Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36a - On the Shelf for July 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/07/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2019.
Summer is here: time for lazy afternoons reading in the hammock and then panicking about whether we have enough time to finish all the projects we wanted to complete in 2019. My July is looking fairly laid back, but I've rested up from the last schedule crunch it's time to start new projects.
I want to start off with an apology to the author of last week's story. I had one of those brain errors and used a shortened version of the title for Catherine Lundoff's story "By Her Pen She Conquers." I've fixed it in all the online text, but the recording refers to the story as simply "By Her Pen." It was entirely my error and I'm sorry for any confusion.
But speaking of the fiction series, one of my new projects is planning for the 2020 fiction series. This time I want to do a lot of advance publicity to keep it in people's awareness, so expect a cheerleading session every month through the end of the year.
There's a minor change this time around in the pay rate. The standard I set when I started the series was that I'd pay the professional rate set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am a member. As SFWA is raising their standard from 6 cents a word to 8 cents a word, I'll be following suit. This means that previously my upper word limit of 5000 words paid $300. Now it will pay $400. In case anyone is wondering, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is not a money-making venture. When I buy stories and pay narrators, it comes out of my own pocket currently. Some day the blog and podcast may have a large enough audience to make it self-sufficient. But I'm a firm believer that you get what you pay for, and I want the fiction series to be able to attract the best stories available. That means meeting professional standards for pay.
I'm going to experiment with another change to the fiction series this year. Just as my author interviews and the new book listings include works with fantasy elements mixed into the history, in 2020 the LHMP fiction series will be open to stories about queer women in history that can include fantasy elements. The stories still need to be rooted in a specific actual time and place. And the fantasy elements shouldn't be treated as a free wild card to write modern stories with historic window dressing. But I want to give writers a little more elbow room to play around in those historic settings. The full version of the call for submissions is on the website and will provide additional guidance on this point. And, of course, purely historic stories are still very welcome!
I'm not the only person looking for story submissions. Molly Llewellyn of the website Bi Bookish Babe posted a call for submissions that listeners might be interested in. She says, "I’m currently putting together an anthology of fictional short stories reimagining the lives of real lgbtq+ women from history. You can find more submission rules and important info in the announcement post." I've linked to the announcement in the show notes. She provides a "wish list" of historic figures that she'd love to see stories about, to provide writers with inspiration.
Check out the link in the show notes to see that wish list and get inspiration for stories you might consider writing. The deadline is November 5th, 2019 and the maximum word count for submissions is 2500 words. The pay rate isn't listed on the call and the editor says it won't be set until they line up a publisher.
Publications on the Blog
Last month on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, we covered Precious and Adored, an edited collection of letters that give evidence for a romantic relationship between Rose Cleveland, who served as First Lady for her brother, US President Grover Cleveland, and her long-time friend Evangeline Simpson Whipple. I also reviewed the book for The Lesbian Review. This was followed up by a series of publications that either were relevant to my paper on medieval cross-dressing narratives, or that I picked up at the conference where I presented the paper, or that I'm reading for an expanded published version of the paper. Many of these, naturally, revolve around themes of cross-dressing or gender identity.
First we have Abbouchi's bilingual edition of the romance of Yde and Olive, then a paper on socially licensed cross-dressing among 13th century Ashkenazi Jews by Lena Roos. Victoria Blud's book The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature wasn't quite as fascinating as I'd hoped, though only because of my specific interests, and similarly I found Susan Morrison's A Medieval Woman's Companion to be a bit too light-weight for my purposes, although it put me on the track of another interesting primary source mentioned among my new acquisitions. Sandra Lowerre's "To Rise Beyond Their Sex" has some interesting thoughts on the legends of early cross-dressing saints. And I have another slot in the July schedule that I haven't filled in yet.
I don't have any new book purchases for the Project, but I've turned up some interesting material online. One is an edition of the early 13th century Greek historian Nikolas Choniatus who appears to be the source of a description of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ladies wearing masculine clothing while accompanying the Second Crusade. This is one of those anecdotes that I've been seeing mentioned time and again in surveys of medieval cross-dressing stories, but for the first time I found a mention that included a specific source.
I also spotted a link on the website medivalists.net for an article titled "How far did medieval society recognize lesbianism in this period?" by Catherine Tideswell. It's a very brief overview and the content will be familiar to readers of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, but it might be worth bookmarking to point people to for an introduction to the topic.
There was a book announcement on one of my academic mailing lists for the forthcoming guide Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, coming out next year, with an advance offering of the book's suggested guidelines for terminology and language usage around discussing potentially trans or queer subjects in historical writing. The authors have asked people to share these guidelines so I may be discussing them on the blog if it seems appropriate, and will link the document in the show notes for those who might be interested.
This month’s author guest will be K.J. Charles, talking about her recent Edwardian country house murder mystery Proper English.
This month's essay will be on the topic of singlewomen, and what the academic field of singlewomen studies has to say to the study of queer women in history, and especially for identifying life structures that are friendly to lesbian historical fiction. Because, of course, the "single" in the phrase "singlewomen" only means single with respect to relationships with men. And many of the historic contexts in which singlewomen existed and even thrived have a lot of potential when developing lesbian plots.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the recent, new, and forthcoming lesbian-relevant historical fiction list! We'll start by catching up on some May publications that weren't mentioned previously.
The first one is a bit more mythological than strictly historical: Amazons: The Sanctuary of Themiscyra, self-published by Leïla Hedyth. The cover copy doesn't mention same-sex dynamics, but it turned up in my Amazon search (as it were) so I'm willing to take the chance. I suspect you'll find a bit more Hollywood history than the actual past, but it might be a fun read.
In a decadent world dominated by privileged men, Kylla, a rebel who has stolen ancient tablets, gets arrested by the militia. Freed by two cunning and audacious strangers, the young woman leaves her clan behind her and embarks for the island of Themiscyra: the last vestige of the Amazon civilization. Thus open the doors of a quest that could change her destiny forever.
The second book also sits more on the historic fantasy side, with a clear steampunk flavor. 20 Hours to Charles Town: Madame Elvira's Magnificent Excursions is self-published by Charlotte Henley Babb
An airship madam risks her women's spy network for economic influence across continental North America despite rogue operatives, a shadow enemy and betrayal by the one closest to her. In an alternate history of North America, where the Revolt failed, and European superpowers have colonies in the mid-1800s, Elvira Starr and her life-partner, Erzulie Dahomey, run a mile-high brothel in an airship shaped like an elephant. Only the most wealthy and powerful can access her services, and she provides them information that they could not easily obtain elsewhere from well-trained spies as their escorts.
After some 20 years of this business, Elvira learns of a new technology found in the new nation of Texas, recently seceded from Mexico. This technology would allow her airships access to California, so she is working to obtain agreements between British America, Florida, New France, the First Nations Confederacy, Liberia, and Mexico, to cooperate in trade rather than continuing to threaten war. However, the Mauverton Detective Agency has been working to infiltrate her network of businesses, apparently funded by some anonymous person or persons. She has an operative in their organization, but when another of their agents asks her for sanctuary, she sees an opportunity to debrief him. Now she just needs to get the strait-laced Texican to work with her despite his moral opposition to her work, and to make an alliance with the Pirate Queen of Liberia, a nation of former enslaved people, natives and pirates. But Elvira has personal issues that concern her partner, Zulie, and those have to be resolved to get the colonial ambassadors to Charles Towne for their official meeting about recognizing Texas. Can she root out the secrets held by her clients, manage a hoodoo, and deliver all the colonial ambassadors to Charles Town in time to prevent an international incident, or will she lose it all including the love of her life?
I...I need to take a space to breathe here for a moment. That's quite a lot going on in that book.
The June books start off with a new release from Manifold Press: Between Boat and Shore by Rhiannon Grant. If I had to guess from the blurb, this looks like a neolithic murder mystery, which is certainly a combination I've never seen before! I'm looking forward to reading this one.
Life in Otter Village is governed by the changing seasons and the will of the Goddess. Trebbi is held in high regard by her community. Guided by the goddess, the village plants, harvests, and trades with its neighbours. But when strangers arrive by boat in the midst of a storm – on the same day the village leader is found murdered – it brings a time of change for Trebbi, Dru, and the other villagers. Trebbi and Dru must work out who killed Peku while the village listens to the Goddess to guide them to a new leader, and Trebbi must listen to her heart about the visitor Aleuks.
The Women of Dauphine by Deb Jannerson from NineStar Press looks like it might fall in the paranormal romance genre, possibly with some cross-time elements?
When Cassie’s family moves into a decrepit house in New Orleans, the only upside is her new best friend. Gem is witty, attractive, and sure not to abandon Cassie—after all, she’s been confined to the old house since her murder in the ’60s. As their connection becomes romantic, Cassie must keep more and more secrets from her religious community, which hates ghosts almost as much as it hates gays. Even if their relationship prevails over volatile parents and brutal conversion therapy, it may not outlast time.
There are also supernatural elements in Jules Landry's self-published The Tattooed Witch. The cover copy leaves me wondering a little about the historic grounding, but if you like stories of secret witch cults in the middle ages, this might be your thing.
The Tattooed Witch is a Young Adult Historical Fantasy that chronicles a summer of Ember James, a young farm girl in 15th Century England. Ember finds herself sent to the city to ask the duke for aid on behalf of her village, needing protection from their lord who is overtaxing them to the point of starvation. After being denied help, panicked and desperate, a twist of fate places Ember face to face with a young witch in trouble - the enigmatic Freya Montagne. Despite witchcraft being outlawed by the Catholic Inquisition, Ember makes the bold decision to help Freya which ultimately leads a group of young witches back to her village. Throughout the course of the summer, Ember becomes increasingly mesmerized by the witches’ world. As she begins to delve into witchcraft herself, she also finds herself trying to understand her feelings for the wild and dangerous Freya. Throughout the weeks, Ember embarks on a series of adventures with her new friends, continually dodges the increasingly suspicious Inquisitor Esperanza, and prepares to defend her village from the baron’s personal army.
July brings quite a varied assortment of settings. Bette Hawkins tackles a fairly straightforward mid-20th century romance in In My Heart from Bella Books.
It’s the summer of 1958 and amateur guitarist/songwriter Alice Johnson feels like a stranger in her small Southern town. Everyone knows her business and is pushing her to settle down and marry like all young women are supposed to do. Only Alice’s love of music provides an escape from the stifling expectations of family and society. One night, Alice hears the mesmerizing voice of up-and-coming country singer Dorothy Long and is immediately entranced. Dorothy becomes Alice’s muse, inspiring her to write songs for Dorothy—even though she never imagines that Dorothy will hear them. But then she meets one of Dorothy’s band members who takes a liking to her and brings her to Dorothy’s room for an impromptu audition. Dorothy is so impressed by Alice’s talent that she invites her to join the band. And Alice is so overcome by Dorothy’s talent and beauty that she says “Yes” in a heartbeat. Alice is soon caught up in the whirlwind of a tour—and the unexpected desires she feels sharing a hotel room with her idol. Alice believes that “music be the food of love.” But is Alice setting herself up for a feast—or a famine?
If you like the jazz era with international celebrities and the frenetic precarious era between the two World Wars, you might try this complex story. Delayed Rays of a Star: A Novel by Amanda Lee Koe published by Nan A. Talese.
At a chance encounter at a Berlin soirée in 1928, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures three very different women together in one frame: up-and-coming German actress Marlene Dietrich, who would wend her way into Hollywood as one of its lasting icons; Anna May Wong, the world's first Chinese American star, playing for bit parts while dreaming of breaking away from her father's modest laundry; and Leni Riefenstahl, whose work as a director would first make her famous--then, infamous. From this curious point of intersection, Delayed Rays of a Star lets loose the trajectories of these women's lives. From Weimar Berlin to LA's Chinatown, from a seaside resort in East Germany to a luxury apartment on the Champs-Élysées, the different settings they inhabit are as richly textured as the roles they play: siren, muse, predator, or lover, each one a carefully calibrated performance. And in the orbit of each star live secondary players--a Chinese immigrant housemaid, a German soldier on leave from North Africa, a pompous Hollywood director--whose voices and viewpoints reveal the legacy each woman left in her own time, as well as in ours.
World War II is also the setting for Lynn Ames' Secrets Well Kept from Phoenix Rising Press.
It’s March, 1943. World War II rages across the globe, and twenty-five-year-old Nora Lindstrom is about to take a huge leap of faith. One of the few women in the male-dominated field of physics, she travels to an undisclosed destination to undertake a vital, top-secret project that the government insists could help the Allies win the war. At eighteen, Mary Trask is ready to put high school and the boy who wants to marry her in her rearview mirror. But what alternative could the future hold for the dyslexic daughter of a train conductor? When a cousin in Tennessee provides Mary with a cryptic job opportunity, she jumps at the chance to rewrite her life. Nora and Mary are drawn together under impossible circumstances. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, they find solace in their love for each other. But in a place where secrecy is paramount, their relationship is forever changed by the consequences of secrets well kept. (This is a prequel to her book Chain Reactions.)
We finish up July with a couple more paranormal stories. The first looks like a classic Edwardian-era gothic novel: The Haunting of Heatherhurst Hall self-published by Sebastian Nothwell.
Heatherhurst Hall, Cumberland, England, 1892. American heiress Kit Morgan is heartbroken at the wedding of her dearest school-friend. At her lowest moment, she is rescued from her agonies by the mysterious and alluring Alexandra Cranbrook, sister of a visiting English baronet. Alexandra is beautiful, charming, and effortlessly beguiling. Kit cannot help but fall in love with her. When Sir Vivian Cranbrook proposes marriage, it seems natural for Kit to accept—if only to live with the woman she desperately loves. But the Cranbrook’s ancestral home of Heatherhurst Hall is not all it seems. The attic is forbidden. Strange scratching noises echo from within the walls. Wraiths stalk the corridors by night. And worst of all, Alexandra’s love has turned to scorn. Still, Kit is determined to earn her happily-ever-after and save the Cranbrooks from the horrors of Heatherhurst Hall. If only she could know Alexandra loved her in return.
I don't always include vampire stories as historic if the historic elements are simply the vampire's back-story across the centuries, but don't play a major role in the action of the current book. But in The Vampire's Relic: A Gothic Paranormal Romance, self-published by Gillian St. Kevern, the setting of the story is the Victorian era so it fits my criteria.
Does a vampire ever really die? Actresses Hester Wilson and Kitty O’Hara have taken some strange gigs in their careers, but their latest is something else. The aptly named Lord Cross has hired them to investigate the disappearance of Leighton, his secretary. Kitty’s convinced this opportunity will secure their fortunes. Hester’s not sure. The more she hears about Leighton, the more skeptical she becomes. It’s the 1870s, after all. Who in their right mind believes in vampires, let alone voluntarily hunts them? Countess Kohary, Vanda de Szigethy, is beautiful, charming, secretive—and cursed. Wherever she goes, sickness and dead bodies follow. Cross believes she has a hand in Leighton’s disappearance, but when Hester takes a position in Vanda’s household, she discovers a woman fighting the cruel legacy of her late husband. Vanda’s desperate struggle wins Hester’s admiration, even as her strange beauty casts an almost hypnotic spell. Is Vanda victim or vampire? Can Hester discover the truth in time to save Leighton? And what will it take to end the vampire’s legacy for good?
And that's it for the recent and forthcoming books I've been able to find. If you have or know of a book coming out in the near future--or a recent one that I've missed--that features queer women in historic settings, drop me a note, either by email or on social media. I know there are books that I miss. Don't let it be yours!
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading since last month? There have been a couple of novels and collections that don't fit into the category of queer women and history: specifically Stephanie Burgis's delightful YA Regency fantasy Kat Incorrigible, and A.C. Wise's collection The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, which is full of queer characters but is more fantasy, sci fi, and horror than historical. I started on the collection Sword and Sonnet, organized around the theme of "battle poets" which I'm fairly certain has content that fits the podcast's themes, but I don't seem to have been in the right head-space for the collection and put it down after the first couple stories. I similarly bounced off of Gabrielle Goldsby's lesbian Regency The Caretaker's Daughter without finishing it. But I greatly enjoyed Benny Lawrence's story of chess-playing automatons in the 19th century, The Ghost and the Machine, although the book comes with strong content warnings for sexual and psychological abuse.
I'm currently reading Theodora Goss's European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the second book in her historical fantasy series about the Athena Club, a household of women drawn from the fantastic literature of the late 19th century. I've been assured by trusted sources that this second volume in the series has queer content, though I'm finding that story a bit slow going (and it's a very long story, at that).
What have you enjoyed recently in the field of lesbian-relevant historical fiction?
I don't have an Ask Sappho question again this month and at this point I think I'm going to drop it as a regular podcast feature due to lack of listener interest. If there are features or types of information you'd like to hear about in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, or if you simply want to let us know that you enjoy the show, we always enjoy feedback in whatever form of social media you most prefer.
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Notes and Links
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The first inspiration for Floodtide--before I had any clear idea of plot--was having a handful of secondary character in their late teens and wanting to do something with them at that age before they stepped into their adult roles. One of the characters I most wanted to see more of was Margerit's cousin Iulien. Iuli was one of those characters who just grew on me.
Originally, she was wallpaper--a much younger cousin that Margerit thought she might end up playing governess for. In The Mystic Marriage we see her hero-worshipping her cousin, while Margerit still thinks of her as a child, and one that teeters on the edge of annoying. Margerit doesn't quite realize how inspiring her own life has been to an imaginative girl who dreams of writing romantic novels and poetry.
And then in Mother of Souls we see the collision of Iulien's romantic fantasies with the realities of Margerit's life. Margerit has developed more respect for Iuli's talents, and has tried to step up onto the pedestal Iuli built for her. But she also realizes that Iuli needs a firm hand on the reins to avoid disaster.
In Floodtide we get to see Iulien Fulpi through someone else's eyes. Someone who feels the pull of a little hero-worship of her own, but who also has her own reasons to take a firm stand with her on occasion. Iulien's "superpower" is that she's charming and persuasive. Maybe it's simply the techniques one develops as a youngest child.
There's a tricky balance in her relationship with Roz between implying that Roz admires her because of the status difference between them rather than in spite of it. Roz has to work out that balance for herself. For all that they're very close in age, Iulien is still very much a teenager in her moods and reactions, while Roz has a constant awareness of the hazards of carelessness and self-centeredness. (In some cases, from hard lessons.)
This scene shows all the angles of their relationship. (Roz has been assigned to be Iuli's unofficial part-time maid.)
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That time I saw the baroness going out in her riding clothes with a sword at her side, I would have followed her to the ends of the earth. Maisetra Iulien made me feel that way, too, but more like she’d invite you along. She…glowed somehow and the glow drew you in.
When I got her ready for bed she’d talk about poetry and music and everything else she was studying. It was like listening to Celeste talk about charms and mysteries. Maisetra Iulien said she didn’t have a talent for mysteries—not like the maisetra—but she did have a talent for writing poems and stories. Sometimes she’d read them to me while I was brushing out her hair. Some of it was all birds and gardens but some was thrilling adventures. I could tell when she was writing one in her head because she’d stop talking and her eyes would go somewhere else, and then she’d jump up from whatever I was doing for her and go to her little desk to write something down quick.
One morning, she must have been staying up late working on a poem, because I saw it all spread out on the desk when I went to open the curtains. She was still sound asleep when I brought up the breakfast tray. And still asleep when I came back with the wash water. I stood beside the bed not sure what to do until I heard the clip-clop of the carriage horses in the yard.
I shook her gently by the shoulder, like I used to do for my little sisters, and said, “Maisetra Iulien! Maisetra Iulien, it’s time to wake up!”
She gave a little groan and turned over to face away from me. I bit my lip, wondering what would make her more angry: for me to wake her, or for her to miss her ride.
“Maisetra Iulien, the carriage is in the yard. You need to wake up. You don’t want to make Maisetra Sovitre wait.”
I remembered the scolding she’d gotten from the maisetra when that happened before.
That made her sit up quick enough. “Oh, no!”
She was on her feet and reaching for the breakfast tray.
“Never mind that, maisetra. I’ll tie up the bread in a napkin for you to take.”
I had her nightgown off and just a lick and promise for washing. Her dress would have buttoned faster if she hadn’t been squirming and saying, “Hurry Roz, hurry!” And then we nearly flew down the stairs. I went to fetch her coat and things while she went to find her books. But even as I came into the entry way, the footman shook his head.
“Maisetra’s gone already. Said she couldn’t wait this time.”
I swallowed a little curse and followed Maisetra Iulien to the library to tell her the bad news.
She sank down on one of the soft chairs by the library fireplace and you would have thought that her best friend had died. “She left?”
“Is it that bad?” I asked. At first I thought she was acting like she often did. But this time she really was frightened. I laid her coat across the second chair and took the book satchel from her lap. “Maisetra Sovitre will understand.”
“No, she won’t. She said she’d send me back to Chalanz. What should I do?”
Maisetra Sovitre would say she should’ve gotten out of bed on time. I got up even earlier and couldn’t go to sleep until she was in bed. But it wasn’t for me to say such things.
“Could Maisetra Pertinek take you?”
She shook her head. “She has visitors coming this morning. Roz…could you accompany me? Just this one time? I can find the money to hire a fiacre, but I can’t go alone. I know when Cousin Margerit really means something, and that’s a hard rule.”
I wanted to. If I said yes, she’d smile at me like the sun coming out and it might be worth it. But I thought about how long it would take to go to Urmai and back, and how late I’d be for the dressmaking. All the work that Celeste and her mother would have to make up for on the dresses that needed to be done today. And I thought about how if I said yes this one time, it would be hard to say no the next time.
This book is a bit more on the "literary criticism" and theoretical side than I'm generally looking for. It's a fascinating read, but somewhat less useful for research purposes. Although the text itself was of marginal usefulness for the Project, the bibliography offered a lot of interesting leads for new publications to review.
Blud, Victoria. 2017. The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-84384-468-6
Blud's book is focused primarily on philosophy and literary criticism, and employs a lot of theory jargon. This is not a book about historic substance and data, but an analysis that plays with ideas, using Old and Middle English texts as a unifying theme.
The thematic focus is on speech (around sexuality) as action, and the consideration of both speaking and unspeakability as themes in medieval literature. The first part looks at the concept of sin, the suppression of speech, and the meanings of speech and silence, of expression and suppression, exemplified by the Old English life of Mary of Egypt and the Middle English Ancrene Wisse (a manual for anchorites). The act of confession is discussed in the context of "unspeakable" sins, with special consideration of the absence of women in discussions of sodomy.
Chapter 1: Ancrene Wisse is an early 13th century book of advice for anchorites (women in religious seclusion). It demonstrates the contradictory attitudes towards "naming" sins in the context of confession when it advises not to be coy about describing your sins, but also not to be crude, e.g., no need to speak of "shameful body parts" by name. But at the same time, the (male) author is coy and reluctant to name the sins he warns the anchorites against. This reluctance to describe the "unspeakable" reflexively raises the specter of sodomy. Sexual sins are implied but not named when he warns against the influence of female visitors, or implies that lust can occur "without a man". But without specific naming, we're left to speculate whether masturbation or lesbianism is meant (or whether the author would have made any meaningful distinction between them).
Chapter 2: The chapter opens with a rehearsal of the case of John/Eleanor Rykener (a 14th century male-bodied person who engaged in prostitution as a woman). Rykener was accused of practicing "unspeakable vice" (vitium...nephandum) which seems an extension of the usual sense as Rykener's sexual activity followed heterosexual patterns (as a woman with men, and as a man with women).
The concept of "unspeakable sins" normally defaults to sodomy, but the association of "unspeakable" narrowly with same-sex acts was gradual, just as the concept of acts "against nature" was not uniquely associated with same-sex activity. At the root, "natural" sex acts were understood as procreative ones. But philosophical categories were mutable and the boundaries were contested. Was masturbation a type of hermaphroditism? (Because the individual took on both the active and passive roles?) Or was it a form of incest? (If the individual was viewed as inhabiting two distinct roles, because the relationship between the people in those roles--i.e., identity--was within a prohibited degree.) The label "sodomy" originally applied to any type of sex "against nature" and was a very broad category. Only gradually did the word shift to the very narrow sense of anal sex between men. This incoherence of meaning made the term both broadly applicable and evocative of the worst available interpretation.
The discussion turns to why the texts that are so preoccupied with same-sex acts so often entirely overlook sex between women. There is a sense that sex between women was simultaneously more shocking and less threatening than sex between men. Legal commentaries clearly included sex between women in the category of sodomy, even while paying little attention to it. The discussion includes the usual array of court cases involving sex between women: Katherina Hetzeldorfer, Thomasina and her concubine in 15th century London, as well as ambiguous cases that may involve intersex persons. Sex between women is in the awkward position of being stigmatized as sodomy but then erased from the default understanding of the term.
The next section of the chapter uses John Gower's version of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe (in his Confessio Amantis) as an illustration of the "unspeakability" of love between women. Only the transformation of Iphis into a man at the end of the story solves the threat that the lovers might use the "thing which to them was all unknown" by enabling them to express love that does not cause "offense". Within the story, love between women is contradictorily presented as entirely natural and "against nature". It is neither punished nor allowed to exist. The two women do not participate in "unspeakable acts" because their bodies are re-aligned to the "speakable" before the acts can be performed. This contradiction also exists in the parallel Latin and English texts in Gower's work, which tell somewhat different versions of the events. (The chapter now descends into philosophical discourse.)
The next example is the contest between the personifications of Nature (for the feminine side) and Nurture (for the masculine side) over rights to the character of Silence in the romance of that name. The text observes that this conflict expresses very "modern" ideas about gender and identity. (The philosophical discussion in this section is a bit more accessible and interesting than in other parts.) The character of Queen Eufeme is also noted: she has a lover with a male body (and identity) who presents publicly as female, and she desires Silence (who has a female body but presents as male). Is Eufeme intended to be read as queer? Or are we meant to read only the official "knowledge" of her object of desire, i.e., that in both cases Eufeme understands her desire to be heterosexual?
The frustration of the queen's desire leads to accusing Silence of an "unspeakable crime." Overtly, this would be the (false accusation of) sexual assault the queen claims, but could the unspeakability of the crime be meant to imply the same-sex nature of the (fictitious) encounter? The text again moves into philosohpical analysis of the nature of female desire and women's "voice".
Chapter 3: This chapter is a discussion of gender motifs in medieval werewolf stories and is outside the scope of the LHMP.
Chapter 4: This chapter treats the motif of the literal removal of a woman's tongue as relating to the removal of her power of speech, using the tale of Philomela. This material is also outside the scope of the LHMP.
I'm trying two new things for next year's fiction series: a longer lead-time to publicize the Call For Submissions, and an expansion of the thematic scope. In keeping with the LHMPodcast's coverage of historic fantasy as well as strictly historical fiction, the 2020 fiction series will also be open to stories with certain types of fantastic elements. (See the CFS for details.) In keeping with my basic principles, I'm also increasing the pay rate to $0.08 per word, in keeping with the standard set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).**
So what do I mean by "certain types of fantastic elements"? The two examples I use in the CFS are:
Using my own fiction as an example, my story "Hoywverch" is based on the themes and settings of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi, but includes a romantic relationshp between two women. It tries to address how such a relationship might be understood and treated within the context of that mythos (though not necessarily within the context of historic medieval Welsh society itself). Another example might be alternate histories in the steampunk or clockpunk genres, as long as the cultural setting itself reflects an actual historic context (as opposed to being functionally a secondary world setting).
And, of course, I still like stories that are just plain history with no fantastic elements! The idea is to loosen the edges a bit to see what people might be inspired to write, but also to align the fiction series with the scope of the rest of the podcast, given how many of the author interviews and new release listings cross over into historic fantasy.
**Note: this is not meant to imply that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is a qualifying market for eligibility to SFWA. Only that, as a member of SWFA, I'm using their requirements as a benchmark.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2020 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.
What We’re Looking For
Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.
Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:
If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here are the minimum essential elements it should have:
As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)
Notes on Sensitivity
I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid "exoticizing" the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"
What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35e - By Her Pen She Conquers by Catherine Lundoff - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/06/29 - listen here)
Today we present the second story in the 2019 fiction series: “By Her Pen She Conquers” by Catherine Lundoff. Catherine is an award-winning writer, editor, and publisher from Minneapolis. She is the author of the queer werewolf novel Silver Moon and the collection Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and is the editor of the fantastical pirate anthology Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), as well as having a number of published short stories in many genres. She is also the publisher of Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world.
“By Her Pen” is set in the London theater scene at the very beginning of the 19th century. This story represents a repeat appearance for Catherine Lundoff in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast fiction series. Her story “One Night in Saint-Martin” was our debut fiction episode last year.
The narrator for this episode will be...me, your podcast host. I’ll skip the bio because you probably already know as much about me as you need to.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
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“By Her Pen She Conquers” by Catherine Lundoff
Narrated by Heather Rose Jones
Miss Penny Armstrong walked slowly out into Drury Lane from the Theatre Royal and stifled a quiet sob. She clutched a parcel to her scant and somewhat chilled muslin-covered bosom and tried not to wonder too much where she would find shelter for the night ahead. She had been so certain that this play, her best, would be the one that would impress Mr. Sheridan or Mr. Bannister enough to perform it. Even enough to advance her a few shillings until it opened to great acclaim.
Her father’s stories about Mrs. Inchbald and Mrs. Cowley, whose acquaintance he had made when he himself trod the boards in Bath and London, swirled around in her mind. An admirer of both women and their skillful use of the pen, he had encouraged his only child to follow in their footsteps. His death and that dream had been enough to send her to London to try her luck here, at the best known theater in the land, with no introduction or connection or aught besides her writing and her father’s scarce-remembered name to recommend her.
The depth of her naivety took her breath away now, though the sensation of faintness that she also felt might have been due to the smoky air of London and having eaten no more than a crust of bread a day for the past sennight. She leaned back against the stone wall of the theater and tried not to consider its cold, impenetrable surface as a metaphor. A passing laborer muttered something crude at her and she blushed and cringed.
She had to leave this place, but where could she go? Her last shillings had been spent yesterday. Her room was lost to her and she had neither family nor friends in London. As for her position as seamstress at one of the less fashionable shops near Cheapside, that had vanished when she left to try her luck at the theater. What more was left to her but the river’s embrace? She shuddered at the thought, and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to think of an alternative.
That was long enough for a street urchin to dart up and attempt to yank her precious package from her drooping hands. This small act of violence was enough to summon the tiger in her soul and she snarled at him to get away, locking her hands around her precious papers as tightly as she could.
“Here now, Scrapper, leave off. You’ve no use for what you can’t read.” A sharp cuff on the head and a tossed copper sent Penny’s assailant scrambling to retrieve it, before running off down an alley with his prize. Penny eyed her rescuer sidelong, wondering if she should run after him. What she took to be a tall thin lad a few years older than herself gave her a lopsided grin and a knowing look. “You’re no lightskirt from the looks of you. What are you doing loitering by the theater door, then?”
Penny blinked and her head swam for a moment. Surely, he couldn’t think that she was…didn’t assume that…the alley snapped back into focus as the young man caught her arm. He very gently pried her fingers loose from her precious bundle and put it into a sack that he was carrying. A moment later, she realized her loss. “No!” she lunged forward, only to find herself caught and held up by the arm once again.
“I’m not for stealing them, miss. This is just for carrying. Come with us and get some supper, there’s a lass. Then you can tell us all about how you came to be tangling with the likes of Scrapper outside the Drury Lane, finest theater in the land.” He gave her another crooked grin and she realized something that she hadn’t noticed before.
“You’re a lass too!” She gasped out the words, then clapped her hands over her mouth. What if it was a secret? She had met such girls before, living as men to earn their way. Had she unmasked one of them?
A motley crew of striplings, lads and lasses both, stood on the cobbles some yards away, watching them. One of them called out something to her companion, a phrase she couldn’t understand, and the lad who was no lad laughed. She did not seem offended or distraught. “C’mon. We’re off to the King’s Arms for ale and stew. You can tell me what this is all about while we eat.” She extended her elbow to Penny as if she was the lad that she seemed to be and Penny took it, eyes wide and hand trembling.
“What are you called, lass?”
“Penny. Penny Armstrong. My father was Richard Armstrong. He was a player in Plymouth and Bath.”
“Ah,” her companion nodded as if the name was familiar, though she was far too young to have known Penny’s father. “Jess.” She gestured with the package toward herself. Or was it himself? How was she to think of her strange new companion? Jess must have seen her puzzlement, but then they were surrounded by the others and swept down a grimy alley and into a somewhat cleaner tavern before anything more could be said.
Penny had an impression of dark corners and heavy furniture in a crowded room where the bright fire cast shadows over the whitewashed walls. From habit, she recognized many at the tables as actors and other theater folk from the way they carried themselves as well as their accents and dress. Jess tugged her into a corner table and nudged her onto a bench before she could get too bewildered by the tumult.
“You must think me a country mouse indeed.” She took her package from Jess’s bag and wrapped her arms tight around it again for a long moment.
“Jess has a eye for the damsel in distress, she does. Too many young lover’s roles have gone to her head.” The dark-eyed beauty on the other side of the table gave Jess a jealous sidelong glance, before meeting Penny’s eyes. “And where might you be from, country mouse?”
Her tone set Penny’s back up and she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. Her answer, when she gave it, would have put Scrapper’s barely comprehensible Whitechapel cant to shame, “Gor, an’ whut makes you think ey’m not from Lunnon, then?” She tilted her head in a fair imitation of the urchins that she tried to avoid on the streets around Drury Lane and Covent Garden and glared at the other girl.
Jess burst out laughing at both of them. “Aye, Susan, her father trod the boards in Bath and trained her well, by the looks of it! Here, Penny, give over. The ale’s here and the stew not far behind. Let us quarrel on full stomachs, at least.” A plump barmaid planted tankards before them, while another brought bowls.
Penny grabbed her clumsy pewter spoon and seized a chunk of what might have been meat floating on the top of a warm muddy sea. It was in her mouth and swallowed before she remembered her circumstances. Stricken, she put her spoon gently down and stared at Jess. “I have only a few pennies left. I forgot.”
Susan rolled her dark eyes heavenward as Jess gallantly assured her that she had a few shillings to pay for them both. Besides, everyone knew them at the King’s Arms. And knew when the nearby theater paid its actors. Unsurprisingly, Susan’s expression and Jess’s words caught the attention of their friends and soon Penny was the focus of a circle of not entirely friendly eyes.
“What’s in the parcel, then?” asked a blonde girl on the other side of Susan, her Cockney accent clipped and harsh. A chorus echoed the question and even Jess raised an eyebrow and looked at her. A table full of curious faces awaited her answer.
Penny stumbled through her thoughts, looking for a safe version of her tale to tell. Would they laugh at her if she told them the truth? Could they somehow make this worse? She hadn’t even been able to talk to Mr. Sheridan. Her play, and by extension, she herself, had been dismissed out of hand by one of his managers. But there were other playhouses in London. Perhaps, if she had help, a manager at one of the others might…
Susan cleared her throat loudly in annoyance, breaking into Penny’s spiraling thoughts. For a moment, Penny saw the same look of dismissal that the manager at the theatre had given her and flinched. Jess murmured, “It can’t be all that bad.”
Penny closed her eyes again for a moment and dug her fingers into the grimy cloth wrapped around her play. Hunting for her courage had never seemed so difficult. When she opened them, she looked only into Jess’s friendly blue eyes. “It’s my…my play.” Her voice squeaked on the last word and it was all she could do not to look away.
“A playwright, is it!” “A country mouse fancying she can write plays!” “What does she know about it!” “What’s it about?” “Show it to us!” The chorus of demands and dismissals was overwhelming and Penny looked from one to another of them in a panic.
At last, she stammered, “I can write plays! I can!” Then she burst into tears and Jess patted her shoulder awkwardly. The girl’s touch sent an odd jolt through Penny and she choked off a sob to stare blankly at the other girl. Their eyes met and Penny felt herself flush and looked away quickly.
“Here, here. Let her eat her first before you start demanding that she read a play to us. Even you lot know better than that.” Jess scowled around the table and pushed Penny’s bowl back in front of her. Still weeping, Penny did as she was told and spooned up a few more mouthfuls of her rapidly cooling stew.
After a few moments of comparative quiet at their table, she stopped eating long enough to ask, “Are you all players, then?” A couple of nods, including an imperious one from Susan and after a moment, a more tentative one from Jess and some of the others.
“And you? Are you also a player like your father?” Susan didn’t look like she thought it was possible and Penny felt her back stiffen. Certainly, she was not comely enough for the maiden’s roles, but she had played maids and cooks and once, even the role of the principal boy in the panto at Plymouth. Somehow, she didn’t think that would impress London players.
“I have trod the boards,” Penny said at last. “But not here in the City.” There, now she had shown herself to be the country mouse they all thought her, but there was no help for it. Her play was what she cared about and now even that long-held hope was dwindling. “Does the company seek players?” she asked at last. Perhaps she might work her way in, demonstrate her abilities until she could get them to recognize the one that she hoped would be of greatest interest to Mr. Sheridan.
Jess raised a blonde eyebrow. “What of your play? Players we have in plenty, but a lass that seeks to live by her pen, that is something different. Now tell us what your tale is and why you came here to the Theatre Royal instead of the playhouses in Plymouth or Bath.”
“And trippingly, with a will, or Master Barstow will come to fetch us soon with blows and shouts,” a slender dark-haired boy on the other side of the table added. His words sent a ripple of apprehension around the group.
Penny nodded. She’d had her fair share of ill treatment even in Plymouth. She could only imagine that in London, where so many aspired to be players, it would be even worse. With a deep breath, she began, her words scrambling over each other at first in their hurry to get out of her mouth, then slowing as she pitched her tale as she would her lines. Perhaps, if she couldn’t persuade the manager, she might persuade the players and come to the Theatre Royal that way.
In any case, a sympathetic audience might help her to find lodgings or even a place at a panto or perhaps the theater at Covent Garden until she was able to try again. She polished her words like river stones, weaving a tale of being raised in the theater by her parents, both players themselves, until they died, her father a few years after her mother.
Then she had been left to find her own way from the pantos to the theaters to the shops and from there into service and back again. All the while, she dreamed of writing a play, of emulating Mr. Shakespeare and Mrs. Behn and spinning her words into something that a talented player might speak up on the stage. Their stage, to be exact. And this company of players.
When she finished, they were all looking at her and most seemed more sympathetic than they had been when she started. Susan was the main exception. Her voice was contemptuous, disbelief dripping from her words. “But what is your play about? A country lass who has always dreamed of Drury Lane?”
A large man swung the door open and stomped over to their table. “Here, you lot. Back to the Theatre with you. Master Sheridan wants a new rehearsal and you’re to stay until he says it is done and ready for the Prince Regent himself.” All around Penny the players scrambled to their feet and fled, the ones closest to him ducking to avoid his rapid cuffs and curses. He glared when Penny cringed away from him, but didn’t get up.
“Come on,” Jess murmured to her. Jess tilted her head up to look at the big man. “She’s my cousin, Master Barstow, up from the country. She’s a good hand with costumes, she’s trod the boards in the pantos and can speak lines in the bargain.”
Penny forced herself to look up. “If you please, sir, I worked at the playhouses in Bath and Plymouth until my father died, and I came to London looking for work.”
Barstow growled an oath into his beard and narrowed his eyes. “You,” he gestured at Jess, “back to the theatre with you.” Then, after a moment, he added with a gesture at Penny, “Well, go on. We’ll soon find out if you’re telling the truth about knowing lines as well as a needle.”
Penny scrambled to her feet and followed Jess, her heart once more full of all the hope that she had thought lost a few hours before and her parcel clutched tightly under her arm.
It was a fortnight before anyone finally returned to the subject of Penny’s play. By then, she had learned to hide behind the scenery while fixing an actor’s costume, to assist in memorizing lines and to duck when Master Barstow was in his cups or was filled with one of his rages. She slept in a couple of squalid rooms near the theater with Jess, Susan and some of their friends and she fancied that their sophistication was rubbing off on her. Most importantly of all, they didn’t interrupt her when she was writing.
With a dogged determination, she returned to the play, the one that Mr. Sheridan’s manager had rejected. As she spent more time at the theater, she began to see the scenes that could be made stronger, the lines that needed to be cut. The precious pennies that the actors tossed her way were spent on old quills that she could piece together and rag paper that she had to smooth before she could use. Ink was scavenged from the leftovers from Mr. Sheridan’s office and whatever the other apprentices and Jess’s other friends could find.
Ah, Jess. And Jess’s friends, particularly Susan. They occupied an expected and unwelcome prominence in her thoughts as the days passed. She slept and ate with them, her bed a pile of clean rags in a corner of the room where the other girls slept. Inexperienced as she was with the ways of London life, it did not take long for her to become aware that Susan was Jess’s…leman. She stumbled over the unfamiliar word, even in her own thoughts.
And the more she turned the realization over in her mind, the more she was surprised that she wasn’t as shocked as she thought she would be. Jess was kind and handsome and…Penny felt her ears grow hot at the direction that her thoughts were taking. Besides, Mrs. Siddons’s maid was beckoning her now and she needed to look sharp or risk the great actress’s displeasure. She bustled over to do Mrs. Jennings’ bidding, belatedly aware of Susan’s speculative gaze upon her.
She forgot about the other girl in her errands and tasks, but Susan, it seemed, had not forgotten her. When they gathered at the King’s Arms that evening, she turned her dark-eyed gaze on Penny once again. “What is this play that you are writing, Penelope?” Her habitual London accent vanished into her stage accent, the one that she was developing for her role as Juliet in the Theatre’s next play.
Penny preferred her normal voice. She could read the other girl’s moods better when she spoke that way, even though those were as abrupt and shifting as the tides where the Thames met the sea. She wondered how Jess and the others endured the worst of them. A mocking laugh recalled her to where she was and who was interrogating her. “It’s…based on a tale about a Turkish Sultan and a shipwrecked English girl,” she spoke hesitantly, bracing for mockery and worse. Her heart still ached when she remembered its previous reception.
“Is it, now? And what do you know of Eastern potentates and shipwrecks?” Susan’s eyes sparkled with malice and Jess stiffened at her side, ready to interrupt.
“As much as you know of being a young virgin like Juliet, I imagine.” The words were out of Penny’s mouth before she could stop them. It was an open secret that Susan flirted where she would, Jess or no Jess. There were rumors of that and more and though Penny had tried to ignore them, it was too late to plead ignorance now.
Susan leaned across the table, holding Penny’s gaze with her own. “The country mouse is growing claws, it seems. What are you implying, little mouse? Do you think that stirring up the pot of ill will and rumor will get you what you want?” She glanced sidelong at Jess, then back at Penny.
Penny’s face burned as if it were on fire. Did Susan mean…the knowing snickers all around them were enough to keep her from looking Jess’s way. That would only make things worse. “I meant only that our levels of ignorance of the parts we play or write are, perhaps, not so far apart as your words suggest.” She had imagined herself as her heroine, a young Englishwoman, marooned in a strange land, more than once since she began writing, and never so much as now.
And like her heroine, she was in danger, peril that she barely understood. That much was clear from the way that Susan’s eyes flashed. She leaned forward, clearly about to say something cutting and cruel, only to leap to her feet with a startled oath. Jess righted her cup and stood up with her. “I am so very sorry! How very clumsy of me!” She sponged ineffectually at Susan’s beer-soaked dress with a rag from her pocket.
Penny pinched her lips together to bite back the startled laugh that was rising up her throat. Susan glared at both of them and stormed out, the sound of laughing actors lending wings to her feet. Penny looked up at Jess, looking for a way to express her gratitude, but Jess wasn’t looking at her. Instead, she was watching as one of the other actors trailed out the door after Susan. Jess’s face was tight and closed and her hands balled into fists, and a moment later, she followed them.
The others herded Penny back to the theater before she had a chance to wonder more about what was happening. Once there, they all spread out, seizing upon different tasks, some of them Susan’s or Jess’s, so that Master Barstow would not find them missing. When they were done, Penny was so tired that she could scarcely stand. Leaning against each other, she and the other girls staggered back to their room.
What they found there made Penny freeze in the doorway. Jess was pulling some ashes from the fire, small pieces of paper and scraps of rag. She wouldn’t look up to meet Penny’s eyes, but even in the shadows they could all see that she had a shiner and that she’d been crying. While the others ran to see to Jess, Penny’s gaze darted to her corner and her precious pile of rag paper. Gone. It was all gone.
With a wail of loss and despair, she ran to Jess’s side and dropped to her knees before the pile of ash, scattering it. “No, no, no!” She seized a handful of ash and a few fragments and waved it under Jess’s nose. “Did you do this?”
One of the other girls, Sarah, Penny thought her name was, grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little. “That bain’t Jess’s fault! She’d niver harm your words! That were Susan or I’m sore mistook.” She took one hand from Penny’s shoulder and gestured at Jess’s face. “And that’d be Sam’s work.”
Jess grimaced then gave a cry of pain, pressing her hand over her injured eye. Penny reached out and hesitantly patted her shoulder. “You’ll be needing some raw meat for that, bloody as you can find.” She wondered where the words came from. She had no more in her.
“And where would we be finding such a thing this time of night?” Sarah rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Jess, there’s a lass. We’ll get you summat cool from the wash barrel to take the swelling down.” She nodded to Penny and they both scrambled to their feet, brushing ash from their skirts mechanically. Together, they pulled Jess to her feet and steered her over to the wash barrel.
Numbly, Penny grabbed a clean rag and began washing Jess’s face with it. She barely knew what she was doing until Sarah gently plucked the cloth from her fingers and nodded at the hearth. “Go see if there’s aught left.” Penny turned like an automaton, barely noticing Jess’s tightly closed eyes and red skin where she had rubbed too hard. She walked over and knelt near the pile once again.
She combed her fingers through the pile, her mind rejecting the evidence of her fingers. It was gone, all of it. Her lively English lass, the handsome but villainous Sultan, the clever English sailor who was a nobleman in disguise, all of them existed now only in her mind. As for the dialogue, all the clever speeches she had been at such pains to scribe, they came back to her only in bits and pieces, a word here, a line there.
Before she knew it, she was crying as she had not cried since her father’s death: deep, wrenching sobs that shook her whole body. How could this have happened? Why would Susan have done such a thing? They had not cared much for each other, but Penny could not imagine destroying something dear to the other girl out of spite.
A grubby bit of cloth dangled before her face and she snatched at it, blowing her nose with a great honk like a goose. The image made her laugh, despite her sorrow, and soon she was laughing and crying all at once and could no more stop herself than she could a runaway horse. Not even the realization that Jess and Sarah were staring at her as if she’d gone mad was enough to stem the flow of mirth and sorrow.
Finally, Jess’s hand on Penny’s shoulder pulled her back to herself with a shudder and a blush. She gave one last choking sob and wiped her tears away. “What am I supposed to do now? This was my only copy of my play. I’m not…good enough to be an actor or to sew costumes all the time. I had only my words and now those are gone too.” She stared piteously up at Jess.
But it was Sarah who spoke first. “Write another. Master Sheridan says he starts and stops with his plays, changing one for another, finishing or forgetting them as needs must, and there art none better’n him at scribing plays in all England.” She nodded to emphasize her admiration for the great man’s playwriting prowess.
“Aye, he has said as much,” Jess confirmed with a nod.
“But what am I to write about…” Penny began as her gaze dropped to the pile of ash and scraps before her. And how, with neither paper nor pen left to her? As if Jess could read her thoughts, she picked up a broken quill from under the wooden table beside them and plucked a small knife from her pocket. She began to trim the quill as Penny dragged herself to her feet to find whatever paper survived Susan’s inexplicable rage.
Jealous. She is jealous of…me. The thought struck Penny so hard that she nearly sat down in a heap on a pile of ash. For a long moment, she couldn’t fathom why the other girl felt that way. What cause did she have? Then Jess caught her eye and held out the sharpened bit of quill with a shy half smile that twisted a little against her swollen cheek. A spasm of guilt and tenderness went through Penny then and she scrambled for another wet rag to place on Jess’s face.
When she turned back, a couple of pieces of crumpled rag paper lay on the table, along with the broken quill and a small container of ink that they had found somewhere. Sarah gestured at her and Penny sat down on the stool that wobbled while Sarah began to sweep away the ashes around the hearth.
For a long moment, Penny imagined her original play, tried to remember the exact words and scenes. But she found her gaze turning to Jess and her thoughts to Susan. She turned it all over in her mind while the candle burned low and the others finally went to sleep. Penny herself slept for a bit, her head on the hard table, her dreams strange and filled with bits and pieces of plays that she had seen, pantos she had been in, even Jess and Susan.
She awoke before anyone else and blinked the sleep from her eyes. She moistened her pen and thought of a sultan who was a sultan no longer, but instead a lovesick countess, one who had fallen in love with a girl disguised as a boy, a girl who loved someone else. Her ink blotted on the rough paper at first, but after a few moments, her quill flew across it as her thoughts took flight.
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Links to Catherine Lundoff Online
I usually set up the teasers to work through examples from the book in strict sequence, but I had some thoughts on the drive this morning that prompted tying it in to the chapter 9 sample. (And frankly, chapter 8 is all a bit spoilery, so maybe I'll skip over it entirely.)
I was listening to the podcast "Our Opinions are Correct" (which is a Hugo finalist for fancasts this year) talking about how to set up story endings and make sure they're properly earned. And that got me thinking about a structural issue I have in planning Book 5 (Mistress of Shadows). I'd already been poking at a couple of subplots that don't really fit into the main storyline (which is thrilling international espionage and sorcerous peril in Paris with Barbara as Alpennian spy-master, Serafina as her consultant on mysteries, and new character Zobaydah as ... well, that would be telling). In particular, there is a subplot about the unwise developing romance between potential-heir-to-the-throne Efriturik Atilliet and Jewish alchemy student Anna Monterrez. A subplot that currently mostly plays out in why Efriturik is abruptly included in the Paris delegation, and in a resolution when they all return to Rotenek at the end of the book.
The problem is: that subplot structure doesn't leave any room for getting Anna's side of the story. The resolution leans heavily on her internal journey. So I'd been thinking of writing a separate story about Anna working through her issues back in Rotenek while everyone's off in Paris. As a back-fill story, that would work. But my morning podcast listening got me to thinking about something I already knew: the Anna/Efriturik side-story in Mistress of Shadows is a dangling orphan of a plot that doesn't really fit in well. And yet it sets up some essential background for Book 6 (Sisters in Spirit) and the future of Alpennian royal politics.
Why was I setting it up that way? Well, one factor is that I envisioned the middle-of-book action all taking place in Paris. Another factor is that so far all the viewpoint characters in the Alpennia series have been women who participate to some degree in romantic relationships with other women. And--sorry folks who wanted it to go in another direction--Anna Monterrez is heterosexual and disastrously in love with a man. At least as far as romantic love goes. (spoiler spoiler spoiler for book 6)
But on the other hand, I've already determined that I need to break the strict "tight POV with a limited set of viewpoints" approach once I get to book 6 and need to write scenes where none of my central female characters are present. So would it be so much of a problem to expand the viewpoints in Mistress of Shadows to include Anna, not only working in her viewpoint in the opening and closing bits, but also including the "working through her issues" scenes as they occur chronologically in the story? I'd probably have to give her more to do directly with the thriller plot (which is tricky since she'll be back in Rotenek). But it just might work. In any event, it would work better than my previous approach.
But what does all this have to do with teasers for Floodtide you ask? We, as readers, know from events in Mother of Souls that Jeanne was the key agent in getting Margerit to hire Roz, and so, indirectly, to sponsor Roz in her half-time dressmaking apprenticeship. But Roz doesn't know that. And in the first draft of Floodtide, she never found out. Which left a bit of a gap when Jeanne and Antuniet have a brief but important role towards the end of the story. It isn't so much that Roz needed to be more familiar with their place in the social web she's moving in, but the reader needs to have a sense that these are people who are integral to the story, and not just convenient figures tacked on as needed. Especially the reader who is coming to the book as a stand-alone.
It's that thing about setting up endings so that they feel earned. Jeanne needed to "earn" her key role at the end of Floodtide by establishing her place in the story earlier. There needed to be a reason for Roz to pay attention to gossip about her and to have a sense of who she is and what her family connections are to Tiporsel House. And the easiest way to establish that was for Roz to learn what she owes to Jeanne and interact with her in the context of the dress shop. It also gave me a chance to show Roz learning some of the "soft skills" of the profession and to point out Dominique's expertise in that regard.
* * *
I didn’t remember waiting on the Vicomtesse de Cherdillac before, and I would have remembered her for the French name. But when Mefro Dominique asked me to fetch the sample books for them, the Vicomtesse called me by name like she knew me.
“Rozild! Dominique has been telling me how well you’re doing.”
“I…I beg your pardon, Mesnera de Cherdillac?”
Mefro Dominique took the sample books from me and put them on the table, saying, “Rozild, the vicomtesse was the one who asked Maisetra Sovitre to hire you.”
“Oh!” I curtseyed very low and said, “Thank you.”
The vicomtesse patted me on the cheek. “I think the last time I saw you, you were trying not to drop a tea tray. And look at you now! One of my small successes, I think.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I curtseyed again.
“Now let us see what you’ve been learning. Tell me which of these colors you think would suit me best.”
I looked over at Mefro Dominique and she nodded to give permission. So I looked at what the vicomtesse was wearing, and her coloring, and thought about what the other ladies in the shop had been choosing and I picked three samples I thought might suit her.
She laughed, but it was a merry laugh and not making fun. “There, you see Dominique? She agrees I should not wear the brown you chose for me. But you will make me a dress in the brown and it will be glorious and I will tell everyone you are a genius!”
After the vicomtesse left, I asked, “Did I make the wrong choice?”
Mefro Dominique turned back to the fabrics I had chosen. “No, child. If it were only a matter of the colors and the patterns, those would suit her. But Mesnera de Cherdillac is a very strong woman. And a strong woman should either wear bold colors to defy the world something soft to conceal her fire. There’s a time for each and you will learn it.”
Several of the articles I currently have lined up collide to produce an emergent theme of how apparently transgressive motifs can be seen as resolving in ways that reinforce the heteronormative status quo. This current article points out that cross-dressing narratives in medieval European literature may flirt with the creation of homoerotic possibilities, but always resolve to heterosexuality. Further, the homoerotic possibilities in these narratives are always f/f. (I'm taking the authors word for this because I don't have the research background in male-centered stories to have an opinion on the conclusion.) Unlike the cross-dressing heroines like Silence and Yde, romance heros who take on a female presentation never find themselves unexpectedly desired by men, rather their story is about how they convince a woman to accept f/f desire as a bridge toward transfering that desire to their "true" male self. In contrast, when the disguised Blanchandine and her lover Tristan are teased by Tristan's male companions about their relationship, all parties are "in on the secret". The superficially m/m couple is given textual approval because everyone knows it's "really" a heterosexual relationship.
There are no stories about an assigned-male character presenting as female, being desired by a man, and then being magically transformed into a physiological woman to resolve the moral conflict. There are no literary stories (as opposed to real-life case studies) where an assigned-female person presents as male in order to pursue erotic attraction to a woman. (There are a few Renaissance-era plays with a motif where a cross-dressed woman deliberately pays court to another woman, but the underlying motivation is presented as deception or revenge, generaly revolving around a triangular relationship with a male third party.)
One of the other articles I have lined up examines the legends of "transvestite saints" and comes to similar conclusions about how the underlying message is not about women breaking free of arbitrary social gender conventions, but rather about women accepting social attitudes about women's limitations and "becoming male" to escape them, without challenging those attitudes (and, indeed, sometimes reinforcing misogynistic attitudes in their encounters with other female characters in the stories).
This pattern of the reinforcement of misogyny and heteronormativity presents a continuing challenge to those of us who mine historical motifs for creative purposes. If we adhere too closely to the historic exemplars, we find no space in which to create positive homoerotic resolutions. (And only a very narrow set of positive transgender resolutions.) But when we re-make the historic exemplars into stories that have more resonance for us a modern authors and readers, we necessarily make choices as to which elements we contradict or discard. One of the most fraught contexts in which this conflict is currently playing out in genre literature is over "ownership" of the motif of "assigned-female person presents as male, engages in a romantic relationship with a female-presenting female-assigned person, and the story resolves with the couple presenting the social appearance of a heterosexual couple." The motif occurs time and again through history in literature and case studies.
The literary examples typically apply a "magical" bodily change to create a heterosexual reality. But although the resolution supports a transgender understanding of the story, the lead-up to that resolution rarely does so, in that the transitioning character has not been presented as experiencing gender dysphoria. (One can argue that Silence does express something interpretable as gender dysphoria, but Silence is not given a transgender resolution.) The non-literary case studies rarely offer us unfiltered insight into the subject's interior motivations and self-understanding. ("Rarely", not "never.")
The long history of scholarly analysis that focuses on cultural subjectivity (the "they had different categories/understandings" position) or lack of approved evidence (the "we can't really know" position) in order to erase both transgender and homosexual interpretations of the past has had the unfortunate byproduct of making these motifs into contested ground between groups that might more productively be allies against the pervasive heteronormativity and misogyny of the source material. But in an atmosphere of "resource scarcity"--both with regard to that source material and with regard to the ways it is being reworked in modern genre literature--too often any particular interpretation is seen as a theft of cultural property from the group not reflected in that specific interpretation. I wish I had a productive answer for the conundrum, but my only fallback position is to continue to point it out.
Perret, Michele. 1985. “Travesties et Transsexuelles: Yde, Silence, Grisandole, Blanchandine” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 25:3 pp.328-340
This article looks at four heroines in French literature of the 13-14th centuries whose stories involved either transvestite or transsexual elements or both. What the stories dance around, without treating it directly is homosexuality, both male and female. Cross-dressing motifs, either men disguised as women or women disguised as men are not rare, and create an ambiguous situation where homosexual possibilities can emerge.
The ambiguity, in both cases, revolves around relations with a woman. The man disguised as a woman wins her love with the appearance of homosexuality but the underlying “reality” of heterosexuality, while the woman disguised as a man wins a woman’s love with the appearance of heterosexuality but the underlying “reality” of homosexuality. In the first case, the plot typically resolves with proof of the heterosexual nature of the union in the birth of a child. But in the second case, the resolution may take one of two forms: either the disguised woman becomes, in truth, a man, or she returns to her original sex and thus loses her autonomy in marriage. The social freedom that the cross-dressing woman gains creates a problem of identity that can only be resolved by reinforcing the status quo by one means or another.
In literature, the reasons for male and female cross-dressing are different. The male characters take on the disguise to facilitate access to the desired woman. The cross-dressing women seek masculine privileges: the right to inherit, to travel alone, to have autonomy. While the cross-dressing episode for men is a period of intense sexuality, for women the disguise requires a non-sexual life.
In the case of Silence, the cross-dressing is for the purpose of inheritance. She attracts female desire but does not respond. For Yde it is to escape her father’s incestuous desire. When she is forced to marry the emperor’s daughter Olive, she laments that she has no means of fulfilling the duties of marriage. Silence, like the figure of Grisandole in l’Estoire de Merlin, returns to her original gender presentation. But Yde doesn’t return to female garments, as God transforms her into a man. A similar divine miracle resolves the case of Blanchandine in Tristan de Nanteuil. Her disguise was originally to facilitate escaping her family to stay with Tristan, but believing him dead, she is pressured into marrying the daughter of the sultan and accepts a transformation of sex to resolve the conflict.
The change of sex is signaled not only by taking on male clothing but also by a change of name. Blanchandine, Yde, and Silence use only a grammatical transformation from feminine to masculine, while Grisandole is the male name taken on by Avenable. There is a discussion of how these name changes are treated in the text, with particular attention to the case of Silence, where there is also a secondary adoption of the pseudonym “Malduit” for part of her adventures.
The author compares these heroic figures with a different genre of crossdressing women in fabliaux, such as the woman in Berengier au lonc cul, who takes revenge on her cowardly husband by disguising herself as a knight and tricking him into kissing her ass (literally).
There is a technical discussion of the complexities of gender reference in the texts and how word play is used to emphasize the multi-layered identities and relationships of the disguised women. In the story of Silence, this duality is highlighted by the disputes between the personifications of Nature and Nurture who each claim the right to define Silence’s identity.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35d - Emily Dickinson Goes to the Movies - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/06/22 - listen here)
Lillian Faderman's book Surpassing the Love of Men was one of two books I encountered in the 1980s that convinced me there were treasures to be found in the history of women's same-sex love. (The other one, of course, was Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women.) In the introduction to her extensive study of romantic friendship, Faderman notes that it "began as a study of Emily Dickinson's love poems and letters to Sue Gilbert, the woman who became her sister-in-law." Faderman may be exaggerating her reaction for the sake of a good academic sleuthing story, when she says the following:
"Although Dickinson had written the most passionate and sensual pronouncement of love to Sue Gilbert in the 1850s, there was never any suggestion that she felt the need to be covert about her emotions. If I had really uncovered a lesbian relationship, why could I not find any evidence of the guilt and anxiety, the need to keep secrets from family and friends, that I thought were inevitably associated with homosexuality before the days of gay liberation?"
Furthermore, she questions why Dickinson's editors and publishers--including individuals associated with her immediate family--took such pains to deny or excuse the romantic and erotic content of her poetry and letters, given that Dickinson herself had not seen any reason to conceal them.
Now, I have issues with some of Faderman's assumptions and premises--not only in this starting position as she describes it, but in her projections of the emotional and erotic lives of 19th century women. But the historic analysis inspired by her questions about Emily Dickinson remains of immense value. And her conclusions illustrate a pattern that has repeated several times across western history. She notes that in the 19th century:
"It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family, if not in lieu of them. When women's role in society began to change, however--when what women did needed to be taken more seriously because they were achieving some of the powers that would make them adult persons--society's view of romantic friendship changed. Love between women--relationships which were emotionally in no way different from the romantic friendships of earlier eras--became evil or morbid. It was not simply that men now saw the female sexual drive more realistically. Many of the relationships they condemned had little to do with sexual expression. It was rather that love between women, coupled with their emerging freedom, might conceivably bring about the overthrow of heterosexuality."
Applied to Emily Dickinson, Lillian Faderman's conclusion was that the content of Emily's writings was consistent with the social norms for women's emotional relationships with other women during her lifetime--that it was not evidence of what we would understand as a lesbian relationship--and that the later literal erasure of the place of Susan Gilbert in her life was due to this societal shift in how women's romantic friendships were treated, and therefore in how those who were handling her legacy wanted to present her life. Once the possibility of women experiencing sexual desire for each other was recognized--due to the writings of the sexologists and the rising field of psychiatry--the serpent had entered the garden and women's romantic relationships throughout time were retrospectively suspected of expressing deviant sexuality. Not until the rise of gay liberation, says Faderman, were we free to embrace our own same-sex erotic desire without guilt and shame. But as for the reality of Dickinson's life, Faderman says, "These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion. Thus they might kiss, fondle each other, sleep together, utter expressions of overwhelming love and promises of eternal faithfulness, and yet see their passions as nothing more than effusions of the spirit."
Well, if you want to know my issues with that interpretation, read the summary and analysis of Surpassing the Love of Men in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. But this show isn't about me or about Lillian Faderman's book, but about Emily Dickinson. And about the recent movie Wild Nights with Emily that very decidedly takes a position on Dickinson's sexuality that does not involve "having little sexual passion."
The movie takes its title from the following poem she wrote around 1861:
Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile -- the Winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden --
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor -- Tonight --
The homoerotic content of Emily Dickinson's work--and by extension, her life--has been a subject of debate from the start, with shifting sides depending on whether one viewed the topic as casting aspersions on that life or exploring its richness, and on whether one were a Dickinson fan or detractor.
Emily and Susan met in their late teens in Amherst Massachusetts where the Dickinsons were prominent among the social and intellectual elite of the town. Both women had literary pursuits throughout their lives and at the very least were each other's mentors and supporters in that field. They lived in an atmosphere where devoted romantic relationships between women were normalized and valorized. Emily spent a year at Mount Holyoke women's college, famous for romantic pairings among both students and faculty. The women's colleges of New England in the mid to late 19th century were so famous for relationships of this sort that the term "Wellesley marriage" competed with "Boston marriage" to identify committed female couples.
The correspondence that survives between Emily and Susan is full of not only romantic but sensual longing for each other's presence. In 1852, when Susan was away teaching in Baltimore, Emily wrote, "Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me ...? I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast ... my darling, so near I seem to you, that I disdain this pen, and wait for a warmer language."
Posterity has argued from opposite sides that this was purely conventional sentimental language that shouldn't be taken literally, and that such language is unambiguous evidence of physical erotic desire and most likely a physical relationship between the two women.
The year after that letter was written, Susan became engaged to Emily's brother Austin.
Once again, this simple fact has been interpreted from opposite poles. The heteronormalists argue that any marriage to a man negates all the potential evidence of same-sex desire. In similar circumstances for other women, it has been argued that any affection expressed from one woman to another was actually a coded "secret message" intended to be passed on to a related man. From the opposite pole, it is pointed out that women had a limited set of strategies for ensuring proximity and access to each other. If they were not of a social class and living in an era when it was possible to live independent economic lives, then creating a bond via a male relative produced some degree of stability. (I'm reminded of how actress Charlotte Cushman arranged for her lover Emma Crow to marry Cushman's nephew to create a similar recognized bond.)
Susan and Austin's marriage does not appear to have been particularly successful, despite three children. Austin entered a long-term relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of one of his employees. After Emily's death, there was something of a feud between Todd and the Dickinsons over who would manage the publication of Emily's poetry and curate her legacy. Todd published an edited selection of poems that were within her control in 1880. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Susan and Austin's daughter, published other editions based on the material within her control. Not until 1955 was a comprehensive collection published, restored to Emily's distinctive formatting and ordered in roughly chronological sequence.
This is the background of the story told in Wild Nights with Emily. The mythologizing of Emily Dickinson as an eccentric recluse, scribbling away at poems unknown to the rest of the world until after her death is challenged as being a deliberate fictional creation of Mabel Todd. The film tackles its topic with wit, creativity, and satire. I invited my friend Trystan L. Bass, from the historic movie website Frock Flicks, to join me to give our impressions of the film, along with a few remarks about other cinematic interpretations of Emily Dickinson's life.
[The interview portion of this episode is pending transcription.]
* * *
Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
We slowly drove -- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility --
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Or rather -- He passed Us --
The Dews drew quivering and chill --
For only Gossamer, my Gown --
My Tippet -- only Tulle --
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground --
The Roof was scarcely visible --
The Cornice -- in the Ground --
Since then -- 'tis Centuries -- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity --
Links to Trystan L. Bass and Frock Flicks Online
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It is no secret at all that any number of the more...apocryphal saints in the historic Catholic tradition were adopted from extra-historical sources. In many cases, extra-Christian sources. The church has gone though a gradual process of pruning away those for which a solidly historic basis can't be established. But in many cases, those discarded traditions evolved and grew and set deep emotional roots in the hearts of worshippers. During my recent research on cross-dressing narratives in medieval history, I spent a lot of time combing through the Acta Sanctorum, a ca. 1600 encyclopedia of every saint on the calendar that reviewed and evaluated the evidence both for their historicity and their sanctity. (Spoiler: many of the legends of cross-dressing saints are apocryphal.) It's a fascinating field both for religious history and for folklore and the processes by which both develop.
I don't remember exactly when I first got the idea that the Rotein River might have its own survival of this type. There was a time early in the plotting of Daughter of Mystery where I envisioned a system of ancient tunnels and catacombs under the city that the characters might use as an escape route and where they might encounter interesting antiquities. That specific image and event was left on the cutting room floor, but I held on to the image of intriguing ancient survivals and hidden tunnels.
As I developed the theme of the centrality of stories and images involving the Rotein in Mother of Souls, I knew that somewhere in Alpennian history, the river must have had a clear personification of some sort. If you go far enough back, pretty much all major European rivers had their own local deity. And I'd established through various passing references (to say nothing of simple historic inevitability) that Alpennia was part of the Roman Empire and that some of its towns and cities had architectural relics of that era. So I knew it was perfectly possible that there might be Roman-era shrines to the Rotein's deity still lying around somewhere. And it was reasonable that an important deity of that sort might have been Christianized at some early date.
But the Alpennia series is set in an era when that pruning away of spurious saints had been thoroughly accomplished for the most part. So what might survivals look like in the early 19th century? For one, a "saint" associated with the river might be clung to by those whose lives and livelihoods most depended on the water. And traditions associated with that saint might well survive in contexts of peril and danger associated with the river: flood, drought, fever.
I knew that the Rotein would be an even larger "character" in Floodtide and--simply given the way the worldbuilding has developed across the series--I knew that the patron saint of the river could not be part of high-culture worship or traditions (because she hadn't been mentioned in any of the high-culture magical discussions to that point). But knowing this, I planted two minor seeds in Mother of Souls. In the "prelude" text, when I describe the usual course of the river's behavior, I note, “For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.” And at a later point, when Serafina is arguing with Margerit about whether Luzie's opera counts as a miracle or a mystery, she protests, “It doesn’t matter that the opera doesn’t invoke any saints. If it works, it doesn’t matter. Lots of market charms don’t call on saints. Or they call on people who aren’t saints, like Mama Rota.”
But how would a foreigner like Serafina know about the apocryphal Saint Rota? She heard about the tradition from Celeste, of course, who lives well within the flood zone in the western part of the city, and whose collection of market charms would certainly include ones that invoke her. In my mind, Saint Rota developed as a saint of the people, of the working class and especially those whose lives and fates were most influenced by the whims of the river. They would be well aware that Rota wasn't an accepted saint, but she was theirs. And half the time, she wouldn't be "Saint" but "Mama," a very personal figure whose recognition verged on admitted heresy. Her rejection by the church authorities would make her even more special and personal to those who felt overlooked and rejected themselves.
I envisioned more details of her cult: a connection would have arisen with Rotenek's patron saint, Mauriz. And because Mauriz was depicted as a black man, a Moor, Rota might be envisioned similarly. But Mauriz was a military saint, martyred while commanding an army--how might a sister be worked into his legend? Well, Rota was always and ever associated with water, and what better miracle for her than to have created a spring of pure water for her brother's soldiers to drink? Thus, the idea of Saint Rota's well passed into legend, and the idea of water from her well having miraculous properties became a motif, even when it also became a metaphor for the unobtainable. Because there was no "Saint Rota's Well" was there? So the associations for her well were transferred to the river itself.
In the first encounter when Roz meets Liv on the river, she notices her habit--as automatic and unthinking as crossing oneself--of dipping her fingers in the river and bringing them to her mouth as she pushes out into the current. And Roz, in her usual well-meaning but clumsy way, asks about why she's "tasting the river."
* * *
I was startled when Liv dropped the oars for a moment, sending us spinning loose in the water. She grabbed my wrist. “Don’t mock Mama Rota,” she said. She was real serious, like the Orisule sisters at school had been about taking God’s name in vain. She let me go and grabbed the oars again and had us back on course in three strokes. “Show respect. If you want Mama Rota to keep you safe on the water, you say thanks every time. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, then keep your mouth shut.”
I wanted to ask who Mama Rota was, but Liv wasn’t the right person to ask just now. So I kept my mouth shut.
[later Roz asks one of the other housemaids about Mama Rota]
“Folks on the river call her that, but others call her Saint Rota. They say she was Saint Mauriz’s sister and she watches over the river like he watches over the city. There’s a picture in one of the cathedral windows that some people say is Saint Rota but I don’t know about that. If she were a real saint, wouldn’t she have a feast day?”
The next time we were at services in the cathedral together, I asked Ailis to show me the window. It was above one of the side altars. You could see Saint Mauriz in the center window, with his armor and a white turban almost as big as his halo. One of the side windows had a whole group of his soldiers. The people in the other side window included a lady who looked dark like Mauriz, though they weren’t either of them as dark as Mefro Dominique. The lady was pouring water out of a pitcher, so maybe that was why folks thought she was Mama Rota. She was pretty but she didn’t have a halo.
* * *
Keep that image in mind: a dark-skinned holy woman bringing safety and salvation to the city's downtrodden using water from a miraculous spring. It will be a couple more books before that image comes back to haunt the city that Saint Rota watches over.
I'm very aware of how the content of the LHMP tends to revolve around white, Christian, western European defaults. I try to counter that tendency by seeking out publications outside that academic gravity well. I think of it as a "gravity well" because of the way authors and publications link to and lead to each other in connected ways, building a body of shared interests that reinforce each other. When I find new publications by searching the bibliographies of work I've already covered, I'm absorbing all the biases--both explicit and implicit--of the authors I've already covered. Even when I happen across a work whose topic is outside that "gravity well", much of the existing literature it draws on for context and connection will pull the reader back in. Because academics working on marginalized topics still need to "prove" their standing in the field by reference to the accepted canon (even when that accepted canon is trying to pull free of the dense core of Old White Men, such as this article's touchstone in Judith Butler's work).
All of that is to say that I'm always delighted when I find articles covering topics outside the white, Christian, western European gravity well that also are clearly written by people deeply familiar with the topics in question, and that go beyond a superficial survey. This article is particularly interesting in how it contextualizes actions that give the appearance of being culturally transgressive and points to the ways in which they may actually be working to maintain and reinforce boundaries. In that conflict lie many intriguing story possibilities.
Roos, Lena. 2017. “Cross-dressing among medieval Ashkenazi Jews: Confirming challenged group borders” in Nordisk judaistik / Scandinavian Jewish Studies vol 28 no. 2. 4-22
Roos examines an interesting Jewish legal commentary from 13th century Germany that discusses the contexts in which Jewish people are permitted to cross-dress, either in terms of gender or in terms of religious affiliation. The thesis of her study is that, rather than being seen as transgressive, these licensed contexts serve to reinforce category boundaries, both of gender and of religious community.
The 13th century ethical tract, Sefer Chasidim, discusses a variety of contexts in which Jewish people are granted permission to dress and behave in ways that disguise their identity. The clause of clearest relevance to the Project is one that permits women to disguise themselves as men (even to take up weapons), or to disguise themselves as gentiles (even as nuns) in order to avoid assault, and in particular sexual assault. Perhaps surprisingly, this allowance includes permission to assume Christian disguise as protection against assault by Jewish men, even if it results in the death of the Jewish attackers.
These cross-category disguises appear to be in conflict with existing Jewish law, especially Deuteronomy 22:5 (also cited by Christians against cross-dressing) which states “A woman shall not put on a man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment.” Roos examines the dynamics of this allowance via Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance--that is, the theory that gender categories must be created and maintained by performance, rather than existing on their own.
The cross-category allowances were not offered only to women. Preadolescent boys are also given permission to disguise themselves as women for protection, though in this case the threat seems to be robbery rather than assault. The picture that emerges is that Jewish men were perceived as targets of robbery (and were granted allowances to protect against that possibility) while Jewish women--more as women than specifically as Jewish--were perceived as targets of sexual assault, with their allowances aimed at deflecting that possibility.
The article looks at the evidence and context of gendered distinctions of clothing around the 13th century, as well as distinctive elements of dress that identified the wearers by religion. A key distinction is made (for both the gender and religious contexts) between cross-dressing purely as a disguise to escape oppression, versus cross-dressing as an expression of identity or a desire to explore other identities.
Roos examines the text from Deuteronomy in linguistic detail and suggests that it is less clearly an absolute prohibition on cross-dressing than the usual understanding. But regardless of the nuances of interpretation, the Sefer Chasidim allowance is clearly a special exception to a general prohibition.
Christian versions of the Deuteronomy text erased the possible nuanced readings and turned it into a clear and simple prohibition on cross-gender clothing. But even so, similar allowances for women to dress as men for protection are noted, e.g., for travel. And the motif of cross-dressed saints is discussed. Reasons for why Joan of Arc was not considered to be covered by these allowances are discussed. Other accepted (though disapproved) forms of cross-dressing included those associated with carnival and theater. There was no similar license in Christian society for situational cross-dressing by men, and male cross-dressing was associated with witchcraft or with deception to gain illicit access to women’s spaces.
A similar consideration is given to texts discussing Jewish prohibitions on wearing gentile clothing, including what types of transgressions might result (for example, mixed fibers) and under what circumstances they would require atonement. Roos presents historic data on both the existence of distinctions in dress between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the exact nature of those distinctions.
The use of cross-gender clothing as a protective disguise, within a larger context that prohibits cross-dressing can be seen to reinforce gender (and religious) categories by precluding an ambiguous territory between them. Clothing disguise requires that clothing be accepted as an unquestioned gender marker, and this is only possible if ambiguous clothing is forbidden. Similarly, protective pretense to a different religious identity is only effective if boundaries between religious communities are considered inviolable.
But if this combination of prohibition and situational allowance for gender disguise is a reaction to strengthen a gender binary (which Roos suggests), were there challenges to the gender binary that it might have been reacting to? The author explores a number of shifts in gendered behavior that occurred during the middle ages, such as women adopting traditionally male ritual responsibilities within the Jewish tradition (with some interesting parallels in Christian traditions at the same time). In the same texts that discuss permitted cross-dressing practices, these shifts in religious participation by women are criticized, as well as criticizing practices that appear to blur the boundaries between Jewish and Christian religious practice. Thus cross-dressing allowances are firmly embedded in a conservative (and even reactionary) response to an era when the blurring of those categories was perceived as a threat.