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Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 06:00

I'm drafting up entries for an Alpennia FAQ based on either overt or implicit questions I get asked about the books. This time I tackle one more of the possible genres the books might fall in:

Are the Alpennia books SFF?

The Alpennia series fits very comfortably into the broad, general category of “science fiction and fantasy” or SFF for short. The magical elements place them solidly into the fantasy genre, and they also fit comfortably into the subgenres of “Regency fantasy” (more or less “settings that feel like Regency romances but have fantastic elements added to them”) and “fantasy of manners” (sometimes contrasted with genres like “high fantasy” that tends to deal with epic quests and the fate of empires, whereas a “fantasy of manners” tends to derive its conflicts and triumphs from the rules and mores of a stratified social structure).

As a reader and author, I tend to consider the SFF community to be my home town, and the SFF literary tradition to be my native tongue. As a generalization, I’d say that the Alpennia books have most easily “clicked” with people who consider themselves SFF readers. Other SFF readers may feel that the significant romance elements push them out to the margins of that genre. And for those who classify books based on publisher, the fact that Bella Books is not a SFF publisher undermines categorizing Alpennia as such. So, as for most of these questions, much depends on which factors you emphasize.

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Writing Process
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 13:56

This is it: the final installment of the Floodtide teasers! Carefully selected to avoid any spoilers at all. As I've mentioned previously, for several of the novels I've "bookended" the stories with a pair of short passages in a different narrative style. As for Mother of Souls, the bookends for Floodtide echo each other in theme.

You can pre-order the book at the Bella Books website for release-day delivery. (Actually, I'm not certain that hard copies will arrive by release day, but e-books will.) And I'll be giving away a copy or two to my newsletter subscribers, so if you aren't signed up for my monthly newsletter you might consider it. (I mean, sure you're going to pre-order it, but you can always give the book away as a gift if you win it.) And if you happen to be geographically local to me, I'm having a very informal release day party at my house the evening of Friday the 15th. (If you aren't a fb friend, you can contact me for info.)

The promotional blogs and interviews I'm doing for the release are appearing around the web in various places. At some point I'll set up a link blog with pointers to them all. And remember that enthusiastic and vocal fans are one of the best assets a new book can have!

Sometimes life is like the scent of fresh lavender as you strip it off the stems. It crawls up your nose and spikes into your head until it pounds and throbs in pain. Sometimes it’s like the close work in the still room, turning the flowers into sweetness. Sometimes it’s like the soft scent of lavender water sprinkled on the sheets in a faint reminder of sunlight giving you good dreams through the night.

They say any work can be a mystery if you do it with care and a prayer in your heart.

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Monday, November 4, 2019 - 07:00

This concludes the summary of Cadden's book with a discussion of how medieval medical and theological writings dealt with the apparent contradiction of valorizing sexual abstinence while justifying sexual desire as a healthy response to the balance of bodily humors. The variety of approaches--including a recognition of different reasons for abstinence--can be attributed both to the need to justify these conflicting principles and to a recognition that human situations were diverse and might need to be addressed by different approaches to health.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 6: Abstinence & Conclusions

Medieval opinions about abstinence--as expressed in medical, philosophical, theological, and social literature--are more complicated and ambivalent than those about procreation. Given that much of the discourse around procreative sex frames it as driven by medical and moral imperatives (e.g., theories about how sexual desire has the goal of achieving balance and promoting health), how can abstinence fit into the same framework without being considered unhealthy?

There were varieties of abstinence. Virginity was the one held in highest regard, especially in the early Christian period, and represented a complete avoidance of the experience of intercourse at any point in one’s life. Virginity was often contrasted with marriage (in contexts where marriage assumed sexual activity), with marriage being a “second-best” way of avoiding fornication (unauthorized sex). But one could also be a virgin within marriage, a condition that often features in saints lives.

Men could be virgins, just as women could, though the condition was more salient for women. In the later middle ages, the Church deemphasized virginity, either as an ongoing state, or as a requirement for various events such as marriage or taking monastic vows. This seems to have been largely a matter of practicality.

In a social context, only women’s virginity was emphasized and subject to family protection and control. This was driven by the desire for controlling the parentage of offspring. A number of medical tests purported to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin, and of course the ultimate proof of non-virgin status was pregnancy and childbirth. There were no equivalent tests and proofs for male virginity or fidelity. Countering these tests, there were also manuals with instructions for how to counterfeit proofs of virginity, especially the bleeding after penetration that was associated with myths about the hymen.

Although religious principles regarding sexual continence were, in theory, gender-neutral, they were generally compatible with the secular interest specifically in female virginity. One exception was that the Church allowed for the possibility of “spiritual virginity” even after the experience of intercourse. Thus some held that those who only experienced approved sex within marriage (the usual understanding of the term “chastity”) could be considered virgin. Theology was also less interested in the sex-specific “proof” offered by an unbroken hymen.

The next “rank” of sexual abstinence after virginity was permanent celibacy, as for those who took religious vows. Monastic institutions regularly had problems with enforcing this and the sexual misconduct of monks and nuns was a regular trope in medieval popular culture. A sincere religious vocation was only one of the paths to monastic life. Monastic institutions were commonly used as a place to store “surplus” sons and daughters for whom no land or dowries were available--a purpose that would be undermined by procreation. But conversely, for people (especially women) who wished to abstain from sex, a religious life was a useful option.

Far more common than these lifelong commitments to celibacy were temporary periods of abstinence such as due to postponed marriage or abstinence during certain religious festivals. Certain regional marriage patterns involved postponement of marriage well into the 20s, and demographics indicate that this wasn’t accompanied by significant illegitimacy rates. Medical texts indicate that this could be considered a problematic condition, and might recommend nonreproductive sexual activity such as masturbation (in conflict with the theological position on the topic). Both theology and medical theory supported a woman being abstinent while menstruating. The two also agreed on the desirability of women being abstinent during pregnancy, though some medical theories recognized that women might experience sexual desire during pregnancy even though it served no biological purpose. The prohibition was largely on moral grounds regarding the justifications for enjoying sex, though there were also anecdotal theories that a pregnant woman who committed adultery could achieve a second pregnancy with her lover’s child.

The central theme in all of these is that even for those who have a context for licit sex, the desired state is “continence”, that is, sex only in approved circumstances for the purpose of procreation. This was the principle behind condemnations of contraception, abortion, sodomy, and masturbation, as well as sex during pregnancy. This theme of the desirability of control over sexual impulses belongs to theological literature, while medical texts address only specific types of nonprocreative sex that are considered harmful. In other contexts, medical manuals (such as the one attributed to a female author, Trotula) acknowledge the harmful effects of abstinence on women who have no licit outlet (such as widows), or the ill effects on some women of sexual activity (and its consequences) who are not in a position to abstain, and offer treatments for those situations. One approach was the use of anaphrodisiacs to decrease sexual desire. This was not an approved theological solution as it removed the moral benefit of actively resisting temptation.

In general, medical authorities considered sexual activity to be essential for good health. Abstaining would put the body out of balance, unless one’s personal constitutional balance was already out of balance in a way that sex would aggravate. For those whose constitutions required sex for good health, but whose personal circumstances did not offer the opportunity, remedies might include medicines, diets, or activities that addressed the imbalance in other ways. But some medical authorities recommended masturbation as a way of restoring health. This might be dressed in the guise of a professional treatment, as in some prescriptions for women to have a midwife massage their genitals until orgasm.


While the interests of medical, philosophical, and religious traditions often aligned in principle around issues of sex and gender, when dealing with specific medical problems and conditions, the secular authors often showed flexibility and practicality in applying the varied and contradictory theoretical traditions to the topic at hand. There was no unified over-arching system to their approach, but the general principles of polarities, balance, and a “whole life” approach carry through. Beliefs about inherent differences between male and female bodies result in different assumptions and approaches. Although medical theories were sometimes used in support of social or theological concerns, as a general rule, medical writers did not feel constrained by purely theological principles (though theology might be an unnoticed part of the underlying assumptions).

The enforcement of a philosophical system of binaries, and the acceptance that qualities could manifest in contradiction to their expected assignment as a form of “imbalance,” meant that medieval medical and philosophical theories had no framework for understanding homosexuality as a distinct phenomenon. Rather, individuals were viewed as manifesting properties at odds with their nature. So, for example, a female person who desired sex with another female person was not viewed as having “same-sex desire” but rather as being of a masculine nature, where part of the inherent properties of a masculine nature was to desire women. [Note: One should not lose sight of other behaviors that could indicate a “masculine nature” in a female person, such as being strong, brave, intellectual, and in control of one’s emotions.]

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Saturday, November 2, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40a - On the Shelf for November 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/11/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2019.

You may have noticed something different in the show’s intro or on the website. The Lesbian Talk Show channel has rebranded itself as TLT--pronounced “tilt”. You still get the same content focusing on women who love women, produced by the same people. It’s just wearing a slightly different jacket. My show will keep the same name--The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast--it’s only our group network that’s changing its name.

Does it feel like the end of the year is galloping down on us? Writing communities have found ways to add extra layers to the end-of-year holiday crush. Whether you’re challenging yourself with NaNoWriMo--national novel writing month--or you’re one of the people who enjoys doing year-end book round-ups, or even participating in evaluating and nominating books for awards, it always seems like the last two months of the year are full to the brim.

Take a deep breath and rest for a little while. A podcast is a lovely way to carve some time out to relax. Especially a podcast on a topic near and dear to your heart like this one!

Fiction Project

The last story in the 2019 fiction series will be coming out at the end of November. This is “The Mermaid” by Kathleen Jowitt, a tale of a gift of the sea who may not be entirely what she seems.

Very soon it will be time to submit stories for the 2020 fiction series. You only have two months before submissions open! I’ll be excited to see what comes in this time because we’re opening submissions up to include historic stories with certain types of fantasy elements as well. If you write historic stories featuring women with same-sex interests, seriously consider trying your hand at something for the podcast. We pay professional rates of eight cents a word for stories up to 5000 words, and you’ll have an audience of at least a thousand podcast listeners. Check out the call for submissions linked in the show notes for the full details of what we’re looking for.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog is continuing our tour through a number of fairly dense works on sexuality and gender theory. In October we finished Joan Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages. Cadden digs deeply into the variety of understandings and theories about sex and gender in medieval thought and shows how those theories were applied to a selection of key questions like “what determines the sex of a child?” and “what is the purpose of sexual pleasure?”

In general, I’ve been trying to work through this set of publications in a systematic manner, following particular themes across time. But for logistical reasons, I slipped in Adrienne Rich’s classic essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence from 1980. Some of the language Rich uses to frame her ideas may feel dated today, but her major themes are--unfortunately--still pertinent, especially in how often feminist theory ignores same-sex relationships as an alternative and challenge to the heterosexual script.

The next two books weren’t as solidly relevant to the History Project as I expected, based on the shadow they cast across later scholarship. The articles in the collection Constructing Medieval Sexuality edited by Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz were overwhelmingly focused on male topics. And while Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval uses several fascinating incidents and texts as a lens for examining how communities arise around sexual topics, once again the lesbian-relevant content was less than I hoped.

Book Shopping!

I don’t know that the History Project book shopping will have much to say for a while. I currently have entirely too much material queued up so there isn’t much impetus to go on a shopping spree.

Author Guest

As I mentioned last month, I’m taking some shameless advantage of being an author with a podcast because I have a new novel coming out this month. So as a change-up in my author interviews, I invited good friend and previous podcast guest Darlene Vendegna to be the interviewer this month so I can be the guest. We have a wide-ranging conversation about Floodtide, the Alpennia series, and my writing habits in general. I’ll also be contributing this month’s Book Appreciation show with two of my favorite historical fantasy books with f/f relationships.

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For the historic essay this month, I thought I’d look at the place of social class in images and stereotypes of lesbians in history. It was often the case that several different images of women in same-sex relationships existed side by side in a given culture, and the women in those groups may or may not have seen themselves as part of the same community or experience. It was not at all uncommon for those differences to fall along lines of class. You may not be surprised that this topic is also inspired by themes in my upcoming novel.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of which, other than my book what else is about to be released or has come out recently?

There are two September books that haven’t been mentioned previously. The first takes a cross-time approach via a hidden diary and looks like it has some horror aspects to it.

The Hidden Room by C.S. Joseph & Kathleen Greyson from Affinity Rainbow Publications.

Clara Bogard reluctantly married architect Arthur Dumas in the early 20th century, after her father passed away. As a gift to his new bride, Arthur designed and built a Victorian mansion for their new home. Seeming philanthropic to others, Arthur had a black evilness in him. As Clara dealt with the escalating violence in her marriage, she finds comfort and affection in the arms of her friend Emma. A century later, in a last-ditch effort to save her failing marriage, novelist Reese Iverson agrees to move her family to a dilapidated Victorian home. During the renovations, a hidden room with over a dozen handwritten journals is discovered. As Reese reads the journals, she becomes immersed with Clara’s struggles with life and love. It soon becomes evident that Clara overcame and endured sinister horrors. After falling in love with her best friend Julia, Reese finds romantic parallels between herself and Clara. As she learns more of the woman’s fate, she uncovers the strength in herself to take control of her own life and hopes it isn’t too late for her happy ever after.

The second item is short story with a western theme: “Wanted” self-published by Lyzzy Burns.

Sally Godwin is a whip smart young widow with a farm that’s too much for her and a line of suitors without her best interests at heart. When she put out a want ad for a woman farmhand, she had no idea just how much of her life would change.

I don’t usually include books as new listings if the work is a revision of a previously published item. But since I mentioned seeing a run of Robin Hood books last month, I thought I’d include this October release, which was one of the titles that sparked that observation.

Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.

What if there had been a real Robin Hood, but instead of being a "he" the heroic outlaw was a "she"? Relive the classic tale told from a new prospective in Heart of Sherwood! When Robyn's father and brother are killed in the Third Crusade, she is banished from her manor home and branded a traitor by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Disguised as a boy, she joins Little John and the rest of the gang in Sherwood Forest—and soon finds herself their leader. Queen Eleanor suspects Prince John is up to no good, and colluding with Sir Guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham. To learn more, she engages Maid Marian as a spy—and unwittingly reunites Marian with her old childhood friend, Robyn. Together, the women help the queen acquire the funds needed to free King Richard and help Nottinghamshire—and perhaps fall in love along the way.

This next item is also a reprint, but of a story that previously appeared in the collection A Certain Persuasion, which had a Jane Austen theme. Based on the page count, this is the original short story and not an expanded version.

“Her Particular Friend” by J.L. Merrow from JMS Books.

When Susan Price leaves Mansfield Park to accompany her aunt, Lady Bertram, to take the waters in Bath, she little expects to meet an old “friend” of the family. Initially scandalised, Susan finds herself drawn to the former Mary Crawford, now a widow, Mrs Lynd. Mary has lost none of her playful spirit in the ten years since her family’s acquaintance with the Bertrams ended amid elopement and scandal. Her interest, first piqued by Susan’s resemblance to her older sister Fanny, only grows on discovering Susan’s very different character. But Lady Bertram will surely never countenance Susan’s intimacy with the woman whose brother caused her daughter’s disgrace -- and Mary’s true identity cannot be kept a secret forever.

I have three November releases, one of which I was only told about very recently. It hadn’t shown up in my keyword searches, which makes my usual point that if you have or know of a book that I should mention, please don’t assume I already know about it.

We start with the next installment in Geonn Cannon’s Trafalgar and Boone series: Trafalgar & Boone Against the Forty Elephants from Supposed Crimes.

Trafalgar and Boone have faced danger from all around the globe, but their greatest threat may be lurking very close to home. A quiet period of rest and recuperation between adventures is interrupted by the arrival of two constables on the front steps of Dorothy Boone’s townhouse. A woman was seen dumping a dead body outside a hospital near Threadneedle Street, and Dorothy matches the description given by witnesses. Dorothy manages to avoid arrest and takes it upon herself to investigate the crime, enlisting other members of the Mnemosyne Society to help. She quickly discovers the Forty Elephants, a gang of all-female thieves, has been revived by a woman named Maud Keaton and makes it her mission to bring them down. But Maud Keaton is very aware of Lady Boone and Miss Trafalgar. She knows all about Dorothy’s vault of mystical objects and will go to any lengths to gain access to it. Lines are quickly drawn in the sand, with the Elephants on one side and the Mnemosyne Society on the other. Faced with an enemy who is her match in both cunning and intellect, Dorothy quickly discovers that victory may be impossible, or come with a cost she’s unwilling to pay.

The book I almost missed is A Transcontinental Affair by Jodi Daynard from Lake Union Publishing.

May 1870. Crowds throng the Boston station, mesmerized by the mechanical wonder huffing on the rails: the Pullman Hotel Express, the first train to travel from coast to coast. Boarding the train are congressmen, railroad presidents, and even George Pullman himself. For two young women, strangers until this fateful day, it’s the beginning of a journey that will change their lives. Sensitive Louisa dreads the trip, but with limited prospects, she’s reluctantly joined the excursion as a governess to a wealthy family. Hattie is traveling to San Francisco to meet her fiancé, yet she’s far more interested in the workings of the locomotive than she is in the man awaiting her arrival. As the celebrated train moves westward, the women move toward one another, pulled by an unexpected attraction. But there is danger in this closeness, just as there is in the wilds of the frontier and in the lengths the railroad men will go to protect their investments. Before their journey is over, Louisa and Hattie will find themselves very far from where they intended to go.

And, of course, November brings us Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones from Bella Books.

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the Royal Thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

What Am I Reading?

Now what have I been reading since the last On the Shelf? If you’ve been following my reviews at The Lesbian Review, you might think I’ve been reading up a storm, but alas that was only a matter of getting caught up with my to-do list for books I’ve read over the last year. And this month has been all topsy-turvy so I’ve barely gotten any fun reading done at all. I’ve worked my way mostly through Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valour and Vanity but while it’s a delightful Regency fantasy, it doesn’t have any lesbian-relevant content at all. Between the time I’m recording this and the time it airs, I’ll have been on vacation for two weeks, so quite possibly I’ll have worked my way through a number of books in that time.

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Show Notes and Links


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Friday, November 1, 2019 - 08:01

I've been writing an improvised photo-essay ghost story on social media over the last few days (on facebook and twitter). I was hoping to post the final compiled version here, but I'm having trouble getting the blog to behave with regard to posting the in-line images. Eventually I'll sort that out, but in the meantime it's on my other (personal) website. It isn't quite the same experience as reading it in real time on facebook with reader commentary, but I hope you check it out and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

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Writing Process
Thursday, October 31, 2019 - 09:48

Review copies of Floodtide are now available for request on NetGalley. My publisher does the final approvals for review copies, based on reviewing history and online presence (i.e., not just people who want to get a free read), but if you consider yourself in that category and don't have your request approved, drop me a note and I'll see if I can make your case.

Pre-orders are also open as of today at the Bella Books website. (Hard copies may also be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and similar online retailers.) So let's show some love for Alpennia!

I'll be doing a couple of giveaways for subscribers to my newsletter. If you enjoy "behind the scenes" info and the occasional advance look at what I'm working on, the monthly newsletter won't burden your in-box very much.

In the mean time, I've been having fun posting a little Halloween horror story on facebook and twitter, inspired by my family visit in Maine. There isn't a convenient single link to offer, since I've been posting it to look like regular updates. But if you check out my feed in either place in chronological order, it should be easy enough to catch up on.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 06:53

While the Alpennia series has focused largely on characters who have significant mystical talents, Floodtide gives us a larger window into how "ordinary" people experience the magic that pervades the world. I've made previous reference to the climax of a Great Mystery feeling like a shiver down your spine, and to how even those who don't have measurable mystical talent can contribute power to the working of a mystery. Because the experience of those with greater talents can be so dramatic, there's no internal conflict in ordinary people between having these experiences and considering themselves untouched by magic.

This is Roz's contradiction: that she regularly performs house-charms and believes that they have effects, that she has a sensory response to the workings of magic around her, and yet that she considers herself to have no magical talent. If pressed, she might quibble over the definition of "talent," just as Serafina initially believes she has no mystical talents despite her extraordinary sensitivity to visions. From another angle, one might suppose that she categorizes her experience during "church mysteries" as different in kind from how Celeste's charms affect her. But as the story moves toward its conclusion, Roz seems to be on the edge of integrating her understanding of how she experiences magic.

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When I was a girl in the Orisule school and the sisters celebrated her name-day mystery, I imagined the saint holding her starry cloak out around all of us girls, like she was watching over us and protecting us. All I could think was how wonderful it would be to feel that way always.

All through those long days and nights working the fever charms, my magic feeling never really went away, though being tired and hungry, I didn’t pay it much mind. Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to feel like that all the time. Maybe it was better if it was rare and special.

But when Maisetra Sovitre spread her arms out like that and put a hand on our shoulders, everything got jumbled up together in my head: all my memories of the picture of Saint Orisule, and all the times working with Celeste on charms, and how being with Nan had given me that magic feeling too and that was why I’d never thought it was a sin, and it all shivered through me at once.

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Monday, October 28, 2019 - 07:00

I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt when I skip over chapters of books, or articles in collections, with the commen "not relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project." I shouldn't feel that way. The entire project is an exercise in highly subjective filtering of content for what interests me personally. Sometimes chapters or articles aren't relevant to the Project but I find them fascinating enough to write them up anyway. And yet, I twinge.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 5: Sterility

The concepts and theories around in/fertility have shifted over the centuries much as those around sex/gender. Medieval authors were highly preoccupied with childbearing and anything that helped or impeded it. The expression of this concern was closely connected to theories of reproduction. Medieval treatments for infertility followed from the varied theoretical understandings of the process of conception and gestation.

Procreation was not only an individual concern but a familial one, as social ties, economic strength, and other consequences depended on the production of children. Surplus children presented a different set of difficulties so despite official disapproval of contraception, knowledge about how to avoid pregnancy was also desired.

Sterility might, in an individual instance, be considered an innate property or a fixable condition. The question of the female role in conception affected understandings and treatment of infertility.

But the topic of this chapter is largely outside the scope of the LHMP so I’m skipping a detailed summary of the rest.

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Saturday, October 26, 2019 - 07:00

I needed a breather from recording and editing new episodes this month, so I’m reprising a series of episodes on poetry about love between women. If you’ve been a podcast listener from the very beginning, I hope you enjoy them just as much as you did the first time. And if this is the first time you’ve heard these episodes, you have a real treat coming!

This is a reprise of Episode 3 - The Goblin Market, which originally aired on 2016/10/29.

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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 39d - The Goblin Market (Reprise) - transcript

(Reprise aired 2019/10/26 - listen here)

Sheena had an idea to do a collection of Halloween themed podcasts from all the regular contributors to the Lesbian Talk Show, so I wanted to come up with a special Lesbian Historic Motif episode. It took me a while of brainstorming before I hit on a topic: Christina Rosetti’s poem “The Goblin Market”.

Rosetti was part of a talented family of Italian immigrants to England in the mid 19th century. Her father was a painter, but the more famous painter in the family was her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was one of the founders of the Pre-Rafaelite Brotherhood, a movement known for medievalism and sensuality. Another brother and a sister were writers. And Christina’s mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of John Polidori, a close friend of Lord Byron and the author of what may be the first modern vampire story. (You see, lots of Halloween references.)

The Goblin Market indulges in a number of long flights of description. But before reveling in the beauty of the language, I want to focus specifically on the erotic imagery. So I’ll start by alternating excerpts from the poem with a synopsis of the overall story.

Two sisters, cautious Lizzie and daring Laura, encounter the goblin men who sell mysteriously tempting fruits.

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:

There is a long catalog of the fruits they sell, and then we meet the sisters:

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow’d her head to hear,
Lizzie veil’d her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.

Lizzie warns her sister not to take the goblins up on their offered wares and continues on home, but...

Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.

Definitely a description of someone giving in to temptation! Laura doesn’t have a coin to buy the fruit so instead they demand a lock of her golden hair in payment. Hair had a strong sexual symbolism in the Victorian era, and for a girl to give a man a lock of her hair was practically the next thing to handing him her virginity.

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow’d that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away

Lizzie scolds her when she gets home, and reminds her of the cautionary tale of their friend Jeanie:

Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Pluck’d from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;

This is foreshadowing Laura’s fate. Even as she scoffs at Lizzie’s warning, she says:

I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more;” and kiss’d her:
“Have done with sorrow;
I’ll bring you plums to-morrow

Laura describes for Lizzie all the delicious goblin fruits she’ll bring back to share, and then they go to bed together.

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp’d to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest.

The next day they go about their usual chores, but Laura’s mind is elsewhere. And as they walk home in the evening, she listens for the calls of the goblins in vain. Lizzie can still hear the goblins, which day by day drives Laura to distraction.

So crept to bed, and lay
Silent till Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

Laura begins to pine and waste away, just like Jeanie did. Her golden hair grows dull and thin, her spirit fades, she has “sunken eyes and faded mouth”. She stops eating and sits listlessly in a corner.

Lizzie watches her sister decline and decides the only option is to go buy goblin fruit to revive her, even though Lizzie is afraid of what price she might pay.

Till Laura dwindling
Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:
Then Lizzie weigh’d no more
Better and worse;
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

The goblins come to meet her and not only offer her fruit but harass her physically:

Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:
Squeez’d and caress’d her:
Stretch’d up their dishes,
Panniers, and plates:
“Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,

Lizzie tosses them her silver coin and holds out her apron for the fruit, but the goblins keep urging her to eat them, right there and then. When she steadfastly refuses, they turn nasty. It’s a bit reminiscent of street harassers when rebuffed. And the goblins try to force Lizzie to consume the fruit in a scene that feels a lot like sexual assault.

One call’d her proud,
Cross-grain’d, uncivil;
Their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

Lizzie holds steadfast against this assault and is described as a citadel being unsuccessfully besieged.

One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.

Having successfully resisted eating the fruit, Lizzie hurries homeward because, of course, she does have goblin fruit to bring home to Laura--the fruit that the goblins have smeared all over her while trying to make her eat.

She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

Somewhat belatedly, Laura realizes that Lizzie might end up sharing her fate for trying to save her.

Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutch’d her hair:
“Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?

And then, not from the addictive hunger for goblin fruit, but in gratitude and fear:

She clung about her sister,
Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:
Tears once again
Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.

Laura kisses Lizzie and in the process consumes the juice of the goblin fruits. But that juice has been transformed by Lizzie’s selfless deed.

Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loath’d the feast:
Writhing as one possess’d she leap’d and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.

The fruit burns within her and Laura falls into a swoon. All through the night, Lizzie tends to Laura as if she were in a fever, but when morning comes:

Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laugh’d in the innocent old way,
Hugg’d Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey,
Her breath was sweet as May
And light danced in her eyes.

The poem ends with Lizzie telling the frightening cautionary tale to the next generation. A tale appropriate for a Halloween night.

Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood;
(Men sell not such in any town):
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:

Thus, the fruit-inspired sensuality has been left behind, as in a fever dream. The sisters have settled down to live conventional lives. What remains is the memory of the deep devotion that risks its life for the beloved.

Despite the rather striking homoerotic imagery in her poem, there is no evidence that Rossetti’s relationships with women went beyond sisterly devotion. On the other hand, she received three proposals of marriage from men and rejected them all so who knows? But my interest here isn’t on Rossetti’s personal life, rather on the strongly sensual imagery in her poem, depicting an intense devotion between two sisters that is expressed in language more suited to lovers.

The Goblin Market’s sensuality--not only the intense kissing and the more subdued scenes of cuddling in bed or “clasping arms and tingling finger tips”--occurs not only in the context of sisterly devotion, but also in scenes where the goblins tempt the women with their sinister fruit, or even try to force it on them. There isn’t a clear correspondence of the sensual with the forbidden.

This was an era when the trope of decadent lesbian sensuality tinged with the supernatural was becoming “a thing”, though primarily among male writers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” is a long supernatural-themed poem with lesbian elements that were strong enough to get it condemned as obscene. The content falls in the “monstrous seductress” genre where the noble maiden Christabel encounters the mysterious Geraldine in the forest and brings her home to her father’s castle where Geraldine has a strange and sinister influence on all she encounters. Christabel shares her bed with Geraldine and the significance of this is emphasized with descriptions of disrobing and embraces.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden's side!—
And in her arms the maid she took,

But Geraldine’s eventual goal is not to win Christabel but to supplant her in her father’s affections. The poem shares with the Goblin Market a supernatural force that causes the innocent woman to waste away. But here there is no sister to save her.

The same process of wasting away by the influence of a supernatural intruder who feigns same-sex affection occurs in Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire novel Carmilla. Carmilla appears at the residence of the protagonist in the guise of a young woman, said to be something of an invalid. Despite Carmilla telling little of her background, the two girls become close.

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die--die, sweetly die--into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit."

And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.


In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.


Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever." Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Other works from the mid 19th century that carry this association of sensuality between women tinged with a mysterious and malevolent decadence include Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin. All these works have two things in common that contrast with The Goblin Market: they are written by men, and the sensual relationship shown between the women is destructive and a source of guilt rather than being a source of redemption.

Christina Rossetti’s work comes out of an entirely different tradition: that of Romantic Friendship, where close emotional relationships between women were idealized and valorized. Such relationships were not considered to partake of sexuality--though we know that in some cases they did. Within the Romantic Friendship tradition, descriptions of sisters cuddling together in bed or kissing passionately would not have been considered sexual, as such, and so could be portrayed without any sense of self-consciousness or guilt.

The Goblin Market is easily interpreted as an allegory--though an allegory for what is debatable. A Christian interpretation is certainly possible, with its themes of temptation, of a fall, and of redemption through an innocent person’s suffering on behalf of another. It’s also possible to see it as an allegory for drug addiction, and it’s thought that that part of the poem may have been inspired by Rossetti’s work at a charity house for former prostitutes--a context where she may have seen the effects of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Alternately, it can be viewed as an allegory of predatory male sexuality and sexual trauma. It’s worth noting that the goblins are referred to consistently as male and no other male characters figure in the poem.

Given all these considerations, interpreting the sensual imagery and passionate embraces of the poem as depicting lesbian eroticism is not entirely unproblematic. These complexities are always present when modern readers try to find connections with literature from another era.

And now, an entertainment for the night of Halloween, when pathways open up between the worlds, and someone who lingers on the path at twilight may hear goblins calling out, “Come buy, come buy.”

The Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, published in 1862 and read by Heather Rose Jones

[The text of the poem has not been included in this transcript. It can be found in many places on the web, including the following page belonging to the Poetry Foundation:]

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Thursday, October 24, 2019 - 07:00

I'm drafting up entries for an Alpennia FAQ based on either overt or implicit questions I get asked about the books. Since this week is asexual awareness week, I thought I'd post the question about sexual content in the books. Because some people get confused about the difference between books that don't include explicit sex scenes and books about characters who don't have sex.

* * *

Content: Do the Alpennia books have sexual content?

The novels and all the short stories that have been written to date do not have on-page explicit sexual content. It is clearly communicated if and when the characters have sexual relationships, and there are scenes involving sharing a bed with an implication that sexual activity has occurred (or will occur). My intent is to continue this mode for the rest of the novels, but some of the short fiction will include more explicit content. Because I've established "no on-page sex" as the default for the series, any stories that do include sex scenes will have a content note to indicate that.

There are two main reasons why I took this approach. First, one of my literary models for the series was Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. While the current historical romance field has moved on to expecting explicit sex scenes as the default, that isn’t the literary tradition that inspired me. I made a stylistic choice to evoke a particular mood. The second reason is that, as an asexual writer, I’m not entirely comfortable yet with my ability to write good, believable sex scenes. It’s a skill I’m working on acquiring and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to. Being an atheist hasn’t gotten in the way of writing believable religious characters (at least so I’ve been told). But explicit sexual content isn’t something that I need as a reader to enjoy a book, and the Alpennia series was--first and foremost--a project to write the books I wanted to read that no one else was writing.

The books do include a viewpoint character who is on the asexual spectrum, and there is a minor character who will later be made explicit as aromantic. My characters occupy a very wide range of sexualities. The lack of on-page sex is not a reflection of their sexuality, but of my choice as the author.

If you find it impossible to enjoy a book, or to believe in the “chemistry” of a romantic couple unless you see them having sex on the page, then it’s possible that the Alpennia series isn’t for you. All I ask is that you don’t claim that the books are badly written because of that one factor.

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Writing Process


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