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Sunday, October 16, 2016 - 14:45

I chatted a bit about the history project in an interview with Elizabeth Andersen for her radio show The Tenth Voice which aired yesterday. We also talked about my books and writing. The Project has also been added to the set of Resources links under Writing Characters with Different Sexual Orientations. Writing the Other offers a wide variety of resources, including links, articles, videos, and classes.

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).

II.A.1 The Asexual Woman

As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.

One feature of the trial arguments that Faderman touches on is how the possibility of sex between women was displaced onto “foreign” women. The student who made the accusation (Dame Gordon’s granddaughter) was the out-of-wedlock child of an Indian mother, and suggestions were made that she was able to fabricate such a charge because women in places like India were more sexual and lascivious and the child had learned about things like lesbianism there.

But the main feature was the argument that decent women would not have the sexual drive necessary for sexual activity to take place in the absence of a man. The judge opined that the crime of which Woods and Pirie were accused did not exist--was not possible. Paradoxically, the romantic devotion of the two women to each other was offered as part of the evidence for their good character and virtue.

Their reputations were also protected by the vehemence with which the legal establishment chose to disbelieve in the possibility of lesbian sex, arguing, “a woman being in bed with a woman cannot even give a probability to such an inference [of unnatural intentions]. It is the order of nature and of society in its present state. If a woman embraces a woman it infers nothing.” This was contrasted in the legal arguments with the acknowledgment that sex between men was not only possible but could reasonably be suspected if the men showed similar signs of affection.

This determined denial of possibilities is present in a French example, also of the early 19th century, where the writer Flora Tristan wrote to her friend Olympe that she wanted a woman to love her passionately. Olympe wrote Flora in turn that she made her “shiver with pleasure” and put her in ecstasy, and yet their writing appears to indicate that they did not consider these experiences to constitute sexual passion. Faderman concludes, “if a cosmopolitan Frenchwoman...could ignore her own sensations...we may be sure that the general public had no conception of the potentials of love between women.” [The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that it can be demonstrated to be false. One hesitates to keep returning endlessly to the example of Anne Lister, but she managed to find an entire diffuse community of women in rural Yorkshire who managed to have a “conception of the potentials of love between women.” Faderman is taking an official public myth and presenting it as a description of objective reality.]


At the end of this chapter, Faderman jumps to the very end of the 19th century and presents examples of a medicalized view of lesbian sex as “morbid” and due to mental perversion, as well as an example from a novel of two women in love falling asleep “in the silent ardor of deep blissful joy” in each other’s arms, after having rejected “the impure advances of sapphists.” These bookend examples are meant to show that the entire 19th century in England was one where “decent women” were functionally asexual, where they simply could not conceive of sexual activity being present in a loving relationship. [It might, perhaps, be a little more accurate to describe it that such women re-defined any erotic activities they enjoyed as not being sex, just as the judges in the Woods and Pirie case repeated the theory that sex cannot exist without a penis. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between women in Romantic Friendships not labeling experiences as being erotic and those women not experiencing erotic desire.]

Time period: 
Sunday, October 16, 2016 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to 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 will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items 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.

* * *

Given the original premise of this series of lesbian movie reviews (no death, no recanting, not just a coming-out story) I'm slowly working my way from the positive end of the scale toward the movies that hit fewer of the targets. (I'm jumping around a bit in the groupings, but still working generally in that direction.)

Today's offering falls under "No death, no recanting, but a fair amount of coming out." It's relatively short (40 minutes) and I doubt it ever played in anything but film festivals. I think I first spotted it on the VCR shelf at a long-closed women's bookstore. The costume drama aspect would have caught my eye even if the unusual name hadn't. I have a friend named Cynara, which is an incredibly unusual name. The only other pop culture reference I'm aware of for the name is in a work by Victorian poet Ernest Dowson, which has the refrain "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my own fashion." The same poem also gave Margaret Mitchell the phrase that became the title of Gone with the Wind. Dowson also seems to have coined the phrase "days of wine and roses" in a different poem. Since Dowson's Cynara was published around the era when this film is set, I suspect there may be a deliberate reference of some sort.

Cynara: Poetry in Motion (1996) The film is a period piece set in late 19th century England. It's artsy and atmospheric but a bit thin on plot (and occasionally, intelligibility). Sculpter Cynara meets Parisian expatriate (female) writer Byron (a name that suggests a certain beating the viewer over the head with symbolism, or at least lack of imagination) on the beach. Much misty sensuality ensues. I honestly confess I don't recall whether they're still together at the end. It was all very vague and dream-like. On-line reviews call it "Harlequin romance for lesbians" which suggests a happy-ever-after, but also suggests that my recollection of vague misty sensuality may be all there was. Certainly nobody dies. Not a traditional "coming out" story either. But it's very much in the realm of cotton candy rather than steak. It's a solid addition to my collection of lesbian costume drama and makes a nice balance in tone for many of the other works in that collection.

* * *

I've been tending to use the lesbian movie reviews to fill in when I don't have a current book, movie, or play to post. Just to give people a taste of what I'll eventually be covering, the items that I have already written up in some form (but haven't covered yet) are:

  • Fingersmith (2005, mini-series)
  • Bar Girls (1995)
  • Mädchen in Uniform (1931, b&w, German, subtitled)
  • Aimée & Jaguar (1998)
  • Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)
  • Portrait of a Marriage (1990, mini-series)

Movies on the list to include (i.e., I own them) but not yet written up include:

  • Antonia's Line
  • Bound
  • But I'm a Cheerleader
  • Daphne: The Secret Love Life of Daphne du Maurier
  • Entre Nous
  • Fire
  • Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (documentary)
  • French Twist
  • Go Fish
  • I Can't Think Straight
  • Lost and Delerious
  • Mädchen in Uniform (1958, color, German, subtitled)
  • Purple Sea
  • The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

It's something of an eclectic list, based on things that I either ran across by chance, or that hit my interests enough to track down. The latter are far more likely to be period pieces of some sort than contemporary stories. But if there's a title you think I should add, feel free to recommend it! Particularly if it fits some of the original criteria of "no death, no recanting, not focused on coming out."

Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 10:37
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).

I.B.5 Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Life

Given the sorts of comments I've been making on this book, it would be easy to think that I have an overall poor opinion of it. Not at all! A number of the sources I present as counter-evidence would not have been easily available to Faderman at the time she was writing. But I do think that her work is undermined by the relative modern focus of her expertise, and by her tendency to take certain things at face value that should have been questioned more deeply. When I've finished with the whole book, I'll summarize my critique a bit more clearly. In the mean time, I hope I've managed to distinguish the summary of Faderman's text from my own commentary.

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion. Yet some later historians, interpreting such material, have asserted that these expressions of love were coded messages to a male relative of the recipient, though if no such male relative existed, a “morbid” explanation might be identified. The notion that these intense emotions might have been considered normal and acceptable in their time has been difficult for 20th century researchers to accept. [Though Faderman herself seems to find it hard to accept that the acceptance of Romantic Friendship could have overlapped with the presence of sexual activity in some set of those friendships.] Historians who studied correspondence of this type in isolation, while focused on a particular individual, often failed to understand the larger cultural context for it, and looked for particular and individual motivations.

The core elements used to express Romantic Friendship included “vows to love eternally, and to live and die together; wishes to elope together to sweet retirement; constant reassurances of the crucial, even central role these women played in each other’s lives.” In some cases, these desires were achieved, as with the most famous Romantic Friends of the late 18th century in the British Isles. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were born into upper-class Irish families and were so devoted to each other that they eloped (disguised as men). It took a second elopement (after they were found and brought back home) before their families capitulated and left them alone. Their finances were dire, but they eventually secured pensions from the English Crown. The settled in Llangollen, Wales and became something of a pilgrimage site for the litterati, being visited by many notables of the day and inspiring a minor industry of poetry about them. Despite people using the language of marriage to refer to them (e.g., referring to one partner as “your better half”) their public image was of platonic, non-sexual partnership. Men praised them for their vituous purity; women envied their steadfast marriage resistance. Another factor in their acceptance by the public (in addition to their upper class origins) was their political and social conservatism.

It is worth noting that the belief in the “purity” of their love was not universal. The notorious (and homophobic, by modern standards) gossip Hester Thrale alternated between praising the “fair and noble recluses” and private diary entries (cited by Emma Donoghue) calling them "damned Sapphists." Faderman notes only Thrale’s general comments about “unspeakable sins” committed by some women with each other and considers those comments not to apply to the Ladies. Faderman doesn’t mention at all one of their visitors later in life: Anne Lister, who afterward wrote in her diary that she did not believe their relationship "purely platonic".  Both these items undermine Faderman’s thesis that “their generally rigid, inhibited, and conventional views regarding undress and evidence of sexuality suggest that it is unlikely that as eighteenth-century women, educated in the ideal of female passionlessness, they would have sought genital expression if it were not to fulfill a marital duty.”

As evidence of their innocence, Faderman cites their reaction to an insinuating newspaper article that told how Ponsonby “was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union [for Butler]” and describes Butler as “tall and masculine...with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats.”  They contacted a lawyer thinking to sue for libel but were persuaded that doing so would only make them more notorious. Here we can once again make comparison with Anne Lister (whose diaries were not available to Faderman) who also looked into suing a newspaper that published references to her gender non-conformity. In Lister’s case, we have clear and direct evidence that this impulse did not stem from a “clean conscience” when it came to lesbian sexual activity.

Another relationship that is well-documented by correspondence and includes all the trappings of an intense romantic relationship is that between the intellectuals Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. Though they never realized the goal of living together as Carter was tied to an invalid father and Talbot was an invalid herself, they deliberately chose not to marry men, despite opportunity.

Similarly Anna Seward declined many offers of marriage, ostensibly to care for her father, but researchers who attribute her life-long unmarried state to an early broken heart (on the basis of a few lines in much later correspondence) ignore the volumes of poetry and letters she wrote to Honora Sneyd, who had lived with the Sewards for fourteen years in her youth. Honora did marry--to Seward’s dismay and grief (and against her express desires)--and died before the two had any opportunity to share their lives, after which Seward mourned her extravagantly for the next thirty years until her own death.

Though these logistical separations and barriers often sparked expressions of anger and intense jealousy, Faderman returns again to her position that, “Anna seems so unguarded in her involvement with Honora, so entirely and guiltlessly public, it is difficult to believe that a woman reared in her conservative environment and continuing to be comfortable in it, would have been open about any nonmarital relationship that was sexual.”

[It has occurred to me, at this juncture, that one of Faderman’s blind spots is the assumption that the women involved in Romantic Friendships would automatically have equated sexual activity with women and the forbidden nonmarital sexual activity with men.  An alternate explanation, of course, would be that the women saw no correspondence between the two spheres of activity. That--like the complacent viewpoints of male writers such as Brantôme--they saw a qualitative difference between genital activity with women (=harmless) and genital activity with men (=sinful). Faderman also seems unable to imagine women being able to dissemble and self-censor in their writings in the midst of these extreme passions. Or that Romantic Friends might not have viewed the presence/absence of genital activity as being a meaningful distinction in defining and understanding their relationships.]

Mary Wollstonecraft was on the rebound from her first Romantic Friendship when she fell in love with Fanny Blood and, after some tribulations, moved in with Fanny’s family and began a campaign to achieve her dream of extracting Fanny and their living together elsewhere--a dream that foundered on Fanny’s passive lack of dedication to the relationship. Wollstonecraft had relationships with men as well, naming her first child in memory of Fanny. As with other prominent women of letters whose lives featured Romantic Friendships, later academics took pains to invent or emphasize romances with men.

Time period: 
Friday, October 14, 2016 - 13:00
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).

I.B.4 Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Literature

This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage). Financial privilege enabled them to share not one but two homes together and to establish the charity that inspired Millenium Hall. The protagonists of the novel--like the author and her companion--are intelligent, educated women who desire little more than to spend their lives together. A husband briefly causes an unhappy breech but he conveniently dies a short time later. The two, along with friends that include another romantic couple, set up an idyllic existence in the country and establish several charitable projects. The blissful same-sex relationships in the story are contrasted with the invariably unhappy heterosexual ones, though the characters are not portrayed as set against marriage, as such, and one of their charities is to provide dowries for poor women.

Not all such fictional friendships had happy endings, some being separated by marriage, some culminating in the ultimate act of love, a self-sacrificing death. Although a significant portion of this literature is by female authors, male authors wrote admiringly of female affection as well. Faderman speculates on why these all-consuming relationships between women were depicted positively even when clearly elevated above marriage. Perhaps, she suggests, the real-world inevitability of marriage eroded their subversive potential, and perhaps men had voyeuristic enjoyment in watching two women showing affection to each other, as some male writers suggest.

Somewhat in contradiction to the main thesis of the book, Faderman quotes from the Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry who, undoubtedly familiar with the lesbian accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette, traveled to America in the late 18th century and commented frankly on what he perceived to be the social independence of American women and their apparent lack of passion toward men, concluding that “they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Faderman immediately dismisses this possibility as “doubtful”.

But if language is an indication, literary women in America saw little difference between the love they felt for each other and what they were expected to feel for men. And among the expressions of admiration and affection there are regular indications that women considered their passionate friendships to be in direct competition with heterosexual marriage, such that they would swear never to marry for each other’s sake. The intellectual pleasures they describe are not infrequently enjoyed together in bed and accompanied by embraces and kisses. “But,” says Faderman, “since decent women of the eighteenth century could admit to no sexual desires and decent men would not attribute such desires to them, the sensual aspect of their relationship goes no further in fiction, as it probably would not in life.” [Presumably, by this definition, de St. Méry was not a “decent man”.]

This assumption of innocence that is extended to literary female friends is not always offered to close male friends in literature, where the specter of homosexuality is more likely to intrude. Charles Brockden Brown left a fragment of an unfinished novel touching the “depravity” of a male character due to the nature of his friendships with other men, while raising no such suspicions in his work Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1798) which concerned female friends, which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself to be reunited with her beloved friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for the friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. And that friend’s marriage is considered easier to dispense with, if necessary, than their need to remain together.

The indistinguishability of women’s passionate friendships and the passion expected in marriage is seen in Helen Williams’s Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) in which, in a sort of reverse Iphis and Ianthe, the female protagonist discovers that the person she has developed a deep and very physical affection for while students in a convent together is actually a boy disguised as a girl (and ignorant of his own gender). Up until the reveal, the nature and intensity of their love is considered not outside the bounds of what would be normal between girls, and after his gender is revealed, their love is described as being the same as before...except now they can get married.

When men wrote of women having sexual relationships with each other (as in the memoirs of Casanova), the focus tended to be purely on genital activity and their bond is treated as ephemeral and eagerly abandoned for a man. When women wrote of women’s passionate friendships, they encompassed autonomy, economic independence, and a compete intimacy of the mind. But in summarizing this, Faderman overlooks the physical aspects of those relationships, erasing them from the equation, as if a relationship between women could either be genital or emotional, but not both.

Time period: 
Friday, October 14, 2016 - 07:00

I think I mentioned previously that, having bought the Comixology app for my iPad to read a particular title, I went hunting around in their catalog to find other things of interest. Since they have a GLBTQ category in the catalog, I figured that was a good place to start. Mostly filled with very pretty boys kissing each other, as might be expected. But one title caught my eye for featuring a female POV character, a historic setting, and the promise of exciting adventure.

A young woman in late 18th century Spain, on the eve of her debut into society, receives a mysterious message and gift from her missing father: an astrolabe. As a child, her father had trained her with games of puzzle-solving and mysteries, so she takes the gift as a signal and sets off on her own to answer it and reunite with her father. Along the way, she finds herself in company with a brother and sister (or so they present themselves), and is flustered and intrigued by the sister's habit of wearing male clothes and wielding a deadly sword. There's a very Dumas-like feel to the story and setting, but with female characters far more centered than he ever did.

Windrose is a fun little adventure story with mostly excellent art. The first volume (which is what is currently available and appears to collect the first 6 issues) is only the very beginning of the story. It's not so much that there's a cliffhanger as that we're only beginning to climb the cliffs in the first place. It's promising enough that I'll be continuing to follow the series, but I'm also reminded of why I generally don't follow graphic stories much. And this isn't in any way a fault of the particular title, but rather of the format. There's just a very low story-to-page content, and while the art is enjoyable, I tend to read for story rather than art. So here are my likes/dislikes about this specific work.

I liked:

  • The attention to historic detail in the art. It isn't necessarily completely historically accurate (especially in the clothing) but this is a fantasy version of history so I'm generous on that point. And it has a solid look-and-feel. The characters are well-differentiated and realistic within a manga-style presentation.
  • The plot moves quickly but sets up a lot of structure for a complex story.
  • The female characters are complex and engaging.

I disliked:

  • I'm pretty sure this is a standard artistic convention of the genre, but the faces of background characters and characters in intense emotion are often shown in distorted charicature (often with emoji-like simplicity). I found it jarring and distracting, especially when it was done to one of the viewpoint characters.
  • At the current point in the story, I'm feeling a little queer-baited. We have a cross-dressing female character and some slight hints of "same-sex attraction from gender confusion," but I'd be more excited about investing in this title long-term if I'd been given in-story evidence that I'm going to get more than that. 

If plucky 18th century girls hanging out with sword-swinging cross-dressing girls is your thing (and it very much is mine) I suspect that Windrose will be very much up your alley.

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 17:00
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).

I.B.3 The Battle of the Sexes

Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult. By the 18th century, middle- and upperclass women (and it is primarily those groups who participated in Romantic Friendship) were encouraged to be genteelly idle. Intellectual women were looked askance, as were women who indulged in active pursuits like riding. These pursuits had become considered to be inherently masculine in a way they hadn’t in previous centuries. [Or perhaps--thinking about some of the discourse around gender and intellect in the middle ages--the "masculinization" of intellectual women had now come to be considered a bad thing rather than an ideal to strive for.]

Thus the most assertive and ambitious women were the ones least likely to find satisfaction in friendships with men, even as they were celebrated in the supposedly egalitarian society of the salons. And their writings and correspondence show that they turned to each other for support, admiration, and friendship. Marriage to men was often treated as a necessary evil and no impediment to their passionate friendship with women. Successful resistance to marriage (when economically possible) was considered an ideal.

Now we get another one of Faderman’s asserted-but-not-proven conclusions: “Because women of their class and temperament generally did not engage in sex outside of marriage, it probably occurred to few of them that the intense emotion they felt for each other could be expressed in sexual terms--but that emotion had all the manifestations of Eros without a genital component. Perhaps the primary difference between the salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England and the salons of Paris in the 1920’s where lesbian love was openly expressed...was that as a result of the late nineteenth-century sexologists, women in the 1920’s knew they were sexual creatures and behaved accordingly.” [It is in passages like this that I feel the work most suffers from a lack of historic depth. Social beliefs about women's sex drives have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. Chaucer's Wife of Bath didn't need a sexologist to give her permission to be a sexual creature and behave accordingly!]

There is a nod to the consideration that, although it is easiest to track the nature and development of Romantic Friendship among intellectual women who produced copies written records of their experiences and thoughts, the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship was common among non-intellectuals as well.

The eighteenth century in England, Faderman asserts, was the point of greatest female repression of passion and sexuality, with a hyper-focus on virginity and chastity in literature and life that made any social interactions with men suspect. Men might pursue women and encourage them to demonstrate their love, but--as epitomized in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the goal was conquest, not mutual affection. A woman who capitulated might find that her lover now considered her impossible to trust with any other man. The extreme version of this war between the sexes was found in the increasingly violent misogyny of pornographic literature. Even literature about the importance of equal companionate marriages (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Reflections on Courtship and Marriage) are presented as proof that such a thing was considered rare.

What I find missing in this chapter is a sense of statistics. Anecdotal examples from eighteenth-century life and literature are presented as evidence for considering marriage and relations between the sexes to be a relentless hellhole. This, then, is presented as the context in which Romantic Friendship between women became a refuge and ideal. Marriage was desired only so far as it make it economically and socially possible to live a life independent of that husband.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 13:00
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).

I.B.2 The “Fashion” of Romantic Friendship in the Eighteenth Century

My commentary on this chapter is so hopelessly intertwined with the summary that I’ve given up trying to separate the two.

As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.

In the 17-19th centuries, fashion recognized women’s close emotional and romantic bonds as “normal” in this sense, and further, that fashion condoned them as desirable. Public “romantic friendships” such as the celebrated one between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) were not considered improper, as such a friendship would be between unmarried opposite-sex persons.

Opinions varied whether such romantic friendships should be viewed only as practice for the devotion a woman would be expected to give a husband, or whether they were a “natural” outgrowth of feminine nature, to which was attributed sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion. As a gross oversimplification, male writers tended toward the first opinion, while women’s accounts of their own romantic friendships tended toward the second. There is also a suggestion, in the representation of romantic friendships in literature, that they allowed a useful emotional escape valve for women trapped in dysfunctional marriages, in an era where marriage was an expected life path but divorce was next to impossible.

This benevolent view was not entirely universal. The polemic Satan’s Harvest Home deplores “two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it.” And though the text asserts certainty that Englishwomen were not capable of being “criminally amorous” with each other (as the publication describes that foreign women might be), to raise the possibility is to acknowledge it. Male authors, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) often portrayed close female friendships as inherently ephemeral, but other works (even by male authors) depicted such friendships as enduring and even triumphing over heterosexual bonds.

Although the above examples are primarily English, French writers of the 18th century reflected a similar recognition of intense female friendships that used the language of passion and often reflected lifelong bonds that eclipsed those of family. Such a friendship was the subject of Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle Héloise, but the real-life equivalent was seen in women who carried each other’s portraits, attended salons together, and refused social invitations unless both were invited. Although Faderman asserts that open kisses and caresses between such friends were not considered to be sexual (except, perhaps, as stimulation for a male observer), this is the historic context in which such intense friendships among Queen Marie Antoinette’s circles were fodder for accusations of lesbian activity. And the text quotes descriptions by these women of their relationships that clearly equates what they feel for each other with heterosexual desire.

But after noting that the language used is identical to that used between heterosexual lovers, Faderman returns to her thesis: “It is probable that many romantic friends, while totally open in expressing and demonstrating emotional and spiritual love, repressed any sexual inclinations, and even any recognition of those inclinations, that they might have felt for each other, since during most eras of modern history women were well taught from childhood that only men or bad women were sexually aggressive.” What does this “many” mean? The book seems continually to return to the position that if “many” romantic friends did not see any erotic aspect to their relationship, then eroticism was by definition absent from the concept of romantic friendship. As opposed, for example, to seeing the phenomenon as a continuum where public acceptance of certain aspects could allow for a more erotic relationship that was less public. And yet, “less public” how, when women in romantic friendships spoke of “wearing the chains of Eros” and of longing to be able to marry each other? Faderman states that the “sophisticated” modern scholar would see in these effusions only a sentimental literary style and discount that it came from genuine emotion, and argue as evidence that signs of heterosexuality (such as marriage and children) automatically contradicted the possibility of homosexual desire. [This entire book seems to ignore the possibility of bisexuality.]

Writers of the 18th century themselves commented on the distinction between expressions of sentimentality that were purely for the sake of fashion and those that came from genuine emotion. And these were often contrasted in literature in a way that valorized the genuine emotion.

The chapter concludes with Faderman’s conclusion that, despite the language of passion and devotion, despite behaviors such as kissing and embracing in bed together, “unless they were transvestites or considered ‘unwomanly’ in some male’s conception, there was little chance that their relationship would be considered lesbian.” And here we come back to a contradiction in the book’s argumentation. Are we considering only whether larger society would accuse them of being lesbians? Or are we to conclude that there was nothing of lesbian sexuality present in the relationship itself? Faderman herself seems to waver between the two. Just above, she has defined “lesbian” as meaning “sexual proclivity” as if lesbian identity means solely, obligatorily, and exclusively physical erotic desire. But elsewhere the argument seems to be that women in romantic friendships didn’t allow themselves to feel any erotic desire at all because “good girls don’t”.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 06:00

Once Sara encounters the Indian Gentleman in person, everyone’s truth starts coming out fairly quickly, only drawn out by Carrisford’s stumbling reluctance to ask directly, lest he be disappointed once again. Sara refers to Ram Dass as a Lascar, leading to the revelation that she was born in India. Now, this on its own means little--no doubt all sorts of Anglo-Indian girls were sent to school in London. As Sara’s position at the school is teased out, Carrisford becomes more and more agitated and hands the questioning over to Carmichael. But Carmichael, too, seems strangely reluctant to simply ask her name outright. So we’re led through the circumstances of Captain Crewe’s ruin and death and Sara--not suspecting anything--lays the blame squarely on her father’s friend. This knife-twist releases the last of the debt between them. Now Carmichael asks her name and all is revealed.

Sara is stunned and bewildered to think that her salvation had been right next door all this time. (We’ll continue right on in to Chapter 18 now, since it’s all part of the same scene.)  When Sara is sent out of the room to join the Carmichael children while Carrisford recovers, Donald is the one who point out this irony: “If I’d just asked what your name was when I gave you my sixpence, you would have told me it was Sara Crewe, and then you would have been found in a minute.” But like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, if the connection had been made at the beginning, there would have been no opportunity for all the spiritual growth along the way. And it is Carrisford's (in his mind) displaced charity toward "the little girl who is not a beggar" that creates his own redemption--a redemption that wouldn't have occurred if he had simply tracked Sara down at the beginning of his search. (Though--standing outside the narrative framework of Moral Accounting--it's a bit abhorrent to think that two years of suffering on both their parts is a fair trade for a neat redemptive arc.)

Mrs. Carmichael comes over to take charge of Sara and mother her (which must have felt peculiar to Sara, given that she had never been mothered in her life). And she is the one who makes the other connection for Sara: that Mr. Carrisford is Sara’s benevolent friend who transformed her attic. This allows Sara to forgive him everything else and they can begin their new relationship as guardian and ward with a relatively clean slate. All that remains, is for accounts to be settled with Miss Minchin and the school...

As I’ve indicated above, I think that from the Moral Accounting point of view, this scene completes both Sara and Carrisford’s moral arcs. Sara is rewarded for her virtue, and Carrisford has atoned for his sin. What they do moving forward is written in a new account book.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 06:00

I'd lost track that the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards were being announced this past weekend at Gaylaxicon. The announcement has been moving around a bit in recent years due to the Gaylaxicon schedule. Last year and on a number of previous occasions they were announced at Chessiecon/Darkovercon. So it took me by surprise Saturday when Catherine Lundoff started live-tweeting the results. According to the website, 36 novels were submitted for consideration from 2015. The winner was Luna: New Moon by Ian MacDonald, a book I'm not familiar with. The shorlist of nine "recommended books" includes The Mystic Marriage. When you look at that list of authors, you might have a hint at how pleased I am to be in such company.

  • Planetfall by Emma Newman
  • Ebenezer by JoSelle Vanderhooft
  • My Real Children by Jo Walton
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
  • Chaos Station by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen
  • Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones
  • The Bastard’s Paradise by Kathe Koja
  • Cherry Bomb by Kathleen Tierney

Note that the Spectrum Awards website hasn't been updated yet at the time I'm posting this but I assume it will be as soon as folks have had a chance to recover from the con.

* * *

When Margerit and Barbara decided to share their lives openly, rather than making more discreet arrangements, Margerit entered into a delicate dance with her Fulpi relatives in Chalanz. To be sure, there's nothing inherently unacceptable about two unmarried women in a close friendship deciding to live under the same roof. (This is the era of Romantic Friendship, after all, as can be seen in the LHMP material I'm currently blogging.) But it looks a bit odder for it to be two women who are young enough (and wealthy enough) to have good marital prospects. And Barbara's history and habits are such as to raise more than the usual suspicions.

The provinces tend to be more conservative than Rotenek society and, unlike Margerit's Aunt Bertrut, the Fulpis have no direct financial or social stake in turning a blind eye to Margerit and Barbara's relationship. Furthermore, they have daughters whose own reputations need protecting until they're safely married. It would break Margerit's heart to cause a complete rupture with the Fulpis. She has a genuine affection for the family, despite everything, but most especially for her youngest cousin Iulien. We've seen glimpses of Iuli in previous books as she grows from a child to a wayward teenager. And now she's on the brink of the first step into womanhood: the start of her dancing season.

In case readers are wondering, I completely invented the concept of the "dancing season"--a period of a year or two when a young woman is out in society but is explicitly not on the marriage market yet. She is expected to go to dinners and balls, to socialize and to dance, but neither to entertain nor to encourage the attentions of particular suitors. There were a few logistical reasons for inventing it, but partly it was just one of those ideas that came to me and was a way of turning Alpennian culture into its own thing, and not just an imitation of English Regency society.

Once I'd conceived of it, a number of consequences emerged on their own. Letting a girl have a dancing season must be a mark of a certain level of wealth, because it extends the period of time (and therefore the investment of money) when she's "on display" before she might be married off. For families where marriage alliances are serious political business, it provides a neutral period when the prospective parties have a chance to size each other up before making approaches. There's always the danger that the young people will form attachments despite all that (though it is very much Not The Done Thing), but keep in mind that this is a culture where love is never the only deciding factor in a marriage. And in that context, a dancing season also provides the opportunity to get puppy love out of one's system without taking any irrevocable steps. (This is also where the elaborate system of vizeinos and armins come in, especially for important families.)

Margerit had originally planned to host Iulien's coming out ball at Fonten House, her mansion in Chalanz, as she had for Iuli's older sister Sofi. But plans change.

* * *

Chapter Fourteen - Margerit

And now there was no putting off the letter to Iuli.

My dearest cousin, I hope you and your parents are well. I greatly enjoyed the verses you sent with your last letter and I have taken the liberty of having them set to music by the talented Luzie Valorin, whom you might have heard of even in far-off Chalanz. I enclose the music with these letters and hope to hear you perform the song some day.

It pains me to tell you I will not have that opportunity this summer, even though you learn it in time for your coming-out ball. As you know, I have decided my college must be ready in time for the fall term, and I will have no chance for travel this summer, neither to Chalanz nor to Saveze. I would very much have loved to host your ball at Fonten House as I did your sister’s, but our lives move on and Fonten House is no longer part of mine.

Margerit paused, chewing on the end of her pen and thinking what more to say. She couldn’t tell Iuli the truth: that Uncle Fulpi had suggested in the strongest terms that her presence would be unnecessary. He hadn’t gone so far as to say unwanted. While she had owned property in Chalanz, the prestige of hosting Sofi’s ball in the mansion on Fonten Street had more than balanced the Fulpis’ concerns for the family reputation. The abstract family pride in an absent relation who was an heiress and the Royal Thaumaturgist was always put in peril by her presence. Her presence brought with it an inconvenient baroness who had a habit of wearing men’s clothing, not to mention an affection between the two of them that couldn’t entirely be excused by the conventions of friendship.

With Fonten House sold, Uncle Fulpi was happy to accept her offer to underwrite the expenses of Iuli’s coming-out, but had expressed his strong preference that only her purse and not her person attend. Iuli would be disappointed, but there was no help for it. Her cousin’s parents had the power to forbid their continued correspondence entirely and Margerit knew how much it meant to Iuli to have at least one person in the world who encouraged her writing and wanted her to continue dreaming beyond the future that Chalanz offered.

Perhaps I will be able to visit next year at floodtide. I know it seems so long to wait! It would have been an eternity when I was your age and I will miss your entire dancing year. Write to me when you have time and make sure to save up all the memories from your ball to tell me.

Your loving cousin, Margerit Sovitre.


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