Worldcon proper doesn't start for another week, but I'm taking my "extra time" before the convention this time. At the point when I'm writing this, everything is packed, cleaned, organized, set up, checked in, and so forth. (All those little details like "let the credit card holder know I'll be traveling" and "set up the international day-rate plan on my phone" and "remember to withdraw cash for the cat sitter.") And I have hours yet before I have any need to be at the airport--though if you know me at all, you'll know I won't be comfortable until I'm on the other side of security and will head for the airport well in advance of any reasonable need.
Expect random but regular blogs about the trip and convention.
But I have another topic to talk about today. Because, as a well-behaved author, I'm not allowed to talk back to reviews and discussions that have mistaken ideas about my books (this is sparked by a book index website that lists the forthcoming Floodtide as a "contemporary romance"), I thought I might expend some of that frustration in setting up some official FAQs for the series. Now, as is often the case, I'm not going to sit around waiting for people to actually ask particular questions frequently so I can include them, I've drawn up a list that I'm going to answer anyway. Here's my tentative draft so far:
Can you think of any other questions that fit well under the rubric "frequently asked" that might be worth including? This isn't the place to talk about obscure details of worldbuilding or anything too spoilery. Just the sort of general questions that someone who's either started reading the series, or thinking about reading it, might want answered in advance.
Many of the answers will start out, "It's complicated..." because, of course, it always is.
Between the time between when I established floodtide as a facet of life in Rotenek and now with the book with that title is moving towards publication, the effects of weather fluctuations have become a lot sharper in people's awareness. The massive persistent flooding in the American midwest this year is shocking, but less in the general news than more focused floods due to hurricanes and the like. Technological attempts at long-term flood control in places like the Mississippi basin have not always produced the benefits they promised...or have simply moved the damage from one location to another.
The river's behavior in Floodtide is not entirely natural, but the city treats it as simply part of the natural variation in behavior: unpredictable and to be endured. The engineering controls focus on human behavior. Those in the potential path of a flood--whether because they can't afford a house in the safer parts of town, or because they're willing to trade hazard for the prestige of the Vezenaf--shift their belongings to minimize damage. Those who can afford to do so leave town.
When the river shows signs of rising, you act. You can't wait to see how high it comes. Hence, the public service provided by the floodtide bell. And those who know the river best don't need to wait for that warning. Most years, the precautions are wasted effort, but you can't expect the Rotein to show mercy to the complacent.
The details associated with the floodtide declaration are all my own invention: measuring the rise of the river by the water-steps (which have been nicknamed after the apostles), declaring a flood when the water reaches the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, and the symbolic declaration of the floodtide holiday when the river doesn't rise that far by wetting the statue's feet. They all feel like the sort of hybrid folk-civic-religious rituals that arise over the centuries.
It's facile to say that if a place has regular disastrous flooding, maybe you shouldn't put human habitations there, but habitability has always been hopelessly entwined with bodies of water. The placement of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi river wasn't an unfortunate oversight--the river was what made the city exist. Much closer to me, personally, the Sacramento river has seasonal flooding due to Sierra snowmelt that is mitigated by the use of reserved floodplains (no building allowed) and an extensive levee system in the agricultural areas of the delta. I used that familiarity for some of the "emotional truth" of my stories, but throughout Europe, major cities have always risen up on significant rivers, whether large enough for navigation or simply for water supply. And that has always made them vulnerable to periodic flooding. I have a research folder of images of floods in older European cities to use for reference and inspiration when visualizing the effects in Rotenek.
* * *
[Liv] pushed off and prayed to Mama Rota as she kissed the river. Then she made a face and tasted the water again. Instead of keeping close to the edge, Liv pulled out into the middle of the river like she meant to cross or to catch the current to go all the way down to Urmai. Liv pulled one oar in and let us drift briefly as she dipped her hand in the water and brought it up to taste again.
“It’s coming,” she said. “Don’t know how high or how long, but it’s coming.”
“Floodtide?” I asked.
She nodded as she put the second oar back in the water and angled back toward the north bank again.
People were muttering about it in the Nikuleplaiz over the next few days. The rivermen had seen the signs in a streak of color toward the middle of the current. Mefro Dominique took Liv’s word and rather than sewing, we spent two days carrying all the stock upstairs from the workroom.
“It isn’t often the water rises high enough to fill the streets,” Mefro Dominique said. “It’s only happened three times while I’ve lived here. But if it does, we won’t have time to move things.”
So the fine fabrics were tied into bundles and carried up to the bedroom. The baskets of ribbons followed them, and the printed magazines with their fashion plates and anything else the water might spoil, until the upstairs rooms were stuffed like a warehouse and the downstairs was bare except for the worktable and the dresses we were sewing.
The muddy streak in the middle of the river grew wider and the river crept up one step toward the statue of Saint Nikule then part of another. Three days went by without the water rising farther. Whoever it was that decided to declare floodtide must have figured it was all we’d get, so Father Mazzu went down to the edge of the steps and dipped a bronze bucket on a little chain into the water, then took and poured it over the saint’s feet.
This is a rather delightful analysis that puts a different interpretation on the motif of “Christ as bridegroom” for virgin saints. I like the idea of Katherine as simply resisting marriage in general as unnecessary and only belatedly realizing that holy virginity was a tool she could employ to that end. Or rather, that this interpretation could be developed by medieval writers in the context of popularizing marriage resistance outside the convent. I rather like that there is room in this medieval text for the idea that a woman could be whole and complete and a participant in society without the need for marriage--indeed, viewing a husband as superfluous. To be fair, the Saint Katherine of this version of her legend is depicted with a sort of "wink wink, she's actually having a premonition of Christ" but within the story-context, her attitude is, "Eh, men, who needs them?" And whether or not the author felt that Christ-free singlehood was truly a viable option, it's a concept and a motif that was presented to the audience with the expectation that they wouldn't find it unbelievable. (Or at least, not more unbelievable than any of the other things one finds in saints' biographies.)
Price, Paul. 2003. “I Want to Be Alone: The Single Woman in Fifteenth-Century Legends of St. Katherine of Alexandria” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
The legend of the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria became immensely popular in the 14-15th century. It presents the fairly standard story of the Christian daughter of a pagan ruler who resists marriage and supports the Christian community despite increasingly violent threats and punishments. With her increased popularity in the later middle ages, there is a shift from the tone of the earlier texts as “passio” (focused on suffering and martyrdom) to a more detailed “life story” (focusing on the details and context of the subject’s life).
Unlike legends of virgin martyrs who resist marriage after--and due to--converting to Christianity, Katherine is still pagan when she initially resists marriage. She is not resisting as a “bride of Christ” who is therefore unavailable to an earthly bridegroom (which stories omit singlehood as an option) but rather because she sees no need to marry in order to be an effective ruler to her people. She envisions the perfect husband who might overcome her objections but only as a hypothetical impossibility (not recognizing that she is describing Christ). Thus, her legend creates a transition between “bride of Christ” as the only alternative to marriage, and singlehood for its own sake.
This theme is even more developed in John Capgrove’s version of the biography (mid 15th century) which focuses on individual and personal details of Katherine’s life and the reasons for her choice of singlehood. He depicts Katherine as expressing a desire for a single vocation apart from a focused dedication to Christ. Capgrove’s Kathering uses the idea of the “perfect man” whom she’d be willing to marry as a rejection of marriage, not a premonition of Christ.
Price considers the question of why a text with this angle should become particularly popular in 15th century England. He suggests it is part of a trend for lay people, and especially lay women, taking ownership of their religious lives. Price provides as supporting evidence other works by Capgrove that are clearly designed and intended for a female patron and reader. There is a shift in women viewing religious life as requiring rejection of the world to including religious devotion as part of a secular life. There is a comparison to anchorites (religious recluses not part of a convent community) who reject the model of religious devotion as a “bride of Christ” and for whom a broader set of options and motivations are considered valid.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 37a - On the Shelf for August 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/08/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2019.
Setting up the blog and podcast for August is being a bit more chaotic than usual as I'll be off in Ireland for two weeks in the middle of the month to attend Worldcon -- the World Science Fiction Convention -- in Dublin, with a bit of sightseeing and visiting along the way. If, by some chance, you also happen to be attending Worldcon, I'd love it if you track me down to say hi and let me know that you listen to the podcast. In fact, I'm scheduled to be on a panel discussion about podcasting as well as a couple other programming items.
That's not the only item complicating my life at the moment because I've also gotten the edits for my next novel Floodtide, so I'll be adding revisions into the schedule for this month. Floodtide will be coming out in November, so expect me to take shameless advantage of this podcast and boost it a bit as the date approaches. I'd only just barely started this podcast when my last novel came out and didn't have space in the format for book promotion.
And because I'm not multi-tasking well or tracking calendars carefully, I got blindsided by the due date to get the next story set up for the fiction series. Last year all the fifth Saturdays were evenly distributed at three month intervals, but the fact that this year there was only two months between the June story and the August one took me by surprise.
And speaking of the fiction series, keep thinking about next year's fiction series for the podcast. As I announced last month, we're opening it up a little to include stories with certain types of fantasy elements. See the call for submissions for more explanation. And because of that "calendar creep" thing, I'll buy looking to buy five stories this time because there will be an open slot in January 2021 and I won't have time to fill it with a January submission period that year. Now that's looking far ahead! I really enjoy helping bring new lesbian historical fiction into the world. I hope you're enjoying listen to it just as much!
Publications on the Blog
In July, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog covered several publications I picked up at the Kalamazoo medieval conference, finishing up with a book I bought several years ago, Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages by Kate Kelsey Staples. Although I hadn't originally intended it as a book for the blog, the subject--daughters' inheritances and financial expectations in medieval London--contributed to last month's essay on the lives of unmarried women. I'm continuing that theme in August by working through the papers in a collection titled The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. That collection will take me into early September.
There are books that I don't necessarily expect to find much new material in, but that might be useful to point out to readers of the blog. I picked up The History of Sexuality in Europe: A Sourcebook and Reader for that reason and will add it to the growing stack of general purpose books that I need to review. I ordered another rather exciting looking book Invisible Agents about female spies in 17th century England. I suppose it might have tie-in potential since I expect that it will include Aphra Behn, but mostly I bought it as background research for a future fiction project.
This month’s author guest will be Penny Mickelbury, talking to us about her new historical novel Two Wings to Fly Away.
I haven't decided on an essay topic for August yet. At the moment, I'm still drafting the show that came out last week. (Time is getting tangled as I write this.) So it will be a surprise--maybe even a surprise to me!
But the month will end with our next fiction episode: "The Black Handkerchief" by Gwen C. Katz.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Now for the recent, new, and forthcoming lesbian-relevant historical fiction list! As usual, I'll begin with catching up on a few titles I missed in the last couple of months' releases.
June books included a couple of cross-time stories--my term for any book that blends events in multiple eras. The Pages of Adeena by C. M. Castillo from iUniverse starts out in the mid-20th century, but it isn't clear that it stays there.
It’s the summer of 1952, and Adeena “Addie” Kahlo loves her life in Chicago, where she helps run her close-knit family’s nightclub on the south side. But Addie has a dream that she is determined to make a reality; attending college in New York and becoming a published author. Through a blind date, she meets Alan, who becomes her best friend and closest confidant. They share a secret that they can never divulge. Together, they discover a door that opens to a magical place that leads to other worlds and to times past and future; Cafe du Temp, a nightclub like no other. At Cafe du Temp they listen to soulful jazz, drink fancy cocktails, and slowly begin to understand that its opulent and stunning ambience means something unique and special to each person who enters its doors. It’s here, in this strange and elegant place, where Addie meets and falls in love with the beautiful poet, Isabelle Androsko. Their chemistry is immediate and powerful. Despite this, they soon discover that their vastly different worlds pose near impossible obstacles to the life they want to build together. Addie believes that the mysterious Cafe du Temp, and its serendipitous existence in their lives, is the catalyst to their future, but can this belief transcend time and heartbreak to bring her to her ultimate destiny?
Another book that weaves together lives in different eras is Jobyna's Blues by Jane Alden from Desert Palm Press.
Jobyna’s Blues is a multi-generational love story, set in post-WWI American South and flashing forward to the mid-1960’s in New York City and London. In 1924, Jobyna, the Empress of the Blues, and Lily, a dancer in her chorus line, fall in love as they travel in a custom train car and play to adoring crowds in theaters from Nashville to New Orleans to Mobile. Life is both exciting and dangerous in the young country, only sixty years past the Civil War. Looking forward to the mid-1960’s, Jobie Greene, a folk singer in Greenwich Village, meets the charismatic English pop star, Deedee. They struggle to manage their long-distance relationship and their careers against a backdrop of social change. The connections between the love stories and the women’s challenges and triumphs, as they echo through time, keep us surprised and challenged and rooting for their happy endings.
Paris for Two: Til Death Do We Part by Dolores Maggiore from Sapphire Books looks like a mash-up between a schoolgirl romance, a travelogue, and a thriller. Honestly, I'm not sure how to categorize it from the cover copy.
As eighteen-year-olds Pina Mazzini and Katie McGuilvry speed ahead toward graduation from Albert Academy and the natural evolution of their relationship, Pina flees to Paris to escape the demands of moving on with her life and possibly away from Katie. Pina’s burning desire to hang on to Katie and the status quo traps her in the past along with Europe’s seductive antiquities. Does she imagine the haunting return of Craney and her death threats? How toxic is her anxiety over getting on with her life? Katie and old friends from Albert Academy, along with a cadre of quirky spiritual guides, join Pina on this psychologically thrilling voyage for answers throughout France, Germany, and Italy. Foremost on Pina’s mind: Will her relationship with Katie survive her great escape? More importantly for all, will the eerie lure of Craney and the past swallow Pina up psychologically—or in her entirety?
Amy Selvidge's self-published The Snow Queen is a fictionalized story of a real historic person from the 17th century who was reputed to have same-sex relationships.
Queen Christina of Sweden was raised to be strong, unyielding, and powerful. Her desires and personal curiosities drove her to make increasingly outrageous decisions creating a whirlwind in Europe. Follow her exploits in this powerful historical fiction based on real events in her life.
The next two books, from July and then starting on the August titles, are also fictionalized accounts of historic women. I wouldn't be surprised if this next book, The Moss House by Clara Barley (from Bluemoose Books), is only the start of a flood of Anne Lister fiction.
In the mid 19th century, neighbouring landowners Anne Lister and Ann Walker find their lives entwined in a passionate, forbidden relationship, but the world isn't ready for Anne Lister, the larger than life scholar, traveller, mountaineer and lesbian.
Valerie: or, the Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner) published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux dramatizes a story out of sensational entertainment news of the '80s. Not your usual feel-good lesbian fiction fare but a powerful and painful story.
In April 1988, Valerie Solanas—the writer, radical feminist, and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol—was discovered dead at fifty-two in her hotel room, in a grimy corner of San Francisco, alone, penniless, and surrounded by the typed pages of her last writings. In Valerie, Sara Stridsberg revisits the hotel room where Solanas died; the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol; the Georgia wastelands where she spent her childhood, where she was repeatedly raped by her father and beaten by her alcoholic grandfather; and the mental hospitals where she was shut away. Through imagined conversations and monologues, reminiscences and rantings, Stridsberg reconstructs this most intriguing and enigmatic of women, articulating the thoughts and fears that she struggled to express in life and giving a powerful, heartbreaking voice to the writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto.
From a similar era, though more solidly fictional, comes Chelsey Engel's A Summer of Fever and Freedom from Labor of Love Communications.
At eighteen years old, Jane is teetering on the cusp of womanhood, a rite of passage complicated and painful for even the most stable of hearts. For Jane, who is anxiously awaiting her brother’s return from the war in Vietnam, the heavy journey is cracking her already fragile foundation. When she attends a party in Greenwich Village and meets twenty-three-year-old gay rights and anti-war activist Maria, the ground threatens to crumble completely under the weight of unexpected infatuation and desire. Maria has been on her own for years since her mother kicked her out in high school. The activist and writer has had to erect a fierce shield around her heart in order to navigate a world actively fighting against her humanity, and she certainly doesn’t expect the quiet, bookish Jane to tug at those defenses. Maria is sent for a rare tailspin when the walls break just as she prepares for a major life transition that leaves her and Jane at a vulnerable crossroads. From Beatnik cafes and student protests to the Stonewall Riots and Woodstock, Jane and Maria explore the bustle and beauty of New York in the summer of 1969 while exploring their friendship, as well as their own hearts. As the heated season nears its end, the young women are forced to make monumental decisions and come to terms with realities neither of them wishes to face, ones that will shape them for the rest of their lives.
And for a rather complete change of pace, we have a light-hearted Regency Romance: A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian from Harper Collins.
A seductive thief. Lady’s maid Molly Wilkins is done with thieving—and cheating and stabbing and all the rest of it. She’s determined to keep her hands to herself, so she really shouldn’t be tempted to seduce her employer’s prim and proper companion, Alice. But how can she resist when Alice can’t seem to keep her eyes off Molly? Finds her own heart. For the first time in her life, Alice Stapleton has absolutely nothing to do. The only thing that seems to occupy her thoughts is a lady’s maid with a sharp tongue and a beautiful mouth. Her determination to know Molly’s secrets has her behaving in ways she never imagined as she begins to fall for the impertinent woman. Has been stolen. When an unwelcome specter from Alice’s past shows up unexpectedly at a house party, Molly volunteers to help the only way she knows how: with a little bit of mischief.
Back to the first half of the 20th century for the last two books.
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor from Park Row doesn't give any indication of character sexuality in the cover copy. But the author says, "My debut is WWII fiction featuring a badass lesbian smuggler and her equally badass partner, who pull off the most elaborate feat of satire in modern history. It’s based on a true story."
Brussels, 1943. Twelve-year-old street orphan Helene survives by living as a boy and selling copies of the country’s most popular newspaper, Le Soir, now turned into Nazi propaganda. Helene’s entire world changes when she befriends a rogue journalist, Marc Aubrion, who draws her into a secret network publishing dissident underground newspapers. Aubrion’s unbridled creativity and linguistic genius attract the attention of August Wolff, a high-ranking Nazi official tasked with swaying public opinion against the Allies. Wolff captures Aubrion and his comrades and gives them an impossible choice: use the newspaper to paint the Allies as monsters, or be killed. Faced with no decision at all, Aubrion has a brilliant idea: they will pretend to do the Nazis’ bidding, but instead they will publish a fake edition of Le Soir that pokes fun at Hitler and Stalin—giving power back to the Belgians by daring to laugh in the face of their oppressors. The ventriloquists have agreed to die for a joke, and they have only eighteen days to tell it. Told with dazzling scope, taut prose and devastating emotion, The Ventriloquists illuminates the extraordinary acts of courage by ordinary people forgotten by history—unlikely heroes who went to extreme lengths to orchestrate the most stunning feat of journalism in modern history.
And we finish with Heroine of Her Own Life by Constance Emmett from Creativia.
In early 20th century Belfast, working class Meg Preston struggles to accept her own sexuality and yearns for forbidden love. Battling the customs and hardships of their time, Meg pursues a relationship with her childhood friend, Lillian Watson. But soon, tribulations of war, violence, and emigration threaten to tear everything apart. Seeking refuge for herself, her love, and her family, can Meg find the courage to become the heroine of her own life?
These lists are cobbled together from publisher listings, Amazon keyword searches, and word of mouth. If you have, or know of, a forthcoming book that would fit with the theme of this podcast, drop me a note to make sure I don't overlook it.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading since the last On the Shelf show? I finished up Theodora Goss's European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, a fantasy about the daughters of various 19th century gothic novel protagonists forming a "found family" and having adventures in pursuit of their origins and to rescue new recruits. There was a minor background lesbian motif when the title character from Sheridan LeFanu's vampire novel Carmilla makes an appearance. The book I'm now in the middle of is Two Wings to Fly Away by this month's author guest, Penny Mickelbury. I'm way behind on reviewing the books I've read this year and keep hoping I'll have time to catch up, but somehow it never comes. And now that the tv series Gentleman Jack is available through iTunes, I have another distraction, though I'm virtuously ignoring the fact that it's now sitting on my computer while I get other things done.
What are you reading these days in lesbian history?
Lists and Links
I finally--finally!--received the last shipment of books I bought at Kalamazoo. This is the bunch from the University of Toronto Press. It seems that, despite me having filled in my credit card information on the order form, they were waiting for me to tell them where to send an invoice. Invoice, hah! So it wasn't until I emailed asking what had happened that they actually worked on filling the order. So what did I buy? Unusually, all four books are for my "history of magic and mysticism" shelf. The place I go to get inspiration for the magical elements in my fiction.
Rampton, Martha (ed). 2018. European Magic and Witchcraft: A Reader. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4426-3420-6
A collection of primary sources (in translation) about magic and witchcraft, including a significant proportion of "users manuals".
Giles, Ryan D. 2017. Inscribed Power: Amulets and Magic in Early Spanish Literature. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4420-4607-0
A study of "word magic" and how the magical power of words used in amulets is then echoed in literary texts that describe those objects. What did written amulets mean to people, whether used directly or written about?
Page, Sophie. 2002. Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4875-0295-9
Page, Sophie. 2002. Magic in Medieval Manuscripts. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4875-0294-2
These are both in a series of small "art books" presenting and discussing images on a particular theme.
Every once in a while, you find people in history almost stumbling across some fairly radical ideas. In this case, the use of women’s resistance to marriage as a symbol of resistance to unwanted control and authority in general. Alas, the men using the analogy never quite take the last step. Further, there is a double-edged sword in the idea that the only approved alternative to heterosexual marriage is marriage to the church. As I mentioned on Monday, I'm adding in this extra entry this week to make up for the fairly content-free introduction chapter.
Zatta, Jane. 2003. “The Single Woman as Saint: Three Anglo-Norman Success Stories” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
This paper looks at three female Anglo-Saxon saints, as depicted in Anglo-Norman hagiography: Osith, Etheldreda, and Modwenna. The women are doubly “other” within the texts: Anglo-Saxon lives being portrayed for a readership of Norman churchmen, and women being portrayed by and for men.
Their lives as singlewomen are significant for their temporal proximity to the audience (as compared with legends of early female saints such as Catherine and Margaret). But they’re also interesting in how these women are used to protect the claims of their associated monastic houses against the Norman religious establishment. There is a focus on their intellectual succesion: the Anglo-Saxon religious houses as the establishers of Christianity in Britain. These biographies are used to justify the legal privileges of their houses as pre-existing the Anglo-Noman church and therefore not being subject to its control. The women’s symbolic exemption from the normative female role was used to support the institution’s exemption from external control.
Of the three women, two marry and one is a “career virgin” but both of the married women resist the married state and win their freedom to serve God instead. Unlike the classical virgin martyrs who are obliterated physically by their moral victory, these women are successful socially as well as morally and live fulfilled lives of religious devotion.
The paper provides details of the manuscripts and their texts. In contrast to earlier Anglo-Saxon versions of their hagiography, which presented religious and secular lives as incompatible, the Anglo-Norman versions of the biographies use the structure of virgin saints’ lives to advance socio-political goals. In the process, the women are shown resisting male authority using “feminine” means that traditionally would be framed more negatively. The details of the biographies are interesting but not germane to the LHMP.
Summary: each finds a strategy to resist marriage (or the duties of marriage) and emerge successfully as a virgin-by-choice established in a religious life. This struggle and success is then presented as an analogy for attempts by Norman religious and secular authorities to claim power over the religious houses that they founded.
Since last week's teaser, the editorial revisions on Floodtide have been completed--the quickest and most painfree editing process I've ever experienced! It'll be nice not to have that hanging over me during my upcoming travel to Worldcon.
I'm not going to lie: I love to embed intellectual "Easter eggs" in my stories that may pass under the radar of 90% of my readers and only be fully appreciated by maybe 1%. I never want anyone to feel excluded by those hidden treats, but I do want to reward close attention and familiarity.
I think I mentioned in a previous teaser that at one point in the plot noodling for Daughter of Mystery I had a vision of my characters winding through underground passages that had fallen out of the awareness of most citizens of Rotenek. The episode ended up not fitting into that book, but it was part of my background vision of the city and at some point I realized it had a role to play in the eventual concluding book. But that meant laying down the groundwork well before that point.
When I needed some sort of "hidden resource" as a MacGuffin in Floodtide, given that I was already thinking in terms of water symbolism, the thought of a long-lost spring somewhere under the city felt promising. An ancient fountain that had been covered over by the changing needs of city planning--not a deliberate secret, just forgotten and unused.
It made complete sense for that hidden spring to provide the reader with backstory for the legend of Saint Rota and a key to her origins. As I mentioned in the teaser about river deities, Rota was originally the local water goddess or the Rotein river. (People may have guessed that the Rotein is a sort of parallel development of the Rhone. Not the Alpennian name of the real-world Rhone, but a fictional duplicate of the river with a different course.) She might have managed to linger in popular imagination purely by oral tradition, but what if there had once been concrete evidence of her existence available for reinterpretation and adaptation as a Christian saint?
* * *
At the top of the steps a fountain stood against the wall. The fountain didn’t look like much: just a half-round base about six foot across. Behind it, on the wall, was a carving with a picture of a woman and writing scattered around her. Below the woman, water tumbled out of a hole into the basin. There was another spout at the front where it spilled down a channel cut into the middle of the stone steps and into the chanulez. I would have thought the water would be green and slimy without anyone to clean the fountain, but it was clear enough to drink.
“Who is she?” Celeste asked, looking up from the water in the basin to the carved stone behind it.
In some ways, the lantern made it harder to see, because of all the shadows it threw off. You could tell the stone was supposed to be a lady with a long flowing dress. It wasn’t a very good statue, though. I don’t think they’d have paid a sculptor like that to do saints in the cathedral. Maybe it had been better at first but the stone had worn away. You could tell she was holding a branch of something in her hand. And there was something round near her feet—maybe some sort of beast—but I couldn’t tell what it was any more.
You could still read the letters, though. Maisetra Iulien leaned closely with the lantern and started reading them out one at a time. “R…O…D…A…D…E…D…”
“No,” said Mesner Aukustin and took the lantern from her again to go around the other side of the fountain. “It’s an old Roman stone. I’ve seen some like it in Akolbin. You read it all the way across. RODANAE DED…and then MA— The rest is too faint to see. Chautovil would know how to read it. He thinks I should study the ancient Romans more. But Rodanae is a name—Rodana—and Ma-something, that would be the man who set up the stone.”
“Rodana?” Celeste said wonderingly. She whispered, “Mama Rota?” And then more loudly. “It’s Saint Rota. It must be. When people talk about water from Saint Rota’s well they usually just mean the river. But it’s a real well. A real well that flows into the river.” Her eyes followed the flow of water from the rim of the basin down to where it led into the chanulez.
“Are you sure?” Maisetra Iulien asked.
Celeste made a quiet noise. I could tell she thought it was a silly question but didn’t dare say so to a maisetra.
“It’s a holy well. My eyes can tell me that.”
* * *
And of course I spent entirely too much time researching exactly what the Roman dedicatory inscription to a river goddess would look like. The inscriptions were frustratingly compact for standard formulas. I've given the readers more of a hint with the partial "DED..." (for "dedit" or "dedicavit") where a real inscription would probably just have "D". And while the partial name of the person who set up the inscription (MA...) could be many things, I've allowed for the (erroneous) guess that it might be Mauritius, the region's patron saint.
I envision the plaque layout something like this, with X's where the image is, and unreadable or omitted letters in brackets:
[DEAE] XXXXX RODA
NAE XXXXXX DED[IT]
MA[??] XXXXXX [????]
This isn't the first time I've played around with ambiguous inscriptions, of course. Tanfrit's gravestone was rather fun to design as well, and it still has some secrets to tell that will keep until I tell her story.
In the context of doing a podcast on the usefulness of singlewomen studies, I plunged into this collection that I picked up at Kalamazoo this year. (Thereby also fulfilling my pledge to try to prioritize new book acquisitions.) There are several really fascinating articles for my purpose, especially one on singlewomen in the profession of moneylender. I’ve started off by scheduling these at the usual one-per-week rate, though I'm not counting this introduction as fulfilling the requirement so I'll be posting the first actual paper on Wednesday. As several of the later articles are of very little relevance to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, at some point I’ll dump the remaining items one-a-day around the rest of the blog schedule to finish them off. But in the mean time, I need some breathing space for my two-week trip to Ireland in August (for Worldcon) plus recovery time while I line up more blog material. Oh, and August is also when I’m doing the editorial revisions for Floodtide. Another reason to set up a series of blogs where I can just hit the button and publish. [Edited to add: I wrote up all the entries for this collection a week ago before I started the Floodtide revisions when I anticipated a longer process. As it happens, we finished two go-rounds of editorial feedback this past weekend and it's all done. Yay!]
Amtower, Laurel and Dorothea Kehler. 2003. “Introduction” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
As usual, the introduction to this collection includes laying out the basic concepts of the topic, a review of the existing literature, and then summaries of the papers that discuss how they relate to each other.
Among the social categories for women, “singlewomen” is a complex that includes widows and pre-married women as well as never-married women. It can include well-born “spinsters” and economically independent businesswomen, as well as wage earners (including domestic and agricultural laborers). Existing research includes some in-depth statistical surveys of singlewomen across time and space, but studies have rarely included literary studies and typically begin their focus in the 16th century.
This collection discusses methods for recovering the lives of singlewomen from a broader cultural perspective. Good previous publications in the field include Bennett & Froide (Singlewomen in the European Past), Lewis et al. (Young Medieval Women), Hufton (The Prospect Before Her). All share a focus that women can’t be reduced to a single category or experience. A given woman’s life can represent multiple experiences.
This collection focuses mainly on representation of singlewomen, especially literary representation. It notes how the division of singlewomen into sub-classes masks their pervasive presence in society. There is a discussion of different sub-classes within the category. Each era has a normative model of women’s lives, and those who don’t fit are stereotyped and argued away as non-typical. These essays discuss those various contexts and how they sustain or contradict the model of patriarchal restrictions on women’s options.
The collection is divided into “Celebrating Chastity”, “Repudiating Marriage”, “Imaginary Widowhood”, and “Sexuality and Re-virgination.” One focus of the papers is on the potential agency of singlewomen. How was singlehood understood as an available and even positive choice? The remainder of the introduction is a summary and contextualization of the contents.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36d - Swinging Singles and Lesbian Opportunities - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/07/27 - listen here)
Why Study Singlewomen?
When imagining the lives of lesbian characters in pre-modern western history, one false idea that regularly comes up is that women had no viable alternatives to marriage--not without becoming complete social outcasts. Both authors and readers of historical fiction often have a misunderstanding that women living autonomous lives outside of marriage are unhistorical or anomalous. That not being married to a man was view as inherently suspect unless one had a special exemption such as a religious vocation.
This misconception has obvious consequences for imagining the historic spaces in which lesbian characters might exist. It means they are imagined as being socially transgressive in refusing or avoiding marriage to a man. That their lives and domestic arrangements will be scrutinized. That they will be considered an anomaly within their societies. If imagining one woman living a life independent of men is made difficult by this error, imagining two--who also find their lives entwined--is thought to strain credulity.
And--to be sure--many women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships did so within the context of a heterosexual marriage. And there's a place in historical fiction to tell those stories as well. But the truth is that singlewomen--women who had not married, or declined to marry, or had been married but now lived single lives as widows--were extremely common in pre-modern Europe.
While the proportions varied depending on time and place, on class, occupation, and family situation, demographic studies of specific communities in medieval Europe show that anywhere between a fifth to a half of the adult women in a community might be unmarried at any given time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, studies show that anywhere between 10 to 20% of women in their 40s and 50s had never married. (And at that age, were unlikely ever to do so.)
Of course, not all those single or never-married women were in that position because they weren't sexually interested in men. Likely women with same-sex interests made up only a small percentage of singlewomen. But any situation that applies to one woman in five can't be considered unusual or remarkable. It might be treated as falling outside the ideal model of womanhood, but it couldn't be viewed as inherently suspicious in the context of sexuality.
And that's why the study of singlewomen is highly relevant to the writing of lesbian historical fiction. Because if you want to write female characters who are not married to men and yet are ordinary and unremarkable members of society, you have a vast scope of models to choose from. That's what we're going to talk about today.
The show notes are going to include several excellent books that address this topic, but a great introduction and one-stop-shop is the collection edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide titled Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800. Check out the blog entries for its articles in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Today's episode will primarily look at western European cultures of the middle ages through the 19th century, but the questions that are raised can be applied to other cultures.
The influence of culture
The first thing to keep in mind is that different cultures have different patterns of family life and marriage. Pre-modern Europe wasn't a monolith. One of the large-scale patterns that affects the expectations for a woman's life is divided very roughly into a southern European pattern and a northern European pattern.
Characteristics of the southern pattern--not absolute rules, but trends--include older men marrying younger women, often women in their mid to late teens. Women were expected to be sexually inexperienced at marriage. Women generally did not live or work outside the family household before marriage. Marriages were typically arranged by the parents and seen as a contract between families rather than between individuals. And there was a very low rate of never-married women, in part due to a high rate of unmarried women joining religious orders.
But the northern pattern is a polar opposite in many ways. Marriages tended to be between spouses of the same age and were usually delayed until both had a chance to earn money towards setting up a household. For women, this often included working outside the home, whether in domestic service, in apprenticeships, or in agricultural labor. The average age at first marriage tended to be in the mid to later 20s. Spouses typically had more input into their choice of marriage partner and more ability to refuse marriage. And it was typical for spouses to have engaged in sexual activity before marriage, even though it was officially disapproved. Rates of never-married women (among those women of marriageable age) could be anywhere between 10 to 30%, and even higher in some specific communities. And after the Reformation, the largely-Protestant cultures of northern Europe no longer had convents as a way of absorbing "surplus" singlewomen.
These cultural patterns mean that if you want your fictional characters to be unmarried, their general geographic location is going to affect how typical or atypical that state is, and whether personal choice is likely to be a factor, as opposed to sheer luck. It's going to affect what their options are for life circumstances and how their family and community will view their unmarried state.
The influence of class
Within a given culture, social class also affected life expectations. As a general rule of thumb, the daughters of the aristocracy or the land-owning elite tended to marry younger if they did marry, and with less choice of partner. But they were also, overall, more likely to remain single. The reasons were varied, including lack of approved partners, the expectation for a large dowry without the ability to contribute to their own economic resources, but also to some extent a greater acceptance of unmarried women as valuable within the family economy. At the other end of the social scale, different factors were more important for marriage rates and ages
The influence of location
One major influence was whether you lived in a rural agricultural community or an urban community. With the rise of urban centers, men and women had different migration patterns that affected marriage options. Women who migrated from the countryside to work in towns, either as domestic workers or in crafts, typically married later than their rural sisters. But they also married later than the women who were born in those towns. One can imagine several contributing reasons. If your goal in moving to a town is to build up a nest egg toward establishing a household, you aren't going to plunge into a marriage that would cut that path short. And women who were already established members of the community, with family connections, probably had a leg up on marriage opportunities. But urban centers often had a relative shortage of men due to being tapped for military service and foreign opportunities. Conversely, in rural areas, age at marriage tended to be a bit younger.
The influence of demographics
Migration is one factor that can affect marriage rates, due to changing the distribution of the sexes across the landscape. But there are other more drastic events that can reduce women's rate of marriage. War almost always has a higher mortality for men than for women. As the scope and intensity of warfare increased in the early modern period, the results could affect sex ratios for an entire generation. The English Civil War in the 17th century, the Napoleonic wars around the turn of the 19th century, the American Civil War in the later 19th century -- all of them left in their wake a period of severe gender imbalance in which many women never had the opportunity to marry. And in among them, no doubt, were a fair sprinkling of women who were relieved about that.
With the beginning of the colonial era, larger numbers of men than women emigrated from Europe, contributing to a relative surplus of women back home. In North America, the western expansion always began with more men than women setting out for parts unknown.
Even disease affected marriage rates. Studies of plague mortality in early modern England indicate that men were more likely to fall ill and even still more likely to die from the plague than women. It's hard to estimate the gender ratios affected by the Black Death in the 14th century, but in its wake, with the overall labor force reduced, women found themselves with more opportunities to work outside the domestic sphere, and their greater economic independence resulted in lower marriage rates and more women choosing not to marry at all.
So what are some specific strategies for creating plausible female characters in history who opt out of the heterosexual marriage economy with no fuss, no muss, and no need to live extraordinary lives?
For one, give her money. Let her inherit income-producing property, or be given a an inheritance by a relative. Probably her family would expect her to use it as a dowry, but maybe the "right man" just never happens to come along. No reason for her to pine away in the mean time. The details will depend on the local land-owning laws, but in many many contexts, certain women were perfectly able to inherit real estate. And as long as she didn't marry, she retained full control over that property and its profits.
Give her a craft, a profession. Apprentice her in a trade. There were professions that were dominated by women. Different professions at different times and places. In medieval England, have her be a brewer or baker. In medieval France, a silk-worker. In most pre-industrial societies, have her spin for a living. There's a reason why "spinster" came to mean an unmarried woman. It was a profession thoroughly dominated by women and that could be engaged in with little overhead, often in informal cooperatives.
As discussed in one of the articles I'll be blogging about shortly, once legal restrictions on moneylending were lifted, it became a popular side business for single women. With the same nest egg that could get you a good marriage, you could bring in interest equivalent to what you'd make in wages. There are plenty of options to have your single heroine earn her living. Oh, and it really helps to have her live in a town, not out in the country.
This next one is more restrictive: set your story in a culture that followed the "northern European marriage pattern"--the pattern where women were expected to leave the parental home and perform wage labor to accumulate a nest egg for marriage. Where they generally married in their mid to late 20s. Where they expected to have veto power over a choice of spouse. And then...just have them fail to marry. For any of many possible reasons.
Alternately, have your heroines meet in a convent. It happened often enough that the convents felt the need to warn against it. Or in the times and places where it was appropriate, have them join a lay religious order like the Beguines who required women to be unmarried.
Place one of your heroines in service in a household outside the family. Maybe she fails to marry because she becomes so devoted to her mistress that she couldn't think of leaving. Maybe she makes a special friend among one of the other young women in service there. For that matter, in some eras, people complained of how domestic servants chose to have separate homes of their own and only come in to work on a daily basis. If people were complaining about it, someone was doing it.
Or from the other side, have your heroine be the daughter of an aristocratic family. They had a lower marriage rate for their daughters than almost any other class. Such women wouldn't have the option of leaving home to take up a profession, but they might spend an extended period living in another household as a companion, housekeeper, or simply from family ties, giving them an opportunity to form other relationships.
How do you identify spaces for singlewomen?
The essential thing to keep in mind is that regardless of what the "nomative" life pattern was for women in a given time and place, the actual lives of women varied across a continuum. And unless your heroines are standing on a streetcorner proclaiming their sexuality, no one is going to be able to tell the difference between a heterosexual singlewoman and a singlewoman whose friendships with women cross the line into romance. So in any context where you can find straight women living happy, productive, and unremarked lives without the benefit of marriage, it's just as plausible to insert a lesbian character living that same life without the need to create a hateful and oppressive social environment.
Look for the women who failed to marry, who chose not to marry, or who simply somehow forgot to marry, and you'll find the spaces in which your fictional lesbians can thrive.
Useful books on singlewomen studies
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Singlewomen
I'm delighted to be able to contribute to the programming at Worldcon this year -- a privilege I try never to take for granted. I'll be joining panel discussions on podcasting, online fannish community, and Regency fantasy, as well as doing a reading and being available for autographs.
I'll be bringing a limited number of the Alpennia books, as I doubt that the book vendors there will be carrying them. So if you'll be there and know you want a copy of something, let me know in advance and I'll earmark one for you. I'll also be bringing a small number of chapbooks of "The Mazarinette and the Musketeer" to give away. (I really need to come up with my next free chapbook because these are nearly gone.)
I've also had this crazy idea for doing a bunch of micro-interviews and cobbling them together for a podcast episode. Not sure how well it will work. On the one hand, it gives me a structure for interacting with people (one of my tricks for successful conventions) but since I'll either be recording on my phone or on my little dictaphone device, I need to check how well it excludes background noise.
And above all, it you're going to be there, find me and say hi!