Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 38a - On the Shelf for September 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/09/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2019.
What a month! I spent half of August traveling to Dublin Ireland for the World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention--and the other half either preparing or recovering from it. I love travel, but wow is it exhausting. I hope you enjoyed the audio post cards episode I recorded in odd moments at the convention.
This podcast has always straddled the fuzzy line between strictly historical material and historical fantasy. Even when I’m looking at queer women in historic literature, there are often fantastic elements, whether it’s the chivalric romances of Yde or Silence, or the classical mythology or Callisto and Diana, or simply the fantastic (if sincere) beliefs of previous centuries in the possibility of spontaneous changes of sex.
Those overlaps are one of the reasons why I decided to open up next year’s fiction series to include stories with fantastic elements the reflect the types of motifs we find around queer characters in the literature of the past. I plan to be cross-promoting the call for submissions in SFF circles. And, of course, ordinary historical stories are solidly on-target as well. I hope you’re encouraging all the talented authors you know to consider submitting something.
Publications on the Blog
The blog has been discussing articles in a collection about representations of singlewomen in medieval and early modern England. This is one of many topics where historical studies of women in general offer a useful grounding for queer characters. One of my favorite articles covered in August include a discussion of how the profession of money lending became a profitable side-line for singlewomen in the early modern era--one that not only provide an income but often served an important community function. Another favorite article takes an in-depth look at how playwright John Lyly--the author of the gender-bending Gallathea--regularly subverted tropes about unmarried women in his work.
Not all the articles in the collection are of direct interest to the Project and I skim through a lot of them in the first half of September. After that, I’ve decided it’s time to delve into some of the foundational works on the history of gender and sexuality that often get mentioned in passing but that have been languishing on my to-be-read list for years. Books and articles like Joan Cadden’s The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, John Boswell’s several books on same-sex topics in history, and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. (I confess I’m not looking forward to slogging through that one, but it’s one of the texts that everyone is in conversation with.) I’ll be leavening those with some shorter articles just to keep my brain from breaking, and I haven’t picked which books I’ll start with, but expect some serious philosophy on the blog for a while.
And as I record this, I have just put in an order at Amazon for copies of all the books in the list that I haven’t previously bought.
This month’s author guest will be Olivia Waite, whose recent release The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics has been taking the f/f historical readership by storm.
This month’s podcast essay is still to be determined. I hope I don’t make a habit of deciding essay topics at the last minute! If I get my act together, I may do an Anne Lister show, now that I’ve finally caught up to the rest of the world in watching Gentleman Jack, but that will depend on lining up the guests I want to include. And honestly, I may need to spread my Lister coverage over several shows!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now it’s time for the recent, new, and forthcoming f/f historicals! We start off with four July publications falling in the early modern period.
Under the Microscope by Kim Finney from Cygneture Books caught my attention sufficiently that it’s in my To Be Read pile, though long-timer listeners know that’s no guarantee of when I’ll get to it.
Ezzabell Chetwood the scholar, is invisible. To her society and in history she does not exist. Only Ezzabell the dutiful wife, is appreciable. Ignoring conventions is dangerous and following her heart has consequences. Is she willing to pay the price extracted for her transgressions? It is England in 1677. Public writing is a male pursuit. Science is a pastime of the privileged and religion dominates the culture. The use of microscopes has begun to reveal previously unknown world’s of miniature life. Ambrose Chetwood, an eccentric natural philosopher and his wife - Ezzabell, a gifted botanical illustrator, are on the brink of important scientific discoveries. The crucial role Ezzabell plays in her husband’s work is a silent one and Ambrose is guilt-ridden at treating her as if a colleague. When Ambrose forces Ezzabell to take on a lady’s companion - Thomasin Dansby, his unwanted action impacts upon their lives in unanticipated ways. In a society that considers women to be without intellect and non-conformity can mark a woman as a witch, a naive Ezzabell is ultimately confronted with the ugly outcomes of the choices that she makes. Thomasin, a younger woman with frivolous fancies, sees her removal from London to rural Chelsea an indignity. She has no desire to live amongst bumpkins, denied of easy access to the attractions of a burgeoning Restoration City. It does not take her long to connect with the village’s noble residents. But she finds something unexpected in Chelsea that although disorienting anchors her to the Chetwood Estate.
Worlds Apart, self-published by Stein Willard, is set in the mid 18th century though the description feels somewhat loosely moored in time.
Lady Tia Bellingham, the Duchess of Camphor wanted the near impossible: to stop the centuries’ old exploitation of the poor and down-trodden. But the darling of the English Court could not be seen as the one behind the ruination of her peers, and those most likely to make themselves guilty of such immoral practices. She realised that she needed help – more specific – she needed the help of Britain’s most dangerous and elusive criminal, The Maverick. The dark, decaying slums of London were where Oasis felt most comfortable. Born a secret and raised in secret, it wasn’t difficult to hide her true self in a place where no one would come looking. As the feared outlaw, The Maverick, she ruled the underworld with an iron fist; her justice swift and lethal in her quest to protect the innocent and destitute. It’s only when the captivating Duchess of Camphor came knocking, that Oasis found there were certain depths to her that only the blonde beauty could access.
Beggar’s Flip by Benny Lawrence from Bedazzled ink is going to get the benefit of the doubt from me as a historic novel simply because I loved her book The Ghost and the Machine so much. But this sequel to Shell Game feels a bit more like a secondary-world fantasy as far as I can tell from the description.
Darren–socially awkward, exiled noblewoman turned pirate queen–and Lynn sorta kinda Darren’s slave girl, sorta kinda Darren’s life coach, and altogether the bossiest backseat helmsman that ever set foot on a pirate ship are at it . . . again. Darren receives a message delivered by her dying brother pleading for her to warn their father about a traitor. Meaning Darren has to return home to Torasan Isle, and to the father who keeps sending assassins after her. Lynn thinks it’s crazy, insane, and obviously certain death for Darren, and is not overly happy about the idea. As usual, Lynn is right and chaos ensues.
This is the second time in the last half year that a non-English book had turned up in my search that looks relevant enough to include. Les révolutions d'Olympe: Roman lesbien historique is authored by a writers’ collective that goes by the pen name of Le Jardin de Sappho. If you’re interested in lesbian historical fiction in French, it looks like they have a couple other titles out. Unlike the previous time I had a non-English title, I won’t attempt to give the original version of the cover copy, but you can find it in the transcript.
1789. Olympe est une fille du peuple, ébéniste, indifférente à l’amour. Adélaïde est une jeune aristocrate fortunée, oisive et lesbienne assumée et inconditionnelle. Les hasards de la vie vont les faire se rencontrer. Entre amour, doutes, peurs et le tourbillon violent de la révolution, leur histoire sera loin d’être simple. Une belle histoire d'amour avec un soupçon d'érotisme sans voiles…
1789. Olympe is a daughter of the people, a cabinetmaker, indifferent to love. Adelaide is an idle rich young aristocrat, known unconditionally as a lesbian. The chance of fate will bring them together. Between love, doubts, fears, and the violent whirlwind of the revolution, their story will be far from simple. A beautiful story of love with a hint of unveiled eroticism.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes a whole bunch of books will come out with similar themes, not inspired by some pop culture property, but just by coincidence? While I was putting together this list, I came across three separate titles that have the premise “Robin Hood, but a lesbian.” The last July book is one of those: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood self-published by Niamh Murphy
PRIDE. AMBITION. BLOOD. With a single shot, a legend is born. Robyn Fitzwarren, daughter to the Baron of Loxley, only wants to support her mother while her father is off on Crusade. But when she enters an archery tournament in disguise, she incurs the wrath of the Sheriff of Nottingham's arrogant nephew, Theo. Now, not only is her own life threatened but the lives of her family as well. Will she flee from danger? Or fulfill her destiny, stand up to injustice, and become the fabled outlaw of legend: Robyn Hood?
There’s only one additional August book to add this month. Prairie Hearts by JB Marsden from Sapphire Books.
In the 1820s, Kentuckian Carrie Fletcher migrates with her brother and his family to central Illinois where she intends to continue to grow medicinal herbs and be a healer. Carrie loves being the spinster aunt to her nieces and nephews, taking care of her herbs, making calls on sick pioneers, and farming with her brother. But, shunning marriage and motherhood and donning her unique style of “mannish” dress for farm work rouse some who question her womanhood. When they arrive, the unending labor of cabin-building and clearing the prairie grasses for crops require they trade assistance with other pioneers. One of the first neighbors to call on them is Emma Reynolds, another herbalist, healer, and midwife. She and Carrie share herbs, seeds, and healing knowledge. Shortly after, Emma’s father, her sole relation, dies from lung fever, leaving a gap in her life that Carrie’s friendship fills. Together the two pioneer women deal with the harsh realities of pioneering. One man calls their healing potions evil and harasses them violently. The two strengthen their bonds and develop deeper feelings as they fight for their lives and the lives of the neighbors they care for. Can their newfound love endure the hardscrabble life of never-ending toil, sickness, injury, hunger, and death on the prairie?
The first two September books are also set in the 19th century.
Bloomsbury's Late Rose: A Novel by Pen Pearson from Chickadee Prince Books
A poet in Edwardian London. A woman struggling to let her voice be heard. In 1894, sisters Charlotte and Anne Mew take a solemn vow never to marry, and never to pass on the family curse: insanity. The spinster Mew sisters descend into genteel poverty, their mother on an invalid's sofa, Anne, the painter, in a menial job. But Charlotte, the poet, will find immortality, and unexpected love. Her path will require that she keep secrets and make sacrifices that may be too much even for Charlotte's determined spirit.
For something entirely different, we have the graphic novel Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman from Graphic Universe.
In this rollicking queer western adventure, acclaimed cartoonist Melanie Gillman (Stonewall Award Honor Book As the Crow Flies) puts readers in the saddle alongside Flor and Grace, a Latinx outlaw and a trans runaway, as they team up to thwart a Confederate plot in the New Mexico Territory. When Flor--also known as the notorious Ghost Hawk--robs the stagecoach that Grace has used to escape her Georgia home, the first thing on her mind is ransom. But when the two get to talking about Flor's plan to crash a Confederate gala and steal some crucial documents, Grace convinces Flor to let her join the heist.
The September books finish up with some later 20th century titles that teeter on the edge of what I’d consider historical fiction in terms of era.
The first is Somewhere Along the Way by Kathleen Knowles from Bold Strokes Books.
In the summer of 1980, Maxine Cooper moves from the Midwest to San Francisco with her gay best friend, Chris, where she hopes to find love and community. But gay life in a big city is much more complicated than either of them ever expected. Life becomes a constant party, and Max slides deep into alcohol and drugs. She and Chris become estranged, and when he contracts AIDS, Max doesn’t know how to bridge the gap between them. Shattered by Chris’s death, Max must decide how she is going to live her life. Can she forgive herself for abandoning him, or will her guilt lead her down a path that guarantees destruction?
And our last book for this month’s list is from a mainstream publisher: Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis from Knopf.
In 1977 Uruguay, a military government has crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In an environment where citizens are kidnapped, raped, and tortured, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita "La Venus," Paz, and Malena--five cantoras, women who "sing"--somehow, miraculously, find on another and then, together, discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next thirty-five years, their lives move back and forth between Cabo Polonio and Montevideo, the city they call home, as they return, sometimes together, sometimes in pairs, with lovers in tow, or alone. And throughout, again and again, the women will be tested--by their families, lovers, society, and one another--as they fight to live authentic lives. A genre-defining novel and De Robertis's masterpiece, Cantoras is a breathtaking portrait of queer love, community, forgotten history, and the strength of the human spirit. At once timeless and groundbreaking, Cantoras is a tale about the fire in all our souls and those who make it burn.
What Am I Reading?
Given how busy my month was, you might expect that there isn’t much on my personal reading list. I finished Penny Mickelbury’s Two Wings to Fly Away and have binge-watched the entire first season of Gentleman Jack, as noted above. I’m currently in the middle of Claire O’Dell’s near-future thriller The Hound of Justice, the sequel to A Study in Honor, both of them re-envisioning Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as queer black women.
Although I’ve suspended the Ask Sappho segment as a regular feature, I may revive it from time to time as Sappho’s Soapbox for brief editorial items. And this month I’d like to borrow her soapbox to talk about the myth that mainstream readers aren’t interested in stories about queer women. Or at least, that it’s a myth in the genre I’m most familiar with: science fiction and fantasy.
Earlier this month in The Guardian there was a book column on the highly specialized subgenre of time-travel stories about lesbians. In the past 12 months we gotten The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield, and of course the column is a sneaky way for its author, Amal El-Mohtar to mention the new release she wrote with Max Gladstone, This is How You Lose the Time War.
Mainstream historical fantasies featuring queer women that I’ve enjoyed in the last year or so include Theodora Goss’s European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Zen Cho’s The True Queen, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper, K Arsenault Rivera’s trilogy starting with The Tiger’s Daughter, Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan, and no doubt others that have gotten lost in my reading lists.
I’m focusing on mainstream books not to make any distinction of quality, but to point out that there is an eager market out there for stories with queer women. A market that is sufficient to induce major publishers to make an investment in them.
If you are writing stories like this, there are readers out there hungry for the sort of thing you’re writing. But here’s the catch: the books that will compete for those eyeballs set an ambitious standard. The writing is top-notch. The plots are tight and intricate. And the casts include an expansive range of identities that go beyond the simple category of lesbian fiction. Books that reach out to embrace a universe of readers, all of whom want to be recognized as existing in the world of the books they read, even when they aren’t the protagonists.
Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no mainstream market for stories that feature lesbians. But that market is looking for stories that reach beyond stock tropes and safely familiar plotlines. The brass ring will go to those who reach for it.