Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 179 (previously 51b) - Interview with Samantha Rajaram
(Originally aired 2020/10/10 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Samantha Rajaram Online
This isn't part of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, as such. It's more of a digression into historical methods and sources. I'll link this from the LHMP entry that inspired it, and it I dig futher on the thread, I'll continue to link. For What Came Before, see here.
We left off with a summary of the claims that Burford makes about lesbian bordellos and lesbian relationships in 18th century London, and a note that he doesn’t clearly support either concept in his text. (I’m not saying that either of these is a false claim. Only that Burford gave us no basis for accepting their truth.)
So, let’s see what else we can turn up with a bit of online research.
The place to start would be the Caroline Harrington, since a countess seems most likely to have left a trace in the historic record. And here we are: the Wikipedia entry for Caroline FitzRoy Stanhope, Countess of Harrington. (It doesn’t say much for Burford’s historic accuracy that he’s turned her title into a surname. But never mind.) “After being blackballed by the English social group The Female Coterie, she founded The New Female Coterie, a social club of courtesans and "fallen women" that met in a brothel. Known for her infidelity and bisexuality, she was nicknamed the "Stable Yard Messalina" due to her adulterous lifestyle.” Wikipedia has a footnote for the claim “she had male and female lovers” (Linnane, Fergus (Oct 24, 2011). Madams: Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London. The History Press. ISBN 9780752473383.) but on checking the cited passage (via Google Books), the details regarding her lesbian relationships are so exactly parallel to Burford’s text that I’d be surprised if he weren’t the source. (Burford is cited elsewhere in Linnane’s book.) Which brings us full circle.
Caroline’s Wikipedia page cites three historical studies that include her as a major focus. It’s possible that one or more of them has some more solidly cited evidence than “she was part of a social club of adulterous women who held their events at a brothel.”
Elizabeth Ashe doesn’t seem to have her own Wikipedia entry, so we’ll leave her for now. Trying to do a broad-scope search on “Mother Courage” runs into a lot of interference from the Bertolt Brecht play of that name and a NYC restaurant. Frances Bradshaw has no Wikipedia entry, but Thomas Bradshaw does and it rather undermines Burford’s suggestion that he seriously proposed marriage to Frances, given that he was survived by his wife of 17 years.
So taking this back to the footnote in Rizzo, it was in the context of noting that Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress and then wife to a duke) had, in her 20s, been intimate friends with Lady Caroline Fitzroy Petersham* (later Caroline Stanhope, Countess of Harrington) and Elizabeth Ashe, and that this raised the possibility that Chudleigh’s rather strictly jealous attitudes toward her companions may have been sexual in nature.
(*Not sure where the “Petersham” come from. Caroline’s father was a FitzRoy and her mother was a Somerset, and her only husband was a Stanhope. Ah, here’s a clue. “Viscount Petersham” was a subsidiary title to the Harrington title. So, again, shouldn’t be treated like a surname.)
But while Chudleigh and Lady Caroline were much of an age (only a year’s difference) Elizabeth Ashe was eight years younger. So… ah, but a Google search on “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” + “Elizabeth Ashe” turns up the archive.org text of a 1911 biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh by Charles E. Pearce, which places all three women together. This source may also be where the styling of “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” comes from. The text calls her “then Caroline Petersham” in reference to an event in 1750 when her husband had not yet succeeded his father as Earl of Harrington, and therefore might have been styled “Viscount Petersham”. But it’s still confusing to treat it as a surname. Her married name was “Caroline Stanhope” regardless of title.
Anyway, in chapter 8 (Elizabeth's associates Gay ladies of fashion, The frolicsome Miss Ashe, The friendship and wrangles of Miss Ashe and Lady Caroline Petersham, A merry night at Vauxhall…) we find the following descriptions.
p. 136: It is related that while Miss Chudleigh, the free-and-easy Lady Caroline Petersham, afterwards Lady Harrington, and the latter's inseparable friend one equally free and easy Miss Ashe, were at Tunbridge Wells they were somewhat incensed by the intrusion into their circle of a Mrs. Wildman, a rich widow of low origin, who wished to pose as a lady of fashion.
p.139: One biographer, writing in 1789, asserts that Miss Chudleigh "ran the career of pleasure, enlivened the Court circles, and each year became more ingratiated with the mistress whom she served. She led fashions, played whist with Lord Chesterfield; visited with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe; figured at a masquerade, and laughed at the lover whom she chose not to favour with her smiles, with all the confounding grace of a woman of quality.
p.144 "Her intimacy with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures, and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgencies." As this was written in 1780, thirty years afterwards, it is purely conjecture. It is certain, however, that Lady Harrington, then Lady Caroline Petersham, and the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton, was one of the most-talked-about beauties of the day. About her intimate friend, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, there is a little mystery. She is stated indirectly by Wraxall and directly by Mrs. Piozzi (who describes her as “a pretty creature, but particularly small in her person”), to have been of very high parentage, her mother being no less a personage than the Princess Amelia Sophia Eleonora, second daughter of George II, and her father the gallant (in more senses than one) Admiral Rodney. The Princess, it is said, displayed the same partiality for Rodney which her cousin and namesake, the Princess Amelia of Prussia, manifested for Baron Trenck. Miss Ashe was as frolicsome as she was adventurous, and her escapades included a Fleet wedding, and an elopement with the scapegrace Edward Wortley Montagu, of which more later on. [Note: A “Fleet wedding” was of questionable legality, and Montagu’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the marriage, though it is quite brief and may not be exhaustive.]
p.146: Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper.
p.153: …[in reference to a notorious highwayman] at his trial the court was crowded with ladies of fashion, among them the inseparables, Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, "like Niobe, all tears."
p.199: a passage merits quoting, if only for its reference to one of the never-ending series of quarrels between Lady Caroline Petersham and her bosom friend, "Pollard" Ashe… "Your friend, the eldest Miss Gunning, carries on her negotiation in all public places with Lord Coventry. The treaty must surely be near a conclusion one way or another, but whether it will be final or only a ‘provisional’ one is not yet clear… Miss Ashe is happily reconciled to Lady Caroline Petersham, who had broke with her upon account of her indiscretion, but who has taken her under her protection again upon the assurances that she is ‘as good as married’ to Mr. Wortley Montagu, who seems so puzzled between Le Chatelet in France and his wife in England that it is not yet known in favour of which he will determine”
p.204: In the early part of 1751 Lady Caroline had her last quarrel with Miss Ashe, for in July the little lady ran away with Edward Wortley Montagu, and the two were married in Keith's chapel, Mayfair. The lively associate of Elizabeth Chudleigh in many a frolic both in London and Tunbridge Wells had very ill-luck in her marriage. Poor little "Pollard" Ashe deserved a better fate. She was probably not vicious, though she enjoyed life to the full, as it was presented to her, and, like all the ladies of the Court, took no thought of the morrow. Her scamp of a husband forsook her, and, to quote Elizabeth Montagu, "Poor Miss Ashe, like the forsaken Ariadne, wept on a foreign shore." After his death she found consolation in a marriage with a captain in the Royal Navy. [Note: as Wikipedia indicates that Whortley Montagu died in 1776, that would have been a 20+ year wait for “consolation.”]
Lady Caroline's temper was easily upset, but we hear of no more escapades in company with Miss Chudleigh. So far as the ladies of the Court were concerned Elizabeth's exploit at the Jubilee masquerade* did her more harm than good, and it is highly probable her former friends looked at her a little askance. Lady Caroline no doubt thought a private intrigue was nothing so bad as open public indelicacy, and as she never hesitated to speak her mind, it can be easily imagined that Miss Chudleigh heard some very candid criticism. One may be sure, however, that the latter could take care of herself in a verbal encounter, and that her ladyship got as good as she gave.
[* This would be a reference to Chudleigh’s scandalous appearance semi-nude in a Jubilee masquerade in 1749. So this fits the general time-frame of the reference to 1751 in an earlier paragraph.]
p.215: Elizabeth's pleasant holiday at Tunbridge Wells over, she returned to London with the Duke of Kingston dangling at her heels, to find the town still agog with the doings of the Gunnings, a little variety in the way of piquant gossip being furnished by the obstreperous Lady Caroline Petersham and her lively friend, little Miss Ashe. For the time being the frivolities of these fair dames provided ample material for the diarists and polite letter-writers. The wrangles of Lady Caroline always made a dainty dish of scandal, and we learn that she and "Pollard" Ashe quarrelled about reputations, while a little later she has her " anniversary quarrel with Lady Townshend."
While this biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh is a secondary source and (consistent with the date of publication) doesn’t bother with close footnoting, many of these references attributed to Horace Walpole, and one of the references was to prolific diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi, so I’m going to consider the general tenor of the information well-sourced. As a summary, Pearce’s biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh seems to solidly support an image of Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe as “inseparable” “intimate” friends with licentious reputations. In this era, the fact that their licentiousness included men doesn’t exclude the possibility that they were also lovers (or rumored to be such). Since Piozzi was known to have strong negative opinions about homosexuality (in both men and women), her writings might be a good place to look for a more explicit accusation, but I don’t have an electronic edition of her writings.
The suggestions that Elizabeth Chudleigh’s close friendship with them might indicate sapphic leanings on her part is more conjectural, and I’d put it down as “suggestive, but far from proven.”
So, we’ve gotten as far as accepting a “probable” lesbian relationship between Stanhope and Ashe, but what about the suggestion that Caroline Stanhope was a “frequenter of Covent Garden stews” which, if one reads very carefully, is the only point at which Burford actually intersects named lesbians and houses of ill repute? Pearce’s text contains no examples of “Covent”, no relevant examples of “garden” and no examples of “stews”. So, he can’t be the source of this accusation.
And we haven’t yet touched on the characterization of Mother Courage’s and Fanny Bradshaw’s brothels as places that catered to lesbians. But we’ll save that question for another day.
There is a valuable place in the world for "popular histories". Books that get the non-specialist reader interested in a particular topic, era, or person by presenting information about it in an informal "sound-bite" fashion, and especially by focusing on images or claims that will catch the imagination.
The problem comes when those sound-bites part ways with the documentable facts and yet are passed along from hand to hand as "historic truth." (Internet memes aren't the origin of this problem.) Once a factoid has taken off across the fields of the audience, wild and free on its own, it can be extremely difficult to track it back to its inspiration. It's much harder to prove a negative than a positive. If the factoid did have a documentary basis, it may be possible to establish the actual truth and show how it was stretched to make a better story. But if the factoid came entirely from someone's imagination (or from misunderstanding the historic context, or from a string of "what-ifs" and "probablys") then it can take a lot of work to demonstrate the underlying lack of substance. And if the factoid took off precisely because it captured the popular imagination, then the audience you're trying to convince of its lack of substance may be actively hostile to your project.
This is what I face in trying to establish the historic facts and sources behind Burford's offhand claim that there were houses of ill repute in 18th century London that catered to women having sex with women.
(Go follow the link at the end of the entry to the "Charlemagne's Cheese" article. It will demonstrate all these problems a lot more clearly.)
Burford, E.J. 1986. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons - London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale, London. ISBN 0-7090-2629-3
A salacious popular history of the Covent Garden neighborhood in the 18th century.
A footnote in Rizzo 1994 (chapter 4) about some friends of Elizabeth Chudleigh being known (or perhaps rumored) to frequent a lesbian bordello in London certainly caught my attention and curiosity, even though Rizzo noted that there was no solid citation given for the information. Such is the speed of book delivery (plus the two weeks it took me to get through Rizzo) that I now have the source of that footnote in hand. So as a brief appetizer before plunging into the next scheduled book, here’s what the source has to say. [Narrator: it was not a brief appetizer.]
Burford’s book is a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally.
The vast majority of the sexual content is focused on heterosexual interests, of course, though there are a dozen index entries relating to male homosexuality, some of them covering multiple pages. I’m not interested in reading though the whole book, so I’m going to focus on the three index entries under “lesbians”, plus cross-references to the women mentioned by name in those discussions.
In chapter 7 (The Places of Resort, discussing various specific taverns with significant reputations), the discussion of the Rose Tavern makes a passing reference to how all sexual appetites were welcome at the Rose including: “homosexuals and lesbians (the latter’s activity called ‘the Game of Flats’)…” No specific source is given for this information, but the tag for that phrase in this blog will turn up several known sources from the 18th century.
In chapter 11 (The Heyday, which is sort of a hodgepodge of anecdotes from the mid century), after a discussion of an attack on a well-known “molly house” (a gathering place for male homosexuals), the discussion segues into:
“Lesbianism is seldom mentioned. It was colloquially known as ‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street. The best-known practitioners were Lady Caroline Harrington and her friend Elizabeth ‘the Pollard’ Ashe. It was regarded as an aberration – indeed, it was not even a misdemeanour.”
There are no references to primary sources in this section that would appear to be relevant to this passage, however the listing of specific names and locations provides a thread to follow.
Finishing up the index listings for “lesbians”, we have in chapter 12 (The Theatrical Connection, discussing the overlap between actresses, courtesans, and noting both licit and illicit intersections with the aristocracy) a second mention of Ashe and Harrington. Once again, there is no reference to a specific primary source in this section of the chapter that would appear to give a clue to the story’s origins, though what appears to be a verbatim quotation from some source might provide a thread. [Note: further research determines that the quote describing Ashe is from Hester Thrale Piozzi, although her diaries are not listed in the bibliography for this book.]
“One of the most bizarre actress-courtesans was Elizabeth Ashe, ‘a small pretty Creature…between a Woman and a Fairy’, daughter of Jon Ashe, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs – although she always claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Lord Rodney and the Princess Amelia. When very young she was often in Covent Garden mixing with the haut ton. In 1751 she married the scapegrace Edward Wortley-Montague but he left her a year later because of her promiscuity. Ten years later she married Captain Robert Falconer RN but before long she was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the equally profligate Lady Caroline ‘Polly’ Harrington (also a frequenter of Covent Garden ‘stews’). The friendship was broken when Miss Ashe became the mistress of Count Josef Franz Zavier Haszlang, Bavarian Envoy to London, who was very well liked in all circles in London Society as a pleasant, helpful and compassionate man Lady Harrington, one of the most powerful Society hostesses, claimed that ‘her character was demolished’ by her friends actions. Despite her two marriages, Elizabeth was always known as ‘Little Ashe’, and Horace Walpole nickname her ‘the Pollard Ashe’, observing that ‘she had had a large collection of amours’ before she died, still gay and happy, at the age of eighty-four.”
So now we have some cross-references to follow up in the index. Elizabeth Ashe only references the two items above.
Caroline Harrington, in addition to the two items above, cites in chapter 17 (The Nurseries of Naughtiness, discussing a shift in the types of attractions in Covent Garden in the later part of the century): “The other competition [i.e., for the traditional houses of prostitution] came from the marvelous concerts and balls given by Mrs Cornelys at her mansion in Soho Square, which royalty occasionally attended and where the most refined and elegant assignations could be made by such powerful ladies as the Countess of Harrington and her clique, who acted as unpaid procuresses.” So, no direct reference to f/f relations in this one. But Harrington being a countess, we may be able to find other information on her.
Frances Bradshaw was mentioned as running an “elegant” house (of prostitution) in Bow Street and she gets two additional mentions in the index. Frances née Herbert ca. 1760 was keeping ‘a very reputable brothel in Play-house Passage in Bow Street’, financed by a wealthy man she had been mistress of. But a Lord of the Admiralty named Thomas Bradshaw fell for her sufficiently to think about marrying her. It isn’t clear from the text that he actually did so, though she began using his surname from a few years before his death. But this mini-bio provides no repetition of the suggestion that her house’s clientele included female customers.
This leaves us with the only other named reference being “Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street”. The index entry for “Courage, Mrs.” adds the information “a house for lesbians” with one other citation besides the one we’ve already seen. This is also in Chapter7 (The Places of Resort) in the context of the courtesan/opera singer Caterina Ruini Galli who, having worked her way through several wealthy lovers who found they couldn’t support her extravagance, “the last heard of her was that she was gracing Mrs Courage’s well-known place of assignation in Suffolk Street off the Haymarket.” But there’s no mention here of f/f relations.
So what we have from Burford’s book are a couple of specific claims: that Countess Caroline Harrington had a sexual relationship with the courtesan-actress Elizabeth Ashe, and that at least two named houses of prostitution (Frances Bradshaw’s and Mother Courage’s) catered to lesbians. We have some quotations from primary sources about these women, but none of the quotes are specific about f/f relations. While I wouldn’t necessarily put “lesbian bordellos into the category of “extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof”, It would be nice to see something in the way of references to sources.
So rather than this being a little throw-away book summary to give me a breather this week, it’s turning into a deeper dive that will take a bit more time and research. Why do I care? Well, it’s a matter of Charlemagne’s cheese. See this article for what I mean by that. If you don’t know how you know something, you don’t actually know it. And if we don’t know how we “know” that there were lesbian bordellos in 18th century London, we don’t actually know that there were any. (Mind you, I do have at least one other contemporary claim on the topic, but we’ll get to that.) So I’ll link back here when I’ve gotten that deep dive into a bit more order. And chances are, this will turn into a podcast essay eventually.
Added 2020/10/06 - I've done some poking at possible sources for some of this information. If I find additional material of interet, I'll add more links.
I confess it, I got a bit grumpy about this book long before I finished blogging it. And I don't think that was just because it felt like a bait-and-switch. I wanted to learn more about the social institution of women's companionate relations in general: how it played out in various situations, what the social and economic dynamics were, how it was instantiated at different class levels. I got a little of that, but a lot more of overly intricate micro-biographies of a fairly narrow slice of literary women, most of whom were connected to each other in some way. (It did leave me wanting to look up more about the Duchess of Portland, who figures tangentially in many of the biographies.) But as a historical study, it was simply not very well written. Identities were presented in a confusing way (in part because of the multiplcation of common names that weren't clearly distinguished). The details of people's movements and interactions were catalogued without being related to any central thesis. And in the end, the central thesis that did emerge was entirely different from the stated topic.
But it's done now. For next week's entry (i.e., tomorrow's) I think I'm going to insert a rather short item that came up in the footnotes so I can take a breather before I plunge into another entire book.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter 13 – Reformers: Sarah Scott and Barbara Montagu
This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.
Sarah Robinson Scott did not have an auspicious beginning in life. Although close to her sister Elizabeth through all their childhood, once Elizabeth married--and in particular after Sarah suffered from smallpox at age 20--there was a break between them. And though it might have been natural for Sarah to live with her sister later, instead she lived a precarious existence as guest of a sequence of relatives and family friends. Sarah satirized her sister somewhat in her Description of Millenium Hall as a beautiful, charming, witty woman whose primary weakness was vanity.
Sarah’s mother had been the property-owner of the marriage, and after the mother’s death when the property went to Sarah’s oldest brother, their father moved into meagre lodgings in London with his mistress/housekeeper, making his house doubly an unsuitable place for Sarah.
Eventually, Sarah migrated to Bath, where she met Barbara Montagu, who quickly became a fast friend. she also met her future husband there, though the marriage turned out to be unsatisfactory for significant, but never explained, reasons. Her Family interfered to separate the couple and ensure some minimal income for Sarah independently. After that, Sarah spent the majority of her life in Bath and its environs, almost continually in the company of Barbara Montagu.
The two don’t seem to have had a romantic friendship type of relationship, but definitely a domestic partnership and a close friendship. Barbara Montagu was from an aristocratic family but never married due to frail health. She had a barely sufficient income for independence in an inexpensive place such as Bath. When combined with Sarah’s various incomes, they were able to manage frugally.
The two were part of a larger circle of independent and forward-thinking women in Bath, and the discussions of that circle regarding women’s place in the world and how best to implement charitable principles provided the background and much of the development for Scott’s Description of Millenium Hall.
That was not Scott’s first published work. She wrote at least one novel earlier that also explored issues of women’s place in society. Millenium Hall was an ambitious thought experiment in what women could do if they pooled the resources to form, not merely an independent economic community for themselves, but an institution that could benefit their community through charitable and Christian principles.
The book was an unexpected success, which helped Scott financially, though it was often the case that Scott’s income was turned to charitable expenses. She had many projects, such as maintaining a school for poor girls in the village outside Bath where she and Montagu had a second home. The girls would be taught sewing, and the clothing they made distributed as charity to other poor people.
Millenium Hall fell short of truly Utopian ideals in not directly challenging patriarchal structures or the basis of class differences. It was very much an example of women of comfortable, if not extravagant, means pooling their resources to do good in the community for those less fortunate than themselves.
The Bath circle made an abortive attempt to implement an actual community along the lines of Millenium Hall, but it fell apart rather quickly due to conflicts over philosophy and authority.
As example of a form of companionship, this chapter does not focus a great deal on Scott and Montagu’s partnership, except in that Montagu was able to provide some financial stability for Scott during hard times, and Scott in turn, provided the companionship Montagu needed to live independently. But more than the two of them, the entire Bath circle was an example of women’s connections providing both the moral and intellectual support needed to challenge women’s disadvantages in the world.
In summarizing and presenting her conclusions, Rizzo emphasizes the range of women’s interactions with the world on a scale from tyranny to altruism, much more than the theme of women’s companionship relations that is ostensibly the topic of the book. She discusses how the women writers she covers approach the problem of women’s sexuality given the impossibility at that era for a woman to openly claim her sexuality and remain virtuous. Rizzo discusses a sliding scale of altruism from what she calls “immature altruism” where women simply refrain from becoming tyrants to “mature altruism” in which they rejected being either victims or victimizers, and did good for others without themselves being exploited.
This shift in focus from the social institution of companionship to the evaluation of social behavior with regard to altruism, combined with the book’s tendency toward anecdotal biography, has made it a less coherent book then it initially appeared to be. The biographies provide some interesting models for women’s lives, but I don’t feel that I have a clear picture of the nature of 18th century companionship from this work.
(Originally aired 2020/10/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2020.
I hope you’re all managing to get by in these Covid times. This year feels unreal in so many ways. I spent a lot of September being even more of a shut-in than usual due to the smoke from our fires here in California, and then from the ones in Oregon too. My brother had to evacuate from his place near Santa Cruz for a couple of weeks, but fortunately his house wasn’t touched. And then, of course, there’s the looming dread that I don’t talk about in specifics much on this podcast.
We are living in historic times in so many ways. I hope we’re all living them in a way we’ll be proud to look back on. For now, I count the time in six months of working from home, three self-performed haircuts, a quarter as many miles on my car compared to commuting, five quarts of tomato sauce preserved from my garden, three regular weekly zoom chat groups, and an ever growing list of what I want to do once we have a well-distributed vaccine. I work in the pharmaceutical industry, so I know what a good vaccine development timeline looks like, and it’s going to be a while yet, but we’ll get there.
The past month has been full of a lot of work on the new podcast site that I announced in the last On the Shelf show. I’d been planning a staycation in the beginning of the month – I mean, what kind of vacation is there except a staycation these days? But this time I wasn’t scheduling it to coincide with a convention or anything like that. It was all about setting up the new podcast account, working on formatting material for the existing legacy episodes, oh, and in the middle of that, finally taking the plunge and moving my life and my brain over to my new laptop.
Everything is chugging along now on the new podcast site. At the time I’m writing this, I have about a third of the legacy shows uploaded, and all the podcast distribution sites are live. So you can follow the show on Podbean, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, or YouTube. The direct links to the show at all those sites are now set up on the Podcast Index page on my blog. See the show notes for an easy link.
If you’re listening to this show, chances are you may have been a subscriber for some time. But if you only joined recently and want to catch up on the early shows, then subscribing to the new feed is an easy way to do that. If you’re one of the long-time listeners, then you may want to wait until the end of the month. Starting with the November On the Shelf episode, the show will be released in parallel on both sites for the last two months of the year, and then in January it will only be on the new feed. I’m feeling a bit anxious about how many people will follow me over, so you can help calm that anxiety by subscribing for the November and December shows. And if you really want to help my anxiety, give the new show some likes and reviews, especially if you’re listening through Apple Podcasts which tends to be the biggest venue.
And if you really, really want to let me know you love the podcast and blog—other than by saying so in public places where I can hear you--I have a Patreon. The current goal is for it to cover the podcast hosting fees, which it does. But it would be lovely to aspire to covering the cost of the fiction series as well. I don’t offer much in the way of special access or bonus material for Patreon subscribers—I mostly give everything away for free. But maybe you listeners could come up with some ideas for incentives. What would entice you to support the show? As long as it doesn’t involve extra time that I don’t have! I was trying out some micro-reviews for a few months, but I simply couldn’t keep up.
When January rolls around, not only will the new podcast site be completely switched over, but it will be submissions time again for the fiction series. While uploading legacy episodes to the new site, I’ve had a chance to remind myself of the great stories I’ve been able to publish in past years, and I’m looking forward to getting more great stories this time. In the interests of open communication, while I’ll be buying four stories, one of them has been commissioned, so the open submissions will be for three slots. I thought a long time about commissioning work, because I have two goals here. One is to give the listeners great fiction, but the other is to encourage writers to tackle sapphic historical stories. I’ve had the joy of being someone’s first professional sale several times and I never want to give that up. Rest assured, that if you send me a knock-my-socks-off great story, you have an excellent chance of making a sale, even with one fewer scheduling slot. For more information on what we’re looking for in fiction, check out the full call for submissions using the link in the show notes.
Publications on the Blog
As I mentioned last month, I’m tackling four thick books in a row currently, so it’s not surprising that September was taken up by two of them: Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, and Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. I’ve been tackling these with multiple posts for each book, and expect to do the same for the October books: Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928, and Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. These books touch on homoerotic desire to varying degrees, but all examine the ways and contexts in which that desire was normalized in western society in the last four centuries. And desire between women was normalized in various ways. Maybe not identically to how we view it today, but in ways that created many possibilities for successful relationships.
So what books have I acquired lately for the blog? While I don’t know whether I’ll blog it, the discussion in Rizzo’s book of 18th century courtesan Sophia Baddeley and her manager/companion Elizabeth Steele inspired me to download a copy of Steele’s biography of Baddeley from archive.org. You might not realize how valuable sites like archive.org and Gutenberg.org can be for access to early printed works. There’s been a lot of buzz recently about archive.org’s very badly thought out program of offering a “library” of recent books that are under copyright. Tensions are high enough between ebook publishers and regular library ebook lending systems without someone tossing a new “disruptive” approach into the works. They’re getting slapped down for that rather solidly, and I hope that the library of long out of copyright early printed works doesn’t become collateral damage.
Another passing reference in Rizzo’s book to E.J. Burford’s Wits, Wenches, and Wantons that evidently discusses 18th century lesbian bordellos in London inspired me to order it. Rizzo indicated that Burford provides no solid citation for the reference, but I’ll check it out for myself. I’ve run across a few other references to sex work targeting female clients and the contexts can make it hard to know fact from gossip and innuendo. But even the existence of the concept in past cultures is fascinating. Some day when I have enough information I should do a podcast on that topic. (I just added it to my ideas list.) This month’s essay is on a related topic, but there’s scope for more.
For the essay this month, I thought I’d take on an 18th century topic to go with the current blog theme. I tend to be a little resistant to the principle of “sex sells”, but maybe I can grab some ears with a discussion of the fictional 18th century French lesbian sex club, the “Anandrine Society”. I’ll see what sorts of quotations from the literature I can find that won’t be too over the top!
This month’s author guest will be Samantha Rajaram, whose debut novel The Company Daughters comes out this month. If it weren’t for quarantine, we might be doing the interview in person, since she’s relatively local to me. Alas, it isn’t to be. I’m really missing face-to-face socializing.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
We have a lot of recent and new books this month: five from September that weren’t announced yet when I put together last month’s show, and five in October. In general, the books I don’t know about until after they’re published are from indie authors, and it’s really easy for me to miss these. Or to not find them until several months have gone by and it’s too late to include them in the podcast. So if you’re an indie author with an upcoming sapphic historical—or you know someone in that category—drop me a note about the book. I hope I’m not overstating the case to say that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is an excellent opportunity to target your readership for this genre. One of the ways I love giving back to the book community is by spreading the word about the books my listeners might be looking for.
The September books include two non-English books that look interesting.
Un Amour Révolutionnaire (A Revolutionary Love) self-published by Laurie Miquel is in French and would have fit nicely into my book appreciation show last month. I’ve included the original cover copy in the transcript, but here’s a translation with the help of Google Translate.
1754, quelques années avant la révolution française, Adrien de Noailles naît. Le poids d’un nom, d’un héritage familial et d’une carrière n’est pas des plus facile à porter, d’autant plus lorsque l’on est une femme contrainte par son père de prendre l’identité d’un homme. Son titre de capitaine de la garde royale, chargée de la protection de Marie-Antoinette, requiert patience et retenue. Aux premières loges des tensions naissantes entre la monarchie et le peuple français, Adrien va croiser la route de Margot, issue d’une classe inférieure, qui l’amènera à trouver sa place et son identité. Entre révoltes, complots, devoir et amour, suivez la vie d’Adrien à une époque où les privilèges régissent le royaume de France.
1754, a few years before the French Revolution, Adrien de Noailles was born. The weight of a name, a family heritage and a career is not the easiest to bear, especially when you are a woman forced by your father to take the identity of a man. Her title is of captain of the royal guard, responsible for the protection of Marie-Antoinette, a responsibility requiring patience and restraint. At the forefront of the emerging tensions between the monarchy and the French people, Adrien will cross paths with Margot, a working class girl, who will lead her to find her place and her identity. Between revolts, plots, duty, and love, follow the life of Adrien at a time when the privileged governed the kingdom of France.
So evidently even when French people set sapphic fiction in the 18th century, it’s all about the Revolution.
The second non-English book is Plumerie, self-published by P. De Donno in Italian, but set in England. The cover copy says it’s what happens when Twelfth Night and Pride and Prejudice collide.
Ambientato nel pieno del diciannovesimo secolo a Kensington, un quartiere Londinese. Annabell Lorrain è la figlia di Claude Lorrain, ereditiero di un latifondo dopo la morte del padre. A causa dell'inesperienza di Claude, Claire viene assunta fingendosi un uomo per poter lavorare. Annabell inizia a nutrire dell'interesse nei confronti di quest'ultimo. (oppure: quando "Twelfth Night" e "Pride and Prejudice" si incontrano)
Set in the middle of the 19th century in Kensington, a London neighborhood. Annabell Lorrain is the daughter of Claude Lorrain, heir to a large estate after the death of her father. Due to Claude's inexperience, Claire is hired posing as a man in order to work. Annabell begins to take an interest in the latter.
So…not much, but something intriguing if you’re looking for something to read in Italian.
Another new mid-19th century novel is Stein Willard’s self-published The Discreet Servant.
Married life was sheer torture for Jane. She never wanted a husband in the first place—especially, not so soon after the loss of her beloved parents. However, social norms in nineteenth century England dictated that a young, beautiful heiress needed to have a handsome, successful man by her side. That was the picture perfect depiction of 19th century England. Hirsh has acted out many personas in her life, but the one of loyal, discreet servant was by far the toughest act she ever had to portray. It might’ve been easier had she not been head over heels in love with the tragic, young woman, who also happened to be her employer. For survival’s sake, she donned the cloak of discretion and submission, even though her very nature rebelled violently against the injustice playing out before her eyes.
Lara Kinsey has a second self-published short story out in her series about two older women finding each other around the turn of the 20th century: Blooming in the Sun. The previous installment came out in June.
The Riviera is vast and full of secrets. Dorothea has spent two years as Headmistress Smythe-Barney, and she deserves a summer vacation. Now she's hungry for her own legacy, and there's no better place than Italy for an amateur linguist to learn more tongues. Madame Nicolette Laurent is growing older, bien sûr, and the chance to make her mark on the Riviera is not to be missed. Can our uprooted lovers find a place to bloom?
And the final September book has only a brief description in the cover copy. This is Smuggled Love self-published by Robert Lee Davies. It looks like the author has previously published a gay male romance set during World War II, but I know nothing else about him or the book.
During World War II, two girls fall in love in a small Canadian town ... only to find themselves in a fight against the cruelty of society.
The five October books are mostly from mainstream presses, with one contribution from Bold Strokes Books, a new World War II novel from Justine Saracen: To Sleep with Reindeer.
Norwegian Kirsten Brun, a Nazi resister, has one mission: destroy the installation that produces the chemicals Germany needs for an atomic weapon. Unfortunately, her first attempt fails, leaving her injured and unconscious in the Arctic snow. The Indigenous Sami people have tried to remain outside the conflict, but when Marrit Ragnar and the reindeer she herds discover Kristen and save her life, joining the battle is inevitable. A misfit in her own culture, Marrit participates in the second destruction attempt in order to avenge the killing of her family. Kirsten’s and Marrit’s feelings for each other grow deeper, but each attack they join is costly in blood and conscience and nearly tears them apart. Should they carry on with the carnage for a questionable cause, or retreat north with the gentle reindeer?
In the same era, but a very different setting, is Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood from Random House.
It's 1942 and Willowjean "Will" Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York's best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost. When the dapper detective summons Will a few days later, she doesn't expect to be offered a life-changing proposition: Lillian's multiple sclerosis means she can't keep up with her old case load alone, so she wants to hire Will to be her right-hand woman. In return, Will will receive a salary, room and board, and training in Lillian's very particular art of investigation. Three years later, Will and Lillian are on the Collins case: Abigail Collins was found bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball following a big, boozy Halloween party at her home--her body slumped in the same chair where her steel magnate husband shot himself the year before. With rumors flying that Abigail was bumped off by the vengeful spirit of her husband (who else could have gotten inside the locked room?), the family has tasked the detectives with finding answers where the police have failed. But that's easier said than done in a case that involves messages from the dead, a seductive spiritualist, and Becca Collins--the beautiful daughter of the deceased, who Will quickly starts falling for. When Will and Becca's relationship dances beyond the professional, Will finds herself in dangerous territory, and discovers she may have become the murderer's next target. A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of 1940s New York, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fresh homage to Holmes and Watson reads like the best of Dashiell Hammett and introduces an audacious detective duo for the ages.
There’s an intriguing blend of witchcraft and suffragettes in Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches from Redhook. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it’s from her highly praised fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This book has more than a little dash of fantasy as well.
In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in Alix E. Harrow's powerful novel of magic and the suffragette movement. In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box. But when the Eastwood sisters -- James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna -- join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote -- and perhaps not even to live -- the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive. There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines from William Morrow is described as “The Favourite meets The Haunting of Hill House in this highly imaginative and original highbrow horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls, a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit—and the highly-anticipated adult debut from the award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Well, that’s quite an endorsement!
Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, author of a scandalous bestselling memoir that transforms these acolytes into bold rebels. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, a seeming paradise, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered, a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, the School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling manner. Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” gilded-age institution. Her bestseller inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells, as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.
And the final October book is from this month’s guest author, Samantha Rajaram: The Company Daughters from Bookouture.
Wanted: Company Daughters. Virtuous young ladies to become the brides of industrious settlers in a foreign land. The Company will pay the cost of the lady’s dowry and travel. Returns not permitted, orphans preferred. Amsterdam, 1616. Jana Beil has learned that life rarely provides moments of joy. Having run away from a violent father, her days are spent searching for work in an effort to stay out of the city brothels, where desperate women trade their bodies for a mouthful of bread. But when Jana is hired as a servant for the wealthy and kind Master Reynst and his beautiful daughter Sontje, Jana’s future begins to look brighter. Then Master Reynst loses his fortune on a bad investment, and everything changes. The house is sold to creditors, leaving Jana back on the streets and Sontje without a future. With no other choice, Jana and Sontje are forced to sign with the East India Company as Company Daughters: sailing to a colonial outpost to become the brides of male settlers they know nothing about. With fear in their hearts, the girls begin their journey – but what awaits them on the other side of the world is nothing like what they’ve been promised…
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? I’ve broken my slump, hooray! In the past month I read Claire O’Dell’s short story “Journal of a Plague Summer” in her Janet Watson series. And I read Lily Maxton’s Regency novella A Lady’s Desire. And I’m in the middle of Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian historic fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn, which is really excellent. I’m trying to make more of a push to read the books my guests will be talking about before we record. That’s often a tight schedule, but I’m excited about several that are coming up.
And what sapphic historicals have you been excited to read lately? Do you have a particular historic theme or setting that you’d love to talk about in a book appreciation segment? When I move to the new format next year where the interviews are included in the On the Shelf episodes, I’ll have plenty of opportunities for people to do very brief book chats. Reach out if you’re interested.
Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Now we get to a set of biographies that are both intriguing and maddeningly skimpy. After chapters where the every movement and conversation of the subject is reconstructed from correspondence and memoirs, we have the story of a woman who -- without recourse to inheritance or marriage -- appears from obscurity with evidence that she somehow ammassed a comfortable fortune. How? Why? Where? When? No idea. She becomes the mentor, companion, and most likely lover of a woman widowed in her early 20s, also left with a comfortable fortune (and four children!) and they go traveling across Europe, hanging out with the famous and talented. Like many intriguing real-life stories, you'd have to work a bit to make it believable in a novel. But in keeping with the theme of mining history for plots and characters, I think you could do worse than examine the lives of Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter 12 – Friends: Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges
This chapter, though just as packed with the confusion of life details as the previous ones, provides a much clearer picture of a particular configuration of companionship. The two women in the relationship were both from the comfortable middle class, but each with disadvantages to be overcome, and each had a certain amount of good fortune--or at least a good outcome that left them quite happy and comfortable. I’m going to take each of their stories separately at first and then blend them together.
Molly Carter was the youngest of 12 children of a well off middle-class family. Her father was a member of Parliament and the family had an estate to be handed on, although entirely too many children for all of them to be benefited by that resource. Molly Carter never married and, by unknown means, she ended up with a fairly significant fortune. Rizzo works backwards from the size of her establishment and the amount of the bequests she made in her will to determine that she must have had a fortune of at least 20,000 pounds.
While she may have made good investments to earn some of that, and she may also have received a legacy or legacies from unknown sources, unfortunately her position and status was of so little interest to posterity that we have almost no information about the period of her life when she acquired her fortune.
Molly was intelligent, strong-minded, and contemporaries frequently remarked on her “masculine“ intelligence and personality. (Keep in mind that intelligence and intellectual ability were defined as masculine qualities, so this isn’t necessarily a comment on her gender presentation.) She spent most of her life on the fringes of high society, being an acquaintance of people of rank and status, but not a close friend of any of them. Even those known to have been close friends of hers said little about her in their correspondence and memoirs. There is a sense of something ever so slightly “off” about her life—something that made her acceptability questionable in society—such that she was not entirely welcome or at home among fashionable people.
In later years, she was strongly rumored to be a lesbian, although specific relationships are not mentioned with the possible exception of Louisa Clarges.
Louisa had something of a checkered background herself. Her mother had been the mistress of Lord Sandwich and after he cast her off, she took up with a young man of comfortable wealth who was not entirely averse to picking up forsaken mistresses of the great. The two were not married at the time Louisa was born, thought they did marry shortly thereafter, but it appears that her father didn’t formally acknowledge her until after his death. Louisa’s mother died a few years after the marriage during a tour on the continent. She left Louisa a set of diamonds (no doubt a gift to her from Lord Sandwich) and appointed her husband to be Louisa’s guardian.
Louisa was charming, musically talented, somewhat giddy, and popular among the artistic set. Her musical talent and social connections brought her into fashionable society despite the moral lapses of her mother’s past and her own birth. She attracted the attention of Thomas Clarges, a rich man who, like her, was devoted to music, and it appears to have been a love match.
In the five years they were married, they had four children, including one pair of twins, and Lady Clarges was the toast of fashionable society. Unfortunately her husband died leaving her a 22-year-old widow with four children (but sufficient wealth to ease the sorrow).
Louisa and Molly had become friends at some point earlier and Molly appears to have lived in the Clarges household before and after Sir Thomas‘s death. Afterward, she became Louisa’s main emotional and logistical support while she regained her equilibrium. There was a significant age difference between the two. Molly was older and Rizzo—following her usual pattern of imposing parental roles on companions—suggests she took something of a motherly role. That might create an unfortunate impression in the reader given what followed.
Before Sir Thomas’s death, they had planned to make a stay on the continent for his health, and after afterward Louisa determined to continue with plans for the tour. Molly had previous experience with continental travel and so provided not merely personal support, but this expertise as well.
There are implications that Louisa had some mild scandal associated with her, and that she had reason to absent herself from England for a while so that talk with die down, but the specifics of that are nowhere provided. In any event, the two women, the children, and all the associated retinue went abroad and mixed in fashionable society in France and Italy.
Contemporaries who commented on them implied some interesting things. Molly was referred to as Louisa’ “chevalier” and it one point is called “her Sappho”. There are suggestions that she was regarded as masculine in some way, and given the direct references to her reputation as a lesbian it is a natural conclusion to suppose that the two women were known--or at least suspected--to be lovers.
These rumors don’t seem to have impeded their acceptance in society, or their enjoyment of travel and the social opportunities it brought. Louisa enjoyed at least one offer of marriage (or a near-offer) that she turns down. When they eventually returned to England several years later, they separated on amicable terms and remained excellent friends for the rest of their lives.
Luisa was no longer the glamorous and lighthearted socialite she had been before marriage, but had settled down to sensibility, devoting herself to her children and to music. She had unfortunate luck in her children’s health: one son being killed in the Navy, and two being of delicate health (possibly tuberculosis), for which reason she settled the family in the north of Wales where the air was said to be better. But to no avail in the end. Her last son survived to adulthood but never married.
Molly Carter continued to visit her in Wales. She had settled in London, but having no social or historical prominence of her own is rarely mentioned. We know a fair amount about her financial situation based on the wealth she was able to leave behind. She lived a long and active life, continued to travel, and was remarked upon regularly as a remarkable and memorable woman.
They both were buried in the same churchyard very close to each other, and it’s hard to imagine that this was by accident. Even though they spent only a portion of their lives in the same household, they were clearly close, and given the rumors it’s likely their relationship was at least romantic and possibly sexual.
Rizzo points out that for a positive companion relationship it is not sufficient for the participants simply to be benevolent and of similar temperament, but that financial comfort goes a long way to ensuring private success in one’s relations. And by whatever means they came by it, Molly and Louisa were sufficiently fortunate in their finances to be able to enjoy their partnership with no clouds for the time that it lasted.
We're finally getting to some examples of positive companionship in different forms. This chapter emphasizes three components that are one way of achiving that goal: a benevolent and good-tempered mistress, a carefully hand-picked companion, and sufficient inequity in their positions that the lines of authority are clear. These are not women who are infantilized by having a hyper-competent housekeeper-companion, or who drive away a good prospect by the sort of bullying that comes from insecurity and narcissism. But neither are these specific examples particularly good models for building a fictional romantic prospect. (Perhaps the Spencer-Preedy relationship could be adjusted to fit, but not as it is, in my opinon.) So despite Rizzo's titling this chapter in reference to romantic friends, the relationships don't quite fit the model as I understand it. We have two more chapters to go, and we're getting closer.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter 11 - Sensibility and Romantic Friendship: Frances Greville and Lady Spencer
This chapter provides a somewhat more coherent theme with regard to companionship, and it presents an entirely positive model. It contrasts the lives of Frances Greville, the wife of Fulke Greville who has been mentioned previously, and Georgianna Spencer. But I must clear up the identity of this Georgiana because I spent half the chapter being confused. This is Georgiana married-name-Spencer, who is the mother of the Georgiana Spencer who married William Cavendish and thereby became the unhappy Duchess of Devonshire.
The Spencer and Greville were close friends though rather unalike in personality. Frances Greville was renowned for her outspoken wit, strong opinions, and preference for disdaining sensibility and emotionalism. She had rather hostile relations with her husband and they separated because of that, leaving her is difficult financial circumstances. Greville’s relations with her companions were shaped, in part, by her inability to support a companion of her own rank. In fact, most of her companions also served as lady’s maid, though she was willing to forgo some expertise in that field as long as they were skilled at reading to her and were good company. A side effect of these requirements was that they were women who were not at risk of challenging her authority or expecting much in terms of intimacy.
Georgiana Spencer, on the other hand, had a very happy marriage, but her husband was significantly older and died, leaving her a widow at a relatively young age. Both of Georgianna’s daughters led tumultuous lives, and one of the things Georgiana seems to have looked for a companion was a substitute daughter who would provide less drama.
Greville and Spencer were both consistently pleasant and benevolent in their relations to their companions, not the domineering tyrants of earlier chapters. Frances Greville took good care of the succession of maid/companion figures in her life, seeing to them when they were ill and ensuring that they were taken care of once they left her service. Some of the young women who filled this role had been selected and trained up by her friend Georgiana, who seem to have a hobby of identifying and providing suitable young women for her friends’ households.
After her husband‘s death, and with her two daughters married off, Georgiana engaged the services of the daughter of a clergyman who was a client of the family. Elizabeth Preedy. While Greville’s companions needed to do double-duty as ladies maid and companion, Spencer attached Elizabeth Preedy purely for the sake of company. Georgiana chose to live a relatively quiet life after being widowed, with a turn to charity and good works, and Preedy suited her very well in that state of mind.
Preedy might have retained the post of companion for the rest of their lives, but a wealthy widower who was a friend of the Spencers settled on her as the ideal second wife to manage his household and look after his children. Georgiana was hesitant to forbid the match. Not only was it an unlooked-for opportunity for Preedy herself, but the larger Preedy family was in dire need of the support such a match could bring.
But as the possibility of the marriage was discussed between Spencer and Preedy, it became obvious that women were far more attached to each other than they had previously realized. Rizzo frames this as a romantic attachment and although the language they used about each other is ambiguous regarding the nature of their feelings, the extended agonizing over the possible separation, and whether it was the best choice, tells it’s own story. Despite their clear emotional distress at the thought of their separation, in the end Preedy did marry the wealthy widower and seems to have been reconciled to finding happiness on that path. But it seems clear that she might have preferred to stay as Georgiana‘s companion for the rest of their lives, if family pressures hadn’t intervened.
Both women, Georgiana Spencer and Frances Greville, deliberately chose companions who were of lower status than themselves, but for different purposes and functions. This choice may have contributed to the success and happiness of the arrangements, but the temperament of the women as mistresses must also be taken into account.
OK, maybe I've been working through this book too long and I'm just getting bored. Or maybe it's the sense that Rizzo is trying to build a narrative that she's already established in her mind, rather than study the sources. Whatever the reason, I'm feeling a bit snippish. The book is starting to feel like a random series of 18th century biographies that can in some way be related to the idea of "companions". (Given the social patterns of the time, I'm guessing that almost every household could be related to this concept in some way at some point.) People seem to be painted with broad brushes and Rizzo is fond of forcing them into fixed narratives. Husbands are expected to be jealous of their wives live-in female company. Companions are either bullies, toadies, or saintly martyrs. And there seems to be an underlying assumption that women are naturally in conflict with each other even when they appear to be performing voluntarily complementary roles. Moralism worms its way in with an assumption that being a competent household manager makes one a better person than being witty or charming or socially ept. Being frail or depressed is a personal failing or a means of manipulating others. Sometimes each of these may be true, but I've come to wonder whether Rizzo actually likes women as human beings. Because she regularly puts the worst interpretations on their actions. Well, I have three more chapters and will finish up this week. I've gotten some very useful ideas that can be applied to plots and characterization in my own work. So there's that.
Chapter 10 The Domestic Triangle: The Veseys and Handcock
This chapter feels a bit incoherent, as if Rizzo is simply trying to put together biographies of minor 18th century personalities who happen to have left significant correspondence, which can be forced into a narrative by means of random excerpts.
The subject of this chapter is Elizabeth Vesey and her sister-in-law and longtime companion Something-or-other Handcock. so little is known about Handcock’s life as an individual that although it’s known that she was one of the sisters of Vesey’s first husband, the question of which of three possibilities is left unspecified. Her first name is never recorded in any of Vesey’s memoirs or letters.
The two women formed a partnership that is familiar from other examples: one being the practical, managing sort, the other being the social person. Typically, of course, it is the companion who is the practical, managing person because that’s her means of adding value to the household and gaining a stable and secure position.
Mr. Vesey was somewhat set apart from the circle created by those two women. The marriage seems to of been a fairly typical one when not arranged for love. The two were indifferent companions to each other and never close. Mr. Vesey seems to have taken a certain pleasure in using his power as the patriarch to exclude the other two not only from household decisions but even from knowledge of his plans regarding travel and lodging.
Rizzo forces the three into an interpretation that she’s mentioned in previous chapters, where she sees the wife as being either allowed or encouraged to be childlike and ornamental, and then casting the female companion into the role of surrogate mother, and the husband into the role of surrogate father. It isn’t it all clear to me that this template correctly applies to some of the people Rizzo applies it to, and the more I work through this book the more annoyed I am by some of Rizzo’s interpretations. In this chapter, for example, there is a great deal of speculation regarding the motivations and feelings of the two Veseys that seems to be done purely to create a structured narrative, but for which little evidence is offered in support.
At any rate, Elizabeth Vesey and Handcock kept each other close company for many years until both were elderly and infirm and died--in somewhat straitened circumstances, due to the lack of provision in Mr. Vesey’s will, which may be seen either as carelessly improvident or as malicious. But in the meantime, the two women had created a fairly functional partnership, with Hancock being the practical one and Vesey the ornamental one. Their own contemporaries referred to them as “body” and “soul” with Handcock being the practical body and Vesey the soul.
There isn’t really much else to say about this household and the companion dynamics it illustrates, for all that the chapter goes into a great many random details of the Veseys’ life and social circles. Elizabeth Vesey was a minor hostess of the bluestockings. Not a brilliant one like Elizabeth Montagu, but with a certain social set of her own. She had artistic interests expressed in typical 18th century upper class directions: home decoration and landscaping. If she was not a brilliant mind she seems at least have been well beloved by her contemporaries. And Handcock? Handcock was always there for her, looking out for her, managing her household, being her constant companion. We have almost no idea what she thought of the arrangement as she seems to have left no correspondence or memoirs of her own, and visitor to the Veseys rarely commented on her presence or existent.
What does this chapter contribute to an understanding of the dynamics of companion relationships in the 18 century? I guess it demonstrates that some of them were functional, long lasting, stable, and loving, without very much in the way of drama other than what typically comes to women in a patriarchal society.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 177 (previously 50d) - 17th Century Poet Katherine Philips - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/09/26 - listen here)
I’ve been thinking of doing a podcast on Katherine Philips for some time, and was finally inspired to do so by the coverage of Philips in Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations, which I blogged recently. On a more practical basis, it’s a good time to tackle this subject because I have enough material on Philips summarized in various blog entries that putting together a podcast was only a matter of editing, rather than writing anew.
So why should we be interested in a minor English poet of the 17th century? Other than the fascination of any woman who wrote passionate poetry to her close female friends, Philips is a great example of how debates over applying the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from studying the actual ways in which same-sex desire was expressed, regardless of label. It does equal damage to the historic reality of Philips’ life to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of whether she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus only on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence, and to dismiss the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.
Philips was born into a bourgeois family, the daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, but her personal charm and talents bought her entry into court and literary circles. She was raised in Puritan and Parliamentarian households in the era of the English Civil War, but her personal sympathies were royalist. Much of her early poetry was in private circulation among a circle of royalist women, serving both to express her political opinions in carefully coded symbolism, and to maintain bonds of personal intimacy within the group.
She was married at age 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. Full disclosure compels me to note that Wikipedia has a reference suggesting that newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. Either age difference is plausible in the context of the time, though the larger gap may be more likely. The difference in political sympathies might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict, but instead proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded Philips from the consequences of her royalist connections, and she in turn was able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.
Their differences went beyond the political. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. And though she didn’t disparage her husband, neither does he seem to have been a source of personal satisfaction. Separation from him (and her children) never provoked the anguish that Philips expressed when separated from her female friends.
Poems of Friendship
In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. They may have met together in London or in Wales, as well as by correspondence. Philips herself was “Orinda”. The first of the women Philips addressed poetry to, Regina Collier, was not assigned a classical nickname. But the next two women who feature prominently in her poetry had nicknames. The first was Mary Aubrey, a school friend, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” Some of the poems were conventional praise poetry, as in this excerpt from a poem addressed to Rosania.
Rosania Shadowed whilst Mrs. Mary Aubrey
If any could my dear Rosania hate,
They only should her Character relate.
Truth shines so bright there, that an Enemy
Would be a better Orator than I.
Love stifles Language, and I must confess,
I had said more, if I had loved less.
Yet the most critical who that Face see
Will ne'er suspect a partiality.
Others by Time and by Degrees persuade,
But her first Look doth ev'ry Heart invade.
She hath a Face so eminently bright,
Would make a Lover of an Anchorite.
It goes on at some length enumerating Rosania’s charms and attractions.
The more memorable of Philips’ poems address the nature and proper expression of intimate friendship. These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.
The following, titled L’Amitié (The Friend) expresses the sense of oneness that true friendship brings.
L’Amitié: To Mrs. Mary Aubrey
Soul of my Soul, my Joy, my Crown, my Friend,
A name which all the rest doth comprehend;
How happy are we now, whose Souls are grown,
By an incomparable mixture, one:
Whose well-acquainted Minds are now so near
As Love, or Vows, or Friendship can endear?
I have no thought, but what’s to thee reveal’d,
Nor thou desire that is from me conceal’d.
Thy Heart locks up my Secrets richly set,
And my Breast is thy private Cabinet,
Thou shed’st no tear but what my moisture lent,
And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent.
United thus, what Horrour can appear
Worthy our Sorrow, Anger, or our Fear?
Let the dull World alone to talk and fight,
And with their vast Ambitions Nature fright;
Let them despise so Innocent a Flame,
While Envy, Pride, and Faction play their game:
But we by Love sublim’d so high shall rise,
To pity Kings, and Conquerours despise,
Since we that Sacred Union have engrost,
Which they and all the factious World have lost.
Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing a poem on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” It was the fate of all of Philips’ closest friendships to falter when her friends married and found their time and attention pulled in other directions. Philips considered herself steadfastly devoted and had a hard time forgiving a lesser commitment in others. The following verse reflects a shift in primacy from Rosania to Lucasia (Anne Owen), although Philips had a propensity for writing multiple “farewell to friendship” poems, so this needn’t be seen as marking a specific event.
Rosania’s Apostacy and Lucasia's Friendship
Great Soul of Friendship, whither art thou fled?
Where dost thou now chuse to repose thy Head?
Or art thou nothing but Voice, Air, and Name,
Found out to put Souls in pursuit of Fame?
Thy Flames being thought Immortal, we may doubt
Whether they e'er did burn that see them out.
Go weary'd Soul, find out thy wonted rest,
In the safe Harbour of Orinda’s Breast,
There all unknown Adventures thou hast found
In thy late Transmigrations, expound
That so Rosania's Darkness may be known
To be her want of Lustre, not thy own.
Then to the Great Lucasia have recourse,
There gather up new Excellence and Force,
Many of Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. In “Friendship’s Mysteries” she creates a symbolic equivalence between the bonds of friends and that of marriage, emphasizing the superiority of the former as it allows for free choice of association.
Friendship's Mystery: To my dearest Lucasia
Come, my Lucasia, since we see
That Miracles Mens faith do move,
By wonder and by prodigy
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love.
For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.
Our hearts are doubled by the loss,
Here Mixture is Addition grown ;
We both diffuse, and both ingross :
And we whose minds are so much one,
Never, yet ever are alone.
We court our own Captivity
Than Thrones more great and innocent :
’Twere banishment to be set free,
Since we wear fetters whose intent
Not Bondage is, but Ornament.
Divided joyes are tedious found,
And griefs united easier grow :
We are our selves but by rebound,
And all our Titles shuffled so,
Both Princes, and both Subjects too.
Our Hearts are mutual Victims laid,
While they (such power in Friendship lies)
Are Altars, Priests, and Off’rings made :
And each Heart which thus kindly dies,
Grows deathless by the Sacrifice.
But the central theme of this podcast comes from the poems that reached beyond the ideals of platonic love to express more deeply personal feelings, as the following.
To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship
I did not live until this time
Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee.
This carcass breathed, and walked, and slept,
So that the world believed
There was a soul the motions kept;
But they were all deceived.
For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine:
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;
Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast:
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.
No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I’ve all the world in thee.
Then let our flames still light and shine,
And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
Immortal as our soul.
Philips’ work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating, and maintaining bonds between women. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. She regularly traveled away from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career, but wrote no sad poems of parting on those occasions.
Contradictions and contrasts come out between her works on abstract friendship, which emphasize mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. Though it must be kept in mind that Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may sometimes have affected the nature of their friendship and the tone of the verses.
In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Philips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, as in this next poem “Injuria Amici” Injury to a friend”.
Lovely apostate! what was my offence?
Or am I punish'd for obedience?
Must thy strange rigours find as strange a time?
The act and season are an equall crime
Of what thy most ingenious scorns could doe,
Must I be subject and Spectatour too?
Or were the sufferings and sins too few
To be sustain'd by me, perform'd by you?
Unless (with Nero) your uncurb'd desire
Be to survey the Rome you set on fire
While wounded for and by your power, I
At once your martyr and your prospect dy.
This is my doome, and such a riddling fate
As all impossibles doth complicate:
For obligation here is injury,
Constancy crime, friendship a heresy;
And you appeare so much on ruine bent,
Your own destruction gives you now content:
For our twin-spirits did so long agree,
You must undoe your self to ruine me
And, like some frantique Goddess, you'r inclin'd
To raze the Temple where you were enshrin'd;
And (what's the miracle of Cruelty!)
Kill that which gave you imortallity
Whiles Glorious Friendship, whence your honour springs,
Ly's gasping in the croud of common things;
And I me so odious, that for being kind
Doubled and study'd murders are design'd.
Thy sin's all paradox! for shouldst thou be
Thy self again, 'twould be severe to me;
For thy repentance, comming now so late,
Would onely change, and not relieve the fate
So dangerous is the consequence of ill,
Thy least of crimes is to be Cruell Still;
For of thy smiles I should yet more complain,
If I should live to be betray'd again
Live then (faire tyrant) in Security,
From both my kindness and revenge be free;
While I, who to the Swains had sung your fame,
And taught each Eccho to repeat your name,
Will now my private sorrows entertain,
To Rocks and Rivers (not to you) complain
And though before our Union cherish'd me,
Tis now my pleasure that we disagree;
For from my passion your last rigours grew,
And you kill me, because I worshipp'd you.
But my worst vows shall be your happiness,
And nere to be disturb'd by my distress.
And though it would my sacred flames pollute,
To make my Heart a scorned prostitute;
Yet I'le adore the Authour of my death,
And kiss the hand that robbs me of my breath.
There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems. Philips wanted their love—however they defined it—to be engaged in actively, to be spoken and exchanged, not passively taken for granted, as she argues in “To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship.”
To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship
O My Lucasia, let us speak our Love,
And think not that impertinent can be,
Which to us both doth such assurance prove,
And whence we find how justly we agree.
Before we knew the treasures of our Love,
Our noble aims our joys did entertain;
And shall enjoyment nothing then improve?
'Twere best for us then to begin again.
Now we have gain'd, we must not stop, and sleep
Out all the rest of our mysterious reign:
It is as hard and glorious to keep
A victory, as it is to obtain.
Nay, to what end did we once barter Minds,
Onely to know and to neglect the claim?
Or (like some Wantons) our Pride pleasure finds
To throw away the thing at which we aim.
If this be all our Friendship does design,
We covet not enjoyment then, but power:
To our Opinion we our Bliss confine,
And love to have, but not to smell, the flower.
Ah! then let Misers bury thus their Gold,
Who though they starve no farthing wil produce:
But we lov'd to enjoy and to behold,
And sure we cannot spend our stock by use.
Think not 'tis needless to repeat desires;
The fervent Turtles alwayes court and bill,
And yet their spotless passion never tires,
But does increase by repetition still.
Although we know we love, yet while our Soul
Is thus imprisoned by the Flesh we wear,
There's no way left that bondage to controul,
But to convey transactions through the Ear.
Nay, though we reade our passions in the Eye,
It will oblige and please to tell them too:
Such joys as these by motion multiply,
Were 't but to find that our Souls told us true.
Believe not then, that being now secure
Of either's heart, we have no more to doe:
The Spheres themselves by motion do endure,
And they move on by Circulation too.
And as a River, when it once hath paid
The tribute which it to the Ocean owes,
Stops not, but turns, and having curl'd and play'd
On its own waves, the shore it overflows:
So the Soul's motion does not end in bliss,
But on her self she scatters and dilates,
And on the Object doubles still; by this
She finds new joys which that reflux creates.
But then because it cannot all contain,
It seeks a vent by telling the glad news,
First to the Heart which did its joys obtain,
Then to the Heart which did those joys produce.
When my Soul then doth such excursions make,
Unless thy Soul delight to meet it too,
What satisfaction can it give or take,
Thou being absent at the interview?
'Tis not Distrust; for were that plea allow'd,
Letters and Visits all would useless grow:
Love, whose expression then would be its cloud,
And it would be refin'd to nothing so.
If I distrust, 'tis my own worth for thee,
'Tis my own fitness for a love like thine;
And therefore still new evidence would see,
T'assure my wonder that thou canst be mine.
But as the Morning-Sun to drooping Flowers,
As weary Travellers a Shade do find,
As to the parched Violet Evening-showers;
Such is from thee to me a Look that's kind.
But when that Look is drest in Words, 'tis like
The mystick pow'r of Musick's union;
Which when the Finger doth one Viol strike,
The other's string heaves to reflection.
Be kind to me, and just then to your love,
To which we owe our free and dear Converse;
And let not tract of Time wear or remove
It from the privilege of that Commerce.
Tyrants do banish what they can't requite:
But let us never know such mean desires;
But to be grateful to that Love delight
Which all our joys and noble thoughts inspires.
The final break with Lucasia, that is, Anne Owen, came after Owen’s first husband died, when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange another marriage for her with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction, as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes. Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship. The following excerpts are from, “Orinda to Lucasia parting” which is only one of several in this vein.
Orinda to Lucasia Parting 1661 at London
ADIEU dear object of my Love’s excess,
And with thee all my hopes of happiness,
With the same fervent and unchanged heart
Which did it’s whole self once to thee impart,
(And which though fortune has so sorely bruis’d,
Would suffer more, to be from this excus’d)
I to resign thy dear Converse submit,
Since I can neither keep, nor merit it.
Thou hast too long to me confined been,
Who ruine am without, passion within.
My mind is sunk below thy tenderness,
And my condition does deserve it less;
I’m so entangl’d and so lost a thing
By all the shocks my daily sorrow bring,
That would’st thou for thy old Orinda call
Thou hardly could’st unravel her at all.
And should I thy clear fortunes interline
With the incessant miseries of mine?
No, no, I never lov’d at such a rate
To tye thee to the rigours of my fate,
As from my obligations thou art free,
Sure thou shalt be so from my Injury,
Though every other worthiness I miss,
Yet I’le at least be generous in this.
I’d rather perish without sigh or groan,
Then thou shoul’dst be condemn’d to give me one;
Nay in my soul I rather could allow
Friendship should be a sufferer, then thou;
Go then, since my sad heart has set thee free,
Let all the loads and chains remain on me.
Though I be left the prey of sea and wind,
Thou being happy wilt in that be kind;
Nor shall I my undoing much deplore,
Since thou art safe, whom I must value more.
Oh! mayst thou ever be so, and as free
From all ills else, as from my company,
And may the torments thou hast had from it
Be all that heaven will to thy life permit.
And that they may thy vertue service do,
Mayest thou be able to forgive them too:
But though I must this sharp submission learn,
I cannot yet unwish thy dear concern.
Not one new comfort I expect to see,
I quit my Joy, hope, life, and all but thee;
Nor seek I thence ought that may discompose
That mind where so serene a goodness grows.
I ask no inconvenient kindness now,
To move thy passion, or to cloud thy brow;
And thou wilt satisfie my boldest plea
By some few soft remembrances of me,
Which may present thee with this candid thought,
I meant not all the troubles that I brought.
Own not what Passion rules, and Fate does crush,
But wish thou couldst have don’t without a blush,
And that I had been, ere it was too late,
Either more worthy, or more fortunate.
Ah who can love the thing they cannot prize?
But thou mayst pity though thou dost despise.
Yet I should think that pity bought too dear,
If it should cost those precious Eyes a tear.
Oh may no minutes trouble, thee possess,
But to endear the next hours happiness;
And maist thou when thou art from me remov’d,
Be better pleas’d, but never worse belov’d:
Oh pardon me for pow’ring out my woes
In Rhime now, that I dare not do’t in Prose.
For I must lose whatever is call’d dear,
And thy assistance all that loss to bear,
And have more cause than ere I had before,
To fear that I shall never see thee more.
As with many of her other poems, it goes on at some length, and I’ve included the whole poem in the transcript.
After the break with Owen, Philips’ work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. The rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. One additional poetic focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.
The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected. But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women.
The Restoration saw the start of Philips’ wider literary reputation as a translator of plays. Her poetry moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it. The focus that academic study gives the friendship poems sometimes obscures the very large body of work in the court poetry genre, as well as a large number of short incidental pieces dedicated to other people in her social circle beyond her special favorites.
Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. (One of the authors I’m working from suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queerness-equals-death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.)
The Neo-Platonic Tradition
The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited incorporated the precieuse culture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century without the exaggerated formal imagery of the précieuses. These themes were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy, and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those friendships.
The coded classical language of male passionate friendships in the Renaissance was socially sanctioned and more widely available as a model than the few known surviving female examples. Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.
One of the social models that shifted, moving into the 17th century, was the rise of the concept of companionate marriage, reframing heterosexual relationships as a mutual partnership, and necessarily elevating women as worthy of friendship. At least in theory. The emergence of this acceptance is seen in writing like Kenelm Digby’s descriptions of his wife as being capable of such friendships because she has a “masculine soul”. Not actual gender equality, but a move in that direction.
Women didn’t always have the same social and economic freedom that men did to engage in and maintain friendships on an everyday level, and from the 17th through 19th centuries, a constant theme in women’s friendship writing is the desire for physical presence, and lamenting the life complications that prevent it. Perhaps for this reason, among others, fantasies of female friendships often focused on an imagined Arcadian retreat from “the real world.” This separate pastoral world would also remove them from the status relationships of urban court life that could interfere with the ideals of equality in friendship.
Philips was conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature. Part of her professional strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her themes of relationships between women as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on male-female friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate women’s friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her queries as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips—considered women’s extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.
In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.
An examination of the boundaries between friendship and love, and the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of them, were being openly debated within Philips’ larger social circle. The existence of expressions of love that “should be kept at a distance” are mentioned, but never specified. But anxieties of this type emerge in the evocation of Sappho, especially as a comparison for Philips’ poetry. In calling Philips “another Sappho”, her contemporaries raised the possibility of unacceptable eroticism, hastily refuted by claims that Philips was “more virtuous than Sappho.” One might call it an early instance of the “no homo” reflex.
When comparing women’s same-sex friendship to heterosexual relations, Philips derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.
To Rosania & Lucasia Articles of Friendship
The Soules which vertu hath made fitt
Do of themselves incline to knitt;
Yet wedlock having priests, allow
That I be friendships Flamen now.
For I can best perform the rite,
Who of the Goddesse had a sight;
To me her oracles she gave,
And did inspire me in her cave.
And 'tis my glory, that I may
My faults redeeme, my debts repay,
No more my uselesse self I loath,
Since I can now oblige you both.
First then, the love you beare each other,
You must no more in silence smother,
Nor Ceremoniously take paines,
To put your friendship into chaines.
Formal addresses then disclaime;
And never must yee Madam name
Shee gaines most, who first Condescends,
For y'are more noble being friends.
Estrangements thus once voted down,
And all the Punctilios of the town,
No time, nor place, believed unfitt
Which will each others sight admitt.
Tho friendship greatest service dares
It's life consists in little cares,
Those frequent tendernesses, which
Make a concerned heart so rich.
You both must weare an open heart,
And freely your concerns impart
By this, your pleasure you will double,
And it will lessen all your trouble.
All distance may this hower destroy,
Confirme your love, begin your joy!
O how much kindnes does afford
That pleasant, & that mighty word!
If you these termes do disapprove,
Ye cannot, or ye will not love
But if ye like these lovely bands,
With them join hearts, & lips, & hands.
Reputation and Legacy
Philips was ambitious as a writer, at a time when being a woman writing publicly was to risk male criticism. She was sheltered, to some extent, by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman, but she also deliberately cultivated the friendship and approval of male literary figures of the day. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era—and from her translations of a more famous male author.
Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her poems about friendship, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the 19th century. Her most anthologized works before that focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also typically arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. Whereas the arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative.
The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer in the 17th century are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing. This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.
The posthumous 1664 edition of Philips’ poems focused on the royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to be considered a stand-in for the absent King Charles II, though this interpretation becomes incoherent in poems written after the Restoration.
Philips’ reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At age 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.
The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her female friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.
The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at the clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.
Given that Philips was considered a respectable and talented poet in her own lifetime, does this mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”? Or does it mean that the sentiments she expressed and felt were acceptable to her peers, given that both she and the objects of her affection were married and not arguing against the institution of marriage?
Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho was being argued to be an essentially masculine figure, more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of female homoerotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry of later 17th century authors such as Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.
Did Philips Write Lesbian Poetry?
The question raised by featuring Katherine Philips in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is: "What does it mean to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" Especially in an era with different categories and expectations about sexuality than our own? A similar question can be asked about queer characters in historical fiction. When we write a character in a historic setting, we're telling two stories: the story of how that character relates to the past, and the story of how that character relates to present-day readers. When the character and the readers fit into dominant cultural defaults (e.g., straight, white, middle-to-upper class, and usually male) the necessary distinctions between those two stories are not as often challenged as when either the character or the readers are marginalized. If someone wrote a study of Katherine Phillips that presented the passionate expressions in her poetry as nothing more than metaphor, and her relationships with women as simply very close friendships, they would not feel the need to proclaim, "Katherine Phillips, Straight Poet".
Philips challenges easy categorization, as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for female friendship in general. And the context of her life indicates she valued those bonds as strongly as, or more so, than her marriage. It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.
Female literary expression in the 17th century engaged with a wide variety of erotic possibilities. Women’s works were addressed to both men and women and used a variety of styles. Toward the end of the 17th century, literature that openly addressed sexual possibilities between women was gaining circulation. That familiarity affected how people reacted to less overt expressions of same-sex affection, and it may have affected Katherine Philips’ legacy and reputation.
But there remains the question of was she, you know, “doing it” with her female friends. My first reaction is always to ask, “Does it matter?” Tying lesbian identity to participation in specific sexual activities is one of the ways lesbian identities in history can be erased. Because, of course, we can’t know. Not to prove it. And we can know that she was having heterosexual sex because pregnancy is an incontrovertible fact. The wider question is not simply what sort of physical relations might Philips have had with her intimate friends, but how she would have classified them.
The 17th century saw little conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognized. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way. Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her female friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for. And that very awareness lends significance to the relationships.
While one cannot assume that the erotic nature of the language used by Philips and her contemporaries is proof that they had sexual relations with each other, neither can one presume that such a possibility is out of the question. Women of her era were having what we would classify as sex with each other. That doesn’t change just because individual women might not choose to record it in their memoirs.
Scholarship has traditionally attempted to explain the homoerotic elements in the work of Philips and similar writers on the basis of individual biography, looking for specific contexts and triggers in their lives that would “explain” why they might be drawn to same-sex relations. But taken as a whole, this body of literature calls for a more systemic analysis. Why would the entrance of women into published literature in the 17th century and later include such public expressions of private same-sex desire. Susan Lanser addresses this topic at some length, though her focus on print publication means that Philips’ work falls in the “pre-history” of her analysis. Lanser proposes that women’s homoerotic writing in the 17th century was part of a collective act of creating and promulgating feminist ideas.
One traditional argument has been to connect sapphic topics with women appropriating masculine forms and conventions, that is, if a writer inhabited an authorial position that was traditionally male, she would address a female object because that was how the literary genre was structured. This strategy works to erase the sapphic potential by essentially transforming women writers into “male” voices. It’s the literary equivalent of theories of sexuality that defined desire for a woman as inherently masculine, and therefore subsumed lesbian desire under an externally imposed transgender identity.
From a different angle, more recent arguments have been that the homoerotic elements in this genre of work are used to re-direct the authors’ same-sex desires into an acceptable literary form, creating an image of “chaste femme love” (per Valerie Traub) to distinguish and distance themselves from the “taint” of both tribadism and masculinity. But this explanation fails to support why the authors would include same-sex desire in their work at all, if the goal were to avoid attracting suspicion.
Scholarship around the poetry of Katherine Philips and whether it can be read as “lesbian” is a useful lens for examining all the various academic approaches to the topic. Was Philips simply imitating an existing heterosexual “poetic love language” that did not reflect her personal desires? Does her work provide unquestionable evidence that both Philips and her poetry can be classified as “lesbian”? Whether or not one considers Philips’ poetry to represent homoerotic desires, the history of Philips scholarship is an object lesson in methods of erasing sapphic possibilities.
When contemporaries of Katherine Philips compared her to Sappho, it was not necessarily for her subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. The 17th century editions of her work are prefaced by a number of laudatory poems by her friends and admirers, in which comparisons to Sappho feature regularly. But attitudes toward Sappho’s subject matter meant those commenters often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, or “solid...and manly.”
The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity, well before the editor of her 1905 edition coined the label “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to her work. When feminist scholars “rediscovered” Philips in the mid 20th century, they had a different reason for wanting to divert accusations of lesbianism. This was, you may recall, the era of the “lavender menace.”
Across the centuries, everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such. And conversely, if her contemporaries wouldn’t have recognized her work as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional leave the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.
Elizabeth Wahl tackles this by suggesting that Philips’ ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in language that appealed to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that conclusion, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian poet” in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. Some queer historians have referred to Philips as “closeted”, and Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze. But to be closeted in the modern sense would, again, require a level of self-aware identity that can’t be demonstrated.
What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her and their marriages, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.
A biography of poet Katherine Philips with a tour through some of her works.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
I can't help but think that the story of Baddeley & Steele is more fascinating than the rather sordid, mercenary mess that Rizzo presents it as. If I were still doing the more detailed notetaking that I'm trying to step back from, I'm not sure how I would have stopped on this one. It would make a fascinating movie, full of intrigue, drama, and larger than life characters. (Almost none of which is apparent in her rather thin Wikipedia entry. Though it does have a link to Steele's biography of her.)
Chapter 9 - Business Partners: Baddeley and Steele
This chapter looks at a fairly complicated relationship between two women, one a courtesan, and one fulfilling the role of companion, along with also being her manager, her pimp, and her lover.
Sophia Baddeley was a sometime actress and performer who found her talents more acceptably turned to the business of entertaining rich and handsome men. She would have done better in that profession if she had focus more on the rich ones than the handsome ones, but she did spend a significant period being maintained by one of the richest men in England. Unfortunately, she had a habit of spending far more than any reasonable man was willing to consider her worth. That, along with a free-spending lifestyle, an addiction to laudanum, and a series of bad choices in male companionship eventually led to her decline through the ranks of society until she was making a living once more on the stage at the end of her life.
Elizabeth Steele was Baddeley’s companion from the very beginning of her career. Sorting out the relationship between the two women is not easy. Rizzo doesn’t make it any easier by having some very fixed ideas about the nature of the relationship that aren’t always supported by the evidence she presents. Suffice it to say that Steele was the businesswoman. She was the one who made arrangements for living places. She was the one who discussed finances with Baddeley’s lovers. And she was the one who scraped together the money to pay off debts when the men didn’t come through.
Rizzo asserts that the two women were lovers and though the specific evidence for that isn’t presented, it fits with some of the patterns of behavior. Certainly there was a codependent relationship between them and Steele (in the posthumous biography she wrote of Baddeley, which was in part a context for extortion) depicts them as having a close and intimate relationship. They usually lived together (and shared a bed when Baddeley didn’t have a lover around), had explosive separations in the context of Baddeley’s aforementioned “bad choices”, and had tender and forgiving reunions (usually when Baddeley needed to get her finances back in order after a lover had cleaned her out).
Baddeley was clearly emotionally dependent on Steele, as well as relying on her for business sense. But I’m not sure I entirely buy Rizzo’s depiction of Steele as being focused primarily on using Baddeley as a source of income. Time and again, Steele retrieves Baddeley from unfortunate situations, puts her on her feet again, and sees her back into some semblance of functionality. There are situations presented where Steele’s actions make no sense unless she had a genuine attachment to her.
Rizzo also asserts that the women’s story is an example of a principle that she has identified that when women’s alliances are used in support of patriarchal structures, they are successful, but when they ally to oppose patriarchal structures, they’re doomed. Baddeley and Steele regularly scorned the men whose desires supported them, mocking many of Baddeley’s suitors and playing cruel tricks on others. But I don’t see that Baddeley’s eventual fall from fashion can be pinned on that attitude, except by treating it as some abstract moral accounting. Based on the evidence presented, it strikes me that Baddeley‘s fall was caused by her extravagant personality, her lack of common sense when it came to business, and her addictions.
In fact the more I read through this book the more it feels like there’s an underlying streak of misogyny in how Rizzo interprets many of the biographies. Women’s motivations and actions are interpreted negatively whenever possible. Not that the men’s actions are depicted any more positively, so perhaps we might say an underlying misanthropic streak. This may be turned around in the next few chapters, where the topic turns to biographies of women considered to be altruistic.