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Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 07:00
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Originally created as a series of blog posts, this fictional memoir of a Regency-era courtesan is a light-hearted (though occasionally serious) exploration of the social and material world of the demi-monde and the parts of society they intersect with. The author is quite knowledgeable about her subject and draws in a diverse cast (including historically-situated queer characters, which is always a plus for me). Although there are some over-arching plotlines, it’s probably best read in the same episodic fashion it was created. I enjoyed it, though it didn’t grab me solidly enough to move on to the second volume.

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Reviews
Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 12:57

Even in this modern age of broadcast communication and instant messaging, there are places in our lives where simple, loud, public sounds carry essential meaning. Most of the time, we experience them only in “test” mode—checking on their functionality and accustoming us to the particular form of the alert and the expected response. In my own everyday life, there are fire drills at work, the monthly ammonia-release alert siren test, the interruption of tv or radio shows with the Emergency Broadcast System horns and message, "This is a test. This is only a test..." There are a few that aren’t “test mode”: the bells of a level railroad crossing, even the fog horn at the local marina.

Thinking about all those, perhaps Rotenek’s floodtide bell seems more familiar. It shares characteristics with the churchbells that mark the hours or sound funeral knells, but despite the close association with the church of Saint Nikule, the purpose is civic and secular: a way of communicating the threat of environmental peril to those who aren’t watching the river closely. It’s a close cousin of the flash flood warnings we get in California when the winter rains come, or the net-yet-realized dream of an alarm system that would give a few minutes warning of earthquakes.

Except for purely mechanical systems such as railroad crossings, behind every alert system is a person who must make the decision of when to invoke it. What happens when that person makes the wrong decision? Or waits too long to decide? Where is the balance point between trusting to authority and the chaos of impulse?

***

[Note: ellipses are bits of omitted text that are a bit spoilery for something that isn’t essential for this excerpt.]

The tower had been part of a warehouse once long ago, but all that was left was the tower and the arcade along the front where the charmwives sat. The bell didn’t belong to the church, even though it was the priest who rang it. It belonged to the city and the merchants. To all of us. There were other bells in the tower besides the floodtide bell: a deep one for thick fog on the river, to warn barges where the channel turned, or to sound an alarm during the fires a year past. There was no door or lock on the stairs to the bell tower for that reason.

[…] After a slow creak, the first peal rang out sweet and high over the Nikuleplaiz, followed by the double tone. Around me the stones shivered. Nothing else sounded like it. You could tell the floodtide bell even with other chimes ringing.

Once the first notes rang out, my ears were full of the sound. […] I counted off the peals. Nine. Ten. There were voices and shouts from the plaiz below. Through the window of the bell tower I could see two of the deacons come out on the church steps to stare. Fifteen. Sixteen.

I had counted to twenty-four when I saw men in the uniforms of the city guard come into the Nikuleplaiz on the far side, walking determinedly across the cobbles toward the tower. […]

If the floodtide bell belonged to the church, it would have been no business of the Guard. And of course if the priest had rung the bell, that would have been authority enough. […]

The sweet peals of the bell trailed off to echoes and were still. But […] I could hear other bells taking up the floodtide call. Someone might send a command to silence them, but for now the two-tone cry spread throughout the city, “Alarm! Alarm!”

Major category: 
Teasers
Publications: 
Floodtide
Monday, September 9, 2019 - 07:00

With its emphasis on the details and proofs of heterosexual intercourse within marriage (or the lack thereof) this article doesn’t bring much to the LHMP. Still interesting in terms of the concerns of women’s lives, but not much to say here.

And with that, we conclude this collection of papers on singlewomen in medieval and early modern England. Next week I hope to start my series on "the foundational texts of the history of gender and sexuality that everyone else is in conversation with"--possibly leavened with some other shorter items because this is a lot of weighty stuff.

In the mean time, the empty spots in the blog schedule are going to be filled with "Heather gets caught up on doing book reviews" for the next few weeks.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Amster, Mara. 2003. “’Frances Howard and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling: Trials, Tests, and the Legibility of the Virgin Body” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

This article looks at the legal case brought in 1613 by Frances Harding for annulment of her marriage, based on the claim that her husband was unable to have sexual intercourse with her. Her argument was that, as she desired to become a mother, she needed the marriage annulled so that she could marry a more capable husband. The testimony and questioning in the case largely centered around physical “proof” of her virginity, as her husband was known to be sexually active with other women. While the relevance of the article to the collection’s theme is along the lines of “how can a married woman also be single?” it doesn’t have much relevance to the Project. 

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Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 12:30

In this study of the legal and social context of infanticide concerns, I found a lot of interesting connections with modern discourse around abortion. It becomes clear that the law and the patriarchal establishment wasn’t really so much concerned with the lives of the women and fetuses involved, but with controlling and punishing women’s bodies for stepping outside the prescribed paradigms. Unmarried women whose newborn died (or was stillborn) were automatically presumed to have committed infanticide and needed to provide positive evidence that they had anticipated and prepared for a live birth. (E.g., by hiring a midwife, by preparing clothing and supplies for the child, etc.) In contrast, married women whose newborn died or was stillborn were automatically presumed to have desired the child, and in order to make an accusation of infanticide, one needed to present positive evidence for the act. Although this article isn’t relevant to the LHMP, it’s quite fascinating and informative.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Staub, Susan C. 2003. “’News from the Dead’: The Strange Story of a Woman Who Gave Birth, Was Executed, and Was Resurrected as a Virgin” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

This article examines the social and legal background of a sensationalized “marvel tale” about an unmarried woman hanged for murdering her newborh child and then discovered to be still alive. The article largely centers on attitudes towards infanticide, especially of children born outside marriage. There isn’t much that’s relevant to the Project.

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Misc tags: 
Saturday, September 7, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 38a - On the Shelf for September 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/09/07 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2019.

What a month! I spent half of August traveling to Dublin Ireland for the World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention--and the other half either preparing or recovering from it. I love travel, but wow is it exhausting. I hope you enjoyed the audio post cards episode I recorded in odd moments at the convention.

This podcast has always straddled the fuzzy line between strictly historical material and historical fantasy. Even when I’m looking at queer women in historic literature, there are often fantastic elements, whether it’s the chivalric romances of Yde or Silence, or the classical mythology or Callisto and Diana, or simply the fantastic (if sincere) beliefs of previous centuries in the possibility of spontaneous changes of sex.

Those overlaps are one of the reasons why I decided to open up next year’s fiction series to include stories with fantastic elements the reflect the types of motifs we find around queer characters in the literature of the past. I plan to be cross-promoting the call for submissions in SFF circles. And, of course, ordinary historical stories are solidly on-target as well. I hope you’re encouraging all the talented authors you know to consider submitting something.

Publications on the Blog

The blog has been discussing articles in a collection about representations of singlewomen in medieval and early modern England. This is one of many topics where historical studies of women in general offer a useful grounding for queer characters. One of my favorite articles covered in August include a discussion of how the profession of money lending became a profitable side-line for singlewomen in the early modern era--one that not only provide an income but often served an important community function. Another favorite article takes an in-depth look at how playwright John Lyly--the author of the gender-bending Gallathea--regularly subverted tropes about unmarried women in his work.

Not all the articles in the collection are of direct interest to the Project and I skim through a lot of them in the first half of September. After that, I’ve decided it’s time to delve into some of the foundational works on the history of gender and sexuality that often get mentioned in passing but that have been languishing on my to-be-read list for years. Books and articles like Joan Cadden’s The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, John Boswell’s several books on same-sex topics in history, and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. (I confess I’m not looking forward to slogging through that one, but it’s one of the texts that everyone is in conversation with.) I’ll be leavening those with some shorter articles just to keep my brain from breaking, and I haven’t picked which books I’ll start with, but expect some serious philosophy on the blog for a while.

Book Shopping!

And as I record this, I have just put in an order at Amazon for copies of all the books in the list that I haven’t previously bought.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Olivia Waite, whose recent release The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics has been taking the f/f historical readership by storm.

Essay

This month’s podcast essay is still to be determined. I hope I don’t make a habit of deciding essay topics at the last minute! If I get my act together, I may do an Anne Lister show, now that I’ve finally caught up to the rest of the world in watching Gentleman Jack, but that will depend on lining up the guests I want to include. And honestly, I may need to spread my Lister coverage over several shows!

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And now it’s time for the recent, new, and forthcoming f/f historicals! We start off with four July publications falling in the early modern period.

Under the Microscope by Kim Finney from Cygneture Books caught my attention sufficiently that it’s in my To Be Read pile, though long-timer listeners know that’s no guarantee of when I’ll get to it.

Ezzabell Chetwood the scholar, is invisible. To her society and in history she does not exist. Only Ezzabell the dutiful wife, is appreciable. Ignoring conventions is dangerous and following her heart has consequences. Is she willing to pay the price extracted for her transgressions? It is England in 1677. Public writing is a male pursuit. Science is a pastime of the privileged and religion dominates the culture. The use of microscopes has begun to reveal previously unknown world’s of miniature life. Ambrose Chetwood, an eccentric natural philosopher and his wife - Ezzabell, a gifted botanical illustrator, are on the brink of important scientific discoveries. The crucial role Ezzabell plays in her husband’s work is a silent one and Ambrose is guilt-ridden at treating her as if a colleague. When Ambrose forces Ezzabell to take on a lady’s companion - Thomasin Dansby, his unwanted action impacts upon their lives in unanticipated ways. In a society that considers women to be without intellect and non-conformity can mark a woman as a witch, a naive Ezzabell is ultimately confronted with the ugly outcomes of the choices that she makes. Thomasin, a younger woman with frivolous fancies, sees her removal from London to rural Chelsea an indignity. She has no desire to live amongst bumpkins, denied of easy access to the attractions of a burgeoning Restoration City. It does not take her long to connect with the village’s noble residents. But she finds something unexpected in Chelsea that although disorienting anchors her to the Chetwood Estate.

Worlds Apart, self-published by Stein Willard, is set in the mid 18th century though the description feels somewhat loosely moored in time.

Lady Tia Bellingham, the Duchess of Camphor wanted the near impossible: to stop the centuries’ old exploitation of the poor and down-trodden. But the darling of the English Court could not be seen as the one behind the ruination of her peers, and those most likely to make themselves guilty of such immoral practices. She realised that she needed help – more specific – she needed the help of Britain’s most dangerous and elusive criminal, The Maverick.  The dark, decaying slums of London were where Oasis felt most comfortable. Born a secret and raised in secret, it wasn’t difficult to hide her true self in a place where no one would come looking. As the feared outlaw, The Maverick, she ruled the underworld with an iron fist; her justice swift and lethal in her quest to protect the innocent and destitute. It’s only when the captivating Duchess of Camphor came knocking, that Oasis found there were certain depths to her that only the blonde beauty could access.

Beggar’s Flip by Benny Lawrence from Bedazzled ink is going to get the benefit of the doubt from me as a historic novel simply because I loved her book The Ghost and the Machine so much. But this sequel to Shell Game feels a bit more like a secondary-world fantasy as far as I can tell from the description.

Darren–socially awkward, exiled noblewoman turned pirate queen–and Lynn sorta kinda Darren’s slave girl, sorta kinda Darren’s life coach, and altogether the bossiest backseat helmsman that ever set foot on a pirate ship are at it . . . again. Darren receives a message delivered by her dying brother pleading for her to warn their father about a traitor. Meaning Darren has to return home to Torasan Isle, and to the father who keeps sending assassins after her. Lynn thinks it’s crazy, insane, and obviously certain death for Darren, and is not overly happy about the idea. As usual, Lynn is right and chaos ensues.

This is the second time in the last half year that a non-English book had turned up in my search that looks relevant enough to include. Les révolutions d'Olympe: Roman lesbien historique is authored by a writers’ collective that goes by the pen name of Le Jardin de Sappho. If you’re interested in lesbian historical fiction in French, it looks like they have a couple other titles out. Unlike the previous time I had a non-English title, I won’t attempt to give the original version of the cover copy, but you can find it in the transcript.

1789. Olympe est une fille du peuple, ébéniste, indifférente à l’amour. Adélaïde est une jeune aristocrate fortunée, oisive et lesbienne assumée et inconditionnelle. Les hasards de la vie vont les faire se rencontrer. Entre amour, doutes, peurs et le tourbillon violent de la révolution, leur histoire sera loin d’être simple. Une belle histoire d'amour avec un soupçon d'érotisme sans voiles…

1789. Olympe is a daughter of the people, a cabinetmaker, indifferent to love. Adelaide is an idle rich young aristocrat, known unconditionally as a lesbian. The chance of fate will bring them together. Between love, doubts, fears, and the violent whirlwind of the revolution, their story will be far from simple. A beautiful story of love with a hint of unveiled eroticism.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes a whole bunch of books will come out with similar themes, not inspired by some pop culture property, but just by coincidence? While I was putting together this list, I came across three separate titles that have the premise “Robin Hood, but a lesbian.” The last July book is one of those: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood self-published by Niamh Murphy

PRIDE. AMBITION. BLOOD. With a single shot, a legend is born.  Robyn Fitzwarren, daughter to the Baron of Loxley, only wants to support her mother while her father is off on Crusade. But when she enters an archery tournament in disguise, she incurs the wrath of the Sheriff of Nottingham's arrogant nephew, Theo. Now, not only is her own life threatened but the lives of her family as well. Will she flee from danger?  Or fulfill her destiny, stand up to injustice, and become the fabled outlaw of legend: Robyn Hood?

There’s only one additional August book to add this month. Prairie Hearts by JB Marsden from Sapphire Books.

In the 1820s, Kentuckian Carrie Fletcher migrates with her brother and his family to central Illinois where she intends to continue to grow medicinal herbs and be a healer. Carrie loves being the spinster aunt to her nieces and nephews, taking care of her herbs, making calls on sick pioneers, and farming with her brother. But, shunning marriage and motherhood and donning her unique style of “mannish” dress for farm work rouse some who question her womanhood. When they arrive, the unending labor of cabin-building and clearing the prairie grasses for crops require they trade assistance with other pioneers. One of the first neighbors to call on them is Emma Reynolds, another herbalist, healer, and midwife. She and Carrie share herbs, seeds, and healing knowledge. Shortly after, Emma’s father, her sole relation, dies from lung fever, leaving a gap in her life that Carrie’s friendship fills. Together the two pioneer women deal with the harsh realities of pioneering. One man calls their healing potions evil and harasses them violently. The two strengthen their bonds and develop deeper feelings as they fight for their lives and the lives of the neighbors they care for. Can their newfound love endure the hardscrabble life of never-ending toil, sickness, injury, hunger, and death on the prairie?

The first two September books are also set in the 19th century.

Bloomsbury's Late Rose: A Novel by Pen Pearson from Chickadee Prince Books

A poet in Edwardian London. A woman struggling to let her voice be heard. In 1894, sisters Charlotte and Anne Mew take a solemn vow never to marry, and never to pass on the family curse: insanity. The spinster Mew sisters descend into genteel poverty, their mother on an invalid's sofa, Anne, the painter, in a menial job. But Charlotte, the poet, will find immortality, and unexpected love. Her path will require that she keep secrets and make sacrifices that may be too much even for Charlotte's determined spirit.

For something entirely different, we have the graphic novel Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman from Graphic Universe.

In this rollicking queer western adventure, acclaimed cartoonist Melanie Gillman (Stonewall Award Honor Book As the Crow Flies) puts readers in the saddle alongside Flor and Grace, a Latinx outlaw and a trans runaway, as they team up to thwart a Confederate plot in the New Mexico Territory. When Flor--also known as the notorious Ghost Hawk--robs the stagecoach that Grace has used to escape her Georgia home, the first thing on her mind is ransom. But when the two get to talking about Flor's plan to crash a Confederate gala and steal some crucial documents, Grace convinces Flor to let her join the heist.

The September books finish up with some later 20th century titles that teeter on the edge of what I’d consider historical fiction in terms of era.

The first is Somewhere Along the Way by Kathleen Knowles from Bold Strokes Books.

In the summer of 1980, Maxine Cooper moves from the Midwest to San Francisco with her gay best friend, Chris, where she hopes to find love and community. But gay life in a big city is much more complicated than either of them ever expected. Life becomes a constant party, and Max slides deep into alcohol and drugs. She and Chris become estranged, and when he contracts AIDS, Max doesn’t know how to bridge the gap between them.  Shattered by Chris’s death, Max must decide how she is going to live her life. Can she forgive herself for abandoning him, or will her guilt lead her down a path that guarantees destruction?

And our last book for this month’s list is from a mainstream publisher: Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis from Knopf.

In 1977 Uruguay, a military government has crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In an environment where citizens are kidnapped, raped, and tortured, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita "La Venus," Paz, and Malena--five cantoras, women who "sing"--somehow, miraculously, find on another and then, together, discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next thirty-five years, their lives move back and forth between Cabo Polonio and Montevideo, the city they call home, as they return, sometimes together, sometimes in pairs, with lovers in tow, or alone. And throughout, again and again, the women will be tested--by their families, lovers, society, and one another--as they fight to live authentic lives. A genre-defining novel and De Robertis's masterpiece, Cantoras is a breathtaking portrait of queer love, community, forgotten history, and the strength of the human spirit. At once timeless and groundbreaking, Cantoras is a tale about the fire in all our souls and those who make it burn.

What Am I Reading?

Given how busy my month was, you might expect that there isn’t much on my personal reading list. I finished Penny Mickelbury’s Two Wings to Fly Away and have binge-watched the entire first season of Gentleman Jack, as noted above. I’m currently in the middle of Claire O’Dell’s near-future thriller The Hound of Justice, the sequel to A Study in Honor, both of them re-envisioning Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as queer black women.

Sappho’s Soapbox

Although I’ve suspended the Ask Sappho segment as a regular feature, I may revive it from time to time as Sappho’s Soapbox for brief editorial items. And this month I’d like to borrow her soapbox to talk about the myth that mainstream readers aren’t interested in stories about queer women. Or at least, that it’s a myth in the genre I’m most familiar with: science fiction and fantasy.

Earlier this month in The Guardian there was a book column on the highly specialized subgenre of time-travel stories about lesbians. In the past 12 months we gotten The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield, and of course the column is a sneaky way for its author, Amal El-Mohtar to mention the new release she wrote with Max Gladstone, This is How You Lose the Time War.

Mainstream historical fantasies featuring queer women that I’ve enjoyed in the last year or so include Theodora Goss’s European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Zen Cho’s The True Queen, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper, K Arsenault Rivera’s trilogy starting with The Tiger’s Daughter, Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan, and no doubt others that have gotten lost in my reading lists.

I’m focusing on mainstream books not to make any distinction of quality, but to point out that there is an eager market out there for stories with queer women. A market that is sufficient to induce major publishers to make an investment in them.

If you are writing stories like this, there are readers out there hungry for the sort of thing you’re writing. But here’s the catch: the books that will compete for those eyeballs set an ambitious standard. The writing is top-notch. The plots are tight and intricate. And the casts include an expansive range of identities that go beyond the simple category of lesbian fiction. Books that reach out to embrace a universe of readers, all of whom want to be recognized as existing in the world of the books they read, even when they aren’t the protagonists.

Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no mainstream market for stories that feature lesbians. But that market is looking for stories that reach beyond stock tropes and safely familiar plotlines. The brass ring will go to those who reach for it.

Links

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, September 6, 2019 - 07:00

OK, I confess that once I hit the “this is going to be lit crit” part of this article, and I already knew it wasn’t going to be strongly relevant to the Project, I didn’t really even skim the rest of the article. But if lit crit is your thing, hey, that’s ok!

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Sedinger, Tracey. 2003. “Working Girls: Status, Sexual Difference, and Disguise in Ariosto, Spenser, and Shakespeare” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

Despite their statistical commonness, singlewomen were treated as an anomaly without a recognized role in society, especially after the Reformation removed the option of convents as a marriage-alternative in Protestant countries. The feminist historians’ goal of recovering women’s identities has leaned on two assumptions: that “single” women were rarely actually alone, and that unmarried women’s identities can be revealed in their relations to other women. [Note: this is not necessarily implying romantic relationships.] Recent [as of this publication] critiques of these approaches can be found in two collections: Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800 and Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England. [Note: this is on my shopping list of books to track down.] But this latter approach overlooks the importance of barriers of class between women and seeks to identify a unitary “woman’s experience.”

This article takes a literary criticism approach to three versions of the story of Ariodante and Ginevra (an episode that appears in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) that addresses the problem of that “false coherence” of women’s lives. As a whole, the article has little relevance to the Project.

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Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 07:00

Once again, this article takes women’s lives and makes them all about the men. It feels like there are entirely too many articles in this collection that fall in that category. The genre of “widow portraits” in early modern England are a testament to men’s anxiety that maybe--just-maybe--their wives aren’t quite as in love with them as they seem.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Levy, Allison. 2003. “Good Grief: Widow Portraiture and Masculine Anxiety in Early Modern England” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

This article concerns the visual genre of “widow portraits” created as a symbolic representation of the widow’s status and a depiction of her mourning. These were not typically painted at the widow’s direction after her husband’s death, but rather were commissioned by the living husband to ensure that he was properly mourned...at least symbolically. Ironically, in some cases, they represent women who predeceased their husbands. Thus, they are not representations of the woman herself as an individual, but as defined in relation to her marriage and her husband. The paintings represent men’s anxieties that their wives would not mourn them, but would see widowhood as freedom and a desired state--a sentiment reprseented in popular literature of the time. The article is fascinating, but has very little relevance to the Project.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019 - 07:00

One can pretty much guarantee that any general discussion of women in medieval England is going to talk about Chaucer’s Wife of Bath eventually. This collection gets double-duty from her. It isn't that there aren't other women (and actual, rather than fictitious, women) that appear in texts of the same era. But academia has always been fond of anointing specific figures and stories as central, iconic representations and then building analytic industries around them. In cases (such as women) where the relative volume of documentary material is smaller due to historic marginalization, this contributes to the "tyranny of the single story". The Wife of Bath is an interesting literary character, but she isn't the be-all and end-all of medieval women or even medieval widowhood.

This blog is going to be packed with material for a while because in addition to zipping through the remaining articles in the current singlewomen collection, I've set myself a project to get caught up with my book reviews. And just when all that is sorting itself out, it'll be time to really ramp up in preparation for the release of Floodtide in November. So buckle your seatbelts!

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Moore, Jeanie Grant. 2003. “(Re)creations of a Single Woman: DIscursive Realms of the Wife of Bath” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands. Through speech, she is able to claim the power to define her own history and identity, rather than have it defined for her, as her last husband attempted to do by teaching her woman’s “traditional” place. From one angle, she can be seen as mangling the meaning of the sacred texts she uses to justify her story, but from another angle she can be seen as deliberately re-making them for her own ends. The remainder of the article is a detailed analysis of how the Wife of Bath represents herself within her tale to lay claim to an androgynous and authoritative identity.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 07:58

The character trope of the "personal assistant" -- the person in a subordinate position whose job consists of providing support and devalued labor for a character with more pubic agency -- is tricky to portray. Particularly in an intensely class-stratified culture when that role is not typically freely chosen from among other options. Given her family's background and her work history, Roz sees the position of lady's maid as a desirable goal, but that isn't meant to erase the ways in which being a household servant are exploitative, exhausting, and often degrading.

And yet...in fiction, there's an undeniable appeal to the special bond and experience that comes when your job is to go all out to make someone else's life easy and beautiful and enjoyable, to be the invisible hands that turn out someone else's life as a work of art. There have been occasions in my life when--on a temporary and limited basis--I had roles like that, whether in supporting a manager on a project, or within historic re-enactment events play-acting the role of servant in a context where I was also providing real, logistical support to my fictive employer. I've felt that appeal--with the knowledge that it was within a limited scope and the person I was "doing for" had no power over my life as a whole.

Further, one can be in a subordinate, supportive role and have the agency to perform that role as a piece of artistry, or begrudgingly as a chore to be endured.

Roz is torn between aspiring to perfect the skills of a real lady's maid--to become an artist with her maisetra's life as the medium of her art--and the more concrete and enduring art of the dressmaker. Neither of them is a certain path. Both are skill sets she has yet to master in full. But in this scene I've tried to show some of the appeal of the former.

* * *

Tiporsel House was still all upside down when Maisetra Iulien’s father arrived. I’d almost forgotten about that. Futures seemed so far away. I know it doesn’t belong to me to say so, but he was a sour-looking man, all puffed up with his own importance. I didn’t like the way he talked to the maisetra, like she was a child. I could tell Maisetra Iulien loved him the same as I loved my father, but I could tell why she might have wanted a look at the wider world, without him standing over her.

Dressing became a chore every morning and evening. It wasn’t that Maisetra Iulien had so many gowns to choose from, but she’d try them all on and toss them on the bed and try again until I was ready to send her down to breakfast in her chemise.

“This one makes me look too young! He’ll think I’m a child who shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. That one makes me look too sophisticated. Look at the décolletage. It’s not my fault my bosom has grown this year.”

“Then wear it with your fichu,” I suggested. “And you should put the ear-bobs away until evening. I know girls wear them for everyday in the city, but Mefro Dominique says it isn’t done in the country, and that’s what your father will expect.”

I’d been asking Mefro Dominique a lot of questions about what was and wasn’t done since Maistir Fulpi had come. I could have asked Maitelen, but she was so worn down from looking after the baroness. Maisetra Iulien was in such a dither, I needed somebody’s word that weighed more than mine to keep her from wearing anything foolish.

Maisetra Iulien looked up and said, “What would I do without you, Roz?”

“I’m sure you’d do well enough,” I replied as I put the earrings back in her jewelry box. “Now let me do up your hair. You’ll feel better once this business is settled.”

I’d learned more hairdressing and was proud of how I turned her out, but it was a very long week.

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Monday, September 2, 2019 - 07:00

The use of the word “sely” in this paper’s title is likely to be confusing to anyone not versed in the historic development of the word. Originally (in Anglo Saxon) “saelig” meant “blessed, holy” and was typically applied to religious figures. The meaning shifted in Middle English (as sely) to meaning “worthy, noble, excellent” and sometimes with the sense “fortunate, lucky, prosperous.” One can trace the connections: holy people are worthy and considered to have inherent nobility, and one can conclude that worthy and noble people may have achieved that state due to good fortune and luck.

But then the word took a sideways shift. Lucky, prosperous people are assumed to be happy. And “sely” began being used with a range of meanings in the field of “lucky, happy, pleasant”. It’s likely that this is the sense Chaucer intended when he described the young and sexually-desiring widow Dido as “sely”. (She would be an odd candidate for being considered “holy” though perhaps she would fit “noble, worthy”.)

By the 15th century, the type of  happiness and good nature described by “sely” was no longer considered to derive from good fortune and inherent virtue, but rather from a state of innocence of evil. Not innocence from evil, but an obliviousness to the bad things in the world. “Sely” came to mean “innocent, harmless” and then “simple (minded), guileless, foolish gullible.” One finds the word used to describe people with intellectual disabilities, perhaps in parallel with calling them “innocents”.

Once associated with a lack of intellectual capacity, new meanings attached themselves from the common social fate of such persons: “weak, helpless, defenseless” and by extension “wretched, unfortunate, miserable” leading to use as “worthless, trifling, insignificant”. The word has come into modern English as “silly.”

Those familiar with folklore and old ballads may also have encountered the variant “seelie” and “unseelie” as applied to categories of the Fair Folk, with the Seelie Court being those who are generally friendly towards humans (drawing from some of the earlier positive senses) and the Unseelie Court being those who are hostile. (Historic usage data from https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sely)

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Amtower, Laurel. 2003. “Chaucer’s Sely Widows” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions. They could represent themselves in law to protect these rights, although this required the skills and knowledge to navigate the legal system. Remarriage could offset some of these handicaps, but conversely had disadvantages. On remarriage, the widow would once again come under a husband’s legal control, though she might negotiate to regain independent legal control over assets from her previous marriage.

Widows were expected to be chaste, but did not have the (hypothetical) ability to “prove” that chastity with their body that virgins were expected to have. They were “unruly” bodies--sexually active but no longer “ruled” by a husband. This paper looks at the concept of widowhood in Chaucer, where widows are often used to represent men’s sexual anxieties. Throughout his writings, widows most often are allowed to “speak” in the text only as a voice for their dead husbands. The exceptions are the sexually aggressive Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales) and the clandestinely sexual Criseyde (in Troilius and Criseyde).

Chaucer’s younger widows generally express a desire for the married state and often are depicted as remarrying. Barriers to remarriage are typically thrown up by their potential partner. These men see them as “safe” targets of sexual interest. Their widowed state is used as an excuse for their sexualization.

The widows use language to have power in the world, either to punish their persecutors or to create justification for their way of life. The Wife of Bath and Criseyde lay verbal claim to their identities in part by claiming that marginal status as widow, rather than in imitation of a single state. Traditional paths are no longer available to them, leading them to question and challenge the status quo.

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