pulling another of the early podcasts to reprise.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for recent, new, and forthcoming books! Not quite as long a list as last month’s marathon. They all take place in what might be called the long 19th century and all set in either England or the USA. Half of the books feature women of color as protagonists, which adds some longed-for diversity to the lesbian historical fiction field.
We start off with Penny Mickelbury’s Two Wings to Fly Away from Bywater Books. I’m really looking forward to reading this book.
In 1856 Philadelphia, runaway slave Genie Oliver uses her dress shop as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad; and reluctant heiress Abby Read runs a rooming house not just because she hates the life of the idle rich society woman, but because she has no intention of ever marrying a man. When the daughter of Abby's free black servant is grabbed by rogue slave catchers, an unlikely group of people come together, first out of necessity, and then, gradually, in friendship. And in the case of Abby and Genie, something much more.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins from Harper Collins gives us a murder mystery with a touch of horror.
All of London is abuzz with the scandalous case of Frannie Langton, accused of the brutal double murder of her employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite. Crowds pack the courtroom, eagerly following every twist, while the newspapers print lurid theories about the killings and the mysterious woman being tried at the Old Bailey. The testimonies against Frannie are damning. She is a seductress, a witch, a master manipulator, a whore. But Frannie claims she cannot recall what happened that fateful evening, even if remembering could save her life. She doesn’t know how she came to be covered in the victims’ blood. But she does have a tale to tell: a story of her childhood on a Jamaican plantation, her apprenticeship under a debauched scientist who stretched all bounds of ethics, and the events that brought her into the Benhams’ London home—and into a passionate and forbidden relationship. Though her testimony may seal her conviction, the truth will unmask the perpetrators of crimes far beyond murder and indict the whole of English society itself. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a breathtaking debut: a murder mystery that travels across the Atlantic and through the darkest channels of history. A brilliant, searing depiction of race, class, and oppression that penetrates the skin and sears the soul, it is the story of a woman of her own making in a world that would see her unmade.
Popular author of gay male historicals, K.J. Charles gives us a spin-off from one of her existing series featuring a female couple in Proper English, which is self-published.
A shooting party at the Earl of Witton’s remote country house is a high treat for champion shot Patricia Merton—until unexpected guests turn the social atmosphere dangerously sour. That’s not Pat’s biggest problem. She’s visiting her old friend, the Earl’s heir Jimmy Yoxall—but she wants to spend a lot more time with Jimmy’s fiancée. The irrepressible Miss Fenella Carruth, with her laughing eyes and lush curves, is the most glorious woman Pat’s ever met, and it quickly becomes impossible to remember why she needs to stay at arm’s length. But while the women’s attraction grows, the tensions at Rodington Court get worse. Affairs, secrets, betrayals, and blackmail come to light. And when a body is discovered with a knife between the shoulder blades, it’s going to take Pat and Fen’s combined talents to prevent the murderer destroying all their lives.
The Railroad of Threads self-published by Riva Zmajoki comes back to the topic of slavery in America and women coming together to take action. [Note: after the podcast aired, the author let me know that the title has been changed to Darkest Pattern: The Door.]
Belva is a runaway criminal running from justice. In colonial America, her face is light enough not to be seen as a slave at first glance. She uses this advantage to help slaves escape on the railroad to freedom. Josephine is a bored wealthy widow who's playing a hostess to equally bored young ladies. When two of them meet their lives will change revealing hidden adversaries. Their lives were plagued by misery. The question is, is there freedom, or love, for them down the road.
This next book is from a publisher named Illustrated Romance which looks like it’s an erotica publisher that includes photography alongside the text. The book is The Lady and Her Secret Lover: a Lords of Time story by Jenn LeBlanc.
Much to her father’s dismay Lady Louisa Kathryn Alice Present is quite solidly on the shelf. She shows no interest in finding a husband after three long seasons of, well, not particularly trying. She begins this season anew, somewhat jaded and uninterested in yet another season and the annoyance she’ll certainly face from her family when she remains with them, yet again. But a single glance from one of the new set has her reeling— straight back into a potted palm. Maitland Alice Elliot-Rigsby has trained to be the wife of a Duke... Or perhaps a Viscount, an Earl at the very least. She has only her training — and a rather healthy dowry — to recommend her. So when she catches the eye of a viscounts daughter her own mother is thrilled at the prospect. Louisa hasn't ever trusted anyone the way she trusts Maitland and it frightens her, but how will they survive a world in which the both of them must marry?
[There is a content warning for sexual assault. And advance reviews suggest unexpected sexual elements. Part of a series that appears to be primarily male-female.]
The last of the May books is the non-fiction work Precious and Adored mentioned under the blog acquisitions above.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading recently in the world of lesbian-relevant historical fiction? Given that it’s been a shorter time than usual between scripting up last month’s On the Shelf and writing this one (and my fiction reading time has been curtailed this month because: reasons) I’m just finishing up Zen Cho’s The True Queen. It’s a delightful historic fantasy with a largely female cast.
For this month’s Ask Sappho segment, I’m going to answer an anonymous question that fits in with last week’s essay on gender and sexuality categories. It’s a topic that might be worth an entire essay on its own, but I’m not sure that I’m the right person to tackle it. The question is: “The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast spends a lot of time talking about the historic figures who could be interpreted either as cross-dressing women in lesbian relationships, or as trans men in straight relationships. But I’ve never heard you talk about historic examples of trans women in lesbian relationships. Why is that?”
The simple answer is that in the pre-20th century period that I’m focused on, examples of trans lesbians are extremely difficult to find. And the historic motifs that most closely resemble that identity pretty much all turn out to be examples of “a straight cis man disguises himself as a woman to gain access to a women-only space in order to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship with an otherwise inaccessible woman.” You can understand why I’m not exactly excited about dwelling on this pernicious trope. I touched on it a little in my podcast about the Greek myth of Callisto and Diana.
But--you ask--surely there were trans women throughout history (or at least people who would have identified as trans women if the concept were available to them), and surely at least some of them had same-gender desires. So how is it possible that we have no records of them?
My answer (as usual) is going to be drawn primarily from western history and culture, largely because I don’t have the knowledge and resources to discuss other contexts in an appropriate fashion. In cultures that had socially recognized “third gender” roles for people assigned male at birth, it’s quite likely that examples could be found. So preface all the following generalizations with “in the context of western culture, especially Europe.”
To answer this question seriously and sensitively, it’s important to consider two major issues. The first is the different practicalities in a pre-modern world for trans men versus trans women to live unquestioned lives. I invite correction and elaboration on this point from those more knowledgeable than me, but in a context where hormonal treatments haven’t yet been invented, it is more difficult for a trans woman to be accepted on a long-term, unquestioned basis than for a trans man to do so. There was, of course, a rather drastic surgical option available for suppressing testosterone. I’ve seen some discussion that in certain historic contexts, persons who were assigned male at birth may have voluntarily chosen castration as a means of gender re-assignment, though it appears that this would most often be re-assignment to a culturally accepted “third sex”--as with classical Roman devotees of Cybele, or with India’s hijras. That “third sex” category might be considered female-coded in certain ways, but usually in a cultural context where the gender binary was constructed as “male and not-male” and anyone in a “not-male” category was classified as feminine to some degree.
This brings us to the second important consideration. The deep-rooted misogyny in western society (and here I’m not going to restrict it to “ in historical western society”) means that cultural attitudes toward trans men versus trans women had very little in common before the 20th century. When a society is structured around the idea that men are better than women in deeply essential qualitative and quantitative ways, there’s a big difference in how that society views people who move from “lower” to “higher” versus people who move from “higher” to “lower” on that social scale.
When pre-modern medical and philosophical writers discussed the possibility of spontaneous change of physical sex, they asserted that it could only happen that a female body could change to a male one because, to quote Pliny, “Nature always goes from the imperfect to the more perfect, but not basely from the more perfect to the imperfect.”.
A person assigned female at birth who was discovered to be presenting or living as male tended to provoke two reactions: admiration for aspiring to be a more perfect (that is, male) being, and disapproval for claiming higher status and privileges than they were entitled to. There were ways in which it was viewed as transgressing class barriers just as much as transgressing gender barriers.
In contrast, for someone who was assigned male at birth to choose to present or live as female was almost incomprehensible within official philosophical frameworks. Why would someone choose to become a lesser being, that is, a woman? And on a less philosophical level, why would someone who had access to the legal and economic advantages of being male in a horrifically patriarchal and misogynistic society choose to abandon those advantages. (Of course, there are ways in which this question still holds true today, to which the answer is that it’s a testimony to the position that it isn’t a choice. But I’m talking about the reactions of the society, not the motivations of the individual.)
A third factor, which I discussed extensively in last week’s show, is that classical, medieval, and to a lesser extent, early modern European society had such a hard time conceiving of same-sex desire as a possible thing, that the expression of same-sex desire was considered all by itself to be a basis for challenging someone’s gender assignment.
So now imagine yourself in the position of a pre-modern person in western society who was assigned male at birth, has an internal gender identity that aligns more with femininity, but also experiences romantic or sexual desire for women. There are significant practical barriers to changing your public gender expression and maintaining a female life on a long-term basis. Those barriers are not only psychological, but economic and legal, due to men’s greater privilege. Successfully changing your gender category will have massive implications for your position in society, your physical and legal safety, and the ability to maintain an economic standing to achieve your other social goals. If you make the transition, you will have moved from a gender category where your desire for a female partner can be easily realized and creates a recognized and stable social and economic unit, to a category where your relationship with a female partner will have no official status and where you two will have significant economic and legal disadvantages as a couple.
Such a life is certainly possible. It involves building blocks that can individually be documented and justified. And if someone wanted to write a work of historical fiction involving a person with that life story--and did it well--I would find it plausible. But it may be no wonder that it’s hard to find actual historic examples.
To be clear, there are plenty of historic examples of people in western history who can be very approximately categorized as trans women. But overwhelmingly, they are expressing that gender in the context of sexual relationships with men. There are also a significant number of examples--both literary and historical--of people assigned male at birth who pursue romantic or sexual relationships with women while presenting as female. And almost universally they are depicted as engaging in deception to gain sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society. That is, they’re the historic equivalent of the accusation that straight cis men will pretend to be trans women for sexual access. Literary examples include the myth of Callisto, the figure of Zelmane the “amazon” in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, or the 18th century novel The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys.
But there are a very few possible exceptions. One interesting literary example is the 18th century novel Anecdotes of a Convent by Helen Williams, in which a girl at an all-girls convent school forms a deeply romantic and erotic (though not sexual) bond with a fellow student. Their relationship is depicted within the framework of intense romantic friendships between women. Except it turns out that the other student is a boy who has been raised as a girl. Voila! Now his “true” gender is revealed. It turns out their love is just the same as before but now they can get married. I don’t know how the novel depicts the character’s internal gender identity but as far as I can tell from summaries the situation is depicted in reasonably positive terms.
The closest I’ve come to a historic example is the case of John or Eleanor Rykener from 14th century England. Rykener was a sex worker who presented as female for male clients but also had sexual encounters with women while presenting as male. (It isn’t clear whether Rykener’s relationships with women were professional or personal.) Interestingly, the law appears to have treated Rykener as at least a part-time trans woman in terms of considering their legal offense to be prostitution rather than sodomy. But as Rykener’s relationships with women involved a male presentation, they don’t precisely fit the category of trans lesbian.
If anyone knows of any historic or literary cases that better fit the category of trans lesbian, I’d love to get leads on looking into them more closely.
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