Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32c - Book Appreciation with Katharine Duckett - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/03/16 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Katharine Duckett recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Links to Katharine Duckett Online
I sometimes make joking reference to the "industry of Anne Lister studies" but it's hard to exaggerate the value of Lister's candid diaries for disrupting theory-based understandings of 18-19th century female homosexuality. We need to be careful not to assume that Lister's experience is universal, nor to treat it as unique. Many women, no doubt, wrote candid private diaries and correspondence that may have expressed their negotiation of homoerotic desires. Vast amounts of women's private writing have been deliberately destroyed by their families after death "to preserve their privacy and reputation." We know for a fact that Lister's diaries came close to being destroyed at various points in their transmission. And, as noted in this article, we know for a fact that Lister was deliberately dishonest in her public presentation with regard to same-sex desires.
But conversely, we see Lister considering and choosing amoung a variety of possible understandings of her own life and desires. And we shouldn't assume that all women would have had the same understandings and made the same choices in how they modeled their lives. If anything, the individual agency in constructing a self-identity that Clark examines here--and the absense of "official" public models for that identity--argues for the likelihood that women who desired women would have had a variety of understandings and identities.
I sometimes get nervous about the "Lister Studies Industry" and the way that modern pop culture has fixated on specific aspects of her performance and re-framed them in modern terms. (For example, I've encountered Lister fans interpreting her "masculine dress" as meaning she wore trousers, even though it's clear from the diaries themselves that this was not the case.) Surely one of the lessons of the treasure that is Lister's diaries is that we need to enjoy the complex contradictory variety that is historic lesbian experience, rather than trying to envision women in the past as being exactly like us.
Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.
Clark presents the early 19th century example of Anne Lister, not only as a fairly unambiguous example of lesbian identity--despite never using that term for herself--but as an illustration of the function of representation and agency in the history of sexuality. A contradiction of sorts to the social constructionist position that sexual identities are shaped or even determined by the surrounding societal discourse, rather than by the personal experience of desire.
The 19th century paradigm of “passionate friendship” between women encompassed emotional bonds and romantic expression but--as described by modern scholars--was considered to be unable of conceiving of sexual desire, much less acting on that desire. Under this paradigm, it is posited that early 19th century women could not develop a “lesbian identity” because no such concept existed for them to claim.
The social constructionist position is strongly associated with Michel Foucault, who held that until the late 19th century, a man who engaged in sex with men was regarded as sinful or criminal but was not considered to have a “homosexual” personality. Rather, that the ability to identify such a man (or to identify oneself) as “homosexual” was only possible after sexologists and psychiatrists invented the concept. And that the idea of homosexual identity was only then adopted by men and women whose desires aligned with those psychological models. Having an articulatable identity then made it possible for homosexual men and women to develop subcultures centered around their sexual orientation. This model made little or no allowance for individual agency in the development of identity.
The Foucaultian model has been eroded in recent decades, in part because more extensive historic research has contradicted the chronologies it relied on. Subcultures of homosexual men have been extensively documented in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and sources such as Anne Lister’s diaries clearly show that women could be aware of the sexual nature of their desire for women and were acting on those desires. Extensive studies by Vicinus, Castle, Trumbach, Moore, and Donaghue regarding 18th century cultures point out that people in general--not just the women involved--could conceive of lesbian desire and recognize social roles associated with it.
An alternate theory from social construction is “sexual scripts”, in which sexual desires are learned rather than innate. This idea has problems in eras when homosexual desires or activity are strongly stigmatized. What is the attraction of adopting a negative script? It also suggests that homosexual desires could not be experienced in a vacuum--that they could only be acquired by encounters with those already familiar with the “script”. In contradiction to this are examples of isolated individuals who express a self-recognized same-sex desire without such a social context.
In the case of Anne Lister, although there is some evidence for lesbian subcultures among entertainers and sex workers in 18-19th century Paris, there is no similar evidence in England. So Lister could not have been “socialized” into a familiarity with lesbian desire, even by rumor. In England, Sapphic references seem to have been largely confined to sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual circles. Circles that Lister encountered only after she had recognized and identified her own orientation.
Lister requires an understanding of sexual identity that allows for individual agency in constructing the self. Clark traces this act of construction based on three elements: her recognition of her own experiences and desires, her material circumstances, and the cultural representations she had available. For this, we have the abundant evidence of her detailed and candid diaries. One feature of Lister’s diaries was the use of a cipher code based on Greek that enabled her to record explicit details of her relationships. She shared the code with some of her romantic correspondents.
Lister’s social and economic circumstances both enabled and restricted her expression of desire. Having recognized her interest in women in the context of a boarding school romance, she made an early decision not to marry. Family circumstances offered her the wealth necessary to avoid marriage. This was not entirely a matter of passive luck. Lister’s financial savvy was one motive for her being named the heir of her aunt and uncle (who were siblings, not spouses) rather than the property going to her father. But until that inheritance was realized, she didn’t have the financial standing to support a life partner in appropriate style. This threw obstacles in the way of several of her initial romances when her lovers succumbed to the pressure to marry for financial security. Lister did, eventually, find a life partner once she had obtained financial stability and control over her inheritance.
Lister’s records indicate that she was well aware of the variety of sexual morality that prevailed, not only in the upper levels of British society, but among her neighbors and peers. She also shows an awareness of the limits of tolerance and the need for discretion, while revealing an awareness of the transgressive nature of her own desires. She shows an awareness of the need to play multiple roles and to accept the contradictions between public and private identity.
That public identity, however, was constrained in the available roles for women at her time. Having declined that of wife and mother, she explored the possibility of the role of “passionate friendship,” including a visit to the famous “Ladies of Llangollen” who exemplified the role. But her commentary on that visit suggests that she viewed passionate friendship as not allowing for the sexual aspect that she enjoyed with her lovers (even when speculating that the Ladies themselves had a sexual relationship). Lister also explored a public role that adopted masculine motifs, particularly in the style of her clothing and accessories, as well as her vigorous physical behavior.
Another source of identity construction came from sparse references to sex between women that could be found in classical literature, such as Martial and Juvenal, as well as the more plentiful references to male homosexuality. Lister’s education included Latin and French, making this material linguistically accessible to her, though obtaining the publications required significant effort. She documents her interest in tracking down references to Sappho’s sexual interests, either through her work or allusions by other classical writers. The layers of misogyny and bowdlerism present in the material required substantial work to interpret, via a sort of double vision, consuming the negative treatment of lesbian desire and transforming it into a recognition of the existence of her own identity. Lister’s diary also traces how she tried to reconcile this identity with conventional religious (Anglican) attitudes toward sexuality. In this area, she developed a personalized morality that enabled her to use forms of religious experience (such as formalizing her relationships with women by taking the sacrament together) without considering her behavior to be uniquely in conflict with traditional moral principles.
Lister negotiated a similar ambivalence to Romantic literature, indulging in the power of authors such as Byron to offer intense emotional experiences, while recognizing that trying to follow their example in her own relationships “got her into scrapes.” But as with the classical authors, she simultaneously identified with writers like Rousseau while needing to sidestep his misogyny and negative attitude toward homosexuality. Lister used oblique references to these authors as coded overtures to women she was interested in, lending them books of poetry to observe their responses. Her diary follows in detail how she sounded out the nature of the relationship between the learned Miss Pickford and her good friend Miss Threlfall, while pretending to the former that her own relationships did not “go beyond...friendship.” A deceit that she directly acknowledges in a related entry.
In addition to these external sources that informed Lister’s construction of identity, the work of negotiating and articulating it often came in her interactions and discussions with other women. She developed covert and coded overtures that would enable her to determine the other women’s desires and attitudes before making any irrevocable confession. Included in this was her practice of discussing her interest in one woman with her other friends and lovers, while playing coy about her true desires.
[Note: It strikes me as highly relevant for interpreting the writings of Lister’s contemporaries that she records herself as publicly denying the possibility of sex between women, and denying the substance of her own desires as part of her negotiations with women she was considering as lovers. With Lister, we have the contradiction of her private commentary and the details of her sexual relationships. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept as literal truth similar public protestations from women who did not leave private records. Just because a woman of that era says she can't imagine what two women would do in bed together can't be taken as proof that she wasn't doing those "unimaginable" things herself.]
Lister synthesized her understanding of her own sexuality into a belief that it was “natural” and perhaps even biological. Not in the sense of considering herself to have an underlying masculine physiology, but in the sense of concluding that male and female sexual biology was far more similar than was generally believed, and therefore there was no biological argument for a greater “naturalness” of sexual response to one sex over another. In this context, she had a fascination for androgyny.
Lister’s own pursuit of androgyny and performative masculinity encompassed both projecting “masculine” roles on her female lovers (calling her first lover “husband”) and later adopting masculine style jackets (in part, as an economic gesture to opt out of the pursuit of feminine fashionability) and viewing her active pursuit of potential partners as reflecting a masculine social role. She notes that she models herself on being “gentlemanly” rather than “masculine”, but also sometimes expresses the experience of sexual desire as being masculine in nature. She envisions the desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, without expressing any desire to be a man. Masculinity represented her desire for women and for the male privilege that would enable her to live the life she envisioned with one particular woman. This imagined male privilege does not seem to have been expressed in sexual performance. Although Lister preferred to take an active role in sex there are no indications that she used a dildo or in other ways enacted a masculine role in bed.
It’s clear from the various references to dress that Lister did not cross-dress completely. She wore specific male-coded garments, but always in combination with skirts. There are a couple of references in the diaries to fantasizing about passing as a man, but she rejects it as an option, not only because it would have meant leaving behind her comfortable position as a respectable heiress, but because the rules of homosociality would then bar her from the ordinary company of women, which she greatly enjoys. “It would not have done at all. I...should have been shut out from ladies’ society.”
During Lister’s lifetime, the blurring of gender boundaries created an anxiety expressed in caricatures of dandies in corsets and “female sailor boys”. But there was not a strong social stereotype linking overt female cross-dressing with lesbian desire. The multitude of stories of passing women and “female husbands” most often presented them as heterosexual, using flirtation or “fraudulent” marriage only as a part of the disguise and not an expression of sexuality or gender identity. Only on the stage were there allusions to the potential for overtly cross-dressing actresses to attract the desire of female spectators, though this was always accompanied by the opinion that this desire could not be fulfilled due to the absence of a penis between the couple.
In this context, Lister’s adoption of specific masculine signifiers, both in dress and behavior (her style of walking was noted as “masculine”) was viewed as threatening to convention and provoked hostile reactions from men, including the use of the probably derogatory nickname “Gentleman Jack”. But her economic position gave her some share in masculine privilege and her political activity seems to have wavered between feminist ideals and a more reflexive conservatism of the landowning gentry.
When Lister finally achieved her domestic ideal of an equal intellectual and economic partnership with a neighboring heiress, another Anne (Walker), it isn’t clear exactly what they both understood as the nature of their relationship. It had a sexual component, though Walker seems to have been uneasy about that aspect. It had a romantic component, though Lister at one point suggests that she was playing a romantic part to secure Walker’s affection rather than entirely expressing her true feelings. They lived and traveled together for a number of years, cut short by Lister’s death of a fever while traveling in the Caucasus.
In summary, Lister’s testimony in her diaries makes it clear that she didn’t adopt an existing sapphic role, despite there being at least scattered references to such a concept in contemporary society. Rather it was something she constructed from bits and pieces--from literature and her own experience--and negotiated covertly, being constantly aware of the need for discretion. She did not inherit the libertine understanding and philosophy of the 18th century, but looked for her identity in classical and Romantic literature. Her identity was, to some extent, compartmentalized between the private and public spheres, and she regularly recorded the duplicity she used to maintain the distinction. She was familiar with the concept of passionate friendship but didn’t consider the role to fit her own desires. She used masculine performance to express her sexual desires and longing for male social power, but rejected the idea of having an underlying male gender identity. She can’t be considered to have participated in a lesbian subculture, but did establish a personal network of women with same-sex desires that was surprisingly extensive. One of the bars to turning this network into a subculture was Lister’s chronic use of deception and mendacity to maintain the upper hand in her relationships and dodge the public scrutiny that she feared would put them in jeopardy. In part, this was a facet of Lister’s unique personality, but in part it was a reflection of the social realities of her time.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32b - Interview with Katharine Duckett - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/03/09 - listen here)
In this episode we talk about
Links to Katharine Duckett Online
I've met women like Linton, as she is depicted in this article. You probably have too. The woman who despises other women for the same traits and behaviors she herself displays. The woman who goes on the lecture circuit telling women they should stay in the home. The woman who simultaneously wants to be "one of the guys" but mocks women as a class--whether for their femininity or for their unfemininity. The woman who has clawed her way into economic independence then argues against women's rights. And just perhaps, if her writings betray what they seem to betray, the woman who hides the recognition of her own homoerotic desires in an outspoken homophobia. If you will forgive me the completely anachronistic language.
But in being at the same time so outspoken and so candid in writing about non-conforming women, Linton also gives us a valuable chronology of public conceptions of lesbian-like identities in 19th century England. Her novels provide a useful counterpoint to the "official" stereotypes of women's identities and roles in the Victorian age. People are messy and self-contradictory. And that's an important lesson to take away from history.
Meem, Deborah T. 1997. “Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.537-560
Meem looks at the development of a public understanding of lesbian identity in 19th century English society through the life, journalism work, and novels of Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton was a contradictory figure, described by one historian as “a radical conservative, a militantly feminine antifeminist, a skeptical idealist, and a believing atheist.” Her journalism was shot through with misogyny and a belief that women should stick to the domestic sphere, while claiming economic and social independence in her own life. In her fiction, she depicted complex and sympathetic emancipated women who can easily be interpreted as proto-lesbian figures, even if she didn't give them happy endings. Also noteworthy is that when Linton wrote a fictionalized autobiography, she used a male persona to represent herself.
While showing a familiarity with the rising self-conscious lesbian presence in England in the later 19th century and giving strong evidence for homoerotic desires herself, Linton publicly condemned feminists and “mannish women”. And three key novels from her body of work show shifts in her attitude toward her proto-lesbian characters in parallel with the increasing public awareness of lesbian possibilities. In significant ways, Linton embodies a counter to the position long popular in academic circles that there was a rapid and drastic shift only at the end of the 19th century between rigidly prescriptive gender roles that relegated men and women to “separate spheres” in which women might safely enjoy non-sexual “romantic friendships”, and the appearance of the image of the “mannish lesbian” and her association with women’s emancipation. The association of both feminism and women’s same-sex desires with masculinity had two faces: for some, masculinity was a symbol of empowerment, while for others it represented the breakdown of society and a threat to traditionally female spheres of social power.
As a journalist, Linton was solidly reactionary and became the anonymous spokesperson for the anti-feminist movement in the 1860s with the publication of “The Girl of the Period”, an attack on young women whom she saw as rejecting Victorian domestic ideals. The misogyny running through Linton’s work is not simply an interpretation of modern readers. Linton is quoted from correspondence as saying, “I hate women as a race...I think we are demons. Individually we are all right, but as a race we are monkeyish, cruel, irresponsible, superficial.” For the use of the term “monkeyish”, keep in mind that this was the era when Darwin’s theories were gaining visibility. Another dog-whistle term that crops up in her writing is “hybrid”, as in a characterization of feminists as, “the women’s-rights woman, with her hybrid costume and her hard face.” The word “hybrid” not only invoked a horror of the blurring of gender boundaries, presaging the use of “third sex”, but probably had racist overtones as well. Linton used Darwinian imagery often in her writings and in the 1890s hopped on the social Darwinism bandwagon, suggesting that differentiation of the sexes was a mark of evolved civilization, and thus that attempts to erode gender difference would contribute to society’s downfall.
Linton was also a novelist, and Meem traces shifts in her attitudes and possibly her self-image via three key works focusing on homoerotically-tinged relationships between women. Sowing the Wind (1867) is a sensational story in which the naive young wife Isola struggles with her wealthy and possessive husband’s descent into poverty, perversion, and insanity. The revealing character is Isola’s cousin Jane: a journalist [note: can we say “self-insert”? I knew we could], unmarried, plain, who uses masculine signifiers such as wanting to be called “Jack” and socializing primarily with men while wanting to be treated as a “chum”. But despite Linton’s journalistic scorn for similar figures in real life, Jane is in many ways the strongest and most positive character in the novel. She is unfailingly loyal and supportive of the protagonist and encourages Isola to follow high moral principles rather than focusing on personal survival. Jane is not an overtly lesbian character, but exhibits features that later would become part of the “mannish lesbian” archetype.
The second novel in this series is The Rebel of the Family (1880) appears at a time when the myth of the “sexless woman” that had been promoted heavily in the earlier part of the century was fading in the face of recognition not only that women had erotic desires but that they could feel such desires for each other. The literary motif of decadent lesbian sexuality was appearing from authors such as Diderot, Gautier, de Balzac, and LeFanu. Linton had left England for Italy in 1876 to escape what Meem calls an “ill-advised relationship with a woman” who appears as a character in Linton’s fictional autobiography. She traveled to Italy in company with another female friend, and while in Rome they socialized with well-known lesbians Harriet Hosmer, Matilda Hays, and Adelaide Sartoris. [Note: for the social context of the first two, see the LHMP podcast on Charlotte Cushman and her circle.]
In The Rebel of the Family, the protagonist looks to be a continuation of the “mannish” Jane from the earlier novel, now named Perdita Winstanley. Again, she is single, unconventional, not traditionally attractive, and is male-identified in behavior and ambitions. But now Perdita, rather than maintaining these traits across the novel, is depicted as a rebellious “New Woman” tamed by love and returned to domesticity. The position of feminist icon is again taken up by a supporting character, Bell Blount: the president of a women’s rights organization, “handsome but bold and confident-looking,” dressed flamboyantly and vulgarly. Bell woos Perdita to the feminist cause with an overt undertone of sexual seduction. When exposed to Bell’s persuasions, Perdita feels “as if about to be initiated into those hidden mysteries where the springs of human history are to be found” and is simultaneously attracted and repelled when Bell embraces and kisses her “with strange warmth.” Perdita is susceptible, due to feeling unloved and out of place at home, and is attracted by the image of Bell’s world where women work out in the world and come home to female companionship. Bell has a female partner who is introduced as her “good little wife” and who treats Perdita as a romantic rival.
The plot involves the battle between Bell’s attractions of a purposeful life and freedom from the constraints of traditional femininity, and the more conventional path offered by the hyper-masculine Leslie Crawford. In contrast to the supportive but non-erotic friendship that Jane offers Isola in Sowing the Wind, Bell’s overtures are unmistakably sexual and she moves in a world of “mannish” feminists who are unambiguously coded as lesbian. Perdita flees back to conventionality, not only because she learns to embrace “the loving woman’s instinctive glory in acknowledging her own comparative inferiority” but because Bell reveals herself as hypocritical and controlling. Her feminism is intended to support only those like herself and “does not include democratic equality or communistic mishmash in any form.” This hypocrisy is braided together in Linton’s mind with her lesbianism and feminism, rather than being coincidental traits.
The third novel further explores the rising image of the “New Woman” who was viewed as antithetical to the British social structure in her desire for independence and equality. In The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure (1895) we find a mirror-character to Bell Blount from the earlier work in the protagonist Phoebe Barrington. Here it is not so much a physical resemblance as situational aspects of their characters: both are separated from their husbands and active in the women’s rights movement, both are “handsome but vulgar”, and both inhabit a world of women’s clubs that engage in smoking, drinking, speechifying, and flirtation. Unlike Bell, Phoebe doesn’t have a wife waiting at home, but surrounds herself with a variety of lesbian archetypes. Phoebe’s female friends encourage her to become a feminist orator, much to her estranged husband’s shame. This husband becomes Linton’s voice in the work, expressing a horror for “manly woman and effeminate men” (explicitly using the term “third sex”). The book’s crux comes when Phoebe’s husband seduces her back to domesticity.
Taken as a whole, Linton’s fictional output trace the development of the 19th century British awareness of lesbianism from a vague, unnamed (but strongly sympathetic) image of strength and independence, to the “invert” of the sexologists, for whom a woman’s erotic desire for women could only be visualized as an essential masculinity and sexual aggressiveness. But in depicting this shift, Linton struggles against the realities of her own life and expresses what can only be viewed as a self-hatred for her own feminist and homoerotic impulses.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32a - On the Shelf for March 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/03/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2019.
I am getting a bunch of really great interviews lined up for the next several months! I love how this podcast gives me both an excuse and the courage to reach out and talk to authors who are doing work that I love. I’m always looking for people who want to join us on the show. Whether you’re an author who writes queer women in historic settings, or a reader who has enthusiastic opinions about historical fiction, or a publisher who wants to talk about the field, or a historian who wants to talk about researching queer history, I’m open to almost anyone whose work intersects the themes of this podcast.
Last month, you may remember that I was feeling a bit pessimistic about submissions for the 2019 fiction series on the podcast. I did have a bunch of submissions come in on the very last day of the month and I’ve selected a line-up that I think you’re really going to enjoy. But I’m still thinking about whether to continue the series in 2020. It’ll make a difference if people let me know that they’re enjoying the fiction series and consider it valuable, whether you’re a listener, or as an author looking for new venues for your work. Promote the heck out of the podcast and let all your friends know what we’re doing here.
Publications on the Blog
The blog has been looking at some articles about the rise of the study of sexology in the late 19th and early 20th century, and especially the ways in which women’s experiences were marginalized in the construction of modern theories of sexuality. But moving forward, I’ll be turning back to the earlier material that’s my first love, with yet another article from the growing academic industry of Anne Lister studies, another of Sahar Amer’s excellent looks at studying lesbian-like themes in medieval Arabic sources, and the hazards of expecting them to align with the European experience, and then a couple of articles that touch on medieval transgender concepts and how they intersect with historic sexuality.
That last topic is also relevant to this month’s essay, which is part of my current series on interpreting the interrelationship between models of gender and sexuality in historic sources. Last month I played with approaches to breaking down our accepted notions of how gender and sexuality features get bundled into complex categories, and how those categories can vary enormously across cultures in terms of how gender and sexuality are understood.
This month, I’m jumping from the general and theoretical to the very specific. I’ll be looking at a handful of case studies of individuals whose existence challenged their cultures gender and sexuality categories, and how the outcome of those challenges give us information, not only about the structure of the cultural categories that people had available to them, but how people found ways to articulate identities that failed to match those categories, and tried to negotiate a modus vivendi even when their culture had no place for them.
This month’s author guest will be Katharine Duckett, whose debut novella, Miranda in Milan tells a possible story of what happened to Miranda, from Shakespeare’s supernatural drama The Tempest, after her father returns with her to 16th century Milan. Within the mysteries and dangers she encounters, she finds an unexpected connection with a woman with roots in the suppressed Moorish community in Spain.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The new and forthcoming book list this month has some interesting coincidental categories. As usual, I’ve collected up some books I missed from the last couple of months. So starting with January releases we have several books set during the world wars of the 20th century.
How to Talk to Nice English Girls by Gretchen Evans (Carnation Books) looks like a nice traditional romance.
In the aftermath of The Great War, everything is changing. But not for Marian Fielding. Marian’s life is quiet and predictable in the solitude of the English countryside, where she plans to remain and care for her parents. But Marian’s world is turned upside down when she meets brash, confident Katherine Fuller. Katherine arrives at the Fieldings’ estate for the wedding of Marian’s sister and immediately shakes things up. Instead of keeping an eye on the ill-mannered American girl and keeping her out of trouble, Marian finds herself magnetically drawn to Katherine’s vivacious nature, and they are swept into a whirlwind romance that will change both of their lives. But will Katherine’s unconventional behavior ruin their chance at happiness? Can Marian leave her old life behind? Will two women from different worlds find a way to be together against all odds and expectations?
As War Goes By by Aimée (Amazon digital) picks up on the recent surge of interest in the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park.
1940, England. War has a way of engineering the most unlikely encounters. When Penelope Lowes sits next to Clarissa Cartrew in the packed train, she has no idea they are both going to the same place, about which they’ve both been sworn to secrecy. Nor that her journey will take her much further than her original destination, Bletchley Park. As World War Two wreaks havoc in the world, it also makes people grow up faster. Penelope’s initiation to love during her stint as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force has not been the most auspicious, and if anything has made her even shyer and more gauche than before. Meanwhile, Clarissa enjoys the social scene, and does not lack admirers. She is decided to make the most of her opportunities, away from the constraints of her aristocratic background. When Penelope – Penny – is recruited by the Special Operations Executive to become a Special Agent, she doesn’t hesitate long before agreeing. Only the thought that she may not see her friends ever again could make her waver between heart and duty – a young driver has recently shown her the power of a simple kiss, and her friendship with Clarissa is blossoming. Duty wins, and life and war go on…No one knows what the future entails – will they get a second chance?
This next book looks like an oddball alternate history. It’s quite short -- I’d guess maybe a novelette or short novella in length -- and currently only available from Amazon. It sounds like my sort of catnip, so maybe if it’s ever released more widely I’ll check it out.
By Royal Lottery by M. Wyllie (Amazon digital)
It is the late Victorian era and, by a tradition of the country of Brittany and Greater Cornwall, a lottery has been run to find a common man of good education and standing to wed the widowed Princess Louise. Only, a young woman named Alice is chosen. While Alice does her best to act her part in all this, she is soon troubled by Louise raising the mystery of what exactly happened to her late husband, as well as troubled by her own feelings as she spends more time with the somewhat mischievous princess. All along Alice thought this would be a ‘pretend’ marriage, only to begin to wonder how far Louise wishes to take this game of pretend. It will be a long month for her until the ceremony.
The February releases start out with what look like some complicated relationships.
Sophistries of Summer Days by Jenny Lofters (Amazon digital)
Two women forge an extraordinary friendship during a time of instability, deception, treachery, and loss. Even the British West Indies are no refuge from the rising political tensions of the 1930s, but fourteen-year-old islander Cherrimina is much more interested in Dove, a pretty red-haired American who has mysteriously appeared in her remote hometown. Dove takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, and as a devastating hurricane blows in, she commits a crime—one seen only by Cherrimina. An unlikely friendship forms between the two young women, but when the storm finally abates, Dove disappears from Cherrimina’s life. Then World War II breaks out, and during those terrible years, Cherrimina witnesses uprisings, homelessness, and betrayal. Choosing to escape the nightmare that her home has become, Cherrimina flees to New York, where she is reunited with Dove. But her friend is not the woman Cherrimina remembers. As Dove and Cherrimina struggle to reconnect, they must determine whether friendship and love can weather the storms of life.
Memoirs of a Triangle by Christine Twigg (NineStar Press) is somewhat vague about how the titular triangle will end, so read at your own risk.
When Edith instigates a new game with her two best friends, May and Peter, on a warm spring day in 1869, she ignites sexual awakenings that will influence and shape the rest of their lives. Although Edith lusts for Peter, she is aware that May’s desires are directed toward her, and when their triangular involvement begins to splinter, she leaves her two best friends to begin a career in Boston. However, even after choosing what they thought was the more stable path, they learn that the past is not so easily left behind. On their separate, yet connected paths, they find themselves drawn together, experiencing eroticism, love, confusion, trust, and grief throughout the course of their lives.
The Highwayman by Eleanor Musgrove (Amazon digital) follows familiar pathways in taking its inspiration from Alfred Noyes poem of the same title. This is another very short work, somewhere in the novelette range, and leans heavily on its source material, but with a queer twist.
Bess lives a simple existence as the daughter of an innkeeper – or so it seems. But she and her forbidden lover, the notorious highwayman plaguing the area, have more secrets to keep than just their clandestine moonlit meetings. Even one overheard conversation could change both of their lives forever. Inspired by Alfred Noyes' tragic poem of the same name, this adaptation reimagines the story of the ill-fated lovers with an LGBT+ twist – and a touch of hope...
The March releases are dominated by novels from mainstream presses and especially by historic fantasy. Though this is in part a side-effect of the difficulty of hearing about small-press and self published books in advance of release. Remember that if you have, or know about, an upcoming book that falls in the scope of this podcast, drop us a note with the information. Especially if you’d like to have it included before it gets released.
The first up is by this month’s author guest:
Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett (Tor.com)
With Miranda in Milan, debut author Katharine Duckett reimagines the consequences of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, casting Miranda into a Milanese pit of vipers and building a queer love story that lifts off the page in whirlwinds of feeling. After the tempest, after the reunion, after her father drowned his books, Miranda was meant to enter a brave new world. Naples awaited her, and Ferdinand, and a throne. Instead she finds herself in Milan, in her father’s castle, surrounded by hostile servants who treat her like a ghost. Whispers cling to her like spiderwebs, whispers that carry her dead mother’s name. And though he promised to give away his power, Milan is once again contorting around Prospero’s dark arts. With only Dorothea, her sole companion and confidant to aid her, Miranda must cut through the mystery and find the truth about her father, her mother, and herself.
The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino (Touchstone) looks like a complex mix of history, adventure, and forbidden romance.
By day, Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to Charlotte Walden, wealthy and accomplished belle of New York City high society. Mary loves Charlotte with an obsessive passion that goes beyond a servant’s devotion, but Charlotte would never trust Mary again if she knew the truth about her devoted servant’s past. Because Mary’s fate is linked to that of her mistress, one of the most sought-after debutantes in New York, Mary’s future seems secure—if she can keep her own secrets… But on her nights off, Mary sheds her persona as prim and proper lady’s maid to reveal her true self—Irish exile Maire O’Farren—and finds release from her frustration in New York’s gritty underworld—in the arms of a prostitute and as drinking companion to a decidedly motley crew consisting of a barkeeper and members of a dangerous secret society. Meanwhile, Charlotte has a secret of her own—she’s having an affair with a stable groom, unaware that her lover is actually Mary’s own brother. When the truth of both women’s double lives begins to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences. Forced to choose between loyalty to her brother and loyalty to Charlotte, between society’s respect and true freedom, Mary finally learns that her fate lies in her hands alone. A captivating historical fiction of 19th century upstairs/downstairs New York City, The Parting Glass examines sexuality, race, and social class in ways that feel startlingly familiar and timely. A perfectly paced, romantically charged story of overlapping love triangles that builds to a white-knuckle climax, this is an irresistible debut that’s impossible to put down.
I still haven’t gotten to reading the first novella in the following series, but it gets the nod from reviewer Liz Bourke and that’s usually good enough for me. The queer content isn’t obvious from this blurb (which is a repeating theme in some of the following descriptions) but take it as given.
Alice Payne Rides (Alice Payne #2) by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com)
After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them. Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage. Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…
The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace) is another historic fantasy where the queer content has to be taken on trust from the rumor mill. Although in this case, the rumor mill includes direct from the author. (Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a recording date to interview her.) This is a sequel to Zen Cho’s acclaimed Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, and like that book it examines themes of colonialism and the place of people of color in Regency England.
When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.
Levitate: A Spy Novel by Geonn Cannon (Supposed Crimes) takes us back to the mid 20th century with its spies and international intrigues. Many of Geonn Cannon’s books include supernatural elements. I can’t tell from the blurb whether this one does as well.
To Cassiane Jurick, there is nothing in the world as important as The Mission. As a covert agent for Greek intelligence, she disappears into whatever role she's given. Her latest mission ends in failure and nearly costs Cassiane her life, but she is rescued and nursed back to health by her handler, Timothea Riddock. Adrift between assignments and still recuperating from her injuries, Cassiane begins a physical relationship with Timothea. Their relationship is put on hold by the arrival of another agent, Constance Grimaldi, who brings them a new mission: a Soviet chemist has arrived in Berlin with a new strain of anthrax which they believe he plans to sell to one of their enemies. As Cassiane disappears into her latest identity, Timothea finds herself drawn to Constance. From a ghost station in the shadow of the Berlin Wall to hidden strongholds hidden deep inside dark German forests, the three agents must learn to trust one another because this mission's failure would mean certain death.
And that’s it for the new crop of books. Check them out and let us know what you thought.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eh Stevens, on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group, who asks, “With the new release of Hick I was wondering if you’ve ever talked about the relationship she had with Eleanor Roosevelt. Truth to the rumors or just wishful thinking on our part that Eleanor found some happiness in her life.”
There have been a number of works in recent years covering the relationship between journalist Lorena Hickok and First Lady and prominent diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. Given the very close and warm relationship between the two women, there has been a lot of speculation whether the friendship was also romantic and possibly even erotic in nature.
The long supportive marriage between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt is not, in itself, an argument against this possibility. As the daughter of a socially and politically prominent family in the early 20th century, opting out of marriage would have been tricky. The Roosevelts--Eleanor was a Roosevelt by birth, not just by marriage--were American aristocracy. Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and he gave her away at her marriage. And as with Europe’s hereditary aristocracy, marriage was not considered a bar to romantic and sexual relationships outside the marriage. At least, for the men in the family. Eleanor and Franklin married against his mother’s wishes after a secret correspondence, but Eleanor had few options other than marriage in terms of a career. She is on record as having disliked the sexual side of marriage, and when she discovered that Franklin was sexually involved with her secretary Lucy Mercer, the only thing that kept their marriage together was Franklin’s political prospects, which divorce would have destroyed.
But the failure, for all intents and purposes, of her heterosexual marriage isn’t the same as concluding that Eleanor was inclined for the ladies. So what is the positive evidence on that side?
One of the things to keep in mind is that Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884. She lived at the tail end of the era that considered Romantic Friendships and schoolgirls crushing on each other to be utterly normal and even expected. So even if the evidence never went any farther than writing long daily personal letters to a woman with sentiments like, "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth,” I think it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that this constitutes a “romantic relationship” with a woman. Me? I’m not particularly hung up on defining the nature of people’s relationships based on the precise catalog of which of each other’s body parts they’ve touched.
But the evidence does go further than that.
Lorena Hickok was widely known to be a lesbian. She had an eight-year relationship with a fellow female journalist in the 1920s. Her orientation is not the slightest in dispute. She was not the only known lesbian in Eleanor’s life. (One can’t exactly say “out lesbian” given the times, but “known” is sufficient for the purpose.) Eleanor was greatly influenced in her teen years (and later) by the headmistress of the finishing school she attended, Marie Souvestre. A known lesbian. Eleanor was close friends with two female couples active in women’s suffrage and political activism: Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Fisher Read. So she had solid models for women sharing marriage-like partnerships based on mutual romantic love. This makes it highly unlikely that when Eleanor wrote to Hickok expressing a desire to kiss her and hold her close, she was naive about how such sentiments might be understood and responded to.
The intense scrutiny that Eleanor came under as First Lady contributed to their eventual separation, but even the nature of their conflicts and correspondence around that era have far more of the shape of a romantic breakup than friends drifting apart. Eleanor had close emotional relationships with other people in addition to Hick, both men and women. It’s common for people of a certain mindset to fasten on any attachment by a woman to a man as a basis for negating even overwhelming evidence for attachments to women. Hopefully we’re past the era of bisexual erasure and can accept that one person’s life can encompass love for both men and women. Most historians who are not blinded by willful denial have concluded that Eleanor and Hick’s relationship was clearly romantic and erotic. At this point, for me, it isn’t really even a question.
Sometimes you send a query out into the universe and the universe says, "We'd love to have you on our podcast!" Check out this episode of the Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast, where I talk about the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, the current field of lesbian historical fiction, and many other things. If you aren't familiar with Smart Bitches Trashy Books and you're a fan of romance novels, you should definitely check out their website and podcast.
This article started out feeling a bit like Clark came up with an interesting metaphor and then went searching for contexts to apply it. That feeling faded as I read further. I think she has hit on a useful concept for a diverse type of experience that falls between the cracks of many of the existing theoretical approaches. It seems to boil down to “Within any given societal context, there will be activities that are not condoned but where people are willing to look the other way as long as no one’s forcing them to deal with it.” It is, to some extent, how my Alpennia series depicts people’s attitudes towards women’s same-sex relations. So clearly it’s a concept I’m happy to accept as a way of describing specific historic attitudes. I’m not sure whether my initial reaction to Clark’s article is because she treats it like some new insight, or because it feels like she’s lumping too many disparate topics under one umbrella.
There are a number of other useful conceptual tools that Clark discusses in the article that I may need to use as search keywords and explore further. Of particular interest is the concept of "sexual scripts," i.e., scenarios that a specific culture recognizes as a context for the experience of desire or for engaging in sexual activities. While the existing scripts in any particular culture will not cover all possible variations of sexual experience, we can identify the "approved scripts" by the ways they're adapted for use in those other contexts. For example, viewed in this context, the medicalized model of same-sex desire created and promoted by the late 19th century sexologists can be understood simply as one possible "script"--one that came to dominate professional circles for a time--into which many different individual experiences were crammed. Similarly, that script overlapped and coexisted with the "romantic friendship" script, as well as overlapping with the "lesbian decadence" script. None of those scripts provided a model for relationships between women that were based on a combination of romantic and sexual partnership, and individual women whose experience was the latter might look to different scripts to adapt for understanding their own lives.
Clark, Anna. 2005. “Twilight Moments” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, nos. 1-2: 139-60.
Clark came up with the poetic label “twilight moments” to identify practices relating to sexuality that are not openly acknowledged--and certainly not accepted--but that are treated as temporary and “recoverable” lapses, even if they are lapses that happen repeatedly and throughout a society. She opens with the example of the Codrington divorce trial in 1863 (the subject of Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter) in which the accusation that Helen Codrington had engaged in some sort of sexual relationship with her close friend, feminist Emily Faithfull, was simultaneously raised and hidden under layers of misdirection. While the nature of the accusation was never made explicit either in the trial record or in the gossip surrounding it, both women were forced to withdraw from society for a time, though Emily Faithfull’s reputation was eventually rehabilitated.
Clark points out that this incident and its consequences don’t fit with Foucault’s timeline of the understanding of sexuality. Per Foucault, in the 1860s, it should not have been possible for people to conceive of a “type” of woman who would be expected to have lesbian tendencies. And yet Emily Faithfull--perceived as “mannish”, suspect for her feminist activism, and with a close emotional relationship to Helen Codrington--was treated as if such a “type” clearly existed in people’s minds. Rather, Foucault’s theory would have it that, in the 1860s, people would only have the concept of specific stigmatized acts--and yet no such acts were in evidence, nor were they named in their absence.
Based on this and other similar contexts, Clark asserts that we need “additional conceptual tools to discus cases...which involved sexual desires, relationships, and practices that did not produce identities, that were half-understood, expressed only by oblique gestures, veiled in silence.” She notes that just because a desire was erased from public discourse didn’t mean that it wasn’t subject to social discipline. But the consequences of these “twilight desires” might be as nebulous and elusive as the understanding of the desires themselves. She uses the metaphor of twilight--of something that is neither completely hidden in darkness, nor seen in the light of day--to describe these desires and activities that people experienced and pursued, perhaps as an open secret, and that were not considered to result in a fixed identity, but that were still disapproved and might result in (temporary) negative consequences depending on context. Those consequences would involve shame or social opprobrium, but did not change people’s relationships or social standing on a permanent basis.
Such “twilight desires” might be considered normal or natural--such as the expectation that unmarried people might still desire sexual fulfillment--without being “approved” or “moral.” And society might go to some length to accommodate them, despite that disapproval, as with attitudes towards prostitution, based on a belief that some sort of outlet for men’s sex drives was required to maintain social stability. That doesn’t mean that these “twilight desires” all involved victimless activities. In many cases, it covered not-entirely-consensual acts involving power differentials, such as interracial sex with enslaved women, or pedophilia involving class differences. The key was that the consequences of the act were not considered to disrupt the social structure and so could be ignored.
Clark notes that there have recently (as of 2005) been some cracks in the Foucaultian edifice from authors such as Halperin who argue that some forms of “sexual identities” can be identified in the pre-modern period, such as medieval concepts of “the sodomite” as an identity. Or Ruth Karras’s argument that the category of “prostitute” was treated as a distinct sexual identity in some medieval contexts.
But Clark’s concept of “twilight moments” specifically excludes desires, practices, and relationships that were considered to constitute an identity, whether public or private, licit or stigmatized. And she notes that such desires/practices/relationships could shift between “twilight moments” and fixed identities as society required. Sometimes prostitution and sodomy might be treated as ignorable lapses, and then society would require a scapegoat for some disaster and might shift prostitutes and sodomites into the required slot.
Clark spends several paragraphs examining the concept of sexual desire and its relationship to “sexual scripts” -- scenarios that a particular culture authorizes for the experience of desire. These scripts are prescriptive and are learned from one’s culture. Even “forbidden desires” may be learned via established scripts. But the established scripts don’t always account for the possible range of personal experience (or even for common experiences, as when no allowance is made for sexual desire outside of marriage). Existing scripts may be adapted for alternate contexts, as when Romantic Friendship borrowed the terminology of marriage, with female partners calling each other “husband” and “wife”. [Note: I think this is a key insight when considering the intersection of women's same-sex desires and the practice of gender-passing. If a particular cultural context doesn't have a "script" for desire between women, and women who experience such desire borrow a hetrosexual "script", there will be no fixed guidelines as to how much of that borrowed script should/must be performed.]
Anxieties about sex that crossed barriers of class, gender, or race were most likely to come to the fore during times when other social boundaries were perceived as being eroded. It was during these times that the allowances made for “twilight desires” were more likely to be interpreted as creating fixed identities, and those identities persecuted. But an allowance for “twilight desires” could also help to prop up dominant power structures by diverting illicit acts into a context where they had no power to destabilize.
The “twilight” concept is compared to other ways of framing non-normative behaviors and social categories, such as stigmatized economic activities (prostitution, collecting human waste) that created fixed identities but were recognized as socially necessary. Another related concept is that of identified geographic spaces in which illicit activities were tacitly permitted (such as “red light zones” for prostitution, or neighborhoods where interracial socializing was permitted within segregated societies). As long as the behavior was restricted to the designated location, privileged people could visit those locations without alteration of their public status and identity.
Concepts that are less similar to “twilight desires” include that of subcultures (which do imply fixed identities) and allowances for otherwise illicit activities during liminal states of age or status (which implies a linear transition, not an ability to move in and out of the twilight space). But again, specific behaviors might be recategorized among these concepts over time or with changes in the larger social context. So, for example, an age-based allowance for same-sex activity among young men in early Renaissance Florence might move in and out of “twilight” status depending on the larger political context and the need for moral scapegoats.
Although many allowances for “twilight desires” were solidly gendered and accessible only to men, Clark notes early modern contexts where even strict notions of sexual honor imposed on upper class women might be treated as twilight events that need not result in a fixed status as “dishonored” or "ruined" if the proper forms were followed for maintaining the appearance of honor (including prompt marriages or the quiet disappearance of obviously illegitimate pregnancies).
The concept of “twilight desires” can also apply to language around those desires, where disapproved activities could be ignored as long as they were not publicly named in so many words. This could include censoring of explicit sexual material in popular medical literature, or backlash for victims of sexual crimes if they made accusations in undeniable language. Disapproved sexual practices could be tacitly ignored if discussed only in terms of “exotic tastes.”
Such tactical silences could even allow for people to deny the reality of acts they had participated in, if that reality were never expressed concretely. Participants might claim that they didn’t understand what their sexual partner was doing, or that they didn’t know that it was forbidden. Similarly, communities might be well aware of the illicit activities taking place among them, but only “discovered” them when some event made it impossible to ignore, or when there was an ulterior motive for taking notice of it.
Taken together, all these phenomena can help understand how identity categories can coexist with deniable “twilight moments” across a long span of time, making it possible to both deny and prove the existence of sexual identities during transition periods. This is particularly the case with women’s same-sex relationships, where the wide variety of framings for romantic/erotic desire made it possible to practice and represent those desires according to the needs of the moment, for good or ill. Thus, in the mid 19th century, it was possible both to deny the existence of lesbianism and to use the suspicion and stereotype of it as a social weapon.
(Clark includes many examples of “twilight desires” that are only relevant to heterosexual contexts which I’m glossing over here.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31d - Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/02/23 - listen here)
Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender
I had this epiphany a month or two ago when I was trying to work out ways to talk about how the social understanding of sexuality and gender has varied and shifted across time and space. I was trying to think of a way of talking about how you can have specific focused concepts that individually have an objective reality in the world--concepts like feeling romantic or erotic desire in the presence of a person with certain characteristics, or preferring to engage in certain behavioral patterns, or enjoying how a certain esthetic presentation engages with those around you. Yet at the same time, where we always interact with those concepts in bundles--bundles that we perceive as having a unified objective reality. But the composition of those bundles varies in different cultures or at different times within a culture.
I wanted to find a way to talk about how the nature of those bundles--the choice of the specific features that are included or not included, the features that are considered important or irrelevant, the features that are considered to be automatically understood or that need to be explained--how the nature of what gets bundled together affects how we understand the overall set of ideas, and yet we are open to the understanding that someone else in a different culture might bundle the features together differently. And it’s not a matter of right or wrong, of true or false, but simply a different way of interacting with the world.
It turns out to be a hard thing to tackle. It was hard for me to tackle it internally, and it’s been a long journey. One big issue is that our experience of gender and sexuality is so subjective and so embedded in our own cultural expectations that it’s hard to shake off the idea that it represents some sort of objective truth.
As I pondered this question, it occurred to me that I had the perfect illustration to introduce the subject: the meaning and use of prepositions--the very topic I did my PhD research on. So bear with me for a while, because we will eventually get back to the topic of sexuality and gender.
If you’ve ever studied a language other than your native tongue, chances are you came to the conclusion that prepositions--or whatever equivalent set of words or grammar the language used--were frustratingly arbitrary and made no sense. They were just something where you had to memorize all the meanings and when to use which one. And the most important thing was never, ever to try to learn a one-to-one correspondence of meaning with the prepositions in your first language.
Now, at their heart, prepositions--and I’m going to use that term even though some languages have words that do the same thing that get a different label--prepositions are a fairly restricted set of functional words that indicate the relative spatial relationships of two or more entities. They can also indicate relationships in time, and the spatial senses can get applied to more abstract relationships, but let’s start with relationships in space.
Think about the English words “on,” “over,” and “above.” To keep things simpler, we’ll skip compounds like “on top of” and “upon.” These all have in common that we use them to talk about the relative vertical position of one object relative to another object. But the choice of which one we use tells us things about whether the objects are in contact with each other, whether they are vertically aligned or simply at different absolute elevations, and in some contexts they provide information about the shape or nature of one object or the other. The traditional method linguists use to figure out the map of a word’s meanings is to see what sort of picture or story people understand when you use them. Or which combinations simply don’t make sense--or only make sense with a really bizarre back-story.
Think about the following examples:
What are the images you got from each example? For “the cat is on the table” you probably imagined my cat sitting there, in contact with the upper surface of the tabletop. But it seems weird to specify it in that much detail. How about “the cat is over the table”? If you use the word “over” the same way I do, chances are you have to make up a little story about why you’d say that. Like: you have an annoying friend who is hold the cat in mid air above the surface of the table allowing it to eat something from a plate and you say, “The cat isn’t allowed on the table” and they say “it isn’t on the table, it’s over the table.” And you would acknowledge that they were technically correct and then you’d say, “Get the fucking cat away from the fucking dinner table.”
How about “the cat is above the table”? For me, this invokes an image of the cat sitting up on the top of the bookcase or some similar perch, where it can look down at the top of the table, but it isn’t necessarily vertically aligned with the space occupied by the table.
Now how about the following examples:
In this case, the word “over” can clearly mean “in contact with the surface of the tabletop” but we also expect it to mean “and the cloth is spread out to cover the entire surface.” This time the annoyingly literal friend might put the tablecloth on the table still in its folded up state and claim to have followed directions. But they couldn’t take that position if you used “over.” Once more, we’d have to make up some sort of highly specific story for the sentence “Put the tablecloth above the table” in order for it to make sense.
You couldn’t really say, “put the cat over the table” and have it mean, “arrange the cat in a spread-out position in contact with the tabletop” because regardless of the cat’s cooperation, it doesn’t have the physical shape to be used with “over” in the “spread out to cover” sense.
Now how about these examples:
“On” clearly means that the chandelier is in contact with the tabletop, perhaps waiting for an electrician to install it. But both “over” and “above” would make perfect sense for talking about an installed chandelier positioned vertically in alignment with the table but not in contact with it. In this case, it probably wouldn’t make sense to say either “over” or “above” if the chandelier were simply at a higher elevation than the tabletop but located in the living room.
How can three little words convey such different types of meaning? One part of the answer is that they’re interacting with our understanding of the nature and uses of the objects and with our image of the default organization of the world. But a big part of that range of meanings comes from differences in the bundle of meaning features that they carry.
So, for example, in addition to all sharing the feature “located at a higher elevation”, the preposition “on” normally carries the feature “in contact with” while the other two either are silent about this feature, or in the case of “above” carries the implication of non-contact.
“Over” carries a feature that implies (but does not require) some sort of extent in space. So it’s used for something that either has significant surface area with respect to the thing under it, or if movement is involved, something that moves along an extended path that crosses above the other object. Thus, for example, we get very different pictures from “Don’t jump on the table!” and “Don’t jump over the table!”
And when we look at other uses for “on” we find that the feature “in contact with” is more important that the above-ness. Because a picture can be on a wall or a spider can be on the ceiling while neither of them is above the thing they’re “on”.
And that’s just in English. Now talk about tables, cats, tablecloths and spiders in some other language, and you’ll find that the features get bundled in different ways that mean you can’t just do a search-and-replace to translate from one language to another. For example, in German, you can use “auf” to mean “on” in the sense of “the cat is on the table” but if you want to talk about the picture on the wall or the spider on the ceiling you use “an” (spelled a+n). The languages are focusing on different features. German “auf” similarly focuses on contact with a surface, but walls and ceilings are a different type of surface than tables, they represent an edge or border and that’s considered a feature important enough to be encoded in a preposition in German. We could describe the same idea in English but we’d have to use more description rather than it being an automatic part of the spatial relationship.
Those are just a couple of illustrations of a much larger principle. One of the things that make prepositions difficult to learn is that we’re accustomed to thinking of the bundle of meanings in each preposition as being a natural set. As being features that automatically go together. Because that’s the way we learned them: as a bundled set. But there isn’t necessarily anything natural or true or better about certain bundles of spatial relationships being encoded in a single word.
Now, I could go on about prepositions for days and days. (In fact, I went on and on about them for about ten years before I finished my dissertation.) But that isn’t the point of this podcast. The point is that in trying to understand the many different ideas people have had about gender and sexuality throughout time and space, it can help to break down our understanding of gender and sexuality categories into their component features and to think about why certain features get bundled together and given a label, while other possible bundles don’t get labels (or are considered impossible or unnatural). Why are certain features considered important enough to define gender and sexuality categories while others are considered optional or irrelevant? And is there an objective truth or rightness to certain ways of bundling those features, or is it more a matter of equally valid cultural practices that serve certain functions within the larger society?
Basic Gender/Sexuality Building Blocks
When you start unpacking concepts and categories of gender and sexuality throughout the ages, you can start identifying a set of these building blocks, these individual features that have been bundled together.
Historically, many cultures use a set of building blocks that assume only two genders: male and female. More rarely, a culture may identify more than two genders. Even more commonly than that, a culture may have a model of gender as existing on a sliding scale from male to female, or as allowing for a variety of intermediate states between the two. Regardless of this variety, it’s probably safe to say that all historic and modern cultures include “male” and “female” as prominent organizing categories, and that the central prototypes for those categories draw strongly on specific building blocks of anatomy, procreative role, socio-economic role, psychological experience, and performative behavior. When individual persons vary from these prototypes, their society will perceive and categorize them according to how those building blocks are bundled within that particular culture. Which features are considered more significant and which are considered to be incidental.
That doesn’t mean that the culture in question doesn’t contain or have a way of discussing persons who don’t fit neatly into its existing categories. But it means that the existing categories will affect what features are considered more meaningful and relevant.
The English language, after all, is perfectly capable of distinguishing:
Of course we’re able to distinguish all those relationships. I just did. But if I weren’t trying to make a specific point about those features, I’d simply say:
The word “on” encompasses all those possibilities and, to some extent, suggests that the other features of the scenarios are less relevant than that “on-ness”. In this same way, a culture can be perfectly capable of describing a highly-specific set of gender and sexuality features, but it will consider certain subsets of features to be more relevant than others and will tend to have categories and vocabulary that center around those subsets.
Consider, for example, that our modern western categories of gender-based sexual attraction and desire assume that the gender of both the desiring person and the desired person are relevant to defining the category. For example the identity category “lesbian” (in its most restricted sense) is defined as “a person of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the female gender.” But when we look closer we observe that we have a more general category of “persons who desire persons of the same gender as themselves” and not a more general category of “persons of any gender who desire persons of the female gender.” So a more concise and accurate definition of the modern category “lesbian” might be “a person of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the same gender.”
On the basis of pure logic, might it not make just as much sense to have a category “persons of any gender who desire female persons”? Perhaps, and yet we don’t have a simple, single term to describe that. Or at least not one that’s in common everyday use. And that says something about the larger conceptual structure of our society.
Even when a category is assumed to be the case unless we’re told otherwise -- what we call an “unmarked default” -- it tells us something about the conceptual structure we live in. The unmarked default for contemporary western culture is “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of a different gender than their own”. We can describe this category explicitly, but it will also generally be assumed if we don’t mention a category. This makes it the unmarked default.
Within our culture, it’s relevant that the unmarked default isn’t “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of the same gender” or “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of the female gender” or “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of any gender” even though, based purely on formal logic, those are equally valid defaults.
Each culture will have its own particular unmarked default, and it will have a set of variations from that unmarked default that are considered relevant enough to have category structures and labels. It will have a much larger set of variations from all those categories that can be described precisely, if desired, but that don’t match an existing category structure and label closely. Persons falling outside those existing categories will tend to be “read” as belonging to an existing category depending on which of the bundled category features are considered to be most important or which features are considered to be irrelevant. They may fit awkwardly into the category. They may contradict some of the features. But once they’ve been classified, they will tend to be assigned all of the bundled features associated with that category.
Clothing as a Category Feature
Let’s consider another example of a highly specific feature: clothing that is arbitrarily assigned to a particular gender. Of course, all gendered clothing concepts are arbitrary--we’re all born naked--though most cultures will struggle to try to come up with some sort of objective basis for the assignment. Or, more often, will act as if there is an objective basis without even working to justify it.
If we accept, for the moment, that in any given culture, there are garments that are considered to have a specific and unalterable gender assignment, then we can look at how those cultures categorize people who appear to be dressing contrary to their assigned gender. On a purely logical basis, one might consider four possibilities:
1. Clothing choice has no bearing on gender category. The act is recognized as contrary to the understanding of who ought to wear the garment, but is not interpreted as saying anything meaningful about the person wearing it.
2. At the opposite end of the scale, would be: wearing a garment assigned to a specific gender places one in that gender category. Gender is defined entirely by what clothing one wears.
3. A third option might be thought of as “clothing as a symptom”. Wearing a garment associated with a gender different from the assigned gender is considered evidence that the gender assignment was in error. That the desire to wear the clothing of a specific gender is an innate characteristic tied to one’s true gender identity. This coexists with an assumption that people who are happy wearing garments associated with their assigned gender do so out of innate preference.
4. A fourth option could be called “clothing as appropriation” in which gendered clothing stands in for aspects of status or identity associated with the garment gender, but where society does not consider that wearing the garment confers any valid association with the gender. Persons who dress contrary to their assigned gender are, therefore, in some sense anti-social. They are trying to steal a status or identity, or doing it for deceptive purposes, or because they have anti-social personalities, whether you call it sin or rebellion or criminality or mental illness.
All of these options have existed historically. Outside of these possibilities would be a hypothetical culture that didn’t assign gender associations to clothing or accessories at all, but I don’t know that we’ve ever found such a culture. Intertwined among these options are cultures that allow for more gender categories than the binary. The options I’ve mentioned here are oversimplifications in terms of how specific cultures respond to transgression against garment gendering.
Similarity and Difference as Features
But Heather, you ask, what does all of this have to do with interpreting sexual orientations in history? I’m working my way there slowly. I have a couple more individual features to consider.
Let’s think about the feature of similarity versus difference. There is a pervasive theme across cultures regarding the dynamics of interpersonal relationships driven by similarities between the two parties or contrasting differences between them. How is one expected to relate to a person with whom you have a great deal in common (possibly including gender)? How is one expected to relate to a person from who you are significantly different? How do similarity and difference interact with sexual or romantic desire? What types of similarity and difference are considered relevant to that attraction?
This feature can be very complex in how it’s implemented in a culture’s categories and vocabulary. If emotional connections and physical desire are considered to be separate phenomena, then the culture may emphasize similarity for one of them and difference for the other. If the culture assumes that the categories male and female necessarily imply difference, then it follows that heterosexual erotic desire must be predicated on difference. And if heterosexual desire is the only licit type of sexual desire, that has implications for how relationships based on similarity are viewed.
If a culture assumes that certain types of relationships can only derive from similarity of the participants, that will affect how they interpret relationships between persons viewed as having difference. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, are men and women considered to be fundamentally different from each other or minor variants of a similar sort of being? Is sexual desire assumed to derive from contrast or from similarity? Do opposites attract or do birds of a feather flock together? Is romantic love interpreted differently depending on whether the participants are considered to be similar or different? What types of similarity or difference other than gender will affect these models? Differences of class? Of ethnicity? Of education? Of physiology?
Defining Sex Acts
And for the final feature we’re going to consider today--though we’ve by no means exhausted all the relevant ones--let’s talk about what gets classified as a sex act and how sex acts are gendered. Is an activity classified as sex or not based on the anatomical parts involved? Based on the specific combination of anatomical parts? Is a sex act classified based on the assigned gender of the parts or on their simple spatial configuration? Or do body parts get gendered based on the activities they participate in? How does one’s role in a sex act relate to one’s physiology? To one’s perceived social gender? To one’s internal gender identity? Are activities classified as sexual based on sensory response? That is, is it a sex act if you get turned on, regardless of what body parts are or are not involved? Does the presence or absence of sex acts affect the categorization of other aspects of a relationship?
Analyzing Feature Bundles of Gender/Sexuality Categories
This would be a natural stopping point in setting up the categories for further discussion, but I have the sneaking suspicion that my listeners are still a bit skeptical about how all this relates to gender and sexuality identities. So I’ll leave you with a hypothetical example of how cultural categories affect the understanding of gender and sexuality.
A person is assigned as female at birth, based on physiology. She grows up apparently comfortable with female identity, presentation, and performance. As an adult, she experiences and expresses romantic desire for a woman. Her culture responds in which of the following ways?
1. This is considered utterly normal and does not result in her culture assigning her to any special category other than “woman”.
2. Romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait because desire is understood to be driven by “difference” with respect to gender. She is examined for signs that she has male physiology with a view to re-categorizing her as a “man”.
3. She is assigned to a subcategory of woman defined by romantic desire for the same sex.
4. Romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait, therefore she is expected to change to presenting and performing as male.
5. Romantic desire is defined as occurring only between man and woman, therefore her emotional experience and the expression of it is categorized as something other than romantic but is accepted.
6. The concept of a woman feeling romantic love for a woman is incompatible with the available categories, but gender categories are considered immutable, therefore she is recategorized as belonging to neither the category “woman” nor the category “man”.
The answer? All of the above at various times and places. And sometimes multiple possibilities co-existed, while others were not on the cultural radar at all. And this only addresses one very particular scenario. The path that woman’s life takes will depend not only on the bundle of experiential features that she brings to it, but on the ways in which her culture emphasizes and prioritizes those features in how she is categorized and what authorized options are offered to her. More to the point, the available cultural categories will affect how she understands and categorizes her own experience.
This is why the study of gender and sexuality in history must struggle against the idea that specific bundles of experiential features are fixed constants of human existence. And it must struggle against the idea that specific cultural category structures have objective truth value, whether those categories are the ones we’re studying in the historic past or they’re the ones we’re familiar with today. Recognizing this doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to identify with historic people based on sharing certain features of our experience of gender and sexuality, but it means that we need to beware of assuming that complex structures of experience or categorization have been constant through time and space. That because we share certain features with a historic person, that either their entire experience, or the way they understood and categorized that experience, will align with our own.
If something as simple as describing the relationship of a tablecloth to a table needs to be understood through varied cultural lenses, how much more so the relationships of human beings in love with each other? Having set up a way of looking at these cultural categories, in next month’s essay I’ll look at some historic examples of people who failed to fit neatly into their culture’s available options, and how the process of sorting out the conflicts can tell us about how those options were structured, and about how well or badly they fit the person in question. In the end, I hope to have demonstrated why the simple question of “was this historic person a lesbian or not” is misleading and far less interesting than the glorious complexity of human experience.
Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) is commonly referenced as the "first" novel of lesbian identity, and in my generation that resulted in no small amount of trauma if we failed to recognize our lives and dreams within its pages. But Aimée Duc's Sind es Frauen? (Are these Women?) (1901) would have been a far more hopeful, sympathetic, and introspective introduction to the place of women who love women in the literary canon. One has to wonder whether the book's positive and feminist approach--and its happy ending--are exactly why the work was never made generally available. (I can't find any evidence of an English language translation.) If you want a different take on what sorts of lives and literary outcomes were considered possible for women who loved women around 1900, track down a synopsis of Duc's work and expand your historic imagination.
Breger, Clausia. 2005. “Feminine Masculinities: Scientific and Literary Representations of ‘Female Inversion’ at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14:1/2 pp.76-106
Breger looks at the close relationship between articulations of gender and sexuality in modern European history. [Note: gender and sexuality categories have always been closely intertwined, of course, not just in modern times.] That connection has an important role in structuring culturally-defined identities at the turn of the 20th century. The social and political currents around feminist (and anti-feminist) movements used the concepts of “perverse” versus “normal” sexuality in their arguments. And within the period around 1900, the concept of “inversion” became the dominant tool for engaging with same-sex attraction and gender transgression.
These conversations initially focused primarily on male-bodied persons, leaving the concept of “female masculinities” unexplored and invisible. “Female inverts” were more prominent in literature, and the medical literature eventually caught up.
This article examines that context through the lens of the 1901 German novel Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht (Are These Women? A Novel about the Third Sex) by Aimée Duc. While Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is often touted as the first modern novel to treat female homosexuality sympathetically, Duc’s work is a much more positive depiction and tackles the political and social implications of the topic more directly.
Breger argues for a new understanding of the concept of “female inversion” as reflected in this work that addresses the relationships of gender and sexuality in history, and examines the ways in which historians coming to the material from feminist, lesbian-feminist, queer, and transgender contexts have read texts such as Sind es Frauen? differently. She situates this approach within the context of works such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and against interpretations of the “third sex” model as being inherently homophobic, arguing for a broader and more flexible reading of historical case studies that recognize a continuum between lesbian and transgender readings of “female masculinities.”
Read from a modern point of view, the psychological and behavioral characteristics of “inversion” as defined by early sexologists align more closely with our current concept of transgender identity than with homosexuality, but rather than privileging one reading or the other, Breger chooses to investigate the metaphorical and rhetorical processes by which historical accounts construct concepts of gender and sexuality. (Rather than imposing definitions from an external viewpoint.)
When examining the use the “third gender” concept within such works, we find that it’s used to articulate not only concepts of sexual preference and cross-gender identification, but also politicized gendering of professional and intellectual activities as women were accused of being “masculinized” by participation in the public sphere. These uses cannot be neatly separated, as women’s emancipation was framed as “unsexing” women or conversely as rendering them sexually dangerous to other women. The closer one looks--particularly outside the canon of medicalized sexology--the more incoherent the concept of gender inverstion and “third sex” identity becomes. Reference is made to theorizing and critique in works such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies.
Breger’s reading of texts such as Sind es Frauen? and the actual life histories of individuals described in sexological literature is that many “female inverts” cannot be conceptualized adequately in terms of transgender or homosexual identity, but rather as complex intersections of elements associated with both masculinity and femininity.
Aimée Duc’s novel is noteworthy for its positive and nontragic depiction of love between women. The story centers on a group of female friends, most of whom met as university students in Geneva. They refer to themselves as belonging to a “third sex” in contexts that make it clear this refers to their love for other women (or perhaps other female members of the “third sex”). In contrast to most literary depictions of lesbian romance at the time, the primary couple end up happily together at the end. (This time it’s the male rival for one of their affections who conveniently dies and enables the outcome.)
Like less positive stories, the plot sets up its conflict via a triangular relationship involving a man, but not only is this resolved positively for the women, but the secondary plots in which the women discuss gender and sexual politics occupy more page time than the romance. The characters comment directly (and critically) on sexological theories current at the time.
Breger notes that Krafft-Ebing’s case studies offered in support of his theory of sexual inversion were not only filtered by his selection process (looking for life examples that were relevant to the theories he presented) but were often edited to focus specifically on those concepts and behaviors that he considered crucial, while discarding details that detracted from the thesis. Many of Duc’s characters don’t fit easily into any of Krafft-Ebing’s categories of inversion, blending traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics in a diversity of ways.
These characters (and their real-life counterparts) fit even less neatly into other theorists’ work that considered the “third sex” to be an inherently masculine phenomenon, as with Carl Ulrichs’ category of Urning which he defined as “bodily male, while mentally...a ‘feminine being’.”
The concept of the “third sex” as a gender category was used both to support and undermine women’s emancipation, depending on whether the writer felt that blurring of gender categories was a positive or negative outcome. In some ways, those who theorized the “third sex” as something distinct and apart from the categories of male and female (as with Magnus Hirschfeld) inadvertently acted to maintain gender norms by removing problematic individuals from those categories.
[Breger’s article continues to examine sexological theory in even more detail, but the above summarizes the essence of what it covers.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31c - Reprise: Ordinary Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/02/16 - listen here)
I’m sure that some of my listeners are fanatic enough to go back and listen to all the previous episodes. But for those who are only lately come to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, every once in a while I’ll reprise one of the earlier episodes that I think new listeners might enjoy. OK, so really this is a way of filling in an episode when my interview schedule has a gap in it.
The following show, “Ordinary Women,” was the very first episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, originally airing in August 2016. I think it still stands as a good introduction to some of the very ordinary women who loved women in times past. I hope you enjoy it.
* * *
Let’s start this series with some ordinary women. Nobody special: they weren’t scandalous aristocrats or dashing adventurers or women who set out to transgress the rules of society. All they did was love each other. Perhaps not wisely, perhaps not always well.
In southern Germany, almost on the border with Switzerland, there is a town called Mösskirch. It has relatively few claims to fame: a composer, a philosopher, a painter whose name hasn’t survived, some talented brewers. In the 16th century, it was the residence of the Counts of Zimmern. But we aren’t concerned with any of them. We’re interested in a different 16th century resident, a servant-girl named Greta, who came to the attention of history in 1514 because she kept falling in love with girls.
Much of the solid historic evidence we have from medieval Europe about women who loved women is rather depressing, because the authorities only tended to pay attention to them when they’d stepped so far outside acceptable behavior that drastic penalties were invoked. But Greta’s story--as much as we know of it--is happier.
It is recorded that she loved young women and pursued them romantically as if she were behaving like a man. There’s no mention that Greta was masculine in any way other than falling in love with women--no indication that she dressed as a man, or tried to take on a masculine occupation, or that she made love to them using an artificial device. Those were the sorts of things that could draw harsh consequences. In fact, the only concern her neighbors seem to have had was to make sure that she really was a woman.
The concern wasn’t that she might have been a man disguising himself as a woman--that would have been a roundabout way to court girls! No, the problem was that her neighbors thought she might have been a hermaphrodite--something halfway between man and woman--and that this might be the reason why she felt erotic desires for women.
The idea of hermaphrodites as understood in that era is one of those odd social inventions. It probably derived in part from trying to understand intersex persons, who might have anatomy that seemed to be part male and part female. But it also derived from an inability to imagine anything other than heterosexual desire. So if a person who appeared female fell in love with or desired a woman, then that person must actually be a man.
The idea of hermaphrodites also overlaps with transgender history. Some historic individuals used the social belief in hermaphrodites as a legal tool to gain recognition as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Some even succeeded.
But all that is a side-note to Greta’s story. The midwives of Mösskirch examined Greta and proclaimed that she was “a true proper woman”. And as far as we know, that was an end of it. There is no mention of any legal charge against her. No mention of any consequences. And so we are free to imagine Greta von Mösskirch flirting with other girls at the market fair, perhaps saving her money to buy a hair ribbon as a gift in hopes of being thanked with a kiss.
The second example has a less happy end, though it’s likely that the women only came to the attention of the authorities because of a domestic dispute.
Our story happens at the very beginning of the 15th century in France. To set the stage, this is about a decade before the birth of Joan of Arc. In fact we’re concerned with another French peasant woman named Jehanne. Jehanne was married, as one was, but it seems that at some point she had discovered the entirely different joys of making love to women. She was friends with another married woman named Laurence. One day they were walking out to the fields together when Jehanne ventured a proposition, “If you will be my sweetheart, I will do you much good.”
Laurence may have been a bit naive, or perhaps she’d never had the occasion to consider the question of whether enjoying a roll in the hay with a woman would be a sin--a literal roll in the hay, as the testimony indicates. She told people later that she didn’t think there was anything evil in it, and presumably Jehanne’s offer sounded like a bit of fun. They made their way to a convenient haystack and Jehanne lay on top of her and made love to her. The end results were satisfying enough that the two continued to meet for erotic encounters: at Laurence’s house, in the vineyards outside the village, or near the village fountain.
But eventually things soured. We don’t know whether Laurence started to get nervous about what they were doing, or if one of their husbands started asking questions, or perhaps it was just one of those things.
One night, when Jehanne came to Laurence’s house, Laurence told her she didn’t desire her any more. Jehanne, let us say, took the breakup badly. She attacked Laurence with a knife and then ran away.
Although the records don’t say so in as many words, it’s likely that this attack and the consequences of it are the only reason their relationship came to the attention of the authorities. In fact, the record skips entirely over any original accusation or trial and brings us in when Laurence is appealing for a pardon on the basis that the relationship was all Jehanne’s fault.
People are people, no matter what the century. And if society and the law imagines forbidden sexual relationships to involve an aggressor and a naive victim, then there will always be a temptation to throw one’s partner under the bus when push comes to shove. Laurence’s appeal was successful and she was pardoned. This is no small matter, given that the original sentence might well have been execution. There is no word in the record about Jehanne’s fate. It would be nice to fantasize that she ran away entirely, changed her name, got ahold of her anger management issues, and found happiness in some other woman’s arms eventually. It probably isn’t the way to bet, but we’re free to dream.
The historic records concerning Greta von Mösskirch and Jehanne and Laurence are discussed in detail in the following publications.