I'm still stretching the definition of "Kalamazoo books" a little here. The first book was neither purchased nor marked for purchase at the conference, but I was given the reference by someone at my session for inclusion in the expanded version of my paper.
Sturges, Robert S. (trans). 2015. Aucassin and Nicolette: A Facing-Page Edition nd Translation. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing. ISBN 978-1-61186-157-0
Owen, Morfydd E. and Dafydd Jenkins (eds). 2017. The Welsh Law of Women. (Second edition) University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-78683-159-0
Morrison, Susan Signe. 2017. A Medieval Woman's Companion. Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-78570-079-8
Still waiting on the backordered books from Boydell, and the books from University of Toronto Press.
Today, my department at work is taking me out for a lunch celebrating my 15 year anniversary at the company. My plan and goal (knock on wood) is to be here to celebrate my 20 year anniversary and ideally to retire at some point shortly thereafter. I don’t know whether my career path is at all typical of my generation, but it’s certainly different from that of my parents’ generation and feels different from how my younger friends talk about career expectations. So I thought it might be amusing to set out exactly what my work history has been (with all the serial numbers carefully filed off).
When I graduated college with a BS in a life science, my initial thought was to find a job in the same town where the university was located. Something doing research, perhaps. The why is lost to time, but probably it was just a matter of not having a clear idea what to do next and that was one way to narrow the possibilities down to a manageable level. But I was a practical sort, so the first goal was to get a job, any job, to enable me to continue my career search. That’s how I ended up working in fast food. For a month. Not that the job drove me away, but by the end of that month, one of my housemates had recommended me for a position at his workplace, which had the advantage of being 40 hours a week and better pay. And that’s how I ended up working in mobile home construction. I believe that was for six months. I was continuing my more science-oriented job search through it all, but people with life science skills looking for entry level positions are a glut on the market in a university town. So when an opportunity offered itself for a “wanderjahr” in the UK, I decided it was a good opportunity—one I might never have again.
That opportunity involved room and board in exchange for…well, what it was supposed to be in exchange for was not quite what the expectations turned out to be. (Nothing horrible, but lots of emotional labor in addition to the economic productivity.) I’d originally gone thinking I might be there for a year. I stuck it out for two months, after which I still had enough money to do a further month of sightseeing before heading back home. (The job there did not include pay, so this was money saved up from the construction job.)
Heading literally “home” since I defaulted back to my parents’ house at that point. The life sciences job search began anew, but once I’d gotten a sense of the job market, I decided that the best pickings were going to be in the SF Bay Area. Fortunately I had relatives I could stay with there. I think it was about half a year’s searching to find a job. I’ve never been substantially jobless since then. That job was with a small private clinical lab (doing medical testing for doctors unaffiliated with hospitals). Mostly I did “chief cook and bottle washer” work, washing glassware, preparing media in petri dishes, running the blood chemistry analyzer. I also learned phlebotomy (taking blood samples) and did some of the morning rounds of the care homes that we serviced. I have stories. After a couple years there, I realized that the only step up in that organization was to get certified as a medical technician and perform the more complicated analytic work. And that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So back to job hunting, though not with any urgency.
The first interview I went to, I was offered the position at the end of the interview. I rushed back to give my boss notice (he was about to go on vacation), found a new place to live, and moved, all in the space of two weeks. That job was at a university-affiliated lab where I mostly worked with lab animals. The job lasted a couple years until the lab was defunded, but a former boss had a lead on a position with her new employer (a start-up biotech company) and I barely had to interview before I was hired. This is something of a continuing motif. I seem to be good at making an impression on the people who hire me.
The biotech company gave me opportunities to learn a lot of new lab skills and my second boss there was delighted to have me tackle database projects, SOP writing, and assorted other skill-accumulation opportunities. I enjoyed the work, impressed the management, and even got a company award. I might have been happy to stay there for quite a while, but two things intervened. One was that I’d been thinking more and more about tackling the intellectual challenge of graduate school—not in the life sciences (which is where I would have been steered if I’d done it right out of college), but in linguistics, as an outgrowth of my historic interests. So I’d investigated the possibilities at a local university and was taking some classes through extension to beef up my application. The second thing? I’d been at the biotech company for 7 years when my employer hit a snag in getting their product approved, resulting a quarter of the company getting laid off. I was laid off and laughed all the way through my exit interview because I was getting 6 months’ severance instead of worrying about when to give notice. I had some mild anxiety during the few months between being laid off and getting my grad school acceptance, but in the mean time, personal connections had landed me a job at a small fiction magazine that would be the perfect half-time job to go along with my academics.
The magazine job filled the next three years until I felt my professional development called for switching to student instructor jobs. Those carried me through the remaining (painful, many) years of grad school until I’d maxed out my eligibility for teaching positions, which meant it was time to hand in my dissertation and return to the Real World. I’d entered grad school thinking in terms of an academic career, but during the (*cough* eleven *cough*) years I was in school, the academic job market had shifted from promising to abysmal and I recalibrated my expectations. I was in my 40s, I was part owner of a house, I owned a lot of stuff™ that I didn’t want to be moving every year until I’d racked up enough short-term positions to maybe earn a tenure-track job somewhere. I said goodbye to the dream of academia and for the first time in 20 years found myself seriously worrying about being unemployed.
On the other hand, I had a lot of possible directions to go. I had experience in biotech, in teaching, in publishing, in writing…and after only a couple months of searching, I landed the perfect intersection of those skills: technical writing and editing for the documentation department of a pharmaceutical company. It was a temp job for a crunch project and the contract was up after I’d been there for five months. I liked the location. I liked the work environment. So I asked my agency rep to see if he could find me something else. Evidently my manager told people I walked on water, because I got a call from another manager saying, “I don’t really have time to do interviews, so can you just start next month?” I didn’t worry about asking what the job entailed; I said yes. And that’s how I landed a job that was even more perfect for my skillset and one I never even knew existed. (Discrepancy investigation.) The job turned permanent after four months and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since (with several promotions). There have been a couple times when I've looked into lateral moves in the company, but when it comes down to it, I love what I'm doing and I'm damned good at it.
It’s not as continuous a career path as a previous generation would have expected. It wasn’t until my present job that I had anything resembling a decent retirement plan. And 15 years is more than twice as long as I've been at any other single job. But it’s a more solid path than many of my contemporaries have enjoyed. And having a retirement plan at all is more than most people expect these days. (Retirement planning is on my mind a lot these days.) Those are just the salaried jobs. There’s also been the writing: not high paying, but fairly regular and varied. The thread through it all is broad-based technical knowledge and language skills. Sometimes the emphasis has been on one, sometimes on the other. Being able to combine them ended up being the secret to my success.
It occurs to me, in this month of graduations and students wondering what they'll do with their lives: none of the major turns of my career path are anything I would have (or even could have) predicted that day I stood at the end of a very long line of black-robed graduates to receive my diploma. (They graduated my whole division in a lump, grouped alphabetically by major. My major was Zoology.) You don't need to know what all the branches of your path will be. The important thing is to start walking and be ready for whatever comes your way.
Worldbuilding for a series is a tenuous balance between casual references to people, places, concepts, and events that will later be important, and not overwhelming the reader with details that appear (and may in fact be) unimportant to the immediate story. So how prescient does an author need to be to figure out what to mention long before that topic suddenly needs to have been clearly established long before? Part of the answer is that, unless that full outline of a series is known before you start writing, it is exactly those "unimportant" casual worldbuilding details that then inspire future story ideas. In Floodtide, the profession of riverman is a major presence. Liv follows that family trade, and her familiarity with the "water roads" through Rotenek is key to several plot points. Further, we see how water transit is a constant, if often unnoticed, presence in the city. Did I know how important it was going to be so I could set up the reader's knowledge in advance? Absolutely not! So let's look at how the profession of riverman developed through the series so far, such that I could present it as a known fact in Floodtide.
In Daughter of Mystery, when Barbara is attacked on the bridge: “She dodged down the water-steps at the southern end of the parapet to the landing below where the rivermen docked.” She convinces one of them to row her to safety, but he balks at landing her at Tiporsel House, saying, “It’s worth my license to dock there without leave.” And that's it. No mention of regular use of the river for deliveries, no mention at all of the canal system. A slight implication that the rivermen are licensed and organized and that they are bound by certain rules. And an implication that there are regular public landing places where they are availble for hire. But the important reason for introducing rivermen was to give Barbara an escape route.
In contrast to that one lone scene, The Mystic Marriage includes 9 search returns for the string "riverm". (In Daughter of Mystery I alternate between "riverman" and "boatman". At one point I considered standardizing on "waterman". But "boatman" felt like it should be more generic, also applying to those who worked on ships and barges coming up the Rotein from elsewhere. And "waterman" just didn't have the feel I wanted.) The first reference is specifically a worldbuilding pause: Barbara is contemplating her several possible transit options for traveling outside the city down to Urmai in pursuit of a rare book as a present for Margerit. (This of course, is the first clue being planted for Margerit's eventual purchase of property there for her college.)
As she stepped out into the narrow courtyard where the groom was waiting with the horses, Barbara glanced up at the thin afternoon sun. Enough hours of light to get to Urmai and back and enough in between to examine the books Chasteld was said to have on offer if there were no delays. But with Chasteld there was no guarantee. Perhaps it would be better to take the town-chaise instead, despite the delay. No, Bertrut would have taken it already. On a better day she might have considered hailing a riverman to row her downstream. Chasteld’s place had its own frontage and dock on the river. But though the trip down would be swift, it would be slower coming back when there was more chance of rain. Her errand scarcely warranted the trouble of a coach and four, and she preferred to ride in any case.
The next five mentions of the word are all in the context of Antuniet's fevered escape from her nemesis (a somewhat deliberate echo of Barbara's experience in the first book--establishing the river as something of a metaphorical symbol of escape). Like Barbara, she frantically hails a ride so that her pursuers on foot will be foiled. When the riverman discovers she's passed out, he continues downriver to deliver her to a charity hospital outside the city (thereby conveniently taking her out of the story long enough for everyone to be worried).
The rest of the mentions are more background: reference to less well off people hiring a boat to travel up to the Carnival fair in the market grounds; mentioning the calls of the rivermen as part of the background noise of the city--at least for those living along the water; and another casual mention of the public docks when Jeanne entices Antuniet out for a picnic lunch by the river in the heat of the summer.
But The Mystic Marriage talks about other kinds of river traffic: pleasure boats that the more wealthy might hire to host entertainments--the sorts of entertainmens Jeanne has a knack for organizing; the commercial barges that fuel the warehouse district and that prove an attractive hazard for Aukustin's dreams of adventure. Still no mention of the importance of the canal system in Rotenek, though I do mention one nouveau riche family that made their money by investing in canals. But these would be the longer transport canals just being expanded through the countryside that become a bone of personal and political contention in Mother of Souls.
So let's move on to Mother of Souls. Now we have 21 returns for the search string "riverm." We get a better sense that boat transit is viewed as a cheaper alternative to either owning or hiring a carriage. Though, of course, it's only useful if you can get where you're going by water, but especially when traveling along the length of the Rotein. Or if you want the discretion of not arriving somewhere in a personal and clearly identifiable carriage! That's the reason Barbara gives for taking Margerit down to the old Chasteld place by boat for the purpose of claiming first dibs on the late Chasteld's library of esoteric books. (Margerit, of course, ends up buying the entire property instead.)
But now we also get mention of the chanulezes--the canal system. We can use the excuse that they only exist in the lower and flatter parts of the city--the south side and the western area around the Nikuleplaiz--and further that the residents of Tiporsel House do have private carriages and riding horses to get around casually. There are other good excuses for not having mentioned the transit importance of the chanulezes in previous books: Jeanne lives in a part of town with the wrong geography for canals, and Antuniet for the most part was on too strict a budget to opt out of walking (though, in retrospect, her original workshop was definitely in an area where the rivermen must have plied their trade). But Luzie's house is only half a block from a chanulez and she's right at the economic break-point where hiring a riverman is an occasional convenience, but hiring a fiacre is too much of a luxury.
Of course, in Floodtide, introducing and exploring the chanulezes is a vital plot point with regard to the failure of the Rotein to flood as expected. In Mother of Souls we get regular references to the low water levels in the chanulezes, both interfering with transit availability and exposing the foul-smelling sediments that collect when not scoured away regularly. (Although I never mention it in detail, I do have an epidemiological model for why significant flooding after years of low water creates a risk of river fever epidemics. It was important to me to have that model, but it wasn't important to bring it into the plot. We haven't yet gotten to the era of germ theory, and "caused by stirring up the stinking mud in the chanulezes" is the most appropriate level of understanding for my characters.)
The chanulezes get to feature in the "bookends" for Mother of Souls as part of the interconnected water system that stars in the magically-inhibited snowpack of the Alps:
High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.
And all of that preceding information then sets us up to understand both the ordinaryness and the importance of the rivermen that winds through Floodtide in exactly the way the chanulezes wind through the city. Roz--as mentioned in last week's teaser--is the ideal point of view to expand that understanding because she's still figuring out that aspect of Rotenek life for herself, as we see here:
* * *
The garden sloped down from the back of the house to the river. You could enjoy watching the birds skim over the water and listening to the whistles and shouts of the rivermen. Sometimes one of the family would send word down to hail a riverman and then I could see them pass by in all their fine clothes to be handed into the boat and rowed off somewhere. Once Charsintek wanted me to bring a delivery back from the Nikuleplaiz and gave me a coin for a ride. But most times when a boat came to the dock, it was the kitchen delivery from the market out past the east gate. Every morning Cook or her assistant took a hired fiacre off to the market and sent the baskets back by the river. It was like a second set of roads. There’d be a sharp whistle up from the dock and Cook would send whoever was idling about down to fetch things up. Sometimes the riverman would help carry baskets too, just for the extra teneir, or to get the boat unloaded more quickly.
OK, I confess that the blog title is unabashed click-bait. But the story behind it is deeply fascinating and ultimately satisfying. The image of 19th century "romantic friends" as involving flowery, sentimental language that is purely conventional in content and not to be taken as *gasp* implying an erotic relationship is eroded a bit every time a collection of private records such as this comes to light. Not to say that all "romantic friends" can be assumed to include sexual relationships, but that such a possibility should never be categorically excluded. What makes this book valuable is not only that it presents the full, unabridged correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, but that it has been contextualized in a sympathetic and open-minded way with a detailed historic apparatus that provides the reader with the background, not only of these two women, but of how their relationship was presented and understood, both privately and publicly.
I'm still amused at the thought that I'm receiving review copies of books I can include in the Project. (I actually received this to review for The Lesbian Review, not specifically for the LHMP.) Now if only I could convince some of the really really expensive academic presses to make similar offers!
This post marks the 250th publication covered by the Project. Maybe I should have treated it as more of an important symbolic event. It's hard not to look at the 600+ titles in my cumulative database and, rather than thinking "wow, look at what I've accomplished," instead think, "I'm never going to catch up!" But at the very least I can look at that list and be confident that at some point I'll be able to celebrate having covered 500 publications. (And by then, I'll probably be able to look confidently ahead to 1000.)
Ehrenhalt, Lizzie and Tilly Laskey (eds). 2019. Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul. ISBN 978-1-68134-129-3
This is a deeply contextualized edition of the correspondence of romantic partners Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, covering the period from around their first meeting in 1890 to Cleveland’s death during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. There is a foreward from Lillian Faderman who situates them within the context of Romantic Friendship and notes how the content of the letters explodes the illusion that such relationships were passionless and non-sexual (though she describes the relationship as “one of the most remarkable love relationships between women in American History” which seems to me to contradict one of the important points, which is how normal and ordinary they were within their historic context).
Unlike their contemporaries of the professional classes who formed long-term domestic partnerships known as “Boston marriages,” Rose and Evangeline were wealthy enough that not only could economics not be used as an excuse for sharing a household, but their business concerns and social responsibilities prevented such an arrangement for much of the time they knew each other. Faderman also notes that, while there were a number of social framings for women who loved women available in the later 19th century, most of them had associations that women such as Rose and Evangeline would have rejected.
The preface outlines how author Tilly Laskey stumbled on the correspondence presented in this volume and how, after something of a pilgrimage to the town in Italy where Rose and Evangeline finally lived together as a couple, she determined to put together this edition. It is presented in the tradition of a local history project, based on the collection of Whipple family papers curated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but with the advantage (to queer-friendly readers) of being written at a time when the implied sexuality of the correspondents is not seen as scandalous or derogatory. (As opposed to 1969 when the material was first reviewed by an archivist and locked away as too “sexually suggestive.”)
The introductory material provides a detailed history of the two women, their social and business connections, the path of their relationship (which included Rose’s heartbreak when Evangeline entered into her second marriage with Henry Whipple, the first Episcopalian bishop of Minnesota), and how they renewed their bond after his death and eventually moved to Italy to live as a couple. One of the central considerations is the strongly passionate and erotic nature of Rose’s letters to Evangeline (the other side of the correspondence was not preserved) and how the two women understood the nature of their feelings for each other. I’m going to summarize the basic features, but the meat of this book is the verbatim transcripts of the letters themselves.
Rose Cleveland (1846-1918) was the sister of U.S. president Grover Cleveland and served as First Lady (official White House hostess) during the initial part of his first term until his marriage. But apart from that, she was an educator and author, successful enough that she was financially independent and able to make shrewd real estate investments. The social prominence from her time as First Lady helped maintain her popularity as an author, which in turn supported her continued financial success. Rose was considered something of a bluestocking and used her White House position in support of various reform movements including women’s suffrage, temperance, abolitionism, and Indigenous sovereignty. This prominence also subjected her to public scrutiny and her name was linked to a number of close female friends (including Evelyn Ames who was a close companion and business partner during her estrangement from Evangeline) though there is no concrete evidence for any of those relationships having the same romantic/erotic components as the correspondence with Evangeline offers.
Evangeline Simpson Whipple was propelled into wealth from more humble beginnings by a brief marriage to an elderly textile merchant and philanthropist. (He was 73 at the beginning of their two-year marriage.) His death left her an extremely wealthy widow at age 28, whereupon she became the support of her family and took up the successful management of her late husband’s ventures.
The two women met around 1890 in Florida where both had real estate investments and Rose’s letters (beginning in April 1890) indicate a passionate attachment between them that clearly had an erotic component.
“My Eve! Ah, how I love you! I paralyzes me. I have been going over & over your written words until the full message of them--some of them--has made me weary with emotion. This I must try and escape, for your sake. But let me cry & shout it. Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will not longer fear to claim you. You are mine by every sign in Earth & Heaven, by every sign in soul & spirit & body--and you cannot escape me. You must bear me all the way, Eve; clasp me in my despair of any other and give me every joy & all hope--this is yours to do.” (April 23, 1890)
Although they didn’t share a permanent household, the two traveled together extensively, including a trip through Europe and the Middle East in 1891-93.
But Evangeline was also susceptible to the courtship of another member of their social circle, Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. And there are suggestions in the correspondence that--without a clear social framework for understanding romantic relations between women as being of equivalent importance--the combination of Whipple’s personal charms and religious charisma hit a chord. Rose pleaded her case: “I will give up all to you if you will try once more to be satisfied with me. Could you not take six months for that experiment? We would go away from everyone.”
Whether due to a stronger attachment (she was clearly genuinely in love with Whipple) or to the attractions of convention, Evangeline became Mrs. Whipple and spent five years immersed in supporting Whipple’s professional and charitable endeavors until his death. (He was 74 when they married, and 36 years older than Evangeline.) Rose wrote both of her hurt and her acceptance: “I will not stand in the way. That means that I will study only for your comfort and pleasure and happiness... What is yet for us I cannot see. But I think you will need me yet--in a future, perhaps.”
They continued to correspond and meet socially, though Rose’s extended trip abroad in company with Evelyn Ames shortly thereafter can’t help but be seen as something of a rebound. That future did arrive, however. After Henry Whipple’s death, Evangeline remained in Minnesota for nine years, continuing her late husband’s projects, but with regular travels that intersected with Rose. Then, in the years leading up to 1910, Rose made various arrangements to sort out her business affairs, feeling that she wasn’t as able to keep up the same level of activity in her 60s. In 1909 she wrote to Evangeline, “I need you and life is not long enough to always wait.”
The next year, perhaps with the excuse that Evangeline’s brother had fallen ill in Italy, the two of them traveled together to be with him until his death two years later. And then they stayed. They settled in the small mountain town of Bagni di Lucca, perhaps because of its English expatriate community and Anglican church, as well as literary associations. They purchased property there, supported a social community of female associates, and worked tirelessly in social services during World War I and after when the area was flooded with refugees and hit by the flu epidemic. Both Rose and their close friend Nelly Erichsen died of influenza while nursing the sick. Evangeline continued living in Bagni di Lucca until shortly before her own death in 1930 and her body was returned there to be buried next to Rose, with matching headstones.
Rose’s letters to Evangeline were not written with a thought for public consumption. They are candid in their passion and eroticism, as well as being largely filled with the minutiae of everyday life. The accident of their preservation (note that Evangeline’s letters to Rose did not survive except in quoted responses) is largely due to the fact that Evangeline doesn’t appear to have intended her move to Italy to be permanent. Her house was shut up, intact, for her return, which never happened. It was willed to a charitable organization which disposed of some of the contents, but the vast quantity of Whipple family papers were acquired by various local historical societies and the letters themselves were not identified until a cataloging project in the 1960s.
It is interesting that a certain amount of how Rose talks about love revolves around the inexpressibility of what she feels (while simultaneously clearly expressing it). There is a sense of a self-conscious censorship in naming their emotions, a sense of falling back on plausible deniability of what the content makes clear. This is present not only in the letters to Evangeline, but also letters to others in their social circle such as Evangeline’s mother, to whom Rose writes, “There are some things we both know and feel which we shall never, never say to each other. But I want to say that I shall never, never cease to be Eva’s if she ever needs me again.” (Written a month after Evangeline’s marriage to Henry Whipple.) The letters use the language not only of romantic love but of legal oaths that evoke marriage and commitment. And the correspondence around Evangeline’s marriage makes it clear that Rose considered it a heartbreaking betrayal of what she considered a competing bond. What makes their story special is how their paths returned to each other, in time for them to renew and enjoy that bond.
[Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. No money was exchanged for the inclusion of this book in the LHMP.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35a - On the Shelf for June 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/06/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2019.
It’s been a busy month for me, what with giving a paper on cross-dressing women at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, and then finishing up the month at BayCon the local science fiction and fantasy convention. But all my immediate project deadlines are complete and I can relax a bit in June and July.
Next month I plan to start seriously plugging the 2020 fiction series for the podcast. I want people to make it as hard as possible for me to choose just four stories to publish, by inundating me with great lesbian historical short fiction. So this time I’ll be reminding folks on a regular basis. Just keep in mind that submissions still won’t be open to send them in until January, but that gives you a lot of time to brainstorm and then polish up your best ideas.
Publications on the Blog
So what’s the blog been doing lately? I started out May by finishing up the last couple articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, one of them on love magic in Coptic Egypt that has only tangential references to the use of love magic for same-sex relationships, and the other on formalized cross-gender roles in the Balkans. May finished up with a couple of sourcebooks, presenting texts from a variety of genres. The first, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, was a bit disappointing as it had relatively little lesbian-relevant material, and most of what it did have was not that different from non-Jewish texts of similar eras. But the second sourcebook is one I recommend highly: Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England 1550-1735.
For June, I’m tackling some publications that have been getting kicked down the road for a while for various reasons. Precious and Adored is a critical edition of the correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple around the turn of the 20th century, tracing the ups and downs of their romantic relationship. I’ll also be covering the new bilingual edition of the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, and finally working my way through a French article on medieval cross-dressing romances from the Journal of the History of Sexuality. If it arrives in time, I may complete the theme with a discussion of the cross-dressing themes in another medieval French romance, Aucassin and Nicolette. Since I’ll be expanding the cross-dressing paper I gave at Kalamazoo for publication, I have a number of publications that I’ll be prioritizing for that purpose.
New books acquired for the blog are primarily from the academic presses that exhibit at the medieval congress. There are a couple of interesting articles in the collection Illicit Sex: Identity Politics in Early Modern Culture edited by Thomas Dipiero and Pat Gil.
I’ve turned up another collection of articles on single women: The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation edited by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. The field of singlewomen studies is extremely relevant to my project as it explores lives outside the marriage economy and thus normalizes the lives of women who might choose not to marry for reasons of sexual preference.
Victoria Blud’s book The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400 is generally about the intersection of language and the concepts of gender and sex, but it includes a chapter on “the unspeakable sin” that includes discussion of female sodomy.
Just yesterday, I received a couple books that my girlfriend spotted in the Kalamazoo bookroom but that I didn’t get a chance to buy there. Like Man, Like Woman is about gender roles in classical Rome, and Knights, Riddles and Cross-dressing Saints looks like it has some useful discussion of cross-dressing motifs in medieval literature.
So all of that should keep me going for a while, although some of the books themselves are still in transit. I’ve gotten into the habit of having my Kalamazoo purchases shipped, not simply to save the space in my luggage, but because it’s like getting presents at random intervals for the next month!
This month’s podcast guest will be Anna Clutterbuck-Cook. Anna is a librarian and a reader of queer fiction. We ended up spending two podcasts talking about a wide range of topics around her favorite books, the books she wants to read but can’t find, the dynamics of queer fiction communities, and all sorts of other things.
For this month’s essay, I’m planning on combining a multi-person review of the new Emily Dickinson movie, Wild Nights with Emily, and a discussion of how and why Emily Dickinson has become a point of contention around topics of sexuality.
And the month’s podcasts will finish up with our second audio short story. At the beginning of the year, I pledged myself that I’d get the fiction all recorded and set up far in advance this time--a pledge that I haven’t managed to keep at this point. So the choice of which story I’ll be broadcasting is partly going to depend on which one I can make arrangements to record in time. But maybe this means I’ll get them all recorded and fulfill part of my pledge after all.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now we come to recent and forthcoming lesbian historical fiction. Only five titles this month, and only three of them are June books.
Dipping back to April, we have Clio Rising by Paula Martinac from Bywater Books. This one uses the popular “historic research” motif to explore the lesbian salons of 1920s Paris.
In 1983, Livvie Bliss leaves western North Carolina for New York City, armed with a degree in English and a small cushion of cash from a favorite aunt. Her goal is to launch a career in publishing, but more important, to live openly as a lesbian. A rough start makes Livvie think she should give up and head home, but then a new friend helps her land a job at a literary agency run by the formidable Bea Winston. Bea hopes Livvie’s Southern charm and “boyish” good looks will help her bond with one of the agency’s most illustrious clients—the cranky Modernist writer Clio Hartt, a closeted octogenarian lesbian of the Paris Lost Generation who has rarely left her Greenwich Village apartment in four decades. When Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion, the plan looks like it’s working: The two connect around their shared Carolina heritage, and their rapport gives Clio support and inspiration to think about publishing again. But something isn’t quite right with Clio’s writing. And as Livvie learns more about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes, uncomfortable parallels begin to emerge between Livvie’s own circle of friends and the drama-filled world of expatriate artists in the 1920s. In Clio’s final days, the writer shares a secret that could upend Livvie’s life—and the literary establishment.
Another early 20th century story came out in May: The Rhythm of the Tide: A lesbian romance self-published by Lia Curling. (I confess that I’m conflicted about book titles that feel they have to explicitly tell readers “Hey, this is a lesbian story.” On the one hand, it makes it easier to figure out whether they’re relevant to the podcast. But on the other hand, it always feels like maybe you could just indicate that in the cover copy?)
London, 1913. After bombing the Prime Minister’s house, suffragette Natalie Petrov is chased by the police. She is rescued by Lady Thompson, an aristocratic doctor who offers her a way out: Natalie will stay at the Thompson’s country house for six months, until her name vanishes from the ‘most wanted’ list. She agrees to work as a maid for Lady Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, a cold and distant socialite who doesn’t know Natalie’s true identity. However, the task becomes progressively harder as Natalie finds herself attracted to her mistress.
The June books start with another early 20th century story, An Impossible Distance to Fall by Miriam McNamara from Sky Pony Press.
It’s 1930, and Birdie William’s life has crashed along with the stock market. Her father’s bank has failed, and worse, he’s disappeared along with his Jenny biplane. When Birdie sees a leaflet for a barnstorming circus with a picture of Dad’s plane on it, she goes to Coney Island in search of answers. The barnstorming circus has lady pilots, daredevil stuntmen, fire-spinners, and wing walkers, and Birdie is instantly enchanted—especially with a girl pilot named June. Birdie doesn’t find her father, but after stumbling across clues that suggest he’s gone to Chicago, she figures she’ll hitch a ride with the traveling circus doing what she does best: putting on a convincing act and insisting on being star of the show. But the overconfidence that made her belle of the ball during her enchanted youth turns out to be far too reckless without the safety net of her charmed childhood, and a couple of impulsive missteps sends her and her newfound community spinning into freefall.
Mainstream publishing offers us a highly anticipated book in Olivia Waite’s A Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics: Feminine Pursuits from Avon Impulse. This Regency-era romance looks like it was designed to hit all my sweet spots.
As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away. Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested. While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?
Jenn LeBlanc’s Louisa (Trumbull Family Saga Book 8) from Illustrated Romance is another Regency story. The book description includes a content warning for sexual assault.
When Ellie and Lou fall in love, it is with great abandon. And they have grand ideas. A small cottage, a garden, a goat to manage the weeds, sheep for wool to knit. But the truth of the matter lies in the reality. Louisa must marry, to the satisfaction of her father, and so must Ellie—whose family hopes for a title to add legitimacy to their status, opening doors in the ton. And when Louisa’s father discovers them together nothing can ever be the same. A friend rescues Louisa from a horrible fate, sending her into hiding for her own protection. For three long years, Louisa remains in exile out of fear of what her father could do. Necessity returns Louisa to London, and as soon as she does, the memories of her beautiful Ellie haunt her. But Louisa has no idea if Ellie is even here, or unmarried, or still in want of her as Louisa is and has been since that first moment she saw her across the shimmering ballroom. Louisa fears discovering the truth of it all, that she was but a passing fancy born of the excitement of the heat of a first season. Will she find Ellie? Will the woman still want her? And even if so, what can they do now that they couldn’t do before? Nothing has changed, but everything is different.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading in the last month in the realm of lesbian historical fiction? I enjoyed Proper English, by K.J. Charles, a short Edwardian country-house murder mystery layered in with a bit of romance. If you enjoy seeing awful people get their just desserts in a murder mystery, this should be right up your alley.
There are no questions for the Ask Sappho segment this month. Remember that you can send in questions about queer women in history for a quick answer on the podcast.
And that’s the show for June.
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Books and Links
It's only cheating just a smidge to consider these part of my Kalamazoo haul. I'd already done my day in the bookroom and missed spotting these, when my girlfriend texted the covers and suggested they might be interesting. I never did make it back to the bookroom to check them out, but when I looked them up online I concurred. Since they'd been spotted at the Powell's Books vendor, I tried the Powell's website first but couldn't find a listing, but I was able to pick them up second hand from another seller.
Challet, Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres. 2013. Like Man, Like Woman: Roman Women, Gender Qualities, and Conjugal Relationships at the Turn of the First Century. Peter Lang, Oxford. ISBN 978-3-03911-912-7
Honegger, Thomas (ed.) 2004. Riddles, Knights and Cross-dressing Saints. Peter Lang, Oxford. ISBN 3-03910-392-X
I still have four shipments pending, so expect more exciting updates!
I blogged once about how one of the things I value in a protagonist is standing outside the norms and structures of societal power in some way. It gives them more incentive to see the cracks in the system. The fact that all my protagonists are women in early 19th century Europe gives them a head start on that outsider status, though there were certainly plenty of women who didn't view themselves in that way. Ones who enjoyed and accepted the place that gave them in the world.
Roz is an "outsider" in comparison to my previous point of view characters in being of the working class. Even Serafina--who otherwise comes the closest--understands herself more as the daughter of a scholar than being from a laboring family. But Roz is an outsider in a much more useful way for story-telling, because she is still relatively newly come to the city of Rotenek and has only the barest familiarity with some of the people, habits, and trades of the city that others might take for granted.
The rivermen, who provide transport along the Rotein and up the larger chanulezes, are unique to Rotenek as an Alpennian institution. So when Roz encounters Oliva Hald and--through her--becomes curious about the rivermen's trade, her fascination with every little thing that Liv does becomes an opportunity for us, as readers, to notice those things as well. We don't necessarily understand the details, because Roz doesn't understand them and she's our window. And at the moment, Liv seems disinclined to enlighten her ignorance...
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She only glared at me and twitched the tie rope to pull it loose from the ring, then gave a whistle for her dog. As he jumped down into the boat, she dipped her fingers into the river then tasted them or kissed them or something. That seemed a filthy thing to do, even here where the water didn’t smell as much. I wondered if she meant it as an insult, like making horns against me. She pushed away from the dock and as the current pulled the boat away from the bank, she worked the oars and spun it around. With a few strong pulls, she shot away into mid-river. On the water it was like she wasn’t crippled at all.
I kept thinking about her all that day. Not the way she struggled with the baskets but the way she’d spun the boat like it was a part of her. Was that why she’d ended up on the water? I’d seen a few women in the boats before but mostly it was men for their strong arms. And because you never knew what sort of passengers you might get. The rivermen were a clannish sort and mostly you had to be born to it. So maybe she would have taken it up even without her twisted foot.
I say this in the text of the entry below, but really I consider this is the big take-away for this book: if you intend to set a queer story in mid-16th to mid-18th century England, and you aren't already fully steeped in the textual evidence available for that time and place, drop everything you're doing and buy this book. (No, I don't get kick-backs. Even the buy-link is to the publisher, not to Amazon.) That's it. That's everything I have to say.
Loughlin, Marie H. 2014. Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8208-5
When one of my summaries is basically a list of contents, either it means that the publication is really thin on relevant content, or it means that it’s so rich that you simply need to buy the book and put it in a cherished place on your shelf. This one is the latter. At least half the contents apply to women’s experiences (although it’s still true that the male-authored female-relevant content far outnumbers the female-authored male-relevant content) and the collection includes many of the oft-cited texts from the covered period. Far from all, but an excellent place to start. So I will simply provide an index of the items I consider to be of interest and suggest that anyone interested in studying same-sex desire in the mid-16th through early 18th century should just go ahead and buy this book. Here’s a buy link. For a university press book, it’s astoundingly affordable.
The text are arranged by genre, with discussions on the context both of the authors and the material. Only a few representative items from religious, medical, and legal genres are offered. (There is a vast amount of available material from these genres, but I’m happy to have the book’s focus be more on literature.)
The introduction to the book directs the interested reader to the online companion material, which includes texts that were not included in the published volume due to length considerations. This online companion can be found here: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/43470 [this link redirects to https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0074609 ]
Religious and Moral Writings
Public Perception of Homosexual Subcultures
As this “public homosexual subculture” was almost exclusively male, there is little female-relevant material in this chapter, with one exception.
Classical Literature in Translation, Interpretation, and as Inspiration
The English surge of interest in classical literature didn’t begin in the mid-17th century, but it certainly thrived during the period covered by this collection. This chapter includes both translations and works in imitation of the classics, as well as some material simply drawing on classical themes and motifs.
Note: it is both unsurprising and depressing that all of the above material is written by men. There were French women translating and being inspired by Sappho’s work in the early modern period, but as this volume focuses only on English materials they are not included.
Literature Representing Male Same-Sex Desire
Quite obviously, this section isn’t relevant to the Project. As a point of interest of the 22 authors included in this section, only two are women. Of the 26 authors represented in the next section on female desire, 10 are known to be male and 3 are unknown, so only half of the 26 are demonstrably female voices. Just FYI.
Literature Representing Female Same-Sex Desire
It’s worth noticing that the material in this chapter falls primarily into two groups: works by women expressing positive and uplifting sentiments relating to love between women, and works by men depicting women’s same-sex relations as sordid, predatory, and pornographic. There are a few outliers on both sides: Delarivier Manley’s satire, the more sweetly jealous poems of John Hoadly and Edmund Waller. But the overall pattern says a great deal about attitudes of the times.
Since pretty much every item listed above gets a tag, but my tag fields have a character limit, I'm including the full list here instead and an abbreviated selection of the more obscure items in the tag list. Unfortunately this means that this entry won't necessarily come up in tag searches, though it will in text searches.
Aphra Behn, Epigrams (Martial), Juvenal, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Gallathea (John Lyly), Katherine Philips, Leo Africanus, The Convent of Pleasure (Margaret Cavendish), Lady Mary Montague, Dialogues of the Courtesans (Lucian), Nicholas de Nicholay, The Game at Flats: A Song (Nicholas Rowe), Sappho, Arcadia (Philip Sidney), The Sappho-an, The Unaccountable Wife (Jane Barker), Ruth & Naomi (Bible), The Golden Age (Thomas Heywood), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare), Sappho to Philaenis (John Donne), Upon Appleton House (Andrew Marvell), To the Fair Clorinda (Aphra Behn), Tractatus de Hermaphroditus or a Treatise of Hermaphrodites (Giles Jacob), Onania or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (Balthazar Bekker?), Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Epigram on the Court Pucelle (Ben Jonson), On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies (Edmund Waller), Venus’s Reply, The New Atalantis (Mary Delarivier Manley), Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (Anne Finch Countess Winchilsea), The Toast (William King), On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow (Jane Barker), Agnes de Castro (Catharine Trotter Cockburn), Venus dans le Cloître (Abbe du Prat), An Epistle from SIgnora F-a to a Lady, Margaret Cavendish, The girl with no interest in marriage (Erasmus), Heroides: Sappho (Ovid), Constance Fowler, Frances Apsley, Aemilia Lanyer, Urania (Mary Wroth), A Copy of Verses Made by a Lady and Sent to Another Lady (anonymous), Nature’s Pictures (Margaret Cavendish), Fricatrices: or A She upon a She (Edward Howard), Euphelia (pen name), On a Picture Painted by Herself Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s (Anne Killigrew), Chloe to Artimesa (Catharine Trotter), Mary Chudleigh, On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies (John Hoadly), Metamorphoses: Callisto (Ovid)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 34d - The True History of Catharina Vizzani (Reprise)
(Originally aired 2019/05/25 - listen here)
Sometimes, the hours in the week just aren’t there to get a brand new podcast out and you pull out a show from a couple years ago to find new listeners. This reprise is in honor of the paper I gave a couple weeks ago on cross-dressing women--though I cut off my examples in the early 17th century, so Catharine Vizzani wasn’t part of the data. This show originally aired in January 2017.
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When you think about lesbians in 18th century Rome, probably the last thing you expect is parental acceptance. And yet that’s one of the many interesting aspects of the life of Catharine Vizzani. Another interesting aspect is that we have a detailed record of her adventures, her loves, and her death at a tragically young age. Unlike many such stories, the tragedy wasn’t a direct consequence of her sexuality, but rather of her disregard for convention in pursuing it.
For the details of Catharine’s life, I’m going to be reading extensively from an English translation of her biography, complete with the translator’s editorial commentary. In fact, let’s introduce you to the overview of her life in his words.
[Note: All quotations from the original text are presented verbatim, with the original spelling and capitalization preserved.]
“ALL our Passions are known to break out into very extravagant Sallies, but Love seems of all to be the most exorbitant; so that no one read in the History of human Nature will wonder, that a bare Report should ever have kindled such an ardent Affection in some, as to send the Persons thus infatuated a wandering, from one Country to another, in Quest of the desired Object; or that others have preferred the Gratification of their Love to Duty and Decency, to Tranquillity and Reputation.”
(Just so you know, this is the usual literary style of the time, so settle back and enjoy the polysyllabic loquacity. We continue.)
“The Subject before me is an Instance, that the Wantonness of Fancy, and the Depravity of Nature, are at as great a Height as ever; and that our Times afford a Girl, who, so far from being inferior to Sappho, or any of the Lesbian Nymphs, in an Attachment for those of her own Sex, has greatly surpassed them in Fatigues, Dangers, and Distress, which terminated in a violent Death. This the following Narrative will manifest, which is a pregnant Example of the shocking Ebulition of human Passions, yet, at the same Time, of a most firm Constancy and Daringness in a young Creature, tho’ with a sad Alloy of Guilt and Precipitancy.
“Our unfortunate Adventurer’s Name was Catherine Vizzani. She was born at Rome, and of ordinary Parentage, her Father being a Carpenter. When she came to her fourteenth Year, the Age of Love in our forward Climate, she was reserved and shy towards young Men, but would be continually romping with her own Sex, and some she caressed with all the Eagerness and Transport of a Male Lover. But, above all, she was passionately enamoured with one Margaret, whose Company she used to court, under Pretence of learning Embroidery. And, not satisfied with these Interviews by Day, scarce a Night passed, but she appeared in Man’s Clothes, under her Charmer’s Window; though, in all Appearance, her Pleasure must be limited to viewing Margaret’s captivating Charms, and saying soft Things to her.
“This whimsical Amour went on very quietly for above two Years, but at last Catherine being surprized by Margaret’s Father, just when her Heart was overflowing with fervid Expressions of Love to his Daughter, he rattled her severely, and threatened that the Governor of the City should hear of her Pranks. Catherine was so frightened with Menaces of such a Nature, that she absconded, and went to Viterbo, in a Man’s Disguise, where she took upon herself the Name of Giovanni Bordoni.”
Let’s leave off our author’s long-winded explanations. Catharine, in the guise of Giovanni, finding herself at the end of her finances, took shelter in a church and gained the assistance of one of the church canons in finding employment as a manservant. Having become dissatisfied with her first position, wanted a letter of recommendation from her original benefactor. So she wrote to her mother back in Rome and asked to beg for the letter in the name of Giovanni. Which her mother did, without saying anything about the gender disguise.
This recommendation eventually bore fruit, gaining her a position as footman with the Vicar of Angiari. We’ll return to our 18th century author to tell something of her experiences in that position.
“Never was Gentleman better fitted with a Servant than the Vicar with Giovanni; for, besides Reading, making of Chocolate, and Cookery, she was very dextrous at Pen, Comb, and Razor; in a Word, she was a thorough Proficient in all the Branches of her Employment. The Governor, however, being an austere Man, who made no Allowance for the Impulses of Nature, or the Fervor of Youth, was used not to spare her for incessantly following the Wenches, and being so barefaced and insatiable in her Amours. She had Recourse to several delusive Impudicities, not only to establish the Certainty, but raise the Reputation of her Manhood.”
Now at this point we find a difference of approach between the original Italian author of the biography and the English translator, who is somewhat more prudish. because the translator notes that the original text, “enters into a nauseous Detail of her Impostures, which is the more inexcusable, they not being essential to the main Scope of the Narrative. These, if agreeable to the Italian Taste, would shock the Delicacy of our Nation.”
We can guess at what those “nauseous details” might cover in the later discussion of the instrument by which Catharine gave pleasure to her girlfriends. Let us merely say that Catharine gained quite a reputation with the ladies and provoked the jealousy of a rival who attacked her and wounded her in the neck. The Vicar, her employer, was not very happy with his employee’s behavior but, seeing that the wound was serious, sent off to fetch Giovanni’s (that is, Catharine’s) father. And here’s one place where the story gets even more fascinating. When Signor Vizzani arrived, the Vicar began:
“with the most serious Concern, to lay open to him the Particulars of his Son’s scandalous Dissoluteness, charging it upon the Want of timely Instruction and Chastisement, if not the Influence of a vicious Example. The Carpenter, who could hardly keep his Countenance during a Remonstrance delivered with a dictatorial Solemnity, calmly answered, that, to his and his dear Wife’s inexpressible Grief, their Son was a Prodigy of Nature, and that, in his very Childhood, they had observed some astonishing Motions of Lust, which had unhappily gathered Vehemence with the Growth of his Body; that, however, since such was the Case, and the Vigour of his Constitution was not to be repressed by Words or Blows, Nature must even take its Course; and, as for the vicious Example you are pleased to insinuate, I hope I am no worse than my Neighbours.”
The vicar felt this response showed a want of proper concern and began scolding the carpenter even more vigorously. And you have to think that Signor Vizzani is just about the explode with laughter at the Vicar’s mistake, because the story continues thus:
“The Father, perceiving the Canon to grow warm upon the Matter, put a Stop to his Expostulation, saying, with a Smile, “Reverence Sir, certainly you have few Equals in Christian Zeal, but I must undeceive you, and ask Pardon for not doing it before: This same Child of mine, whose Irregularities have made such a Noise, is no Male, but as truly, in all Respects, a Female, as the Woman who bore her.” He then proceeded to relate the Occasion of her leaving her Home, and rambling in a Man’s Habit. The good Canon was amazed at such frantic Doings, and courteously dismissed the Carpenter.”
One might think that this would be the end of Catharine’s employment with the Vicar, but once her wound was healed he found that rather than lose such a useful servant, he was willing to put up with her continuing lascivious behavior (and continued disguise) and kept her on for another three or four years.
I’ll skip over several other adventures and move on to when Catharine (still as Giovanni) took on a new position and was given responsibility for her employer’s house in a town called Librafratta. It was in that place that she went just a little too far. I’ll let our 18th century translator take up the tale again.
“Among other Charmers, he [that is, Catharine] had the Presumption to offer his Addresses to a very lovely young Gentlewoman, Niece to the Minister of the Village; and prosecuted them with such Ardour and Success, that they both grew passionately in Love with each other.
“The Uncle, knowing the Temptation of Beauty, and the Lubricity of Youth, kept a strict Guard over his Niece, till an advantageous Match, which was in Agitation, should be concluded; but Giovanni’s Person and Blandishments preponderated against all other Consideration; and, after eluding the Uncle’s Attention, in several Midnight Interviews, Giovanni, proposed to the young Lady to carry her off at an appointed Time, and that afterwards they should make for Rome; where, by Means of an honest Priest of his Acquaintance, their Passion should be confirmed and sanctified by the Offices of the Church:
“This Overture was not only agreed to, but applauded as the greatest Mark both of his Love and Virtue. To carry this Scheme into Execution, Giovanni had provided two Horses, on which they were to set out very early one Morning about the Middle of June, in the Year One Thousand, Seven Hundred, and Forty Three. The Evening before this important Expedition, Giovanni’s Mistress, her Discretion not being equal to her Beauty, took her younger Sister apart, and told her, that her Uncle’s rigid Humours had now worn out her Patience; that she had determined not to be mewed up at that Rate any longer; and that Giovanni, who would do any Thing for her, was to be her Deliverer, having provided two Horses against the Day of Day, on which they were to post away to Lucca, and from thence to Rome, where they were to be married.”
Letting the secret out to her sister was a big mistake, because the sister blackmailed the eloping couple into taking her along. Catharine agreed to go along with the scheme, but the problem was that they only had two horses, so the sisters rode while Catharine walked which slowed them down a bit. Still, they made it to Lucca and hired a carriage, but were further delayed by a minor carriage breakdown. Well, in the mean time the girls’ uncle had discovered their absence, figured out what had happened, and dispatched his chaplain and a couple of servants to chase after them with a promise of significant reward for bringing Giovanni (that is, Catharine) back for punishment.
The pursuers caught up with them a little ways past Lucca. And now we’ll return to our original text:
“The Chaplain, to make short Work of it, called out to the Servants to fire upon Giovanni, who, having perceived them at some Distance, had leaped down from behind the carriage. The Servants, pursuant to their Leader’s Command, presented their Pieces at Giovanni, who having a masculine Spirit, as well as masculine Desires, not at all daunted at such a threatening Sight, drew a Pistol which hung at her Belt, and presented it towards the Chaplain. This unexpected Resolution put them to a Stand, and both Sides continued watching each other’s Motions, whilst the poor Girls were shrieking, and wringing their Hands; ’till Giovanni, considering that her Sex would secure her from any very bad Consequence of this Affair, and that one Girl’s running away with two others might, in a Court of Justice, if it should go that Length, be slightly passed over as a Frolick, rather than severely animadverted upon as a Crime, thought it adviseable to surrender; and, turning contemptuously from the commanding Officer to the Servants, who were known to her, she delivered up her Pistol, telling them they were welcome to do their Office.
“The Chaplain, however, irritated at her Petulance, if Jealousy or Avarice were not rather the Motives to such an Inhumanity, after her Submission, stormed at one of the Servants, whose Name was Miniato, for not firing, and threatened him with an Oar in the Galleys, if he delayed a Moment; whereupon he let fly, aiming at Giovanni’s Thighs, upon a Supposition that a Wound in those Parts would be the least hurtful, and hit the poor Creature in the left Thigh, four Inches above the Knee; the same Shot killing a fine hound, and fracturing a Leg of a Boy of about twelve Years of Age, who happening to come by, had stopt, as it was very natural, to see what was the Matter.”
The two shooting victims were taken off to a nearby hospital. Catharine, fearing for her life, confessed her true identity to one of the nuns who attended her and requested that the matter be kept secret unless she died of the wound, in which case she wanted to be buried in women’s clothes. This request, alas, needed to be carried out a short time later. After her death, they found hidden under the pillow of her hospital bed a stuffed leather device that she had worn as part of her imposture and that had contributed to some degree to her success with the ladies.
The rest of the biography is not particularly edifying. On discovering her true sex, a post-mortem examination was made to determine whether any physiological abnormality had caused her desire for women. The author seems rather shocked and startled to find her body to be ordinarily and unremarkably female. During this era it was fairly common to blame lesbian desires on certain anatomical abnormalities. The observation of counter-examples such as Catharine Vizzani failed to undermine this theory.
So what are we to make of Catharine’s life? In the mid-18th century in Rome, a carpenter and his wife recognized that their daughter’s sexual orientation was toward women and they not only shrugged and accepted it, but continued to support her when she was in need. And though Catharine had most of her romantic adventures while posing as a man, at the very least her first girlfriend--and possibly others--knew that she was a woman and enjoyed the courtship. And the sex. It’s quite clear from the observations of others that Catharine was rather good in bed. And if she’d only had a bit more caution about eloping with the nieces of important people, who knows what sort of happily ever after she might have achieved?
The full text of the 1755 English translations of Catherine Vizzani’s biography can be found here: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/vizzani.htm
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: http://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-event-person/true-history-and-adventures-catharine-vizzani-breve-storia-della-vita-di
This is the first of at least two shipments from Boydell & Brewer. (One book was pre-ordered and the other is brand new and may not have been in the warehouse yet when these were shipped.)
Sylvester, Louise M., Mark C. Chambers and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. 2014. Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-84383-932-3
Blud, Victoria. 2017. The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-84384-468-6
Sims-Williams, Patrick. 2019. The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-418-5