Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41d - Lesbian Vikings - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/12/28 - listen here)
I love it when people ask me to research a specific topic. But sometimes the short answer to their question is “We know next to nothing about this topic.” That doesn’t mean that that the long answer isn’t interesting. Someone once asked me what I could tell them about Pictish personal names and I spent fifty pages explaining that we know almost nothing about Pictish personal names, and presenting that “almost nothing” in great detail.
So when a friend on Twitter asked me if I could do a show about lesbian Vikings, I didn’t let the knowledge that we have almost no information about non-normative sexuality in the Viking era stop me from putting a show together. I have a somewhat personal stake in the topic because one of my writing project files is for a story I short-hand as “Viking girl kidnaps Welsh princess.” So I’ve done a fair amount of background reading on relevant subjects.
But perhaps the best summary on the topic of homosexuality in the Viking era and culture has been put together by Christie Ward-Wieland who has a research blog aimed at historic re-enactment under the name “The Viking Answer Lady”. She has a very detailed analysis of the available data and interpretation, though most of it is concerned with men rather than women. I’ll be summarizing her work and then moving on to discussing various themes and tropes of interest to writing historical fiction. Then I’ll finish the show with a survey of Viking-themed f/f historical fiction that I’ve been able to find, although I’ll note in advance that most of them are much more on the fantasy side than the historical side.
What do we mean by “Viking”?
To start out with, what exactly do we mean by “Viking”? As pedants will cheerfully point out, Viking isn’t an ethnicity, it’s a job description. Loosely speaking, the Vikings were early medieval Scandinavians who supplemented their agricultural and merchant activities by using maritime superiority to plunder coastal communities (and some not so coastal) around northern Europe.
The Viking era is generally considered to run from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries. Although the core base of operations for the Vikings began in Scandinavia, their explorations, settlements, and cultural interactions spread into Russia in the east, Byzantium and northern Africa in the south, and in the west, on past the British Isles to settle Iceland, claim Greenland, and even try some unsuccessful settlements in North America.
The modern image of the Vikings as uncouth barbarians is hard to shake, but the truths of early medieval Scandinavian culture is much more complex and fascinating. I wish I had time to go into more detail, but let’s just say that while Hollywood Vikings make a big splash in the historical fiction field, there are even more fascinating stories to be told.
Some essential background will be useful. One of the big reasons for Viking expansion and raiding comes from the realities of an agricultural economy in the far north of Europe. The growing season is short, the land is often poor, and the opportunities for an expanding population are mostly elsewhere. Ship voyages--whether for trade or for pillaging--took place in the summer which was also prime growing season. The most common pattern was gendered, with men traveling away with the intent of bringing back portable wealth, and women running the economy at home, including looking after the crops and livestock, producing food and clothing. Women did sometimes travel with the ships, and Norse settlements in Iceland and Greenland certainly depended on entire families going on the voyage. But it is both inescapable and relevant that early medieval Norse society was organized along gendered lines. Those lines were crossed--both historically and in literature--and the ways the culture reacted to those crossings tells us much about the possibilities for variant sexuality.
Homosexuality in Viking Culture
In Ward-Wieland’s article on how Viking-era Norse societies viewed homosexuality, the vast majority of her discussion concerns men. And, as with most historic societies, we can’t assume that attitudes toward male and female homosexuality were parallel. A great deal of the Norse data we have regarding men focuses around anxieties about being seen as a passive participant in anal sex within the context of a society deeply concerned with reputation and manly honor.
As these concerns were strongly gendered and did not apply to women, there’s no reason to extrapolate and conclude that Norse society felt that a woman participating in same-sex activity in any role would necessarily be shamed by it. But that isn’t the same thing as having positive evidence for women’s same-sex relations. (The historic evidence shows that women did have concerns about honor and reputation, but they didn’t involve having sex with other women.)
In terms of direct, overt references to women’s homosexuality, we’re pretty much limited to a late 12th century Icelandic penitential manual, which included a penance for “women [who] satisfy each other [sexually]” which is assigned the same penance as adultery or bestiality. This handbook of penances, written by the Icelandic bishop Thorlak Thorhallson of Skaholt, is not necessarily a reflection of the specific concerns of Icelandic society. Penitential manuals were based on common shared models, not drawn up in response to local custom and practice, and the passage about female homosexuality is closely parallel to material found throughout Europe. It’s also worth noting that, having been written in the late 12th century, the reference falls outside the Viking era proper. And since significant parts of Viking culture were before the spread of Christianity, it would be a mistake to assume that some of the specifically Christian attitudes toward homosexuality must have been present earlier.
So if we know of negative words for male homosexuality, are there parallels that apply to women? Yes, and no. There’s a word “argr” that means “effeminate” or “unmanly” when applied to men. But the feminine form of the word “org”, applied to women, means something like “lecherous” or “immodest” but without indicating a desire for women. This is a pattern seen elsewhere in Europe, where being “unmanly” means allowing yourself to be perceived as a woman, while being “unfeminine” means having an assertive sexuality associated with men.
There’s another bit of vocabulary that is somewhat more suggestive, though it points up the default societal expectation that everyone will participate in heterosexual marriage. A man who avoided marriage was called “fuðflogi”, roughly “flee-cunt”, while a woman who avoided marriage was called “flannfluga”, or equivalently “flee-prick”. While one might see this as simply having the sex act stand in for the state of marriage, one might also interpret it as recognizing that there were people who were strongly disinterested in heterosexual sex.
The only other potential concrete evidence for women in same-sex relationships comes from a type of decorative metalwork called “guldgubber” from the very beginning of the Viking era. These are small gold foil plaques with embossed decorations of human figures. About 3000 of them have been found in archaeological contexts throughout Scandinavia, though most from Denmark. The majority of these images show a man and woman embracing, a few show a single human figure or an animal. The purpose of these ornaments is unclear, but archaeologists and historians originally interpreted them as representing the mythological couple Frey and Gerdh the giant-maiden, and that they served some symbolic purpose at weddings or as a fertility symbol. (If you know archaeologist-speak, you’ll interpret this as, “We actually have no idea but if you have male-female couples, it must have to do with sex in some fashion.)
This interpretation began to be questioned when a new very large find of the ornaments turned out to be primarily single figures and two examples turned up with same-sex pairs embracing, one a male pair and one a female pair. Of course, embraces occur in many cultures representing other types of interactions than romantic or sexual attraction. And archaeologists are quick to re-examine their conclusions when the data starts contradicting traditional stereotypes of gender and sexuality. But whatever it is that they do represent, the statistical distribution indicates that it’s something most commonly envisioned as involving a man and a woman, but in rare cases involving two men or two women. Take that for what it’s worth.
So if we can’t find clear and solid documentation of women in same-sex relationships in Viking-era Norse culture, what can we find in the way of tropes and motifs that are beloved of writers of lesbian historical fiction? I want to be clear here that the following discussion isn’t in any way evidence of lesbian relationships, it’s examples of story building blocks that one might use to construct a story about lesbian Vikings that integrates with historical fact.
One aspect I’ve already mentioned is that Viking-era Scandinavian society drew strict gender lines in work and socializing. In addition to the seasonal departure of men on sailing voyages, women of all social classes in the household gathered in the “kvenna hús”, the women’s quarters, and textile production was so strongly associated with women, that a man who so much as entered the weaving room could lose reputation. In any society where women’s time and activities are primarily spent in the company of other women, emotional and social bonds between women have great significance.
The social status of women in Viking society is an interesting puzzle. Of course, in this era the primary aspect of status was whether one was free or unfree, whether one belonged to a powerful family or one with fewer resources, whether one was the mistress of a household or a servant in it. But women were simultaneously considered of low value--when infants were abandoned to die to preserve resources, it was far more often girls than boys--but had social and familial power far about the norms for Europe in that era. Married women could gain divorces on a variety of pretexts, had significant legal rights, and could be in complete charge of the household if the men were away. But this leverage centered entirely around their roles in heterosexual marriage. There were few options for an unmarried woman, and significant pressure to marry due to skewed gender ratios, especially during the settlements of Iceland and Greenland. The flip side of this is that if a married woman did also have sexual relations with women, it’s likely that there wasn’t much a husband could do to object if he wanted her to stick around. (The reverse wasn’t true, and one ground for easy divorce was a woman presenting evidence that her husband was “unmanly.”)
Stories of Women Warriors and Cross-Gender Performance
Ah, but what about all those stories of Valkyries and women warriors in Viking culture? Well, let’s examine those motifs a bit more closely. The Valkyries were, of course, fictional characters, part of the non-Christian mythos of northern Europe. Perhaps more interesting is the genre of cross-gender saga characters that Carol Clover discusses in her article “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons”. These are stories in which female characters take up arms, and sometimes a complete male identity, in order to carry out a quest or take vengeance on an enemy.
We need to keep in mind that fictional depictions aren’t necessarily a useful guide to actual historic behavior. Since we’ve already moved into the “imagining fictional stories” part of this podcast, I won’t harp on that too much, except to note that one collection of medieval Icelandic laws, whose earliest texts date to the 10th century, specifically prohibit a woman from wearing male clothing, from cutting her hair like a man, from bearing arms, or in general behaving “like a man”, although sexual behavior is not specifically mentioned. There are references in the sagas to types of garments that were considered effeminate enough to bring shame on a man if he wore them, though this seems to be a matter of style rather than of entire female-coded garments. And, as I’ve noted previously, the misogynistic nature of early Norse society means that male and female experiences aren’t comparable. But conversely, if a society sets up laws that are that specifically explicit, it means, firstly, that they could imagine women wearing male clothing, cutting her hair like a man, bearing arms, and in general “behaving like a man,” and secondly, that this idea made them anxious enough to have laws against it. It isn’t actual proof that women were actually doing those things, but it’s proof that they could imagine doing so.
The cross-gender stories that Clover talks about set up a context that may well reflect a real-life exception to these prohibitions that she calls the “maiden warrior” motif, as exemplified by the character of Hervör in Hervarar saga ok Heidhreks which lays out the characteristic context for this particular version of the warrior woman motif.
The outline of Hervör’s story (which is complex and part of a much longer “family saga”) identifies her as the only and posthumous child of the warrior Angantyr. Raised by her mother’s family, she gravitates toward weapons rather than women’s work. She is “as strong as a man” and “trained herself more with bow and shield and sword than with needlework and embroidery”. In other words, a classic case of “not like other girls!” But it isn’t until she is taunted with her father’s identity and the facts of his death that she puts on male garments and sets off to avenge him, taking up the profession of robber as a first step. The text has her say:
"I will swiftly take linen headgear from off my hair, before I hasten away--much rests on it. When morning comes let cloak and kirtle be cut for me.” She tells her mother, “As quick as you can, equip me in all ways as you would your son, taking the gear and weapons of a man.”
She both does and does not pass as male. For the most part, she is accepted as a man. But there is one episode where she’s involved in an altercation with a comrade that comes close to a duel when their host takes the other man aside and tells him that he wouldn’t get any glory if he defeated his opponent because he suspected Hervör was actually a woman.
As a fictional motif, this tells us several different things. That a woman was expected to be able to pass as male successfully for the most part. And that someone in authority might be willing to accept that passing even if he suspected the truth.
Eventually Hervör decides to seek out her father’s grave to retrieve his sword. Because it’s important to avenge one’s father with the ancestral sword. In her travels she joins and becomes leader of a band of Vikings, eventually accomplishing her quest, during which she debates her father’s ghost (in verse, no less) for the right to claim the sword. After this, she continues having masculine-style adventures until eventually settling down to marriage and motherhood.
This is a key point in all the Norse cross-gender sagas. They are, above all, family sagas--the story of a lineage, often being told by people who claimed descent from the characters. This means that the literary genre has little place for a central female character who does not, eventually, marry a man and produce children.
Clover situates this story as part of a tradition involving women who are the sole representative of a lineage--Hervör was an only child and her father’s brothers all perished with him--and who therefore are expected to play a son’s part, whether to avenge a father or simply to continue that lineage, with the “son’s role” exemplified by characteristically masculine activities, especially martial ones.
It’s worth reviewing a catalog of other examples of this motif to see some of the variations.
Skadhi (in the legendary Eddas) takes up armor and weapons to go to Asgard to avenge her father.
Thornbjörg (in The Saga of Hrólf Gautreksson) is the only child of a king of Sweden who takes up martial activities in childhood (defending the choice as justified because due to the lack of siblings). When Thornbjörg’s father provides lands and followers Thornbjörg takes on a male name and dress to reign as a king. Thornbjörg’s very deliberate and insistent masculine performance strongly suggests interpretation as transgender rather than as a temporary gender disguise. This is emphasized by the central theme of the story where Hrolf, after whom the saga is named, is challenged to prove his manhood by forcibly marrying Thornbjörg.
Ladgerda appears in the legendary histories of Saxo Grammaticus as the sole surviving child of the dead king of Norway. Ladgerda and a group of female companions all put on male dress and take up weapons for protection. In the context of the story, Ladgerda is not depicted as trying to disguise her gender, although people who saw her in battle assumed she was male until they saw her long flowing hair. She was wooed by a man who was required to prove his dedication in battle, but he later divorced her when angry about how Ladgerda had initially resisted him. Nevertheless, later when he was hard pressed in battle, Ladgerda showed up at the head of an army and rescued him. It didn’t last. They quarrelled again, she killed him, and took over his lands. Go Ladgerda! She is, at least to some extent, the inspiration for the character of Ladgertha in the Vikings tv series, who does end up in a same-sex relationship at one point.
Another character from the legendary histories of Saxo Grammaticus is Alfhild, who takes up male dress and weapons to escape an unwanted suitor. Breaking the pattern somewhat, she has living brothers at the time, however attrition due to warfare eventually leaves her daughter Gyrid as the sole survivor of her line. Gyrid later takes up arms in male clothing to do battle alongside her son. So, something of a family tradition there.
The valkyrie Brynhildr may fit the pattern of “maiden warrior” to some degree as well, but the many versions of her story that have come down to us have muddled whatever may have been her thematic origins.
Note that many of these “substitute son” characters, although they not only take up martial activities but also often wear male clothing or even take on a male name, are not necessarily trying to pass as men, but rather perform masculinity as a visual symbol of their status and social role. Their stories generally conclude with marriage to a man and the begetting of children. In fact, Clover asserts that it is precisely the provision of a genealogical link between generations that gives them the license to take on a masculine role.
Although these examples are all literary, there is a passage in early Icelandic law that treats a brotherless woman as if she were a son, in the context of the paying and receiving of wergild (the payment for a death) but only if she is unmarried. Similar clauses can be found in early Norwegian law.
Although very different in era and location, one can compare these “avenging maiden warrior” motifs to the phenomenon of gender-crossing “sworn virgins” in Albania, who had social license to take up a male social role (including male dress) under certain specific circumstances, including the need to pursue a feud in the absence of male relatives. In the Albanian custom, this role-change was expected to be for life.
It’s worth emphasizing that what we don’t see in any of these sagas or legendary accounts is examples of women warriors having romantic relationships with women. In case it needs saying, gender performance does not automatically determine sexual orientation. This contrasts with one genre of female warrior stories in later medieval Europe where gender disguise did sometimes lead to same-sex relationships, at least on a temporary basis. One can’t untangle the Norse female warriors from the context that these are sagas of lineage and are primarily focused around men’s exploits and fame. Warrior women existed in these stories either to substitute for missing male relatives in the maintenance or transmission of family lines, or they existed as a prize for men to defeat and win. This doesn’t mean that the woman warrior motif can’t be re-purposed in f/f historical fiction, but the same-sex aspect simply isn’t there in the source material.
Warrior Women and the Archaeology of Gender
I’ve made something of a point of the preceding examples being fictional creations, but is there any more concrete evidence for women taking a martial role or even for cross-gender performance or transgender identity in Viking-era Scandinavia? Funny you should ask.
It’s something of a standing joke, even among archaeologists, that interpretations of archaeological finds are shaped by what people expect to find. Random objects are identified as having a “ritual purpose”. Existing theories about history are used to interpret finds that then are used as evidence for those theories. If you ever want to see some good poking fun at this tendency, read Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.
For most of the history of archaeology as a profession, the ability to identify the physiological sex of people in burials has relied on certain statistical distributions of bone size and shape, and stereotyped assumptions about the gendering of grave goods. It’s true that there are statistical patterns in skeletal remains that correspond to physiological sex. But it’s also true that there’s a significant overlap in the middle where the sex of a specific skeleton can’t be determined with certainty. And that’s without considering the potential presence of intersex people in the population.
So, traditionally, when a Viking-era burial has been found with socially-gendered artifacts like weapons, clothing, and specific types of jewelry and other artifacts considered to be masculine, the body in that burial has been assumed to be male. And traditionally when a Viking-era burial has been found with socially-gendered artifacts like weaving or cooking equipment and paired brooches and other things considered to be feminine, the body in that burial has been assumed to be female.
So, for example, chamber grave number 581 at the Swedish Viking settlement of Birka has long been considered to belong to a male warrior. And not just any warrior, but a high-status warrior of some importance. The grave included two horses with riding equipment, a large number of weapons including spear, sword, axe, arrows, and shield, a game board with a full set of gaming tokens. Clothing fragments included silver ornaments for a tasseled cap associated with other male burials. There was no jewelry, no beads, no craft or domestic implements. It was an absolutely certain and uncontroversial opinion--ever since the burial was first explored in 1878--that the body found in that grave belonged to a man.
But archaeologists have new tools at their disposal, thanks to advances in molecular biology and genetics. Old bones are being given new scrutiny to learn things about diet, age, geographic origin and other attributes that previously could only be guessed at. Among the attributes that can now be studied scientifically, is DNA. And the DNA of the body in that high-status warrior grave at Birka indicates that the person was physiologically female.
This isn’t the only example of DNA analysis upending assumptions about the people in archaeological finds. It isn’t even the only Viking-era example. It also doesn’t tell us anything definitive about how that person understood themself in relation to the gendered structure of society. There are even foot-dragging traditional archaeologists who are now arguing that maybe grave goods don’t tell us definitive things about the people buried with them, and maybe being buried with a sword could mean lots of other things and not that the person buried there had used a sword during their life. In the realm of “usable history” there’s a lot of enthusiasm from the transgender community to identify with a figure out of the past who certainly fits the general definitions of transgender, in the sense of moving through the world performing a different gender than the one society would assign based on physiology. So was Birka 581 a Thornbjörg who was willing to fight to the death to avoid being forced back into a conventional female role? Or were they a Hervör who slipped into the social role of masculinity because there was no one else in their family to assume it? It isn’t important to try to come to a definitive answer--indeed, I think it’s better to allow as many people as possible to imagine how Birka 581 expands their identification with the past. The point is that maybe those sagas and legends weren’t entirely as fictional as they seem.
I’ve put something of an undue emphasis on the idea of gender-crossing and women warriors, simply because the evidence is fascinating and it makes for good click-bait. But I don’t want to suggest that the only possible way to imagine a f/f Viking-era story is to have one of the characters take on a transmasculine role. If you’re flexible about your characters being situationally bisexual, then there’s a lot of scope of relationships between women during the sailing season when many men are away. I haven’t specifically gone looking for discussions of singlewomen during the Viking era, though I suspect the concrete evidence is scanty.
There were types of magic practiced in pre-Christian Norse society that were specific to women--specific enough that it was shameful for men to practice them, while other types of magic were more associated with men. While the topic is too complex to get into here, this gender-segregation of magical practices offers the same opportunities for framing a story within a women-only space that the textile crafts do on a more everyday basis.
And given the significance and amount of labor women spent on textile production, as well as the necessary teamwork for many aspects of it, that’s another activity that provides an excellent context for developing women’s relationships for a story. The point is that it’s quite possible to construct stories about women’s relationships in early Norse society that aren’t driven by transgressing gender roles.
It is true, however, that the majority of Norse themed f/f stories that I was able to find do set up one character as taking on a male social role in some way. So let’s move on to considering some of those stories. I crowd-sourced suggestions on Twitter and various facebook groups and divvied the results up into four general categories: stories presented as being set in ordinary history, historical settings with fantasy elements, Norse elements appearing in what is essentially a secondary-world setting, and mythological stories. I did filter out a few where there didn’t seem to be any actual Norse elements in the story except for a character being presented as a Viking. I haven’t actually read the vast majority of the stories listed here, but I have looked at the available previews to get a sense of the content and style.
F/F Fiction with Viking Themes
One of the few exceptions to the use of a Viking butch-femme scenario is a short story that I chose for the podcast’s fiction series back in 2018: “Peace-weaver” by Jennifer Nestoiko. The story explores a “second chance romance” between two women who have outlived family responsibilities and are reunited after being pulled apart by duty. It’s loosely inspired by some of the characters in Beowulf.
The rest of the stories in the “ordinary history” group all involve at least one warrior woman.
Natalie Debrabandere’s Thyra’s Promise involves a rather ahistorical lack of gendered expectations for occupations. In a 9th century Norse settlement in Scotland, Thyra has been raised as a Viking warrior. Frustrated by her brother’s refusal to take her seriously, she becomes the student and lover of Kari, the woman who leads a neighboring clan. But their two families have a bitter history and there is conflict in their future. The writing is basically competent, though the prose style is weak. The available excerpt gets us to the first sex scene so it’s hard to evaluate what the plot-to-erotics ratio is going to be.
That ratio doesn’t seem to be in doubt for Taken By the Shield Maiden by Echo Stardust, which is subtitled “A bawdy tale of lust.” This book seems to take the closest parallel to the usual plot of straight Viking romances, with the beautiful Viking raider Gunhilde kidnapping an innocent young nun from a convent who, of course, reluctantly succumbs to her captor’s charms. It’s pretty clear from the available excerpt that this is a bare minimum of story to set up a lot of sex scenes. The writing is fairly awkward and needs some basic editing. But if that’s what you’re here for, it’s here for you.
The next title turned up when I was searching in the Amazon category “Viking Romance” and is in German. There doesn’t appear to be an English edition. This is Raw: Dein Leben vor Meinem or “Your Life Before Mine” by Jolene Walker. It’s set in the late 8th century when Juna, a princess of the Franks and war leader is sent to make a marriage of alliance with a Norse leader. Her husband provides her with a woman warrior, Skadi, as a bodyguard and the two find their hearts in conflict with their loyalties. My German isn’t up to evaluating the nuances of writing style, but the prose looks fairly solid and interesting, so if you’re interested in tackling a German text, this one might be rewarding to try.
Moving outside the realm of books, the TV series Vikings includes an f/f encounter between the main female lead, Lagertha and a woman named Astrid. Lagertha is clearly inspired by the figure of Ladgertha in historic literature. I don’t know how prominent or lasting the relationship is in the series (and Wikipedia indicates that their sex scene was censored in the US release of the series).
The next several stories have a recognizable real-world Norse setting but introduce some fantasy elements.
Julia Ember has written a pair of linked but independent books The Seafarer’s Kiss and The Navigator’s Touch. Both feature the shield-maiden Ragna who is on a quest to avenge her family’s murder. The fantasy elements come in the form of the mermaid who falls in love with her and then aids her in her quest, and the intervention of the Norse gods in human affairs. The writing is solid. The combination of the significant presence of the fantasy elements and the isolated nature of the settings pull the stories away from being deeply grounded in everyday history. The books are marketed as Young Adult and my impression is that there is romance but not significant sexual content.
Another entry in this category is The Northland Saga by Dallas Jessica Owen, featuring two books Wolf and Raven and The Last Shaman. They pair Yngrid, a woman warrior, and Kari, the village shaman, who must face and overcome magical enemies or their world will perish. The writing is competent, if not particularly compelling, but the historic grounding feels weak to me in a way that’s common to many of these books--as if the setting is based on third-hand rumors of what Viking culture was like, with a big dose of Hollywood movies.
When taking the look-and-feel of Norse culture and embedding it in a setting that is clearly not our world, there’s less expectation of more than a passing connection to history. Barbara Ann Wright’s Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory is clearly inspired by motifs from Viking and other northern European cultures, without an expectation that it will align closely. Instead it’s all about the sailing and raiding and no need to situate an f/f relationship within a specific historic context. The writing in this one is quite good.
My last category is works with a Norse mythological setting, in other words, stories about gods and heroes rather than about ordinary people.
The first example--according to report--weaves a historic mythological story in with a present-day one. This is The Amber Necklace by Alex Pyott, involving a character who appears to be an incarnation of the goddess Freya and her romance with a contemporary journalist. I’m not sure that I’d class this as a particularly historic work, even with that background, but the themes are there.
And my last example, for a shift in medium, is the graphic novel series Heathen by Natasha Alterici, which follows the adventures of a warrior woman who takes on the gods of Asgard with the help of some female pirates and a Valkyrie or two. Oh, and with various female romantic complications along the way. I really enjoyed the first volume and writing this up inspired me to go buy volume 2. The series has also been targeted for big screen treatment, which would be awesome if they keep all the queer aspects intact.
So there you have it: the closest we can come to lesbian Vikings, either in history or in historical fiction. I have to confess that I wish there were more offerings that both take a purely historical angle on setting and are solidly grounded in current research. It’s probably a lot to ask, given that straight Viking romances aren’t exactly paragons of historicity. But once you start digging into the actual culture and archaeology of the Viking era, it’s very inspiring. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, I have a lesbian Viking romance of my own that’s been percolating in my head ever since we were assigned to read Hervör’s Saga when I studied Old Norse. One of these days I’ll have the time to put it out into the world and see what people think.
I've been meaning to put up a link post of all the promotional guest-blogs and interviews I've done for Floodtide. I've been tweeting them as they came out, but if you haven't had the time to check them out and are interested in all sorts of background information about my writing and my books, enjoy the links.
Collected all together, I'm still rather startled at the response I got when I put myself out there. It's unfair to compare my Floodtide promo with what happened when Mother of Souls was released because so many things are different. But if I can point to one positive difference (as opposed to all the factors I have no control over), I suspect what I'm seeing is the payoff for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. Not the blog, so much. The blog had been around for a couple years at my last book release. But the podcast has been a context for interacting with people directly and for gaining a bit more visibility. I'm always a bit desperate for concrete evidence that the podcast is worth the effort I put into it. So I'm going to keep telling myself that it's what made the difference. (It'll be at least a year before I know whether it made a significant difference in book sales for Floodtide, as opposed to simple visibility. But everything in its own time.)
I've listed these in order of appearance, simply because I had to pick some arbitrary order. There are still a couple that haven't come out yet and I'll add the links here just for historic reference when they do.
There are two basic parts to Boswell's book on homosexuality and tolerance: 1) that Christian society was not always and inevitable intolerant of homosexuality; and 2) that the shift to intolerance can be localized to a particular historic period and related to other significant cultural and political shifts during that period. Perhaps the present day is an opportunity for understanding just how a conjunction of unrelated forces can combine to create apparently illogical shifts in popular thinking. Or at least apparent shifts in popular thinking. How, in the space of only a few decades, could a culture shift from an apparent trend towards embracing diversity, plurality, and not just tolerance but understanding and acceptance, to an apparent reversal of all those things? And not just in terms of sexuality and gender, but with respect to ethnicity, religion, immigration status, and so on?
Two factors come to my mind (and this is not a product of deep long-term thought, but just passing thoughts as I write up this introduction on the spur of the moment). The first is that the superficial trends that we identify as "popular culture" as often a matter of whose voices are being heard and promoted. Who feels comfortable talking about their attitudes and acting on them? It doesn't necessarily take any significant shift in the opinions of individual people for the public performance of those opinions to change drastically. If, in the 13th century, there were changes in who felt authorized to have opinions on homosexuality, and whose opinions were promulgated and elevated by the church and state authorities, then the long-term effects needn't require a sea change on an individual level, only a passive assumption that those "thought leaders" must be valid because they were the ones whose opinions you were now encountering everywhere.
The second factor that comes to my mind is the age-old question of cui bono? Who benefits from such a shift from tolerance to intolerance? In the contemporary political climate, the answer to that is far from obvious. And those who are truly benefitting are deeply invested in making sure their interests are kept hidden. Under Boswell's theory of a critical shift in tolerance, not only regarding sexuality, but regarding religious plurality and other social diversities, it seems like a key to understanding the when and why would be to examine those questions of who benefitted from the rise of more narrow and rigid controls on individual behavior. But as in the current day, such questions are complicated and the indviduals whose actions created the shift may themselves not have been consciously aware of the forces at work.
Touching back to the always-present question of how such things relate to the writing of queer historical fiction, we can ask how shifts in tolerance would have been experienced and understood by the queer people living through them. Would the change have been gradual enough to be imperceptible during an individual life? Some of Boswell's biographic examples are of men who appear to have enjoyed intense intimate same-sex relationships freely during their own lifetimes, but whose lives were later revised to be held up for condemnation. Or might someone spend part of their life considering a same-sex relationship to be a joyous and positive force, only to see the world shift around them and feel that joy slip away? What might be the experience of a man in the church hierarchy who was part of that earlier world of homosocial and homoerotic bonds who finds himself pressured to support philosophical changes that condemn what he felt in his heart to be pure and good? Does he resist? Does he fall to self-doubt? Does he turn to a type of closeting? (I'm using male pronouns here despite my blog's focus on women because the experiences and lives that Boswell explores are male and women would experience the before and after in entirely different ways.)
While I grumble about Boswell's blythe indifference to how his study really speaks only to male lives, the underlying philosophical questions can be generalized, even if the specifics of experience may not. How does the public performance of tolerance or intolerance toward women's same-sex relationships relate to individual experience? Can we untangle the difference between whose voices are heard in the public (and historic) record, as opposed to what the everyday experiences of individual people were? When we see shifts in that public record, do they reflect actual changes in popular (and individual) opinion or do they reflect the strategic needs and goals of the Powers That Be (which aren't always the nominal civic and religious powers)?
If Boswell's work sometimes feels flawed due to his emotional goals (i.e., "proving" that Christianity need not be hostile to homosexuality), we should acknowledge that we, as writers of historical fiction, have similarly skewed emotional goals. We similarly want to take the basic observable facts and documents of the past and understand them in a way that allows us to create an emotional truth that we can feel at home in. This is, perhaps, more forgivable in a novelist than a historian, but it has been historians who were driven by the emotional goal of a "usable history" that have brought many of htose observable facts and documents to light in a way that give us the necessary understanding and access for making our own histories.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance
Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance
Chapter 10: Social Change
The fanaticism and intolerance popularly associated with the “medieval” period date primarily to the later middle ages. Prior to the 13th century, social and religious tolerance were more typical. In the 13-14th century this changed, though historians are unclear on the exact reasons. Among the forces that are considered relevant: the rise in absolute government, both secular and clerical, and movements to reform, regularize and enforce power systems.
Laws sought to enforce conformity and consolidation, which inherently marginalized minorities of all types. The Crusades both reflect and intensified these trends. Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim activity was prominent as well as persecution of non-conforming Christian religious movements under the label of heresy.
Increasing intolerance of sodomy accompanied the narrowing of what that term covered, from all non-procreative sex to specifically implying anal sex between men. And sodomy became associated in the popular mind with “infidels” and heretics. Law codes increasingly included severe and violent penalties for sodomy (castration, death) though it’s unclear how consistently they were enforced.
In the wake of this, sodomy became a useful charge against political opponents, whether individuals (e.g., King Edward II) or groups (e.g., the Templars).
Chapter 11: Intellectual Change
This chapter looks at the evolution of various theological arguments against homosexuality. Arguments from myths (or in rare cases, reality) about animal behavior spread with the popularity of bestiaries (picture books about animals). This was part of the general flowering of learning, especially from Arabic sources, in the 12-13th centuries. There were inherent contradictions between these texts that identified certain animals as “naturally” engaging in homosexual behavior, and texts that claimed that homosexuality was unnatural specifically because animals never engaged in it.
Arguments about “nature” and “natural” appeared in many philosophical works, but the image of Nature (personified) was bent to the author’s preconceived goals and rarely formed a coherent concept. In the realm of gender and sexuality, Nature was always used to support heteroseuxality and traditional binary gender roles. These texts glossed over the implication that arguing morality from Nature suggested that morality arose from the majority opinion (e.g., most animals do X, therefore X is moral). Philosophical/theological texts alternated between condemning homosexuality because it was an unnatural sin, because it was a contagious disease, because it was natural only to (by definition) unclean beasts, or that it was natural but undesirable because it hindered procreation.
All these arguments can be seen at work in the Summa Theologia of Thomas Aquinas, which stood as a foundation of Christian theology thereafter. Boswell attributes much of the shift to anti-gay attitudes in ecclesiastical literature to the prominence of Aquinas just at the time when the church was moving to enforce orthodoxy. He makes comparisons to other practices where are even more strongly condemned in early church literature (such as usury) that did not attract the same lasting animosity in the later middle ages.
This chronology should not be interpreted as learned theology causing anti-gay prejudice, rather that it reflected and then enshrined existing prejudice into established tradition with legal and moral force.
Chapter 12: Conclusions
The final chapter provides a summary of the evolution of thought and the data that supports it. Early Christian literature was fairly silent on homosexuality, and anti-gay sentiments at that time were typically unrelated to religion. Hostility to homosexuality became noticeable with the shift in power from urban to rural elites. This hostility was later incorporated into Christian thought which in turn was used to justify prejudice and persecution of gay people. Gay people (at least, the male ones) were prominent and influential in medieval society, but the lack of a stable cultural transmission for pro-gay attitudes left them at the mercy of popular opinion when that opinion turned as part of a general increase in intolerance in the 12-13th century.
Appendix 1 is a deep dive into the texts of Saint Paul and their interpretation.
Appendix 2 provides translations (and sometimes the original language) for a variety of the texts used as examples in the book, with copious notes on meaning and context.
This section of Boswell's work points up some of the structural flaws of his study, in my opinion. "Structural flaws" does not necessarily mean "incorrect data and evidence" but rather that the large-scale conclusions are shaped by the ways in which that evidence is interpreted. And in his quest to find evidence for the existence of a postive gay subculture, there are times when he is deliberately credulous (such as taking politically-motivated accusations of sodomy as descriptive fact) or fails to consider the meaning of the asymmetries in the data. (If you find few examples of women writing texts expressing same-sex love in a clerical context, does that mean that there was no culture of same-sex love among women? Or does it mean that structural gender inequities affected how and by whom that love was expressed? Or perhaps how those expressions were filtered out of the historic record?). It is inescapable that Boswell simply wasn't very interested in women. And yet rather than presenting his conclusions as being restricted to men, he adds in just enough female examples to pretend that his conclusions are universal.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part III: Shifting Fortunes
Part III: Shifting Fortunes
Chapter 7: The Early Middle Ages
The loss of classical traditions and records with positive expressions of gay sexuality (including due to deliberate filtering) meant these were not available to later ages. But the breakdown of government structures with the decline of the Empire meant that oppressive laws were hard to enforce. Gay people were not commonly the subject of repressive legislation in an earlier era, but this was changing. Justinian (6th century) placed same-sex relations under the category of adultery (which had a death penalty, in theory) but it’s unclear that this was enforced except in politically-motivated cases.
This pattern held through the middle ages: the few laws against homosexual behavior were under civil law, while church law had either mild or no penalty for such behavior. [Note: Boswell glosses over the ways in which secular and clerical law were intertwined and influenced each other.] Laws tended to reflect the culture of the ruling elite, which--in this age of migrations and conquest--might have an entirely different culture than the people they ruled.
In most law codes of the early middle ages, homosexuality was absent from the lists of sexual crimes. Specific edicts might disparage homosexuality but rarely punished it. The penitential manuals included extensive details of penance for specific homosexual acts, but they had a similar level of detail for a vast number of ordinary activities that had little public stigma.
Monastic institutions--necessarily same-sex--took pains to discourage “special friendships” and sexual activity, but this cannot necessarily be seen as hostility to homosexuality specifically as the single-sex environment precluded a similar concern for heterosexuality. But these monastic contexts also produced erotic poetry inspired by the close emotional bonds in the institutions (which, again, are necessarily same-sex) between colleagues and teacher-student pairs. Such bonds might be discouraged if they led to public ridiule, but there is no through-line of condemnation for emotional same-sex bonds in general.
Islamic Spain openly celebrated (male) same-sex love in both emotional and sexual terms. This reflected Islamic openness to male same-sex relations in general. Negative Christian reactions to the Muslum presence in that era do not invoke sodomy as a specific charge even though it was recorded as a regular practice.
As the medieval period progressed, framings of same-sex acts as “against nature” fell out of use and the term “sodomy” was used generally for non-procreative activity. [Note: Boswell appears to be suggesting that “sodomy” changed from originally denoting same-sex activity and then was generalized to non-procreative sex, but either I’m misreading his argument or he’s simply wrong here.] Homosexuality came to be treated as simply another type of fornication, possibly even less serious than heterosexual fornication. [Note: “fornication” basically meant any sex outside of authorized heterosexual marriage.]
This section concludes with evidence suggesting that attitudes toward homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant from the late Empire to the early middle ages.
Chapter 8: The Urban Revival
In the 10th-14th century, Europe once again acquired an urban culture due to a variety of social and economic shifts. Cities have an association with democracy, self-government, and personal freedom. Boswell identifies the re-emergence of a “distinct gay subculture” with this re-urbanization in southern Europe. [Note: and, of course, he’s only talking about a “distinct gay male subculture.”]
Also during this era, erotic passion returned as a topic and preoccupation of literature and society, from religious ecstasy to courtly love to chivalric romances. Another feature of the era was the reform and revitalization of the church. Learning flourished such that the “12th century renaissance” is a accepted concept.
With all this came a re-connection with homoerotic themes of the past. Two movements emerged in the church: an anti-gay sentiment that elevated homosexuality as an important sin, and a movement that used homoerotic themes and imagery as a positive force to frame relations between churchmen. Initially, the first movement gained little ground.
Peter Damian (11th c) represents the anti-gay position, but his call to sweep men with same-sex relations out of the clergy was rebuffed initially by Rome. There is a detailed discussion of charges of homosexual relations among prominent churchmen and nobility (which Boswell appears to take at face value even when there were clear political motivations for slander).
By the 12th century, various regions were implementing warnings and prohibitions against same-sex relations which had little apparent effect. In parallel, there was increased concern about enforcing clerical celibacy in general. (Married or partnered clergy were commonplace in this era.) The popular association of clergy with sodomy is supported by an outpouring of homoerotic literature (of varying tones) from churchmen.
We are offered a very brief glimpse of a female equivalent to this literature in two 12th century erotic letter-poems between nuns. Aelred of Rievaulx is presented as the archetype for the homoerotic side (with many textual examples).
Several significant 12th century works on Christian morals took a lenient or even an indifferent approach to same-sex relations. We see how various prominent secular figures who were criticized for shameful, immoral, or luxurious lives only later had those descriptions re-interpreted as indicating homosexuality, suggesting that those associations were not made at the time.
Scandinavian examples are brought in to suggest that the commonness of insults involving effeminacy and passive homosexuality indicate that homosexuality was a familiar practice in those cultures. [Note: Once again, I feell that Boswell is taking things too much at face value. A culture that considers "passive homosexuality" to be the worst thing you can accuse a man of does not automatically indicate a culture in which homosexuality was a common practice. Consider all the schoolyards in which homosexual slurs have been tossed around by people who had no conscious familiarity with gay people or any realistic understanding of what being gay meant. As with the politically-charged accusations of sodomy, I think a more complex and nuanced analysis is required. Consider as a comparison if we substitute into the preceding statement, "the commonness of insults involving [popular slur against Jews] indicate that [slur] was a familliar practice." It simply doesn't track directly like that.]
There is an extended discussion of the use of the term and image of Ganymede for the younger/passive partner in a male-male relationship, in both positive and negative contexts, which leads in to the next chapter.
Chapter 9: The Triumph of Ganymede
In the period from 1050 to 1150 Boswell sees the first evidence for a “gay subculture” since the fall of Rome. Many examples are given, plus discussion of coded terminology used for sex and desire.
Women do not figure at all in this chapter.
In this section of Boswell's study of shifting attitudes toward (male) homosexuality under Christianity, he explores the question of "why should sexual behavior come in for judgment at all?" as well as the specific trains of thought that were used to support condemnation of homosexuality specifically. He points out that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Christianity would take this path, and that some of the background set-up for the rise of intolerance was demographic and political rather than philosophical. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Prejudice and persecution are still being used as political tools to justify state (or majority) authority over people's personal lives. When you examine the long history of the rhetoric of sexual intolerance, it becomes clear that the largest scriptural bludgeons that have been used over the ages were brought into the debate after the fact. The story of Sodom was not--when you trace its uses--always and specifically about variant sexuality. Nor did the passages in Leviticus hold any special and universal scope over people's everyday actions until cherry-picked for the purpose. Boswell betrays one of his weaknesses in the work he puts into arguing the theological non-validity of anti-gay arguments. As has also been pointed out with regard to Brooten's work on female same-sex relations in the same timeframe, there is a desperate air of begging to be welcomed into the fold. Of thinking that if you only pointed out the logical errors of the last two millennia, then the institution of Christianity would suddenly cave and say, "Oh dear, you're absolutely right! We should never have persecuted you! How can we make things right?" One can either be a historian or one can be a theologian, but it is awkward to try to be both at the same time.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part II The Christian Tradition
Part II The Christian Tradition
Chapter 4: The Scriptures
There were massive changes to attitudes to same-sex relations that can be attributed to Christian influence on Eureopean culture, but that influence was complex and derived from several separate factors including scripture, social dynamics, and theology.
There is an extensive discussion of the background of the Biblical story of Sodom and how it was developed and elaborated in Christian interpretation. There is also an extended discussion of the original context of references to same-sex relations in Leviticus. Boswell argues that neither of these texts were in a position to shape early Christian thought, whatever influence they may have had later.
He picks apart the several texts associated with St. Paul that are considered to be anti-gay. There is a long discussion of the concept of “against nature.”
Chapter 5: Christians and Social Change
The Roman Empire underwent a crisis of change involving cultural shifts with demographic changes, including a shift from urban to rural background of the political elite. Personal behavior came to be seen as a matter of state interest and same-sex relations came in increasingly for control and prohibition.
Another thread of change was the rise of ascetic philosophy which focused on acts done for pleasure rather than productive purpose.
During this era, “acceptable” same-sex love tended to be expressed in terms of religious bonding rather than eros.
Chapter 6: Theological Traditions
Though early Christian ascetics were a minority, their philosophy provided justification for anti-homosexual attitudes based on four principles: animal behavior (associating specific animals with anal/oral sex and thus concluding that this behavior is “bestial”); unsavory associations (e.g., with child molestation and paganism); being “against nature” (derived from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of “essential natures”); and gender expectations (which appears to apply specifically to male pairings, as it is concerned with the receptive partner being feminized). But the ascetics also had a general hostility to eroticism in general and only considered it justified by procreation.
Boswell asserts that the falsity of many of these theological grounds (e.g., that the animal behavior models were based on myth rather than biology) make the anti-gay conclusions theologically invalid.
My discussion and criticism is mostly dispersed throughout the summaries for this work. Posting in haste because I have a podcast to record.
Part I Points of Departure
Part I Points of Departure
This summary will not be extremely detailed, and it will be highly subjective. I devoured this book completely back when it first came out...uh...nearly 40 years ago. I’ll cover the high points of Boswell’s overall thesis, plus anything specifically relevant to women (which isn’t all that much, one of the general beefs with his work as a general history of homosexuality). I also won’t try to segregate my summary from my commentary. If you want to understand the details of his evidence and arguments, there’s no substitute for simply reading the book for yourself.
Regarding the scantiness of the female-related material, he notes that his sources were primarily written by men about men. He has made an effort to correlate the findings of his male data to women’s experience, but asserts that he couldn’t offset the disproportion “without deliberate distortion.” The idea that it is “distortion” to try to adjust for the historic erasure of women from the documentary record is one of the reasons why I tend to find general works on sexuality written by men to be relatively useless. The blythe assumption that one can extrapolate from male experiences to female ones is another pitfall of this type of work.
Note: Boswell regularly uses “gay” to discuss same-sex erotic concepts and people in the past very deliberately and with awareness of it anachronistic nature. I’ve retained this in my notes, but it’s one of the points that critics have challenged.
Chapter 1 Introduction
Between the beginning of the Christian era and the end of the Middle Ages, European attitudes toward many minorities changed profoundly. The term “medieval” is considered equivalent to “intolerant” in the popular imagination, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. This study intends to provide a better understanding of the social history of (in)tolerance in the European middle ages, specifically relating to homosexuality. (And, de facto, specifically focused on male homosexuality.)
The roots of hostility to homosexuality in Christian scripture are obvious, but Christian hostility to other behaviors (e.g., hypocrisy) have not been similarly enshrined in tradition. Claims for an objective “logic” behind prejudice are inadequate as an explanation. And the claim that anti-gay prejudice relates to “unnaturalness” only raises more questions about the concept of “natural” than it answers.
Boswell compares the experience of ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast, sexual minorities are dispersed throughout the population. This dispersement and lack of a “lineage” for gay people leaves them dependent on popular attitudes for acceptance, such as the power of hostile societies to translate or edit the more tolerant attitudes of earlier eras.
Studying sexual and emotional matters in the past is difficult due to the focus on official documents on “public” matters. Public documents will focus only on certain aspects of complex lives. Also, pop culture references to out-groups will focus on stereotypes and not on typical cases, e.g., focusing on masculine or feminine presentation in the context of sexuality. One should avoid assuming that all cultures assigned binary gender roles to same-sex pairs. One shouldn’t require evidence for gay lives in the past to resemble modern gay lives any more than straight ones do.
The roots of “moral” codes for sexuality are in the dynamics of kinship systems and the needs of economies, especially a focus on loyalty to kin groups and family relationships, which are seen to be undermined by non-procreative relationships. In general there was greater sexual freedom in more urban law-based societies. But there are historic contradictions to all of these generalizations.
Chapter 2: Definitions
Boswell discusses the background of sexuality terms and how he uses them in this work, including attitudes towards love of various types and related characteristics, and types of data regarding the demographics of homosexuality.
Chapter 3: Rome: The Foundation
This is a dense overview of Roman legal and cultural references to same-sex acts. The data is used to support a claim that male homoerotic relationships were not considered problematic in themselves, though specific cases might involve other factors that cause concern.
Boswell notes prejudice against male effeminacy or the acceptance of passive sexual roles. Gender reversal was mocked, as with Lucian’s Megilla/us (though Boswell doesn’t note the intersection of misogyny in that case.) He suggests that age-related terminology (e.g., identifying a beloved as a “boy”) shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally. It might refer to youth as an esthetic ideal of beauty, or indicate generational differences without literally meaning “a child.” [Note: here I feel that Boswell is being defensive about the historic association of male homosexuality with pederasty. It’s undeniable that Roman sexual hierarchies identified certain categories of persons as not having rights over their own bodies. There’s no reason to believe that youth was not involved in those dynamics.]
There is an extremely brief tour of the Roman references to female same-sex relations. (The content of this tour can be examine in more detail in the sources I've covered that specifically focus on Roman sexuality. See the tag link for "Classical era" for titles.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41c - Things I Loved in 2019 - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/12/21 - listen here)
Calendars are arbitrary things, and yet it’s hard not to get caught up in the urge to summarize what we’ve done, what we’ve consumed, what we’ve loved when that arbitrary reference point in the Earth’s solar circumnavigation arrives.
For a number of years, I’ve done a year-end round-up on my blog titled “What Hath She Wrote” to remind myself that I’ve actually accomplished something. The title is, of course, a word-play on the famous Biblical line used to test the first Morse Code message transmitted by telegraph in 1844: “What Hath God Wrought.” I like hiding bits of word-play in titles. Have you recognized that the episode category “On the Shelf” is a take-off on the slang term for an unmarried woman common in Regency Romances?
But I digress. I do that a lot.
As I say, I’ve taken to doing a year-end round-up of my writing and blogging (and podcasting), but today’s show is something different. It’s a discussion of what I loved from the content of what I’ve been writing and blogging and podcasting about, sticking to material with historic and lesbian-relevant themes. Last year I did a combined top ten of fiction, non-fiction, and movies, but this time let’s separate them out.
This isn’t a list about things that came out in 2019, it’s a list of things I consumed in 2019, because that’s how I organize my life. Only one of the non-fiction books I picked was published this calendar year. Sometimes my non-fiction favorites are decades old by the time I read them. I’m never up-to-date with my fiction reading. And as an author who has twice had a novel published in November, I consider it totally unfair to do year-end round-ups that disadvantage books that people don’t even know exist at the time they’re deciding what was “best.”
It’s always tough to pick just five novels for a list of what I enjoyed, but here’s my best shot. I’ve organized them by the order in which I reviewed them on my blog.
First up is Life Mask by Emma Donoghue. This is a strongly biographical novel about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, whose real life story hints very strongly at same-sex romance in her life. Donoghue has coaxed those hints and embers into a satisfying, if very slow-moving, depiction of what Damer’s interior life might have been like. This is definitely much more of a historic saga than a romance novel, though, so don’t go into it expecting sex and drama. There is a vast amount of 18th century British politics. I love this sort of thing, but it’s a specialized taste.
That said, I’m also a sucker for a specific type of vibrant throat-grabbing prose that plunges you into the middle of a story and holds your head under until you come up gasping for breath at the end. I had no clue that I was going to get that sort of experience from Benny Lawrence’s The Ghost and the Machine. It’s a difficult, hard-hitting story of abuse and psychological manipulation, set in an era when it was possible to imagine a chess-playing automaton but still far from possible to actually construct one. The historicity of the setting was gripping which was one of the aspects of the book that startled me, because none of Lawrence’s other books give a clue to this side of her writing.
The field of f/f historical fiction is unfortunately dominated by white voices and white viewpoints, even in cases where more diverse settings and characters are depicted. So I’m delighted to include two books among my favorites that avoid that problem. Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury tells an inter-racial love story embedded in a mystery-thriller set in Philadelphia just on the cusp of the American Civil War. The era and setting is depicted in fascinating detail. And although some details of the characters’ attitudes toward sexuality felt a bit too 20th century, the characters themselves pulled me in and made for a satisfying read.
This year saw a small blossoming of f/f historicals from authors who have already gained a mainstream reputation writing other types of romantic couples. Of those, the one that most grabbed my heart was Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. This Regency romance braids in not only the challenges of pursuing a same-sex romance in an era that didn’t recognize them as having equal weight to straight marriages, but also the frustrations of being a female scientist at a time when people were all too willing to attribute or appropriate your work to the nearest man working in the field. Although, come to think of it, that still happens regularly. There’s a lovely plot twist at the end with regard to that aspect. But even more, I loved how deftly Waite developed a plausible romantic arc that was true both to the era and to the tropes of the genre.
Another blossoming trend these days, is the proliferation of queer characters in mainstream fantasy and science fiction. And when this trend meets the popular sub-genre of historic fantasy, there are some truly exciting books being produced. Malaysian author Zen Cho burst onto the scene with her Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, centering the presence and role of people from all the far-flung parts of the 19th century British empire. In the second, and more or less independent, book in this series, The True Queen, we have a Malaysian heroine traveling to England to rescue her sister and falling in love with a young woman studying magic along the way. But it’s a far more complex story than that, involving the politics of dragons, deep betrayals in the realm of Faerie, and trying to navigate unfamiliar social structures, while still preserving the comedy-of-manners core of the Regency novel.
Just like I did last year, I’m going to break my rules by adding an extra book at the end that doesn’t fit the historic theme. Once again, it’s an entry in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series, envisioning Holmes and Watson as queer black women in a near-future dystopia that is frighteningly believable. The Hound of Justice is a story of trust, terror, and regaining self-confidence when everything you know might end up being a lie.
For non-fiction, I chose five titles from the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog to feature. This far into the project, there’s a lot of repetition in the publications I’m reading and summarizing. There are valid reasons for that repetition. Some of the historic people or concepts that are most relevant to female same-sex history involve a lot of nuance that can be analyzed in multiple contexts. Or they are exceptional examples of some particular topic. Or they may be the only example of some particular aspect of gender or sexuality.
So rather than picking my favorites based purely on the excellence of the research or writing--though that comes into it as well--I’ve chosen favorites that present something new and different.
Two of my favorites focus strongly on the margins of gender categories, and how competing understandings of gender shed light on attitudes towards same-sex relationships. If a culture is arguing over how to define differences between the sexes, that becomes highly relevant to whether a relationship involves two people of the same sex.
Kathleen Brown’s article “’Changed...into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” examines the conflicting testimony around a charge of sexual misconduct in the early American colonies. The most likely understanding is that Thomas or Thomsine Hall was intersex. They were assigned a female gender at birth, but early in adulthood began situationally presenting alternately as male or female. When asked which category they belonged to, Hall replied “both.” This put the law court into a quandary whether Hall’s erotic relationship with a woman constituted the crime of fornication or of impersonating a man. In the legal arguments and testimony, two different models of gender were presented. In the model that might be labeled “performative gender”, you are how you behave. Part of this model was the belief that gendered performance was a symptom of underlying gender identity. If someone felt driven to wear male clothing and pursue male occupations and to desire women, then that was evidence that they were a man. The problem was: Hall alternated between male and female performance and felt no need to choose. The second model argued that anatomy was the ultimate determiner of true sex. But Hall’s ambiguous anatomy raised the question of where to draw the line. The detailed documentation of Hall’s life and the questions around their status is unusual, but Hall’s situation most likely was not. And Hall’s story suggests innumerable lives that might have been lived more quietly and invisibly in history, cheerfully contradicting the binaries and norms that western society was determined to enforce.
Another publication that shows how gender categories shed light on understandings of identity and sexuality is “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” by Cary J. Nederman and Jacqui True. The term “hermaphrodite” is currently considered offensive when applied to intersex people, but the use of this term in the middle ages was more complex and covered a range of concepts that today would be considered unrelated. Medieval use of the term covered any situation where a person combined aspects that were considered to belong to different sexes or different genders. Thus, although physiologically intersex people might be categorized as “hermaphrodites”, so would people we today would consider homosexual, or gender transgressive, or simply out of step with gendered personality traits and habits. Due to the misogynistic nature of western society, calling a woman a hermaphrodite might even be considered praise if she displayed positive traits that were categorized as masculine. In the context of the 12th century’s “renaissance” of scientific and philosophical thought, questions of the nature of gender were explored within the idea of the hermaphrodite. Did hermaphrodites represent the expected ambiguous middle ground on a single polar scale of gender with male at one end and female at the other? Did they represent a portentious failure of nature to produce a clearly gendered individual? Or did they represent a third category, apart from male and female but partaking of both? For those who think questions about the nature of identity and competing models of gender are a modern phenomenon, this is an excellent survey of the wide range of thought present in the middle ages.
Not all of my favorite history publications have involved analysis and theory. One of the most fascinating genres in medieval European literature for thinking about gender and f/f sexuality are the gender-disguise romances. The Romance of Silence was published in a scholarly edition with English translation back in 1999. But the primary text of my favorite, Yde and Olive was only published in a bilingual edition last year, translated and edited by Mounawar Abbouchi. This is a medieval adaptation of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, very loosely speaking. It has the one character living in disguise as a man for reasons involving her father, and the other falling in love with her and holding to that love even when her secret was revealed. In both, the same-sex romance is revolved by the magical transformation of the first character into a man. But in both cases, this resolution clashes with modern understandings of identity whether interpreted as a lesbian story or a transgender story, while simultaneously having attractions for both audiences. Yde doesn’t put on men’s clothing and take up a man’s life because she identifies as male, but rather because it is a way to be safe as a woman alone in the world. But having done so--following the medieval principle that you are what you present to the world--she becomes the ideal of chivalric masculinity. And the miraculous transformation is not for the positive purpose of aligning body with identity, but for the negative purpose of avoiding the fatal consequences of engaging in a same-sex marriage. There are three versions of this story, all with different resolutions. In one, there is no transformation and the two lovers end up married to each other’s fathers instead, which...sorry, no. Just no. But I’m glad to finally have an accessible version of the primary text. Now I just need a bilingual edition of L’Escoufle, my second favorite medieval romance with women in love, though it doesn’t have any cross-dressing in it.
My fourth favorite non-fiction book this year doesn’t directly address sexuality, but it does speak to some of the stumbling blocks writers face when writing f/f historical romances. This is Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages by Kate Kelsey Staples, which analyzes gender differences in what daughters inherited when compared to sons, primarily in middle class families in London. Writers of historical fiction sometimes go through contortions to give their heroines economic independence and the social standing to live a life independent of heterosexual marriage. But as studies like this one show, women’s situations in the past were varied and often involved far more opportunity than modern stereotypes assume. My rule of thumb has become, “If you can’t find data on women in same-sex relationships, look to the single women.” And in many times and places, inheritance laws and customs gave women the freedom to support themselves in an unmarried life.
My fifth pick brings a couple of different lessons. This is Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918, edited by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey. It’s interesting to compare this collection of personal and revealing correspondence to the diaries of Anne Lister, earlier in the 19th century. The women lived in rather different eras and circumstance. Lister was a member of the English gentry, living in the Georgian era, frank about her sexuality in the privacy of her coded diaries, but moving through a woman-centered society that both enabled and disguised her romantic relationships with other women. If we had only her public records and not her private coded diary, it would be difficult to prove anything about her sexuality--as it is for so very many women in similar circumstances. Rose and Evangeline were Americans, living in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, moving through fairly high society due to wealth--both inherited and self-earned--and family connections. (Rose served as White House hostess for her brother, President Grover Cleveland.) Their correspondence is steeped in romantic sentimentalism, but is also woven through with the sensual physicality of their relationship and the conflicts Rose had over Evangeline’s marriage. What do I find interesting to compare and contrast? In both cases, these women were not unique. Their lives and loves followed paths shared by many of their contemporaries. They weren’t “special” in experiencing same-sex romance. What is special is that detailed documentation of their lives survived the years and the looming threat of erasure, in both cases due to a certain amount of chance and luck. Rose and Evangeline’s love was not unique or unusual. If you dig through the correspondence of other women of a similar era, you will find that intensely romantic relationships between women were normal and common. And if we had similar private records preserved from Anne Lister’s contemporaries, I am utterly confident that we’d find many of them similarly “loved, and only loved the fairer sex.”
As with fiction, I’m claiming a bonus item for my non-fiction Top Five. This is a brief article from a series of studies of the Oxford English Dictionary--considered the definitive historical dictionary of the English language--tracing the deliberate erasure of vocabulary and word usage around the topic of lesbianism in the compiling of the dictionary. So many historians struggling to discuss the context of same-sex relations have fallen into the trap of assuming that if the OED doesn’t have a word or a meaning for a word, then it didn’t exist. Thus we have text after text asserting that the very idea of lesbianism only arose in the 19th century, because how could we have a concept for something without having words for it? The study of history--whether the history of sexuality or the history of words--is never neutral.
There haven’t been enough movies and tv shows with historic f/f content to put together a top five favorites, but the ones we did have...wow!
I loved the irreverence and meta-commentary of Wild Nights with Emily, telling the story not only of Emily Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, but also telling the story of how their passionate feelings for each other were deliberately erased from the historic record. Although details of her life were fictionalized, rearranged, or simply turned into metaphor, the movie did an excellent job of focusing on essential aspects of the poet’s life and legacy.
And, of course, 2019 was the year that brought us Gentleman Jack, the ongoing series about the early 19th century lesbian Anne Lister and her quest to establish a marriage-like partnership with neighbor and fellow landowner Ann Walker. I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how mind-blowing it is that such a series has been created, with such amazing production values and writing. There are many stories of women loving women throughout history that could make equally amazing tv shows. Let’s hope that Gentleman Jack is successful enough to convince the powers that be to support them.
I’m still planning to do an Anne Lister show--perhaps several of them--at some point. I need to figure out what my special contribution can be, because the pod-world is full of people gushing over the show. I’ve been following a really fun podcast titled Shibden After Dark that combines complete fangirl squee with expert analysis of the technical production aspects of the show. And if any film or tv producers out there want ideas for which queer woman in history to tackle next, I have a very long list of suggestions.
This blog title is the polar opposite of my own attitude, and the fact that the author of the paper I'm covering today states it in his conclusions might go some way to illustrating why I find his research frustrating and annoying. The rest of my commentary on this point is interleaved with my summary of the article.
Trumbach, Randolph. 2012. "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 832-848.
I’m going to start this summary by noting that the more articles I read from Randolph Trumbach, the grumpier I get. When the highlights on my pdfs are augmented by scribbled red pen notes saying “No! Wrong!”, it’s not a good sign. So I don’t exactly come into this summary with an unbiased mind. My major beef is his tendency to make pronouncements on the history of women’s same-sex relations that appear based primarily on assuming that all his research and conclusions on men’s same-sex relations can just be applied willy-nilly to women, even if women’s history has to be distorted and mangled to make them fit. In this particular article, I rather lost it at the point where he notes “all these prominent historians who focus on women’s history disagree with me, but I’m going to cherry-pick some examples to show how they’re wrong wrong wrong.”
So I will scrupulously keep my commentary on this article within square brackets.
* * *
Trumbach begins with the statement that before 1700, Europeans assumed that all males experienced sexual desire for both women and adolescent boys, but that within a generation after 1700 this was shifting to a belief that most males only desired women and a minority of of “deviant” males desired other males (of non-specific age). This shift, he claims, began in England, France, and the Netherlands by the mid-century, by 1800 had expanded to central Europe, and to southern and eastern Europe by 1900.
The history of relations between women, he notes is less thoroughly documented due to fewer legal sources, but “it is likely” that they followed the exact same pattern as men in being attracted to both men and women before 1700, with same-sex relationships being age-differentiated, while after 1700 women also were differentiated into a heterosexual majority and a lesbian minority, though the lesbians had less impact on social attitudes than male homosexuals did. [Note: as the phrase “it is likely” signals, no documentation is presented for this assumption that women’s experiences exactly mirror men’s.]
Trumbach reviews a significant body of evidence for the prevalence of male same-sex erotics in the 16-17th centuries, although in my opinion he doesn’t sufficiently consider that some of that evidence was politically motivated (as with King Henry VIII’s investigation of monastic sexual activity which had clear political goals in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries).
Men’s same-sex relations had long been predicated on aligning age with sexual role: adolescents (like women) were expected to accept a “passive” sexual role while adult males took an “active” role. [Note: this overlooks the blurring of age/status-differentiation in the overlap with neo-Platonic friendship, but I’m willing to buy it as an overall trend.]
Turning again to women, he begins, “Most sexual relations between women before 1700 (like those between males) were probably structured by difference in age.” He then notes that Brooten (1996), Traub (2002) and others dispute this as a factor in women’s experience and selects individual examples from their data that did involve an age difference between the women to support his claim. [Note: what he doesn’t clearly demonstrate is that age-difference was an essential component of women’s relationships or that it corresponded to particular sexual roles, as opposed to some subset of f/f relations having an age difference.] He reviews several sources involving legal cases, often involving the use of artificial penises for sex, suggesting that they represent the typical case for female same-sex relations. He also conflates cross-gender performance with same-sex erotics, including a context-free reference to Joan of Arc.
Moving on to “after it changed” Trumbach asserts that the new model of men having desire exclusively for women was the cause of the rise of “romance” as a foundation for marriage and of the “tender care of children” that he says became to appear around 1750. [Note: see Hitchcock 2012 for a far more detailed and nuanced discussion of parallel social changes in the 18th century. Also, see the rise of the concept of "companionate marriage" in the 17th century.] The shift to earlier and more frequent marriage by men, he asserts, was “motivated by the need to establish what would later be called heterosexual identities” now that non-heterosexuality had become stigmatized. “It is not clear” he notes that women’s earlier and more common marriage was similarly due to not wanting to be suspected of being lesbians, but “more likely that women sought in their sexual and marital behavior to show that they were mothers and not prostitutes.” [Note: I feel that this high-minded motivation entirely ignores the severe social and economic disadvantages of single motherhood. Further, given the intimate relationship between marriage patterns and economic trends across the ages, I'm reluctant to assume a psychological motivation for a shift to earlier marriage unless an economic motivation has been actively ruled out.]
“Nonetheless, there did emerge by the middle of the eighteenth century a minority of women attracted only to women who signaled their desires by taking on certain masculine traits in their gait, speech, and clothing” in parallel with “effeminate” male homosexuals. This is followed by a survey of pop culture and biographical examples of female couples in which one member (or both) adopted male-coded garments such as riding habits. He gives a brief nod to female couples who both have female-coded presentations, identifying them as “organized by mother-daughter roles” and thus dismissing nearly the entire Romantic Friendship phenomenon.
Why did this supposed shift in sexual roles occur? Why at that time? Why so rapidly? “This, alas, I do not find a terribly interesting or profitable question,” Trumbach says.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41b - The Highwaywoman Special (Reprise)
(Originally aired 2017/09/30, this airing 2019/12/14 - listen here)
To give myself something resembling an end of year holiday, instead of a new interview, I’m reprising this show on highwaywoman songs and stories. It originally aired on September 30, 2017. I thought it might make a nice lead-in to next week’s show on Vikings. [Note: I rearranged the episodes after recording and the Viking show is two weeks after this one.]
* * *
[First two verses of “The Highwayman” by Alfred J. Noyes, music by Phil Ochs, pronouns adjusted]
Outlaws have been a staple of popular stories as far back as recorded literature. Specific types of outlaw arise out of the society of the times. Laws restricting the hunting of game created poachers. The age of merchant ships crossing the seas spawned pirates. The concentration of cash in banks gave rise to bank robbers. And the establishment of regular coaching routes to carry passengers and commerce on fixed schedules were the temptation that gave rise to highwaymen.
In England, the great era of mythic highwaymen began around the 17th century and continued into the early 19th. The majority of real life highwaymen were male, of course. But a few highwaywomen made their way into song and story and the pages of history as well. Some examples in literature may have simply been an opportunity to turn gender tropes on their head, but throughout early modern history, there have been many women who found the economic temptations of male professions sufficient to trade skirts for trousers.
Not all depictions of literary highwaywomen were particularly feminist in spirit, though. The earliest known highwaywoman ballad, “The Female Highway Hector” from the 17th century, is more of a cautionary tale. After a long series of successful robberies against various stereotyped victims, she tries to rob a “real” highwayman and is defeated and sexually assaulted.
Here’s the beginning of the ballad. The original broadsheet suggests singing it to a tune called “The Rant” and I’ve used a tune with that name that is believed to be the one that was originally used.
The Female Highway Hector
You gallants of every station
Give ear to a frollicksome song
The like was ne’er seen in this nation
‘Twas done by a female so young.
She bought her a mare and a bridle
A saddle and pistols also
She resolved she would not be idle
So upon the pad she did go.
She clothed herself in great splendor
For breeches and sword she had on
Her body appear’d very slender
She show’d like a pretty young man.
And then like a padder so witty
She mounted with speed on her mare
She left all her friends in the city
And steered her course towards the Ware.
We’ll leave her story there, as the rest of the ballad is not edifying.
Real life highwaywomen--those for which we have solid evidence--were rarely romantic figures. But then, neither were most male highwaymen.
Legal records of prosecutions of women for this crime seem to have been rare, though not unheard of. Joan Bracey was hanged in Nottingham in the later 17th century for highway robbery, as was Ann Meders, hanged at Tyburn. Both met their ends at a relatively young age, not surprisingly. Both began their careers in partnership with male companions, as did Nan Hereford, who managed to carry on the profession for six years after her husband was hanged before meeting her own end.
Legend is more likely to view highwaymen--and women--as romantic figures. The early years of the profession corresponded with the political struggles in England between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads during the English Civil War and the dashing cavalier turned highwayman was a staple of popular culture.
Katherine Ferrers was a 17th century Englishwoman whom legend holds to have been the “Wicked Lady”, a notorious female highwayman. Katherine became an heiress at age six, during a period when her family was swept up in conflicts between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. Katherine’s family were Royalists and financial difficulties related to this state inspired them to marry Katherine off at age 14, after which most of her inherited property was sold off. She died at age 26, shortly after the return of King Charles II to the throne. For the last couple years of her life, her husband had been in prison for participating in an uprising. This much is fact.
Legend holds that--like a number of impoverished Royalists--she turned her hand to highway robbery to support herself during her husband’s imprisonment. Legend further holds that, after being shot during a robbery she died of her wounds, being discovered wearing men’s clothing. In this case, legend is unlikely to hold any truth. There are no mentions of Katherine’s supposed exploits in any of the sensational histories of famous highwaymen published in the 18th century. The first mention of her supposed exploits seems to be in the mid 19th century, but the image of a beautiful and daring woman taking to the highway has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers, and The Wicked Lady has been the subject of several novels and films, as well as inspiring ghost stories associated with her residence.
Within the context of this podcast, it must be admitted that--like most legends and ballads of cross-dressing women, the tales of female highwaymen from the 17th and 18th centuries remain steadfastly heterosexual. One notable exception is Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, a real woman living around 1600 who was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes and rumored to be sexually interested in both men and women. Contemporary records portrayed Moll Cutpurse as a thief, a fence, and a pimp but an early 18th century writer who produced a history of famous highwaymen, decided she also needed to be given a brief fictional career of highway robbery.
A much more cheerful (though still solidly heterosexual) story is told in a ballad titled “Sovay” or “The Female Highwayman” which was collected in the late 19th century, at a time when highwaymen had long since disappeared. This one is worth performing in full as it introduces a motif particularly popular in modern female highwayman fiction.
Sovay, or The Female Highwayman
Sovay, Sovay, all on a day,
She dressed herself in man's array,
With a sword and pistol all by her side,
To meet her true love
To meet her true love away did ride.
She met her true love all on the plain,
And when she saw him she bid him stand,
'Stand and deliver, kind sir,' she said,
Or else this moment
Or else this moment I’ll shoot you dead.'
Oh, when she'd robbed him of all his store,
She says, 'Kind sir, there is one thing more,
A diamond ring which I know you have,
Deliver that, your sweet life to save.'
'That diamond ring a token is,
That ring I’ll keep, my life I’ll lose;'
She being tender hearted just like a dove,
She rode away
She rode away from her own true love.
Next morning in the garden green,
O like true lovers they were seen;
He saw his watch hanging by her clothes,
Which made him flush
Which made him flush like a red rose.
'What makes you flush at so silly a thing,
I fain would have had your diamond ring,
‘And if you had given me the ring,’ she said,
I’d have pulled the trigger
I’d have pulled the trigger, I’d have shot you dead.’
In the oldest version of the ballad, Sovay only tells her love that demanding the ring was a test, but I rather like the stronger version that I performed. But remember this trope of stealing a love token, because it’s going to come up again.
The era of the rise of highwaymen was also an era when popular media was fascinated with gender disguises and the possibility of accidental homoerotic encounters with women disguised as men. Denise Walen’s extensive study of female cross-dressing in early modern drama doesn’t seem to include any examples where the disguised woman has a homoerotic encounter while acting as a highwayman, but it’s exactly the sort of plot one might find in that context.
Lesbian historical romance, on the other hand, has latched on to the motif of the cross-dressing female highwayman as an excellent way to combine swashbuckling, gender play, and the possibility of accidentally falling in love with a woman who was forbidden to you both by gender and profession.
Within this sub-genre, the motif of the stolen trinket that provides an excuse for further contact almost seems a requirement. In fact, we can lay out a formula for the standard lesbian highwaywoman romance: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate on the marriage market) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending.
Here are five stories about female highwaymen finding love and redemption in the arms of another woman.
* * *
Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies (Bedazzled Ink, 2008)
I loved the solid historic grounding in Barbara Davies’ Rebeccah and the Highwayman. At the beginning of the 18th century, in the time of Queen Anne, Rebeccah Dutton has a series of encounters with the mysterious highwayman Blue-Eyed Nick, but the secret that “Nick” is actually a woman proves dangerous as both women are drawn together again and again.
The meaningful keepsake in this story is Rebeccah’s family signet ring, which she is allowed to keep in the initial encounter. They are reunited when Kate--in the guise of Blue-Eyed Nick--is wounded in the course of rescuing Rebeccah, who must then conceal the highwaywoman during her recovery. Kate has a brush with the gallows, but we know it will come off well--after all, this isn’t a Sarah Waters novel! I particularly liked the novel’s use of the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (who is conveniently Rebeccah’s distant cousin) to convey understandings and attitudes towards women’s romantic relationships at the time. The story is solidly written with only occasional historical info-dumps. Kate’s eventual change of profession was delightfully true to the times. Unlike several of the books discussed in this show, the erotic content draws the curtain after passionate kissing, though more is clearly implied. This is an excellent book for those who want both good writing and good history.
The Locket and the Flintlock by Rebecca S Buck (Bold Strokes Books, 2012)
Rebecca S. Buck’s The Locket and the Flintlock takes a Regency era setting and draws on the motifs of that genre as well as the standard highwayman tropes of a stolen sentimental keepsake (as one might guess from the title) and a highwaywoman with a tragic backstory, a heart of gold, and a drive for social and economic justice. A few days after her dead mother’s locket has been taken during a daring highway robbery, Lucia Foxe recognizes the thieves riding past from her bedroom window and sets out after them, bareback on her favorite mare, to retrieve the keepsake in the middle of the night. And there lies one of the major flaws of this work: almost all the characters do something important that breaks my willingness to believe in the story. But if you can overlook plot holes and inconsistencies, it’s a rollicking adventure with a lot of angsty self-examination and the level of steaminess one tends to expect from a Bold Strokes book.
Daring and Decorum by Lawrence Hogue (Supposed Crimes, 2017)
Except for one issue, which I’ll get to in a moment, I loved Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum. Set in 18th century England, Elizabeth Collington longs for something beyond the life of a respectable vicar’s daughter. Then one day she encounters a highwayman who steals her mother’s necklace...and a kiss. The encounter stirs feelings that must be kept secret, and an even greater secret is that the highwayman is a woman. The book’s strength is its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times. Unlike many stories that plunge the women directly into a relationship, Daring and Decorum provides a realistic pacing for the relationship, though this may cause some readers to find it slow. I loved Hogue’s writing. He has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. The one thing that got the book off on the wrong foot for me was a mild sexual assault in the opening scene. Nothing more than groping, but I’m not fond of the message that women will, of course, get turned on by assault as long as it’s by the person who ends up being the love interest. It wasn’t enough to put me off the book entirely, but I think the story could have worked just as well with a different opening.
The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy
In The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy, Evelyn Thackeray is traveling to visit friends in advance of her upcoming marriage to a business associate of her widowed father when a band of highwaymen--and one highwaywoman--stops the coach she’s traveling in. Robbed of her money and a locket that Evelyn risked the anger of the highwaymen to try to keep, she’s now stranded penniless in a village. She offers to work at an inn in exchange for a room for the night...and then Bess, the highwaywoman, climbs through her window there, out of the darkness.
The story uses the standard collection of highwaywoman tropes: the soft-hearted thief, the keepsake stolen and then returned as an excuse to meet again, the sudden inexplicable attraction to an outlaw. And it tries to add in a layer of off-balance, constantly shifting loyalties and triple-crosses, but never quite sticks the landing in terms of believability. The plot consists of a non-stop sequence of chases, kidnappings, and escapes, punctuated by emotional confrontations and betrayals. I found it hard to sympathize with either Evelyn or Bess, and the question of how a highwaywoman successfully retires from a life of crime felt glossed over a bit too easily. But if non-stop action is your thing, check it out.
Behind the Mask by Kim Larabee (Alyson Books, 1989 out of print)
What is a single young woman in the Regency era to do if she must support a household? In Kim Larabee’s Behind the Mask, as an alternative to setting one’s cap for a handsome man with a title or a fortune, our hero Maddie Elverton turns to highway robbery. But her double life threatens to unravel when she encounters Allie Sifton, at first as a victim of her robbery, and then as a partner in her secret. There is a theft and return of jewelry, though not of the usual sentimental keepsake.
This story is largely a light-hearted romp, filled with exquisite writing, and leavened by a small amount of peril from the dogged pursuit by Lt. Bridgewater, who has set his sights on taking the highwayman in hand. Larabee is mistress of the language and conventions of the Regency romance, and turns the usual tropes of the genre on their head to bring Allie and Maddie together for their happily ever after. I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy, however unfortunately it is out of print.
* * *
There are plenty of ideas left to tackle in the female highwayman genre. England isn’t the only possible setting and the field is wide open for a plot that starts out with something other than the theft of a sentimental keepsake.
I’ll take what may be unfair advantage to note that I included a brief highway robbery scene in my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer”, set in the late 17th century where the crime is planned to cover up the retrieval of sensitive state documents. There is, of course, also a damsel in distress to rescue. There’s a link to the free story in the show notes.
Whether your heroines meet over the theft of a sentimental locket or rob Roundheads in support of King Charles, whether they run off together to enjoy their life of crime or eventually settle down in the guise of lady companions, it’s hard to beat a highwaywoman for swashbuckling adventure!
[Final verse of “The Highwayman” by Noyes & Ochs]
The second book in O’Dell’s near-future Sherlockian thriller series takes the reader on a game of cat-and-mouse where our protagonist, Dr. Janet Watson, struggles in the midst of chaos and danger to continue trusting her colleague/housemate/friend--I would say “partner” except that word carries some erroneous implications when you’re talking about two queer women--Sara Holmes.
Janet’s progress to reclaim her career as a surgeon in the face of reliance on a high-tech prosthetic arm is derailed when disappears abruptly, and then leads Janet on a terrifying treasure-hunt of clues, contacts, and disguises deep into the heart of enemy territory on a rescue mission that requires her still-uncertain surgical skills.
I’ve grown very attached both to Watson and to the maddeningly unpredictable Holmes, whose background we learn more about in hints and the rare quiet moments of the story. There’s plenty of action and all-too-realistic violence, as well as a sketch of a fractured America that is terrifyingly believable these days.
If you like twisty, fast-paced thrillers that center queer women of color, then you may love this series as much as I do. (Probably best to start with the first book, A Study in Honor, though if you’re a quick study and comfortable with filling in backstory in your head, you could read this one first.)