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Monday, June 3, 2019 - 07:00

OK, I confess that the blog title is unabashed click-bait. But the story behind it is deeply fascinating and ultimately satisfying. The image of 19th century "romantic friends" as involving flowery, sentimental language that is purely conventional in content and not to be taken as *gasp* implying an erotic relationship is eroded a bit every time a collection of private records such as this comes to light. Not to say that all "romantic friends" can be assumed to include sexual relationships, but that such a possibility should never be categorically excluded. What makes this book valuable is not only that it presents the full, unabridged correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, but that it has been contextualized in a sympathetic and open-minded way with a detailed historic apparatus that provides the reader with the background, not only of these two women, but of how their relationship was presented and understood, both privately and publicly.

I'm still amused at the thought that I'm receiving review copies of books I can include in the Project. (I actually received this to review for The Lesbian Review, not specifically for the LHMP.) Now if only I could convince some of the really really expensive academic presses to make similar offers!

This post marks the 250th publication covered by the Project. Maybe I should have treated it as more of an important symbolic event. It's hard not to look at the 600+ titles in my cumulative database and, rather than thinking "wow, look at what I've accomplished," instead think, "I'm never going to catch up!" But at the very least I can look at that list and be confident that at some point I'll be able to celebrate having covered 500 publications. (And by then, I'll probably be able to look confidently ahead to 1000.)

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Ehrenhalt, Lizzie and Tilly Laskey (eds). 2019. Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul. ISBN 978-1-68134-129-3

This is a deeply contextualized edition of the correspondence of romantic partners Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, covering the period from around their first meeting in 1890 to Cleveland’s death during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. There is a foreward from Lillian Faderman who situates them within the context of Romantic Friendship and notes how the content of the letters explodes the illusion that such relationships were passionless and non-sexual (though she describes the relationship as “one of the most remarkable love relationships between women in American History” which seems to me to contradict one of the important points, which is how normal and ordinary they were within their historic context).

Unlike their contemporaries of the professional classes who formed long-term domestic partnerships known as “Boston marriages,” Rose and Evangeline were wealthy enough that not only could economics not be used as an excuse for sharing a household, but their business concerns and social responsibilities prevented such an arrangement for much of the time they knew each other. Faderman also notes that, while there were a number of social framings for women who loved women available in the later 19th century, most of them had associations that women such as Rose and Evangeline would have rejected.

The preface outlines how author Tilly Laskey stumbled on the correspondence presented in this volume and how, after something of a pilgrimage to the town in Italy where Rose and Evangeline finally lived together as a couple, she determined to put together this edition. It is presented in the tradition of a local history project, based on the collection of Whipple family papers curated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but with the advantage (to queer-friendly readers) of being written at a time when the implied sexuality of the correspondents is not seen as scandalous or derogatory. (As opposed to 1969 when the material was first reviewed by an archivist and locked away as too “sexually suggestive.”)

The introductory material provides a detailed history of the two women, their social and business connections, the path of their relationship (which included Rose’s heartbreak when Evangeline entered into her second marriage with Henry Whipple, the first Episcopalian bishop of Minnesota), and how they renewed their bond after his death and eventually moved to Italy to live as a couple. One of the central considerations is the strongly passionate and erotic nature of Rose’s letters to Evangeline (the other side of the correspondence was not preserved) and how the two women understood the nature of their feelings for each other. I’m going to summarize the basic features, but the meat of this book is the verbatim transcripts of the letters themselves.

Rose Cleveland (1846-1918) was the sister of U.S. president Grover Cleveland and served as First Lady (official White House hostess) during the initial part of his first term until his marriage. But apart from that, she was an educator and author, successful enough that she was financially independent and able to make shrewd real estate investments. The social prominence from her time as First Lady helped maintain her popularity as an author, which in turn supported her continued financial success. Rose was considered something of a bluestocking and used her White House position in support of various reform movements including women’s suffrage, temperance, abolitionism, and Indigenous sovereignty. This prominence also subjected her to public scrutiny and her name was linked to a number of close female friends (including Evelyn Ames who was a close companion and business partner during her estrangement from Evangeline) though there is no concrete evidence for any of those relationships having the same romantic/erotic components as the correspondence with Evangeline offers.

Evangeline Simpson Whipple was propelled into wealth from more humble beginnings by a brief marriage to an elderly textile merchant and philanthropist. (He was 73 at the beginning of their two-year marriage.) His death left her an extremely wealthy widow at age 28, whereupon she became the support of her family and took up the successful management of her late husband’s ventures.

The two women met around 1890 in Florida where both had real estate investments and Rose’s letters (beginning in April 1890) indicate a passionate attachment between them that clearly had an erotic component.

“My Eve! Ah, how I love you! I paralyzes me. I have been going over & over your written words until the full message of them--some of them--has made me weary with emotion. This I must try and escape, for your sake. But let me cry & shout it. Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will not longer fear to claim you. You are mine by every sign in Earth & Heaven, by every sign in soul & spirit & body--and you cannot escape me. You must bear me all the way, Eve; clasp me in my despair of any other and give me every joy & all hope--this is yours to do.” (April 23, 1890)

Although they didn’t share a permanent household, the two traveled together extensively, including a trip through Europe  and the Middle East in 1891-93.

But Evangeline was also susceptible to the courtship of another member of their social circle, Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. And there are suggestions in the correspondence that--without a clear social framework for understanding romantic relations between women as being of equivalent importance--the combination of Whipple’s personal charms and religious charisma hit a chord. Rose pleaded her case: “I will give up all to you if you will try once more to be satisfied with me. Could you not take six months for that experiment? We would go away from everyone.”

Whether due to a stronger attachment (she was clearly genuinely in love with Whipple) or to the attractions of convention, Evangeline became Mrs. Whipple and spent five years immersed in supporting Whipple’s professional and charitable endeavors until his death. (He was 74 when they married, and 36 years older than Evangeline.) Rose wrote both of her hurt and her acceptance: “I will not stand in the way. That means that I will study only for your comfort and pleasure and happiness... What is yet for us I cannot see. But I think you will need me yet--in a future, perhaps.”

They continued to correspond and meet socially, though Rose’s extended trip abroad in company with Evelyn Ames shortly thereafter can’t help but be seen as something of a rebound. That future did arrive, however. After Henry Whipple’s death, Evangeline remained in Minnesota for nine years, continuing her late husband’s projects, but with regular travels that intersected with Rose. Then, in the years leading up to 1910, Rose made various arrangements to sort out her business affairs, feeling that she wasn’t as able to keep up the same level of activity in her 60s. In 1909 she wrote to Evangeline, “I need you and life is not long enough to always wait.”

The next year, perhaps with the excuse that Evangeline’s brother had fallen ill in Italy, the two of them traveled together to be with him until his death two years later. And then they stayed. They settled in the small mountain town of Bagni di Lucca, perhaps because of its English expatriate community and Anglican church, as well as literary associations. They purchased property there, supported a social community of female associates, and worked tirelessly in social services during World War I and after when the area was flooded with refugees and hit by the flu epidemic. Both Rose and their close friend Nelly Erichsen died of influenza while nursing the sick. Evangeline continued living in Bagni di Lucca until shortly before her own death in 1930 and her body was returned there to be buried next to Rose, with matching headstones.

Rose’s letters to Evangeline were not written with a thought for public consumption. They are candid in their passion and eroticism, as well as being largely filled with the minutiae of everyday life. The accident of their preservation (note that Evangeline’s letters to Rose did not survive except in quoted responses) is largely due to the fact that Evangeline doesn’t appear to have intended her move to Italy to be permanent. Her house was shut up, intact, for her return, which never happened. It was willed to a charitable organization which disposed of some of the contents, but the vast quantity of Whipple family papers were acquired by various local historical societies and the letters themselves were not identified until a cataloging project in the 1960s.

It is interesting that a certain amount of how Rose talks about love revolves around the inexpressibility of what she feels (while simultaneously clearly expressing it). There is a sense of a self-conscious censorship in naming their emotions, a sense of falling back on plausible deniability of what the content makes clear. This is present not only in the letters to Evangeline, but also letters to others in their social circle such as Evangeline’s mother, to whom Rose writes, “There are some things we both know and feel which we shall never, never say to each other. But I want to say that I shall never, never cease to be Eva’s if she ever needs me again.” (Written a month after Evangeline’s marriage to Henry Whipple.) The letters use the language not only of romantic love but of legal oaths that evoke marriage and commitment. And the correspondence around Evangeline’s marriage makes it clear that Rose considered it a heartbreaking betrayal of what she considered a competing bond. What makes their story special is how their paths returned to each other, in time for them to renew and enjoy that bond.

[Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. No money was exchanged for the inclusion of this book in the LHMP.]

Time period: 
Place: 
Saturday, June 1, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35a - On the Shelf for June 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/06/01 - listen here)


Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2019.

It’s been a busy month for me, what with giving a paper on cross-dressing women at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, and then finishing up the month at BayCon the local science fiction and fantasy convention. But all my immediate project deadlines are complete and I can relax a bit in June and July.

Next month I plan to start seriously plugging the 2020 fiction series for the podcast. I want people to make it as hard as possible for me to choose just four stories to publish, by inundating me with great lesbian historical short fiction. So this time I’ll be reminding folks on a regular basis. Just keep in mind that submissions still won’t be open to send them in until January, but that gives you a lot of time to brainstorm and then polish up your best ideas.

Publications on the Blog

So what’s the blog been doing lately? I started out May by finishing up the last couple articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, one of them on love magic in Coptic Egypt that has only tangential references to the use of love magic for same-sex relationships, and the other on formalized cross-gender roles in the Balkans. May finished up with a couple of sourcebooks, presenting texts from a variety of genres. The first, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, was a bit disappointing as it had relatively little lesbian-relevant material, and most of what it did have was not that different from non-Jewish texts of similar eras. But the second sourcebook is one I recommend highly: Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England 1550-1735.

For June, I’m tackling some publications that have been getting kicked down the road for a while for various reasons. Precious and Adored is a critical edition of the correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple around the turn of the 20th century, tracing the ups and downs of their romantic relationship. I’ll also be covering the new bilingual edition of the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, and finally working my way through a French article on medieval cross-dressing romances from the Journal of the History of Sexuality. If it arrives in time, I may complete the theme with a discussion of the cross-dressing themes in another medieval French romance, Aucassin and Nicolette. Since I’ll be expanding the cross-dressing paper I gave at Kalamazoo for publication, I have a number of publications that I’ll be prioritizing for that purpose.

Book Shopping!

New books acquired for the blog are primarily from the academic presses that exhibit at the medieval congress. There are a couple of interesting articles in the collection Illicit Sex: Identity Politics in Early Modern Culture edited by Thomas Dipiero and Pat Gil.

I’ve turned up another collection of articles on single women: The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation edited by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. The field of singlewomen studies is extremely relevant to my project as it explores lives outside the marriage economy and thus normalizes the lives of women who might choose not to marry for reasons of sexual preference.

Victoria Blud’s book The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400 is generally about the intersection of language and the concepts of gender and sex, but it includes a chapter on “the unspeakable sin” that includes discussion of female sodomy.

Just yesterday, I received a couple books that my girlfriend spotted in the Kalamazoo bookroom but that I didn’t get a chance to buy there. Like Man, Like Woman is about gender roles in classical Rome, and Knights, Riddles and Cross-dressing Saints looks like it has some useful discussion of cross-dressing motifs in medieval literature.

So all of that should keep me going for a while, although some of the books themselves are still in transit. I’ve gotten into the habit of having my Kalamazoo purchases shipped, not simply to save the space in my luggage, but because it’s like getting presents at random intervals for the next month!

Author Guest

This month’s podcast guest will be Anna Clutterbuck-Cook. Anna is a librarian and a reader of queer fiction. We ended up spending two podcasts talking about a wide range of topics around her favorite books, the books she wants to read but can’t find, the dynamics of queer fiction communities, and all sorts of other things.

Essay

For this month’s essay, I’m planning on combining a multi-person review of the new Emily Dickinson movie, Wild Nights with Emily, and a discussion of how and why Emily Dickinson has become a point of contention around topics of sexuality.

Fiction

And the month’s podcasts will finish up with our second audio short story. At the beginning of the year, I pledged myself that I’d get the fiction all recorded and set up far in advance this time--a pledge that I haven’t managed to keep at this point. So the choice of which story I’ll be broadcasting is partly going to depend on which one I can make arrangements to record in time. But maybe this means I’ll get them all recorded and fulfill part of my pledge after all.

[Sponsor Break]

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And now we come to recent and forthcoming lesbian historical fiction. Only five titles this month, and only three of them are June books.

Dipping back to April, we have Clio Rising by Paula Martinac from Bywater Books. This one uses the popular “historic research” motif to explore the lesbian salons of 1920s Paris.

In 1983, Livvie Bliss leaves western North Carolina for New York City, armed with a degree in English and a small cushion of cash from a favorite aunt. Her goal is to launch a career in publishing, but more important, to live openly as a lesbian. A rough start makes Livvie think she should give up and head home, but then a new friend helps her land a job at a literary agency run by the formidable Bea Winston. Bea hopes Livvie’s Southern charm and “boyish” good looks will help her bond with one of the agency’s most illustrious clients—the cranky Modernist writer Clio Hartt, a closeted octogenarian lesbian of the Paris Lost Generation who has rarely left her Greenwich Village apartment in four decades. When Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion, the plan looks like it’s working: The two connect around their shared Carolina heritage, and their rapport gives Clio support and inspiration to think about publishing again. But something isn’t quite right with Clio’s writing. And as Livvie learns more about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes, uncomfortable parallels begin to emerge between Livvie’s own circle of friends and the drama-filled world of expatriate artists in the 1920s. In Clio’s final days, the writer shares a secret that could upend Livvie’s life—and the literary establishment.

Another early 20th century story came out in May: The Rhythm of the Tide: A lesbian romance self-published by Lia Curling. (I confess that I’m conflicted about book titles that feel they have to explicitly tell readers “Hey, this is a lesbian story.” On the one hand, it makes it easier to figure out whether they’re relevant to the podcast. But on the other hand, it always feels like maybe you could just indicate that in the cover copy?)

London, 1913. After bombing the Prime Minister’s house, suffragette Natalie Petrov is chased by the police. She is rescued by Lady Thompson, an aristocratic doctor who offers her a way out: Natalie will stay at the Thompson’s country house for six months, until her name vanishes from the ‘most wanted’ list. She agrees to work as a maid for Lady Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, a cold and distant socialite who doesn’t know Natalie’s true identity. However, the task becomes progressively harder as Natalie finds herself attracted to her mistress.

The June books start with another early 20th century story, An Impossible Distance to Fall by Miriam McNamara from Sky Pony Press.

It’s 1930, and Birdie William’s life has crashed along with the stock market. Her father’s bank has failed, and worse, he’s disappeared along with his Jenny biplane. When Birdie sees a leaflet for a barnstorming circus with a picture of Dad’s plane on it, she goes to Coney Island in search of answers. The barnstorming circus has lady pilots, daredevil stuntmen, fire-spinners, and wing walkers, and Birdie is instantly enchanted—especially with a girl pilot named June. Birdie doesn’t find her father, but after stumbling across clues that suggest he’s gone to Chicago, she figures she’ll hitch a ride with the traveling circus doing what she does best: putting on a convincing act and insisting on being star of the show. But the overconfidence that made her belle of the ball during her enchanted youth turns out to be far too reckless without the safety net of her charmed childhood, and a couple of impulsive missteps sends her and her newfound community spinning into freefall.

Mainstream publishing offers us a highly anticipated book in Olivia Waite’s A Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics: Feminine Pursuits from Avon Impulse. This Regency-era romance looks like it was designed to hit all my sweet spots.

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away. Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested. While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

Jenn LeBlanc’s Louisa (Trumbull Family Saga Book 8) from Illustrated Romance is another Regency story. The book description includes a content warning for sexual assault.

When Ellie and Lou fall in love, it is with great abandon. And they have grand ideas. A small cottage, a garden, a goat to manage the weeds, sheep for wool to knit.  But the truth of the matter lies in the reality. Louisa must marry, to the satisfaction of her father, and so must Ellie—whose family hopes for a title to add legitimacy to their status, opening doors in the ton. And when Louisa’s father discovers them together nothing can ever be the same.  A friend rescues Louisa from a horrible fate, sending her into hiding for her own protection. For three long years, Louisa remains in exile out of fear of what her father could do. Necessity returns Louisa to London, and as soon as she does, the memories of her beautiful Ellie haunt her. But Louisa has no idea if Ellie is even here, or unmarried, or still in want of her as Louisa is and has been since that first moment she saw her across the shimmering ballroom. Louisa fears discovering the truth of it all, that she was but a passing fancy born of the excitement of the heat of a first season. Will she find Ellie? Will the woman still want her? And even if so, what can they do now that they couldn’t do before? Nothing has changed, but everything is different.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading in the last month in the realm of lesbian historical fiction? I enjoyed Proper English, by K.J. Charles, a short Edwardian country-house murder mystery layered in with a bit of romance. If you enjoy seeing awful people get their just desserts in a murder mystery, this should be right up your alley.

Ask Sappho

There are no questions for the Ask Sappho segment this month. Remember that you can send in questions about queer women in history for a quick answer on the podcast.

And that’s the show for June.

* * *

Books and Links

Major category: 
LHMP
Thursday, May 30, 2019 - 20:42

It's only cheating just a smidge to consider these part of my Kalamazoo haul. I'd already done my day in the bookroom and missed spotting these, when my girlfriend texted the covers and suggested they might be interesting. I never did make it back to the bookroom to check them out, but when I looked them up online I concurred. Since they'd been spotted at the Powell's Books vendor, I tried the Powell's website first but couldn't find a listing, but I was able to pick them up second hand from another seller.

Challet, Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres. 2013. Like Man, Like Woman: Roman Women, Gender Qualities, and Conjugal Relationships at the Turn of the First Century. Peter Lang, Oxford. ISBN 978-3-03911-912-7

  • The author challenges the idea that Roman culture viewed women and men in substantially different terms, and looks at how Roman male writers actually described women. The result is a double vision: a traditional, idealized voice that does represnt the genders in qualitatively different terms, and an individual, realistic voice that views the qualities and abilities of individual women as equivalent to those of men. While the study doesn't directly address same-sex desire, it provides a more nuanced context for the treatment of gender in Roman society. (One of my novel projects is set in the 1st century in Rome and Britain, so I often pick up background research toward that end.)

Honegger, Thomas (ed.) 2004. Riddles, Knights and Cross-dressing Saints. Peter Lang, Oxford. ISBN 3-03910-392-X

  • A collection of conference papers on England in the middle ages. Specifically of interest for the paper on cross-dressing saints.

I still have four shipments pending, so expect more exciting updates!

Major category: 
Conventions
Tuesday, May 28, 2019 - 07:35

I blogged once about how one of the things I value in a protagonist is standing outside the norms and structures of societal power in some way. It gives them more incentive to see the cracks in the system. The fact that all my protagonists are women in early 19th century Europe gives them a head start on that outsider status, though there were certainly plenty of women who didn't view themselves in that way. Ones who enjoyed and accepted the place that gave them in the world.

Roz is an "outsider" in comparison to my previous point of view characters in being of the working class. Even Serafina--who otherwise comes the closest--understands herself more as the daughter of a scholar than being from a laboring family. But Roz is an outsider in a much more useful way for story-telling, because she is still relatively newly come to the city of Rotenek and has only the barest familiarity with some of the people, habits, and trades of the city that others might take for granted.

The rivermen, who provide transport along the Rotein and up the larger chanulezes, are unique to Rotenek as an Alpennian institution. So when Roz encounters Oliva Hald and--through her--becomes curious about the rivermen's trade, her fascination with every little thing that Liv does becomes an opportunity for us, as readers, to notice those things as well. We don't necessarily understand the details, because Roz doesn't understand them and she's our window. And at the moment, Liv seems disinclined to enlighten her ignorance...

* * *

She only glared at me and twitched the tie rope to pull it loose from the ring, then gave a whistle for her dog. As he jumped down into the boat, she dipped her fingers into the river then tasted them or kissed them or something. That seemed a filthy thing to do, even here where the water didn’t smell as much. I wondered if she meant it as an insult, like making horns against me. She pushed away from the dock and as the current pulled the boat away from the bank, she worked the oars and spun it around. With a few strong pulls, she shot away into mid-river. On the water it was like she wasn’t crippled at all.

I kept thinking about her all that day. Not the way she struggled with the baskets but the way she’d spun the boat like it was a part of her. Was that why she’d ended up on the water? I’d seen a few women in the boats before but mostly it was men for their strong arms. And because you never knew what sort of passengers you might get. The rivermen were a clannish sort and mostly you had to be born to it. So maybe she would have taken it up even without her twisted foot.

Major category: 
Promotion
Publications: 
Floodtide
Monday, May 27, 2019 - 10:00

I say this in the text of the entry below, but really I consider this is the big take-away for this book: if you intend to set a queer story in mid-16th to mid-18th century England, and you aren't already fully steeped in the textual evidence available for that time and place, drop everything you're doing and buy this book. (No, I don't get kick-backs. Even the buy-link is to the publisher, not to Amazon.) That's it. That's everything I have to say.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Loughlin, Marie H. 2014. Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8208-5

When one of my summaries is basically a list of contents, either it means that the publication is really thin on relevant content, or it means that it’s so rich that you simply need to buy the book and put it in a cherished place on your shelf. This one is the latter. At least half the contents apply to women’s experiences (although it’s still true that the male-authored female-relevant content far outnumbers the female-authored male-relevant content) and the collection includes many of the oft-cited texts from the covered period. Far from all, but an excellent place to start. So I will simply provide an index of the items I consider to be of interest and suggest that anyone interested in studying same-sex desire in the mid-16th through early 18th century should just go ahead and buy this book. Here’s a buy link. For a university press book, it’s astoundingly affordable.

The text are arranged by genre, with discussions on the context both of the authors and the material. Only a few representative items from religious, medical, and legal genres are offered. (There is a vast amount of available material from these genres, but I’m happy to have the book’s focus be more on literature.)

The introduction to the book directs the interested reader to the online companion material, which includes texts that were not included in the published volume due to length considerations. This online companion can be found here: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/43470 [this link redirects to https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0074609 ]

Religious and Moral Writings

  • 1.1.5 - The story of Ruth and Naomi from the King James version (1611).

Pesudo-Medical Writings

  • 2.1.1 - Giles Jacob Tractatus de Hermaphroditis (1718) - Although Jacob’s topic is physiological hermaphrodites (i.e., intersex persons), he also provides salacious examples of women with same-sex desires (i.e., women with “masculine” appetites). He goes into the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire and quotes (2.1.3) Nicholas Rowe’s poem about lesbian sex (which is more about a metaphorical hermaphroditism that assumes that the “active” partner in sex is inherently masculine). The work includes several case histories of women engaging in sex together. One (2.1.4) is included in the book while others are available at the online supplement.
  • 2.2 - Anonymous Supplement to the Onania (1725?) - A Penthouse-like “letters column” that purports to be confessional but is clearly intended to be pornographic. The item included here is the supposed confession of a woman who engaged in sex with other women beginning in adolescence which resulted in an enlarged clitoris. The editor responds with a discussion of classical and foreign references to f/f sex and to the enlarged clitoris motif, notes that one treatment used both in “Arabia” and Europe is amputation of the clitoris. He notes an example in France that he interprets as a prolapsed uterus mistaken for a penis, where the subject was ordered by the magistrates to live as a man until medical treatment “reduced” it and she was required to return to living as a woman “to her great regret.”

Legal Writings

  • No material on women in this section, for the understandable reason that sex between women was not against the law in England.

Travelogues

  • 4.1.1 - Leo Africanus A Geographical History of Africa (1600 - English translation of the Arabic text (1526) that includes a class of “witches” in Fez (Morocco) who engage in homosexual relations and request sexual relations from women as payment for magical services.
  • 4.2.1 - Nicolas de Nicolay The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages Made into Turkey (1585). Translation of the French original (1568) - Description of sex between women at the gender-segregated Turkish baths.
  • 4.3.3 - Jean-Baptiste Tavernier Collections of Travels Through Turkey into Persia and the East Indies (1685) from the French original published sometime before 1677 - Discusses sex between women with in the seraglio, implies it is due to frustration at not having sexual access to men. Tells of a story (but considers it a myth) that women in the seraglio are only served cucumbers if they are sliced, so that the can’t use them for sexual purposes. Relates an anecdote about a woman who cross-dresses as a man to try to marry another woman.
  • 4.4 - Mary Whortley Montagu The Turkish Embassy Letters (1716-18) - Personal correspondence written to friends describing her observations within gender-segregated spaces in the Ottoman Empire. Includes very sensuous but non-sexual descriptions of women in the baths. “Not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture...” However she describes being entertained by female dancers and notes “...I am very positive that the coldest and most rigid prude upon Earth could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of...”

Personal Correspondence

  • 5.2 - Letters from Constance Fowler to her brother (1630s?), praising the woman they both loved and encouraging her brother to marry her. This is a motif we see repeatedly and one that may be very hard for modern people to understand. But in an age when same-sex households were socially and economically difficult, and when marriage was not necessarily expected to be driven by romantic passion, one way for two woman to establish a familial bond was for one to marry a close relative of the other.
  • 5.3 - Letters between Mary Stuart (later Queen Mary II) to Frances Apsley expressing romantic sentiments. Mary refers to Frances as “husband” and Frances refers to Mary as “wife”.

Public Perception of Homosexual Subcultures

As this “public homosexual subculture” was almost exclusively male, there is little female-relevant material in this chapter, with one exception.

  • 6.2.2 - “Venus’s Reply (1699) an anonymous poetic answer to the similarly anonymous “The Women’s Complaint to Venus” (1698). In the earlier poem, women complain about men all turning to sexual relations with men. In the reply, Venus alleges that the women are to blame because they were ignoring the men in favor of sexual relations with women.

Classical Literature in Translation, Interpretation, and as Inspiration

The English surge of interest in classical literature didn’t begin in the mid-17th century, but it certainly thrived during the period covered by this collection. This chapter includes both translations and works in imitation of the classics, as well as some material simply drawing on classical themes and motifs.

  • 7.3.1 - Pierre Bayle An Historical and Critical Dictionary (1710) “Sappho” - a brief biography of Sappho that mentions her homoerotic themes.
  • 7.4 - Ambrose Philips The Odes of Sappho (1713) a biographic sketch of the poet that accompanied his translations.
  • 7.5 - John Addison (1735) - biographic sketch of Sappho and translations of her poetry.
  • 7.6 - John Lyly, excerpts from his play Sappho and Phao (1592) dramatizing Ovid’s story of Sappho & Phaon.
  • 7.7 - John Donne - poem “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633) dwelling on homoerotic themes.
  • 7.8 - William Walsh A Dialogue Concerning Women (1691) - An excerpt discussing Sappho and her homoerotic relationships.
  • 7.9 - Anonymous poem “The Sappho-an” (1735?/1749?) that presents a very negative and highly sexualized image of Sappho.
  • 7.17 - Arthur Golding Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1567) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Callisto and her sexual relationship with Jupiter while he was disguised as Diana.
  • 7.18 - George Sandys Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1632) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe.
  • 7.19 - George Turbervile Heroical Epistles (1567) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Sappho and Phaon.
  • 7.20 - John Lyly Gallathea (1592) - A play very loosely inspired by Iphis and Ianthe involving two cross-dressing heroines who fall in love with each other.
  • 7.22 - Thomas Heywood The Golden Age (1611) - A play based on classical themes and motifs that includes an episode based on the myth of Callisto and Jupiter/Diana.
  • 7.23 - R. Fletcher - Verse translations of Martial’s epigrams (1656) including the homosexual accusations against Bassa.
  • 7.27 - John Dryden The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (1693) - Verse translations/interpretations including a passing reference to sex between women that is worth quoting as it pushes the association of the term “flats” with lesbianism half a century earlier than the 1749 reference to “game of flats” with this sense. “Laufella lays her garland by and proves the mimic lechery of manly loves. Provokes to flats some battered household whore and heaving up the rubster does adore, ranked with the lady, the cheap sinner lies, for here not blood, but virtue gives the prize.”
  • 7.31 - Thomas Brown The Works of Lucian (1711) - Translation of the dialogue between Cleonarium and Leaena discussing a courtesan’s hiring by a female couple.

Note: it is both unsurprising and depressing that all of the above material is written by men. There were French women translating and being inspired by Sappho’s work in the early modern period, but as this volume focuses only on English materials they are not included.

Literature Representing Male Same-Sex Desire

Quite obviously, this section isn’t relevant to the Project. As a point of interest of the 22 authors included in this section, only two are women. Of the 26 authors represented in the next section on female desire, 10 are known to be male and 3 are unknown, so only half of the 26 are demonstrably female voices.  Just FYI.

Literature Representing Female Same-Sex Desire

  • 9.1 - Roger L’Estrange Erasmus’s Colloquies (1689) - Translation of the 1589 original. Colloquy 7 “The Marriage Hater” involves a man trying to dissuade a young woman from entering a convent by implying that convents are hotbeds of lesbianism.
  • 9.2 - Mary Maitland (presumed author) - Poem ca. 1586 in which a the female persona of the poem expresses love for a woman, using classical allusions and comparisons, and including a wish for one of them to change sex if that is the only way they could marry.
  • 9.3 - Philip Sidney The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1593) - The story of a man who disguises himself as a woman to gain sexual access to a secluded woman. The woman comes to accept that she’s fallen in love with another woman before the man’s true gender is revealed.
  • 9.3 - William Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-5) - Of all the homoerotic scenes in Shakespeare, the collection has included an episode where Helena expresses how broken-hearted she is that her close friend Hermia has (as she supposes) incited two men to mock her by declaring their love. Helena describes how the two women had previously been an inseparable couple.
  • 9.5 - Aemilia Lanyer - A selection of poems (1611) that express admiration and love for various women, though in fairly conventional terms. About half the poems are religious in nature with no clear homoerotic content so I’m not sure why they are included.
  • 9.6 - Mary Wroth Urania (1621) - Another story where a man disguises himself as a woman in order to gain access to the target of his affection, resulting in the woman accepting the possibility of same-sex desire.
  • 9.8 - Ben Johnson - Two poems, the first “The Forest” (1616) has unclear relevance, but the second “Epigram on the Court Pucelle” is his vicious poetic attack on rival poet Cecelia Bulstrode in which he calls her a “tribade” whose poetic skill is the result of “raping” a muse.
  • 9.9 - Edmund Waller “On the Friendship Betwixt Sacharissa and Amorett (1645) - A poem in which a man laments that the romantic love between a female couple makes them unavailable to men.
  • 9.10 - Anonymous poem “A Copy of Verses Made by a Lady and Sent to Another Lady, with a Bracelet Made of Her Own Hair” (1655) - The title pretty much says it all. A very personal gift, explicitly given to remind the wearer of her love.
  • 9.11 - Andrew Marvell “Upon Appleton House” (1681) - A long poem on the history of his patron’s family seat, including a fictitious episode when the building was a convent in which the patron’s ancestress is depicted as being the victim of sexual importuning by the abbess.
  • 9.12  - Margaret Cavendish Nature’s Pictures (1656) - Story about a woman who is passing as a man to escape assault and the queen who falls in love with her, thinking her a man. After discovery, the queen briefly wishes for a sex change so their love could continue but both then turn their hearts to men.
  • 9.13 - Margaret Cavendish The Convent of Pleasure (1668) - An heiress, scorning her fortune-hunting suitors, sets up a women-only retreat. A man disguises himself as a woman to continue pursuing her and we have the standard episode of the woman accepting the possibility of same-sex desire before the man reveals himself.
  • 9.14 - Katherine Philips Poems (1667) - Several poems expressing romantic love for women.
  • 9.15 - Edward Howard “Fricatrices: or, A She upon a She” (1674) - A pornographic poem describing two women having sex.
  • 9.16 - Jean Barrin Venus in the Cloister (1683) - Pornographic novel about sapphic goings on in a convent.
  • 9.17-19 - Aphra Behn - Various poems (1684-1692) expressing admiration and devotion for women in homoerotic terms of varying levels of explicitness.
  • 9.20 - “Euphelia” (pen name of an unidentified author) - Several poems (1679) expressing admiration and desire for women, especially one identified pseudonymously as “Marina”.
  • 9.21 - Anne Killigrew “On a Picture Painted by Herself Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s, One in a Posture to Hunt, the Other Bathing” (1686) - The title pretty much tells the poem’s content. The image of Diana and her nymphs was a common context for female homoeroticism.
  • 9.22 - Jane Barker  “On the Death of My Dear Friend...” (1688) - Poem about the loss of  beloved friend expressed in romantic terms.
  • 9.23 - Jane Barker A Patchwork Screen for the Ladies “The Unaccountable Wife” (1723) - A complex story about a wife who becomes inexplicably devoted to her husband’s mistress (who had been her servant). The two women end up moving out and forming their own household and continuing as a family even after the death of the abandoned husband. The relationship is presented as “unaccountable” but makes sense if one assumes genuine devotion between the two women.
  • 9.24 - Catharine Trotter Agnes de Castro (1695) - Play about two women who are rivals for a man but then become more devoted to each other than to him. Tragic ending.
  • 9.25 - Catharine Trotter “Chloe to Artimesa” (1700) - Poem elevating love between women over heterosexual love.
  • 9.26 - Mary Chudleigh Poems on Several Occasions (1703) - Several poems expressing romantic passion between women.
  • 9.27 - Delarivier Manley The New Atalantis (1709) - Satirical travelogue that includes extensive descriptions of a “new cabal” of women who love women and disdain men. Written as a political satire on various figures in the English court.
  • 9.28-30 - Anne Finch - Three poems (1685-1702) in the voice of “Ardelia” expressing love and devotion for women, with specific (though ambiguous) references to Sappho.
  • 9.31 - Anonymous poem “An Epistle from Signora F---a to a Lady” (1727) - Poem allegedly in the voice of a female opera singer to her female beloved and expressing sexual desire, composed in the context of a professional feud with another singer.
  • 9.32 - John Hoadly “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” (1730) - Another poem in the genre of “men praising the romantic devotion of a female couple and expressing jealousy at being shut out.”
  • 9.33 - William King The Toast (1736) - A viciously satirical poem attacking Myra, Countess of Newburgh (his aunt) and her husband. The vitriol was inspired by a financial dispute and the poem includes scores of allusions to contemporary figures, not all of whom are identifiable at this point. Myra is, among other things, depicted as a lesbian.

It’s worth noticing that the material in this chapter falls primarily into two groups: works by women expressing positive and uplifting sentiments relating to love between women, and works by men depicting women’s same-sex relations as sordid, predatory, and pornographic. There are a few outliers on both sides: Delarivier Manley’s satire, the more sweetly jealous poems of John Hoadly and Edmund Waller. But the overall pattern says a great deal about attitudes of the times.

Event/Person Tags

Since pretty much every item listed above gets a tag, but my tag fields have a character limit, I'm including the full list here instead and an abbreviated selection of the more obscure items in the tag list. Unfortunately this means that this entry won't necessarily come up in tag searches, though it will in text searches.

Aphra Behn, Epigrams (Martial), Juvenal, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Gallathea (John Lyly), Katherine Philips, Leo Africanus, The Convent of Pleasure (Margaret Cavendish), Lady Mary Montague, Dialogues of the Courtesans (Lucian), Nicholas de Nicholay, The Game at Flats: A Song (Nicholas Rowe), Sappho, Arcadia (Philip Sidney), The Sappho-an, The Unaccountable Wife (Jane Barker), Ruth & Naomi (Bible), The Golden Age (Thomas Heywood), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare), Sappho to Philaenis (John Donne), Upon Appleton House (Andrew Marvell), To the Fair Clorinda (Aphra Behn), Tractatus de Hermaphroditus or a Treatise of Hermaphrodites (Giles Jacob), Onania or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (Balthazar Bekker?), Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Epigram on the Court Pucelle (Ben Jonson), On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies (Edmund Waller), Venus’s Reply, The New Atalantis (Mary Delarivier Manley), Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (Anne Finch Countess Winchilsea), The Toast (William King), On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow (Jane Barker), Agnes de Castro (Catharine Trotter Cockburn), Venus dans le Cloître (Abbe du Prat), An Epistle from SIgnora F-a to a Lady, Margaret Cavendish, The girl with no interest in marriage (Erasmus), Heroides: Sappho (Ovid), Constance Fowler, Frances Apsley, Aemilia Lanyer, Urania (Mary Wroth), A Copy of Verses Made by a Lady and Sent to Another Lady (anonymous), Nature’s Pictures (Margaret Cavendish), Fricatrices: or A She upon a She (Edward Howard), Euphelia (pen name), On a Picture Painted by Herself Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s (Anne Killigrew), Chloe to Artimesa (Catharine Trotter), Mary Chudleigh, On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies (John Hoadly), Metamorphoses: Callisto (Ovid)

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Place: 
Saturday, May 25, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 34d - The True History of Catharina Vizzani (Reprise)

(Originally aired 2019/05/25 - listen here)

Sometimes, the hours in the week just aren’t there to get a brand new podcast out and you pull out a show from a couple years ago to find new listeners. This reprise is in honor of the paper I gave a couple weeks ago on cross-dressing women--though I cut off my examples in the early 17th century, so Catharine Vizzani wasn’t part of the data. This show originally aired in January 2017.

* * *

When you think about lesbians in 18th century Rome, probably the last thing you expect is parental acceptance. And yet that’s one of the many interesting aspects of the life of Catharine Vizzani. Another interesting aspect is that we have a detailed record of her adventures, her loves, and her death at a tragically young age. Unlike many such stories, the tragedy wasn’t a direct consequence of her sexuality, but rather of her disregard for convention in pursuing it.

For the details of Catharine’s life, I’m going to be reading extensively from an English translation of her biography, complete with the translator’s editorial commentary. In fact, let’s introduce you to the overview of her life in his words.

[Note: All quotations from the original text are presented verbatim, with the original spelling and capitalization preserved.]

“ALL our Passions are known to break out into very extravagant Sallies, but Love seems of all to be the most exorbitant; so that no one read in the History of human Nature will wonder, that a bare Report should ever have kindled such an ardent Affection in some, as to send the Persons thus infatuated a wandering, from one Country to another, in Quest of the desired Object; or that others have preferred the Gratification of their Love to Duty and Decency, to Tranquillity and Reputation.”

(Just so you know, this is the usual literary style of the time, so settle back and enjoy the polysyllabic loquacity. We continue.)

“The Subject before me is an Instance, that the Wantonness of Fancy, and the Depravity of Nature, are at as great a Height as ever; and that our Times afford a Girl, who, so far from being inferior to Sappho, or any of the Lesbian Nymphs, in an Attachment for those of her own Sex, has greatly surpassed them in Fatigues, Dangers, and Distress, which terminated in a violent Death. This the following Narrative will manifest, which is a pregnant Example of the shocking Ebulition of human Passions, yet, at the same Time, of a most firm Constancy and Daringness in a young Creature, tho’ with a sad Alloy of Guilt and Precipitancy.

“Our unfortunate Adventurer’s Name was Catherine Vizzani. She was born at Rome, and of ordinary Parentage, her Father being a Carpenter. When she came to her fourteenth Year, the Age of Love in our forward Climate, she was reserved and shy towards young Men, but would be continually romping with her own Sex, and some she caressed with all the Eagerness and Transport of a Male Lover. But, above all, she was passionately enamoured with one Margaret, whose Company she used to court, under Pretence of learning Embroidery. And, not satisfied with these Interviews by Day, scarce a Night passed, but she appeared in Man’s Clothes, under her Charmer’s Window; though, in all Appearance, her Pleasure must be limited to viewing Margaret’s captivating Charms, and saying soft Things to her.

“This whimsical Amour went on very quietly for above two Years, but at last Catherine being surprized by Margaret’s Father, just when her Heart was overflowing with fervid Expressions of Love to his Daughter, he rattled her severely, and threatened that the Governor of the City should hear of her Pranks. Catherine was so frightened with Menaces of such a Nature, that she absconded, and went to Viterbo, in a Man’s Disguise, where she took upon herself the Name of Giovanni Bordoni.”

Let’s leave off our author’s long-winded explanations. Catharine, in the guise of Giovanni, finding herself at the end of her finances, took shelter in a church and gained the assistance of one of the church canons in finding employment as a manservant. Having become dissatisfied with her first position, wanted a letter of recommendation from her original benefactor. So she wrote to her mother back in Rome and asked to beg for the letter in the name of Giovanni. Which her mother did, without saying anything about the gender disguise.

This recommendation eventually bore fruit, gaining her a position as footman with the Vicar of Angiari. We’ll return to our 18th century author to tell something of her experiences in that position.

“Never was Gentleman better fitted with a Servant than the Vicar with Giovanni; for, besides Reading, making of Chocolate, and Cookery, she was very dextrous at Pen, Comb, and Razor; in a Word, she was a thorough Proficient in all the Branches of her Employment. The Governor, however, being an austere Man, who made no Allowance for the Impulses of Nature, or the Fervor of Youth, was used not to spare her for incessantly following the Wenches, and being so barefaced and insatiable in her Amours. She had Recourse to several delusive Impudicities, not only to establish the Certainty, but raise the Reputation of her Manhood.”

Now at this point we find a difference of approach between the original Italian author of the biography and the English translator, who is somewhat more prudish. because the translator notes that the original text, “enters into a nauseous Detail of her Impostures, which is the more inexcusable, they not being essential to the main Scope of the Narrative. These, if agreeable to the Italian Taste, would shock the Delicacy of our Nation.”

We can guess at what those “nauseous details” might cover in the later discussion of the instrument by which Catharine gave pleasure to her girlfriends. Let us merely say that Catharine gained quite a reputation with the ladies and provoked the jealousy of a rival who attacked her and wounded her in the neck. The Vicar, her employer, was not very happy with his employee’s behavior but, seeing that the wound was serious, sent off to fetch Giovanni’s (that is, Catharine’s) father. And here’s one place where the story gets even more fascinating. When Signor Vizzani arrived, the Vicar began:

“with the most serious Concern, to lay open to him the Particulars of his Son’s scandalous Dissoluteness, charging it upon the Want of timely Instruction and Chastisement, if not the Influence of a vicious Example. The Carpenter, who could hardly keep his Countenance during a Remonstrance delivered with a dictatorial Solemnity, calmly answered, that, to his and his dear Wife’s inexpressible Grief, their Son was a Prodigy of Nature, and that, in his very Childhood, they had observed some astonishing Motions of Lust, which had unhappily gathered Vehemence with the Growth of his Body; that, however, since such was the Case, and the Vigour of his Constitution was not to be repressed by Words or Blows, Nature must even take its Course; and, as for the vicious Example you are pleased to insinuate, I hope I am no worse than my Neighbours.”

The vicar felt this response showed a want of proper concern and began scolding the carpenter even more vigorously. And you have to think that Signor Vizzani is just about the explode with laughter at the Vicar’s mistake, because the story continues thus:

“The Father, perceiving the Canon to grow warm upon the Matter, put a Stop to his Expostulation, saying, with a Smile, “Reverence Sir, certainly you have few Equals in Christian Zeal, but I must undeceive you, and ask Pardon for not doing it before: This same Child of mine, whose Irregularities have made such a Noise, is no Male, but as truly, in all Respects, a Female, as the Woman who bore her.” He then proceeded to relate the Occasion of her leaving her Home, and rambling in a Man’s Habit. The good Canon was amazed at such frantic Doings, and courteously dismissed the Carpenter.”

One might think that this would be the end of Catharine’s employment with the Vicar, but once her wound was healed he found that rather than lose such a useful servant, he was willing to put up with her continuing lascivious behavior (and continued disguise) and kept her on for another three or four years.

I’ll skip over several other adventures and move on to when Catharine (still as Giovanni) took on a new position and was given responsibility for her employer’s house in a town called Librafratta. It was in that place that she went just a little too far. I’ll let our 18th century translator take up the tale again.

“Among other Charmers, he [that is, Catharine] had the Presumption to offer his Addresses to a very lovely young Gentlewoman, Niece to the Minister of the Village; and prosecuted them with such Ardour and Success, that they both grew passionately in Love with each other.

“The Uncle, knowing the Temptation of Beauty, and the Lubricity of Youth, kept a strict Guard over his Niece, till an advantageous Match, which was in Agitation, should be concluded; but Giovanni’s Person and Blandishments preponderated against all other Consideration; and, after eluding the Uncle’s Attention, in several Midnight Interviews, Giovanni, proposed to the young Lady to carry her off at an appointed Time, and that afterwards they should make for Rome; where, by Means of an honest Priest of his Acquaintance, their Passion should be confirmed and sanctified by the Offices of the Church:

“This Overture was not only agreed to, but applauded as the greatest Mark both of his Love and Virtue. To carry this Scheme into Execution, Giovanni had provided two Horses, on which they were to set out very early one Morning about the Middle of June, in the Year One Thousand, Seven Hundred, and Forty Three. The Evening before this important Expedition, Giovanni’s Mistress, her Discretion not being equal to her Beauty, took her younger Sister apart, and told her, that her Uncle’s rigid Humours had now worn out her Patience; that she had determined not to be mewed up at that Rate any longer; and that Giovanni, who would do any Thing for her, was to be her Deliverer, having provided two Horses against the Day of Day, on which they were to post away to Lucca, and from thence to Rome, where they were to be married.”

Letting the secret out to her sister was a big mistake, because the sister blackmailed the eloping couple into taking her along. Catharine agreed to go along with the scheme, but the problem was that they only had two horses, so the sisters rode while Catharine walked which slowed them down a bit. Still, they made it to Lucca and hired a carriage, but were further delayed by a minor carriage breakdown. Well, in the mean time the girls’ uncle had discovered their absence, figured out what had happened, and dispatched his chaplain and a couple of servants to chase after them with a promise of significant reward for bringing Giovanni (that is, Catharine) back for punishment.

The pursuers caught up with them a little ways past Lucca. And now we’ll return to our original text:

“The Chaplain, to make short Work of it, called out to the Servants to fire upon Giovanni, who, having perceived them at some Distance, had leaped down from behind the carriage. The Servants, pursuant to their Leader’s Command, presented their Pieces at Giovanni, who having a masculine Spirit, as well as masculine Desires, not at all daunted at such a threatening Sight, drew a Pistol which hung at her Belt, and presented it towards the Chaplain. This unexpected Resolution put them to a Stand, and both Sides continued watching each other’s Motions, whilst the poor Girls were shrieking, and wringing their Hands; ’till Giovanni, considering that her Sex would secure her from any very bad Consequence of this Affair, and that one Girl’s running away with two others might, in a Court of Justice, if it should go that Length, be slightly passed over as a Frolick, rather than severely animadverted upon as a Crime, thought it adviseable to surrender; and, turning contemptuously from the commanding Officer to the Servants, who were known to her, she delivered up her Pistol, telling them they were welcome to do their Office.

“The Chaplain, however, irritated at her Petulance, if Jealousy or Avarice were not rather the Motives to such an Inhumanity, after her Submission, stormed at one of the Servants, whose Name was Miniato, for not firing, and threatened him with an Oar in the Galleys, if he delayed a Moment; whereupon he let fly, aiming at Giovanni’s Thighs, upon a Supposition that a Wound in those Parts would be the least hurtful, and hit the poor Creature in the left Thigh, four Inches above the Knee; the same Shot killing a fine hound, and fracturing a Leg of a Boy of about twelve Years of Age, who happening to come by, had stopt, as it was very natural, to see what was the Matter.”

The two shooting victims were taken off to a nearby hospital. Catharine, fearing for her life, confessed her true identity to one of the nuns who attended her and requested that the matter be kept secret unless she died of the wound, in which case she wanted to be buried in women’s clothes. This request, alas, needed to be carried out a short time later. After her death, they found hidden under the pillow of her hospital bed a stuffed leather device that she had worn as part of her imposture and that had contributed to some degree to her success with the ladies.

The rest of the biography is not particularly edifying. On discovering her true sex, a post-mortem examination was made to determine whether any physiological abnormality had caused her desire for women. The author seems rather shocked and startled to find her body to be ordinarily and unremarkably female. During this era it was fairly common to blame lesbian desires on certain anatomical abnormalities. The observation of counter-examples such as Catharine Vizzani failed to undermine this theory.

So what are we to make of Catharine’s life? In the mid-18th century in Rome, a carpenter and his wife recognized that their daughter’s sexual orientation was toward women and they not only shrugged and accepted it, but continued to support her when she was in need. And though Catharine had most of her romantic adventures while posing as a man, at the very least her first girlfriend--and possibly others--knew that she was a woman and enjoyed the courtship. And the sex. It’s quite clear from the observations of others that Catharine was rather good in bed. And if she’d only had a bit more caution about eloping with the nieces of important people, who knows what sort of happily ever after she might have achieved?

Links

The full text of the 1755 English translations of Catherine Vizzani’s biography can be found here: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/vizzani.htm

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: http://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-event-person/true-history-and-adventures-catharine-vizzani-breve-storia-della-vita-di

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 09:00

This is the first of at least two shipments from Boydell & Brewer. (One book was pre-ordered and the other is brand new and may not have been in the warehouse yet when these were shipped.)

Sylvester, Louise M., Mark C. Chambers and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. 2014. Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-84383-932-3

  • I'm honestly not sure why I didn't buy this when it was brand new. It's the sort of thing I usually buy reflexively. Maybe I was overspent that year? An anthology of English source texts containing clothing references and descriptions, running up through th 15th century. Far from exhaustive, of course, but representing a wide variety of genres.

Blud, Victoria. 2017. The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-84384-468-6

  • Something of a "high concept" study on the intersection of gender/sex and language, but one entire chapter is devoted to "the unspeakable sin" (i.e., sodomy) including how women fit into that category, so I picked this up for the LHMP.

Sims-Williams, Patrick. 2019. The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-418-5

  • The Book of Llandaf is a collection of documents assembled in the 12th century at Llandaf in Wales, in support of that religious center's claims to various rights and jurisdictions. My personal interest in the work has focused on two distinct elements: personal names recorded in charters and similar documents, and the use of the Welsh language in describing land boundaries in those same charters. While the Welsh text is not particularly varied in scope and nature, it contains a great many prepositional phrases (as the boundaries are phrased as a path being followed), which--given the topic of my PhD dissertation--was useful data on vernacular usage at a relatively early date. As my active project list drifts further and further away from Welsh topics, I've been finding it easier to refrain from buying Welsh-related books reflexively. But the Book of Llandaf will ever be dear to my heart.
Major category: 
Conventions
Thursday, May 23, 2019 - 20:19

I really loved the concept of the Sword and Sonnet anthology (edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler--all of whose work I admire). Battle poets! An intriguing premise. I backed the kickstarter and regretted that I didn't have space in my schedule to try writing something to submit. So I'm honestly bewildered that the collection is falling flat for me. Maybe this just isn't the right time. I'm not in the right mood. I dunno. I read the first few stories and the skimmed through several more and they all felt...gray and flat and of a sameness. And dreary. I get that the collection is inevitably shaped by the political times in which we live. But I guess I was expecting battle poets to feel more like a trumpet call to arms, not like a dirge. Maybe there are stories later in the collection that would make me feel that way, but I'm not up for it at the moment.

(For a complete change of mood, I switched over to Stephanie Burgis's magical Regency YA, Kat, Incorrigible.)

Major category: 
Reviews
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - 07:56

I was feeling smug this morning about getting on the road by my target time (before 6am). I'd have lots of time in the coffee shop in Berkeley to compose this blog and maybe get some other things done as well before going to the office. And then I saw the big flashing freeway sign "West Hwy 24 accident all lanes blocked." They don't go to that extreme for a minor fender bender, so I quickly reviewed potential alternate routes and took off into the hills, detouring through Moraga, up Canyon Road, and winding through the east bay redwoods.

It was a glorious drive. There was a double rainbow hanging over the hills and a slight drizzle--a "misty moisty morning," as the song says. Everything was green, the little streams were running, the winding road was overhung with ferns as it dodged among the redwoods. You forget that these experiences are there, just a few minutes off the track. I don't know whether I saved any time over sitting in the freeway parking lot while they cleared the wrecks (by the time I came out onto Hwy 24 again the other side of the tunnel, the traffic seemed to be unblocked) but I definitely saved some sanity.

You never know when an unexpected opportunity will present itself--sometimes in the form of a disaster. But you can set yourself in the way of it. In my case, by being familiar with the back roads through the east bay hills, in Roz's case, by deciding she needed to make a positive effort to interact with the other household staff at Tiporsel House and engage more in the economy of traded favors that made your place more secure.

* * *

The common room was one of the few rooms downstairs with lots of windows. It looked out over the upper edge of the garden and sunlight even made it into the kitchen where it opened off to one side. The year was turning toward spring and we were allowed to go into the garden as long as the family wasn’t using it. It was damp and gray now, but in summer I imagined taking my work out to the benches there. Not the bench by the dock right down at the edge of the river—everyone warned me that was the baroness’s and we weren’t to use it.

The garden sloped down from the back of the house to the river. You could enjoy watching the birds skim over the water and listening to the whistles and shouts of the rivermen. Sometimes one of the family would send word down to hail a riverman and then I could see them pass by in all their fine clothes to be handed into the boat and rowed off somewhere. Once Charsintek wanted me to bring a delivery back from the Nikuleplaiz and gave me a coin for a ride. But most times when a boat came to the dock, it was the kitchen delivery from the market out past the east gate. Every morning Cook or her assistant took a hired fiacre off to the market and sent the baskets back by the river. It was like a second set of roads. There’d be a sharp whistle up from the dock and Cook would send whoever was idling about down to fetch things up. Sometimes the riverman would help carry baskets too, just for the extra teneir, or to get the boat unloaded more quickly. That was how I met Liv.

It was a fine day and the door had been left open to the gardens, the easier to hear a halloo from the dock. I was keeping quiet because Cook was out of sorts and one of the kitchen maids was being scolded. Nothing to do with me, but best to lay low. We heard a sharp whistle from down by the water and then the yipping of a dog. Some of the rivermen kept a little dog trained to bark at doors if you didn’t hear the whistle. Lufise came out of the kitchen with a quick smile and wink to me as if to say, “There’s an excuse to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes.”

Just as she was coming back with the first basket—a wide awkward one that took both hands to carry—there was a crash and a shriek from the kitchen. It was easy enough to guess what had happened. The new girl that Cook had been scolding had dropped a bowl and spilled something all over the floor.. Lufise dropped the baskets in the doorway to go help clean up and threw me a pleading look. “Roz, could you go get the rest? I’ll make it up to you.”

It wasn’t my job, but it never hurt to be owed a favor so I folded my work away and walked down the path beside the garden wall, with the riverman’s little dog skipping around my feet. I must have stared a bit when I got to the water-steps. I’d never seen a girl in the boats before. She didn’t look much older than me. Her arms were all brown and thick with muscles—even more than I’d gotten wringing out laundry. I knew I’d been staring because she said, “Are you going to gape like a carp all day? I have other houses to do and I’m late already.”

* * *

Not the most auspicious meeting! And it's about to get worse. But when Roz determines to make friends with someone, she's quite clever in finding a way, even past her own mis-steps. All it takes is watching for the right opportunity and seizing it when it comes. Like I seized the opportunity to turn a traffic jam into a scenic drive. If you let go of your plans and preconceptions, you just might find adventure!

Major category: 
Teasers
Publications: 
Floodtide
Monday, May 20, 2019 - 07:00

I was excited to hear about this book because material on Jewish topics has been sadly lacking in my research materials. Alas, it's still sadly lacking. This collection is quite extensive in scope and nature but there is very little material of lesbian relevance, and what there is adds little new information. If you know someone who's interested in researching male homoerotic experiences in western Jewish history, I think it would be a valuable resource. I suspect that if a work of this type had focused specifically on queer female experiences, there might be more to dig up. I sometimes get the impression that imbalances of this sort in general works derives as much from the researchers taking an "equal effort" approach as opposed to an "equal coverage" approach. Finding historic information on women can take more work--especially for a researcher whose primary interests are male topics and doesn't have leads on female topics already at hand. The result can often reinforce the impression that the data isn't there to be found. I suspect that there is more material on queer Jewish women out there in the world, but it will probably only be found by those who are working on that specific topic.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

SIenna, Noam (ed). 2019. A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969. Print-O-Craft, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-9905155-6-2

As might be predicted from past experience with general survey works, the amount of material relating to female same-sex relations in this book is low. And like most surveys that cover all of history up to the present day (1969 counts as “the present day” for practical purposes), more than half the page count covers the 20th century. Out of 120 entries, I counted 14 that were in any way relevant to the LHMP (and that includes anything ambiguous between lesbians and trans men). Furthermore, except for the works of a couple of 19th century poets, those entries are written by men and view the topic with an unmistakably male gaze--including legal, religious, and medical texts that view female same-sex love as pathology.

Given that, even though this collection is obviously sympathetic to the queer experience, it’s hard for me to recommend it as a useful reference for someone working to write queer female characters into history. Here is a brief summary of what I consider to be the relevant contents.

1st to 15th century

Entry 1 - Sappho’s fragment 31 (“he is like a god to me”) was preserved in a Greco-Jewish treatise on literary esthetics. The author discuses the literary techniques that express the sublime.

Entries 2, 3, 5 - Various 1st-3rd century religious texts discussing general topics of transgression of gender and sexual roles.

Entry 9 - Midrash of the 3-5th centuries that expands on Leviticus 18:3 (“don’t do like the Egyptians and Canaanites do”) by discussing the specific cultural practices being forbidden, including same-sex marriage (by both men and women) and poly marriages of various types. [This has been interpreted by scholars such as Brooten as evidence that same-sex marriages existed in Egypt during that era. Otherwise why would Jews need to be warned away from them?]

Entry 11 - The only explicit mention of sex between women in the Talmud (Babylonia, 6-8th c) which occurs in the context of a scholarly dispute over whether women who have had sex with women are allowed to marry into the priestly caste. [The evident conclusion, as echoed in the next item, is that sex between women wasn't important enough to have consequences.]

Entry 27 - Law codes of Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c) call sex between women “a detestable act” but note that there is no legal or social penalty for it. Associates the practice with Egypt and refers to women “known for this” implying it may have been considered an something approximating orientation or preference.

Entry 33 - A male Jewish poet (Spain, 14th c) expresses desire for an Arab girl that he sees “in the company of other young women, all kissing one another.” He wishes he were a girl so she’d kiss him. [Although there are many entries about poetry expressing homoerotic desires between men, the lack of inclusion of female poets in this section--no doubt due to their works not being recorded and preserved--means there are no similar works expressing female desire]

16th to 19th century

Entry 40 - A 16th c Kabbalistic discussion of reincarnation of male souls into female bodies. The only consequences discussed are to fertility. Sexual desire and gender presentation are not mentioned in the excerpt.

Entry 43 - A Portuguese converso (convert to Christianity) doctor writes in 1603 of the “enlarged clitoris” theory of lesbian desire. [This is part of an extensive and pretty much interchangeable literature making this association. There doesn’t appear to be anything uniquely Jewish about his version.] He reports on women tried for lesbianism in Turkey and Portugal.

Entry 51 - A young Jewish woman in France, separated from her family, begins living as a man and as a Christian and eventually ends up emigrating to Quebec in 1738. A detailed account of their life history is given. In regards to concealing their Jewish origins they testify it was “to enjoy the same liberty as the Christians” but no reason is given for the decision to cross genders.

Entry 59 - A sexological “case study” (Germany 1875) of a Jewish maidservant who experienced depression and suicidal desires which were attributed to her unrequited desire for a woman.

Entry 61 - Two poems by Emma Lazarus (New York, 1876, 1880) with homoerotic themes.

Entry 63 - Several poems by Amy Levy (London 1889) that express same-sex desire, though in heavily coded terms. Levy had an unrequited passion for author Vernon Lee and dedicated several poems to her.

1900-1969

The second half of the book covers the 20th century. The rate of lesbian-relevant material is about the same, but a little more of it is from female authors.

Event / person: 

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