There's a lot of meat to chew on in this article, and I think that Trumbach's exploration of shifts in how same-sex desire was understood and classified during the "long 18th century" is both fascinating and valuable. But at the same time, I see a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of flaws and weaknesses in how he frames and presents the data and his conclusions. Which I have commented on at great length interspersed with my summary of the article. To some extent, he seems aware of these flaws, for he uses a lot of "hedging language" like "seemed," "likely," "probably." But if I didn't have a fairly extensive existing familiarity with the data (and--I'll admit--a very different personal engagement with the data and its interpretation) I might have taken his conclusions more at face value. To be somewhat fair, the article was published in 1991 which was at the leading edge of the deep work in gender/sexuality history that we can now take for granted. But articles like this (and a critical reading of them) are a useful lesson in the importance of questioning not only the data but its interpretation.
Trumbach, Randolph. 1991. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Trumbach, Randolph. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture”
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article. I’d also like to acknowledge that articles such as this that treat historic individuals in a cross-gender or gender-ambiguous context will necessarily trade sensitivity for clarity when discussing both beliefs and realities about the relationship of bodies, identities, perceived identities, and orientations. I will usually try to rephrase an article’s language to something more neutral, but as we are not dealing with persons who can clarify their own preferences, the results will not always be satisfactory.]
Trumbach looks at shifts in the cultural understanding of gender and sexuality that appear in northwestern Europe around the beginning of the 18th century and that he sums up in the title of this article “from three sexes to four genders.” The modern western model of two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female) does not hold through all cultures and has not been universal throughout western history. He associates the shift under consideration with the beginnings of an ideal of equality between the two “legitimate” genders and the rise of a recognition of a third “illegitimate” gender: the “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation toward men, known in England as a “molly”.
[Note that this is not quite the same as a concept of a general homosexual orientation as it still focused exclusively on the “passive” partner who was assumed to have sexual encounters with “normal” men. Also note that "gender" is being used in this article to discuss a concept that combines features that we would today distinguish as gender presentation and sexual orientation. I believe the point that Trumbach is making with the use of the word "gender here is that 18th century English culture conflated gender presentation and sexual orientation in exactly this way.]
By the end of the 18th century, a parallel female role of the mannish woman-desiring “tommy” was becoming recognized. Trumbach asserts that at this time “sapphist” and “tommy” were used as the high and low culture terms for women with homoerotic interests just as “sodomite” and “molly” were high and low culture terms for men. Trumbach’s claim is that this “other female gender” was not completely recognized until the late 19th or early 20th century as women’s gender classification was driven more by their participation in sex with men than by their attitude toward sex with women.
[Note: There are certainly pre-19th century references to women who desire women constituting a “third gender” so I’m not sure exactly what Trumbach’s basis is for pushing the concept toward the end of the 19th century. I get the impression that--like many male historians--he’s treating the male experience as the default and evaluating women’s history in relation to how closely it matches that male experience. In this case, the phenomenon he's focusing on is the conflation of cross-gender presentation and same-sex desire as a combined social category, that is, the development of a female category directly equivalent to the "molly". In doing so, he filters out historical concepts and behaviors that don't participate in that combined category. So keep that in mind as I summarize this article.]
By this point (i.e., ca. 1900) western society had developed a system divided into four roles: man, woman, homosexual man, lesbian woman--roles that presumed only two biological sexes, that rejected a biological basis for homosexual behavior, and that no longer framed homosexuals within a transsexual structure (i.e., that one’s “true” gender was determined in contrast to the object of desire).
The 17th century paradigm--which was applied to both men and women--recognized two genders (male and female) but three biological sexes (man, woman, and hermaphrodite). Under this system, all persons were considered capable of desiring both genders, but “legitimate” sexual activity and desire occurred between male and female genders, and hermaphrodites were required to choose (and stick to) either male or female gender. Violation of this male-female requirement was stigmatized as sodomy, but sodomites were not considered a distinct gender based on their sexual relations. Further, acts of sodomy only violated the accepted gender system if they went against a gendered framework for penetration. As long as older, dominant adult men had penetrative sex with adolescent boys, and women had non-penetrative sex with each other, the gender system was maintained even during same-sex erotics. Persons who acted against this system (e.g., adult biological men who were penetrated or biological women who penetrated women) were not considered to be a distinct social class (gender) but rather were considered to be motivated by belonging to a distinct biological class (hermaphrodites). In the case of women, there was a persistent expectation that this biological class was identifiable by an enlarged clitoris. [Note: The failure of medical examination to uphold this concept in the case of women doesn’t ever seem to have disrupted the standing assumption.]
In the early 18th century, this system as applied to men underwent two shifts: from a 2 gender/3 sex system to a 3 gender/2 sex system, and from an expectation that sexual relations between men would involve an active adult man and a passive adolescent boy, to a system where some adult men who desired men took on “feminine” aspects of dress and behavior as part of engaging in those relationships.
This article focuses on what was going on with women in regard to these categorization shifts during this same period (the 18th century) particularly in London. Trumbach focuses on three topics: the concept of women as hermaphrodites, the understanding of cross-dressing by women, and the scope of “what male contemporaries would have considered to be actual sexual relations between women.” [Note: I use the precise quotation here to highlight that this analysis is assuming a male gaze for this shift in categories. I presume that to some extent this approach is due to the larger amount of male-authored material used as evidence. But I’d be happier if Trumbach seemed more self-aware of the problematic aspects. In the next section I’m going to quote Trumbach’s hedges for his assertions, because I think it’s important to recognize the degree of not-entirely-acknowledged personal speculation involved.]
Trumbach dates the emergence of the “sapphist” gender role to the latter half of the 18th century, emerging clearly only in the last quarter. In the earlier part of the century, women’s behavior was “likely” to be bisexual and their sexual activities with women focus on manual stimulation and avoided penetration. “Men speculated” that women engaging in penetrative sex with women were assumed either to have an enlarged clitoris or to use an artificial penis. “It is likely” that some female husbands who dressed as men and married women did use artificial penises, but “it is likely” that most passing women did not have sexual relations with women, and this is “probably true” even if they married.
[Note: that’s a lot of “likely”s and “probably”s. This entire section of the article strikes me as someone working hard to fit the evidence into his existing conclusions.]
Open cross-dressing, as on the stage, was aimed at appealing to men, not women, relying on the overt knowledge that the performers were women, while covert cross-dressing was intended to conceal the bodily sex. Only toward the end of the 18th century is there evidence of women using cross-gender appearance to appeal sexually to women. It is these women that Trumbach identifies as “London’s first sapphists of the modern kind”, in the sense that they were considered to be expressing a fixed, minority sexual orientation, rather than indulging in a more general possibility of same-sex desire that any woman could experience.
The “hermaphrodite” category was sometimes applied to men who took both an active and passive role in same-sex activity, but it was treated as more of a symbolic label than it was for women, for whom it indicated an expectation of anatomical anomaly. And as the 18th century progressed, the male category increasingly used “molly” instead.
For women, “hermaphrodite” could also be used in a metaphorical rather than anatomical sense, especially when attached to clothing that was felt to be too “masculine” in design, such as tailored riding habits. Here it is the clothing--not its wearers--that is considered to partake of male and female traits, and at least in the early century there seems to be no implication that women wearing “mannish” styles associated that fashion with desire for women. [Note: The early 18th century Memoirs of the Count de Grammont implies a relationship between Mrs. Hobart's "mannish" attributes and clothing and her predatory sexual interest in young women, but it's true that the association isn't as strong as it later became. And I think Trumbach has an unstated distinction between descriptions of "mannish" clothing being part of a stereotype of women's sexual deviancy, and the deliberate use of "mannish" clothing to express personal identity/orientation. Did the existence of the stereotype inspire homoerotically-inclined women to adopt masculine-coded clothing? Or was the stereotype an outgrowth of the earlier gender/orientation model that viewed female same-sex desire as a symptom of an essential "masculine" identity that also inspired cross-gender dressing? I think there's a lot more to investigate here, though it's questionable whether the data exists to be successful.]
The association of the concept of the physiological “hermaphrodite” rather specifically with women (as opposed to both women and men) is emphasized in the coverage of medical treatises on the phenomenon, such as Edmund Curll’s 1718 work, which focus entirely on physiologically female bodies that featured enlarged clitorises. He considered that hermaphrodites were inherently predisposed to transgressive sex and that sex with women was simply an extension of this. He also takes an exoticizing view of same-sex desire, considering hermaphrodites to be more common in hot climates, such as Italy and France. Unlike writers later in the century, he considered hermaphroditism to represent a distinct physiological (yet still female) sex that resulted in same-sex desires.
But hermaphroditism was not a stable category. A woman could become one as a result of masturbation, which was believed to enlarge the clitoris. Several “case studies” are adduced from the sensational tract Onania (which seems to have been a combination of anti-masturbation polemic and porno magazine letter column). Under this understanding of the relationship of physiology and sexual category, individuals can move between sexes by means of changes in their genitalia, whether spontaneously or as a result of stimulation.
The Onania also reflected the next stage of thought, citing writers who considered that so-called hermaphrodites were simply mis-categorized as to sex due to ambiguous genitalia. Thus, a girl with a large clitoris might be assigned as male (as in a case study related by surgeon John Douglas) and only later in life be re-assigned as female. In the case study this re-assignment was due to pregnancy. John Parsons, repeating the report in 1741, notes that in earlier ages the case would most likely have been reported as a change of sex, rather than an initial miscategorization.
It was mutability, rather than anomaly, that incited disapproval. Another physician, writing in 1771, noted a “hermaphrodite” who had lived as a man for at least 12 years, marrying a woman and living with her until her death; but after the wife’s death, the person began living as a woman and had married a man.
While earlier legal policy had recognized the possibility of change of physiological sex, it had required everyone to choose a single behavioral gender and stick to it. This emerging view of physiology in the 18th century held that actual sex change was not possible, and therefore to avoid sodomy it was necessary to correctly identify which sex a person was and require them to perform the corresponding gender. Another case study is offered: Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl but then at age 22 joined the army as a man and went to America . In that country, Thomasine again lived as a woman, but when examined was found to have male genitalia. (Trumbach suggests the likely explanation that Thomasine had an intersex condition in which male genitalia developed in late adolescence. But in general as Trumbach is interested in subjective social categorization, he doesn’t touch much on intersex conditions as a factor in the data.) The American court took the rather unusual approach of sentencing Thomasine to dress partly male and partly female, which would seem to contradict the requirement to “pick one and stick to it.” [Note: for those who would like to follow up on this case and its unusual legal context, see Wikipedia as a starting place.]
John Parsons briefly acknowledges the possibility of such mis-assignments of male individuals, but in general treats all hermaphrodites as basically female. As women, he argued, there was no point in requiring them to choose a gender--they had one. But this position combined with the expectation of heterosexual desire to argue that the category of “hermaphrodite as tribade” was non-sensical. Even women with enlarged clitorises were women and therefore should naturally desire only men.
What this meant was that rather than using hermaphroditism as a reason and excuse for apparently-female persons desiring women, desire between women was now considered to have no biological basis and therefore must be viewed as simple moral deviance. [Note: This is, of course, not a new and previously unknown understanding, but to some extent a return to an earlier position. As seen in other research, the fascination with the idea of the “macroclitoride hermaphrodite” was a Renaissance invention and superseded a previous model of same-sex desire as potentially available to all persons but morally deviant.]
As the category of hermaphrodite was receding as a framework for women who desired women, there was not yet an equivalent to the masculine “molly”, i.e., women who were socially (rather than biologically) disposed toward desire for other women. Such a category would become necessary, and was filled with the concept of the sapphist/tommy, representing women whose desires had been corrupted toward an inappropriate object.
The next section of the article specifically looks at the association (or lack thereof) between women who cross-dressed or passed as men, and women who desired women. John Cleland, in his translation of the life of Catherine Vizzani, suggested that cross-dressing women were predisposed to same-sex desire, but this suggestion doesn’t seem to hold for most 18th century cross-dressing women in London. (Keep in mind that Catherine Vizzani was one of those “hot blooded” Italians.) Trumbach asserts that for most of the 18th century, there was no specific association between female cross-dressing and lesbianism, in contrast to mollies (men cross-dressing as women specifically in the context of same-sex relationships and activity).
[Note: in order for this particular conclusion of Trumbach’s to be demonstrated, it is necessary for him to re-categorize a significant number of “female husbands” or to deny that their relationships had any relation to sexual desire. While it's true that documented motivations for "passing women" in this era are diverse, Trumbach goes out of his way to downplay the possible role of same-sex desire. I’m going to do a lot of critique interwoven into this next set of data.]
Trumbach notes that although there were women who courted and married other women in 18th century London and “may have tried” to have sexual relations using a dildo (as documented for Mary Hamilton and for Catherine Vizzani), this specific sexual act cannot be proven. [Note: Trumbach seems to ignore the issue that England had no laws against performing a sex act with a dildo, unlike a number of continental cultures where trial records document such sex acts clearly and in detail during this period and earlier. This seems to me to greatly weaken his conclusion that 18th century English cross-dressers were not engaging in penetrative lesbian sex simply because there’s no mention of it in the record.]
“Female husbands” in 18th century London were normally charged with fraud rather than with a sexual crime [there being no sexual crime on the books they could be charged with]. Examples of fraud charges include:
Other cases suggest that whatever the initial understanding may have been, the relationship was still found acceptable to both parties once the gender disguise was known. Sarah Paul was abducted by a man for sexual purposes at age 13 and dressed as a boy (Samuel Bundy) to conceal her identity. She escaped him and went to sea as a man, then returned to work as a painter, at which time she courted and married Mary Parlour. Mary soon discovered her “husband’s” physiological sex and took no action at first. Some ambivalence entered their relationship, for Mary later had “Samuel” arrested for fraud, but then refused to appear in court to support the charges and kept her husband company while in prison. The only outcome was that the magistrate burned Sarah Paul’s male clothing and ordered her never to appear as a man again.
Such relationships were sometimes successful enough to last until death. John Chivy was married to a woman for nearly 20 years and was not discovered to be physiologically female until after death. Mary East was the husband of a couple married for 36 years, running a public house and holding parish offices, and only discovered to be physiologically female after her wife’s death in 1766. Trumbach notes that there is no direct evidence whether their relationship was also sexual, though he notes that East’s susceptibility to a blackmail attempt suggests the possibility of more than simple gender disguise--or at least that the suggestion of such was a threat. In some cases involving simple gender disguise without marriage, the woman testified directly to an economic motivation, citing the better employment opportunities for men.
Simple economic gender disguise was treated inconsistently by the law, with many examples coming from military contexts. Some women, on discovery, received punishments including whipping or hard labor, while others were turned into folk-heroes and granted celebrity status, such as Hannah Snell and others. The popular media showed a certain prurient interest in the details of behavioral disguise, e.g., the use of instruments to allow male-style urination, or the need to perform the expected flirtatious interest in women. But the startling observation is how many of these known passing women in the military were not arrested in connection with their discovery.
Given the expected gender segregation of society, another motivation for women cross-dressing was to facilitate illicit interactions with men, whether sexual or merely social. Sally Salisbury dressed as a man for drunken and violent sprees with a group of young aristocratic men. A woman who served as coachman to Lady Ann Harvey cross-dressed in order to conceal her illicit marriage to another servant in the household, was only discovered due to pregnancy. Catherine Meadwell developed a male persona to better facilitate an adulterous (heterosexual) affair.
Trumbach spends a fair amount of time discussing the life and autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, but although he notes the “complications” of interpreting her motives, he sets out his default position by stating that she “probably” began cross-dressing to facilitate her second, secret marriage (to a man). In contrast, her travels with a female friend as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” are attributed merely to safety. Charke’s cross-dressed courtship of several women, her flirtations with prostitutes, and her stated discomfort with traditionally female occupations are considered to be balanced by the fact that she bore a child within marriage. [I can't help but hearken back to Trumbach's statement that women's erotic identity during this period was defined by whether they had any relations with men, not by the existence of relations with women. It's hard to find any clear distinction between Trumbach's own categorization strategy and his reporting of historic categorization strategies.] Trumbach sensibly points out that Charke’s hostile satirization of an effeminate male homosexual cannot be interpreted as a general hostility to same-sex relations as the two situations were not considered in any way equivalent at the time. But he concludes by noting that there is no proof that she ever engaged in “what would have seemed to her to be sexual intercourse with another woman.” [Note: this leaves aside the question of what she engaged in that would not have been categorized as "sexual intercourse." But there's a consistent through-line in the historic western treatment of female same-sex erotics that "it isn't sex unless it closely mimics heterosexual penetrative intercourse." In some eras, this interpretation left a lot of latitude for "acceptable" female same-sex erotic activity. But when this same definition is echoed by modern historians--in combination with a definition that "woman cannot be classified as lesbians unless they engage in sex," you get a lot of erasure where perhaps the majority of women with same-sex erotic interests are defined out of the category of "possible lesbians."]
Trumbach then sums up his not-entirely-proven conclusion that the majority of cross-dressing women in this era did it for economic reasons or for safety, but that a minority were motivated by a sexual attraction to women. Also his counter-position that the majority of women who had same-sex relations (whom he labels “libertine”) did not cross-dress or take on masculine behaviors. [Note: I’m not saying that I think his conclusions are necessarily false, only that they feel decidedly under-proven.]
Moving on to the specific topic of sexual relations between women, Trumbach reiterates one of the key factors in the English historic record: there was no law against it. Under English law, sodomy was illegal, but it was defined narrowly as either bestiality or anal intercourse. This leaves no scope for evidence of sex between women to be found in the legal record, abandoning the field largely to literature and gossip.
The imagined sexual activities of women in fictional accounts are largely written by men (most often in pornographic contexts), with one exception being by Delariviere Manley. The accounts may involve women of all life situations--young unmarried girls, married women, prostitutes. Somewhat obviously, the latter two groups are depicted as also enjoying sex with men, even in cases where they prefer women.
Manley’s satirical work The New Atalantis stands out in content. It features a “new cabal” of aristocratic women who have affectionate and romantic relationships with each other, though lip service is given to considering actual sexual relationships to be “going too far.” The characters in the narrative also acknowledge the difficulty of entirely avoiding marriage to men, even when they reserve their romantic love for their female friends. A few women are described in the work as being mannish in affect, though not in dress. And one is depicted as cross-dressing in order to visit prostitutes in company with her female lover. Overall, the depiction is of a group of women who have primary romantic attachments for other women, sometimes including sexual relationships, but who accept that marriage to, and sexual relations with men are also an unavoidable part of life. [Note: Trumbach seems to assume that the reader knows that Manley’s work was a thinly veiled roman à clef, with most of the fictional characters being easily connected with her real-life social circle. This makes the fictional nature of the relationships less of an argument for discounting them.]
More common in literature are male depictions of sex between women as an adjunct to sex with men, as in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in which lesbian seduction is used to “train up” a new prostitute. An interest in sex with women is presented as an “arbitrary taste” to be enjoyed when available but not pursued exclusively.
Gossip among the fashionable classes of London was another source of evidence for women’s same-sex relations, although perhaps not any more reliable in the details than literature. The nature of Manley’s novel provoked speculations. It was commented on that one married woman traveled with a female companion because she bore “affection to her own sex.” Sexual puns were made to comment on the public affection shown by one woman to another. And women who pursued amours with other women were reported with an implied expectation of sexual activity. The state of marriage was irrelevant in this context. Being married was neither a guarantee of disinterest in women, nor a bar to acting on that interest. Conversely, the possibility that affairs between women might disrupt heterosexual marriages was a spur to the sharpness of the gossip, but not an assumed consequence.
The flavor of this gossip was parallel to that seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries regarding sodomy between men, prior to the development of the molly role. Male rakes were expected to sexually pursue both women and boys. It was immoral but not scandalous. Similarly, these 18th century women generally had sexual relations with both men and women. There were economic pressures for the former that can’t entirely be discounted, but in general bisexuality was the expectation for “libertine” women. They were the subject of gossip for unchastity, but not for the nature of their partners. The suggestion of deviance was reserved for the rare examples of women who combined same-sex desire with masculine behavior (as for a few characters in Manley’s novel).
The use of dildoes for sex between women is another topic where fact can be difficult to extract from the available literature, which betrays a male-centered fixation on penetrative sex as being qualitatively different from other options. Thus, in Henry Fielding’s fictional account of Mary Hamilton, she is depicted as despairing of enacting her marriages to women without the use of an artificial penis (the discovery of which led to her exposure).Cleland’s translation of Catherine Vizzani’s memoirs also fixates on her use of an artificial penis in her affairs with women (while also addressing the previous era’s expectation that such desires were driven by anatomy in the form of an enlarged clitoris). In fact Cleland’s writings straddle various tropes. His Vizzani text expresses some surprise that Catherine did not have the expected anatomical cause, while highlighting her use of penetrative sex with an instrument, inspired by “some error in nature”, but then his Woman of Pleasure embraces the new framing of lesbian desire being “infectious” as it were, potentially stimulated in any woman via “corruption” by an experienced practitioner and not involving a pseudo-male partner. For Cleland, Vizzani’s cross-dressing was not a cause of her sexual interest, but rather a more serious transgression that took same-sex interest too far. In Cleland and some of his contemporaries, we can see these first hints at a female parallel to the molly: a minority of women who removed themselves from the category of “female” entirely and into a new category that would become labeled as “tommies” or “sapphists”.
[Note: While I've always been aware that Cleland's translation of the Vizzani text revised several sections relating to her sexual relations, I wasn't aware of some deeper and more questionable motives in his revisions that are explored in Donato 2006, which is among the articles I have lined up to cover in the next few months. Cleland very much cannot be viewed as a neutral observer of women's sexuality, in case there was any question.]
Another triangulation on the emergence of this new category comes from the gossipy diaries of Hester Thrale-Piozzi. Thrale had something of a fixation on identifying and recording male homosexuals (she considered herself to have a special ability to detect such inclinations even when concealed) with near-universal condemnation. She also commented on (real or imagined) sexual relations between women, particularly in Bath and London, but was less consistent in her reactions. She repeated an accusation that the French Queen Marie Antoinette had been the head of a Sapphic sect. She initially praised poems honoring the friendship of Miss Weston and Miss Powell, then later speculated salaciously on why Miss Weston had been averse to marriage and had made a fuss about another young woman. In 1795 Thrale went so far as to say that “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” But at the same time she had difficulty imagining what such women could actually be doing together. She was one of a number of people who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, as well as noting that Damer had also adopted various men’s dress accessories.
Thrale’s inconsistency also shows in her attitude toward famous passionate friends Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The majority of Thrale’s commentary on the “Ladies of Llangollen” is positive and she engaged in friendly correspondence with them, despite how well they fit Thrale’s criteria for being “unclean birds” as she puts it elsewhere. [Note: Trumbach states that Thrale “never made any negative judgment of them” but Donoghue cites a lesser known diary entry in which Thrale did refer to the two as “damned sapphists.”] Other contemporaries of Butler and Ponsonby were less hesitant to comment on their relationship and Butler considered a lawsuit against a newspaper article that suggested some irregularity to their relationship by describing her as “tall and masculine--always wears a riding habit” while describing Ponsonby in more conventionally feminine terms. In context we see a suggestion of the stereotype of “mannish” lesbian, and Ponsonby certainly reacted as if they description implied something unacceptable.
Trumbach suggests there was a distinction that Butler and Ponsonby did not “project [their relationship] as sexual” while Anne Damer, enacting a similar gender transgression in her dress and a liking for pretty younger women, “clearly projected her affection for women as sexual.” [Note: the evidence in both cases for this “projection” seems to come from how their contemporaries reacted to them.] “It is likely” Trumbach says, that this difference in projection derives from whether the women themselves identified their feelings as sexual in nature.
Even after the concept of a female “tommy” role developed, it was not as heavily stigmatized as the “molly” role. Women, in general, did not engage in their sexuality publicly and there is no evidence of a female subculture in taverns or public spaces equivalent to the molly houses. [Note: Other authors such as Donoghue have identified references to some evidence of public culture of this type.] Trumbach identifies several other general shifts that occur in the late 18th century with the rise of the “tommy” role: a falling off of interest in female actors taking on male roles on stage [but note various 19th century actresses famous for their “trouser roles” such as Charlotte Cushman], a greater difficulty for women passing as men and less interest in their stories, and the near-disappearance of the motif of an enlarged clitoris being used to explain same-sex desire. By 1800, Trumbach asserts, this new configuration had settled into a system of two types of bodies (male and female) and four genders, two “legitimate” heterosexual ones, and two stigmatized homosexual ones.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20e - "One Night in Saint-Martin" by Catherine Lundoff - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/31 - listen here)
Welcome to the debut offering of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series! I think you’re going to love the stories that we have lined up for you across the year.
Our story this time is “One Night in Saint-Martin” by Catherine Lundoff. Catherine lives in Minneapolis with her wife and two cats. She is an award-winning writer and editor whose stories and articles have appeared, or are forthcoming, in venues such as Respectable Horror, My Wandering Uterus, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty, Renewal, Callisto, The Cainite Conspiracies: A Vampire the Masquerade V20 Anthology and Nightmare Magazine: Queers Destroy Horror. Her recent books include Silver Moon and Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories. Catherine is also the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a new genre fiction publisher of tales from out of this world. When not writing or working on Queen of Swords, Catherine is a professional computer geek and former archeologist who enjoys science fiction and fantasy, good books and local theater. Catherine was featured in the very first Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast author interview, in August 2017 and I’m delighted to be able to offer you this tale of spies and pirates in the mid-17th century Carribbean.
Our narrator for this episode is Tiana Hanson. Tiana was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and came to the Bay Are to chase her lifelong dream of being a professional actress. She has narrated fifteen audiobooks (available on Audible), mostly lesbian romances, and is delighted to find a new creative outlet that allows her queer light to shine.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
“One Night in Saint-Martin”
By Catherine Lundoff
Captain Jacquotte Delahaye cautiously raised her spyglass above the rocky outcropping she was sheltering behind and swore under her breath. What was Celeste Girard up to? She looked as if she was simply flirting, laughing behind her fan at some witty remark from her companion, a rich Dutch merchant. But Jacquotte knew better: Girard was one of King Louis’ agents in the Caribbean and her companion was not what he seemed. Whatever she was up to, this was part of a plan.
She shifted against the rocks and heard the crackle of paper inside her jacket. The sound made her grin in the direction of the balcony that she was spying on. "I outwitted you before, Mademoiselle Girard and now I have your authorization from the King. Will I need to outmaneuver you again or are we now allies on the same side?"
The thought of crossing swords, figuratively and literally, with the beautiful spy again sent a pleasurable heat through Jacquotte. But perhaps her first mate, Villiers, was right and more time spent in the entertaining brothels of Tortuga would reduce her susceptibility to this particular pretty face. Jacquotte grimaced, put away her glass in the case that hung from her belt and slid cautiously down the rock face so as to avoid either breaking her back or tearing her breeches.
He might be right, at that. But there was no time for that now. Celeste Girard was flirting with Anton De Vries, the Dutch merchant who played the part of ambassador or spy for whichever power paid him the most. Jacquotte wondered which side was paying for his services now. Working for the Dutch was more difficult of late. The English Protector and his navies were still blockading the merchant princes of the Lowlands, and now King Louis sought to profit by it.
None of this would have normally concerned Captain Jacquotte Delahaye, pirate, captain of her own fleet and possessor of a small island not far from Port Royal, the pirate capital of Jamaica, had the conflict not begun to affect shipping. His Majesty of Spain’s ships full of gold and the riches of the Incas and other conquered peoples no longer sailed as frequently from Spain’s great ports in the New World. Now, the intervals between ships were growing longer and each one was more heavily guarded. At this rate, she and her crew would be robbing cotton merchants or fishing boats to keep their own ships afloat.
Jacquotte snorted at the picture in her head. That or turn slave traders ourselves. She swore under her breath again at that thought and considered her crews, composed of men and a few women, their skins a veritable rainbow of shades from tanned brown to black, for a moment before thrusting the notion firmly away. “We’ll take up fishing ourselves first,” she muttered.
“Captain?” Villiers was waiting for her at the end of the path, his scarred, swarthy features twisted into a puzzled question.
“It’s nothing. Girard is the Vicomte’s guest and she is with De Vries. I need to know what they are plotting. If France chooses to side with England or Spain, we’ll never have enough cannons to fight them all.” Jacquotte frowned as they walked toward the cove where The Lioness lay at anchor.
“We could kidnap Mademoiselle Girard. T’would be easy enough, Captain.” Villiers sounded as if he relished the idea.
Jacquotte turned that over in her mind for a few minutes. They had a few options: kidnap Girard or De Vries, bribe one of the servants or slaves, waylay any messages…or, most efficiently of all, she could turn spy herself. Certainly Celeste might recognize her, but with a good disguise, it might take even King Louis’ most trusted local agent some time to do so. Enough time, perhaps, for Jacquotte to learn what she needed and disappear. And if that failed, well, perhaps Villiers had a point…
Celeste frowned at herself in the mirror. The tropical sun did not agree with her milk-white complexion. Worse, she was running out of her treasured powder that protected her skin from freckling, and that was not to be borne. At this rate, she would need to petition the King to allow her to return to Paris until her beauty was restored.
With a sigh, she arranged the lace on the neck of her gown to flatter her shoulders and décolletage. Her maid, a slave on loan from her hostess, fussed over her silvery blonde hair for a few moments, adding a light sprinkle of powder. “Mademoiselle will dance tonight, after dinner, no? The pins, they must hold.”
Celeste eyed the brown-skinned girl in the mirror. It had taken her a few days to learn the island’s patois but now that she understood Marie a bit better, she recognized a slightly impertinent tone when she heard it. Marie looked down demurely and dropped an apologetic curtsey, though the curve of her lips suggested that she was not that sorry.
Celeste wrinkled her nose and couldn’t resist a small smile in return. She could not imagine being at the beck and call of others, your very life hanging on their whims. It was astonishing that the girl was as good humored and adept as she was. She felt a flash of pity for Marie or whatever her name had been before she was brought to this house.
A moment later, that thought vanished to be replaced by more pressing concerns. She was running out of time to find out what the Dutch had planned to confound their English foes. A ship sailed for France in two days and her message must be aboard it if it was to arrive on time to be useful. Celeste swept from her room into the hallway in a rustle of skirts and petticoats, determined to complete her mission in the allotted time.
De Vries was standing on the landing outside her room, like a cat waiting for a mouse. Celeste fluttered her fan up under her eyes to hide a quiet sigh. De Vries was dull, but persistent, with moist hands that had to be frequently fended off. Yet it was him she had come here to spy upon so there was nothing for it but to resign herself to his company. “Monsieur De Vries, you honor me.”
“It is I who am honored, Mademoiselle. Or perhaps I may call you Celeste, now that we are such good friends.” He leered at her, cold gray eyes dropping from her face to her bosom, then below. The offer of his arm soon turned to an arm around her waist as they descended the stairs.
The Vicomte Auclair and his lady wife were already seated at the table in the dining hall, along with some guests. He rose with a gallant smile. “Ah, Mademoiselle, Monsieur. We do not stand upon ceremony here on the barbarous edges of His Majesty’s empire. Allow me to present you to our friends.” There followed a catalogue of names and a few titles, all of them unimportant to Celeste; what were a few more merchants and their wives who had nothing to do with her business, after all? Still, she filed away the shared details of their lives automatically for later perusal.
She smiled prettily, ignoring the way that De Vries stiffened at the mention of “empire” and “His Majesty.” But he maintained enough self-control that he managed to hand her into her chair with an unwanted caress. She gritted her teeth but turned a polite smile to the rest of the company. The Vicomtesse broke into her thoughts with a cheerful burble about the hotness of the day, and from there, the ladies began discussing fashions and tonight’s dancing. Celeste chatted with them, one ear turned toward the men’s conversation to learn what she could.
It was little enough. Slaves, servants, children, they all came and went, quietly and efficiently or noisily and leaving chaos in their wake, as the case might be. That and the presence of the women was enough to dampen any serious discussion and Celeste thought longingly of disguising herself as a boy. True, she was not as skilled or believable in that disguise as a certain red-haired pirate of her acquaintance, but she could have made it believable in this simple company.
She bit back a sigh and fanned herself a bit faster. The hot early evening transitioned slowly into the slightly cooler night and guests from around the island began to arrive. Celeste was introduced as a cousin of the Auclairs, sent from France to the colonies. The Vicomtesse implied that she had been sent to find herself a rich husband in Martinique, but had come to Saint-Martin when her chaperone fell ill. She threw herself into the role with abandon, asking all manner of questions that might otherwise have been found impertinent or rude. Frankly mercenary, but pretty, young women were afforded some latitude.
But it took very little time before she felt a certain hostility from the ladies present, particularly those with daughters of marriageable age. Celeste looked around the room for a harmless target for her attentions. The unmarried and unknown young man that she found was only recently arrived from New Orleans, according to the Vicomtesse. Dark-haired and deeply tanned, he had a bashful quality that she found refreshing after De Vries, often looking at the floor or away from her as if she was too lovely to gaze at for long. It pleased her vanity at the same time that it brought De Vries closer to confront his supposed rival under the guise of discussing shipping, crops, pirates and other topics of interest to the other guests.
At the mention of pirates, Celeste pricked up her ears. De Vries boasted that all the pirates in the Sea would soon be captured or killed, though he offered few details beyond mentioning some bargain that the merchants of the Lowlands were about to reach with King Louis and the King of Spain.
The young merchant had a strong reaction to this pronouncement and pressed him further for greater detail, but to no avail, apart from attracting more of De Vries’ attention than Celeste herself for a few moments. She could only suppose that he was worried about his new ship and trade. Still, she could not help thinking of Jacquotte Delahaye with a pang of longing and resentment and the conversation washed over her inattention, leaving little else of interest in its wake.
The subject of Celeste’s reverie managed to control her fury at De Vries’ casual mention of wiping out all the pirates in the islands. Did this fool believe it would be so simple? Though, upon reflection, the pirates with their scattered ships and fleets, their lack of a common tongue, their resentment of authority apart from their own captains, were ill-equipped to unite to defeat a concerted effort to wipe them out. Jacquotte’s mind spun furiously, picking up and discarding plans and theories with lightning speed while trying to maintain the quiet demeanor of her disguise.
Was Celeste here to help or hinder these plans? If De Vries told the truth and this was a plan hatched by the French King in concert with the others, then there was no need of a spy to watch him. But if the King did not trust his allies or if De Vries was lying, that might be another tale. Or, perhaps, King Louis and his ministers saw it as a chance to strike out at the English dogs and seize their plantations and islands while they distracted themselves with a war in the Low Countries. Attacking the pirates might be nothing more than a mask to their true intent.
She wondered whether De Vries was the linchpin of this alliance, responsible for sending messages and relaying information, real or imagined. A sidelong glance at the lovely Celeste suggested that she thought as much. Mademoiselle Girard was making every effort to seem both fascinated by their conversation and far from indifferent to the Dutchman’s attentions, though an observant companion might have noticed the adept way in which she slipped away from the grasp of his hands whenever she could.
Idly, Jacquotte wondered if gutting him here and now would resolve all uncertainties and problems with a single solution. She dismissed the notion reluctantly and instead schooled her features to mercenary interest, the kind that a barely fletched young man turned merchant, might exude in such company. As they spoke, the slaves finished clearing the furniture in the next room for as robust an evening of dancing as the heat would allow and the musicians began to play. Before Jacquotte could speak up, De Vries claimed Celeste’s hand and brought her out for a country dance.
Smothering her disappointment, Jacquotte took the opportunity to speak to the other guests, as well as the Vicomte himself. Presenting herself as the possessor of an untried ship with a terror of pirates garnered her a few more details than De Vries had offered up. But it was soon clear that her suspicions were correct: the Dutchman was the one who was central to this plan. Between dances, she cultivated him as if he were a newfound friend, dodging Celeste’s flirtatious gaze as much as she could in the meantime. A jealous De Vries was vulnerable and potentially useful. A passionately angry De Vries who might be foolish enough to have his new young friend cast out of what passed for good society on this island was a very different thing. With that in mind, she played upon his ego and set herself up as a possible ally, albeit a not very powerful one. She knew she would have to stay close in order to be ready to disrupt his schemes.
Still, it would be wise to know what Celeste did as well, once this evening ended, and she could not follow her in a man’s guise. Nor could she be in both places at once. She would require a confederate and Villiers was too crude a tool for her purposes. For a moment, she even considered bringing Celeste into her confidence to determine whether or not they had shared goals. She mulled that over, fondness for the spy warring with distrust until she finally, reluctantly, dismissed the idea for the moment.
But perhaps there was someone else. The young woman who served as Celeste’s maid looked clever enough, despite endeavoring to look appropriately servile and subdued. She had just picked up Celeste’s empty cup and taken it to a tray outside the doorway when Jacquotte approached her. Assuming the attitude of the colonial Frenchman she seemed to be, she stepped out into the hallway and barked, “Here, girl, come here a moment.”
The maid’s face went slack, eyes turned apprehensive, as she twisted her fingers in her gown like she thought to run. But she maintained her self-control and walked over to Jacquotte, with a sidelong glance at the other slaves who stood grouped between the ballroom and the rooms beyond. Jacquotte continued, more softly now, “You serve Mademoiselle Girard, yes? What are you called?”
She nodded and managed a clumsy curtsey. “Yes, Monsieur. I am Marie, Monsieur.” From her expression, she was suppressing relief that this young gentleman was more interested in her mistress than herself.
Jacquotte knew that such interest was no defense for her to rely upon, but there was nothing she could do about that. Instead, she tugged her purse free of her belt and told her a version of the truth. “I hope to win Mademoiselle’s heart some day soon, but in the meantime, I fear for her well being in this…” Here, she gestured, as if considering her words more carefully, “place, so near the Dutch with their crude ways. Perhaps you might accept this small gift from me and in return, if Mademoiselle should be in distress of any kind, you could send a message to me at my rooms.” She named the only inn on the French half of the island that rented rooms, one where the owner had been well bribed to pass along messages intended for her ears only, and gave the girl a name, “M. Delacroix.”
The coins vanished into Marie’s garments and she studied Jacquotte sidelong for a moment, as if taking his measure. She liked the girl the better for it, especially when she finally nodded. Jacquotte provided her with a simple code for contacting her, then turned back to the ballroom and De Vries. If Marie proved reliable, she might prove to be a useful asset on this island where she herself had few allies. If not…well, she’d deal with that roll of the dice when she had to and have Villers set a man on the docks to watch the ships either way.
When she stepped back into the room, Celeste was clearly pleading exhaustion, fluttering her fan prettily as a barrier between her and De Vries. Jacquotte suspected that there was a blade in its elaborately carved handle and that the spy was perfectly capable of removing his insistent hands if she needed to and smiled slightly at the thought. She took her leave of the Vicomte and left on her borrowed horse, bound for the inn without a second glance back at Celeste.
By the time Celeste returned to her room, she was exhausted. De Vries’s intentions were growing more insistent and harder to turn aside. Whatever she had envisioned for herself, spending time as a powerful Dutch merchant’s mistress on either the Dutch or French sides of this misbegotten island was not a part of it. At least he had let slip a piece of information that might almost be worthy of notice in Paris.
Marie was waiting for her and soon had her undressed quickly and efficiently. “Did Mademoiselle enjoy herself?” She began brushing Celeste’s hair out of its elaborate style, placing each pin carefully on the dressing table. She looked up as she put them down, studying Celeste’s face in the glass.
Celeste met her eyes in the mirror. “One or two of the gentlemen were, perhaps, too attentive. But the music was lovely, as was the dinner. Did you find it amusing?”
Marie dropped her gaze and brushed harder. “Oui, Mademoiselle. One of the gentlemen asked about you. The young, handsome one with the black hair.”
Celeste arched an eyebrow. There had been something familiar about that merchant, something she wanted to examine more closely, but he had been too bashful to flirt and De Vries had been entirely too present. Now her suspicions were aroused and she began to think back on what she had noticed of his features and gestures. “What did he ask about me?”
“He said that he was in love with you, but feared for you.” Marie hesitated. “He is not what he seems, Mademoiselle, but I don’t know why.”
“Indeed. What told you that he wasn’t an ordinary merchant?” Was there another spy on the island? There must be at least one or two. The Dutch had De Vries, the French had her, but what of the English, the Spanish? Perhaps even one of the more enterprising pirate captains, if they got wind of what De Vries was planning? She straightened abruptly. How had she been so blind? “I think I do know why. Thank you for the warning, Marie.”
So Captain Delahaye wanted an eye kept on her, did she? She hurried Marie out with pleas of exhaustion and a few small coins, likely to pass unnoticed so that she wouldn’t be beaten for theft. Then she opened the wardrobe with a sigh. Would it be sensible to disguise herself and hunt for the pirate tonight? Or should she wait until she was fresher?
She dropped into a chair and considered what she knew of the Dutch, what De Vries said they were planning, of the English Roundheads, of the Spanish and their gold shipments. It would not benefit her King for the English to grow too strong on the seas, but it would benefit him still less if Spain were to refocus her troops and energies on her northern border. The enemies of France should be occupied by being at war with each other.
The thought of Jacquotte must have driven her next thought: what of the pirates? They would be wiped out eventually, true, but that would takes years and far more naval power than De Vries thought it would. If she allowed herself a rare moment of honesty, she cared only about one pirate and her fate, and that only reluctantly. Her fingers caressed her lips absentmindedly, remembering their last kiss.
Of course, Jacquotte’s ability to preserve her own life had already earned her the nom de guerre of “Back from the Dead Red”; she did not need Celeste’s assistance for that, at least. Still, it would be useful to know what the pirate planned to do next and how it would impact her orders to engage with De Vries. And yet…
She might learn more about his proposals from the pirate and who he was double-crossing to affect them. He had hinted to her that his pockets had been lined with Spanish doubloons, as well as English pounds. Alliances were fleeting and could be expensive; her King could not afford one on such soft ground as this. Besides, his interest in M. Delacroix had certainly increased during the evening and she wanted to know what Delahaye had hinted at or done that had drawn his eye.
Her mind made up, Celeste rose slowly. She could manage to stay awake another few hours, if needs must. Delahaye’s inn was not so far away, not if she borrowed a horse. She tugged the hidden panel in her trunk open, pulled out some garments and began getting dressed again, this time in a costume more suitable for meeting with pirates.
Jacquotte leaned back against the wall and watched the inn’s door open and shut behind each new arrival and departure. Her instincts told her that either Celeste or De Vries, possibly both, might seek her out tonight. Granted, De Vries had small reason on the surface to come to her, but there had been an eagerness in his manner that suggested a need for adherents.
Perhaps the Vicomte and his friends found him too boorish, his plans too impractical. Whatever the reason, she had sensed a certain reserve from the others when he spoke enthusiastically about his plans, this great alliance that he envisioned.
As for Celeste, well, she had a left a trail for her to follow. If she had read Marie correctly, she would pass on a warning and Celeste would be unable to resist investigating further. Perhaps she had already recognized Jacquotte. Either way, she would come here to learn more. All Jacquotte had to do was wait.
And wait. Finally, she yawned, too tired to stay awake any longer and weary of fending off the tired glares of the innkeeper and his serving wench. She walked quietly up the rickety stairs to the dark hallway beyond, barely lit by the stub of candle in her hand. That the inn was a place of assignation was made clear by the noises from behind the closed doors that she passed. She chuckled quietly and unlocked the door to her room.
The blow, went it came, was fast and hard. There had been a soft rustle of fabric just before her foe struck and that had been enough for her to pull back, to catch the cudgel on her shoulder instead of her head. The candle dropped from her fingers and sputtered out as she was dragged into the dark room, the door slamming behind her. Instinctively, she struck out with her left arm even as the pain of her wounded right shoulder made her bellow an oath.
Navigating by the moonlight leaking in through the shutters, she jerked her wounded arm free of her attacker’s grip and staggered away. The cudgel whistled past her head again and she struggled to free her dagger from the sheath on her belt. If only she had her damn cutlass! She would have made short work of this fool then.
Jacquotte cursed the impulse that had sent her to this misbegotten island and even more the one that inspired her to drop her guard. Bracing herself against the wall, she moved abruptly from side to side, hoping to elude the next swing by her attacker. But the next blow caught her in the ribs, sending her crashing to the floor. She writhed in pain, barely conscious for a moment.
But instinct drove her to attack as much as she could and a fortunate kick caught her enemy on the leg. He cursed and lurched sideways.
Jacquotte dragged her dagger free and tried to catch her breath for an attack. She would not sell her life so easily that an anonymous sell-sword with a club could kill her like any landlubber. She got to her knees, ribs and shoulder screaming with the motion and she gritted her teeth as she threw herself forward, her dagger aimed at his legs.
The door shot open, knocking her over and her assailant back against the far wall. Whoever the intruder was held a lantern and a sword and by its light, she could see that her foe was none other than Anton De Vries himself. That was before a wave of pain took her and she lost her senses for a few breaths.
When she could see and hear again, the sounds of sword clashing against wooden cudgel soon brought her back to the danger she was in. She crawled backward, trying to wedge herself in a corner away from the combat and observe. Her fingers still clutched her dagger, to her relief. Her would-be rescuer was giving a good account of themselves, being small and light of foot. But De Vries was a large strong man and the cudgel blows were falling dangerously close to their head.
Jacquotte squinted against the lamplight and her own swimming vision. If De Vries were pushed back, even a few steps, closer to her, then she and her dagger could make short work of his legs. She pressed two fingers into her mouth and whistled sharply, the way she would on a noisy deck to get a crew’s attention. Her ally faltered, seemingly startled by the noise, and caught a blow to the leg as a reward.
A distinctly feminine cry burst from the figure’s lips and Jacquotte nearly laughed, despite the peril they were in. Of course, Celeste had come to her rescue. Who else would have done so? But now, it could not be denied that they were both in mortal danger. De Vries’s swings were growing more frenzied as he tired but they still had the full force of his broad shoulders behind them.
Jacquotte forced herself upward so that she could crawl into combat, if not walk. A harsh scream told her that Celeste’s blade had struck home. De Vries stumbled, tantalizingly close and Jacquotte slashed out at his ankle. He scrambled forward in an effort to avoid her and caught another wound from the edge of Celeste’s blade for his trouble. The double attack sent him off balance and Jacquotte slashed again, this time slicing through his stocking and reaping the reward of gushing blood and a high-pitched scream.
This time, Celeste stabbed him hard in the stomach and he dropped the club to the floor, crumpling down beside it a moment later. Celeste awkwardly kicked the club aside before limping heavily to Jacquotte’s side. “Can you stand?” Her voice was breathless, raw with pain and exertion but she did not seem badly wounded.
Jacquotte shook her head. “Not without assistance.” She forced herself back against the wall into a sitting position. Her ribs screamed and her shoulder howled, but she could not suppress a weary grin at the sight of Celeste in breeches. “Can you help me?”
Celeste shook her head, but then she limped over to the window and flung open the shutters. She signaled to someone below and a few moments later, Marie entered, looking wary and wide-eyed at the crumpled man on the floor and the blood. But it was not enough to stop her from picking up the cudgel and compelling Jacquotte to use it as a crutch so she could stand up.
Together, they limped or lurched out the door and down the inn’s rickety stairs. Jacquotte tossed the innkeeper a small bag of gold. “Try to hold your tongue better than you did ere now unless you’d like to meet my crew.” He paled like a ghost and sent them out the back door toward the stables where a cart and horse awaited them.
Jacquotte wondered if the cart had been intended for De Vries, then decided it no longer mattered. She was not surprised when Marie stepped into the driver’s seat and took up the reins, but her heart leapt a little when Celeste climbed into the back next to her. “I need to go to Martinique. Your ship will be faster than the one that docks here.”
She shrugged at Jacquotte’s grin. Jacquotte looked from her to Marie as the cart lurched forward. “Marie, had you thought of turning pirate? Mademoiselle may have mentioned something of this…” Celeste laughed as they moved toward the harbor and The Lioness.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 Catherine Lundoff
I've long had a peculiar love for Regency romances (ask me about my complete collection of Georgette Heyer). Every time I've gotten wind of a Regency featuring a romance between women, I've done my best to track it down. Some have been very enjoyable, some have been adequate, some have been disappointing. But I now have a reigning favorite in this admittedly small genre: Jeannelle M. Ferreira's The Covert Captain: Or, a Marriage of Equals. Captain Nathaniel Fleming--once Eleanor--has returned from the Napoleonic wars shaken and emotionally damaged, a state she shares with her comrade and commanding officer Major Sherbourne. What she has never shared is the secret of her true gender. Fleming has long known her attraction to women, but when the woman in question is Major Sherbourne's spinster sister, there are some hard decisions to make and even harder consequences to deal with.
The Covert Captain has a strong command of its historic era, including how the varieties of sexual orientation were understood and treated at the time. The writing is rich, immersive, and solid. But where the book truly caught my heart is in the complex layerings of the plot. This isn't a simple, straightforward girl-meets-girl-disguised-as-boy story. The experiences of Captain Fleming and Major Sherbourne during the war are detailed (through flashbacks) in a realistic and incisive way that roots the motivations and reflexes of the characters and provides one set of both obstacles and resolutions to the romance. There are multiple hazards to Captain Fleming's decision to reach for love, not simply Harriet's reaction to the somewhat belated disclosure of her secret. And Harriet has secrets of her own to unravel.
I loved how their relationship progressed from shy friendship to dawning desire to misunderstanding to commitment and beyond it to a devotion that out-lasted all barriers. There is plenty of time for the reader to believe in their attraction and to watch them struggle past all the social and economic realities of the setting. I also enjoyed how the text gave us just the lightest taste of their erotic relationship without taking detours for extended sex scenes that would have felt out of place in this genre.
I'm trying very hard here to come up with logical and dispassionate explanations for why I love this book, but when it comes down to it, I have fallen deeply, madly, passionately in love with the story in a way that I would never consider believable if that love were between two fictional characters on the page. I've grown too used to being patient either with lackluster writing, or with an absence of queer characters, or with genres I'm not really into in order to get two-out-of-three in my reading. The Covert Captain does not require me to make any compromises in my love. That's a rare thing, but I dream of it becoming ordinary.
The sixth category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Celebrity Romance. I'm a bit late in posting this story due to travel and illness.
As I've explained previously, I figured I'd liven up my promotion of the challenge by writing a mini-story for each bingo square, using a historic setting and tying them all up loosely in a single overall story. Those who recognized the mention of famous (or notorious?) opera singer and swordswoman Julie d'Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin in the previous story might have correctly guessed that she would be the celebrity in question. The current installment looks at the line between love and obsession, between loyalty and desire. And for those who might worry about Marie and Lisette's future, I'll point out that the very last bingo category of the bingo challenge is "second chance romance". It will be a good opportunity for wrapping up stories into their happy endings, if it hasn't happened before that.
As a reminder, my book Daughter of Mystery was one of the featured book suggestions for the fantasy category, but my work fits in a lot of different categories on the bingo card. For those who might be visiting here for the fiction and brainstorming for ideas for their bingo squares, here's a brief rundown of what categories the Alpennia books and my self-published novelette fit into.
As you can tell, my goal of writing "mini" stories is slipping badly. I've kept three of the stories under 2000 words, but the others have been 2300, 3600, and now 4000. Ah well, a story wants to be what it wants to be.
Family is Something You Do (Lesbian Book Bingo: Celebrity Romance)
I didn’t dare look out past the footlights to see if Marie were watching until the opera was finished and La Maupin and the others were basking in the applause. I was in the second row of dancers, so there were that many bodies to peer past out into the rows of boxes. I knew where Madame de Murat’s box was and I knew that Marie had said she would be waiting on her tonight, but I could only have faith that she’d seen me in my stage debut.
Then the curtain fell and the stage turned into chaos as singers and dancers scattered toward the dressing rooms. I caught La Maupin’s hand as she passed and kissed it, saying, “Thank you, Mademoiselle! Thank you! I can never repay you!”
She stopped, looking bemused as if she didn’t remember that it had been entirely because she’d put in a word that I’d been allowed to rise from dresser to opera dancer. Not merely to fill out the ranks during rehearsals when one of the regular dancers was missing, but to take my place on the stage and dream of something more. It wasn’t impossible that even a black girl like me might make her name with the right friends, the right patron. And no one could be a better friend right now than Mademoiselle Julie d’Aubigny, known throughout Paris as La Maupin. If it weren’t for the thought of Marie, I’d be wildly in love with her. Everyone was—the gallants whose billets doux we all laughed over in the dressing rooms, the ladies who swooned when she played the gallant for them in turn, escorting them about town in a cavalier’s garb with a sword at her side.
La Maupin smiled at me—oh that smile!—and kissed the air by my cheek so as not to smudge our powder and rouge. “Lisette, ma chérie, you were marvelous. I knew you would be. Now come, let’s see who brings me flowers tonight.”
I was still her dresser, after all, so I scrambled out of the wide panniers of my costume and into a plainer gown to be ready to attend on her when the admirers arrived. There was no point to trying to slip out to catch a word with Marie because she’d be following after Madame de Murat, side by side with her brother Charles in their matching scarlet coats and golden turbans, to carry madame’s little spaniel or to open doors or whatever else a page was expected to do. I’d steal a moment with Marie soon enough. For now, I added to my dreams of opera success the goal of catching a rich patron so that I could set up an apartment of my own with Marie at my side. We’d talked about it so often but always as an idle fancy.
The singers’ dressing room was crowded as always, but the prima donnas like La Maupin had a corner screened off for themselves where there was already a small crowd of men in satin and velvet coats eyeing each other like jealous cockerels.
“François!” she cried, “you have remembered my favorites!”
She took the bouquet of lilies from his hand and passed them smoothly over her shoulder to me as she allowed the young vicomte to kiss her hand then clasp her just a little too familiarly about the waist. I slipped the flowers into the place of honor in a waiting vase.
“But fie on you, Henri,” she continued, snatching the proffered flowers from the next man. “How can you be so tedious.”
She tossed a nearly identical cluster of lilies over her shoulder with a laugh. I knew my part and caught them before they could fall then laid them on the dressing table. La Maupin might make light of the gifts, but it would never do to insult the gentlemen without need.
“Ah, and who have we here?”
I knew most of those who clustered around La Maupin like bees around the flowers they offered—we laughed and teased about them afterward, even the ones she chose to favor. But this was a new face. The girl was young, so newly come to court that she didn’t know it wasn’t done for an innocent maiden to join the libertine crowd in the back-stage. La Maupin’s female admirers invited her more discreetly to their parlors.
I could tell she was well born, not simply a fancy dressed whore, not only by the quality of her gown but by her manner that spoke of a terrified boldness. Her chestnut hair was pinned up in a puff with a simple bit of lace and she had only the faintest trace of rouge on cheeks that needed no powder. Looking at her, I touched my own cheek enviously. There was nothing to be done for being brown as a berry, but I wished I could powder away the freckles that flocked across my nose like a flight of starlings. It wasn’t fair for her to be pretty as well as rich.
La Maupin gazed at her like she might at a dainty jewel. “Ma chère—Mademoiselle de Laval is it not? And what have you brought me?”
Hélène de Laval—I knew who she was now. She must have slipped her leash and no doubt someone would come hunting her in the instant. Her marriage prospects were the talk of Paris, even in the streets and taverns. Seeing the hungry way her eyes fastened on La Maupin I wondered if there would ever be a marriage. Some girls aren’t made for men, though not all of us get to choose.
“I…I loved to hear you sing,” she began. “Your voice pierces me to the soul. I want—”
And then a harsh voice was calling, “Hélène! What are you doing, child?”
Mademoiselle de Laval looked wildly over her shoulder, then plucked the nosegay of violets out of the corsage of her gown and held it out wordlessly to La Maupin.
La Maupin took it with a smile that would melt any woman’s knees and buried her nose in the delicate purple flowers. “So kind.”
“I must see you,” Mademoiselle de Laval said in a low, urgent voice as a tall, angry woman pushed her way through the dressing room crowd toward us. And then there was no more time and the girl bowed her head meekly to a scolding and let herself be led away.
La Maupin watched her go with a far-off look in her eyes. I’d seen that look before, but this time it could mean trouble. She glanced down at the violets still clutched in her hand, then tucked them into her own bosom, resting between the swell of her breasts. “Enough! Enough!” She waved dismissively at the rest of her suitors and turned to sit before her mirror. “Lisette, where is my dressing gown?”
I draped the gown around her shoulders and began to work out the pins in her hair as the gentlemen scattered from their dismissal. “And will you see Mademoiselle de Laval again?” I asked.
“But of course! Isn’t she an angel? Tomorrow no doubt she will be at Madame d’Aulnoy’s salon. And if not there, we shall meet somewhere. Paris is not so large a place—not the parts that matter.”
* * *
They must have met again, though not in the backstage of the opera house. That was not at all suitable for an unmarried girl. But La Maupin had that distracted air she got when she had a fresh suitor, and if the new lover had been a man he would have strutted around the dressing room after each performance like a cockerel, letting all know whose hen-yard they were in.
Then one afternoon when the dancers had finished our rehearsal, one of the porters called me aside and said, “There’s a lady says she must speak to La Maupin and won’t take no for an answer from me. Perhaps she’ll listen to you.”
I followed him out to the little office by the back doors and wasn’t at all surprised at who waited there. I gave her my best curtsey and said, “Mademoiselle, she is not here. We only rehearse the dances today.”
She lifted the lacy veil from her face. It wouldn’t have done a thing to keep her from being recognized, but one played these games. “You are La Maupin’s servant, yes?”
There wasn’t any point to correcting her.
“Yesterday—she promised she would see me and she did not come. You must tell her…I cannot survive longer without a sign, a token. I must know that she loves me. I could bear it all if I know her heart is mine.”
I wanted to tell her to forget La Maupin. That it was a game to her—a flirtation, nothing more. La Maupin was a blazing candle and they were all just moths to singe their wings. But it wasn’t a thing that could be spoken, not from me to her. So I only said, “Have you a message you want me to bring to La Maupin?”
“Monsieur gives a ball tomorrow night. I will be there. If she does not prove her love for me, I may do myself a harm.” She clutched at my wrist as if she were drowning in the Seine and I was the only one who could pull her out.
I gently twisted my arm free. “I will tell La Maupin,” I said.
* * *
If I’d thought La Maupin had tired of the girl, her reaction to the message set me right.
“La! Won’t that be an adventure! I will come as Hélène’s chevalier. Lisette, you must help me choose my clothes from the wardrobe. I will claim a kiss and a dance right under the eyes of the duc d’Orléans!” For that was the “monsieur” that de Laval meant, it wasn’t necessary to call him more than that.
When La Maupin went about town in men’s clothing, she usually wore her own, but that wasn’t sufficiently fine for a duc’s ball. And though the garments kept for the stage belonged to the singers who wore them, they could be generous about sharing if talked to sweetly. So we chose a fine green satin coat and breeches with a plumed hat to match.
“And you must come as my page, Lisette,” La Maupin said, holding up her own second-best coat. “It isn’t the sort of ball where I can arrive unattended!”
“Oh, no, mademoiselle, I can’t!” I protested. I would feel scandalous walking around in men’s breeches anywhere but the stage! La Maupin might think nothing of it, but La Maupin could fight duels with anyone who dared to call her a strumpet—fight duels and win. In the end I agreed, simply because she was La Maupin. I owed so much to her and there was nothing I wouldn’t do if she asked.
The glittering splendor of the ballroom would have rooted my feet to the floor if I’d never seen such a thing before, but I whispered to myself that it was just another opera house and I was simply playing another role. I watched La Maupin swagger through the ballroom doors and past the lackeys meant to announce the guests until she disappeared into the crowd. Even the rumor that King Louis himself was present failed to disturb her confidence.
I looked around in the gallery for a quiet corner away from the other attendants where I wouldn’t be noticed until she returned, but my heart leapt to see a scarlet-coated figure approaching.
“Lisette! Mon Dieu, what are you doing here like this?”
“Oh, Marie!” I threw my arms around her, nearly knocking my hat askew because I wasn’t used to wearing one. “I hadn’t hoped to see you here.”
“Madame de Murat has come, so of course Charles and I must follow after.” She nodded her head toward the far end of the gallery. “He’s off playing dice. The evening looked to be so tedious, but now you’re here. But why are you here?”
So I told her about La Maupin’s affair with Mademoiselle de Laval and the girl’s demand for an appearance. “It won’t go well, I fear,” I added. “For I think La Maupin has grown weary of her and only came out of daring. But what I wouldn’t give to see it play out!”
“But we can!” Marie said and seized me hand, drawing me toward a small doorway. “Up here—there’s a tiny balcony that overlooks the ballroom. No one uses it any more but it’s never locked.”
We climbed up a narrow, dark stair and Marie eased open the door at the top, peaking around to see if anyone else had thought to escape there. She placed a finger to her lips for we could hear the sounds of music and laughing drifting up and no doubt those in the ballroom might hear what went on above.
It took me a few minutes to find La Maupin among the crowd. There were at least five coats of the same green and though she was tall for a woman, she was not so tall as a man. Not that she was trying for disguise this time, except as much as people wouldn’t look past a coat and breeches.
“There,” I whispered to Marie and pointed. We watched La Maupin swagger around the edges of the wide room, nodding at those who seemed to recognize her and acting for all the world as if Monseiur had invited her himself. I saw her stiffen—not in fear, never that, but the way a hound might when it first sees something to chase. Then she worked her way easily to a small crowd that had formed around Mademoiselle de Laval. Though they were too far for us to hear a thing about the chatter, I could tell when de Laval had seen her by her sudden movement. And then La Maupin was bowing over her hand and leading her out into the dance.
They danced together once, twice, and against all custom (and to the fury of de Laval’s other suitors) a third time. The evening was wearing on and I wondered if Mademoiselle de Laval was satisfied yet by La Maupin’s attentions. Perhaps La Maupin was uncertain as well, for when they had finished the reverence after the third dance, she swept off her plumed hat, took de Laval into her arms, and kissed her with a passion that would have drawn applause as the curtain came down.
But this wasn’t the opera house, and men that might have cheered La Maupin if she played the dashing lover on stage felt differently about a rival in the ballroom. I couldn’t hear the words that were said, but I could see the ripple of their effects spreading out through the room, like circles around a stone dropped in a pond. Then a circle cleared and I could see La Maupin standing between three young gallants of the court, with several gloves of challenge lying at her feet. In a moment’s hush I heard her carefree laugh.
“Marie, I need to go!” I didn’t know what would come of this, only that I had come as La Maupin’s attendant and must be at her side if she needed me. Marie was staring down at the ballroom with her mouth gaping open. I closed it with a quick kiss as a promise and then clattered down the narrow stairs.
I met La Maupin and the three courtiers as they crossed the gallery toward the doors.
“Ah, Lisette! Come, I’ll need you to hold my coat.”
I fell in beside her, looking warily at the three men. They were dandies, fops, with nothing of the soldier about them. But still… “Do you mean to fight all three?” I whispered urgently. “At the same time?”
“Of course,” she laughed. “The fight must be fair!”
“Julie!” My fear spilled out in my use of her given name. “Julie, dueling is against the king’s law! Everyone saw that challenge.”
“Oh, pooh! What can one do? I must defend the honor of Mademoiselle de Laval.”
It was more to defend her own pride, I knew, but that made no difference. She had made her name as a duelist long before her fame on the opera stage. To refuse to fight would have been unthinkable.
La Maupin’s challengers had called for link boys and when we had found a congenial place, they made a ring with the torches where the fight would take place. I helped La Maupin shrug off her satin coat then folded it carefully across my arm and stood back. I wished Marie was there so I’d have someone’s hand to squeeze tightly when the fighting began, but she must be ready at all times to attend on Madame de Murat. Mademoiselle de Laval had not followed us. No doubt her chaperone had taken her firmly in hand after that scene.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to see every movement. I was certain La Maupin would prevail. I feared for her life. She danced. The steel flashed and sparked. She spun. She drew them first one direction then the other, forcing the link boys to scramble out of the way. She ducked. One stumbled, swearing to his knees. A quick movement that I couldn’t see and another reeled back clutching his arm. Now there was only one man facing her. He backed away, moving the tip of his blade in small circles. La Maupin smiled and followed and with one swift stroke his blade clattered on the stones.
No deaths. Thank God there were no deaths, only blood. But blood might be enough. The men spoke no word as they gathered to hastily bind each others’ small wounds and then, with poisonous glances, left the square.
La Maupin cleaned her sword then let me help her back on with her coat and hat. But when I thought she would head in the direction of her lodgings, she turned instead back toward the palace.
“Mademoiselle!” I protested.
“But my dear Lisette, Mademoiselle de Laval asked for a sign of my devotion. How will she know what I’ve done for her unless I return?”
I shook my head silently. She was mad. But I had always known that and I loved her for it.
We paused at the entrance to the ballroom and silence fell as all heads turned. I hoped Hélène de Laval was still somewhere within the crowd to gain her reward but we could go no further as King Louis himself strode out to stand before us.
La Maupin swept into the deepest bow I had ever seen her make. I wasn’t sure whether to follow my clothes and bow or to follow my sex and curtsey and in the end I merely bobbled in place, but no one was paying any attention to me.
“You are the…opera singer, La Maupin.”
It wasn’t a question and I wondered what other description he had considered giving her.
“Do you not know that I have forbidden men to duel on pain of death?”
A second man in equally splendid clothing came up beside him and whispered in his ear. Marie had pointed him out earlier: Monseur le duc d’Orléans, the king’s brother, the host of the ball. Whatever he said brought an amused smile to the king’s lips.
“Monsieur, my brother, has reminded me that you are not a man. Perhaps my law does not apply to you. But I think it would be wise if you were not found in Paris by the morning. Indeed, I think that France may be an uncomfortable home for you for a time.”
He turned away without another word and La Maupin bowed again before we withdrew.
If I had expected her to be distraught I would have been mistaken. La Maupin seemed no more dismayed than she ever was.
“Mademoiselle, what will you do? Where will you go?”
She grinned at me but I could see the relief underneath the bravado. “A friend has urged me to perform in Brussels.”
“But what about Mademoiselle de Laval?”
“It’s for the best. She will forget me.”
I wasn’t so certain about that. Who could love La Maupin and then forget her? But perhaps it was for the best.
La Maupin seized my hand, though not with the flourish she had used with Mademoiselle de Laval. “Do you have a mind for travel? I’d dearly love to have a faithful friend with me. No one has been more faithful than you, Lisette. I will see that you become a famous dancer.”
My heart leapt. I could see it in my mind: the great Maupin and I, taking the stage by storm side by side in Brussels. To think that she would want me there, but…
“Marie,” I whispered.
“Tell her to come with us.” She made the offer lightly, as if we were taking a promenade in the gardens.
She knew about Marie and me, of course. She was the only person I could tell about our dream of sharing our lives some day. And Marie had been talking about how she and her brother were grown too old to be pages much longer.
“I think she’s still waiting on Madame de Murat back at the ball. I could—”
“I need to take these clothes back to the opera house,” La Maupin said. “Go talk to her then meet me there.”
* * *
I found Marie and Charles still in the gallery with the other waiting attendants. A red-haired lackey in a coachman’s coat stopped me and said, “Hey, you—you were with that jade Maupin. What can you tell us?”
I shook free of him with a scornful glance. How dared he speak of the great Maupin that way? I pulled Marie off to one side away from the others and explained the offer in a low hurried voice.
“She’s leaving for Brussels before the morning. She…I…come with us? Oh, Marie! She says she’ll make me a famous dancer. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Come with us! You said you’d be leaving de Murat’s employ soon.”
“Lisette…” Marie sounded dismayed, and no wonder with it all happening so fast. She looked over her shoulder to where her brother waited. “Lisette, I can’t leave Charles—”
“He’ll do well enough. Haven’t you always said that?”
“And Tante Jeanne. How can I leave her?”
I was nearly boiling with impatience. She hadn’t talked about these doubts when we’d dreamed about my rich patron and having an apartment on the Rue de la Marche. “And what about me? What about us? This is our chance to see the world together. To make our fortune. And you told me that Tante Jeanne isn’t even really your aunt. And Charles—”
But Marie shook her head. “Oh Lisette, can’t you understand? Family isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Blood doesn’t matter. They’re my family and I need to take care of them.”
I wanted to shake her and to ask what about me? But I did understand. I didn’t have a Tante Jeanne, but I had La Maupin and she’d become the sister I’d always dreamed of having. “And La Maupin needs me to take care of her,” I said. “For now, at least. Oh Marie!”
I threw my arms around her and held her without caring who might see.
“I love you so much, Lisette. But—”
I stopped her words with a kiss. I was certain in my heart it wouldn’t be the last kiss we shared. “We’ll come back. Sooner than you think. They’ll be begging La Maupin to return to the Paris Opera and the king will relent. Wait for me?”
Marie nodded and I tore myself away before I could start crying. La Maupin would be waiting for me at the opera house. I had my own few things to pack and the dawn would come before we knew it.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
There are many philosophical pitfalls in the desire to categorize historic individuals or concepts in western culture as "lesbian" as we moderns understand and use the term--I say this despite my own use of the word as a shorthand in this project. (A shorthand I have no intention in abandoning for a variety of reasons.) Many of those pitfalls revolve around historic shifts in the understanding of the nature of physiological sex, the relationship of sex to performative gender, and the relationship of both of those to erotic and romantic desire.
One of the challenges I encounter regularly in summarizing and discussing research on this topic is the conflict between discussing historic texts and data in a precise and unambiguous way, and the emerging modern social ethics around discussing sex, gender, and sexuality--especially around transgender topics. If I were talking about a contemporary, a statement like, "At age 18, Mary Smith began living as a man under the name John Clark until her physiological sex was discovered ten years later, after which she returned to a female presentation" would contain any number of elements considered to be rude and offensive. But when describing a person living several centuries in the past, not only can we not know that person's motivations and understanding of their life and actions, but we can only guess at what options and categories they had for that understanding. Further, in order to try to understand how sex and gender were constructed in the society that Mary Smith/John Clark lived in, we need to acknowledge and examine those elements of the story.
There are a lot aspects to historical views of sex and gender that are casually offensive to the modern mind. That doesn't mean that they don't provide useful frameworks both for understanding historic societies and people and for finding identification with them. The medieval theory that all bodies were mutable in sexual expression is of great interest to those looking for historic models of the transgender experience--at the same time, the component of that theory that bodies could only change from female to male because male bodies were "more perfect" is deeply misogynistic, and creates a different experience for those looking for models of a transmasculine experience and those looking for a transfeminine one. Similarly, the medieval and Renaissance model of erotic desire that held that one's "true" gender could be identified in opposition to the gender of the person you desire aligns with some modern experiences of a transgender heterosexual experience, but is erasive of the concept (in historic societies) of a cisgender homosexual experience.
It's a terminological dilemma that I struggle with constantly, even within the parameters of this project that explicitly uses the lens of "lesbian potential" as opposed to "lesbian fact". I know I hammer away at this aspect a bit too regularly, but if I didn't do so, it would be too easy to read my commentary as "these persons and experiences were lesbian" rather than as "these persons and experiences provide a basis on which lesbian fictional characters could be built."
Jones, Ann Rosalind & Peter Stallybrass. 1991. “Fetishizing gender : constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Jones, Ann Rosalind & Peter Stallybrass. “Fetishizing gender : constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe”
[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]
During the Renaissance, the concept of the “hermaphrodite” became a site of significant anxiety and analysis in European medical and legal discourse. Analysis of this phenomenon has tended to come from two angles. In the first, the hermaphrodite is seen as a definitional problem, an irritant that drives the production and stabilization of a concept of binary gender. In the second, the figure of the hermaphrodite represents the dissolution of absolute binary gender categories. Both approaches assume a pre-existing concept of gender as a known quantity that is destabilized. This article takes a contrary point of view: that the concept of the hermaphrodite was a primary driver in the production of binary gender concepts in the Renaissance.
Although concepts of gender and gender hierarchies are omnipresent in pre-Renaissance thought (even being extended to inanimate objects such as rocks, to explain certain physical propreties), there was no established and definitive means by which male and female gender could be distinguished.
Natural philosophy embraced the possibility of gender fluidity (as for the hyena, which was thought to alternate genders) and assumed a “single gender” system in which male and female were simply polar ends of a gender continuum, with females being “less developed” males. This was the Galenic view of gender, which held that what distinguished male and female (within the humoral system) was a difference of “heat” and that a shift in the internal nature of an individual could cause latent internal female organs to externalize as male organs, resulting in a functional change of gender.
Every child was considered to have hermaphroditic potential, with the gender as expressed being a product of competition between the male and female seed that produced it, as well as the location in the womb where it grew. That is, expressed gender was considered entirely a product of nurture, not of nature. Hermaphrodites were those who fell within the middle range of that continuum such that they expressed an intermediate gender, though potentially falling more to one side than the other. This framing may explain why medical treatises of the Renaissance often placed discussions of hermaphrodites alongside those of “monstrous” births.
Ambroise Paré’s treatise on hermaphrodites recognizes those with some intermediate sexual characteristics (as with women who have facial hair and low voices), though to some extent he conflates “effeminate men” (whose characteristics are presumably innate) with eunuchs (whose characteristics are due to physical alteration). In the middle of the scale were those who “seem to participate of both male and female.” Paré viewed any gender distinction as erasable: “Certainely women have so many and like parts lying in their wombe, as men have hanging forth; onely a strong and lively heat seems to be wanting, which may drive forth that which lyes hid within.” That is, women have the potential to become men at any time via a shift in humoral balance. The only thing preventing men similarly from becoming women was because “nature alwaies intends and goes from the imperfect to the more perfect,” that is, because men were more evolved than women, it was against nature for them to “degenerate” from that state spontaneously.
Case histories were a common feature in discussions of hermaphroditism. In George Sandys’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1632, he provides examples of reported real-life gender transformations that parallel that seen in Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe. For example, a 16th century report by Pontanus of a fisherman’s wife who had been married for 14 years and then spontaneously became a man.
Montaigne reports a man named German in Vitry, France, who had been a woman until the age of 22 but then had male parts emerge during physical exertion and now in older age wore a beard. The young women of her town made up a humorous song about how girls shouldn’t engage in physical sports lest the same thing happen.
Sandys notes that all these cases were of change from female to male, seeing it as confirmation of a natural law. This concept echoes an earlier position in both myth and religious philosophy that the difference between the genders is not one of kind, but of more perfect and less perfect instances of a single kind. Several Biblical quotations and commentaries are cited, such as the Gospel of Thomas, “For every woman who has become male will enter into the kindom of heaven.” or St. Jerome’s endorsement, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.”
Such a position not only undermined the notion that women were inherently different from and inferior to men, but also established the potential for any man to become “womanish” if he failed to uphold the state of maleness sufficiently. This precariousness of the gender divide led physicians to prescribe strict regimens to prevent the shift of humors in women that might make them more man-like, noting that women who are “robust and of a manly constitution” must be “reduced to a womanly state...that they may become fit for generation.”
Whereas medical theory by the 18th century emphasized an obvious and innate difference between male and female, the earlier Galenic position implied that hermaphroditism was the default state--that the distinction between the genders must be actively produced and maintained.
If physiology could not be relied on to categorize by gender in the Renaissance, how did the law deal with ambiguous cases? The answer seems to have been “with difficulty and inconsistently.” This is illustrated by a French case in 1601. A person named Marie had been sharing her bed (and presumably having a sexual relationship) with a 32 year old widow named Jeane. Marie publicly announced a male identity with a name change to Marin, and declared his intention to marry Jeane. Marin was arrested and sentenced to death. Evidently there were medical examinations of Marin to determine gender that concluded Marin was female, but an additional examination identified a “small concealed penis.” This did not, however, result in a legal judgement that Marin was male. Rather it only resulted in a nullification of the death sentence, on the condition that Marin live as a woman, in female clothing, until the age of 25. The death sentence was on the female Marie, for committing sodomy (with Jeane) and for cross-dressing. But the final outcome was neither a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was male (given the conditional requirements), nor a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was female (which one might expect would have upheld the original penalty). [Note: while the artice doesn't spell this out precisely, if Marie/Marin was legally treated as a hermaphrodite, then sexual realations with a woman was not "sodomy", but as Marie/Marin had originally been presenting as a woman, that was considered to be their official "performative" legal status and the crime was trying to change that status. The time-limit on the requirement to live as a woman is perhaps baffling, but may simply be the time limit on when the court would monitor the situation.]
Neither of the legal charges in Marie/Marin’s case were relevant under English law. Cross-gender dressing was not a legal offence (though it was considered a moral offence), only cross-class dressing fell under the purview of the law. This is not to say that English law couldn’t find a statute under which to prosecute persons who transgressed gender boundaries. The former Mary Hamilton, as Dr. Charles Hamilton, married a woman named Mary Price. A few months later, Price announced that Hamilton was a woman. (The case was semi-fictionalized by Henry Fielding in The Female Husband.) What Hamilton was eventually charged, convicted, and sentenced for was vagrancy, with circumstances of fraud. Despite the sexual context of the Hamilton/Price relationship, neither sexual acts nor even cross-dressing figured in the prosecution. Thus we see that different legal traditions produced radically different definitions and understandings of gender.
In France, the concept of the hermaphrodite began to be subsumed under the category of “sexually deviant woman” in the context of the “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the development of a model of the tribade as a woman whith an enlarged clitoris (either as cause or effect of her sexual activities). This shift was not complete and immediate, though. Throughout the early part of the 17th century, people classified as “hermaphrodites” continued to be allowed to choose a gender expression and marry, but only within a heteronormative framework and only as long as the choice was not revoked or changed. Under a 1603 case in Paris, a person identified as a hermaphrodite was executed because after assuming the role of a man, they engaged in sex with a man “as a woman”. The offence was not the status of being a hermaphrodite but of refusing to stick to a single permanent gender presentation, expressed according to social norms.
There was an interesting contrast between hermaphrodites and eunuchs, which pointed up the key understanding that the purpose of marriage was understood as procreation. A hermaphrodite (regardless of gender expression) was assumed to be capable of either engendering or bearing a child, and therefore was allowed to engage in marriage. Whereas a eunuch was assumed to be incapable procreation and therefore was not allowed to marry. [I believe the article is still talking about French law here. Note that this presumption of fertility was still rooted in the theory that all bodies had hermaphroditic potential that included the ability to function biologically as male or female.]
Renaissance understandings of the nature of gender can also be extracted from fantastic (or satiric) travelers’ tales involving supposed hermaphroditic individuals or societies displaced from the here-and-now, even when those societies are overtly presented as satires on familiar cultures. A mid-16th century satire on French court life and a ca. 1600 English satire framed as a traveler's tale come at the question of gender blurring from different angles. Thomas Artus is primarily targeting King Henri III’s court favorites, who are presented as engaging in a fashion “arms race” that is framed as essentially feminine, and presented within the text as legally required to be bisexual. This bisexual license is framed as being socially driven rather than innate and, although Artus clearly intends the “mignons du roi” to be understood as a product of a corrupt culture, the in-story result is an expansion of the possibilities for pleasure.
Joseph Hall’s English satire targets women who take on masculine attributes and clothing as inhabiting “Shee-land”, where women dominate men politically and sexually. But offshore from that land is “Double-sex Isle” or “Skrat or Hermaphrodite Island” where people are born with a doubled sexual capacity “just as they have two eyes, two nostrils, and two legs.” The in-story argument is that the hermaphrodites are more perfect human beings because of this additional symmetry, although the author clearly intends to mock this position.
George Sandys, in his commentaries on Ovid, tackles the myth of the creation of Hermaphroditus with an incoherent assortment of interpretations and legend, resulting in no clear understanding or opinion. But he does include citations of reported “hermaphrodites,” jumbling together those with ambiguous physiology and those who practiced bisexuality, as in the case of a person in Burges who had legally elected to live as female but “secretly exercised the male,” presumably in sexual encounters.
The way the Ovidian myth of Hermaphroditus is framed by Renaissance writers uncovers some of the surrounding anxieties: that when the nymph Salmacis was joined bodily with Hermaphroditus to form the mythical half-man/half-woman embodiment, the female component (Salmacis) was erased in identity while the male component (Hermaphroditus) is described as “losing masculinity” rather than gaining femininity. This was reinforced by the myth that any man bathing in Salmacis’ pool would be similarly transformed and become “a half man”. [Note that the classical depiction of Hermaphroditus often involved a bilateral division into a male half and a female half, rather than a blending of characteristics.]
Classical takes on the myth were more likely to associate Hermaphroditus with (heterosexual) marriage and a positive synergy of combining male and female. And this symbol of combining unlike components into a positive whole was sometimes used metaphorically in Renaissance literature, for example in John Donne’s interpretation of religious ministers as being a type of hermaphrodite in joining the “male” perfection of heaven with the “female” imperfection of earthly things. Via this sort of positive allegory, there was a space for Renaissance monarchs to use the image of the hermaphrodite as a positive symbol of perfection.
These abstract philosophical concepts did not impinge much on the popular culture use of the hermaphrodite as a symbol of gender transgression, and especially of women who took on male garments and usurped “male” privileges, as in the polemical pamphlet Hic Mulier (titled with a linguistically hermaphroditic phrase combining masculine hic or “this” with feminine mulier “woman”). In general, though, the male privileges these women were claiming did not involve sexual relations with other women, but rather a masculine approach to sexual assertiveness as well as claiming the right to freely enjoy a public life rather than being limited to the domestic sphere. Some actual women who were considered to embody this hermaphroditic transgression include Long Meg of Westminster and Moll Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), who both turned their resulting celebrity into professional performance. Such gender transgression was associated in the English mind with sexual transgression, but in the form of accusations of prostitution. [Note: in early modern England, "prostitute" or "whore" could be used to label any woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage, not strictly professional sex workers.]
The accusation of “hermaphroditism” as a slur was thrown at women who dared to enter any sphere presumed to be masculine, not only for gender performance. The French poet Louise Labé was accused by a rival of crossdressing as a man to engage in (heterosexual) orgies. The English poet Mary Wroth satirized a rival’s violent treatment of his daughter by featuring him as a character in a play, which inspired him to attack her in various publications as a hermaphrodite and monster, using an ad feminam attack to try to distract from the original charges against him. (She responded with a parody of his own vituperative poem, attacking him in return.)
Another English example provides a rare (at this time) association of gender transgression with lesbianism, in Ben Jonson’s attack on poet Cecelia Bulstrode (in response to her criticism of him), framing her entry into the masculine sphere of poetry as lesbian rape: “though with Tribade lust she force a Muse, And in an Epicoene fury can write newes...” The traditional image of the poetic muse as female is here used to claim poetry as an inherently masculine endeavor, as any woman engaging in it is then by definition entering into a homosexual relationship.
Thus, the image of the hermaphrodite is employed generally as a weapon to enforce gender boundaries: against women perceived as infringing on male prerogatives, and against men perceived as insufficiently upholding standards of masculinity. One of the things that made gender boundaries so crucial was the ways in which legal and political power were grounded in gender difference, from inheritance to differential application of legal penalties. The stability of society required persons with ambiguous gender to make a choice and stick to it. Legal theorists such as Edward Coke laid out the necessity of this choice “according to that sexe which prevaileth” but could offer no clear framework for how that decision shoud be made. As seen in some of the French legal cases, even medical professionals could differ in specific cases. More than anything else, the Renaissance fixation on the “problem” of the hermaphrodite and the pressure to resolve individuals into a binary framework only emphasizes that arbitrary nature of gender identity and perforemance. In a sense, the author argues, this crisis of categorization created the modern concept of fixed biological gender and providing a philosophical watershed between an earlier view of gender as inherently unstable and mutable.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20d - Falling in Love with Cross-Dressing Girls - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/24 - listen here)
One of the extremely popular motifs in current lesbian historical fiction is that of cross-dressing, whether it’s the passing woman in the wild west who hooks up with a lonely widow and eventually shares her secret, or a gender-bending pirate captain whose masculine clothing is only one of the many signifiers of her rejection of society’s conventions, or the traditionally dapper “mannish” socialite of the Lost Generation back from driving ambulances on the battlefields of Flanders.
Cross-dressing has had shifting relationships to sexuality across the centuries. In recent decades, the concept has been a site of contention between lesbian butch-femme culture and trans-masculine interpretations of gender identity. At various times and places in history, cross-dressing has been embraced as a path to economic opportunity, as an escape from patriarchal authority, as an erotic advertisement by heterosexual sex workers, as a means of resolving social conflicts around same-sex desire, or even simply as a transgressive fashion statement. There has never been one single purpose or motivation for those with female-assigned bodies to take on the performance of masculine appearance, or a single interpretation assigned to such persons by their contemporaries.
In real life, only a minority of cases of cross-dressing women seem to have been motivated primarily by same-sex romantic desire. There were many other contexts in which same-sex desire was expressed historically, and many ways it can be depicted in modern historical fiction. But in Western literature written in the past, there has been a continuous thread across the centuries of female cross-dressing creating the opportunity for such desire to occur because of the initial perception of gender, which opened the door to emotions that then could not be denied.
I’d like to digress for a little bit about a literary genre known as the “portal fantasy.” I’ve always been fascinated with the authorial motivations behind writing portal fantasies. Not so much the narrative structure itself, which typically involves a person from the “real” non-fantastic world who crosses over into a fantastic realm where the story takes place, usually via a mechanism that has a particular spatial location in each of the worlds and creates a path between them.
Portal fantasies include such well-known works as Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. But the genre has a long history. One more obscure early example is Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century novel The Blazing World--one of a number of works that claim the honor of being “the first science fiction novel”--which engages two entirely separate portal motifs: one a sort of Jules Verne-like “journey to the center of the earth”--a geographic portal--and one a psychological portal involving what might best be described as astral projection. The latter is the mechanism by which the real-world author gains the knowledge of the story and thus is able to relate it to us.
One of the things that fascinates me about why imaginative stories are written as portal fantasies, rather than simply being set in an entirely fantastic world, is how the author uses the portal motif to connect the reader to the secondary world. The author is saying, “This isn’t the world you know, the world around you, but it’s a place that you could go to--I’ll show you how.” That’s a different type of story than one that says, “Long ago and far away -- somewhere and somewhen you can’t get to” or a story that says, “Imagine the world you’re in now, but with magic in it. Imagine that your world could be different from what you know.” Those two types of settings show you a fantasy that’s out of reach--that can be imagined but not inhabited. But the portal fantsy--it tells you that magic is just around the corner. And it shows you how you could get there.
The portal fantasy is often framed as a true relation of actual adventures. And if it is true, then the story must explain the connection between the world of the story and the world of the author, whether it involves adventures in hidden parts of the earth (as for several Jules Verne stories), or on other planets (as with many Edgar Rice Burroughs series), or in entirely imaginary worlds (as with Oz and Narnia).
When I first started thinking about the purpose of portal fantasies, I had thought this was something of an evolutionary process: that completely independent “secondary world” settings were not possible until fantastic literature had liberated itself from the tradition of travelers’ tales and a sincere belief in the fantastic. But I’ve come to realize that was just a sense of smug modernist superiority on my part. I won’t even excuse it as being naive. One clear counter-example to a purely evolutionary view of portal fantasies is the author’s note at the end of Cavendish’s Blazing World, mentioned previously, which emphasizes the point that the story is entirely a self-conscious imaginative creation, although it’s framed otherwise, and Cavendish encourages other authors to create worlds of their own to enjoy like she has.
Still and all, the use of a portal or bridge to move the protagonist from the familiar “real” world into one where impossibilities are possible has immense power. It doesn’t merely suspend disbelief but breaks it. “Yes, I know that couldn’t happen in the world around us, but if you go travel through this tunnel, if you open the right door, if you sail over the edge of the sea, then you enter a different world entirely. And in that world the rules are different.”
That brings me back to the real topic of this essay, which was sparked by a conversation on Twitter about those of us who, when we were young, read adventure stories of cross-dressing girls with a secret hope that they would end in same-sex romance. As Emma Donoghue put it in Inseparable, her work on desire between women in literature across the ages: “Disguise plots have allowed writers to explore, as if between quotation marks or parentheses, all sorts of possibilities. By far the most popular has been the idea of accidental desire between women.”
That’s when the idea of cross-dressing plots as a portal fantasy hit me. Just like the wardrobe that led to Narnia, or the mysterious tunnel to the center of the Earth, the act of gender disguise creates an opening in the world, a doorway that conveys the character--or the reader--from a world in which desire only happens between men and women, to one where desire between women is a possible reality.
Both parties to the disguise are offered the world on the other side of the portal. The non-disguised woman has the opportunity to fix her desire on a specific (female) individual before being required to confront the transgressive nature of her desire. And the disguised woman has the opportunity to experience (and potentially return) being desired by a woman while being temporarily constrained from objecting to that desire on the grounds of gender. The use of the cross-dressing motif enables the characters to move from a world where heteronormative expectations make it impossible for them to imagine desiring each other (much less admitting to it and acting on it), to an imagined world in which the fantastic is not only possible but inevitable.
In the context of my research into lesbian-like motifs in history, I’ve cast a rather wide net in terms of looking at cross-dressing and gender passing, both as a literary motif and in real life. I’ve also noted that--especially in real life--it can be difficult to draw a clear line between understanding these persons as taking on a disguise or as being transgender, especially given the differences in what models and concepts were available at the time. To a large extent, those aren’t even the right questions to ask about gender and sexuality in history. But in this essay I’m looking specifically at fictional depictions where the two individuals are both depicted as having a female identity at the time they first meet (although magical sex-change may later be invoked to create a heteronormative resolution), and where the romantic potential is enabled by the fact that one of them is presenting as male, unknown to the other at that time.
Now it isn’t much of a spoiler to note that it’s vanishingly rare in pre-modern literature, for the intersection of these motifs to have an ending that reads as “happily ever after as two women together.” And I suspect that modern literature has offered a fairly brief window between the era when that happily ever after ending became viable within the social context of publishing, and the era when the gender-disguise motif became considered quaintly retro. This essay is more about illusory possibilities. About unintended payoffs to those of us looking for same-sex romance. About those brief transient moments in a narrative that was never intended for us, when we were allowed to believe that the story might end differently this time. And on such scraps of hope we survived. And make no mistake, the stories I’ll be discussing here are only scraps. But scraps are better than nothing and they’re a foundation to build on in our own historical fiction.
The various stories I’m going to talk about here could be categorized in many ways. One might trace “tale types” such as the various interpretations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe or the assortment of romantic quadrangle plots that include Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night, which employ a cross-dressing woman as romantic go-between from the man she loves to the woman who loves her. But I thought it would be interesting to group them according to the scope of the disguise and the direction, persistence, and resolution of the romantic attraction.
One of the oldest and most classic motifs is:
Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; This is resolved by a Divine Sex-Change
The oldest version of this--the one that the others derive from-- is the story of Iphis and Ianthe, a Latin epic poem by Ovid, written early in the 1st century. This story is part of his Metamorphoses. Iphis is raised as a boy to escape infanticide by her father and falls mutually in love with her childhood friend Ianthe to whom her parents betroth her. Iphis very clearly experiences love and desire for Ianthe and expresses at some length the frustration that, as a woman herself, there is nothing she can do to fulfil that desire. Ianthe believes, more straightforwardly, that she is in love with a boy. Things progress apace toward a wedding with Iphis worried about what will happen when Ianthe finds out the truth. Then Iphis’s mother (who was responsible for the disguise in the first place) takes Iphis to the temple of Io on the eve of the wedding and prays for an answer. A miracle occurs. Iphis is transformed by divine interventoin into a man and the marriage goes forward.
This, of course, is more easily understood as a transgender myth, rather than a lesbian one. In many ways, the classical and medieval understandings of gender and sexuality were more friendly to transgender resolutions of such stories than to homosexual ones. There’s room enough for the story to be embraced from both angles. Iphis clearly identifies as a woman in disguise up to the point of the miracle. But she also embraces the change as a means of being with the woman she loves.
This story was revived multiple times across the centuries. A French drama of the early 17th century by Isaac de Benserade follows the same basic plot but postpones the divine sex-change until after the wedding, allowing for the implication that the two women have, in fact, experienced what is presented as an enjoyable wedding night together.
Iphis and Ianthe was also the inspiration for the medieval French tale Yde et Olive that appears in a number of different versions. The first is an anonymous French epic poem from around 1300 and there’s a slightly different prose version in the 15th century. The story is part of the genealogical epic Huon de Bordeaux. As a genealogical epic (aside from other considerations) the tale has a biological imperative for the central characters to have offspring.
Yde runs away from home to escape her father’s incestuous advances and disguises herself as a knight to make her way in the world. She gains the gratitude of the Emperor of Rome who offers her his daughter Olive’s hand in marriage. Olive has rejected her other suitors but falls deeply in love with Yde. Yde at first begs off on the engagement, arguing that she isn’t of noble enough birth for an emperor’s daughter, but this is overcome in part because of Olive’s eagerness for the match. The wedding takes place but Yde avoids consummating it with a plea of illness (for which we may understand she’s claiming impotence). Instead she satisfies Olive with kisses and embraces. But eventually Olive can’t be put off any longer and Yde reveals her true sex. Olive, surprisingly enough, vows to continue with the marriage and treat Yde as she would a male husband. Unfortunately, an eavesdropper hears this conversation and betrays them to the emperor who feels the need to condemn them both. In one version there is a complicated diversionary tactic involving Yde being required to take a bath before witnesses and a magical stag that interrupts the proceedings before she can be betrayed. But before the sentence of death can be carried out, Yde is miraculously transformed into a man, making everything ok.
There’s a slightly different ending in the next group, which is:
Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; We are Rescued by a Convenient Twin Brother (or Other Close Relative)
Keep track of the “convenient twin brother” motif because we’ll be seeing it again, although this one isn’t really a good example of that escape hatch.
Another version of the story of Yde and Olive is titled Miracle de la fille d’un roy “Miracle of a King’s Daughter”, an anonymous French drama of the 14th century. Among other minor details, such as naming the protagonist Ysabel, this version differs in resolving the transient “problem” of the same-sex marriage by having Yde’s father--remember the guy she ran away from home to escape?--well, he shows up at the last moment, whereupon each woman is married off to the other’s father. This definitely falls in the category of “medieval people had a weird idea of happily ever after.”
One of the things you discover when you start looking at non-Christian literary traditions, is that a lot of the expectations you might have taken for grated get thrown out the window. Although I’ve oversimplified some of the interpersonal dynamics in this one, we can still call it:
Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; We Live Happily Ever After But It’s Complicated
One of the stories in the Arabic literary tradition that eventually became codified as the Thousand and One Nights, is that of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour. The episode we’re interseted in here is only one small part of the complex saga in the original. This story has some family resemblances to Yde and Olive but is strikingly different in how it treats the relationship between its female protagonists after the marriage. Being free from some of the constraints of Christian literature, it achieves a resolution in which the two women continue to share a household, albeit as co-wives of the same man. Boudour is traveling with her husband Qamar. When he mysteriously disappears, she puts on his clothes and takes his name to protect herself. She arrives at the Isle of Ebony, whose king wishes to retire from the throne. He forces Boudour to marry his daughter Hayat al-Nefous and became his heir. Boudoir puts off revealing her secret to Hayat for several days after the wedding, but in the mean time satisfies her erotically with caresses and kisses. After finally revealing her true sex, the two live happily as a married couple until the real Qamar al-Zaman shows up. At that point, Boudour explains everything and abdicates the throne in her husbands' favor, after which Qamar takes Hayat as his second wife with Boudour stipulating that they (the wives) will share a house together.
Although a resolution ending in marriage usually required some sort of transformation or substitution, sometimes you get:
Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; But Once You Know the Truth We Can Only be Friends
The romance of Amadis de Gaule was the medieval equivalent of a best-seller, having multiple anonymous versions in French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the 14th and15th century. But the best known version is a Spanish reworking by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo written around 1500. This is a long, sprawling, complex tale (like many of the medieval romance cycles) and the cross-dressed ladies appear in minor episodes appended to the main story. Although there are two different stories involving disguised women, they may, in fact, be variants of the same underlying tale.
Both Oronce and La Belle Sauvage engage in martial deeds (with armor playing some part in their gender disguise). Oronce has been fighting for the cause of a duchess (who believes her to be a man). The duchess first catches sight of Oronce’s face as she takes off her armor and the duchess’s admiration turns to desperate love when she sees Oronce’s “delicate rosy beauty.” Mind you, she still thinks Oronce is a man while having this reaction. One of the interesting aspects of medieval literature is that the standards for male and female beauty are often quite similar.
But Oronce has a second admirer as well. The princess Licinie is distracted from her efforts to free her imprisoned brother by Oronce’s beauty and also falls desperately in love. And then a third woman, a queen, is similarly smitten with Oronce. She is distressed to discover that the object of her affection is a woman, but the duchess (who has gone through the same discovery and disappointment earlier) consoles her that at least they both found out before making fools of themselves in public.
The princess Licinie, though, has been so traumatized by discovering her “error” in falling in love with a disguised woman that she scrutinizes a later object of affection for signs that his attractive beauty also signals an underlying female identity. Think of it as the same sort of gender panic we see today with transgender bathroom legislation, where suddenly almost anyone can find themself accused of not meeting the requirements for acceptable gender presentation.
In the same story cycle, La Belle Sauvage similarly enchants the young lady she serves as a chevalier, and the narrator points out that La Belle Sauvage possesses a type of beauty such that that she will attract both men and women, depending on which gender’s clothing she wears. There is some indication in the stories that these female knights kept the admiration of their female admirers even after the discovery of their sex, although only as a sincere platonic affection.
Not all cases of attraction to women in disguise are treated as harmless mistakes. In the sex-negative world of early saints’ lives, sexual desire of any type is frowned on, leading to stories of the form:
Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Then Things Get Ugly
This motif shows up in multiple variations in the genre of early saints’ biographies involving gender disguise in order for a woman to enter a male-only monastery. The particular tale-type covered here is attributed to several different saints, including Saint Margarita or Pelagius and Saint Eugenia, among others. The general plot involves a holy woman who disguises herself as a man in order to enter a male-only monastic institution for religious purposes. In this disguise, she becomes the unwilling object of desire from a woman she interacts with.
In the case of Eugenia, she heals the woman, who then develops a romantic fixation on her. Eugenia rebuffs the woman who then accuses her of rape. In the case of Margarita, she is appointed as prior of a women’s convent and the portress there becomes pregnant and names Margarita as the father. Margarita silently accepts the accusation and is expelled from the convent in disgrace. Saint Marina has a similar story to Margarita’s, but when she silently accepts being named as the father of the child, she then takes responsibility for raising it. Being saints, none of these women ever are shown returning the romantic desires of their accusers.
This same general shape of story appears in the French romance of Silence written by Heldris de Cornualle, around 1200. Silence’s parents have raised her as a boy so that she can inherit due to a prohibition on female heirs. She goes off to have adventures and achieves knightly renown in this guise. This brings her to the English court and the amorous (and adultrous) attention of Queen Eufeme. Silence doesn’t return the queen’s desire (though it isn’t entirely clear whether she rejects same-sex desire in general or--as she claims in the text--simply rejects adultery). In revenge, Queen Eupheme accuses her of sexual assault and has her sent off on an impossible quest, intending it to be fatal. Various adventures ensue and Silence returns to the court with her honor vindicated, but Merlin reveals her secret and so uncovers the queen’s lies. The queen is executed and Silence returns to life as a woman, the inheritance laws are reversed to allow women to inherit, and the king marries her (with the late queen barely cold in her grave).
These tales where the romantic desire is one-sided don’t always result in tragedy. Sometimes we get:
Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Once You Know the Truth We Can be Friends
The most familiar story of this group is probably Shakespeare’s As You Like It written around 1600. In one of Shakespeare’s typically convoluted tales of multiple romances and mistaken identities, Rosalind (in male disguise as Ganymede) and her cousin Celia are wandering in the Forest of Arden after Rosalind has been exiled by Celia’s father, the Duke. In the forest they fall in with some shepherds, including Silvius who has just had his love scorned by the shepherdess Phoebe. Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind as Ganymede, but Rosalind has always been in love with Orlando, who is also wandering the forest for his own reasons. Phoebe’s attraction, however, does not outlast the revelation of Rosalind’s true sex and she then happily pairs off with the shepherd Silvius. It’s a lot more complicated that that, though. It is Shakespeare after all.
A more obscure version of the motif, also from English drama around 1600, is in the play James the Fourth by Robert Greene. Skipping some really complicated background to the plot, Dorothea, the rejected wife of the King of Scotland has fled the court in male disguise to escape an assassain. She has conveniently received a brief lesson in swordplay for her protection and to assist the masquerade. The assassin pursues Dorothea, aware of her disguise. They fight and Dorothea is wounded and is rescued and nursed by Lady Anderson, who then falls in love with her wounded guest, claiming that she will “blush, grieve, and die in ... insatiate lust” if not loved in return. This is not exactly welcome news to Lord Anderson, but he’s called away to war, giving Dorothea and Lady Anderson opportunity for a confusing conversation in which Dorothea gently refuses the lady’s love without revealing her secret, and then explains that she’s really the missing Queen of Scotland that everyone is out hunting for. In the midst of this, Dorothea assures Lady Anderson she loves her as a friend, and Lady Anderson’s previous protestations of love are quietly forgotten.
In many gender disguise plots, we are teased with the idea that the object of desire is not determined by anatomy. But this isn’t always the case, as in the somewhat changeable affections found in:
Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Then we are Rescued by a Divine Sex-Change and Now I Do Love You
The story of Tristan de Nanteuil an anonymous, French romance written in the late 14th century, is part of the extended Arthurian story cycle. Think of it as a sort of medieval Arthurian fan-fiction craze. The lady Blanchandine is Tristan’s wife and disguises herself as a man in order to accompany him on campaign and hide from her father who disapproved of the match. While in disguise, she comes to the amorous attention of the Saracen princess Clarinde. When Tristan is briefly believed dead, Blanchandine is pressured into marrying Clarinde. She weasels out of performing her marital duties, which would reveal her true sex, with her predicament culminating in a “public bath test” similar to that in Yde and Olive. As in the tale of Yde, the test is interrupted by the appearance of a supernatural stag. You wonder how many supernatural stags were running around in the woods, looking for people having their gender tested by a public bath!
Blanchandine pursues the stag and, when lost in the forest, has a mystical encounter where she is offered the choice of a divine sex-change. Figuring that it’s a good way out of her dilemma (and still believing Tristan to be dead), Blanchandine takes the offer. Instantly, the now-male Blanchandine becomes romantically interested in Clarinde and--when Tristan unexpectedly turns up alive--is no longer romantically interested in him. This sort of biologically determined desire is actually rare in gender disguise stories. People may conclude that their love is impossible due to the sex of their loved one, but generally the desire itself is acknowledged.
Gender-confusion romances that resolve into friendships are nice, but in general literature likes to finish a story with a romance. If the audience wasn’t yet ready for a same-sex romance, then the resolution could either deploy a gender-change or deflect the romantic feelings onto another character. One way to have your cake and eat it too was to come up with a romantic object who was essentially identical except for being an approved gender. Hence the surprising frequency of identical fraternal twin brothers. I call this next group:
Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; We are Rescued by a Convenient Twin Brother (or Other Close Relative)
One of the classics of Italian Renaissance literature was Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, published in the early 16th century. The gender bending is part of what inspired Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at a later date, but here we’re concerned with the original. The Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the Amazon warrior Bradamante, believing her to be a man. In this case, Bradamante isn’t deliberately disguising herself as a man, it’s just that people assume that someone charging around the landscape in armor must be male. Fiordispina’s desire continues after discovering her error, even in the face of Bradamante’s attempts to dissuade her. I have some excerpts from this in my podcast on female knights in shining armor. Finally Fiordispina is deflected onto an acceptable romantic object, via the convenient twin brother motif, though in a somewhat creepy guise. Bradamante’s brother Ricciardetto pretends to be his sister in order to get Fiordispina in bed at which point he claims that he’s a divinely gender-transformed version of his sister. One might think that Fiordispina could tell the difference.
The original gender-disguise story that Shakespeare used in Twelfth Night becan as the Italian comedy Gl’Ingannati, first performed in 1537. The twin siblings Fabritio and Lelia are separated from each other during the sack of Rome. Lelia ends up in Modena where her former lover Flamineo lives. Lelia disguises herself as a male page to serve her ex. Flaminio, of course, doesn’t recognize her and sends her as a messenger to court his new beloved, Isabella. Isabella falls in love with Lelia instead. The brother, Fabritio, arrives in the nick of time to much confusion and several transfers of affections to sort out the characters into heterosexual couples when all is revealed.
The essential story is similar in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written around 1600. This time the twin siblings are Viola and Sebastian, separated during a shipwreck. Viola, cross-dressing as Cesario falls in love with Duke Orsinio but is sent by him as a love-emissary to the heiress Olivia. Olivia, of course, falls in love with Cesario. Viola (as Cesario) does express admiration for Olivia, although it’s be intended purely as part of her disguise. Fortunately for the resolution, the convenient twin brother Sebastian shows up in time to distract Olivia so that Duke Orsinio is free to realize he’s really in love with his former page-boy. Another aspect of all of these gender-confusion plots is that there’s fair amount of male same-sex romance being portrayed here as well.
Not all gender disguises on stage were done with innocent intent, especially as we move into the more cynical 17th century. Seduction for the sake of revenge features in a number of motifs. We’ll start with:
I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and Seduce You to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love
In the mid 17th century Margaret Cavendish--the same woman who wrote the portal fantasy The Blazing World that I mentioned at the beginning of the show--wrote a tangled farce entitled Matrimonial Trouble. This is evidently a complex, multi-threaded plot but I have been unable to dig up the details beyond an incident where Mistress Forsaken disguises herself as a man to attend her (male) ex-lover’s wedding in order to seduce his new wife.
A similar motivation appears in a French drama titled La Femme, Juge, et partie “The Wife, Judge, and Accuser” by Antoine Jacob Montfleury, again from the mid 17th century. A wronged wife disguises herself as a man to seduce her husband’s new fiancée. I’ve included these seduction-while-disguised plots because part of the drama is that the target of the seduction is shown as being attracted to her disguised rival. So they continue to show cross-dressing as a window on the possibility of same-sex attraction.
An unexpected twist shows up in the variant I call:
I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and Seduce You to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love; But We Fall in Love Instead; and Tragedy Ensues
This is another English play from the mid 17th century, titled Brennoralt by Sir John Suckling. Bear with me because the plot is compicated. Iphigene is jealous of the attention her (male) object of affection Almerin is paying to Francelia, so Iphigene disguises herself as a man to court Francelia in order to distract her away from Almerin. That would leave Alermin lonely so he’d turn back to Iphigene. But Francelia becomes enamored of Iphigene and they spend the night together. When Almerin catches them together in the morning, he believes Francelia has been unfaithful to him with a strange man, that is, Iphegene. In a fit of jealousy he stabs them both. As the two women lie dying in each others’ arms, now that Iphigene’s true sex is revealed, Francelia rejects Almerin in favor of Iphigene, preferring her love to his. Alas, they die.
Here’s another peculiar variant of disguise and revenge that I call:
I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and You’re Going to Seduce Me to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love
In the early 17th century play The Doubtful Heir by James Shirley, we have the usual farcical tangle of relationships. King Ferdinand is a notorious philanderer and is neglecting his beautiful queen Olivia in favor of his mistress Rosania. But for logistical reasons, Rosania is disguised as a boy, Tiberio, and playing the part of the page boy to the king. Queen Olivia decides to take revenge on her husband by seducing his page--who is actually the disguised mistress Rosania. King Ferdinand encourages this encounter in order to distract Olivia and let her think she’s pulling one over on him. The two women have a rather hot and heavy make-out session, though it doesn’t go far enough for the disguise to be revealed at the time.
Leaving behind these stories of seduction and revenge, let’s finish the stories of love and gender disguise with three that are very individual in their structure. The first, although presented in fictionalized form, was inspired by true events. Let’s describe it as:
I Disguise Myself as a Man to Court You, and You Love Me Back, Possibly Well Aware That I’m a Woman; Drama and Tragedy Ensue
This is taken from the text An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani an adapted translation from the Italian original by John Cleland, written in 1751. This example is somewhat marginal to the theme of this podcast, given that it purports to be biography (though in an era when many an invention was marketed as a “true history”) and that at least some of Catherine’s lovers were well aware that she was a woman despite the male clothing. But there are definitely episodes that fit the literary motif of the idea of same-sex love being made possible by the gender disguise. Catherine Vizzani knew she was romantically attracted to women from an early age and, somewhat surprisingly, her parents seem to have shrugged and done what they could to help her pursue happiness. She courted one woman at first in the context of female pursuits such as sewing lessons, but also disguised herself as a man to serenade her at her window at night. When that relationship didn’t pan out, Catherine continued living as a man, though the course of various odd jobs, and several more girlfriends. She meets her downfall when she persuades one woman to elope with her and is shot during the pursuit and subsequently dies. I did an entire episode on Catherine Vizzani which you can listen to for more details.
One of the most intriguing variations on the Iphis and Ianthe story can be summed up as:
We are Both in Disguise and Both Think We Love a Man; But We’re OK with Being Women in Love Too When We Find Out; But We are Rescued by a Divine Sex-Change
This late 16th century neo-classical romp by John Lyly is titled Gallathea after one of the female protagonists. Here is a plot with serious gender-bending potential. Both women--Gallathea and Phillida--are going about in male disguise and not only find themselves objects of desire for Diana’s nymphs (who, of course, were notoriously disdainful of men, so one has to suspect they knew exactly who it was they were flirting with) but both women fall in love with each other, each initially believing she is safely in love with a man. The story progresses through their dawning awareness as each woman begins to suspect the other woman is employing the same disguise she is. Yet they continue their romantic pursuit. When the truth comes out, their romance is brought to judgment before two goddesses. The Goddess Diana lectures them sternly about chastity and tells the to abandon their passion, but the Goddess Venus approves of their passion and is willing to do what it takes to enable it. The two women declare that they will love each other--and only each other--forever no matter what. So Venus offers to turn one of them into a man. Gallathea and Phillida are ok with that, as long as they can stay together as a couple. They leave it up to Venus to pick which one of them gets changed, but the play leaves off before the actual transformation occurs. So technically the play ends with two women publicly announcing their mutual love for each other and their intention to marry. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.
Gender disguise plots are less commonly an opportunity for same-sex desire as we leave the Renaissance behind, but I’d hate to leave without a mention of one of my favorite gender-queer romps of all time, which we can sum up as:
Due to My Male Disguise You are Uninterested in Me, But Once You Know the My True Sex We Can be Romantic Friends and Romp Across Europe Together, Both in Male Disguise, and Then Live Happily Ever After As Women
This is, of course, the mid 18th century picaresque novel, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu. The category description pretty much sums up the entire plot. Alithea de Richelieu, having achieved economic independence, decides to go traveling, disguising herself as a man, the Chevalier de Radpont, for convenience and safety. She regularly flirts with women she encounters, though always crying off it if gets too serious, until she encounters the lovely widow Arabella de Montferan. Arabella’s previous marriage was such a disaster that she now rebuffs all men. Alithea pursues her in vain and can only win her friendship by revealing her own true sex, at which point they pledge eternal friendship and embrace passionately. Arabella decides the only way she can join Alithea on her adventures and yet maintain her reputation is to join her in cross-dressing. They indulge in regular teasing along the lines of “if only one of us were what we pretend to be, we could marry.” And, in the end, after returning home from their adventures and returning to women’s clothing, they vow to spend the rest of their lives together and never marry. And that’s what they do. I’ve also done a separate podcast entirely on this novel, with excerpts of all of the juicy parts.
Alithea and Arabella make a perfect conclusion to this exploration of the romantic portal-worlds made possible by gender disguise. Without the initial cross-dressing, Alithea would never have gone on her adventures. But it isn’t the disguised Chevalier de Radpont who wins the heart of the widow Arabella, only Alithea in her true self as a woman can do that. And it is through their parallel flirtations with other women, while both of them are disguised as men, that they begin to realize how much they each want to be each other’s romantic object. Their desire is displaced, not onto acceptable male objects, but onto safely unobtainable female ones, until they are ready to settle down together. Their journey through Europe takes them through that portal and out the other side. If they are not yet able--in the 18th century--to put a name to what they have together, certainly we can recognize it for happily ever after.
References and Tags
For general discussions of female cross-dressing in literature and real life see the following:
I'm starting a series of four articles from a collection entitled Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. After this first article, the others group nicely to cover shifts in cultural understandings of gender and sexuality categories in western Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. If it weren't for the blog's structure of covering the contents of a collection in series, I'd pair this current article with another one I have coming up on the sexual context of cross-dressing in the medieval Middle East. So you'll have to "hold that thought" for another month until I get to it.
I've just spent the weekend in New York City at a conference on dress and fashion in medieval history (which my girlfriend was one of the organizers for) and had the fun of meeting a scholar whose work has appeared in this blog: Francesca Canadé Sautman, one of the editors of the collection Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. Though, in the way of academia, her paper this weekend had nothing to do with sexuality, but was on 15th century Burgundian women's head coverings.
During the end-of-conference discussion session I was tossed the assignment to answer an audience member's question about medieval cross-dressing and gender identity. I'm not sure that my answer was any more coherent than "it's complicated, talk to me during the lunch break." But it was fun to participate to that extent. (And I've been once again inspired to start working on a paper on the topic of medieval cross-dressing for the Kalamazoo medieval congress at some point in the future.)
Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The categorization of gender and sexual irregularity in medieval Arabic vice lists” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Rowson, Everett K. "The Categorization of Gender and Sexual Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists "
Western interpretations of variant sexuality in Middle Eastern societies have often been filtered through stereotypes and Orientalism. There can be a fixation on certain key gender-related social differences, such as the harem and the veil. From an early date, Western commentaries have attributed to Islamic societies the acceptance or promotion of self-indulgence, licentiousness, and sexual deviance--views that often say more about Western attitudes than Islamic ones. This article examines certain aspects of the underlying historic reality of the cultural differences that gave rise to those stereotypes, especially as expressed in “lists of vices” in medieval Islamic literature.
Although legal and medical literature in Arabic also touches on sexual variance, these lists and discussions come from a more literary genre, which gives us better insight into everyday attitudes, at least of their literate, urban, elite, male audiences. The texts are generally encyclopedic works that include stories, proverbs, discussions of literary tropes, and other genres. Not all such works cover sexuality, but in those that do, the structure and organization of the text sheds much light on how their societies viewed gender and sexuality, especially when they strayed into irregular behavior.
The content of the volumes cannot always be assumed to reflect precisely contemporary attitudes, as material that entered the genre, for example, in the 9th century, remained in use unchanged in subsequent collections for the next millennium. New material is added over time, which can provide clues to changes in attitude, but the continuity of material is itself illuminating.
The material covered in this article falls generally under the topic of “profligacy”, that is, behavior that was considered outside societal norms. The literary texts imply a fairly indulgent attitude toward such transgressions, but this cannot be taken literally as indicating indulgence in everyday life. Furthermore, although the author of one of these works may tell stories of profligacy on himself, it can’t be assumed automatically to reflect his actual behavior. But the genre certainly gives evidence for attitudes, especially the humorous material which relies of certain social assumptions and attitudes for its “punchline”.
The humorous anecdotes give evidence for the relative importance of sexual behavior, choice of sexual object, and gender stereotyping. As humor, it pokes fun at those who deviate from approved modes, but without necessarily applying moral judgment. Inappropriate sex was funny but not necessarily immoral. As a literary genre (as opposed to a factual account), the humor could be mitigated by a contrast of desire and action. One might admit personally to inappropriate desires but retain one’s dignity by not admitting to indulging in them. When the humor was directed externally rather than internally, it was more likely to reflect an underlying hostility to the behavior.
As an illustrative example, the author reviews the contents of the 11th century work by al-Jurjānī The Book of Metonymic Expressions of the Litterateurs and Allusive Phrases of the Eloquent, an instruction manual for speaking of indecent or ill-omened topics obliquely. Nine chapters cover sexual matters, in a hierarchical fashion going from the least negative topics to the most negative. The ways that the topics are grouped within these chapters, as well as the hierarchy, give insight into underlying cultural assumptions--in particular, they point up the contrast in Western sexual assumptions with the structures implicit in this text.
The primary focus is on identifying sexually illicit topics, while there is also a cultural assumption that the book’s audience (and therefore the book’s viewpoint) is an adult male whose sexual identity is as someone who takes the active part in penetrative sex. [Note: Although only a small part of the text is relevant to the topic of women having sex with women, it’s useful to have a brief tour of the larger structure.]
The first chapter concerns fornication--that is, a man having penetrative sex with a woman he does not have legal access to. This is followed by three chapters covering other deviations from “normative” sex: failure of the sex act due to male impotence, sex with a virgin, and anal sex with a woman. The next chapter completes the possibilities for illicit penetrative sex: sex with a boy. The book then moves on to non-penetrative sexual activities with a set of topics that might otherwise seem a random collection: inter-crural sex, male masturbation, and sex between women. The common factor, however, is the absence of a penetrative sex act. (Penetration was not considered a typical part of sexual activity between women.) Moving on to less acceptable sexual modes, there is a chapter on an adult man who is the passive recipient of penetrative sex. The last two chapters cover the social context of sex: the question of sexual jealousy (and lack thereof), and the act of pandering (procuring a sex partner for a third party).
For the rest of the article, I’m only going to summarize the section of the one chapter that includes sex between women.
The usual term for sex between women was saḥq literally “rubbing, pounding.” But the metaphoric euphemisms in al-Jurjānī’s work are all male-centered and disapproving (being intended for the use of male poets): “a war in which there is no spear-thrusting”, “a shield with a shield”, “a seashell whose edges close over another seashell”. But at the same time, anecdotes are given that indicate the existence of such relationships. And other euphemisms are given that appear more neutral, such as saying that someone “eats figs” to imply sex between women. [Note: I'm going to guess that this is a image metaphor of a ripe fig that has split open, to display the pink flesh inside, and is specifically a reference to oral sex.]
Another author, al-Rāghib (The Colloquies of the Litterateurs, also 11th century?) has a few more details on the possibilities of sex between women, including the use of dildoes (though this specific element is placed in the chapter on penetrative sex, again showint the hierarchy of concerns--the point isn't the type of partner, but the act of penetration). Al-Rāghib includes an anecdote in which a woman expresses a preference for saḥq over heterosexual sex, but outweighs it with several in which sex between women is presented as a dispreferred option. There is also a general failure to distinguish between female masturbation and sex between women. In general, saḥq is framed as a rejection of men (and typically of penetration in general) and he cites a legendary origin of the practice in pre-Islamic times in a love affair between an Arab noblewoman and the wife of a Christian Arab.
Although sex between men in Arabic sources sometimes involves feminization of the passive partner, there is no indication that sex between women was associated with women taking on masculine traits or dress. Nor is there any reference to an active-passive distinction between women (where such a distinction is critical to the acceptability of male-male relations). There are literary references to women adopting masculine behaviors: wearing male clothing, carrying swords, riding horseback, etc. (more in the 7-8th centuries when the practice of seclusion was less rigorous) but this was not associated in the popular mind with sexual irregularity. One class of ritualized female cross-dressing was the ghulāmīyāt--slave entertainers who dressed like pubescent boys or young men (complete with painted mustaches in some cases)--which were popular in 9th century Baghdad. However this form of cross-dressing was associated with providing pleasure to men who enjoyed sex with boys, not to an adoption of a male role in reference to a female sexual partner. [Note: I have another article coming up in the queue that goes into this topic in more detail.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20c - Book Appreciation with Elizabeth Bear
(Originally aired 2018/03/17 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or other guests) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Elizabeth Bear recommends a favorite queer historical novels:
· Everfair by Nisi Shawl https://www.amazon.com/Everfair-Novel-Nisi-Shawl/dp/0765338068/?tag=skpl...
· Everfair is a alternate steampunk history of colonial Congo, with a lovely wealth of queer characters rooted in the historic understandings of sexuality of the times.
For further information on Elizabeth Bear see her Patreon or the show notes for the previous episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast when she was interviewed.
No transcript is available for this episode.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21b - Interview with Alyssa Cole - (transcript not available)
(Originally aired 2018/04/14 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about
“Be Not Afraid” by Alyssa Cole in For Love & Liberty: Untold love stories of the American Revolution - the story of Andromeda’s grandparents
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole - A secondary character in this book is a non-binary woman who is a sapeur, a “dandy”, and who will have a f/f romance in a forthcoming book
Anne of the Wild Rose Inn by Jennifer Armstrong - an early inspiration for Alyssa’s historical interests
Twitter & Instagram:
Any time I'm obsessed with a particular text, I'm likely to spend a fair amount of effort to hunt down as much of the scholarly literature on it as I can. (I don't think I can ever exhaust my interest in commentary on Yde and Olive!) For one thing, lesbian historical studies have something of a history of jumping to lesbian-friendly interpretations of texts or persons, and it can be essential to examine contrary opinions. Clearly I need to track down Susan Lamb's analysis to see what I think of her arguments on Mademoiselle de Richelieu. (It will, of course, have no effect on my irrational fondness for this highly peculiar text.) Every time I read another study of this work, I get excited about the fiction project that it inspired in my imagination. Not the straightforward novelization that I first conceived, but something of a time-slip story, overlaying the original fiction with a pair of modern characters that include a woman studying the text. So many writing projects, so little time!
Gonda, Caroline. 2006. “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu” in British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 29, no. 2: 191-200.
Gonda examines the rather peculiar mid-18th century text The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu within the context of cross-dressing narratives and as a lesbian-like narrative (she doesn’t use that specific term), as well as comparing it with its highly abridged knock-off The Entertaining Travels and Surprizing Advenrures of Mademoiselle de Leurich.
Mlle. de Richelieu is an eclectic and peculiar text, including numerous digressions on hereditary monarchy, religion, philosophy, various types of literature, and travel narratives, as well as the core picaresque adventure retained in Mlle. de Leurich that Gonda concisely sums up thus: “The narrator/heroine Alithea de Richelieu dresses as a man, calls herself the Chevalier de Radpont, and goes around Europe flirting with women, mostly avoiding duels with men, hearing love-stories and scandals from the people she meets. ... [N]o one sees through her disguise, but she reveals her true sex to the charming widow Arabella, who is delighted by the revelation and becomes her inseparable companion: Alithea and Arabella, both dressed as men (and accompanied by their maids, Lucy and Diana, cross-dressed as their valets de chambre), wreak havoc in women’s hearts in Italy, Spain, and Portugal before returning to France (by way of England and the Low Countries), resuming their female dress and identities and settling down together, six months a year in Paris and six months in the country.”
Gonda summarizes some of the past literature on this text. Carolyn Woodward concludes that the heterogenous text is what allows and conceals the transgressive nature of the content. Susan Lamb views it as an anti-feminist satire, especially with its repeated emphasis on how two women cannot consummate their relationship, and suggests that it may instead be a gender-flipped account of a male homoerotic couple. Susan Lanser identifies it as “sapphic picaresque” and considers the homoerotic content bound up in the adventure setting.
The anonymous authorship contributes to the ability to postulate such different readings. The text presents itself as a translation (which might hypothetically explain some of the internal dissonances) but there is no corroborating evidence that it actually was originally in French as claimed. Lanser views the incongruities as part and parcel of the inherent queerness of the text.
Within the general context of “transvestite narratives” Mlle de Richelieu breaks convention. Joseph Harris’s study of 17th c French cross-dressing stories notes that they only temporarily challenge gender roles, returning to the status quo at the end, often by means of marriage. The conclusion of such narratives typically coincides with the revelation of the cross-dresser’s “true sex”. In contrast, it is Alithea’s revelation of her true sex to Arabella that initiates their travels together.
Another contrast with the texts that Harris studied is Alithea and Arabella’s continual flirtation with homoerotic desire, in contrast to the more usual situation where homoeroticism (though expected in the text) arises from an unwitting female admirer agressively pursuing the more restrained and avoidant cross-dresser. (The exception being texts where the cross-dresser is using her disguise to distract a female rival through feigned seduction.)
Alithea and Arabella, in contrast, regularly seek out women to court and flirt with, though they always draw back at the end. Gonda notes that the use of “whim” or “whimsical” in this context can be seen as an 18th century code word for lesbian desire. As when Arabella says of Alithea, “that unaccountable Whim of yours, of dabbling in Amours and Gallantry” as well as many other similar references in the text. “Unaccountable” is another keyword in contexts of female homoeroticism.
Arabella and Alithea also break the pattern of the “female husband” narrative, which is based on a sort of butch-femme model. Rather than embodying a gender contrast, they are both simultaneously butch (when traveling together in male disguise) or simultaneously femme (when they eventually settle down to live together as women).
It is not Alithea’s masculinity that secures Arabella’s desire, but her revelation of her female identity, uncovering her breasts, at which Arabella embraces her “with transports rather of a lover than of a friend.” Their erotic response to each other is intensified by the contrast between their public (male) appearance and their knowledge of their private (female) identity. Alithea, having initiated the cross-dressing adventure and encouraged Arabella in the game of flirtation with women, becomes obsessed and jealous of Arabella’s success at the game and women’s resposne to her.
Although one might see (as Susan Lamb suggests) a shadow of a male homosocial bond--two men as comrades using their flirtations with women as a way of intensifying their friendship--the text itself addresses this, showing male comradeship as false and dangerous.
The two women joke regularly about their attractiveness to women and egg each other on, ghost-writing letters for each other to the women they toy with and describing the imagined desire those women have for their comrade. When speaking directly of each other’s charms, it is typically in a projected male voice, imagining how a man would react (or how each of them would react as a man). They do not reject the possibility of desire for a woman, but rather make it possible to experss their desire for each other by voicing it as an imagined man.
The language in which they imagine the desire of men for women (it makes the men happy) stands in contrast to how they imagine women’s desire for men (it is a threat, a curse, foolish). Thus, they conclude that the idea of love is for a woman to be in love with a cross-dressed woman for she can enjoy the joys of love without being betrayed and disappointed by the “dull brutal conclusion” of heterosexual sex.
This theme is elaborated in one of the many digressions, this one involving yet another cross-dressing woman that Alithea is attracted to, not knowing the woman’s true sex, but only appreciating her “effeminate delicacy.” This woman, Miss Courbon, is in disguise to escape a forced marriage. She and Alithea encounter each other, each beliving the other a man, resulting in an unsettled reaction in Alithea who considers it out of character for her to be attracted to a man. It isn’t until Alithea is made aware of Miss Courbon’s true sex that Alithea enters enthusiastically into a flirtation. (Susan Lamb notes that the location in Paris where the two first encounter each other was a notorious cruising ground for male homosexuals, which contributes to her theory about authorship. The nature of the location is not touched on the text itself.) This episode occurs early in the text (pre-Arabella) and is the first of Alithea’s flirtations to be described, establishing the pattern that her affairs with women occur in the context of dual cross-dressing.
Thoughout the text, women who allow themselves to be seduced by men habitually suffer as a result. Miss Courbon eventually is one such, with the negative consequences described in more detail than others. Miss Courbon follows a more typical cross-dressing narrative: disguise for the purpose of avoiding forced marriage, inadvertent attraction between women, shift attraction to a man and resume a female presentation, get married. In the conventional cross-dressing narrative, this is the desired conclusion. Here, the rejection of that narrative is seen as making her fate tragic.
While Mlle. de Richelieu breaks with the French transvestite-story conventions, it also fails to follow British conventions for this genre. The pattern in 18th century British fiction is for the cross-dressing woman either to be re-confined in heterosexual domesticity, or punished harshly for her transgression of gender norms.
In the conclusion, Mlle. de Richelieu creates a “double vision” where Alithea and Arabella can be seen either as a “happily ever after” lesbian romantic conclusion, or as a displacement and denial of lesbian desire, always projecting it onto other women.