While one of the underlying purposes of the LHMP as a resource for authors is to find examples of women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships, when clear examples from women's lives are not available, a second purpose is to identify cultural experiences that women could have recognized as reflecting their same-sex desires. Or, in simpler terms, if a character in a historical fiction didn't have direct experience of same-sex love, what might she encounter that would validate the concept? What was there in her environment that could "give her ideas"?
This is exactly the sort of phenomenon that Drouin discusses in her concept of a "public" focused on the representation of the goddess Diana in early modern culture. Could Diana have served as an inspiration and validation for women attracted to the idea of an all-woman society that shunned male contact and enjoyed erotic relationships with each other? Even though the historic context made it unlikely that such women could live out such an ideal, simply being able to conceive of it could be a step toward embracing (*cough*, as it were) same-sex desires.
I know that the idea has certainly spawned some plot-bunnies in my own head!
Drouin, Jennifer. 2009. “Diana’s Band: Safe Spaces, Publics, and Early Modern Lesbianism” in Queer Renaissance Historiography, Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9
A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.
Drouin, Jennifer. 2009. “Diana’s Band: Safe Spaces, Publics, and Early Modern Lesbianism”
The article takes a critical look at the concept of “chastity” as an attribute of the mythical goddess Diana, especially as interpreted in early modern literature and art, and at the depiction of Diana as the focus and leader of a community of women who reject romantic and erotic interactions with men, but engage in those interactions with each other. It is not entirely anachronistic to claim that across multiple texts and contexts, Diana has a stable identity as the leader of a “lesbian separatist” community, and that she functions as a signifier of homoeroticism between women in the same way that the figure of Ganymede does for men.
The article considers three types of contexts that provide opportunities for female homoeroticism (the author labels them “safe spaces” but the reader should beware of interpreting this term according to current pop culture use). Drouin labels them--I believe with deliberately provocative intent--“the closet”, the nunnery, and Diana’s band.
By “closet” Drouin means the private domestic space belonging to the mistress of a household (about which more later). The concept of the nunnery in early modern literature went beyond the literal religious institutions and included use of the term for any deliberately gender-exclusive community of women, as in Margaret Cavendish’s Convent of Pleasure. And the specific focus on this article--the motif of Diana’s band--provides a conceptual space for homoeroticism from two angles: within the text itself, and within the context of the text’s creation and consumption. This productive context is seen among a variety of authors across an extended period who create an intellectual “public” of writers, readers, and playgoers centered around the figure of Diana. [Note: while this article is focused on textual depictions, the same cultural context created a wealth of artistic depictions of female homoeroticism revolving around the figure of Diana.]
While the “closet” incidentally afforded a private gender-segregated space, and the nunnery created an all-female community in part defined by the negation of heterosexual expectations, the image of Diana and her followers constituted a deliberate creation and depiction of same-sex eroticism. The acceptability of this depiction was enabled by the heteronormative definition of “chastity” that focused solely on an avoidance of extra-marital penetrative sex. If non-penetrative erotics between women were not “sex” then they did not violate the requirements of chastity. Thus Diana could be celebrated as “the virgin goddess”, stories involving her could emphasize her ruthless requirement for chastity among her followers, and yet still allow scope for the unambiguous depiction of erotic activity within her community.
Drouin suggests that the alleged “invisibility” of female same-sex eroticism in early modern Europe was, in part, a product of the patriarchal fixation on the control of women’s bodies and actions very narrowly within the scope of reproduction and paternity. Discussions of fornication and unchastity were unconcerned with issues of love and affection, but only with the potential for illegitimate pregnancy that challenged patriarchal kinship structures. Within this context, women’s intimate friendships and even erotic relationships could be considered “innocent”. And the structures for controlling women’s interactions with “forbidden” men in fact created and enabled same-sex opportunities. Diana’s band creates an ideal fictional location for imagining same-sex erotics as the emphasis on (heterosexual) chastity deflects accusations of impropriety.
Drouin justifies her choice to use the term “lesbian” in discussing this topic, noting that not only was the word in circulation by the 16th century (see e.g., Brantôme), but that it clearly identifies the sexual activities under consideration even if there was no concept of a personal identity defined by those activities. She notes various textual references in Italy and England that support the existence of a conceptual category of “women who have sex with women”. At the same time, these (male-authored) sources support the concept that sex between women did not fall within the category of adultery. A woman could not make her female partner’s husband a cuckold. And conversely, to the extent that some women who engaged in lesbian sex were seen as “masculine”, this could be treated as a positive character trait in a way that a man appearing “feminine” could not be.
Returning to the concept of the “closet” as lesbian safe space, Drouin explains the layout of the early modern domestic space. The word closet did not have its modern sense of a small storage space, but referred to an inner, private room generally entered off the bedchamber (which was a more public space) that served as a sitting room also used for dining and reception of guests. It also typically served as a bedchamber for (female) servants. The most relevant function was that of a space where the (female) occupant of the bedchamber could retire in the expectation of privacy for pursuits like reading, studying, writing, or to entertain her closest friends. (This is in contrast to spaces like the hall, which were entirely public.) The closet was also set apart in being one of the rare rooms that was kept locked. These features made it a convenient space for extramarital sexuality (as detailed in a couple of Brantôme’s stories).
The nunnery goes one step further in not only removing women from the male gaze and in the creation of a structured separate community, but by removing women entirely from the marriage economy. Male discomfort with these aspects was reflected in the symbolic sexualization of convents by appropriating its terminology for prostitution (a woman-focused space of a different kind). But the vocabulary of the convent was not only transferred to the brothel, but was used for other types of literary female separatist spaces. In turn, the nature of those spaces re-created the potential for lesbian erotics, as in Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure though, as in some of the Diana myths, the transgressive nature of the enactment of those erotics is deflected by introducing a man in disguise as the instigator. Even so, such literary works create a space for imagining lesbian erotics. Lady Happy and her beloved princess “embrace and kiss and hold each other in their arms” and not until the final act is the audience informed that the “princess” is a man in disguise. The lesbian space has been established and enjoyed, despite the later contradiction.
Both the closet and the convent had drawbacks in terms of creating an actual community of same-sex erotic affiliation. The closet was a private space, the convent subject to (male) hierarchical authority. In contrast, within the internal context of the Diana stories, lesbian eroticism was both public and authoritative.
Drouin now goes into an explanation and definition of the concept of a “public” (in some sort of specialized jargon sense) which I am going to quote at length. “Publics are voluntary, usually not essential to members’ livelihood, and based on taste and on interest. These conditions of membership distinguish publics from other forms of association whose members are bound together by rank, vocation or profession, religion, parentage, or investment. Each public seeks a voice, exercises or seeks to exercise some measure of agency, has an implicit political dimension, has a normalizing function, seeks to imagine and define what it is, and is non-official but has some relation to the official. Publics aspire to grow and are therefore open to strangers. Since they grow and evolve, publics can come into and out of being, ceasing to be a public once they achieve recognition and become institutionalized. Each public has a spatial dimension, as it exists and functions in a more or less delimited space, and each has a characteristic form of expression as defined by a particular medium.”
[Note: I am really really tempted to just go ahead and substitute the word “fandom” for Drouin’s use of “public” here. Even if there are technical differences between this concept of a “public” and the usual sense of “fandom”, I think it’s a useful tool for understanding what’s being talked about.]
Within this theory of publics, the motif of Diana’s band creates a public space in which lesbian desire and erotic acts can be expressed and become intelligible within society. Art historican Patricia Simons observes that paintings of Diana’s band in the 15-16th centuries consistently represent the women engaging in homoerotic activity with each other. And even though the best known examples are produced by male artists, presumably for male consumption, they were equally available to female viewers as a source for imagining erotic possibilities. Diana’s “chastity” was solidly associated with female same-sex eroticism in late medieval and early modern Italy. In addition to the art, Simons cites folkloric practices of women “gathering in the forest to practice ‘the games of Diana’.” (Some of the examples suggest a conflation or at least ambiguity between lesbianism and witchcraft here.)
English examples of this association appear in William Warner’s 1586 history Albion’s England and Thomas Heywood’s 1611 play The Golden Age. Both treat the Ovidian myth of Calisto, a member of Diana’s band who is seduced/raped by Jupiter in disguise as Diana (or in some versions simply disguised as another nymph).
Both texts include detailed descriptions of the erotic activities of Diana’s nymphs. (Drouin suggests a possible sexual pun in that “nymph” was also an early modern medical term for the labia minora.) A supposedly female same-sex encounter includes fondling of the breasts, kissing, reaching under the skirts to “tickle”. In The Golden Age, Atalanta lays out the social rules and expectations of pair-bonded nymphs who are “bed-fellows” that “sport and play and in their fellowship spend night and day.” The only strict requirement being that they may not engage in sex with men.
Thus, within Diana’s band, the “chaste” opposite of heterosexuality is not an absence of sexual activity, but an embracing of lesbian sexuality. The band is also regularly emphasized as a socially separate space. It is a woman-only community that keeps itself physically apart from men, often in an arcadian natural space.
Drouin diverges from Traub’s take on Diana motifs in early modern English literature such as Two Noble Kinsmen and Gallathea. Traub sees them as positioned “always already in the past, and hence irrecoverable” but Drouin sees the works and characters as creating a “public of lesbian separatists”. The devotees of Diana in these works resist marriage, express erotic desire for women in general and specific, and express a sense of lesbian identity in references to same-sex desire as a “persuasion” or “faith”. Even when the plays require heterosexual resolution for the characters it is not from a change in desire but a surrender to political reality. Emilia in Two Noble Kinsmen is captured in war and forced into marriage. The two protagonists of Gallathea want only to continue their romantic and erotic relationship, it is the social framework that imposes a heterosexual shape on their relationship.
In Gallathea the conflict between Diana and Venus is labeled a conflict between chastity and love, but “love” is consistently defined in terms of heterosexual penetration while the chaste restrictions on Diana’s band do not preclude same-sex erotic desire. And there is a further association within the text between Diana and Sappho that emphasizes same-sex desire.
Drouin sums up her primary theses: “Diana” was consistently used as a euphemism for female same-sex love; the in-story image of “Diana’s band” meets the functional criteria for a “public” in that it is a voluntary association of women who share tastes and interests defined by lesbian erotics and separatism; and on an extra-textual level, the production and reception of works referencing Diana’s band create a real-world “public” implying similar interests. The fact that the production of these texts and art was often done by men with a male audience in mind does not undermine the fact that they also had a female audience. (One of Brantôme’s anecdotes involves a woman being erotically stimulated by viewing a painting of naked women bathing together which may well have been a depiction of Diana’s band.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21c - Book Appreciation with Liz Bourke
(Originally aired 2018/04/21 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured guest (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode reviewer Liz Bourke recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Many of Liz’s reviews can be found at the following sites:
Liz has a collection of some of her past SFF reviews which, since the time we recorded the interview, has been announced as a finalist for the Hugo Award in the Best Related Work category.
No transcript is available for this episode.
Big paperback sale on hundreds of titles for this weekend only. You can get Daughter of Mystery or The Mystic Marriage (or many other titles) for only $4.99 each. Mother of Souls isn't included in the sale, but if you've been waiting on a good deal for the set, you'll save so much on the other two you won't mind paying full price for it.
Andrea, Bernadette. 2017. The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4875-0125-9
I'm always on the lookout for books on history (or art, or literature) that will help expand my default assumptions about the diversity of cultures in the past, particularly in the field of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of ethnicity. I picked this book up last year at Kalamazoo, in part because I'm trying to get a better grasp on the experience of people from Islamic cultures in early modern Europe as grounding for a character in Mistress of Shadows. Although this source isn't particularly useful for that specific project, I started reading it this week in the context of one of my Book Bingo mini-stories, where I'm introducing a character originally brainstormed as a woman from Ottoman Turkey, widow of an Englishman who was part of the trade presence there, who is now building clockwork siege engines as part of the Alliance forces in the Low Countries. (The next Book Bingo square is science fiction and I needed a sci fi motif appropriate for alte 17th century Europe that wouldn't entirely break my overall worldbuilding.) For the Book Bingo project, this work was quite useful in confirming my initial plausibility-sketches. I don't often do full summaries of books that don't fall into the LHMP scope, but maybe I should do them more often.
* * *
The Lives of Girls and Women... looks at women from the Islamic world (though not necessarily documented as Muslims) who came to the British Isles in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The book focuses in particular on how these women were able to express cultural agency and resistance to assimilation even when their presence in England was entirely involuntary, as well as how their foreign identity was depicted within public culture of the time. Rather than try to discover the general demographics of the female Islamicate presence in England, the book focuses on a small number of specific individuals whose names and life stories are known and fairly well documented. Their origins include West African, Tatar, Circassian via Safavid Persia, and Armenian via the Mughal Empire.
Andrea tries to recover their lives from the documentary evidence (and the meticulousness of her project is reflected in the fact that nearly 50% of the page-count is notes, bibliography, and index). She describes England as in a "proto-colonialist and proto-Orientalist" stage at this time, but it was not yet a major international power within the emerging colonial system. The lives of these women were linked to elite Englishwomen such as Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Mary Wroth. The problem of tracing their lives is, in part, reflective of the larger problem of deciphering women's lives in this era.
Here are brief biographies of the women that the text focuses on:
Elen More - A black West African, brought to Scotland by privateers who took her from a Portuguese ship. Elen was most likely taken from her original home as part of the slave trade, but she established a place in the Scottish court that is clearly more that of a lady in waiting than a slave. Elen was featured in early 16th century pageants at the Scottish court as the "Black Queen of Beauty" and presided ceremonially over tournaments in that role. [Note: as I read about her, I immediately recognized the inspiration for Alyssa Cole's historical romance Agnes Moor's Wild Knight and now I may add that to my TBR queue.]
Ipolita the "Tartar Girl" ended up in Queen Elizabeth's court after being "aquired" (read: "bought") by an agent of the Muscovy Company and sent to the queen as a gift. Her function in the court seems to have been roughly that of a pet or mascot, similarly to a woman with dwarfism** that the queen also kept in her employ. Ipolita (a name bestowed on her in England) was the model for a character in Mary Wroth's novel The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, which features several foreign type-characters.
**Please forgive me if I've stumbled in the phrasing of this reference. The text has "female dwarf" which may be a standard historical description but feels othering to me.
Teresa Sampsona was a woman of Circassian origin living in the Safavid empire and possibly related to one of the Shah's concubines. It's unclear whether she was originally Orthodox Christian (as many Circassians were) or Muslim (a possiblity raised later in the context of accusations of apostasy). She met the Englishman Robert Sherley when he was attached to the Shah as his envoy to Christian Europe and Teresa may have been, in effect, given to him as a reward for his services. Teresa was baptized as a Catholic in 1608 (which doesn't preclude the possiblity that she was previously Orthodox) before marrying Robert and they traveled extensively together through Eruope, indcluding extended stays in England on several occasions. She, too, was a model for one of the charcters in the Urania. Teresa was multi-lingual, politically savvy, and possibly martially skilled, as portraits of her (by Anthony van Dyck and others, see this link for the van Dyck portraits) sometimes included a pistol and she is recorded as having saved her husband's life during various encounters with Persian and Portuguese attackers. After her husband's death in Persia, she dealt with several years of persecution from her late husband's enemies and rivals before succeeding in escaping to Europe where she spent her remaining decades in Rome.
Mariam Khanim and Teresa Sampsona's lives intersected in person, despite their separate histories. Mariam was an Armenian subject of the Mughal emperor, the daughter of a high-ranked courtier, and was married successively to two English men associated with the East India Company: William Hawkins and Gabriel Towerson. Mariam's life and experiences were the inspiration for John Dryden's character Ysabinda in his Southeast Asian-set play Amboyna, or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants (1673), although the character is "an almost unidentifieable re-creation," having been converted into an Indonesian princess. Mariam and her husband traveled to England during the same general period as the Sherleys' travels. Like Teresa, Mariam was highly unlikely to have had any volition in her marriage to a Englishman and appears to have been part of a bribe to keep Hawkins at the Mughal court. When Hawkins did finally leave two years later, Mariam's family tried to prevent her from leaving (again, it being unclear what her own feelings were on the matter). Hawkins died during the voyage back to England and Mariam promptly married another East India Company captain, Gabriel Towerson. Financial need was probably a driving force, though Mariam petitioned the Company on her own behalf for compensation as Hawkins' widow. Two years later, the couple returned to India after which her husband left her and died in battle and Mariam vanishes from the written record.
Andrea presents fascinating evidence that Teresa Sampsonia and her husband Robert, while sailing back to Persia in 1613 encountered the ship carrying Mariam Khanim and her husband, traveling form India to England, when both ships put in for supplies at the Cape of Good Hope. And for a further connection, correspondence to Teresa and her husband from a friend back in England notes that Mariam had visited their son Robert (who had remained in England). [This sort of detail is particularly interesting in the context of the "historic plausibility" of multiple marginalized characters interacting in historical fiction.]
Andrea's book also spends several chapters looking at how these women were represented or interpreted in English literature of the time (such as the Urania, but also including some of Shakespeare's works). If you have any interest in the general topic of diversity in European history, I recommend checking this book out.
Historical studies of prominent women such as Queen Elizabeth I often focus on the men who filled key positions in their governments or who served as advisors. Such an approach that looks primarily at formal structures can overlook the immense power and influence that women had in a social context where people spent most of their lives in gender-segregated contexts. If you wanted to present your petition and plead your case to a woman like Queen Elizabeth, the most efficient means was not to approach Burghley or Walsingham, but to have a personal connection with one of the gentlewomen of the chamber--the women who interacted directly with the queen every day in her private spaces. This article looks at such "unofficial" personal networks between women in early modern England, and especially as they revolve around the role of secretary--literally the person who in entrusted with and and keeps one's secrets. While some prominent women might have male secretaries to handle their correspondence, the social context made it far more likely that a woman would fill a role such as this that expected and required a level of trust, faithfulness, and intimacy that were hard to achieve across the genders at that time.
Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries” in Queer Renaissance Historiography, Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9
A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.
Crawford, Julie. 2009. “Women’s Secretaries”
Crawford tackles the intriguing topic of women in 16-17th century England serving as secretaries--both in official and de facto positions--especially in service to other women. She particularly looks at the function of a secretary as an advisor and secret-keeper. As the Oxford English Dictionary gives for the first definition of the word: “One who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.” (Keep in mind that the root of “secretary” is “secret”.) The second definition, involving the job of managing correspondence, developed later but is also a significant sense in the 16th century. And, indeed, one of the contextual citations in the OED for this sense is feminine, though allegorical, referring to Mary Sidney Herbert as “eloquent secretary to the Muses.”
While studies of secretaries in the 16th century commonly focus solely on men who served women in this role--especially those serving Elizabeth I--Crawford seeks to recognize women themselves fulfilling the role of secretary. The general omission may in part be due to a focus on the function of secretaries in those social spheres less open to women, and especially on the significant homosocial bonds between men in these functions in the public sphere. But 16th century writers had no problem with accepting that women might fill the role of secretary for other women, in particular fulfilling the role of private counselor and often serving as intimate confidante.
There is a brief survey of examples of women secretaries and their duties: Hannah Wolley in The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1674) describes handling her mistress’s correspondence; Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World features a female scribe working for another woman; and there are numerous examples of women whose secretarial duties involved reading aloud to their employer. One pair that may be of particular interest is the Countess of Bedford and court poet Cecilia Bulstrode, whom Ben Jonson satirized with an accusation of lesbianism.
The women serving female monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne fulfilled an interwoven set of official and unofficial secretarial duties that are hard to untangle from more intimate services. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions and the women in service to powerful employers enjoyed significant control over access to their attention. Crawford suggests that such close relationships--although not considered sexual in their historic context--could not avoid having an erotic component. The article examines the role of these female secretaries in terms of specific types of functions.
The first of those functions examined is “bosom counsel and bed-sharing,” that is, someone to serve as a close confidante--“close” in both a metaphoric and physical sense. As Angel Day put it in The English Secretarie (1592) a secretary is someone “in whose bosome he holdeth the repose of his [master’s] safety to be far more precious then either estate, living, or advancement, whereof men earthly minded are for the most part desirous.”
The word “bosom,” literally meaning “breast” and extended to the clothing covering it, came metaphorically to mean both closeness and discretion. Papers and letters meant not to be seen were tucked beneath clothing on the upper body, embodying the idea of secret speech entrusted to the bearer. Inescapably, the language of taking someone to one’s bosom, or sharing one’s bosom evokes images of female erotic intimacy. Examples of such language between women is offered from several Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.
These female confidantes in Shakespeare often combine the sharing of secrets with the sharing of a bed. Here the complicated interpretation of bed-sharing must be examined. In early modern England, it was normal and expected for people of the same sex to share a bed. (If nothing else, housing logistics and less than ideal home heating arrangements made it desirable.) Bedfellows might be siblings, close friends, host and guest, employer and servant, random travelers staying at the same inn. But such arrangements did also involve complex social politics and could both indicate and negotiate friendships and alliances. Sharing a bed was de facto an intimate relationship and offered the opportunity for private conversation that could lead to possibilities for advice and influence as well as strengthening inter-personal bonds. And it was a context that provided opportunity for homoerotic interactions, regardless of how the participants might have understood and classified those interactions.
The article quotes correspondence about bed-sharing that uses erotically charged language (with all the necessary caveats about interpreting it as specifically sexual). In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier (they later had significant social ties throughout their lives), “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged.
These were personal connections, but also the creation and strengthening of political alliances with consequences for the extended families of all the women involved. Anne Clifford had a number of young women of good family in her service--a key part of the life cycle of the upper classes when such bonds were established. The question of sharing sleeping quarters and beds was a dynamic part of making those bonds for the future, in part because of the opportunities for “knowledge exchange” in a private context.
The second type of function covered under the position of secretary was identified by terms such as chambermaid and handmaid. Changes in meaning can result in misunderstandings about the functions involved. “Chambermaid” in this context does not simply mean some who does household cleaning, but a servant responsible for a woman’s personal, private sphere (the “chamber”) and so someone with regular and reliable access to her employer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Maria is identified as Olivia’s “chambermaid” it is clear from context that hers is a position of significant power and influence within the household. A connection is made with Queen Elizabeth’s “gentlewomen of the privy chamber” who were recognized for their potential as influential intermediaries and were sought out to transmit letters, petitions, and requests to the queen. This is the same sort of role that Maria fills for Olivia--a role of such responsibility that Maria can write letters in Olivia’s name and hand and have them taken for her mistress’s word.
A third function associated with the secretary is that of someone expected to be present within their employer’s private spaces and interactions and to keep those transactions secure.
The friend/counselor/secretary relationship between women was seen as qualitatively different from their relationships with men due to the absence of gendered differentials of power. It could function as resistance to patriarchal structures even when it served political networks inextricably linked to patriarchal authority. Female same-sex interactions served an ideal of fidelity and equality that worked against external tyrannies. But in some ways, the concept of consilium (advice) was itself a gendered concept, with the “counselor” understood as pairing with the person being advised in relationships that mirrored gendered pairings such as husband and wife. Thus women were, in some ways, seen as always standing in a consilium function in any relationship.
The article expands on this with an extended look at the characters of Paulina and Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and how Paulina’s function as counselor, “gatekeeper”, and eventually guardian of the queen’s most important secret (her continued existence) makes her both a prototype of key secretarial functions and an example of how those functions can act to resist tyrrany. Another literary example that is a more direct allegorical representation of real-world politics is Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, where various of the female characters serve this function of advisor and secret-keeper for each other.
The author concludes with a summary of how secretary-like functions between women in early modern England were an integrated part of women’s social and political power, as well as illustrating the complex possibilities of same-sex intimacy and eroticism that underlay the ostensibly heterosexual foundations of society.
The seventh category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Fake Relationship. I'm adapting the trope a little because usually it refers to two characters who have to pretend to be in a relationship and then find themselves in love after all. As you'll see, I've reorganized the components a little, in part because of the demands and direction of the overall story structure.
I need to give a content advisory for this story because some people seriously dislike the motif of an unwilling gender reveal. I thought seriously about choosing this particular event for the necessary shift in character direction. If I had set up Magdalena/Pieter as in any way being gender-questioning I wouldn't have used it. But I tried to be very careful about showing both of my Dutch soldiers as identifying clearly as women who are using male disguise for economic purposes and personal freedom. So this is not a story about someone being forced back into a rejected gender role, but about someone being forced back into abandoned social restrictions. That said, I know that not everyone finds the motif palatable so I wanted to make sure they have the chance to avoid it.
I've reined myself back to a shorter length for this snippet and it probably feels unfinished in terms of even a micro-plot. Currently I'm setting up a three-snippet story arc that will introduce a new character in the next bit and give Lena a new and even more adventurous romance in the end. [ETA: I've made some minor edits since originally posting this.]
Follow the Drum: Reprise (Lesbian Book Bingo: Fake Relationship)
They ransomed us at last from the French at Montigny. Maybe it isn’t fair to say “at last”. It wasn’t as if the French wanted the burden of dozens of Alliance prisoners, but it takes time to arrange for exchanges and calculate the worth of lives. It was long enough that Martijn’s wound had healed except for a limp that she tried to hide from the officer who took charge of us. We had grown expert at hiding. Sometimes even Martijn didn’t notice the small burdens I took from her, especially on that first long march away from captivity. It was what a comrade did.
That was what we’d become: comrades. There was a time I thought we might become lovers—more than the simple fact of sharing comfort and passion within our combined bedroll when we thought it safe—but instead we’d settled into something closer and more comfortable. When I first put on a uniform and followed the drum, my desire to see the world and have adventures was tangled up with that other desire. I still thought I liked women more than I’d ever like a man, but Martijn… Well, and Martijn had told me about Mayken, and how she hoped she might still be waiting for her back home even though they hadn’t promised each other anything. It was strange to think that there was still a place called home after everything we’d seen.
The regiment we’d served in before Montigny was off in the Germanies now and the end of our march was a camp with English flags before the officers’ tents and a babble of different voices. I’d learned bits of French in the past months but English danced just out of reach. It sounded like it ought to be no harder to understand than the soldiers from Leeuwarden, but the words always slipped sideways out of my head.
After the quiet and stillness of close confinement, the camp was crowded and noisy. At the other side of the parade ground from the officers was a fenced off space with enough clanging and hammering for five blacksmiths and a crowd of strange engines whose use I couldn’t imagine. On the far side of that was a sprawling civilian camp of the sort that grew up any time the army stayed in one place long enough: the wives and children of soldiers, as well as women less particular in their affections. Steaming cauldrons of laundry and the smoke of cook-fires mixed with the scents of better food than Martijn and I had enjoyed in months, even though it was nothing but soup with a single scrawny chicken in a big pot. At least we wouldn’t have to do our own cooking and washing until we marched away again.
That was where they took us after we’d passed inspection in front of the officers and been assigned to a new regiment. With bowls and spoons in hand, we lined up with resigned patience for a share of whatever was in the cook-pot and a chunk of bread. Martijn was staring at the ground with that look she got when her leg was aching and she was too tired to do more than put one foot in front of the other. I nudged her to close up the gap in the line so no one would push past us. “Maybe they’ll have some beer.”
Martijn shrugged. “Not unless someone’s willing to give us credit until we’re paid.”
I started calculating how we might find some spare coins before that. We were already in debt for a tent and bedrolls and that was before thinking about the state of our clothing. That distraction was why I didn’t notice anything about the woman who was ladling out the food except that she had a baby slung across her back and a small child tugging at her skirts. Not until it was my turn to hold up my bowl for her to fill.
I recognized her half a breath before her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open.
“Lena?” she cried in disbelief.
It was too late to warn her off, to hush her, to beg her silence.
“Lena? What are you doing here like this?”
Two steps beyond, Martijn had frozen in place, staring at us both.
“Greta, please!” I asked softly and urgently. “Please don’t.”
It had been two years since I’d seen my cousin Greta back in Zendoorn. Two years—the age of the boy holding on to her skirt and staring up at me. She’d followed the drum in her own way but in all the wide world, why had we ended up in the same camp?
It was too late. The officer in charge of seeing the new arrivals settled had heard the outcry and come over to see.
“You know this soldier?” he asked.
“Soldier?” she said scornfully. “That’s my cousin Magdalena, she’s no more soldier than I am.”
I think I was angrier at her for denying me that title than for exposing me to scorn. I’d marched and sweated and bled as a soldier. That should count for something. But now the officer was staring at me closely with a frown. Before I knew what he was about, he’d grabbed me by the shoulder and put his other hand between my legs to feel for the thing that wasn’t there. I shoved him away, not caring for rank, or that my supper had just gone spilling away in the dirt, or that I’d blushed as red as a beet. Not caring that he could have me whipped just for pushing him like that, never mind for what else I’d done.
But he only laughed and rolled his eyes and said, “Sweet Christ, another soldier-girl! And you—”
He turned on Martijn and my heart froze.
“Please sir,” I begged, clutching at his sleeve. “Please, I only did it to be with my sweetheart. There wasn’t time for us to be married before he marched away. Martijn didn’t want me treated like a common camp follower. Don’t blame him sir!”
Was it enough to turn his suspicions away? I babbled away my reputation, my pride—anything to protect Martijn.
Greta let out a long gust of laughter. “Oh Lena, you were so prissy when I had to marry my man, and here you are no better than you should be! You put her in my hands, sir. I’ll teach her what it means to be a soldier’s wife. And maybe we can get a pastor to bless them before her belly swells too big.”
She took me by the wrist and called for someone else to take her place at the kettle. I barely had time to look back over my shoulder at Martijn who still stood frozen in place without a word of protest or defense. But what could she have said that would do more than make things worse?
* * *
Greta found a skirt for me. The weight of it felt comfortably familiar around my legs, though I'd finally grown accustomed to breeches too. “Keep the coat,” she said. It seemed like half the women in the civilian camp were wearing bits and pieces of old uniforms. “You can sleep with me for now. Help me keep an eye on the boys. There’s plenty to do so make yourself busy.”
And just like that I went from being a soldier on the march to cooking and mending and looking after babies. All the things I thought I’d left behind. It wasn’t that I thought less of women like Greta whose entire world was caught up in home, even the home of an army camp. Maybe someday I'd want all that too. But not now, not yet. I thought back on the plans Martijn and I had shared: the places we’d go together, the cites we wanted to see, maybe even taking ship for far lands. We’d been comrades. Equals. Not just Martijn and me, but all the men we’d marched with. And now I was just “Martijn’s sweetheart who put on trousers to follow him.”
It was two days before Martijn came to find me where I was turning a spit, trying to keep Greta’s boy amused so he wouldn’t stumble into the fire, and fighting a headache from the unending pounding of metal from the engineer’s camp beside us.
“Magdalena?” she asked hesitantly. The name was awkward in her mouth because I’d been Pieter so long.
I hesitated, wondering what to say, but there were people watching who’d heard about us so I threw my arms around her neck and kissed her like all the other women did with their husbands and sweethearts. It gave me a chance to whisper in her ear, “Is all well?”
Martijn nodded. She pitched her voice low. “I’m sorry about…all of this. We’ll figure out what to do somehow.”
“What to do? They’ll find someone to marry us. What else can we do? What other excuse do I have for being here?”
“Pieter—Lena, we can’t! It’s not… We aren’t…” She broke away from the embrace and threw her hands up in a shrug. “We can’t be married in God’s eyes, it would be a lie.”
I hissed at her, “I don’t care what God thinks, I care what Greta thinks and what your commanding officer thinks.”
Martijn was afraid, I could see that. I couldn’t tell whether she was more afraid of God or of her own disguise being found out. Was she sorry she’d let me join her on that fateful day back in Zendoorn?
“Martijn, you told me before that a comrade who shared your secret made you safer. A wife who shares it will make you safer yet. It’s like you said back at De Leeuw: nothing works better to convince people you’re a man than having a woman.”
Having a woman, like one might have a gun or a pair of boots. I didn’t like it any more than she did, but we both had too much to lose. No, that wasn’t true. I’d already lost almost everything. I’d lose that last scrap of respect unless we married. Without a ring, I’d be just one more fallen woman, considered common to anyone who took a fancy to me.
“Lena—,” she began.
But then I had to scramble to pull Greta’s boy out of danger and give the spit a turn so the meat wouldn’t burn, and when I looked up again, Martijn had left.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
I've had a few movies on my to-review list since I watched them last year, so here is me giving up on writing anything lengthy and thoughtful in order to catch up on all the movies and tv series I can remember watching that I haven't talked about yet.
Battle of the Sexes (2017) - A dramatized biopic about the publicity-stunt tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. The movie provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at Riggs' motivations in setting up the stunt, as well as giving a good picture of the no-win situation in which it put the various female tennis champions that he tried to drag into it. If he won, hey, it proves men are inherently superior to women; if they won, hey, they were world champions up against a middle-aged amateur, what does it prove? The movie also includes a very sweet low-key look at King's romance with Marilyn Barnett. The one aspect of the film's depiction that rather grated on me was how it tried to frame Riggs' over-the-top sexist rhetoric as being an obvious put-on, even in a context where the outrageous economic discrimination againt women's tennis was part of the plot. I'm sorry, but I remember the 1970s and I remember the media around the "battle of the sexes" and there was no sense that the men publicly bashing on women's competence and professionalism were "ha ha just joking to be theatrical." Riggs was an asshole and the men who encouraged him were assholes and the media who played along were assholes and we still have to deal with people like them. So don't try to make him "loveable".
Coco (2017) - Pixar makes another heart-wrenching story about love and family and pursuing your dreams. Don't get me wrong: I loved this movie, with all its plot twists and turns, and I loved the conclusion, and everything. But it's a typical Pixar story in how it completely centers the male characters and their relationships. The animation is glorious. The cultural references were fun. (I totally loved the idea of Frida Kahlo doing artistic design in the afterworld.) I'm aware that Pixar went through some cultural rough spots in developing this story and came perilously close to making a complete hash of it. And however well they succeeded after regrouping, there's still a strong whiff of cultural objectification, but it's not my place to judge how well they succeeded or failed on the cultural end.
Black Panther (2018) - I've kept swearing off superhero movies and keep getting lured back to give them one more chance. This is the first time I've had no regrets at all about giving in. Not only is the movie visually glorious and full of a far more complex and nuanced plot than is typical for the genre, but it was chock full of strong, beautiful female characters with immense agency within the plot. It says a lot that this movie, headlined by a male character, felt to me twice as strong on female presence as Wonder Woman did. I really enjoyed how the movie engaged with the flaws and conflicts within its own premises (regarding the pros and cons of isolationism). And I'm overjoyed that it has done so well at the box office, though--like many woman-centered films--it has clearly been held to an impossible standard of success. If it had merely been the third highest-grossing superhero film in history, one gets the sense that the usual suspects would have tut-tutted, "Well, we gave it a try to center a non-white story, but it just didn't work out." Yay for overwhelming success, but lets keep moving toward a world where we can get broader representation in films without them needing to be superachievers to be considered viable.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018) - This was another visually-gorgeous, daring movie, with casting that went beyond the usual defaults. But although I loved the cinematic experience, I found the plot mildly incoherent. A few weeks later, I have a hard time remembering more than scattered snapshots of imagery. (I read the book a very very long time ago and didn't refresh before seeing the movie, but that was probably for the best.)
And now for a couple of TV shows that I've belatedly been tasting via iTunes.
Wynona Earp - On a whim (and based on a vast amorphous pressure from fans in my larger internet community) I picked up the first two sesasons of this weird western show and have watched the first four episodes. That's been enough to conclude it just isn't for me. Oh, I can see the beginnings of the same-sex romance that everyone is so excited about, but there are too many elements in the show that just Aren't My Thing, mostly the regular, extended gruesome violence and the "bad girl" main character. Sorry, but I just don't get the appeal of violent nihilistic self-desctructive protagonists.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Once again, I was inspired by the general love this show gets from my internet community to give it a try. And after the first two episodes I'm really kind of "meh." I don't like the protagonists. Either of them. And I don't think there's a single female character who rises above the level of cardboard.
So that catches me up on the visual media reviews, I think. Next to tackle getting caught up on books.
The 18th century English performer Charlotte Charke manipulated gender performance both on stage and off. Charke's performances--whether dramatic, economic, or literary--represented a challenge to gender boundaries of the time and have continued to stand as a challenge to historians engaging with Charke's person and performances. Was Charke's off-stage performance as "Mr. Brown" simple economic necessity? Was it a reflection of transgender identity? Was it a strategem to engage in homoerotic encounters with women? Are we to read Charke's three marriages to men as evidence of an underlying heterosexuality? Or do we filter our understanding through Charke's recorded negative opinions of them and view the marriages as social and economic necessity? How much of Charke's autobiography was sincere and true and how much was deliberately sensationalized to sell more copies--at a time when literary success was crucial to Charke's economic stability? Depending on which evidence is emphasized, a solid case can be made for a variety of interpretations, but in the end those interpretations will usually tell us more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter. I am not immune to this. Given my own interests and the context of the Project, I will tend to default to framing Charke as a bisexual woman who played with gender presentation to create contexts for engaging in same-sex desire, as well as to benefit from male economic privilege. But other framings are equally supported by the contradictory evidence and I encourage people to look further into the life of this fascinating person.
Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”
In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.
By the early 18th century, men playing female parts was only acceptable as an obvious parody of femininity. The parallel expectation for women in male roles only arose in the later part of the 18th century. In the mid-18th century, the ambiguity regarding women cross-dressing was considered part of the appeal. But toward the end of the 18th century, there was more condemnation unless the depiction left gender boundaries clear and unquestioned.
Theories about the appeal of cross-dressed actresses have tended to focus on the male gaze and how the roles objectified female bodies, but Straub suggests that the appeal was more complicated. She argues that evidence such as the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke contradict an easy fit of this phenomenon into a traditional expectation of “the subjugation of a feminine spectable to the dominance of the male gaze and the exclusive definition of feminine sexual desire in terms of its relation to masculine heterosexual desire.”
The appearance of women on stage beginning in the 17th century did serve the obvious function of using conventionally attractive feminine bodies to sell tickets, as many commentaries will attest. But the variety of responses indicate that an equal attraction came from sexual ambiguity, and that female audiences were just as attracted to the performance as men were. A 1766 memoir notes, with regard to this topic, “It was a most nice point to decide between the gentlemen and the ladies, whether [the actress] was the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.”
This “double pleasure” on the stage was more problematic when it moved off-stage. Popular culture tended to contain the transgression of actresses who continued to cross-dress in ordinary life by assigning them unambiguously heterosexual desires. Susanna Maria Cibber was reported to cross-dress when off the stage to facilitate a heterosexual affair. Susanna Centlivre similarly cross-dressed to pose as her lover’s “cousin Jack” in order to live with him when he was at Oxford. Sarah Siddons was accused of taking on the role of Hamlet for an opportunity to seduce her married fencing instructor. Even same-sex attraction off-stage was framed with conventional motivations: Margaret Wolffington was said to have set out to win the affections of another woman, but only to distract that woman from the man they were competing for.
[Note: this catalog of stories doesn’t touch on the question of who is gate-keeping the recording and transmission of these responses. All the "was said"s and "was reporteds" raise the question of who is doing the talking and what topics they are not talking about.]
By the mid 18th century, there is significant pressure for cross-dressed actresses to confine their appeal to “acceptable” contexts, revealing the underlying anxiety about their roles. These anxieties were several. The appeal of cross-dressed women as men challenged traditional notions of masculinity. And secondly, they represented a challenge to the idea that women should be limited to the private, domestic sphere.
By the early 19th century, discussion of cross-dressed actresses became increasingly condemnatory. [Note: As for Trumbach’s article in this same collection, it’s hard to square this assertion with the mid-19th century popularity of actresses such as American Charlotte Cushman, who enjoyed major success on English stages in "trouser roles".] The suggestion was that it was “improper” for women to play these roles, appealing to shifting models of femininity. Wearing breeches on stage for broadly comic purposes was possibly acceptable, but still not entirely proper. This exception still allowed cross-dressed classics such as Shakespeare’s comedies, as long as the masquerade was obvious. Flying in the face of the evidence, critics of the practice denied the possibility that an actress could believably play a male role, much less one that is desirable by female spectators. The vehemence of these criticisms imply the success of cross-dressed actresses in challenging the stabiilty of masculine sexuality. In particular, they highlight the anxiety that a masculinized performance by a woman might attract unapproved sexual desires by the female audience.
Charlotte Charke’s 1746 autobiography illustrates the real basis of these anxieties as she took her cross-gender behavior off the stage and into everyday life in ways that challenged heterosexual norms. The work is a textual performance, in parallel with her stage performances, and part of a varied set of gender-fracturing enterprises by which she worked to support herself and her daughter. A number of those enterprises involved taking on male occupations (such as valet) in male garb. [Charke’s early experiences with cross-dressing, whether as performance or personal expression, suggest to the modern reader a transgender framing, and there are a number of publications that examine Charke's life in that context, but I have followed the author’s lead in consistently gendering her as female in this summary.]
Straub suggests some interesting potential motivations for the prominence of cross-dressing in Charke’s life story. In particular, she suggests a through-line of critiquing her father’s submissive subservience to his artistocratic male patrons. Various historians see in her performance a challenge to concepts of masculinity that, in her era, were increasingly driven by contrast to a female “other”. The masculine woman refused to be “other” and so undermined the concept of a distinctive masculine identity. The major threat to “masculinity” was being seen as womanish or feminized, as represented by the “feminine” male homosexual. This was the image of “failed masculinity” that Straub suggests that Charke is implicitly critiquing in her father.
There does not appear to be any unambiguous evidence that Charke engaged in sexual activity with women, in disguise or otherwise, but many of her early “adventures” involve inspiring the desire of a woman while in male guise and only narrowly escaping situations in which she would need to confront that desire.
Historians, in considering Charke’s life and writings, are often frustrated by her resistance to being read either clearly as heterosexual or lesbian. Straub discusses the context of the “female husband” narrative and the ways in which Charke contradicts it--a contradiction that can just as easily be read as a refusal to fit female same-sex desire into a heterosexual mould, instead of as a refutation of same-sex desires. Henry Fielding’s fictionalized account of “female husband” Mary Hamilton is discussed, focusing on the motif of Hamilton’s use of an artificial penis as part of her disguise. [Note: I think there’s a significant difference in that Hamilton is not telling her own story or intending it as a performed spectacle. Whereas Charke was clearly performing even when not on stage.]
Charke plays with the idea that she might return the desire of the women who engage with her male presentation, always regretfully finding a reason to escape. But her protestations such as that she was “greived it was not in my power to make a suitable return” (of affections) leave open the possibility of genuine regret, not simply feigned excuse. Regarding the reason for her cross-dressing, she toys with her readers, saying that “the original motive proceeded from a particular cause” but then protesting that “I am bound, as I before hinted, by all the vows of truth and honour everlastingly to conceal [it].”
In contradiction of the potential for same-sex desire, Straub fastens on to Charke’s novel The History of Henry Dumont, which includes a vicious portrayal of a male homosexual character, as implying a general position of homophobia (to use the modern term) and a distancing of her own experience. [Note: I think that Straub overlooks the problem that male and female same-sex desire were not seen as parallel and equivalent in this era--or, indeed, in most eras before the 20th century. Hostility by Charke to male homosexuality doesn’t strike me as automatically ruling out the possibility that she felt same-sex desire for women and possibly even acted on it.] Straub concludes by noting the continuing difficulty of interpreting Charke’s biography when colored by modern concepts of gender and identity.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21a - On the Shelf for April - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/04/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2018.
Have you had a chance to listen to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s first original fiction episode? Last week we debuted the new series with Catherine Lundoff’s “One Night in Saint-Martin” and we have three more equally great stories lined up to come out this year. If you enjoy the story, make sure to recommend it to your friends.
One of the things I really enjoy about my blog and podcast is the opportunities they provide for me to be in contact with other authors and readers in the field. I have to confess that I’m usually far too shy to contact someone out of the blue to tell them how much I enjoy their writing. Which--folks, don’t be shy like me! Authors love to have random strangers tell them how much they enjoy their books! It’s totally ok! But it’s a bit easier when I can say, “Hi, I love your books and would you be interested in being on my podcast?”
Sometimes the intersections are a bit more interesting. Let me tell you a funny story. I was on a book-buying spree for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog recently, and due to an error in an Amazon listing that confused two similar titles, I ended up with a duplicate copy of Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan’s sourcebook Homosexuality in Early Modern France. Like you do. I mean, it could happen to anyone, right? It had been fairly cheap, and the error was partially my own for not noticing the error in the listing, so I figured I’d just find a good home for the book and posted on a facebook group for people researching historical romance that I’d ship it to the first interested person with a US shipping address. I got an immediate response from a woman that I’d interacted with a few times on twitter. But when I asked her to message me her shipping address she said, “So I just looked at your profile, and you could save the postage because we live in the same town.” We ended up meeting at a local coffee shop for the book hand-off and to chat about writing and publishing and books we loved and whatnot. So you never know where those random internet contacts may take you.
Publications on the Blog
As I mentioned last month, I’ve lined up a lot of journal articles to cover on the blog. In fact, now that I’ve had a chance to read through them and sort them into thematic groups, it looks like I have enough material to take me into August. So here’s a run-down on what the blog has covered in March and will be covering in April.
I’m always interested in articles on my favorite 18th century cross-dressing novel, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu and Caroline Gonda takes a look at the story within the context of cross-dressing novels as a genre, both in France and in England. Her conclusions suggest that it’s even more curious in that context than it first seems.
Next I cover four articles from a collection entitled Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity. These papers look at various aspects of gender presentation across the ages and its relationship to categories of sex and sexuality. The first article looks at a particular genre of medieval Arabic literature that discusses categories of non-normative sexual practice. The Arabic material is a good way to shake up your preconceptions both of what medieval attitudes toward sexuality and gender were like and of what medieval Islamic cultures were like. The second article looks at the concept of the hermaphrodite in Renaissance writings and how the idea of people with ambiguous bodies or with ambiguous gender presentation were a key factor in a shift from medieval concepts of sex and gender to the beginnings of more modern concepts--though we must be careful not to understand “modern” as meaning either “more evolved” or “more true”. The theme of the relationship of sex, gender, and sexuality is continued in the third paper, which looks specifically at the rise of the concept of homosexual orientation as an identifiable category around the 18th century. And the fourth paper I cover from this collection is about women playing male roles on stage, and particularly about 18th century English actress Charlotte Charke. Interesting that both the 18th and 19th centuries had a prominent actress named Charlotte who was famous for her trouser roles!
I follow that collection with a pair of articles from a volume titled Queer Renaissance Historiography. One looks at the function of private secretary in 16th and 17th century England, focusing in particular on women serving as secretaries to other women. It discusses how the dynamics of secretarial functions within a gender-segregated society created and relied on personal intimacy at several levels and created homoerotic potential even within the framework of patriarchal power structures. I timed my coverage of this collection for the second article of interest, which is about Renaissance and early modern representations of the goddess Diana and her nymphs that show how definitions of female chastity in that era were considered compatible with female same-sex erotics. The author of the article posits that images of “Diana’s Band” created a context for women with erotic interest in women to form a community of interest. I’ve been wanting to do a podcast episode on the image of Diana as lesbian, and this article gave me the inspiration to carry through on it.
This month’s author guest will be Alyssa Cole who wrote an absolutely lovely lesbian romance novella set just after the American Revolution as part of the collection Hamilton’s Battalion. And this month, our Book Appreciation segment will feature reviewer Liz Bourke, talking about some of her favorite recent historicals with queer women. Liz is also a great resource for finding great science fiction and fantasy with queer female characters. I recommend her blog at the SFF site Tor.com.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
I’ve searched the net and social media to bring you information about new and upcoming historically-based fiction with queer women. Remember that I can only include books that I know about, and as we all know, historical novels about queer women can be hard to find. So if you have or know about a forthcoming book that you think would fit into this podcast, drop me a note so I can follow up.
We all have our favorite sub-genres and I’ll freely confess that Regency Romances are near the top of my list. So I was overjoyed to hear about The Covert Captain: Or, A Marriage of Equals by Jeannelle M. Ferreira. It came out in March, but I didn’t hear about it in time to get it in the March announcements. Here’s the blurb. “Nathaniel Fleming, veteran of Waterloo, falls in love with his Major's spinster sister, Harriet. But Nathaniel is not what he seems, and before the wedding, the truth will out... Eleanor Charlotte Fleming, forgotten daughter of a minor baronet, stakes her life on a deception and makes her name—if not her fortune—on the battlefield. Her war at an end, she returns to England as Captain Nathaniel Fleming and wants nothing more than peace, quiet, and the company of horses. Instead, Captain Fleming meets Harriet. Harriet has averted the calamity of matrimony for a decade, cares little for the cut of her gowns, and is really rather clever. Falling in love is not a turn of the cards either of them expected. Harriet accepts Captain Fleming, but will she accept Eleanor? Along the way, there are ballrooms, stillrooms, mollyhouses, society intrigue, and sundering circumstance.” At the moment, the book is only available through Amazon, but I’ll be waiting anxiously for the next couple of months until it’s out in other formats.
Justine Saracen has another of her impeccably-researched World War II novels out with Berlin Hungers. Here’s the blurb: “In the years after World War II, the alliance that saved Europe is breaking down as the Soviet Union and the West compete for control of Germany. When Russia blockades Berlin, everyone, it seems, is hungry: Russian soldiers for German women, the Soviet leaders for territory, the Berliners themselves for food. But the hardest hunger of all is between a Royal Air Force woman and the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot who helped set fire to half of London.”
We move into the realm of alternate history and steam punk with Alex Acks’ Murder on the Titania and Other Steam Powered Adventures. “Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full, what between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security) and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horrors of high society tea parties. In contrast, Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he? Join Captain Ramos, Simms and their crew as they negotiate the perils of air, land and drawing room in a series of fast-paced adventures in a North America that never was.” This is a collection of stories in something of a mystery-adventure vein. To be clear, this isn’t romance although there’s a definite same-sex flirtation running through the stories, very much with an enemies-to-well, to sparring partners flavor. Come for the casual queerness, stay for the derring-do.
When I started doing this upcoming books segment back in February, the first book in K. Aten’s “Arrow of Artemis” series had just come out, but I didn’t include it in the listings because it looked like it was pure fantasy rather than historical fantasy. I’m still not sure quite where it sits on the continuum, but since the third book in the series mentions the Roman Empire, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Book two in the series is coming out in April, titled The Archer and following the adventures of Kyri, fletcher and archer and new recruit to an Amazon band.
I’ve had this month’s Ask Sappho question sitting in the in-box for a while, and to some extent this is a confession of failure. The question was from Ann Terpstra, who asks, “I was wondering if you could recommend a few non-fiction books focusing on lesbians or queer women in the 1920s. I have an idea for a book set in 1920s Chicago focusing on lesbians and speakeasies. I've run down a few good possibilities, but I thought you might be a good resource for other suggestions.”
Ann, I wish I could pull out a list of recommendations for you--if you’d asked about the 1820s, I could do it. But when I set up the scope of my history blog, I put the cut-off at the beginning of the 20th century for several very practical reasons. The first is that there’s simply so much more research available on gender and sexuality in the 20th century that I’d get swamped by all the possibilities. I know that doesn’t make the research sound any easier to find when you’re just starting out! But believe me that it’s out there. The second reason is that people’s understanding of sexuality in western culture went through a seismic change at the beginning of the 20th century. Most people today who know anything about queer history will know the basics of the 20th century experience. So my history blog is focusing on earlier eras because the attitudes and experiences were so different from what our own experience has been and it’s more important for an author to ground herself in those differences to write them well. A third reason is that historic sources for the 20th century are more likely to be available in popular formats--history books aimed at a general audience. In contrast, research on earlier eras is more likely to be hidden away in academic journals or specialized books that the average library isn’t going to carry. So I think I can be more useful in building bridges for the earlier material because it’s harder for the average person to stumble across it.
All of this is to say that I can’t easily put together a solid suggested book list for 1920s Chicago from my own reading. But I can offer some directions and hope that they don’t duplicate what you’ve already found.
When I plugged the keywords “Chicago 1920s lesbian history” into Google, I found some useful leads. The first hit was for an article on gays and lesbians in a site called The Encyclopedia of Chicago. It only has one paragraph covering the 1920s but it also cites as one of its sources an organization called the Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Project that collects oral histories, although there’s no guarantee they’d have any from that particular era.
There’s a popular history book titled Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall by St. Sukie de la Croix that looks like it would be useful. And there’s a text titled Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago, available as a free pdf file, which is a museum exhibition catalog and covers some useful topics. My own experience is that the best way to find more detailed information is to start with one good book and then look for gems in its bibliography. I’d guess that both Chicago Whispers and Homosexuality in the City will have really useful bibliographies to start from. I’ve listed all of these sources in the show notes with links.
New and Forthcoming Books
There's a lot of meat to chew on in this article, and I think that Trumbach's exploration of shifts in how same-sex desire was understood and classified during the "long 18th century" is both fascinating and valuable. But at the same time, I see a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of flaws and weaknesses in how he frames and presents the data and his conclusions. Which I have commented on at great length interspersed with my summary of the article. To some extent, he seems aware of these flaws, for he uses a lot of "hedging language" like "seemed," "likely," "probably." But if I didn't have a fairly extensive existing familiarity with the data (and--I'll admit--a very different personal engagement with the data and its interpretation) I might have taken his conclusions more at face value. To be somewhat fair, the article was published in 1991 which was at the leading edge of the deep work in gender/sexuality history that we can now take for granted. But articles like this (and a critical reading of them) are a useful lesson in the importance of questioning not only the data but its interpretation.
Trumbach, Randolph. 1991. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Trumbach, Randolph. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture”
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article. I’d also like to acknowledge that articles such as this that treat historic individuals in a cross-gender or gender-ambiguous context will necessarily trade sensitivity for clarity when discussing both beliefs and realities about the relationship of bodies, identities, perceived identities, and orientations. I will usually try to rephrase an article’s language to something more neutral, but as we are not dealing with persons who can clarify their own preferences, the results will not always be satisfactory.]
Trumbach looks at shifts in the cultural understanding of gender and sexuality that appear in northwestern Europe around the beginning of the 18th century and that he sums up in the title of this article “from three sexes to four genders.” The modern western model of two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female) does not hold through all cultures and has not been universal throughout western history. He associates the shift under consideration with the beginnings of an ideal of equality between the two “legitimate” genders and the rise of a recognition of a third “illegitimate” gender: the “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation toward men, known in England as a “molly”.
[Note that this is not quite the same as a concept of a general homosexual orientation as it still focused exclusively on the “passive” partner who was assumed to have sexual encounters with “normal” men. Also note that "gender" is being used in this article to discuss a concept that combines features that we would today distinguish as gender presentation and sexual orientation. I believe the point that Trumbach is making with the use of the word "gender here is that 18th century English culture conflated gender presentation and sexual orientation in exactly this way.]
By the end of the 18th century, a parallel female role of the mannish woman-desiring “tommy” was becoming recognized. Trumbach asserts that at this time “sapphist” and “tommy” were used as the high and low culture terms for women with homoerotic interests just as “sodomite” and “molly” were high and low culture terms for men. Trumbach’s claim is that this “other female gender” was not completely recognized until the late 19th or early 20th century as women’s gender classification was driven more by their participation in sex with men than by their attitude toward sex with women.
[Note: There are certainly pre-19th century references to women who desire women constituting a “third gender” so I’m not sure exactly what Trumbach’s basis is for pushing the concept toward the end of the 19th century. I get the impression that--like many male historians--he’s treating the male experience as the default and evaluating women’s history in relation to how closely it matches that male experience. In this case, the phenomenon he's focusing on is the conflation of cross-gender presentation and same-sex desire as a combined social category, that is, the development of a female category directly equivalent to the "molly". In doing so, he filters out historical concepts and behaviors that don't participate in that combined category. So keep that in mind as I summarize this article.]
By this point (i.e., ca. 1900) western society had developed a system divided into four roles: man, woman, homosexual man, lesbian woman--roles that presumed only two biological sexes, that rejected a biological basis for homosexual behavior, and that no longer framed homosexuals within a transsexual structure (i.e., that one’s “true” gender was determined in contrast to the object of desire).
The 17th century paradigm--which was applied to both men and women--recognized two genders (male and female) but three biological sexes (man, woman, and hermaphrodite). Under this system, all persons were considered capable of desiring both genders, but “legitimate” sexual activity and desire occurred between male and female genders, and hermaphrodites were required to choose (and stick to) either male or female gender. Violation of this male-female requirement was stigmatized as sodomy, but sodomites were not considered a distinct gender based on their sexual relations. Further, acts of sodomy only violated the accepted gender system if they went against a gendered framework for penetration. As long as older, dominant adult men had penetrative sex with adolescent boys, and women had non-penetrative sex with each other, the gender system was maintained even during same-sex erotics. Persons who acted against this system (e.g., adult biological men who were penetrated or biological women who penetrated women) were not considered to be a distinct social class (gender) but rather were considered to be motivated by belonging to a distinct biological class (hermaphrodites). In the case of women, there was a persistent expectation that this biological class was identifiable by an enlarged clitoris. [Note: The failure of medical examination to uphold this concept in the case of women doesn’t ever seem to have disrupted the standing assumption.]
In the early 18th century, this system as applied to men underwent two shifts: from a 2 gender/3 sex system to a 3 gender/2 sex system, and from an expectation that sexual relations between men would involve an active adult man and a passive adolescent boy, to a system where some adult men who desired men took on “feminine” aspects of dress and behavior as part of engaging in those relationships.
This article focuses on what was going on with women in regard to these categorization shifts during this same period (the 18th century) particularly in London. Trumbach focuses on three topics: the concept of women as hermaphrodites, the understanding of cross-dressing by women, and the scope of “what male contemporaries would have considered to be actual sexual relations between women.” [Note: I use the precise quotation here to highlight that this analysis is assuming a male gaze for this shift in categories. I presume that to some extent this approach is due to the larger amount of male-authored material used as evidence. But I’d be happier if Trumbach seemed more self-aware of the problematic aspects. In the next section I’m going to quote Trumbach’s hedges for his assertions, because I think it’s important to recognize the degree of not-entirely-acknowledged personal speculation involved.]
Trumbach dates the emergence of the “sapphist” gender role to the latter half of the 18th century, emerging clearly only in the last quarter. In the earlier part of the century, women’s behavior was “likely” to be bisexual and their sexual activities with women focus on manual stimulation and avoided penetration. “Men speculated” that women engaging in penetrative sex with women were assumed either to have an enlarged clitoris or to use an artificial penis. “It is likely” that some female husbands who dressed as men and married women did use artificial penises, but “it is likely” that most passing women did not have sexual relations with women, and this is “probably true” even if they married.
[Note: that’s a lot of “likely”s and “probably”s. This entire section of the article strikes me as someone working hard to fit the evidence into his existing conclusions.]
Open cross-dressing, as on the stage, was aimed at appealing to men, not women, relying on the overt knowledge that the performers were women, while covert cross-dressing was intended to conceal the bodily sex. Only toward the end of the 18th century is there evidence of women using cross-gender appearance to appeal sexually to women. It is these women that Trumbach identifies as “London’s first sapphists of the modern kind”, in the sense that they were considered to be expressing a fixed, minority sexual orientation, rather than indulging in a more general possibility of same-sex desire that any woman could experience.
The “hermaphrodite” category was sometimes applied to men who took both an active and passive role in same-sex activity, but it was treated as more of a symbolic label than it was for women, for whom it indicated an expectation of anatomical anomaly. And as the 18th century progressed, the male category increasingly used “molly” instead.
For women, “hermaphrodite” could also be used in a metaphorical rather than anatomical sense, especially when attached to clothing that was felt to be too “masculine” in design, such as tailored riding habits. Here it is the clothing--not its wearers--that is considered to partake of male and female traits, and at least in the early century there seems to be no implication that women wearing “mannish” styles associated that fashion with desire for women. [Note: The early 18th century Memoirs of the Count de Grammont implies a relationship between Mrs. Hobart's "mannish" attributes and clothing and her predatory sexual interest in young women, but it's true that the association isn't as strong as it later became. And I think Trumbach has an unstated distinction between descriptions of "mannish" clothing being part of a stereotype of women's sexual deviancy, and the deliberate use of "mannish" clothing to express personal identity/orientation. Did the existence of the stereotype inspire homoerotically-inclined women to adopt masculine-coded clothing? Or was the stereotype an outgrowth of the earlier gender/orientation model that viewed female same-sex desire as a symptom of an essential "masculine" identity that also inspired cross-gender dressing? I think there's a lot more to investigate here, though it's questionable whether the data exists to be successful.]
The association of the concept of the physiological “hermaphrodite” rather specifically with women (as opposed to both women and men) is emphasized in the coverage of medical treatises on the phenomenon, such as Edmund Curll’s 1718 work, which focus entirely on physiologically female bodies that featured enlarged clitorises. He considered that hermaphrodites were inherently predisposed to transgressive sex and that sex with women was simply an extension of this. He also takes an exoticizing view of same-sex desire, considering hermaphrodites to be more common in hot climates, such as Italy and France. Unlike writers later in the century, he considered hermaphroditism to represent a distinct physiological (yet still female) sex that resulted in same-sex desires.
But hermaphroditism was not a stable category. A woman could become one as a result of masturbation, which was believed to enlarge the clitoris. Several “case studies” are adduced from the sensational tract Onania (which seems to have been a combination of anti-masturbation polemic and porno magazine letter column). Under this understanding of the relationship of physiology and sexual category, individuals can move between sexes by means of changes in their genitalia, whether spontaneously or as a result of stimulation.
The Onania also reflected the next stage of thought, citing writers who considered that so-called hermaphrodites were simply mis-categorized as to sex due to ambiguous genitalia. Thus, a girl with a large clitoris might be assigned as male (as in a case study related by surgeon John Douglas) and only later in life be re-assigned as female. In the case study this re-assignment was due to pregnancy. John Parsons, repeating the report in 1741, notes that in earlier ages the case would most likely have been reported as a change of sex, rather than an initial miscategorization.
It was mutability, rather than anomaly, that incited disapproval. Another physician, writing in 1771, noted a “hermaphrodite” who had lived as a man for at least 12 years, marrying a woman and living with her until her death; but after the wife’s death, the person began living as a woman and had married a man.
While earlier legal policy had recognized the possibility of change of physiological sex, it had required everyone to choose a single behavioral gender and stick to it. This emerging view of physiology in the 18th century held that actual sex change was not possible, and therefore to avoid sodomy it was necessary to correctly identify which sex a person was and require them to perform the corresponding gender. Another case study is offered: Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl but then at age 22 joined the army as a man and went to America . In that country, Thomasine again lived as a woman, but when examined was found to have male genitalia. (Trumbach suggests the likely explanation that Thomasine had an intersex condition in which male genitalia developed in late adolescence. But in general as Trumbach is interested in subjective social categorization, he doesn’t touch much on intersex conditions as a factor in the data.) The American court took the rather unusual approach of sentencing Thomasine to dress partly male and partly female, which would seem to contradict the requirement to “pick one and stick to it.” [Note: for those who would like to follow up on this case and its unusual legal context, see Wikipedia as a starting place.]
John Parsons briefly acknowledges the possibility of such mis-assignments of male individuals, but in general treats all hermaphrodites as basically female. As women, he argued, there was no point in requiring them to choose a gender--they had one. But this position combined with the expectation of heterosexual desire to argue that the category of “hermaphrodite as tribade” was non-sensical. Even women with enlarged clitorises were women and therefore should naturally desire only men.
What this meant was that rather than using hermaphroditism as a reason and excuse for apparently-female persons desiring women, desire between women was now considered to have no biological basis and therefore must be viewed as simple moral deviance. [Note: This is, of course, not a new and previously unknown understanding, but to some extent a return to an earlier position. As seen in other research, the fascination with the idea of the “macroclitoride hermaphrodite” was a Renaissance invention and superseded a previous model of same-sex desire as potentially available to all persons but morally deviant.]
As the category of hermaphrodite was receding as a framework for women who desired women, there was not yet an equivalent to the masculine “molly”, i.e., women who were socially (rather than biologically) disposed toward desire for other women. Such a category would become necessary, and was filled with the concept of the sapphist/tommy, representing women whose desires had been corrupted toward an inappropriate object.
The next section of the article specifically looks at the association (or lack thereof) between women who cross-dressed or passed as men, and women who desired women. John Cleland, in his translation of the life of Catherine Vizzani, suggested that cross-dressing women were predisposed to same-sex desire, but this suggestion doesn’t seem to hold for most 18th century cross-dressing women in London. (Keep in mind that Catherine Vizzani was one of those “hot blooded” Italians.) Trumbach asserts that for most of the 18th century, there was no specific association between female cross-dressing and lesbianism, in contrast to mollies (men cross-dressing as women specifically in the context of same-sex relationships and activity).
[Note: in order for this particular conclusion of Trumbach’s to be demonstrated, it is necessary for him to re-categorize a significant number of “female husbands” or to deny that their relationships had any relation to sexual desire. While it's true that documented motivations for "passing women" in this era are diverse, Trumbach goes out of his way to downplay the possible role of same-sex desire. I’m going to do a lot of critique interwoven into this next set of data.]
Trumbach notes that although there were women who courted and married other women in 18th century London and “may have tried” to have sexual relations using a dildo (as documented for Mary Hamilton and for Catherine Vizzani), this specific sexual act cannot be proven. [Note: Trumbach seems to ignore the issue that England had no laws against performing a sex act with a dildo, unlike a number of continental cultures where trial records document such sex acts clearly and in detail during this period and earlier. This seems to me to greatly weaken his conclusion that 18th century English cross-dressers were not engaging in penetrative lesbian sex simply because there’s no mention of it in the record.]
“Female husbands” in 18th century London were normally charged with fraud rather than with a sexual crime [there being no sexual crime on the books they could be charged with]. Examples of fraud charges include:
Other cases suggest that whatever the initial understanding may have been, the relationship was still found acceptable to both parties once the gender disguise was known. Sarah Paul was abducted by a man for sexual purposes at age 13 and dressed as a boy (Samuel Bundy) to conceal her identity. She escaped him and went to sea as a man, then returned to work as a painter, at which time she courted and married Mary Parlour. Mary soon discovered her “husband’s” physiological sex and took no action at first. Some ambivalence entered their relationship, for Mary later had “Samuel” arrested for fraud, but then refused to appear in court to support the charges and kept her husband company while in prison. The only outcome was that the magistrate burned Sarah Paul’s male clothing and ordered her never to appear as a man again.
Such relationships were sometimes successful enough to last until death. John Chivy was married to a woman for nearly 20 years and was not discovered to be physiologically female until after death. Mary East was the husband of a couple married for 36 years, running a public house and holding parish offices, and only discovered to be physiologically female after her wife’s death in 1766. Trumbach notes that there is no direct evidence whether their relationship was also sexual, though he notes that East’s susceptibility to a blackmail attempt suggests the possibility of more than simple gender disguise--or at least that the suggestion of such was a threat. In some cases involving simple gender disguise without marriage, the woman testified directly to an economic motivation, citing the better employment opportunities for men.
Simple economic gender disguise was treated inconsistently by the law, with many examples coming from military contexts. Some women, on discovery, received punishments including whipping or hard labor, while others were turned into folk-heroes and granted celebrity status, such as Hannah Snell and others. The popular media showed a certain prurient interest in the details of behavioral disguise, e.g., the use of instruments to allow male-style urination, or the need to perform the expected flirtatious interest in women. But the startling observation is how many of these known passing women in the military were not arrested in connection with their discovery.
Given the expected gender segregation of society, another motivation for women cross-dressing was to facilitate illicit interactions with men, whether sexual or merely social. Sally Salisbury dressed as a man for drunken and violent sprees with a group of young aristocratic men. A woman who served as coachman to Lady Ann Harvey cross-dressed in order to conceal her illicit marriage to another servant in the household, was only discovered due to pregnancy. Catherine Meadwell developed a male persona to better facilitate an adulterous (heterosexual) affair.
Trumbach spends a fair amount of time discussing the life and autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, but although he notes the “complications” of interpreting her motives, he sets out his default position by stating that she “probably” began cross-dressing to facilitate her second, secret marriage (to a man). In contrast, her travels with a female friend as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” are attributed merely to safety. Charke’s cross-dressed courtship of several women, her flirtations with prostitutes, and her stated discomfort with traditionally female occupations are considered to be balanced by the fact that she bore a child within marriage. [I can't help but hearken back to Trumbach's statement that women's erotic identity during this period was defined by whether they had any relations with men, not by the existence of relations with women. It's hard to find any clear distinction between Trumbach's own categorization strategy and his reporting of historic categorization strategies.] Trumbach sensibly points out that Charke’s hostile satirization of an effeminate male homosexual cannot be interpreted as a general hostility to same-sex relations as the two situations were not considered in any way equivalent at the time. But he concludes by noting that there is no proof that she ever engaged in “what would have seemed to her to be sexual intercourse with another woman.” [Note: this leaves aside the question of what she engaged in that would not have been categorized as "sexual intercourse." But there's a consistent through-line in the historic western treatment of female same-sex erotics that "it isn't sex unless it closely mimics heterosexual penetrative intercourse." In some eras, this interpretation left a lot of latitude for "acceptable" female same-sex erotic activity. But when this same definition is echoed by modern historians--in combination with a definition that "woman cannot be classified as lesbians unless they engage in sex," you get a lot of erasure where perhaps the majority of women with same-sex erotic interests are defined out of the category of "possible lesbians."]
Trumbach then sums up his not-entirely-proven conclusion that the majority of cross-dressing women in this era did it for economic reasons or for safety, but that a minority were motivated by a sexual attraction to women. Also his counter-position that the majority of women who had same-sex relations (whom he labels “libertine”) did not cross-dress or take on masculine behaviors. [Note: I’m not saying that I think his conclusions are necessarily false, only that they feel decidedly under-proven.]
Moving on to the specific topic of sexual relations between women, Trumbach reiterates one of the key factors in the English historic record: there was no law against it. Under English law, sodomy was illegal, but it was defined narrowly as either bestiality or anal intercourse. This leaves no scope for evidence of sex between women to be found in the legal record, abandoning the field largely to literature and gossip.
The imagined sexual activities of women in fictional accounts are largely written by men (most often in pornographic contexts), with one exception being by Delariviere Manley. The accounts may involve women of all life situations--young unmarried girls, married women, prostitutes. Somewhat obviously, the latter two groups are depicted as also enjoying sex with men, even in cases where they prefer women.
Manley’s satirical work The New Atalantis stands out in content. It features a “new cabal” of aristocratic women who have affectionate and romantic relationships with each other, though lip service is given to considering actual sexual relationships to be “going too far.” The characters in the narrative also acknowledge the difficulty of entirely avoiding marriage to men, even when they reserve their romantic love for their female friends. A few women are described in the work as being mannish in affect, though not in dress. And one is depicted as cross-dressing in order to visit prostitutes in company with her female lover. Overall, the depiction is of a group of women who have primary romantic attachments for other women, sometimes including sexual relationships, but who accept that marriage to, and sexual relations with men are also an unavoidable part of life. [Note: Trumbach seems to assume that the reader knows that Manley’s work was a thinly veiled roman à clef, with most of the fictional characters being easily connected with her real-life social circle. This makes the fictional nature of the relationships less of an argument for discounting them.]
More common in literature are male depictions of sex between women as an adjunct to sex with men, as in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in which lesbian seduction is used to “train up” a new prostitute. An interest in sex with women is presented as an “arbitrary taste” to be enjoyed when available but not pursued exclusively.
Gossip among the fashionable classes of London was another source of evidence for women’s same-sex relations, although perhaps not any more reliable in the details than literature. The nature of Manley’s novel provoked speculations. It was commented on that one married woman traveled with a female companion because she bore “affection to her own sex.” Sexual puns were made to comment on the public affection shown by one woman to another. And women who pursued amours with other women were reported with an implied expectation of sexual activity. The state of marriage was irrelevant in this context. Being married was neither a guarantee of disinterest in women, nor a bar to acting on that interest. Conversely, the possibility that affairs between women might disrupt heterosexual marriages was a spur to the sharpness of the gossip, but not an assumed consequence.
The flavor of this gossip was parallel to that seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries regarding sodomy between men, prior to the development of the molly role. Male rakes were expected to sexually pursue both women and boys. It was immoral but not scandalous. Similarly, these 18th century women generally had sexual relations with both men and women. There were economic pressures for the former that can’t entirely be discounted, but in general bisexuality was the expectation for “libertine” women. They were the subject of gossip for unchastity, but not for the nature of their partners. The suggestion of deviance was reserved for the rare examples of women who combined same-sex desire with masculine behavior (as for a few characters in Manley’s novel).
The use of dildoes for sex between women is another topic where fact can be difficult to extract from the available literature, which betrays a male-centered fixation on penetrative sex as being qualitatively different from other options. Thus, in Henry Fielding’s fictional account of Mary Hamilton, she is depicted as despairing of enacting her marriages to women without the use of an artificial penis (the discovery of which led to her exposure).Cleland’s translation of Catherine Vizzani’s memoirs also fixates on her use of an artificial penis in her affairs with women (while also addressing the previous era’s expectation that such desires were driven by anatomy in the form of an enlarged clitoris). In fact Cleland’s writings straddle various tropes. His Vizzani text expresses some surprise that Catherine did not have the expected anatomical cause, while highlighting her use of penetrative sex with an instrument, inspired by “some error in nature”, but then his Woman of Pleasure embraces the new framing of lesbian desire being “infectious” as it were, potentially stimulated in any woman via “corruption” by an experienced practitioner and not involving a pseudo-male partner. For Cleland, Vizzani’s cross-dressing was not a cause of her sexual interest, but rather a more serious transgression that took same-sex interest too far. In Cleland and some of his contemporaries, we can see these first hints at a female parallel to the molly: a minority of women who removed themselves from the category of “female” entirely and into a new category that would become labeled as “tommies” or “sapphists”.
[Note: While I've always been aware that Cleland's translation of the Vizzani text revised several sections relating to her sexual relations, I wasn't aware of some deeper and more questionable motives in his revisions that are explored in Donato 2006, which is among the articles I have lined up to cover in the next few months. Cleland very much cannot be viewed as a neutral observer of women's sexuality, in case there was any question.]
Another triangulation on the emergence of this new category comes from the gossipy diaries of Hester Thrale-Piozzi. Thrale had something of a fixation on identifying and recording male homosexuals (she considered herself to have a special ability to detect such inclinations even when concealed) with near-universal condemnation. She also commented on (real or imagined) sexual relations between women, particularly in Bath and London, but was less consistent in her reactions. She repeated an accusation that the French Queen Marie Antoinette had been the head of a Sapphic sect. She initially praised poems honoring the friendship of Miss Weston and Miss Powell, then later speculated salaciously on why Miss Weston had been averse to marriage and had made a fuss about another young woman. In 1795 Thrale went so far as to say that “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” But at the same time she had difficulty imagining what such women could actually be doing together. She was one of a number of people who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, as well as noting that Damer had also adopted various men’s dress accessories.
Thrale’s inconsistency also shows in her attitude toward famous passionate friends Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The majority of Thrale’s commentary on the “Ladies of Llangollen” is positive and she engaged in friendly correspondence with them, despite how well they fit Thrale’s criteria for being “unclean birds” as she puts it elsewhere. [Note: Trumbach states that Thrale “never made any negative judgment of them” but Donoghue cites a lesser known diary entry in which Thrale did refer to the two as “damned sapphists.”] Other contemporaries of Butler and Ponsonby were less hesitant to comment on their relationship and Butler considered a lawsuit against a newspaper article that suggested some irregularity to their relationship by describing her as “tall and masculine--always wears a riding habit” while describing Ponsonby in more conventionally feminine terms. In context we see a suggestion of the stereotype of “mannish” lesbian, and Ponsonby certainly reacted as if they description implied something unacceptable.
Trumbach suggests there was a distinction that Butler and Ponsonby did not “project [their relationship] as sexual” while Anne Damer, enacting a similar gender transgression in her dress and a liking for pretty younger women, “clearly projected her affection for women as sexual.” [Note: the evidence in both cases for this “projection” seems to come from how their contemporaries reacted to them.] “It is likely” Trumbach says, that this difference in projection derives from whether the women themselves identified their feelings as sexual in nature.
Even after the concept of a female “tommy” role developed, it was not as heavily stigmatized as the “molly” role. Women, in general, did not engage in their sexuality publicly and there is no evidence of a female subculture in taverns or public spaces equivalent to the molly houses. [Note: Other authors such as Donoghue have identified references to some evidence of public culture of this type.] Trumbach identifies several other general shifts that occur in the late 18th century with the rise of the “tommy” role: a falling off of interest in female actors taking on male roles on stage [but note various 19th century actresses famous for their “trouser roles” such as Charlotte Cushman], a greater difficulty for women passing as men and less interest in their stories, and the near-disappearance of the motif of an enlarged clitoris being used to explain same-sex desire. By 1800, Trumbach asserts, this new configuration had settled into a system of two types of bodies (male and female) and four genders, two “legitimate” heterosexual ones, and two stigmatized homosexual ones.