Every once in a while, a researcher thinks, "I'd really like to know what the author of this text thinks about it now." And sometimes--though rarely--that request is answered. I know that there are things I've written in the past, in the context of this blog, that I might word differently today, or look at from a different angle. Every sociological study is a reflection not simply of its content, but of the place where the researcher is standing at the time of writing.
Faderman, Lillian. 1999. "Surpassing the Love of Men Revisited" in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 6.2 p.26.
Back when I was blogging Faderman’s 1981 book and expressing a certain amount of frustration with what I felt was an undue and overly sharp distinction between women who felt romantic love for each other and women who had sex with each other, I wondered if any of Faderman’s ideas on the topic had changed over the decades.
So I was intrigued to discover this article, published in 1999, that addressed that question directly. It’s still only a partial answer to my question, having been written 18 years after the book came out, while another 20 years have passed since then. And it’s rather different from the answer I expected. Because a large part of it sums up as “why did all these people misunderstand my book and think I was making a sharp distinction between relationships between women based on whether genital sex was involved?” To which I can only say, “I read through the book in great detail at two different times in my life and got that impression both times, so just maybe it was an understanding that was inherent in the text as written?”
But never mind. Here’s Faderman’s look-back.
Faderman’s book came out of several articles she wrote on the topic of love between women, how that love was expressed in literature and correspondence, how and when love between women became pathologized by sexological theory, and how self-conscious lesbian identity arose within that context. The work had come from a very personal place for her: entering the lesbian social world in the 1950s at a time when that identity was still heavily stigmatized and working through the process in the decades that followed of embracing lesbian identity as a positive force.
Having encountered expressions of romantic love between women in her study of 19th century literature, Faderman decided to tackle the question of how and why the phenomenon could shift from being universally condoned in Western culture, to universally condemned.
Faderman notes that when she wrote StLoM she could not imagine how much the world would change on the subject within her own lifetime, and admits that if she had it to write over again, she would do it differently. The following points are specifically noted as places where she now feels she erred.
She feels she did not give sufficient credit to the social and political work of the “homophile” organizations of the mid-century, only seeing them as conservative and old fashioned from the point of view of a ‘70s activist. She also regrets not being able to find any material on women of color to include in the book (and provides a number of references now available on that topic).
Faderman notes that the field of queer theory--which had not yet been developed when StLoM was written--now better engages with the historic fluidity and flexibility of sexuality and affectionality through history. That she had tried to present love between women across the centuries as a contradiction to a false homosexual/heterosexual divide. But that she feels the “queer movement” has the potential to uphold essentialist concepts and to continue to “other” people identified as queer, while her work had been intended to demonstrate a continuum. To point out that desire between women has been common in any era and culture that has not been actively hostile to same-sex love. While some of the subjects of her book she now feels would have identified today as “queer”, others would have rejected the idea that they were in any way distinct from the generality of women in their own culture.
One goal of StLoM was to demonstrate the extent to which the expression of sexual and romantic desire reflects the culture in which it exists. In eras that were friendly to the concept of love between women, it was virtually universal. In eras that were hostile, it was treated as abnormal and was pathologized. But that the underlying feelings were not different in kind.
Seeing the fluidity of people’s identities and affective connections within the context of the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, she felt validated in the conclusion that--when not suppressed--every woman was capable of experiencing desire for other women. But, she acknowledges, this was driven in part by that experience being a personal truth for her.
Faderman protests that her work was misunderstood by those who accused it of reducing to the question of “did they or didn’t they [have genital sex]?” While other critics felt that the book promulgated a false position of “no sex before 1900.”
[Note: here I will point out that if so many people--including me--took away this misunderstanding, perhaps the fault was in the text, not the reading.]
Faderman claims that her strategy was to take the position that whether or not we can “prove” genital sex between women, the demonstrable strength of their emotional and sensual attachments qualified them as progenitors of the later lesbian-feminist movement. That she was not denying the possibility of genital sexuality between women in the 19th century, only qualifying the impossibility of proving it except in very limited cases. She goes on to reiterate what she had intended to argue in StLoM:
Faderman admits that one driving force for her book was to create a “usable past” for contemporary women and hopes that, despite the book’s flaws, she was able to do that.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45c - Book Appreciation with Tara Scott - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/04/18 - listen here)
Notes and Links
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Tara Scott Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
The "schoolgirl crushes" that form the subject of this paper for an excellent window not only on how same-sex passionate friendships were expected and received, but also on the greadual process by which they were co-opted, redirected, and eventually stigmatized. The phenomenon provides a good counter-example to the idea that public reception of homoerotic relationships has always moved in a single direction, from less to more acceptable. At the same time, it can be important to understand that the performance of these friendships--with its symbolism of romantic love and marriage--has two sides. Yes, it provided an opportunity for women to openly experience an accepted and recognized form of same-sex romance/eroticism, but it was also conventional and symbolic and should not uniformly be understood as depicting "lesbian" relationships in a narrow sense. It is both at the same time. For the purpose of creating historical fiction, this means that a relationship begun as a "rave" is an utterly typical experience (with adjustments for the specific forms and expressions, depending on era) and that fictional characters involved in such a relationship need not be shown as tormented by images of "forbidden desire"--though they might be tormented by other emotional hazards.
Vicinus, Martha. 1984. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships" in Signs vol. 9, no. 4 600-622.
If there is one weakness in this paper, I feel it is a failure to clearly distinguish between the dynamics of "raves" as experienced by those involve in them, versus the ways in which those relationships were interpreted and depicted by outsiders, and especially how they were depicted in retrospect when societal attitudes toward them may have shifted. There are some delightful glimpses from within rave culture from letters and diaries. But on several occasions I had a hard time sorting out the author's interpretation (or the interpretation of contemporary authorities) from what the subjects of her study expressed.
Vicinus begins the paper by placing it in the context of lesbian historiography in general and the focus on when same-sex emotional friendships came to be labeled “deviant” and looked askance. There is a conflict between the ability of labeling to enable self-identity and community formation, and the ways in which those labels had a spreading effect over practices and experiences that shared a context. Thus, the “morbidification” of women’s emotional friendships due to association with homosexuality had consequences for phenomena like boarding school friendships regardless of the actual nature of those friendships.
Those studying this shift face the difficulty of determining when sexological “knowledge” became widespread enough in the general public to affect the attitudes and experiences of those in the education sector. But this hyper-focus on “when it changed” has also left lesbian historians overly concerned with external labeling rather than with exploring what homoerotic friendships were actually like from the inside and how they functioned and were understood.
This paper looks at only one specific aspect of the history of women’s friendship: the adolescent “crush” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of English boarding schools. The paper discusses the social origins of the crush, how it was performed both publicly and privately, and its impact on both the “crusher” and the “crushee.” During this specific historic era, shifts in women’s lives and expectations encouraged an age-differentiated idealized love, for which boarding schools were an especially fertile ground. [Note: It may be important to keep in mind that in this paper Vicinus is not looking at the entire phenomenon of schoolgirls’ homoerotic friendships, but specifically at a point in time when the understanding and performance of those friendship was changing due to external social shifts.]
It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these friendships (on either side) were conscious of a sexual aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke of them in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been so forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.
Women’s homoerotic friendships require certain preconditions. The women need to be at least somewhat freed from familial constraint (although some such friendships developed within the extended family). If a life together was desired, then a certain degree of economic independence was necessary. But more commonly, the evolution of such friendships did not involve sharing a household and existed in parallel with heterosexual marriages on the part of one or both women. It was common for friendships of this type to have begun during school years.
Beginning by the later 18th century, middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States might be sent to (gender-segregated) boarding schools. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family of birth. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards.
This increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools created a new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on and older student or a teacher.
The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from “gone on”), flame. Vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was the same, deriving from similar social conditions.
As the 19th century progressed, women were being trained for an expectation of new roles in society, with greater responsibility and independence, rather than being educated with the expectation of returning to the family and recapitulating the roles of the previous generation. The “smash” on an older authority figure was inspired by the need for emotional closeness, the admiration for a role model, and the balancing of intimacy and individuality. Emotional needs were attached to a more distanced object and the non-fulfillment of those needs was framed as providing the satisfaction of personal sacrifice, just as the girls were being trained for a life of professional sacrifice and service to others.
[Note: While reading this, I question whether these descriptions are emerging from data on how the girls themselves understood their experiences, or whether is it describing how “smashes” were framed and interpreted by external authorities.]
Love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was excluded from the model because it would have meant a failure of self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The object of the rave or smash might be better situated to understand the emotional urge as sexual, but acted to channel those feelings in emotional rather than sexual terms, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements.
In contrast to the older style of school friendships [see, e.g., Smith-Rosenberg 1975] these hierarchical raves tended to bring the schoolgirl into conflict with her mother and family, where connections to the family were displaced to the school and society at large. Girls might be advised to be aware of this and be attentive to family ties when at home, treating this temporary familial re-focusing as yet another form of virtuous self-sacrifice. Age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor.
“Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussion that normalized the practice and socialized new students in its performance. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provide to the target of devotion. These acts didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks there. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination.
The age-difference aspect of rave relationships--especially ones focused on a teacher--meant that they were inherently temporary as either a beloved older student or the younger “ravee” moved on from the school environment. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. Vicinus suggests instead that it was temporary only due to emerging from a particular set of circumstances: isolation, seeming powerlessness, and a willingness to devote oneself entirely to the experience. Some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling.
But the depth of feelings that raves engendered could tip the delicate balance between rousing feelings and subjecting those feelings to the desired self-control. As raves became a focus on psychological concern, school authorities might feel the need to speak out against raves as being disruptive and self-indulgent.
Some of those extremes of feeling are noted in the personal recollections of the recipients of raves, though they were rarely recorded in similar detail. Some considered that being the object of a student’s devotion was an opportunity to inspire and mentor them and guide them into a life of service or religious devotion. Indulgence or special attention to a particular girl might be regretted if it inspired emotional breakdowns or possessive behavior. Despite being in a position of greater social power, the target of devotion--especially if a teacher--had more to lose if the formalized emotional distance were broken down, as they were expected to have more emotional self-control.
Almost lost in this analysis are the examples--especially at the level of women’s colleges rather than boarding schools--of student-teacher friendships that then evolved into lifelong partnerships. Vicinus notes one example where a teacher who had to deal with a particularly problematic obsession from a student, was in turn the devoted romantic friend of her headmistress, with whom she used the language of marriage and spouses. The vocabulary of family relationships could help to sublimate concerns about the physical basis of such love. [Note: I’m once more being confused with the degree to which Vicinus is reporting the attitudes of her subject, versus describing her own interpretation of the dynamic.]
An example is given of an author who--much later--fictionalized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush in a novel. The novel adds a tragic finale in which a schoolgirl’s crush on a teacher, who is in something of a Boston marriage with another teacher, breaks up that relationship resulting the apparent suicide of the teacher-partner. Whereas the real life models for the incident did not involve any such tragedy and the two teachers continued to share their life and work. By the time the novel was written in the 1930s, attitudes and understandings of such school dynamics had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.
The emotions and passions of adolescent girls were to be appreciated, but controlled: channeled into self-sacrificing modes and sanitized with self-control. Their “raves” were not considered deviant, as such, but were treated as a passing phase. This left the system open to disruption when any of the parties failed to follow the rules--rules that were even explicitly laid out in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.
But just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting blurring of women’s roles with regard to the domestic and public spheres resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, either between teachers or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. [Note: I feel that Vicinus presents this section as received fact, rather than building it via evidence, but other writers such as Faderman present the process in more detail.]
This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were they regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45b - Interview with Edale Lane - Transcript Pending
(Originally aired 2020/04/11 - listen here)
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Edale Lane Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
I'm gaining a new appreciation for the structures and rituals of friendship that are depicted in 18-19th century diaries and correspondence. We're currently seeing how fragile the focus on "face to face" personal relationships can be, and how we are strengthened and maintained by friendships engaged in at a distance. My blog posts and facebook statuses and zoom chats are, in essential ways, the equivalent of 19th century women writing long, intimate letters to women who they might see in person only once a year, but who stood larger in their emotional lives on an everyday basis. The gender-segregation that gave 18-19th century friendships their homo-social character is not as prominent today. But perhaps we can gain a new understanding of the centrality of such bonds as a way of developing and maintaining community across miles and over lifetimes. Reach out to the people who are your foundation--and whose foundation you are--and build your hopes and dreams on them.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” in Signs vol. 1, no. 1 1-29.
This article was written before the emergence of studies of women's romantic friendships in the context of lesbian history, although it touches on that question in terms of how individual friendships have been exained. Given this, Smith-Rosenberg provides some good "neutral" grounding in the dynamics of women's same-sex friendships. (See also next week's article focusing specifically on boarding-school friendships.) I think it can be very useful to see the general phenomenon of intense same-sex friendship as a separate layer of understanding from the consideration of homoerotic desires or the question of sexual identities. Too often there seems to be a take that boils down to "all romantic friendships were sexual" or "no romantic friendships were sexual". But if one considers sexuality as an independent factor, we can see that some romantic friendships can be non-sexual without erasing the erotic potential of the dynamic. And some romantic friendships can be sexual without creating an implication that all must have been. The very reason why some romantic friends were able to integrate an erotic aspect to their relationship (without either they or their society considering that this changed the qualitative nature of their bond) is the ubiquity and utter "normalness" of such friendship structures. To a large extent, it is only the more sex-obsessed attitudes of the last century that projected a stark either/or contrast onto the nature of women's friendships.
Smith-Rosenberg takes an in-depth look at the nature and dynamics of women’s intense and intimate same-sex friendships in 19th century America, as documented in the correspondence from 35 middle-class families dating between the 1760s and 1880s, from a variety of geographic regions, both rural and urban, and belonging to a variety of Protestant denominations. Private correspondence and diaries have the advantage of presenting the best available approximation of unfiltered personal reporting. They were never intended for public consumption and therefore are able to reveal private thoughts. [Note: All too often, when those thoughts might be a bit too private, either the writer herself or her posterity have seen that they were destroyed. Therefore a study such as this may already be “filtered” to some degree.]
Such intense, long-lasting friendships between women were casually accepted and almost formalized through a variety of structures, but have rarely been studied a phenomenon on their own. The could be symbolically framed as familial in nature--sisters, or surrogate mother/daughter bonds--or even as marriage-like relationships.
When studied in specific instances, it has generally been to examine individual psycho-sexual development, with an air to determining whether the particular bond is “normal” or “abnormal,” suggesting latent homosexuality.
Smith-Rosenberg takes a different approach, looking at the overall cultural and social context for women’s same-sex friendships in this era and identifying general patterns, rather than trying to analyze the dynamics of specific relationships.
The article begins by looking at two such friendships that might be considered “typical.”
Sarah Butler and Jeannie Musgrove met in their mid-teens in 1849 when their families were vacationing in Massachusetts. They then spent two years together in boarding school where they formed a deep, intimate friendship that included romantic gestures and the assumption of noms de plume, Sarah (the younger) taking a male name for the purpose. They continued using those names to each other through old age.
Sarah married, but this did not change the frequency of their correspondence or their desire to spend time together. They often wrote of longing to be with each other and of how much they meant to each other. “I want you to tell me in your next letter, to assure me, that I am your dearest.” “A thousand kisses--I love you with my whole soul.”
Jeannie married at age 37 precipitating significant anxiety about how it might change their relationship. And it did result in physical separation, though with no change in emotional intensity.
The second pair has a similar story. Molly and Helena met in 1868 while attending college together in New York City. Over several years, they studied together, visited each other’s families, and became part of a network of artistic young women. They developed a close intimate bond that continued the rest of their lives. In their letters, they called each other dearest and beloved. They expressed this affection in kisses and embraces.
After five years, they had planned to share a home together but when Molly bowed to her parents’ wishes and decided against the plan Helena responded angrily leading Molly to fear it would mean a break-up. The friendship cooled somewhat and both gained male suitors and married. During this time of upset, they expressed their feelings in romantic and marital terms. Molly wrote, “I wanted so to put my arms round my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her...I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken each other for life--and believe in her as I believe in my God.” And she wrote to Helena’s fiancé, “Do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so. Don’t you wonder that I can stand the sight of you.”
To represent such intimate friendships as anything but love would be absurd. Smith-Rosenberg takes the position that an obsession with whether they included genital activity and could thereby be classified as homosexual is very much beside the point. The point being that all the parties involved considered such relationships and such rhetoric to be socially acceptable and fully compatible with participating in heterosexual marriages. Individual personalities and dynamics might influence the details of such relationships, but the historian’s task is to explore the social structure and world view that made them possible and acceptable.
From the particular, Smith-Rosenberg now moves to a general survey of women’s lives in the 18th and 19th centuries and the factors that permitted and encouraged women to form a variety of close emotional relationships with other women. American society in this era involved rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and gender segregation during many of ordinary activities of life. Shared life experiences bound women together in physical and emotional intimacy resulting in a general and unselfconscious pattern of homosociality. In contrast, there were severe restrictions on mixed-sex social interactions. Not only personal correspondence, but an entire genre of etiquette and advice manuals point to the assumption of separate male and female spheres.
This didn’t mean that women were isolated within the household, but rather than their networks reached between households, built not only by shared labor and emotional support, but by the rituals of social visiting. In urban areas, visiting was a routine part of the day, while rural women engaged in patterns of extended visits that could last weeks or months. Among those who enjoyed summer vacations, they were frequently organized to gather female friends, while leaving husbands behind in the city.
Even closely paired friends did not exist in isolation but were part of integrated networks. Both visiting and correspondence maintained those networks and provided regular updates on the personal lives of their families. Despite the superficial appearance of isolated nuclear families, most women were part of multiple networks that crossed family boundaries. Bonds between sisters-in-law were often as close as sisters, but non-familial bonds could be equally close.
Female friendships served an important emotional purpose in a society that considered men’s and women’s emotional lives to be distinct. Shared experiences and concerns were prominent in correspondence. There are few signs of hostility or criticism of other women in the records, even where such things are assumed as “normal” today, as in the relationships of mothers and adolescent daughters. Smith-Rosenberg attributes this to a dynamic where daughters expected and aspired to follow their mothers in traditional domesticity. The period after formal education was complete and before marriage was an intensive apprenticeship in running a household, taught by mothers and other women of the older generation. Only with societal shifts that gave the younger generation different goals and aspirations than their mothers did generational tensions arise.
During her school years, a girl began to develop her own friendships and networks separate from those she inherited from her family. Even relatively poor families expected to send girls away to school for at least a limited period. This separation might be assisted by support from existing female networks, whether as local mentors or by friends sending their daughters to the same school for company.
The commentary of schoolgirls with regard to their same-sex friendships as contrasted with their relations with male suitors shows the latter to be distant if not hostile, while the former are close, supportive, and having an air of solidarity. Men might be viewed as the ultimate goal in life, but they are “other”, treated with stilted formality. Female friendships were expressed with warmth, spontaneity, and a sense of fun. Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged, and enjoyed dancing with each other.
While the theme of female friendship was the maintenance of strong bonds and a desire for physical presence, marriage to a man typically involved physical separation from the birth family and existing social networks. This might be mitigated by friends and family joining the newlyweds on their honeymoon or even spending extended visits in their new home together.
Within marriage, most rites of passage were gender-segregated, especially those around birth and death. As healthcare was considered within the female sphere, both caring and being cared for was a same-sex activity for women. Even in bereavement, women typically were comforted by female friends rather than male relatives.
Same-sex friendship bonds often involved physicality, including the sharing of beds, embraces, and kissing. The erotic nature of these experiences is hinted at in the jealousy women felt toward their friends’ male suitors. Women sent love poetry and confessions of emotional dependence to each other along with the letters of everyday life. Such sentiments were not confined to “schoolgirl crushes” but might increase in intensity throughout the women’s lives.
Husbands might be explicitly put in second place after female friends, as when one woman writing in the 1830s promises that if she visits, “I would turn your good husband out of bed and snuggle into you and we would have a long talk like old times in Pine St.”
The language of marriage was frequently invoked, even when sexuality was denied. In 1892 one woman writes after the death of her lifelong friend, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages. We know there have been other such between two men and also between two women. And why should there not be. Love is spiritual, only passion is sexual.”
This last provides one hint at how women understood their passionate friendships. Kissing and embracing and snuggling in bed together were not necessarily understood as sexual. Once the idea that such activities might be sexual emerged toward the turn of the 20th century, only then were intense female friendships looked askance. In the 20th century a variety of such cultural taboos arose that interrupted the tradition of intimate female friendships.
In particular, the rise of psychiatry and sexology began the pathologization of relationshps of all types between women, instead viewing heterosexual bonds as the only “natural” evolution of personal development. Smith-Rosenberg concludes with a suggestion that the study of cultural variation in patterns of diversity in sexual and nonsexual relations might help erase the division of behaviors into a binary of “normal” and “abnormal” but rather as a continuum. [Note: please do remember that this was written in 1975.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45a - On the Shelf for April 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/04/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2020.
Wow, how are you folks holding up? I’ve been trying to speculate on how 2020 will be remembered in the history books and so far I’ve come up with “the year that was cancelled.” There have been some good historian jokes floating around on Twitter. Like the one where several historians in the future are talking about their specialties and one says, “I study the Renaissance,” another says, “I study World War I,” and the last says, “I study March 2020.” The first historian asks, “Wow, the whole thing or one particular week?”
The measurement of historic times is never static. When you’re living through it, it can be like time is standing still. This is only an instant and yet we’ve been doing this forever. When the event is past, it will seem at first to be a single comprehensible unit. But beneath that illusion is the impossibly complex reality of the failures and successes and the inexorable forces for which failure and success have no meaning.
History is always that complex. And it has different meanings depending on the point of view of the historian and what parts of the topic they consider most meaningful. That’s a truth that always comes out in the study of queer history.
As for me, the month of March was a perfect encapsulation of going from “normal” to “the new normal”. I think the last day when I had the illusion that life was normal was Sunday March 1 when we were having the last-minute hotel walk-through for the SFF convention I’m on the committee for. As we were checking on arrangements for the convention the next weekend, we got notification that one of our guests of honor had been advised not to risk traveling due to health risks. We briefly considered whether it was advisable or even possible to cancel the convention less than a week in advance and decided to forge ahead. We put in extra precautions, we did a lot of public advisories about handwashing and contact, we threw together the ability for our non-present guest of honor to participate remotely by video chat, along with several other remote participants. And we breathed a sigh of relief two weeks later when none of our attendees reported back sick. (In fact, with the extra emphasis on handwashing, we seem to have had an absence of the usual post-convention “con crud”.)
The day after the convention, my department at my day job was told to start taking our laptops home every night and be prepared to work from home, if asked. The next day, we were told that all personnel who could work remotely were instructed to do so until further notice. (I work for a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, so there’s a lot of hands-on activities and it’s an essential industry, but my particular job can be 99% done remotely.) As I’m writing this, I’m starting my fourth week of working from home. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly, once I’d beefed up my home office with a second large monitor and sorted out the ergonomics a bit. In fact, when this is all over I may see if I can get permission to work from home a couple-few days a week in ordinary circumstances. Better for the environment, better for my time management. But I do miss the casual office chit-chat--not something I would have expected!
In theory, I should be using that lack of commute time to plunge into my next fiction project, but concentration is only available in fits and starts, so instead I’ve mostly been doing yard work and reorganizing my kitchen cabinets. And baking. Evidently stress baking under lockdown is a universal?
In times like these, it can be interesting to compare the dynamics of our everyday lives--and thus the dynamics of our quarantine--to lives in history under similar circumstances. I never figured my most recent Alpennia novel, Floodtide, would end up having current relevance! But even more generally, look at the way people reach out and support each other, even when physical support is contra-indicated. Despite the modern myths of individualism and self-sufficiency, we’re all more connected than we sometimes admit.
I think that can be a feature of life in the past that can be hard to capture in queer historical fiction. We’re used to the idea that if you don’t fit in with your family or community of birth, you can strike out on your own and invent a new life for yourself. But in past ages, being part of a network of family and community connections wasn’t simply a matter of emotional health (or emotional risk), but was essential for maintaining a viable economic, physical, and social life. Family was one network--you might love them, you might hate them, but you always needed them. Friendships were another network. A way of building ties that strengthened and stabilized your place in the world. That gave you support in every possible way when other systems failed.
Publications on the Blog
This month’s blog posts continue on the theme of friendship and especially same-sex friendships and how those relationships overlap and blend into more particular emotional connections that can encompass romance and erotic connections.
March started off with Alan Bray’s monumental work on same-sex friendships across the ages, The Friend. Bray’s work primarily focuses on male friendships--indeed, he seems a bit oblivious to how the dynamics of female friendships worked when they weren’t direct parallels of the male experience--but he does a good job of exploring how the homoerotic potential of intense same-sex friendships was handled and viewed in other eras.
After that, we moved on to more woman-centered articles. Alexandra Verini looks at the ways female friendship is discussed in the works of the medieval writers Christine de Pisan and Margery Kempe. Carol Lasser looks at a particular symbolic representation of women’s friendships as being fictive sisters, and how that reflects the importance of blood-family relationships while admitting others into that close circle. Lisa Moore challenges the image of 19th century Romantic Friendship as being universally accepted and viewed as noble and virtuous, and points to evidence that the image of the chaste and harmless Romantic Friendship was a social tool wielded to contain the more dangerous potential for women’s friendships to include eroticism and challenges to gender norms.
Moving on into April, Caroll Smith-Rosenberg steps back from trying to interpret the “meaning” of specific Romantic Friendships and looks at the larger context of women’s homosocial relations in “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” The intense hot-house atmosphere of all-female educational institutions comes into focus in Martha Vicinus’s look at English boarding-school friendships, including the shifts over time in how schoolgirl crushes were viewed and discussed.
Back when I was blogging Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, I speculated on whether any of her views and opinions on the topic of Romantic Friendship had changed since the writing of the book. And I was delighted to discover that she had written exactly on that topic back in 1999. So while it isn’t an entirely up-to-date reconsideration, I got my answer. (Though, interestingly, the answer seems to be that Faderman is bewildered at why so many people took away the impression of her work that I ranted and railed about, which was that she drew a bright dividing line between Romantic Friendships as inherently asexual, and lesbian relationships which hadn’t been invented yet.)
Then April concludes with Everly Gordon Bodek writing on “Salonières and Bluestockings” and how the French and English versions of the women’s literary salon differed, and why. This is a topic very near and dear to the hearts of my early 19th century characters!
May will introduce a new thematic series in the blog and I’ll probably sum up an overview of the friendship material in a podcast at some point.
How about the book shopping report? Since the vast majority of my book shopping is online, staying home hasn’t affected it much. To support Powell’s Books while they aren’t able to have the store open, I did some systematic hunting for items in my to-do list, but I’ll talk about those in a later episode when they’ve arrived. Let’s keep this segment to the books that have arrived during the past month.
Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
The first book is Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. I do my best to emphasize that, when studying gender and sexuality in history, we need to be constantly aware of different ways in which concepts and identities are understood at different times. Most historical studies I’ve read about the category labeled “female husbands” -- that is, female-bodied persons passing as men and married to women -- come at it from a framework of lesbian history or women’s history. But it’s equally valid and important to think about these lives within a framework of trans history. Regardless of the evidence--or lack thereof--for how these individuals understood their own identities, it is undeniable that they are “trans gender” in the most basic sense. Someone who is performing a different gender than the one their body would assign them to. And that’s only when we’re sticking to a narrowly binary idea of gender. I’m looking forward to reading and blogging this study that explicitly considers “female husbands” as a transgender concept and category.
Clark, Alice. 1919. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., London. (POD edition by Scholar Select)
I’ve previously mentioned several books that I’m accumulating for deep-background research on later 17th century England for a historic romance series I’m poking at. Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century was recommended as a good resource despite being written in an era (the early 20th century) whose works don’t always stand the test of time well. In addition to discussions of women’s lives in different types of occupations and professions, it includes quotations from account books and descriptions of the era that give concrete substance to the dry facts. “In 1636...Susanna Angell, widow, and Elizabeth her daughter (an orphan) of the city of London humbly pray that they might by their Lordships’ warrant be permitted to land 14 barrels of powder now arrived, and also 38 barrels which are daily expected in the Fortune [a ship], they paying customs and to sell the same within the kingdom”. One of the characters I’ve already sketched out is a widow carrying on the merchant trade of her late husband. I love details like this.
Titley, Norah M. (trans). 2005. The Nimatnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan's Book of Delights. Routledge, London. ISBN 978-0-415-35059-4
There really aren’t clear dividing lines between the categories of non-fiction I buy. Since I’m doing this segment anyway, why worry about drawing distinctions? The previous book is tangentially related to a lesbian historic romance project, despite being an ordinary history book. But this next one is only related in being historic. I love collecting books on cuisine and dining from other eras and cultures, in part because food is such an important part of culture (and makes for fun scene-setting in a story), in part because at various times in my life I’ve enjoyed cooking meals based in other eras. The Nimatnama manuscript came across my attention somewhat randomly on twitter, and when I did a quick search, I found a second-hand copy at a price suitable for an impulse buy. This is a culinary manuscript from late 15th century India, with influences from Persian cuisine. The copy I found has a facsimile of the original, with color plates for the illustrations (which helps in imagining how the food was served). It isn’t a recipe book in the modern sense with clear instructions (although some items include measurements). Often there is just a list of ingredients and a title indicating the nature of the dish. There are also recipes for perfumes, and descriptions of medical treatments, though we should understand all these as falling a single cultural category of “delights”--which gives us yet another angle on understanding the culture.
This month’s author guest will be Edale Lane, talking about her Renaissance-era DaVinci-inspired superhero romance Merchants of Milan. I also expect to have another guest contributing to the Book Appreciation series, but I’ll leave that unspecified since I haven’t done the recording yet.
I also haven’t started writing this month’s essay and I have to be honest that the world is a bit distracting at the moment and I may end up reprising an older episode. So watch this space to see what I come up with.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned? Last month I was a bit worried that I didn’t have any April books listed in my spreadsheet yet, but some turned up, along with a couple March books that I hadn’t previously seen.
The first March book looks unusual and intriguing, being a “what if” story inspired by an Old Testament character: The Whoreson's Daughter by Celia Crotteau from Xlibris US.
Chapters 11 and 12 in the Book of Judges recount how a rash vow forced the military victor Jephthah to sacrifice his beloved only daughter. While scholars agree that she was sacrificed, for centuries they have debated the exact nature of that sacrifice. Some argue that Jephthah's daughter was ritually killed on an altar, her throat slit like an animal's. Others maintain that she forsook marriage and motherhood to devote the rest of her life to serving her god. Whatever occurred remains a mystery. But might the unnamed young woman's too eager compliance have disguised more than submission to her father and her faith? Did she stray beyond the accepted norms for her day? What forbidden passions did she pursue? In her own quiet way was she as reckless as her famous father?
Pioneer Vengeance: A Lesbian Western (Pioneer Hearts Book 2) self-published by Becky Harris is a sequel to a book that just came out a couple months ago and continues the story of the characters who met in that volume.
Belle and Jeane thought they had their happily ever after, but they should've known nothing is ever that easy on the frontier. They survived the elements and each other over the winter, learning to embrace feelings neither thought they'd ever enjoy again. Now that Spring is here it's time to head into town to resupply. Only they find trouble waiting for them in the form of Lenington. An underhanded crook who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and his path of destruction has run right through Belle's family. She never got along with her father, but when he dies at the hands of the town's newest outlaw she knows one thing: she will have her vengeance. The only problem with her brand of frontier justice? Jeanne isn't thrilled about her new love going on a quest for revenge that might get her killed. A quest for revenge. A relationship on the rocks. Will Belle be able to keep everything she's gained, or will her quest for revenge ruin her last best chance for happiness? Find out in Pioneer Vengeance, sequel to Pioneer Hearts!
The next book has an interesting mix of characters, including a mute woman who is one of the romantic couple. I’d be interested to hear opinions on whether the disability representation is solid. It’s hard to tell from the cover copy. The book is: All I See Is You by Lily Hammond from Sapphica Books.
The heart has its own language. Summer in January. Birds with unknown songs. People with strange accents. In 1932, Eliza Sparrow walks straight off the boat from England to New Zealand into a nightmare. Unable to speak or write, and with the death of her mother during the voyage, Eliza is alone, without any means, without any hope. Unless she meets someone willing to help her. Maxine and Ruth have opened their home to destitute women, sheltering those they can from the worst of the Depression. When they find Eliza, they are determined to aid and protect her. Never though, did they think they’d have to protect Eliza from their dear friend Clemency. Like them, Clemency loves other women, but unlike the happily ‘married’ Maxine and Ruth, Clemency is lonely, unable to find a lover she really connects with. When she meets Eliza, no one thinks it could be serious and Clemency would simply be taking advantage of the speechless Eliza, her attraction never possibly other than a passing desire. No one took into account however, that the heart has its own language, and it’s one that Eliza can speak perfectly well.
There are two April releases on my list. The first falls in the rather crowded field of Jane Austen spin-offs: Lucas by Elna Holst from NineStar Press.
In 1813, upon her marriage to Mr Collins, the rector of Hunsford Parsonage, Charlotte Collins née Lucas left her childhood home in Hertfordshire for Kent, where she is set to live out her life as the parson’s wife, in an endless procession of dinners at Rosings Park, household chores, correspondence, and minding her poultry. But Mrs Collins carries with her a secret, a peculiar preference, which is destined to turn all her carefully laid plans on their head. Lucas is a queer romance, a mock-epistolary novel, and a retelling and continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, teeming with Regency references and Sturm und Drang.
And we finish with a relatively recent setting for The Beginning of Everything: A Historical Lesbian Romance by Cara Malone from Lisbon Press.
A closeted secretary in 1960s Chicago. A fearless activist in San Francisco. A love so powerful it can change the world. Betty wants what everyone wants – happiness, security, and a quiet, good life. She’s determined to make that happen on her own, despite her mother’s fears that she’ll turn into a spinster if she doesn’t settle down and find a husband soon. Joan wants an important life – one where she gets to love who she wants to love, do what she enjoys, and will leave the world a better place when she’s gone. But what she is – a lesbian in San Francisco at the beginning of the LGBT+ civil rights movement – is criminal. When Betty comes to California for vacation, it’s love at first sight across a crowded bar in the Tenderloin district. She’s mesmerized by Joan and drawn to the homophile movement, but does she have the courage to come out for love and join the fight for equality? What began as a glance across a room turns into a hopeful, playful and heartwarming courtship across three time zones and four decades in The Beginning of Everything, a standalone historical romance by Cara Malone.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading in the last month? I’m going to confess that this stay-at-home thing has completely knocked my fiction reading for a loop because my most recent pattern has been to read fiction on my commute. No commute, no cue to rev up the e-reader. I have been reading a number of short works being put out as an open Patreon account: The Decameron Project. Just as Boccaccio’s original Decameron was framed as a group of people sheltering from the plague and telling each other stories to pass the time, this project organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton, and others present a new short story or novel excerpt every day, framed as two characters sheltering from Covid-19 in an empty library. Donations to the patreon raise money for an Italian charity and a number of well-know science fiction and fantasy authors have contributed works for it. Also some not quite as well-known because they accepted one of my unpublished short stories for it. So if you’re interested in reading my queer Arthurian story inspired by the Romance of Silence, check it out and consider subscribing.
Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
New and forthcoming fiction
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Today's blog continues my mini-series on female friendship with an article that challenges the image of "Romantic Friendship" as a reflection of, rather than a prescription for, women's relations with each other in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I'm entering my fourth week of working from home under Social Distancing. We've entered the phase where it feels like just a few days and forever. I hope you're all doing well, both physically and emotionally. Build and maintain those friendships that sustain you. Our ancestors knew just how vital they are.
Moore, Lisa. 1992. "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 499-520.
I love reading different takes on the meanings and forms of "female friendship" in the 18th and 19th centuries because this tension and dynamic underlies the relationships and social forms of my Alpennia series. In understanding the lives of specific women in the past, we must look beyond simplistic myths and prototypes and allow for complex interactions between multiple layers of meaning and practice.
It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.
To illustrate this, she looks at three very different documents/texts from early 19th century England that invoke the romantic friendship ideal while clearly expressing anxiety about emotional bonds between women that fell outside this “innocent” idea. Rather than supporting the idea that people believed that “women don’t do that sort of thing,” she argues that people were quite aware that women did do “that sort of thing” and were working frantically to try to suppress this awareness/knowledge.
By analyzing this tension between “romantic friendship” and female homosexual relations, Moore suggests that this conflict played a key role in the development of “modern” understandings of sexuality, and played a role in managing ideas about gender, bodies, the family, and colonial dynamics as well.
This tension underlies two historic processes: the development of the genre of “domestic fiction” in the 18th century, and the shift from an 18th century “idea of the self as social and socially obligated” to a more Romantic individualism. These can be seen in a shift from novels about marginal and morally suspect figures (e.g., Moll Flanders) to stories focused on women at the center of an idealized middle-class domesticity. This, she says, becomes “the story the bourgeoisie told about itself” and the underpinning of the myth of middle-class virtue and respectability.
Within this context, romantic friendship becomes an ambiguous concept that expresses social anxieties whilel trying to contain them. The official approval given to romantic friendships (as emphasized, for example, in Faderman’s work) becomes more tenuous in texts that police the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable friendships between women. In addition to Faderman, Moore notes Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (to be covered here when posted) as uncritically accepting that romantic friendships were “socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage.”
Moore feels that both these authors glossed over the anxieties and prohibitions surrounding women’s friendships that put a different light on the question of acceptance. Faderman, she asserts, sees a parallel between romantic friendships and the lesbian-feminism of her own era that focuses more on gender-solidarity than on sexual desire. Smith-Rosenberg similarly asserts that the emotional segregation of the sexes in 19th century America resulted in “a generic and unselfconscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks” that recapitulated the mother-daughter bond. Smith-Rosenberg’s model sees romantic friendships as inherently non-sexual (due to their familial model) and based on cultural patterns rather than individual psychology.
To counter this, Moore analyzes discourse around romantic friendship in the novel Belinda, in the diaries of Anne Lister, and in the court records for Woods and Pirie v. Dame Cumming Gordon.
Although Belinda gives a nod to the conventional “marriage plot” of its era, the dynamics focus mainly around the title character’s friendships with women, providing a moral lesson about suitable and unsuitable friendships. Lady Delacour begins the novel involved in a romantic friendship with the cross-dressing and “mannish acting” Harriot Freke, who is supplanted by Belinda, a more suitable friend for Delacour. Freke is regularly depicted as wearing men’s clothing, either for a masquerade or as personal habit, and behaving in stereotypically masculine fashion. She also takes on the role of rake in her interactions with women, with pretended abductions and bluster. Freke is also presented as a feminist, arguing for the equality of men and women (which is ridiculed in the book) along with other Jacobin social ideals such as revolution, opposition to slavery, and sexual freedom. Freke’s agressive courtship of Belinda is contrasted with the more traditional and conservative courtship of her male suitor, but also with the “ladylike attentions” of Delacour’s friendship with Belinda.
Freke not only poses a hazard to Belinda’s heterosexual prospects, but is shown to have drawn Delacour into the dangerous and scandalous prospect of a duel with another woman over a dispute in a political campaign.
[Note: Clearly Belinda needs to be re-written with Freke as the heroine, because the more I read about her, the more I like her!]
The interpersonal conflicts between the women in the novel depend entirely on anxieties about “improper” female friendships, symbolizing them with a cross-dressing women with clearly homoerotic interests. Rather than female friendships being universally assumed to be platonic and praiseworthy, there is a clear delineation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.
Dangerous female friendships are--ironically enough--associated in Belinda with the reading of novels by women. Novel reading gives young women “dangerous ideas” about their aspirations and appropriate behavior. This theme is also raised in the diaries of Anne Lister, who herself shares many attributes with Belinda’s Hariot Freke: mannish dress and habits, and erotic interest in women. For Lister, novels roused a longing for romantic fulfilment, “more romance than can let me bear the stimulus, the fearful rousing, of novel reading.” Lister compared her own life and experiences with the protagonists of romance novels and was led into dissatisfaction and longing.
But while Lister was ambivalent about reading (female-authored) novels, she found support for her romantic and sexual inclinations more in (male-authored) works of nonfiction. It is in medical and philosophical works that she finds a basis for accepting and embracing her own homoerotic inclinations.
[Note: I supposed it needn’t be said that Lister’s employment of the forms of female romantic friendship while unambiguously engaging in same sex erotic relationships contradicts the image of romantic friendship as “acceptably” non-sexual.]
The Pirie and Woods legal case (involving two school teachers accused of a sexual relationship by a pupil and the ensuing suit for libel) lays out in detail the reasoning of the 19th century English establishment with regard to the concept of sexual relations between women. It was never disputed that Pirie and Woods engaged in physical affection, shared a bed, and had something resembling a life partnership. The argument was whether this was simply evidence of “warm and interesting mutual regard, which springs from the finest and purest feelings of the human heart, and can only exist in pure and virtuous breasts” (per their lawyer’s arguments) or whether it was evidence of “indecent and criminal practices”.
In the statements of the judges when they were found innocent, one deciding factor was the need to maintain a public understanding of “the purity of female manners...remaining, as they have hitherto been, free from suspicion.” It was considered vital, in addition, to keep the content and nature of the court case from general knowledge in order to preserve that illusion.
One advantage they had in this was that the student who made the original accusation was not a “pure and innocent bourgeois white lady” but a bi-racial (Anglo-Indian) girl born out of wedlock. This enabled the entire legal apparatus to conclude that the accusing student might well be able to imagine (or even be familiar with) sex between women, without actually witnessing such an act between the two teachers.
Using these three texts as examples, Moore builds a case that “platonic romantic friendship”--rather than being either an apt description of women’s same-sex emotional relationships, or even an unquestioned fiction--was deployed as a shield against the specter of female homosexuality. In order to maintain and protect the illusion of white middle-class heterosexual domestic purity, the ideal of romantic friendship was defined in opposition to “dangerous female friendships” or racialized models of sexually deviant women. And yet, in order to stigmatize and negate those alternative homosexual possibilities, they had to be recognized and described, thus creating an awareness of the very phenomenon society was trying to erase. Moore concludes with a reminder that female homosexuality has a historic dynamic that is entirely distinct from that of male homosexuality (and from “women” as a general concept) and that it must be studied in its own right.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44d - Bertolina Guercia - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/28 - listen here)
When we look for queer women in history, how do we know what we’re looking for? How will we know when we find them? If we go into the historic record with a preconceived idea of what queer people’s lives were like--what their hazards and joys were--will we recognize what we find?
When we start to depict queer women in historical fiction, how do we imagine their lives? What did their families, their neighbors, their lovers think about them? Were they closeted or open? Were they accepted or persecuted? Did they find like-minded community or lead solitary lives?
Attitudes and reactions around people with non-normative sexuality could be highly local and individual, even within general large patterns. And just as in current media with queer characters, the challenges they faced were not necessarily directly related to their sexuality.
Today I’d like to explore the small amount we know about a woman in 13th century Bologna named Bertolina Guercia. As is all too often the case in this era, the reason we have concrete data about her sexuality is because she ran afoul of the law. But don’t assume you know how that encounter played out.
The legal record that mentions Bertolina was studied and published by Carol Lansing in an article in 2005. The record had always been there to find, but it took someone noticing it, recognizing its significance, and considering it worth bringing it to public attention. There are a lot--and I mean a lot--of surviving historical archives with records about obscure, unimportant--dare I say, mostly boring--people. When scholars comb through these archives--most of which have never been published, or even necessarily cataloged in detail--they’re usually looking for information on a particular topic. The vast background material that they have to wade through to find that topic may be fascinating on its own, but the distraction of shiny things is the bane of academia. Any number of researchers may walk past an entry without comment because it doesn’t speak to their particular topic before one picks it up and weaves it into a larger picture.
All of this is in preface to saying that there are undoubtedly many more stories like Bertolina’s waiting to be noticed. The scholarly catalogs of evidence for women’s same-sex relations in the past are often condemned as scanty--and too often interpreted as meaning that either there is little to be found, or that queer women were, in fact, relatively scarce in the past. In addition to the value of stories like Bertolina’s for their own sake, they remind us of what is still out there to be discovered.
But let’s move on to Bertolina’s specific story. The record mentioning her is from 1295. As I noted earlier, she lived in Bologna, Italy--though keep in mind that “Italy” was mostly a vague idea at this time, not a coherent nation-state.
What was going on in Europe in 1295? King Edward I was busy building castles to support his military adventures in Wales and Scotland; this is the era of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame. The 9th Crusade finishes with the Egyptian recapture of Acre, effectively ending the Christian colonial occupation of the Holy Land. In Italy, Marco Polo has just returned to Venice from his travels in China and Dante Alighieri is hard at work on his poetry, though yet to write his greatest works. The Italian Renaissance isn’t quite a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, nor has the Black Death touched Europe yet. We’re pretty solidly in the middle of the “middle ages”.
Bologna was at that time a “commune”--an independent political entity--having escaped domination by the Holy Roman Empire a century earlier as part of the Lombard League. It was a thriving commercial and artistic center with a population in the tens of thousands, though becoming politically unstable due to squabbling among the ruling families. Infractions against the law--the context of Bertolina’s story--were judged in the civic court by appointed judges who were typically outsiders, in place for a limited term. Perhaps this was specifically to avoid having trials influenced by local squabbles and loyalties. Charges were brought, not by anything resembling a police force, but by private citizens, who might make an anonymous report of something that should be investigated, or could make a public accusation. In either case, it was the court’s responsibility to call witnesses, draw conclusions, and assign sentences or fines.
But before we come to the charges, what does the record tell us about Bertolina Guercia?
We know that her father is dead, that she lived in the parish of Santa Cecelia, next to the old city wall--an area that may have had a somewhat seedy reputation. There is no mention of a husband, nor is she identified as a widow--both of which would almost certainly be considered relevant in the legal records, so we can assume she never married. We don’t know what profession she followed, though she was comfortable enough that she could hire singers for an evening’s entertainment. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the trial records does anyone suggest that she was involved in sex work, which was commonly used as an all-purpose charge against unruly women. She is accused of being known to be a magician and fortune-teller, and said to claim that she could cause people to love or hate, and that she used these activities to extort money from people. Charges of this sort were fairly common “add-ons” to other accusations, and the court records indicate that they were rarely taken seriously or mentioned in verdicts and sentencing.
We can also guess that she had, in some way, angered a more powerful neighbor, Guilelmo of San Biagio, who had the good fortune to have friends or patrons among the nobility and whose charges were therefore taken seriously.
This brings us to the specific charges that make Bertolina of interest to us today. The original anonymous report stated that she “is and long has been, especially for the last six months, a public and well known sodomite, using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The charge also uses some formulaic language, most likely derived from clerical writings about sodomy, calling the act “unspeakable” and contrary to human nature. And, as noted previously, the charge added that “she is a public and well known magician and diviner, deceiving the men and women of the city of Bologna, extorting money from them, saying that she was able to make people greatly and entirely love her, and make others hate, in the manner of a magician and idolator.” What did it mean for a woman to be called a sorcerer “afacuratris”? How did 13th century Bolognese people understand these alleged abilities? We don’t have examples of what Bertolina was supposed to have done, but of one of her fellow citizens of Bologna, a woman named Monna Necha, it was said she “casts spells on men and women and is a fortuneteller and...can teach how to make transfigurations of people to extort money...[who says she] can make the person you want love you at your will ... [and can] bring up tempests and hailstorms so that no one could escape death”. Another woman who was labeled an “affaturatrix” like Bertolina was said to keep an image of a human figure with spines stuck in it. So the charges against Bertolina were meant to evoke the image of similar acts and abilities. But the records indicate that such charges often seem to have been made as leverage when the true dispute was unrelated, and in the above cases, the women were not convicted of the charges of magic.
The judge assigned to Bertolina’s case, a man named Lantelmo of Aliate, followed standard legal procedures and held an inquest, at which four of Bertolina’s neighbors were questioned regarding the charges. Had they heard anything by vox or fama, that is, by direct information or by public reputation, that would corroborate the accusation?
Each testified in the negative. At this point, our understanding of the case must split in two possible directions, as we shall see. Either the later, detailed, testimony was a complete fabrication--an unusually explicit and specific one--or Bertolina’s neighbors had no particular problem with a woman “conducting herself lustfully with women” and performing love magic for pay. (It is, of course, also possible that they did have a problem with it, but not enough to report it to the law themselves, and not enough to be worth the trouble of getting personally involved.)
Those denials might have put an end to the matter--and if so, would have deprived us of some of the more interesting details of the case--but Bertolina’s anonymous accuser came forward in person to pursue the case and bring his own witnesses. We can tell that this Guilelmo was a man of some standing because when you appeared in the court you had to provide references who would back you up, and his were three powerful noblemen of the city. Who was Guilelmo and what did he have against Bertolina? That we can’t tell. He wasn’t an immediate neighbor, and seems to have run in a different social stratum, but from the language of the original accusation--that Bertolina “extorted money from people through her magic”--he may have been an unsatisfied customer. Or--and here is an intriguing possibility--he may have been a romantic rival, thus the focus on Bertolina’s sexuality.
In any event, Guilelmo produced two witnesses, only one of whom directly addresses Bertolina’s actions. Bertolina was also summoned to appear, but declined. In the following testimony, the witness, Ugolino Martini, refers to Bertolina by her nickname Guercia. This is the translation Lansing provides in her article.
“One evening [I was] at supper in my house in the parish of Yeme, in the past though I don’t remember whether it was this year or last year, nor the day or month, but it was after the third bell. I heard two men singing and I went out of my house and went to where they were singing. I did not know them, nor do I know them. They were singing near the church of San Tomaso where they were making a serenade, but I don’t know to whom. When they had sung, I said to them that they should come with me and serenade my lady. They said that they did not wish to come unless it was with the agreement of Gueercia, who was present, and at whose request they said they were there. Guercia said that she did want them to come with me.
“The men and Guercia came along with me, and I led them to the house of Lady Dolzebone in the parish of San Biagio and had them sing there. Guercia said to me, ‘Are you interested in this widow?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘I have been interested in her for two years.’ I replied to her, ‘Unlucky you, how can you be interested in women?’ She said, ‘It is because I--
Here we must pause for some tricky vocabulary. The record has the verb “tifuo” which is not a known word. Lansing believes it may be either a deliberate or accidental mangling of “futuo”, that is “fuck”. The text is also about to refer to an object called a “virilia” which, from context, we can understand as a dildo. So I’ll just use both those words, with the understanding that the translation is approximate.
“She said, ‘It is because I fuck them with these dildos of silk that I have.’ I said to her, ‘May I see some of these dildos?’ She said yes and drew one from her purse and showed it to me. It was made of silk, but I do not know what kind of silk. She showed me a number of them though I don’t know how many because I did not count them, but some were great and large and some small, and I am not sure whether she showed me ten.”
Ugolino testified that he didn’t actually see her using the virilia, and that he knew nothing at all about the other charges. The magic and divination were not mentioned.
Bertolina was summoned to appear in her own defense, but declined to appear. The judge assigned an improbably large fine as an alternative to being banned from the city. There is no further mention of her in the records and she is unlikely to have been able to pay the fine, so she may have left town. Or it may be that her accuser was satisfied with the moral victory and didn’t pursue the matter further.
Although the conviction appears to have been entirely on the charge of sodomy, the outcome should not be taken as evidence that 13th century Bologna was tolerant of homosexuality in general. In that same decade there are records of men being executed for the same charge, though legal records suggest that men were most likely to be accused of sodomy if violence or an underage boy were involved. But Bolognese laws discussing sodomy are explicitly concerned only with men.
It’s noteworthy that Ugolino’s testimony--assuming we can take it at face value--suggests an atmosphere of acceptance and perhaps even sympathy for women’s same-sex relations. He tells a story about love and courtship, not about unspeakable and unnatural passions. Bertolina apparently felt no qualms about disclosing her sexual interest in Dolzebone to her rival in love, nor about boasting of how she satisfied female lovers when he suggested she was unfortunate to have fallen for a woman. We may, perhaps, guess that the target of her hired serenaders may have been another woman she was courting.
The court appears to have taken no interest in her potential partners. Dolzebone was not summoned to testify. And although the original accusation and Ugolino’s testimony show a lurid fascination with the use of an artifical penis, this doesn’t seem to have been a point of particular outrage. Ugolino--again, assuming we can take his testimony at face value--know about Bertolina’s boasting for quite some time before he was induced to provide that information to the court. He certainly hadn’t felt the need to make an accusation on his own. And Bertolina’s neighbors--who were initially interrogated and must have been aware of her proclivities if she were as open about them as it seems--were willing to cover for her by disclaiming any knowledge.
But Bertolina’s refusal to appear before the court--indeed, she appears to have gone into hiding to avoid those sent to summon her--suggests that there were limits to tolerance in the face of an outright accusation. Her accuser, Guilelmo, presumably had enough power and a sufficient grudge to make her life unpleasant regardless of the outcome in court. But all the evidence suggests that the charge of sodomy may have been a convenient dodge rather than his primary grudge.
Let us sum up the most rosy--though quite plausible--scenario here. A single woman of comfortable means, though not high social status, is open about her romantic and sexual interest in women, even to the point of discussing it with a relative stranger. She boasts of satisfying her female lovers with an artificial penis, but is not otherwise masculine in her presentation or habits. Her neighbors, though presumably aware of all this, not only make no complaint of her, but keep silent when asked to testify against her. When the court is forced to consider sexual charges against her, due to the status and persistence of her accuser, it goes through the motions, offers a very lenient (if expensive) judgment, and does not pursue either her or her lovers beyond that.
This sheds a different light on the general absence of women in medieval legal records concerning sodomy. One of the frustrations of researching sexuality in legal records--not the theoretical treatises such as penitential manuals, but records of actual accusations and trials--is that an absence of evidence is highly ambiguous. Does it mean that the practice in question wasn't regarded as a crime? Or that it didn't occur? Other articles on the subject, such as Puff's "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)" and Crompton's "The myth of lesbian impunity: Capital laws from 1270 to 1791" have addressed this question by focusing on cases with more dire consequences. But Bertolina’s case suggests that women’s same-sex relations may have not simply flown under the radar for the most part, but been considered of trivial importance even when brought to official attention.
This case provides a relatively even-handed glimpse into a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual relations between women being similar and parallel to those between men and women. Like extra-marital heterosexual relations, they might provide an excuse for the exercise of malice for other reasons. But for every Bertolina Guercia, we can easily envision any number of Dolzebellas who evidently carried on with their girlfriends with no interference or harrassment.
Show Notes and Links
Ordinarily, I don't put a lot of my personal life into the blog here. That's what twitter and facebook and my Dreamwidth journal are for. But on the off chance that I have readers of this blog who don't follow me elsewhere, here's a quick update. I'm entering my third week of working from home as a epidemic-slowing measure. I don't know if the language is common elsewhere, but here in California it's being referred to as "shelter in place"--a term more often used for things like chemical releases, wildfire air quality emergencies, and the like. Not quite as absolute a concept as quarantine. (And, of course, much different from the standard protocol for earthquakes, which is "duck and cover, then exit the building".)
I've been tracking my activities, daily temperature, and potential contacts in my Dreamwidth journal. At this point, any potential exposure from pre-shelter days can be ruled out but I have made a couple of grocery excursions since then. At this point, I'm pretty well set to completely isolate (other than a daily bike ride for exercise) for the duration, even if the duration lasts over another month. I don't think anyone can predict how this is going to play out at that timescale. There are many possibilities and most of them involve catastrophizing. At this time, I do know people who are infected, though all of them are online friends rather than face-to-face. At this time, I don't yet have any direct social links to anyone who has died (that I know of), but statistics says that will happen. In my immediate circle, I worry most for my 90-year-old father and my brother-with-the-heart-condition who live together an hour's drive away. (Close enough that if they needed me to run errands for them, I could.) And periodically, people remind me that, at age 61, I fall in a statistically more-at-risk group, despite being generally in robust health with no significant other risk factors.
So much of my day-to-day social life is online that there are long stretches when it scarcely feels different. Writing a blog like this is like living in a room with one-way glass. For the most part, I never know whether my writing is touching people, or serving to entertain or educate. I know I put out this plea on a regular basis, but when face-to-face contacts are even further reduced, it means a lot to me when people let me know that the work I put out has created a relationship between us. That there's a face on the other side of that glass, even if I can't see it.
Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
I have tried to organize this cluster of articles on friendship in a natural progression, but that wasn't always possible for logistical reasons. But it is very useful to read them as different takes on a central theme. The authors don't always agree and they always emphasize different aspects of the topic. I have plans to do a podcast essay that brings together the different threads of women's friendships--especially in the 18-19th centuries at the height of the Romantic Friendship era--and explores both the realities and the myths. Women's friendship was never just one thing. It operated on several continuums. It is neither accurate to say that friendship never had an erotic componant or that it always did. The one doens't negate the other. Even when considering the effusive language of romantic love that was "just the way women addressed each other" it is not accurate to claim it is always purely conventional, nor always reflecting what we would understand as a romantic bond, nor always something between where genuine emotional bonds are envisioned with the symbols of heterosexual romanctic love.
In this present article, it is important not to let the language of blood-family relations call up a spectre of incest taboos. The language of kinship is regularly used between (heterosexual) spouses, especially in contexts where brother/sister were used to identify fellow members of a religious or social group. (Though I've recently identified an article on the topic of erotic "romantic friendships" between genetic sisters that does cross the line into incest. It'll be a while before I get to it, though.)
Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other. In some cases, pseudo-sororal bonds might achieve legal status by means of one member of the pair marrying the other’s brother or by both friends marrying a pair of brothers.
Such fictive sisterhood existed within a culture of sex-segregated social networks and gendered social roles. (See Smith-Rosenberg 1975, once it's posted, for far more detail on this point.) Various scholars have hotly debated whether intimate friendships of this type should be understood as containing an erotic element or whether they should be understood as entirely non-sexual, following familial bonds such as mother-daughter or “natal” sisters. These debates tend to polarize the topic in a way that distracts from a consideration of just why sisterhood appears so commonly as a framing for intimate friends.
One motivation is an emphasis on the specifically female nature of women’s same-sex friendships, often combined with an idealization of the relationship of natal sisters. But what were the expectations for such family bonds that made them attractive as a model? And does the use of sisterhood as a model contradict the homoerotic possibilities of female friends who use that language? Or might the use of sororal language be a means of negotiating the erotic potential of intimate friendships?
Natal sisterhood in the 19th century came with expectations of mutual emotional and financial support, embedded within larger familial networks, with a lifelong obligation to maintain those networks. The expectation was that sisters would provide mutual care and intense love. The use of sister terminology among religious and activist communities drew on these same expectations. None of these expectations erase the simultaneous reality that not all families were free of conflict, but even within those conflicts was an expectation of continued relations.
All of these features were invoked when women used the model of sisterhood for intimate friendships. It was an intensely emotional model that contrasted with the “cool and rational” relations expected by male friendships. [Note: But is it true that men's friendships were expected to be "cool and rational" at this era? Or is true that they were in fact, regardless of the social model? It's outside the scope of my study, but given how much I see a contrast between the supposed non-erotic nature of women's friendships and their frequent reality, I wonder how much the myth and reality of men's friendships could also differ. But certainly the pubic archetype of women's friendships as intensely emotional provided scope for them to be erotic as well.]
Sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the friendship relationship, the ultimate example of which would be marriage to a brother or other family member.
Kinship networks were essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the natal family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Even heterosexual marriage could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. As one woman wrote to her adopted sister, she didn’t have a particular problem with men, but found the institution of marriage to be a barrier to her goals. She felt no inclination to marry as she could never expect to find a man who would sympathize with her plans and support them in the way that a sister would. (Other women expressed a more focused disinclination for marriage if it would interfere with their intimate friendships.) Even if heterosexual marriage were accepted, a fictive sisterhood might remain the most important relationship in a woman’s life.
Although much of the documentary evidence for fictive sisterhood comes from the white middle class, the phenomenon was also important to working class women and in the African American community..
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44c - Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/21 - listen here)
When Portrait of a Lady on Fire came into the local theaters, my first choice would have been to find movie buddies to watch it with. My second choice was to find one or two people for an online chat, like I did for The Favourite. But, alas, no one responded to my call for interested participants. So here I am, talking to myself in front of a microphone about a movie that you definitely should go see if you’re a fan of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
It feels a bit silly to try to do a movie discussion show all by myself, so this is going to be more of a rumination on loving uncomfortable history, and the question of whether we’ve arrived at a point in time when even bittersweet depictions of lesbians are a joyful thing. When we don’t have to feel that anything less than unicorns and happy-ever-afters feels like tragedy.
This is already getting dangerously close to spoiler territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put up the spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about what happens in Portrait and I’m also going to talk about what happens in a book I recently consumed, The Mercies, which got me to thinking on many of the same themes. So if you’re a person who is averse to spoilers and if you have plans to watch or read either of those properties, then bookmark this podcast to come back to after you’ve done so.
Are we clear on that? No coming after me complaining that I gave things away? Is this enough time for you to hit “skip” on the podcast app if that’s what you need to do? Ok, then.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s set on an island off Brittany, in the north-west of France, in the late 18th century, though since we don’t see any hints of the French Revolution, it’s not the very end of the century. A widowed countess hires the young painter Marianne to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse as a present--or perhaps better characterized as a job application--for the man chosen as her prospective husband. If he likes the painting, he’ll agree to marry her. The one hitch? Héloïse mustn’t know she’s being painted. The last painter gave up in despair when she refused to let him see her face. So Marianne takes on the role of attendant companion to the young noblewoman, observing her closely enough to be able to begin the painting in secret.
The movie is visually ravishing, taking advantage of locations in Brittany as well as several chateaus. The costuming is similarly lovely, featuring a few glimpses of rich court gowns, but more often the women’s everyday wear from aristocrat to peasant. At some point in the film, I realized how thoroughly focused on women it was. There are some sailors in an early scene, but the story is so completely feminine that when a male messenger arrives toward the end, it feels like a shock, and is no doubt meant to do so.
The countess becomes a background figure after explaining Marianne’s task to her and the story becomes focused on Marianne, her subject Héloïse, and the housemaid Sophie who sees to their needs. Even contact with the nearby villagers comes in the form of a women’s festival. Gradually they become a family in miniature with class differences set aside, though of course, not erased.
Romantic and sexual tension develops slowly but insistently between the two women, impeded by Marianne’s guilt over the deception about the painting and the looming knowledge that the entire purpose of her project is to further Héloïse’s marriage prospects. Their mutual confession of love and the initiation of a sexual relationship comes when you’re almost starting to be afraid you’ve been baited, but their span of idyllic happiness makes up for that tease.
OK, and here’s the real spoiler part, but an essential element for some of the themes I want to talk about. In the end, the portrait is completed with Héloïse’s cooperation, the countess approves of it, it is sent off to the prospective groom, and Marianne leaves to return to Paris and teaching painting to young ladies (the framing story at the opening of the film). In a postscript, Marianne spots another portrait of Héloïse in a gallery, showing her with her young child. Then she sees her alone at the opera, weeping at the beauty of the music (a motif that came up earlier in the film). These experiences are bittersweet but both women had accepted how the course of their lives would run.
So is this a film that draws back from embracing a happily-ever-after ending for its lesbian protagonists? Is this meant to be tragic? Here’s why I don’t see it that way.
One of the things that this film depicts solidly and authentically are class relationships between the characters. Marianne’s unmistakable status as an employee. Sophie’s unremarked duties to see to everyone else’s needs. The countess recounting her own marriage to a stranger in a foreign land, and how her goal is to see her daughter’s life follow the patterns of her own.
Let us, for a moment, imagine an 18th century story in which a young, handsome, middle-class male painter spends an extended period in the company of the young woman he is painting. In which they gradually fall in love. The ending of that story would be the same: he would complete the painting, showing the depth of his love on the canvas, then he would watch her leave to marry the foreign nobleman and be strangely comforted glimpsing her later in her married life, knowing that she found some measure of happiness and that it would never have been possible for them to be together forever.
That’s the context in which I see this movie, not as a failure to give queer characters a happy ending, but as a triumph of the normalization of queer characters in historical cinema, where they get exactly the same range of types of experiences as a straight character would. Yes, there were happy queer stories in history that could be made into movies...and I certainly hope we’ll see many of them. They’ll be different in some ways from happy straight stories, but they’re out there. But this specific story could only realistically end the way it did. It embraced that. And what that means is that we get to be normal in movies, just like everyone else.
That brings me to the other property I want to discuss, which is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I included this in the new book listings in February and I’m going to repeat the cover copy that was included then.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves. Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil. As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence. Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
When I read an excerpt to do my micro-review post on Patreon--you do remember that I’m doing micro-reviews of the new book listings as a Patreon benefit, right? When I read it, I thought the writing was gorgeous but there was something in the rhythm of the prose that made me doubt I’d get through reading it. So on impulse I bought the audiobook and it was the best decision because the narrator made both the language and narrative style of the Norwegian setting come alive. Listening in audiobook also made it easier to keep going when I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, or whether the hints and promises of a sapphic relationship were going to be fulfilled.
So, again, there are going to be spoilers here.
As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there are elements in this plot that can only go in certain directions. But that doesn’t preclude some of those directions from avoiding outright tragedy. Maren has lived in the isolated fishing village of Vardø all her life. She has found a man she doesn’t feel too bad about marrying, though it’s clear that she has some unrecognized homoerotic urges floundering for expression. Mostly they’re expressed in something of a crush on an older, somewhat butch woman who scoffs at following gender norms when the loss of almost all the men in a storm leaves the women of Vardø to fend for themselves.
But 17th century Europe wasn’t very forgiving of overt gender non-conformity, even when necessary for survival, and when the new commissioner arrives at Vardø to hunt down heresy and sorcery, such nonconformists are an obvious target, second after the Sámi who, as non-Christians, are marked for vicious persecution.
The commissioner, very pragmatically, has picked up a Norwegian wife, but failed in some of his practical aims by choosing the sheltered daughter of a ship-owner, fallen on hard times. Ursa barely knows the basics of an urban housewife, to say nothing of being in sole charge of a rural household with no servants. She can’t turn to her husband for help--even in marriage he’s a complete stranger to her. Her need combines with Maren’s loneliness to form a fast, if unbalanced friendship. There is a sensual component to that friendship that the two women are unsure how to express until the aftermath of the emotional crisis of the witch trials and executions, which include the execution of Maren’s crush.
OK, here’s the serious spoiler section for this book. In a cathartic moment, the women engage in a sexual relationship and recognize what they’ve been leading toward for the previous year. Ursa’s husband, the commissioner, becomes suspicious and attacks Maren. In a panic, Ursa kills him. (It all feels very triumphant in the moment. He’s a real bastard.) But that act will have consequences. To protect Ursa, Maren decides to leave -- to take to the wilderness and possibly find and join her Sámi sister-in-law -- so that the blame will fall on her and no one else in the village will be punished. Ursa will be free to return to her father’s house. Although there is a hint of space left open for the possibility that they will find each other again later, they cannot be together at the end of the book as it stands.
As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though perhaps more emphatically, the structure of the plot doesn’t allow for a romantic happily-ever-after ending, but it does allow for passion, agency, revenge, and hope. Same-sex love is not punished with death, although it feels touch-and-go for a bit. And though I felt put through the emotional wringer, The Mercies left me feeling validation that the field of queer historical fiction is strong enough to tell stories like this. Stories that tackle the rough parts of history and include us in them without needing either to coddle us or to punish us for existing.
Romances with guaranteed, formula-driven happy endings are important--essential even. But they aren’t the only important type of story to tell. What I long for is the day when any story I encounter could potentially have queer characters included in it. We can’t have that if we require guarantees and promises.
And a romantic couple in a permanent bond is not the only possible way for queer people to be happy in history. Sometimes you find it in recognizing and acknowledging your desires. Sometimes you find it in holding close and then letting go, knowing the joy you took will stay with you. Sometimes you find it in hefting up a stone rolling pin and claiming your freedom.