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Tuesday, November 1, 2016 - 08:00

Pre-orders for Mother of Souls are available at Bella Books for both hard copy and e-book!

(They're doing the monthly website updating currently, so content may shift and settle somewhat.)

* * *

I don't know if I'll continue posting teasers for Mother of Souls once the book is out. It rather seems beside the point once people can just read the whole thing! I've skipped ahead a bit for this one, where Margerit is working on the curriculum for her women's college with the chosen headmistress: her former governess Sister Petrunel (Petra). On the way in, they've bumped into Antuniet's apprentice, Anna Monterrez who is visiting Margerit's library.

Anna is one of several ethnic minority characters where I look for a tricky balance between not erasing the very real prejudices of the historic setting of my story, without making those aspects so prominent that readers who identify with the characters find the story unpleasant to read. There are limits to the believability of having my protagonists all be open-minded and lacking in prejudice, and I've tried to show them stumbling regularly in subtle but realistic ways. But for the most part, I've shoved the more serious expressions of prejudice off onto non viewpoint characters, and perhaps that's a bit of cowardice on my part for now. Given Anna's future story arc, there will be some necessary conflicts around her religion that I'll need to tackle head on, and I hope my Jewish beta readers will help me navigate them successfully as they have attempted to guide me in this book.

* * *

Chapter 18 - Margerit

“That girl seems an unusual choice for an apprentice,” Petra commented.

Margerit laughed. “When has Maisetra Chazillen done anything in the usual way? But Anna is perfect for her. And she’s the sort of student I want. Serious and studious, but one with no opportunity to pursue a higher education in the usual way.”

“Do you mean she’s to be one of your students?”

“If her father agrees,” Margerit said. “That seems to be the case with so many of them! I think I have enough parents convinced for a respectably sized class. It makes sense to start with a small group, focusing on the girls with the most interest. With more, half might drift away and that would dishearten them.”

“But a Jewish girl…do you think she will be comfortable?” Sister Petrunel seemed to be taken aback and was searching for some tactful objection.

Margerit frowned. She hadn’t thought that Anna might feel alone in that way. “Perhaps I should ask Maistir Monterrez if he knows any other girls who might be interested.”

“That wasn’t quite what I meant,” Petra said tartly. “Would she be permitted to study at a Christian school?”

“I’d scarcely call it that,” Margerit protested. “It’s true I plan to cover thaumaturgy in the curriculum, and that means a certain interest in theology, but nothing formal.” The university dozzures might consider that to be too great a trespass into their own gardens. “I hope there’s no reason why Jewish students wouldn’t feel welcome.”

Petra said slowly, “I suppose I had assumed…”

Oh. That possibility hadn’t occurred to Margerit: that hiring Sister Petrunel and filling some of the teaching positions from the ranks of the Orisules might give the impression that her college was meant to be an extension of the convent schools.

“I never meant it as a religious school, as such,” Margerit ventured, watching Petrunel’s face for reaction.

“But you mean to teach thaumaturgy.”

“As a philosophy, yes. And as a study of practices. I’d like—” She’d mentioned this only to a very few people. “I’d like to see if we can encourage the development of talents in that direction. You yourself said that it’s difficult for girls to get good instruction in thaumaturgy outside the convent. Even the ancient authors talk about the difficulty of passing on traditions when each mystery guild keeps its own secrets so closely. Everyone says Alpennia has a strong tradition of mysteries based on the work of people like Fortunatus and Gaudericus. But that’s centuries past. Where is the new work? Where are their ideas being taught and expanded? I know groups like the Benezets are said to teach their own members, but the guilds guard their traditions too closely. The university doesn’t encourage practice. Not in any practical sense. If thaumaturgy is to revive in importance to the state—”

She hesitated, wondering how common that knowledge was. Princess Annek had privately encouraged her plans for the school but perhaps she hadn’t meant that support to be public. “Not just the Great Mysteries and the protections of the tutelas, but things that are useful. Like the healing mysteries you do at the convent. Think how much more could be done with more trained thaumaturgists. Or combining ritual with new agricultural practices. We’ve all heard about the failed ceremonies during the French wars. What if Prince Aukust could have called on a practiced corps that could direct the guilds…?”


She let the thought trail off, realizing how self-important it sounded that she might change the face of Europe on the basis of a group of schoolgirls.

Mother of Souls
Monday, October 31, 2016 - 07:00

This concludes my month-long trek through Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men. Given the density of the information and the intersection of its importance (at the time of publication) and its now curiously dated feel, I don't begrudge the time spent. But I confess I'm looking forward to getting back to a once-a-week schedule for the LHMP posts! For the next publications, I've lined up a few books that I picked up at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress this year, including one that studies medieval artistic depictions of variant sexuality, such as the image I use as the icon for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.3 Romantic Friendship and Lesbian Love

(It makes the most sense to jump down and read my summary of the concluding chapter before coming back to read my final thoughts here. The display order of the two sections is fixed in the blog format.)

Re-reading a book that one has read a very long time ago is an interesting and enlightening experience. I’ve done self-conscious re-reads of several books in the last year or so and discover new things about both myself and the text in that sort of close re-examintion. The other two were fiction: my critical read-through of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which is coming to a close this week, and my “pre-review” and re-read for review of Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. In both those cases, I wanted to challenge my emotional reaction to the book I wanted them to be, contrasted with the book “as it is”. And, to some extent, my running commentary on Faderman has been the same sort of challenge.

When I first read this book back in the early ‘80s, when it was brand new and I was freshly out--out of college and out as a lesbian--I imprinted on it heavily. It was the first serious historical study I’d run across of romantic relationships between women that wasn’t in the sort of “medical case history” genre that Faderman touches on. It gave me long lists of historic and literary references to chase after and a sense that there was a history of lesbianism to study. And as an amateur historian and massive history buff, I was eager to find that facet of myself reflected in past centuries.

But Faderman’s book also left me frustrated because it seemed to treat a lot of myths and stereotypes as fact: the stereotype that Victorian women had no sex drive, the idea that sex would somehow convert a noble and praiseworthy friendship into something sordid. It isn’t always clear when Faderman is presenting these stereotypes as stereotypes and when she’s accepting them unexamined as truths. A disturbingly large number of statements are of the form "women of this time must have felt..." or "it wouldn't have occurred to women of this time to...." Without a presentation of the logical case for those conclusions, it's hard to distinguish Faderman's conclusions as a researcher from her "gut feeling" as a consumer of the pop culure myths she's trying to examine. The summary in the concluding chapter (quoted at length below) seems to walk back some of the aspects that bothered me earlier in the book, but that only leaves me more confused as to what her ultimate position is.

Here, then, are some of my overall impressions in light of this re-read.

One cannot fault Faderman for not having access to the rich wealth of research on lesbian history that had not yet been published at the time she was working on it. (In my own experience, the next ground-breaking work was Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women, which wasn’t published until 1993.) But in a critical review such as the LHMP, one of my goals is to put dated research into context and give the reader pointers to contrasting evidence. I feel the need to note that there is now a great deal of research showing that the tradition of passionate friendship between women in the early modern period and later included relationships on a broad continuum of erotic expression. Faderman's observation that the most well-known publications discussing lesbian sex in these eras were written by men, and usually with a prurient male gaze, sidesteps the general erasure of women’s writings about their own internal lives. Their writings were not encouraged in the first place, were kept from publication, were forgotten or erased from the literary tradition, and--as Faderman notes in her opening discussion of Emily Dickinson’s correspondence--were actively censored by later gatekeepers. One need only look at how close Anne Lister’s diaries came to being destroyed by later gatekeepers to have a sense of how little weight we can put on the signficiance of the small amount of surviving data.

As I say, I can’t fault Faderman for not having access to scholarship that didn’t yet exist, but I do find some fault in the weakness of the critical engagement with what she does present. There might not have been a solid body of work on lesbian sexuality in pre-modern times, but there was enough work on female sexuality in general that the claims about women’s (lack of) sexual desire and social attitudes towards female sexuality strike a wrong note. Another wrong note is struck by how the evidence that Faderman does present for erotic desire in the “romantic friendship” era seems to be discounted or swept aside with “but respectable women wouldn’t allow themselves to feel this way.”

It is difficult to escape a nagging sense that Faderman herself thought that introducing sex into a romantic friendship made it “not respectable,” rather than accepting that a wide spectrum of erotic expression could have been present within the phenomenon of romantic friendship without it changing how women of the time understood their relationships. Faderman also seems to accept a qualitative distinction between “erotic activity that isn’t sex, such as kissing, hugging, fondling, bed-sharing, and passionate verbal exchanges” and “sex, i.e., activity involving the genitals.” Given that we still live in an era when one can argue the truth value of the statement “I did not have sex with that woman” in regard to oral sex, I can understand that such a distinction might be meaningful. But it might also be useful to examine how the participants in romantic friendships might have mapped out the dividing line between “sex” and “not sex”. There is a long legal and cultural history in western culture of the position that “sex” requires the presence of a penis. Given that history, it is within the realm of plausibility that women in passionate friendships in the 18-19th centuries might have held the position that nothing they did together could possibly be categorized as “sex” (even genital activity), and that therefore there was no reason for any self-consciousness or guilt about it. (And no basis for describing it as “sex” even in their own private writings.)

This is where I have issues with the apparent chain of logic that begins the book:

  • Pre-20th century women accepted the notion that “respectable” women did not feel sexual desire so thoroughly that they did not, in fact, feel sexual desire and therefore would not have engaged in sex unless a man (and a male sex drive) were involved.
  • Women in pre-20th century passionate friendships felt no self-concsiousness or guilt about public expressions of affection and devotion.
  • These pre-20th century women would necessarily have felt guilty and self-conscious about engaging in sex, therefore the lack of guilt is proof of the absense of sex.
  • Only after medical sexologists gave women permission to feel erotic desire was it possible for people (both men and women) to retroactively impute erotic desire to women in passionate friendships.
  • This retroactive assumption of sexual desire raised the risk of sullying the reputation of historic women in passionate friendships therefore it is necessary to redeem them by proving that the “serpent in the garden” is sordid modern imaginations, not the historic relationshps themselves.

Faderman’s concluding discussion nicely sums up the history of how popular culture manipulated people’s beliefs about women’s friendships in response to the social, political, and economic circumstances of the time. When it was useful to the dominant forces in society for women to have an emotional “safety valve” in intense same-sex friendships that had no power to disrupt heteronormativity, then those friendships were valorized. When social and economic changes gave women the potential of living lives independent of men, then it was necessary to undermine close bonds between women lest men become obsolete. (Ok, gross oversimplification.) But I still feel there’s a gap between analyzing the history of popular public perception of women’s passionate friendships--the “myth” as it were--and the actual lived experience of women in those passionate friendships, which--based on the scraps of self-reporting that we do have--was likely to have been enormously varied and individual.

In any event, Surpassing the Love of Men is a dense, in-depth study of the public reflection of a social phenomenon, and of the social and political currents it interacted with. For those with a passing interest in history and literature, it is valuable for providing background on how to interpret some of the language that women used to express friendship, and a caution on not interpreting it through a modern lens. For those looking to create fictional characters set in recent centuries, Faderman’s detailed discussions provide guidance on the spaces in which lesbian characters could have existed.

This is a very brief chapter, summing up the book’s overall thesis. “Passionate romantic friendship between women was a widely recognized, tolerated social institution before our century. Women were, in fact, expected to seek out kindred spirits and form strong bonds. ... It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family if not in lieu of them. When women’s role in society began to change, however...society’s view of romantic friendship changed. Love between women--relationships which were emotionally in no way different from the romantic friendships of earlier eras--became evil or morbid. ... Many of the relationships that [men] condemned had little to do with sexual expression. It was rather that love between women, coupled with their emerging freedom, might conceivably bring about the overthrow of heterosexuality.... In the sophisticated twentieth century women who chose to love women could no longer see themselves as romantic friends.... They became as confused and tormented as they were supposed to be. But it was only during this brief era in history [i.e., the 20th century] that tragedy and sickness were so strongly attributed to (and probably for that reason so frequently found in) love between women. This changed with the rise of the second wave of feminism.”

That’s probably a good overall summary of the book’s conclusions. There is further discussion of some of the complexities and conflicts of modern (i.e., 1980s) lesbian feminism. Touching on the place of sex within romantic friendships, “While romantic friends had considerable latitude in their show of physical affection toward each other, it is probable that, in an era when women were not supposed to be sexual, the sexual possibilities of their relationship were seldom entertained.” And then a discussion of the variable place of sexual desire and activity within “political lesbianism” and a nod to the continuing importance of not definining lesbian relationships solely by the presence or absence of sexual activity.

Faderman concludes with an idealistic look to a future when the erasure of sexism and prejudice against same-sex relationships leaves everyone free to enter into the relationships they desire without having to weigh the social, political, and economic consequences at all.

Time period: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 10:30
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.2 Writing Lesbian

This chapter surveys positive lesbian literature of the 20th century and the circumstances that allowed for its publication at various times, including a lot of ambiguity. This is well outside the scope of the LHMP and involves a great many literature citations. I’ll just note that there’s a lot of material there for those who want to see what else was available besides the depressing stuff. [It feels like the book has lost some of its through-line in the 20th century chapters. The general theme of the place of passtionate female friendships pops up now and then, but the content has largely moved from “literature as a source of information about social attitudes” to “literature survey for its own sake.”]

Time period: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 10:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.1 The Rise of Lesbian-Feminism

Faderman moves into the modern political era with a consideration of the parallel movements for women’s rights and gay/lesbian rights starting in the mid-20th century. Both the strength and the weakness of attempts to associate feminism with lesbianism was the underlying truth of the association. Historically, feminism had arisen among women who directed their primary reform efforts and emotional connections to other women. Those connections ranged along a continuum from friendship to romance to sex. Conversely, lesbians had strong reasons to support a movement freeing women from the expectation that their social, political, and economic lives required connection to a man.

The sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s began eroding at the stigma of non-normative sexuality in general. Organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and its newletter The Ladder that had originally organized as social support moved into activism and began attacking expectations that their members should consider themselves psychologically ill or that they should live lives of apology and guilt. Similar organizations and publications arose in France and Germany around the same time.

In 1970, The Ladder announced a policy shift that fully embraced feminist solidarity: rather than seeking to achieve for lesbians the same rights that striaght women had, their goal was to achieve for all women the rights that human beings should have. [Those goals were limited in some ways by the same limitations that prominent feminist organizations of the time had: they were founded by otherwise politically-moderate middle-class white women and prioritized solving the problems that they, themselves encountered.] Another way in which the two movements overlapped was in the “political lesbian”, i.e., feminists who felt that it was--at that time--impossible to live a life of true equality while in intimate relationships with men.

Overlapping concerns, however, did not prevent a wide variety of political fractures and realignments within the two general movements. But here I’m going to skip the detailed history of feminist/lesbian politics in the 1970s. It’s well outside the scope of the current project and is probably better studied from more politically-oriented sources. Suffice it to say that, in some ways, the merging of lesbian and feminist communities and interests re-invented the concept of “romantic friendship” in the sense of women whose primary emotional and romantic bond was with each other, whether or not it was also inspired by gender-directed sexual desire.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 18:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 3 - The Goblin Market

(Originally aired 2016/10/29)

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

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

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

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

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

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

Evening by evening

Among the brookside rushes,

Laura bow’d her head to hear,

Lizzie veil’d her blushes:

Crouching close together

In the cooling weather,

With clasping arms and cautioning lips,

With tingling cheeks and finger tips.

“Lie close,” Laura said,

Pricking up her golden head:

“We must not look at goblin men,

We must not buy their fruits:

Who knows upon what soil they fed

Their hungry thirsty roots?”

“Come buy,” call the goblins

Hobbling down the glen.

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

Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck

Like a rush-imbedded swan,

Like a lily from the beck,

Like a moonlit poplar branch,

Like a vessel at the launch

When its last restraint is gone.

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

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,

She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,

Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:

Sweeter than honey from the rock,

Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,

Clearer than water flow’d that juice;

She never tasted such before,

How should it cloy with length of use?

She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more

Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;

She suck’d until her lips were sore;

Then flung the emptied rinds away

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

Do you not remember Jeanie,

How she met them in the moonlight,

Took their gifts both choice and many,

Ate their fruits and wore their flowers

Pluck’d from bowers

Where summer ripens at all hours?

But ever in the noonlight

She pined and pined away;

Sought them by night and day,

Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;

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

I ate and ate my fill,

Yet my mouth waters still;

To-morrow night I will

Buy more;” and kiss’d her:

“Have done with sorrow;

I’ll bring you plums to-morrow

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

Golden head by golden head,

Like two pigeons in one nest

Folded in each other’s wings,

They lay down in their curtain’d bed:

Like two blossoms on one stem,

Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,

Like two wands of ivory

Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.

Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,

Wind sang to them lullaby,

Lumbering owls forbore to fly,

Not a bat flapp’d to and fro

Round their rest:

Cheek to cheek and breast to breast

Lock’d together in one nest.

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

So crept to bed, and lay

Silent till Lizzie slept;

Then sat up in a passionate yearning,

And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept

As if her heart would break.

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

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

Till Laura dwindling

Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:

Then Lizzie weigh’d no more

Better and worse;

But put a silver penny in her purse,

Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze

At twilight, halted by the brook:

And for the first time in her life

Began to listen and look.

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

Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:

Squeez’d and caress’d her:

Stretch’d up their dishes,

Panniers, and plates:

“Look at our apples

Russet and dun,

Bob at our cherries,

Bite at our peaches,

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

One call’d her proud,

Cross-grain’d, uncivil;

Their tones wax’d loud,

Their looks were evil.

Lashing their tails

They trod and hustled her,

Elbow’d and jostled her,

Claw’d with their nails,

Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,

Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,

Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,

Stamp’d upon her tender feet

Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits

Against her mouth to make her eat.

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

One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,

Coax’d and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,

Kick’d and knock’d her,

Maul’d and mock’d her,

Lizzie utter’d not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in:

But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip

Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,

And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,

And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.

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

She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,

“Did you miss me?

Come and kiss me.

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,

Goblin pulp and goblin dew.

Eat me, drink me, love me;

Laura, make much of me;

For your sake I have braved the glen

And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

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

Laura started from her chair,

Flung her arms up in the air,

Clutch’d her hair:

“Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted

For my sake the fruit forbidden?

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

She clung about her sister,

Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:

Tears once again

Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,

Dropping like rain

After long sultry drouth;

Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,

She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.

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

Her lips began to scorch,

That juice was wormwood to her tongue,

She loath’d the feast:

Writhing as one possess’d she leap’d and sung,

Rent all her robe, and wrung

Her hands in lamentable haste,

And beat her breast.

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

Laura awoke as from a dream,

Laugh’d in the innocent old way,

Hugg’d Lizzie but not twice or thrice;

Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey,

Her breath was sweet as May

And light danced in her eyes.

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

Laura would call the little ones

And tell them of her early prime,

Those pleasant days long gone

Of not-returning time:

Would talk about the haunted glen,

The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,

Their fruits like honey to the throat

But poison in the blood;

(Men sell not such in any town):

Would tell them how her sister stood

In deadly peril to do her good,

And win the fiery antidote:

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

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

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

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

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,

And slowly rolled her eyes around;

Then drawing in her breath aloud,

Like one that shuddered, she unbound

The cincture from beneath her breast:

Her silken robe, and inner vest,

Dropt to her feet, and full in view,

Behold! her bosom and half her side—

A sight to dream of, not to tell!

O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!


Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;

Ah! what a stricken look was hers!

Deep from within she seems half-way

To lift some weight with sick assay,

And eyes the maid and seeks delay;

Then suddenly, as one defied,

Collects herself in scorn and pride,

And lay down by the Maiden's side!—

And in her arms the maid she took,

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * * End of Transcript * * *

Major category: 
Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 09:00

There's a special Halloween episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast live at the Lesbian Talk Show: a discussion of Christina Rossetti's poem "The Goblin Market" in the context of 19th century literature with themes of lesbian-tinged decadent sensuality and predatory supernatural creatures. The podcast concludes with a reading of the entire poem. I think I'm finally starting to feel ok about listening to the sound of my own recorded voice! One of the things I'd like to do with the podcast is include more readings from some of the texts discussed in the LHMP. So let me know if this is a sort of thing you'd like more of.

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.5 Internalization and Rebellion

Women who loved women in the early to mid-20th century no longer lacked public models for their relationships--the problem was that all the public models they now had were toxic. With the voices of authority insisting that they were deviant, the women who dared to be “lesbian in public” tended to be those who had little to lose, or whose living relied on notoriety: bohemians, courtesans, and the like. And it is these individuals that Faderman considers in the current chapter.

Even those women authors who were known publicly to some degree as lesbian or bisexual often employed the same tropes of aesthetic decadence as male writers. Nathalie Barney, Renée Vivien, Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Nin fall in this category, writing of intense, desperate, doomed passions. More rarely, writers such as Colette evoke an older romantic sensibility: “What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.” But her work also employed imagery of a sexual underworld.

The biographies of women like Vita Sackville-West show how the pressure to enter into heterosexual marriages combined with the lack of strongly positive models for relationships between women often led to confusion and self-hatred when the inherent contradictions couldn’t be resolved.

Supportive social circles were most possible within the dense population of urban centers such as New York and London, and the literature produced for internal consumption within these circles, such as Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, reflects a less tragic and more realistic view of lesbian communities. Natalie Barney’s salons in Paris were an open gathering place for a large circle of lesbians, including prominent writers and artists, to the point where the men who attended the salons made snide digs about it in their own writing. And--perhaps fulfilling the fears of contemporary men--her love for women was inextricably linked with her feminism and her support for the careers of women writers.

The lives of less prominent lesbians of this era are harder to trace unless they left some autobiographical record, though Faderman presents a number of speculations on what they must have thought and felt about their desires.

Time period: 
Friday, October 28, 2016 - 12:00

Bella Distributing is holding a "Scary Good Paperback Sales" lasting through this whole weekend. Check it out for some stupendous deals on lesbian genre fiction--including Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage! If you've been waiting for a great deal to get caught up with the series in paperback in time for the release of Mother of Souls, it won't get any better than this. (If you want a chance to get caught up in e-book...well, you never know.)

And now, on to the movie review.

* * *

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

I'm going to confess that I've been putting off watching Imagine Me and You (2005) for quite some time because I was afraid of getting punched in the face. Somehow the "meet-cute" premise of a bride falling for the (female) florist at her wedding, combined with the cover image of two m/f couples with the women surreptitiously holding hands behind the men's backs, didn't feel very promising for a f/f happy ending. I expected a lot of angst, a traumatic coming out, and probably the women being tragically separated due to one or the other sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of the other. And despite several people assuring me (in a non-spoilery way) that it wasn't like that, I think there was a gap of a couple years between when I bought this DVD and when I finally watched it.

It wasn't like that.

There was a certain amount of angst--but only as much as one would expect when a newlywed discovers that, although she married her best friend, she hadn't married the love of her life. There was a fair amount of comedic confusion around coming out, but not in the "I'm revealing a secret" sense but more in the "um...why have you assumed I'm heterosexual?" sense. The second man in the cover poster--the groom's best man--starts out as a lecherous sexist boor, but is only moderately annoyingly persistant once he's been clued in to the sexual preference of the woman he's been set up with. Because, you see, the bride's initial reflex to feeling an instand emotional connection with the florist is to invite her over for dinner and then try to set her up with her husband's best friend.

What makes the biggest difference between my expectations (fears) and the movie is that it's set in the 21st century, when sexual preference is considered by the characters of no more moment (and equivalent comedic potential) to being vegetarian or some such. So the angst is all about respecting commitments versus following your heart and admitting to someone you care deeply about that you've made a dreadful mistake. And, in the way of the best romantic comedies, in the end, following your heart leads to a happy ending for everyone.

Evaluation: No one dies. No one recants. Everyone ends up happy (though some teeter on the edge of happy and bewilderment). The bride goes through coming out, but it's not the major focus and isn't traumatic. Once she realizes the nature of her feelings for the florist, the question is how to balance the imperative of True Love with having just made vows to someone else. And her friends and family don't react with shock and horror, only confusion concern.

So if you, too, have worried about whether this movie will punch you in the face, I'll echo what I was told and didn't entirely believe: It doesn't.

Friday, October 28, 2016 - 07:28
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.4 Fiction as a Weapon

The 20th century saw the rise of new genres of fiction that demonized lesbian relationships and inextricably linked them to social structures that had historically nourished women’s friendships, such as single-sex schools. Curiously, it has been revealed in retrospect that many lesbian novels of the 20th century were written by women who were, themselves, lesbian.

The “vampiric” lesbian became established as a trope, joining with the predatory schoolmistress motif in Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1915). Although Faderman identifies the central character as a “vampire” it isn’t clear to me from the discussion that this is meant in the sense of literally drinking blook, rather than simply causing a physical decline in her “victim”. Faderman explains “it is not the victim’s blood that the villain lives on but her youth and energy” although in another novel mentioned in this category (White Ladies by Francis Brett Young, 1935) the word vampire is used by a character for describing this psychic effect.

In addition to the lesbian schoolmistress, scholarly and academic women come in for identification as predatory lesbians. Depictions of close, emotional, dependent friendships between women are given a sinister sexual spin in works such as Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) [Sayers also invokes the “lesbian academic” trope in Gaudy Night but there it is challenged and countered by the character Harriet Vane], G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends 1931), of Edouard Bourdet’s play La Prisonnière (1926). These stories typically involve an older, dominant, often ugly lesbian who seduces a younger, pretty, “normal” woman who may or may not be “rescued” by a male character by the end of the story.

Some anti-lesbian literature of this era purports to present “true case history” type stories, such as D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1922) in which the male protagonist considers the breaking up of a female couple to be something of a masculine biological imperative, likened to hunting down prey, with marriage to the more feminine of the two little more than an excuse. Perhaps more pointedly, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women (1928) satirizes and ficionalizes a real-life circle of upper-class lesbians living on the island of Capri, whose models included Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Romaine Brooks and, others.

The “mannish lesbian” became a stock figure of genre novels by popular authors such as Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. And with the rise of the paperback novel, the “lesbian pulp” genre emerged, no longer veiling their characters’ sexuality with allusions, and following a contractually-required plot formula that punished lesbianism with tragedy, loneliness, or death. But out of the pulps, eventually a different type of lesbian literature emerged.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 21:10
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.3 Keeping Women Down

The rest of these entries are going to get shorter and more condensed as we work though the 20th century.

This chapter details a variety of English and American cultural responses to feminism and to women’s greater independent present in the public sphere in the early parts of the 20th century. Women had entered traditionally masculine professions during the upheavals of World War I and suffrage movements in both England and America pushed for political equality.

Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and/or feminist women as agressive, ugly man-haters who are destined to be lonely old maids. Only abandoning their ideals for a traditional role of wife and mother can redeem them. The strongest tool was to depict independent/feminist women as “mannish” and on the road to lesbianism.

The 20th century saw several cycles of increased freedom--often associated with the economic and demographic disruptions of war--followed by social attempts to retrun women to traditional roles by stigmatizing the most assertive movements as unwomanly and deviant. In the 1970s, this tactic intersected with the “Gay Liberation” movement which undermined some of its success.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 06:53

The Lesbian Talk Show, which hosts my Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast episodes, is doing a holiday special series currently, with special episodes of regular shows and additional episodes that mix and match the regular contributors. I was matched up with Suzie Carr who does a regular postive-thinking series called "Curves Welcome" and we brainstormed the intersection of our two topics and came up with "The Masks We Wear", discussing both phyiscal and psychological masks and costumes and how we use them to interact with others and negotiate our identities in the contemporary world and in history.

You can listen to the show directly online, or even better, you can subscribe to The Lesbian Talk Show through iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher. (And if you like the show, we'd love it if you give it a rating to help others find it.)

* * *

I apologize for not posting my wrap-up of A Little Princess yesterday. It's being a demanding week--I have an intense investigation at work that is eating up my lunch hours, and the final proofs of Mother of Souls came in for review and took priority over other things in my non-work hours. You'll have to wait until next Wednesday to find out how the story ends!

Countdown to Mother of Souls release day: 17 days!


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