One of the consequences of lining up a set of all relevant articles from a single source is that I end up covering articles that are marginal to my personal interests--and keep in mind that this project is largely diven by what I personally find interesting. (If people want me to focus on things I find boring, they'd have to pay me a lot of money to do so.) In the case of the Journal of the History of Sexuality this means a group of articles about the field of sexology, as it developed in the late 19th century. (Once the topics move into the early 20th century, I consider myself authorized to skip them, since that's how I set up the focus of the Project.)
In the next several blogs, expect some of my impatience and frustration with "sexology" to leak out around the edges. Expecially when it comes to the misogyny that was embedded in the history of the field. But even more than impatience with the field of sexology itself, I'm frustrated by how often people today will repeat the myth that the sexologiests "invented" homosexuality. While there are narrow and rigid definitions by which that claim might be considered true, in the popular imagination it gets interpreted as meaning that same-sex love didn't really exist before the late 19th century. That there were no women who loved women or men who loved men, there were just some random physical practices and some conventional social performances that wishful thinking tries to associate with modern homosexual identities.
If there's only one message I hope to spread via this blog, it is that taking that sort of narrow definition requires a fairly willful erasure of the earlier evidence for ways of being that have clear connections to modern queer identities of all types. So bear with me for a few weeks while I tick the sexology articles off the list. Then we can get back to the fun stuff again.
Bauer, Heiki. 2009. “Theorizing Female Inversion: Sexology, Discipline, and Gender at the Fin de Siècle” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 18:1 pp.84-102
Bauer examines the discourse around female homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century in the context of the discipline of “sexology”, i.e., the supposedly scientific study of sexual desire and expression. Bauer points out that the dominant Foucaultian approach to historical understandings of sexuality has in many ways marginalized issues of gender, centering the male experience as the default. How does this gendering of sexual theory affect the ways in which sexuality is understood and studied? Rather than focusing on questions of sexual identity, this article looks at how the field of sexology developed, and on the concept of “sexual inversion” as applied differently to men’s and women’s experience.
The concept and term “sexual inversion” begins appearing in psychological literature in the 1870s in Germany and somewhat later in French and English literature. The basic concept is understanding same-sex sexuality as a disorder of gender identity (an “inversion” of gender norms). To understand how this affected the field of sexology, one must study the concepts and metaphors that were invoked by this language. Focusing on the last decades of the 19th century, Bauer shows how the discourse around male “inversion” was tied to issues of sexual identity and sexual practice, and politicized with respect to the emerging ideas about the state. In contrast, ideas about female “inversion” focused on social rather than sexual difference, and on the idea of distinct and separate roles for women, and women in society.
Misogynist reactions to the feminist ideas emerging in the late 19th century highlighted the concept of the “mannish” woman (under the rubric “The New Woman”). Feminists picked up a version of that concept, framing a type of affirmative female masculinity that marginalized same-sex sexuality.
Envisioning homosexuality in terms of gender “inversion” relies on a concept of fixed, binary gender roles that can be reversed (and can be identified as being reversed). But much of the early sexological literature focused solely on male subjects, treating women as an afterthought, if at all. This overlooked the interrelationship of female inversion with feminist principles and the place that masculinity held within that context.
Further, the developing discourse around male homosexuality included the participation of male homosexuals themselves, who had a stake in shaping how the field developed. In contrast, female homosexuals initially participated as passive subjects (topics of study) and not as participants in the emerging philosophical debate. Thus, studies of women who self-identified as “inverts” tend to focus on a later period (especially post-WWI Europe).
The concept of “sexual inversion” referred to a range of behaviors that intersected with, but was not congruent with, homosexuality. Later theorists note that this interplay of topics has sometimes divided the field between historical surveys of behavior and identity that sidestep theorizing, and theoretical models that fail to align with historic realities. Others argue that rather than critiquing the inadequacy of sexological categorization, the very idea of classification should be critiqued. Existing histories of sexuality that derive from male-focused theories often miss gendered gaps in the historic record, as when phenomena that are identified as “new developments” from a male perspective can be found at earlier periods within a female context.
One approach to address these gaps is to study the types of sexual knowledge that were in circulation at different historic periods. Another approach (which Bauer takes) is to examine how the structuring of debate around sexuality works to marginalize women’s experiences and especially women’s same-sex experiences. While sexological literature about female inverts focused on sexual intercourse (or the desire for it), it had little place for the “feminist” invert who used masculinity to critique cultural metaphors for gender.
The next section of the article discusses the interplay between theories of male sexual inversion and the political context of modern nation formation and how both masculinity and femininity were conceptualized in that process. Socio-political concepts themselves were gendered, with cultural or linguistic nationality being viewed as feminine while male sexuality was associated with statehood and political nationalism. Within this context, women who had sex with women were both legally invisible and not a threat to the concept of statehood that was under debate.
There follows an in-depth discussion of the work of Krafft-Ebing and how it distinguished psycho/physiological “inversion” from same-sex sexual activity. Krafft-Ebing argued for a parallel understanding of male and female sexual functions as part of his logical arguments against criminalizing sex between men, in the process undermining the previous idea that women were not capable of committing “real” sexual acts together. Part of his argument was that, given that men's and women’s same-sex acts are equivalent, and given that women have been engaging in same-sex acts throughout history, but that women’s same-sex acts have typically not been criminalized, then men’s same-sex acts should not be criminalized either. [Note: I’m vastly oversimplifying my understanding of the argument here.] However this argument overlooks the significant social and legal differences in the treatment of men and women throughout history (never mind the differences in their sexual practices).
Women began participating more in the theorization of sex in the first decade of the 20th century (see, e.g., the German novel Sind es Frauen? (Are They Women?)). These women’s voices treated the subject of gender and sexuality with more fluidity and as more intertwined with feminism than men had. In the period between the two World Wars, the image of the “mannish” New Woman (as exemplified in Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness) became the popular model for female homosexuality. But in embracing the concept of a gender binary that could be reversed, in some ways this image marginalized same-sex desire, turning it into a pseudo-heterosexuality. As a political strategy, it was unsuccessful (some argue) precisely because it was associated with anti-feminist stereotypes. (Feminists had been subject to political attacks on the basis of being “mannish” since well before this era.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31a - On the Shelf for February 2019 - Transcript
Note: Enough story submissions came in on the very last day that I will be doing the fiction series this year.
(Originally aired 2019/02/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2019.
All sorts of fun things are coming up on the horizon for the podcast. I have three interviews scheduled to record and another five in discussions. When I have them in hand, I’ll let you know who and when, but I don’t like to jinx things before the recording happens.
One big thing I’ve started on, relating to the interview shows, is that I’m commissioning transcripts of all the past interviews and will eventually work up to getting the interview transcripts up fairly soon after they air.
At the moment, I don’t have any interviews in the can for this month, so you’ll get more surprise content--which is another way of saying, I’ll see what I can come up with on the fly. Maybe I’ll do a list of some of my favorite lesbian historical movies. There are more of them out there than you might think! If you’re a fan of historical fiction and would love to come on the show to talk about some of your favorite books, drop me an email and we can set something up.
By the time this show airs, the submissions period for the 2019 fiction series will have closed. But at the time I’m recording this, I honestly have no idea whether I’ll have enough submissions to actually run the series this year. Maybe I’ll get a ton of stories submitted in the last couple days; maybe just the couple that people have said they’re planning to send in. Maybe I’ll get enough great stories to fill the series. Maybe I won’t By the time you hear this, you’ll already know the answer, if you read the blog. I confess I’d expected there to be more interest and enthusiasm in the second year. No matter how things go with this year’s series, I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in 2020, which is a shame because I’d hoped to provide a new venue for publishing lesbian historical short fiction. But a publishing venue doesn’t do much good if no one sends their work in for consideration.
Publications on the Blog
On the blog I’ve been continuing to work through some thematic groups of articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, with a few other random items. January focused on articles covering 16th and 17th century topics, including a fascinating study of a gender-queer person in colonial Virginia that sheds light on how ordinary people understood gender identity and sexuality. In February, I’m tackling a collection of articles about the late 19th century field of sexology and the supposed “invention” of homosexuality by psychologists. I confess it’s an era and a topic that makes me impatient because too often that particular era in the medicalization of sexuality and gender identity gets misinterpreted as demonstrating that there was no such thing as same-sex love before people like Krafft-Ebing wrote their books about it. So if a bit of my impatience shows through in my summaries, you’ll understand why.
The only new book purchase for the blog this month was my very own copy of Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, in support of last week’s podcast with readings from the text. What did you think of Manley’s depiction--satiric though it may have been--of a secret sapphic society in early 18th century England?
For this month’s podcast essay, I think I’m ready to begin tackling the delicate topic of the historic intersection of themes of female homoeroticism and trans-masculinity. It’s a complicated and broad subject. For this first installment I’ll be tackling some basic approaches to unpacking our cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality categories so we can think and talk about historic categories in an open-minded way. Lesbian historical fiction has a bit of an unfortunate history of erasing or ignoring trans possibilities, in large part because we’re wedded to concepts of gender and sexuality that are rooted in our specific cultural context. To address the issues around trans-masculinity in lesbian historicals in a meaningful way, we need to take a close look at the historic relationship between how people in the past understood gender and how they understood sexual orientation. I’m going to have a lot of fun in this first essay, although with a very serious purpose, because I’m going to start by taking you on a tour through the semantics of prepositions--the topic of my doctoral dissertation.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now for the new and recent releases of lesbian-relevant historical fiction! The first few books all have a prominent element of fantasy in their history.
Running Wild by Laurel Clarke (published through Amazon Digital) is subtitled “A Steamy Lesbian Romance in Ancient Greece” so you can probably assume you get what it says on the label. Here’s the blurb:
In ancient Greece, women don't leave the homes of their male relatives. They don't become physicians, and they CERTAINLY don't fall for other women. But Melitta is breaking all the rules. She didn't set out to get thrown out of her brother's house or meet a troop of naughty naiads. She definitely never expected to befriend Ris, a half-naiad half-human woman who has a bad habit of not wearing clothes. And now Ris just won't get out of her head. All Melitta ever wanted was a career as a village doctor and a normal life. But things are changing. Now, the only thing she seems to want is... Ris.
Breaking Mae's Curse self-published by Amy DeMeritt may have only tangential historical content. It’s hard to tell from the blurb.
What happens when a lesbian samurai refuses to marry the king? He kills her lover and then orders his sorceress to curse her to immortality as a five-inch-tall woman, of course. Fast forward almost 600 years. Mae’s plan to try to meet a beautiful woman backfires and instead she befriends a young IT nerd who is all too excited to try to help her break her curse – which requires a woman to fall in love with her. Can a five-inch tall lesbian samurai find love? Can Mae’s curse be broken? Or will the enemies of her past come back to destroy everything?
Souls of Viridian by Ayin Weaver from NovelWeaver Press sounds like the sort of cross-time/parallel lives story that pops up regularly in lesbian fiction.
Souls of Viridian is a tale of love and courage, a journey of possibilities, and a dream of expansive horizons. A 15th century Italian child of a secret healer, a young Parisian woman and her father at the dawn of revolutionary France, a lesbian artist and her partner living in 21st century America, a modern middle-aged widow searching for answers after her husband’s death, and an apparition from an other-worldly dimension—what could they possibly have in common? What could it all mean? Widow Rachel Padini wants answers, especially as dreams and hallucinations of an odd child plague her life. Artist Rita Kerner wants answers too—to unlock the mystery of the strange portraits she paints. But they don’t know each other. Nor do they know what they have in common—or what fantastical phenomenon awaits them if they meet.
A Harvest of Sisters self-published by Emma Bawden sounds like an interesting slice-of-life story set in early 20th century England.
On holiday with her parents in Cornwall, sixteen year old Jessica Bradley, falls in love with Elizabeth Trescothick, during the summer of 1931. Through the remains of the decade, she experiences loss and love, gives birth to a daughter, eventually finding happiness, a life long partner, and becoming part of a group of women, who form an art school in London, before WW2. A story of independent women with a vision of equality and a refusal to commit to convention.
The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer self-published by Connie Valientis is a bite-sized novelette with a nebulously 18th or 19th century setting. I’ve reviewed it on my blog if you’re interested.
All Lavina wants is to quietly marry a man who will allow her to continue her current affair with the beautiful Lady Georgia Suthmeer. But with Lady Suthmeer herself objecting to any marriage, and with Lady Suthmeer’s husband pursuing Lavina for himself, it’s easier said than done. Can Lavina balance the men and women in her life, or will she end up losing her reputation–or worse, her lover?
The Plan by Kim Pritekel from Sapphire Books sounds like a classic tale of girls from opposite sides of the tracks.
As the dark days of the Dust Bowl came to an end, the midsection of the United States tried to rebuild and revitalize. In the small, dusty farming town of, Brooke View, Colorado, teenager, Eleanor Landry and her mother were dealing with her father, a self-appointment fire and brimstone preacher to his congregation of two. A plan to survive. As the dark era of the robber baron comes to an end, giants of industry and innovation emerged with fabulous fortunes manifested in the mansions that dotted the landscape across the country. Lysette Landon, the teen daughter of the wealthiest family in Brooke View, was everything a good, proper girl of privilege should be. Only problem was, she wasn’t dreaming of finding a young man to raise a family with. A plan to be free. One look, one touch, all plans are off. Secrets deeper and darker than the grave would bring Eleanor and Lysette together, their families connected by a web of lies and broken promises. A plan to escape. Be careful because, life has other plans…
Acts of Contrition is the 4th book in the Passing Rites saga by Elena Graf from Purple Hand Press. Be aware that this series has some intense content, including depictions of rape and sexual violence, as well the aftermath of war.
World War II has finally come to an end and Berlin has fallen. Nearly everything Margarethe, chief of staff of St. Hilde's Hospital and head of the aristocratic Stahle family, has sworn to protect has been lost. After being brutally abused by occupying Russian soldiers in her own hospital, Margarethe must rely on the kindness of her friends to survive. Fortunately, the American Army has brought her former protégé, Dr. Sarah Weber, back to Berlin. As Margarethe confronts painful events that occurred during the war, she must learn both to forgive and be forgiven. This is the fourth novel in the Passing Rites Series, which follows the aristocratic Stahle family through the 20th century. Set in Berlin during the aftermath of World War II, Acts of Contrition shows how survivors struggled with their guilt over the events of the war. It tells the story of how rape, crushing personal losses and grief can bring someone to the brink and how friendship and love can bring her back.
Manifold Press is putting out a Valentine’s anthology, Rainbow Bouquet, with a range of stories of queer love in the past, present, and future. At this time, I don’t know what the extent of the lesbian content might be. At some point this year I’ll be doing an interview with the new editor of Manifold Press to talk about her plans and vision for the publishing house.
Figuring by Maria Popova from Pantheon is a non-fiction book with a description that reads almost like a historic novel, and so might be of interest to my listeners.
Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution have risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson. Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.
If you know of any forthcoming lesbian-relevant historical fiction, including historic fantasy and similar genres, drop the podcast a note to make sure we have a chance to include it.
I’d love to continue doing the “Ask Sappho” bit in this show, to answer questions or explore topics that are too brief for a show of their own. But it only happens if people send me questions or requests. If you like what you hear on this show, drop us a note and let us know. And get your personally-tailored information on lesbian history and historic literature.
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As I mention in the discussion below, given how very little information this article has relating to women's same-sex relations, one might wonder why I bothered to include it. And the answer is, because often negative information is as important to understanding the context of people's lives in history as the positive information is. We often have an impression that women in sexual relationships were in constant danger of persecution and repression. That they must have lived in constant fear of discovery and the consequences thereof. But once you sift through the data in this article (and it's packed full of numbers and pie charts and trend graphs), the take-home message is that in the entire kingdom of Aragon in Spain, for the century and a half when the Spanish Inquisition was most fixated on the sexual lives of ordinary people, only one (1) female couple is recorded as being tried by the Inquisition for the offense of sodomy. And they were punished by exile and being forbidden to live together, not by death or even imprisonment. (Though exile was nothing to sneeze at.) While this data doesn't address how this compared with attention from the secular courts, and while it doesn't give us a baseline for how many women engaged in acts that might have been considered sodomy, we can make some reasonable extrapolations and suggest that legal prosecution of women solely for engaging in same-sex acts was not a major risk factor.
So when you're imagining the lives of your fictional characters and thinking of setting them in 16-17th century Spain, maybe--just maybe--the Inquisition isn't something that needs to be a constant threat looming over their lives. In fact, coming to the notice of the Inquisition must might be more historically inaccurate than otherwise.
Fernandez, André. 1997. “The Repression of Sexual Behavior by the Aragonese Inquisition between 1560 and 1700” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.469-501
This is a data-heavy examination of cases under the Spanish Inquisition for sexual-related offenses during a critical period from the mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century. There is very little in the article that speaks directly to sexual activity between women, but it provides a context for attitudes and risks during that period.
The question being addressed is why there was a significant increase in the prosecution of sexual offenses in the Kingdom of Aragon beginning around 1560, and how and why that focus tapered off over the course of the 17th century. The official focus of the Inquisition was on eradicating heresy, but in the mid 16th century that focus expanded to overlap with the jurisdiction of episcopal and royal courts with regard to four categories of sexual offense that were considered to represent not simply moral offenses, but offenses against the natural order or against the sacraments. These four categories were solicitation, bigamy, sodomy, and bestiality.
The documentary record shows the court working its way through the process of categorizing offenses under these headings, and determining their relative gravity and appropriate penalties. Simple fornication (i.e., extramarital sex between a man and a woman) was a moral and legal offense but did not come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition under ordinary circumstances and so is not included in this data (although far more common).
A great deal of the article is taken up with detailed discussions of data trends, categories, and statistics, of which I’ll only hit the highlights. Overall, this increased focus on sexual offenses ran from 1560 through around 1620, then tapered off steadily until the end of the 17th century when the Inquisition functionally lost interest in the topic.
Of the four categories, the only one of relevance to the LHMP is sodomy, and even there the overwhelming majority of the cases involve relations between men. Out of 1829 cases included in the data overall, 691 (38%) fell in the category of sodomy. But of those, only 8 cases involved women, with 7 of them concerning sodomy in the context of a male-female relationship. Only one case (keep in mind, this is in the entire kingdom or Aragon in the course of nearly a century and a half) involved a female couple. The case occurred in 1656, the women were unmarried, and (if I’m reading the article correctly) the sentence was banishment from their home city for 8 years and being forbidden from cohabiting.
While this may seem like a small tidbit on which to include this article in the Project, it provides a context for other previous mentions of the prosecution of female couples within the authority of the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly the overall risk of coming to their attention, or of receiving a significant punishment, was low, despite the fearsome reputation of the organization.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30d - The New Atalantis - Secret Lesbian Clubs in 17th c Literature - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/01/26 - listen here)
Delarivier Manley was an English writer, working around 1700, who wrote in a number of genres, but whose most famous work was the political satire, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes, from the new Atlantis, an island in the Mediterranean, known more briefly as The New Atalantis. If you listened to the podcast on Queen Anne, I talked about how Manley was one of a number of satirists hired (or at least instigated) by Tory politicians to poke fun at their opponents. The New Atalantis only makes sense as a political satire if you can trace the connections between its salacious anecdotes and the real people meant to be understood as its targets. Overwhelmingly, the content involves sexual shenanigans, unhappy political marriages, unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, and the narrators of the framing story--Astrea and the personifications of Virtue and Intelligence--tut-tutting to each other about how awful and nasty people have become, compared to some hypothetical ideal time and place which, of course, never existed.
The interest in this podcast is a handful of anecdotes involving a group of women referred to as The New Cabal who form something of a secret society of women whose romantic--and by strong implication, sexual--interests are for each other. Given how heterosexual relationships are portrayed in the work, one has a great deal of sympathy for them. But one isn’t meant, necessarily, to sympathize. The New Cabal is depicted as being just as self-centered, jealous, and venial as the rest of society, with an extra dollop of the assumption that same-sex relationships must always be somehow lacking and transient in comparison to the attractions of heterosexual ones.
But to be fair, the relationships among The New Cabal are neither more nor less satirized than every other relationship discussed in the work. Anxieties about female power within Queen Anne’s court and government--and quite likely, knowledge of actual same-sex relations among those women--may have provoked this part of Manley’s work, but there’s little sense that the idea of same-sex relationships is being singled out for special disapproval and vitriol. Not any more than the idea of adultery, or the idea of loveless marriages, or the idea of sexual predation on the less powerful.
Many of Manley’s fictionalized characters, both in The New Atalantis and in a later work Memoirs of Europe, can be clearly identified with specific historic individuals. And the real-life counterparts of some of the women who are depicted in the novel as having same-sex relationships are known to have had similar relationships in real life. In the transcript of this show on the website, I’ve included a list of some of those correspondences. So we aren’t necessarily dealing with a case where accusations of same-sex relations are being used to tarnish reputations, any more than the accusations of loveless marriages were. They were both things that people did.
With that understanding, we can read Manley’s anecdotes about The New Cabal as depicting possible social dynamics among homoerotically-inclined women of the court. The text may not reflect the details of such women’s lives, but they reflect how such lives were imagined in their own day.
The Framing Story
The primary narrator of the framing story is a minor divinity of the classical pantheon named Astrea, the goddess of innocence, and purity. Having taken a fancy to visiting the great courts of Europe, she overshoots her trajectory and comes instead to Atalantis. There she encounters the dejected figure of her mother, Virtue. Together they have a mutual “kids these days--what is the world coming to?” moment, then go on a tour to review in detail what they consider the sad failings of society. They are joined by a character representing Intelligence who is similarly dispirited by kids these days. The text is presented as a series of conversational monologues between these characters, occasionally including responses from other characters they encounter. Because the text is often complex and full of allusions, I’ve inserted my own explanations and commentary, which I will distinguish by tone of voice.
Our scene opens as the trio watches some vehicles pass by. The open enjoyment of the passengers makes them speculate on how these people--of all they have met--seem to have escaped the sorrows and vices of the age. But as they discuss the travelers further, their joyful astonishment starts shading over into sarcasm and innuendo.
ASTREA: Does your Ladyship's Intelligence extend to the Knowledge of those Ladies (we know them to be such by their Voices) who fill those three Coaches, which run along the Gravel-Road on the Right Hand of us? They laugh loud and incessantly. ‘Tis certain they have neither the Spleen nor Vapours, or for the present seem to have forgot those Distempers. Can any Persons be more at their Ease? Sure these seem to unknow that there is a certain Portion of Misery and Disappointments allotted to all Men, which one time or other will assuredly overtake them. The very Consideration of which, is sufficient, in, my Opinion, to put a damp upon the Serenest, much more a tumultuous Joy.
INTELLIGENCE: That would be afflicting themselves unprofitably. Nothing ought to hinder Mankind from enjoying the Present, nor no Reflection of the Future carry away his Relish of the Instant, provided it be innocently employed. To one of right Understanding, it will certainly happen thus; provided he be free from bodily Pain, which, notwithstanding the vain celebrated apathy of the Stoics, none was ever found to be insensible of; and whoever has pretended to the contrary, must be as ridiculous as affected.
But to satisfy your Excellency, these Ladies are of the new Cabal; a Sect (however, innocent in itself) that does not fail from meeting its Share of Censure from the World. Alas, what can they do?' How unfortunate are Women! If they seek their Diversion out of themselves, and include the other Sex, they must be criminal. If in themselves (as those of the new Cabal), still they are criminal? Though Censurers must carry their Imaginations a much greater Length than I am able to do mine, to explain this Hypothesis with Success. They pretend to find the Vices of old Rome revived in the Atalantic, and quote you certain detestable Authors, who (to amuse Posterity) have introduced lasting Monuments of Vice, which could only subsist in Imagination; and can in reality have no other Foundation, than what are to be found in the Dreams of Poets, and the Ill-nature of those Censurers, who will have no Diversions innocent, but what themselves advance!
[HRJ: Here, our narrators allude to the writings of classical authors such as Lucian and Martial about sex between women. By pretending to consider such activities to be impossible outside of the prurient imagination, Manley is able to invoke the specter of same-sex acts while maintaining the fiction that the New Cabal are all just good friends.]
Oh how laudable, how extraordinary, how wonderful is the uncommon Happiness of the Cabal! They have wisely excluded that rapacious Sex who, making a Prey of the Honour of Ladies, find their greatest Satisfaction (some few excepted) in boasting of their good Fortune. The very Chocolate-Houses being Witnesses of their Self-love, where promiscuously, among the known and unknown, they expose the Letters of the Fair, explain the Mysterious, and refine upon the happy Part; in their Redundancy of Vanity, consulting nothing but what may feed that insatiable Hydra!
[HRJ: Within this rather tangled prose is the suggestion that the society of men inevitably results in becoming the subject of gossip where men socialize, in this case at cafes specializing in serving chocolate, a fashionable new drink that rivaled coffee and tea for popularity. But women’s company, they assert, cannot possibly carry any hint of shame or guilt!]
The Cabal run no such Dangers, they all have Happiness in themselves! Two beautiful Ladies joined in an Excess of Amity (no Word is tender enough to express their new Delight) innocently embrace! For how can they be guilty? They Vow eternal Tenderness, they exclude the Men, and condition that they will always do so. What Irregularity can there be in this? Tis true, some Things may be strained a little too far, and that causes Reflections to be cast upon the rest.
[HRJ: And now we’re offered an anecdote meant to give the lie to the former claims of innocence. The ladies of the New Cabal were not able to live entirely separate from men. A lady named Armida had the misfortune to have her male lover and her female partner visit at the same time.]
One of the Fair could not defend herself from receiving an importunate Visit from a Person of the troublesome Sex. The Lady who was her Favourite, came unexpectedly at the same time upon another. Armida heard her Chair set down in the Hall, and presently knew her Voice, enquiring with Precipitation, who was above, having observed a common Coach at the Gate, without a Livery. The Lover became surprized to the last Degree, to see Armida’s surprize; she trembled, she turn'd pale, she conjured him to pass into her Closet, and consent to be concealed 'till the Lady was gone! His Curiosity made him as obliging as she could desire.
He was no sooner withdrawn, but his fair Rival entered the Chamber enraged, her Voice shrill, her Tongue inquisitive and menacing, the Extremes of Jealousy in her Eyes and Air. “Where is this Inconstant where is this ungrateful Girl—? What happy Wretch is it upon whom you bestow my Rights! To whom do you deliver the Possession of my Kisses and Embraces? Upon whom bestow that Heart so invaluable, and for which I have paid the Equivalent! Come let us see this Monster to whom my Happiness is sacrificed. Are you not sufficiently warned by the Ruin of so many? Are you also eager to be exposed, to be undone, to be Food for Vanity, to fill the detestable Creatures with vain Glory! What Recompense--Ah, what Satisfaction!--can there be in any Heart of theirs, more than in mine? — Have they more Tenderness--more Endearment? —Their Truth cannot come in comparison; besides, they find their Account in Treachery and Boasting, their Pride is gratified; whilst our Interest is in mutual Secrecy, in mutual Justice, and in mutual Constancy.”
[HRJ: Such an excess of jealousy, of course, creates its own suspicions. The narrators scramble to provide an apparent defense, deliberately undermining it by offering a parallel to one of the homoerotic relationships of Socrates.]
Such Excursions as these, have given Occasion to the Enemies of the Cabal to refine, as much as they please, upon the Mysteries of it; there are some who will not allow of Innocence in any Intimacies. Detestable Censurers, who, after the Manner of the Athenians will not believe so great a Man as Socrates (him, whom the Oracle delivered to be the wisest of all Men) could see every Hour the Beauty of an Alcibiades, without taxing his Sensibility. How did they recriminate for his Affection, for his Cares, his Tenderness to the lovely Youth? How have they delivered him down to Posterity as blamable for a too guilty Passion for his beautiful Pupil? Since then it is not in the Fate of even so wise a Man, to avoid the Censure of the Busy and the Bold, Care ought to be taken by others (less fortified against Occasions of Detraction, in declining such unaccountable Intimacies) to prevent the ill-natured World's refining upon their mysterious Innocence.
[HRJ: Having thus set the stage for how we are meant to understand the internal relationships of the Cabal, we’re offered a glimpse of how they spend their time together.]
The Persons who passed us in those three Coaches, were returning from one of their private--I was going to say silent--Meetings, but far be it from me to detract from any of the Attributes of the Sex. The Lady L-- and her Daughters make four of the Cabal. They have taken a little Lodging about twelve Furlongs from Angela, in a Place obscure and pleasant, with a Magazine of good Wine and necessary Conveniences, Chambers of Repose, a tolerable Garden, and the Country in Prospect.
They wear away the indulgent happy Hours according to their own Taste. Their Coaches and People (of whom they always take as few with them as possible) are left to wait at the convenient Distance of a Field in length, an easy Walk to their Bower of Bliss. The Day and Hour of their Rendezvous is appointed before-hand. They meet, they caress, they swear inviolable Secrecy and Amity.
The Glass corroborates their Endearments. They momently exclude the Men, fortify themselves in the Precepts of Virtue and Chastity against all their detestable undermining Arts, arraign without Pity or Compassion those who have been so unfortunate as to fall into their Snare [and] Propagate their Principles of exposing them without Mercy.
[HRJ: And now the members of the Cabal are presented as...one might almost say “biphobic” but keep in mind that this is within a context where heterosexual attraction is assumed to be an imperative. And where women did not always have the social and economic power to refuse marriage. So if marriage is inescapable, a women-only society must protect itself with rules.]
[They] give Rules to such of the Cabal who are not married, how to behave themselves to such whom they think fit they should marry; no such weighty Affair being to be accomplished without the mutual Consent of the Society. At the same time, lamenting the Custom of the World, that has made it convenient (nay, almost indispensable) for all Ladies once to marry. To those that have Husbands, they have other Instructions, in which this is sure to be one: to reserve their Heart, their tender Amity for their Fair Friend, an article in this well-bred, wilfully undistinguishing age which the husband seems to be rarely solicitous of.
[HRJ: In this passage one is reminded of 17th century poet Katherine Phillips’ lament that for women, marriage represents the death of friendship. Within 17th century English society, the women with the most power to control their own lives were widows. In the following passage, the references to “nature” invoke the idea that heterosexuality is natural while any other type of desire is against nature.]
Those who are, in their Opinion, so happy as to be released from the imposing matrimonial Fetters, are thought the Ornament of the Cabal, and by all most happy. They claim an Ascendant, a Right of Governing, of Admitting or Excluding, in both of which they are extremely nice, with particular Regard to the Constitution of the Novice. They strictly examine her Genius: whether it have fitted her for the Mysteries of the Cabal, or if she may be rendered insensible on the side of Nature--Nature, who has the Trick of making them dote on the opposite improving Sex. For if her Foible be found directed to what Nature inspires, she is unanimously excluded, and particular Injunctions bestowed upon all the Members of this distinguishing Society from admitting her to their Bosom, or initiating her into the Mysteries of their Endearments.
[HRJ: That is, if a potential candidate for the Cabal seems positively inclined toward men, she is to be refused admittance. Having sex with men might be necessary, but actually loving them was right out. This wasn’t merely a philosophical requirement--any crack in the armor against male society could prove dangerous to all, as we shall see in the next passage.]
Secrecy also is a material Article. This they inviolably promise; nor is it the least part of the Instruction given to a new Bride, lest she let her Husband into a Mystery (however innocent) that may expose and ridicule the Community, as it happened in the Case of the beautiful Virgin Euphelia.
No sooner did she appear as an Attendant on the Queen, but the Eyes of all the Circle were directed to her. The Men adored. The Ladies would have discovered something to destroy that Adoration, if it had been possible, except the Marchioness de Lerma, who, Bold and Masculine, loudly taxed these invidious Spectators of ill Nature and Malice. She took the fair Maid into especial Consideration, sheltered her under her distinguishing Protections and, in short, introduced her into the Cabal of which, they say, the Marchioness was one of the first Founders in Atalantis, having something so robust in her Air and Mien, that the other Sex would have certainly claimed her for one of theirs, if she had not thought fit to declare herself by her Habit (alone) to be of the other, insomuch, that I have often heard it lamented by the Curious, who have taxed themselves of Negligence, and were intimate with her Lord, when living, that they did not desire him to explain upon that Query.
[HRJ: This description of the Marchioness requires a bit of unpacking. Historic attitudes regularly shifted regarding whether women’s same-sex desire required a butch-femme dynamic. The prevailing attitude in the 17th century leaned more toward the attitude that what women loved in other women was their shared femininity. But this is one of the references in The New Atalantis that suggests the alternate view: that it was an inherent masculinity that caused a woman to desire women. The description here of the Marchioness de Lerma suggests that she was so masculine in her affect that if not for the fact that she wore women’s clothing, one might have thought her to be a man. Or perhaps to be something indeterminate between male and female, as the image of the hermaphrodite was still invoked in the context of same-sex desire. The curious, it is suggested here, should have questioned her late husband about any anatomical abnormalities that might have explained the Marchioness’s behavior. But returning to our anecdote, the Marchioness’s love for Euphelia foundered on the offer of a desirable marriage, the price of which was that Euphelia explain just why the Marchioness was so dead-set against the match.]
Euphelia flourished under the Shine of so great a Favourite; the Marquis de los Minos fell in Love with her. There was nothing to obstruct his Happiness but the Marchioness de Lerma's Jealousy. Enraged to lose her beautiful Pupil, she traversed her Advancement all that lay in her Power. But the Honour of such a Marriage being conspicuous on the young Virgin's side, she was forced to give up the Secrets of the Cabal, and sacrifice the Marchioness's Honour, to preserve the Opinion of her own.
Some few such Discoveries, have happened to cast a Taint upon the Innocence of the Cabal. How malicious is the World! Who would not avoid Censure if it were possible?
[HRJ: There is the interesting suggestion here that “innocence” was entirely a matter of keeping one’s indiscretions secret, and had nothing to do with not committing them in the first place. We have another suggestion of a butch-femme dynamic in the following passage. Although, interestingly, both members of the romantic couple are said to cross-dress in order to go pick up women together. The word “habit” here simply means “clothing” as in the phrase “riding habit”, rather than referring to a personal custom. The pseudonym Ianthe is, of course, a reference to Ovid’s cross-gender character. We start to hear the snarky edge in the protestations of how these amorous adventures could not possibly be considered actual fornication.]
We must do Justice to the Endeavours of the witty Marchioness of Sandomire, when she used to mask her Diversions in the Habit of the other Sex, and with her Female Favourite, Ianthe, wander through the Gallant Quarter of Atalantis in search of Adventures. But what Adventures? Good Heaven! None that could in reality wound her Chastity! Her Virtue, sacred to her Lord, and the Marriage Bed, was preserved Inviolable!
For what could reflect back upon it with any Prejudice, in the little Liberties she took with her own Sex? Whom she used to cajole, with the affected seeming Gallantry of the other; engage and carry them to the public Gardens, and Houses of Entertainment, with Music and all Diversions? These Creatures of Hire, failed not to find their Account, in obliging the Marchioness's and Ianthe's peculiar Taste, by all the Liberties that belong to Women of their loose Character and Indigence.
Though I should look upon it as an Excess of Mortification, were I the Marchioness, to see the Corruption of the Sex, and to what extremes Vice may, Step by Step, lead those who were born, and probably educated in the Road of Innocence. It may be surely counted an inhumane Curiosity, and show a Height of Courage, more blamable than otherwise, not to be dejected at the Brutality, the Degeneracy of those of our own Species.
[HRJ: Evidently one member of the Cabal had special license to remain bisexual. She is considered so beautiful and charming that she cannot be expected to confine her affections and favors to only one sex. This lady and her musical female companion are among those who can be connected with specific historical persons known to have enjoyed a romance.]
The Vice Roy of Peru's Lady has a more extensive Taste, her Circle admitting the Eminent of both Sexes. None can doubt of her Condescension to the Men, and because she will leave nothing undiscovered or unattempted in the Map of Tenderness, she has encouraged the warbling Lindamira (low as is her Rank) to explain to her the Terra Incognita of the Cabal.
Not one of them but think themselves honoured by a Person of her Distinction and agreeable Merit. To complete their Happiness they seem to wish (but I doubt it is in vain) that it were possible to exclude the other Sex, and engross her wholly to their own. But alas! what Hopes? Her Heart, her Eyes, her Air, call for other Approbations, the Admiration of the Men!
In her alone that diffusive Vanity is pardonable, is taking. She undoubtedly knows herself born to a greater Capacity of giving Happiness, than ought to fall to the Share of one Mortal; and therefore in her just and equal Distribution of Beauty, she seems to leave none of her numerous Favourites solid Reason of Complaint, that they are not, in their turn, considered as they deserve.
[HRJ: There follows an anecdote that I will skim over with a summary that explains why this lady abandoned men to join the Cabal.]
One of the Ladies of the Cabal, that was in the Coach, is a Writer. The Chevalier Pierro, without having much Wit of his own, married her for hers. ... Though, with the Addition even of Gratitude, Zara could not find her Happiness in him... He soon grew weary of Zara's Affair, not finding it possible to come up to the Height of her Lovesick romantic Expectations. She, who had all the Muses in her Head, wanted to be caressed in a Poetical manner; her Lover, by her good-will, should not be less than Apollo in his Attributes of Flame and Fancy. Thus would she have been adored, but that was not to be expected from the Marquis, whose Heart was engaged. Nor could any but a Poet answer the Extravagancies of a Poetess's Expectations. ...
Thus disencouraged by the Men, she fell into the Taste of the Cabal. Daphne was her Favourite. Daphne, who when she first set out to travel the Road of Gallantry, had all the reason in the World to expect a lucky journey; for her first Guide, (if you will believe her self) was no less a Person than Count Fortunatus...
[HRJ: And we now get a long tedious summary of how Daphne was done wrong by Count Fortunatus, who blackmailed her into sleeping with him because she needed a favor for a relative. Having been discarded by him...]
... Then it was that she wrote for the Stage, sometimes with ill Fortune, sometimes with indifferent, and but once with Success...
I could enumerate, were it not too tedious, many of Daphne's Adventures; by which she was become the Diversion of as many of the Town as found her to their Taste, and would purchase: Yet she still assumed an Air of Virtue pretended, and was ever eloquent (according to her stiff manner) upon the Foible of others. She also fitted her self with an excellent Mask called Religion; having as often changed, and as often professed her self a Votary to that Shrine, where was to be found the most apparent Interest, or which of the Priests had the best Art of persuading. One of Ceres at length fell to her Share! young, scarce initiated in her Mysteries, and not at all in the Profits. But a Husband was Daphne's Business; the only means to prevent her from falling, (when her Youth and Charms were upon the Wing) into extreme Contempt.
[HRJ: And now we discuss inconvenient husbands. Zara the poet’s husband is conveniently set off to war. Daphne the playwright’s, alas, takes her away from her friends and she finds religion and respectability.]
Zara, who had introduced her to the Cabal, but with infinite Anxiety suffered, that any Lover should dare to engage where she had fixed her heart: But because narrow Circumstances do not always suffer People to do what they would, Daphne was still forced to have Lovers; though, if you'll believe her Professions to her fair Friend, they had no part in her Inclination. In short, they seemed to live for each other. Zara, whose Poetical Genius did not much lead her to better the Economy of her Family, soon found the Inconveniencies of it. The poor Chevalier, her Husband, stemmed the Tide as long as it was possible; at length obliged, by his indifferent Circumstances, to put himself into the Army and Campaigns abroad, he left his Lady at full Liberty to pursue, with an uninterrupted Goust, her Taste of Amity and the Cabal.
But Daphne's Marriage crossed her Delights: How does she exclaim against that Breach of Friendship in the Fair? how regret the Authority of a Husband, who has boldly dared to carry his Wife into the Country, where she now sets up for Regularity, and intends to be an Ornament to that Religion, which she had once before abandoned, and newly again professed? She will write no more for the Stage; 'tis profane, indiscreet, unpardonable: Controversy engrosses all her Hours; the Muses must now give place...
[HRJ: In this next section, although Manley is presumably poking fun at these women’s relationships, the actual details seem innocuous--or even praiseworthy. Lovers should lavish each other with gifts, share all things in common, and support each other.]
There are others of the Cabal that lavish vast Sums upon their Inamoretta's, with the Empresment, Diligence and Warmth of a beginning Lover. I could name a Widow or two, who have almost undone themselves by their Profuseness: So sacred and invincible is their Principle of Amity, that Misfortunes cannot shake. In this little Commonwealth is no Property; whatever a Lady possesses, is, sans Ceremonie, at the Service, and for the Use of her fair Friend, without the vain nice Scruple of being obliged. Tis her Right; the other disputes it not; no, not so much as in Thought; they have no reserve; mutual Love bestows all Things in common; 'twould be against the Dignity of the Passion, and unworthy [of] such exalted abstracted Notions as theirs. How far laudable your Divinities will conclude of these tender Amities (with all possible Submission) I refer to your better Judgments, and undisputed Prerogative of setting the Stamp of Approbation, or Dislike, upon all Things.
[HRJ: Keep in mind that this is a conversation among goddesses, hence the speaker addressing the others. All the preceding has been Lady Intelligence explaining the Cabal to Astrea and Virtue. Now Astrea comments, pretending to an ignorance of the exact nature of the “mysteries of the Cabal” that Intelligence has been referring to. If it is platonic friendship, then surely it’s praiseworthy. But if their relationships interfere with heterosexual marriage, then that goes too far.]
ASTREA: It is something so new and uncommon, so laudable and blameable, that we don't know how to determine; especially wanting Light even to guess at what you call the Mysteries of the Cabal.
If only tender Friendship, inviolable and sincere, be the regard, what can be more meritorious, or a truer Emblem of their Happiness above? Tis by Imitation, the nearest Approach they can make, a Feint, a distant Landshape of immortal Joys. But if they carry it a length beyond what Nature designed, and fortify themselves by these new-formed Amities against the Hymeneal Union, or give their Husband but a second Place in their Affection and Cares, 'tis wrong and to be blamed.
Thus far to the Merit of the Thing itself. But when we look with true regard to the World, if it permit a Shadow of Suspicion, a bare Imagination that the Mysteries they pretend have any Thing in them contrary to Kind, and that strict Modesty and Virtue do not adorn and support their Conversation, 'tis to be avoided and condemned, lest they give Occasion for obscene Laughter, new invented Satire, fanciful Jealousies, and impure Distrusts, in that nice unforgiving Sex: who arbitrarily thus decide, that Woman was only created (with all her Beauty, Softness, Passions, and complete Tenderness) to adorn the Husband's Reign, perfect his Happiness, and propagate the Kind.
[HRJ: The text then moves on to other topics that are less interesting to us. We come back to the matter of the Cabal much later in the text. Here our friend who goes by the pseudonym Ianthe becomes the topic again. You may remember that Ianthe and her special friend, the Marchioness of Sandomire, went about in male clothing, picking up women. And Lady Intelligence ponders the attractions of cross-dressing.]
INTELLIGENCE: She that was in the Coach with her, is one of the Widows of the New Cabal. What an Irregularity of Taste is theirs! They do not in reality love Men, but dote on the Representation of Men in Women. Hence it is that those Ladies are so fond of the Dress en cavaliere, though it is extremely against my liking, I would have the Sex distinguished as well by their Garb as by their Manner. That bewitching Modesty, which is so becoming to the opening Veil, is against kind, in the confirmed, bold, and agreeable Air of the Hat, Feather, and Peruke. If in this Man's Dress you pretend to retain the Shame-facedness of the other Sex, you lose the native Charm that recommends it. If you dismiss Modesty you dismiss the highest Beauty of the Female Sex: For without regard to that much-in-fashion Virtue Assurance, next to real innate Modesty in Ladies (which indeed never fails of giving the Appearance) I think the outward Blush, and seeming Habitude of it, one of the greatest Ornaments they can wear.
[HRJ: Ianthe evidently was not only fond of adopting masculine dress herself, but found it charming on other women. She falls for an actress who performs in breeches parts and pays her court. But the actress, though flattered, evidently didn’t like her in quite that way.]
But to return to my Widow of the Cabal, She fell in Love with one of the Comedians, when she was acting the Part of a young Lover and a Libertine. The Widow sent for the Girl, and made her very considerable Presents, ordered her Picture in that Dress to be taken at length, by one of the best Hands, and carried her to remain with her, during the Season, at her Villa.
The Comedian was dazzled at those Endearments and Advances from a Lady of Fortune, and did not know how to behave her self in a Manner regular enough, (for her Conversation had been pretty much at large); however she added her whole Endeavours, and by that means became tolerably uneasy to her self, as not being a Person abundantly used to Decorum and Constraint.
The Widow redoubled her Kindness and Caresses, assured her of her Tenderness and Amity; she even proceeded to gentle Squeezes and Embraces. Nothing could be more innocently endearing than her Transports!
The Comedian was at a loss not only to know how to merit so many Favours, but of the meaning of them: She was also weary of the Solitude and Splendour of the Widow's Family, and wanted to return to the amorous Hurry and Theatrical Littleness she had been used to, and therefore received those Honours with no New-Cabal Air. But as if rather disgusted at such amiable Proofs of Amity, told the Lady she did not like those Hugs and Indearments from her own Sex, they seemed unnatural. Did they come from a Man, she should be able to guess at his Design, but here she was at a loss.
The Widow found her Companion not of a Taste virtuous enough for the Mysteries of their Union: her Mind ran all upon what she had been too much used to: the other Sex. The Comedian had been vitiated by Amour! by abominable Intrigues with the filthy odious Men! and was not therefore worthy the Honour of being admitted into their Community.
She withdrew those Airs of Fondness from a tasteless undeserving Wretch, assumed more Coldness in her Behaviour to her whilst in the Country, and at her coming back, by little and little dropped her very Acquaintance. When she was returned to her House in Town, to show the Lurkings of her Malice, or gather her Detestation to Vice, though but in Effigy, she caused the Comedian's Picture to be let down, and with her own Hand cut out the Face; so stamped upon and abused, she sent it back to her whom it represented, at the same time causing her to be told, she had by her loose Libertine Life, made it a Scandal to her House to have such a Picture seen in it.
The poor Comedian fell a crying, and said, she might have let her alone, she did not, for her part, seek nor covet the Acquaintance; she was no worse now than when 'twas first drawn; neither could her life be a Secret to the virtuous Widow; she should have objected it to her then, before she gave her the trouble of sitting, and not to affront her Picture so: But she guessed the Reason of it, and would leave her Ladyship to be punished by the Reflection.
[HRJ: A sad episode on which to conclude our visits with the ladies of the New Cabal! But when we strip away the snark and sarcasm, the pointed political satire, and the unavoidable misogyny, even from a female author, it’s a remarkable picture of how a 17th century writer imagined the lives of women who loved women. As Catherine Craft-Fairchild notes in an article covered in the blog recently, there is no single, identifiable stereotype of lesbians in the 18th century. And we see that variety among the members of The New Cabal. Some women form long-term couples, others play the field. Some enjoy playing with masculine performance, others enjoy traditional femininity. Some aspire to chaste friendship, others seek out sexual relationships. Some are able to opt out of heterosexual marriage either by luck or widowhood, others accommodate their same-sex desires within an unavoidable marriage, others enjoy the love of both women and men. Within this they hold to ideals of mutual support and community. If they also felt the need to protect their relationships with a veil of secrecy, that isn’t so very different from what many modern lesbians have experienced in living memory. These women’s lives were not closely similar to ours. They had entirely different sets of assumptions, challenges, strategies, strengths, and vulnerabilities. But they were there, even hidden under the flimsy pseudonyms that didn’t protect Manley from charges of libel. And we can be grateful to her, even given her satirical purpose, for giving us a glimpse of their lives.]
Notes and Links
A Key to the Characters
The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer is a historical romp, with the light-hearted tone intruded on by brief bits of sexual importuning and violence. Lavinia juggles her passionate desire for the married Lady Suthmeer, the unwanted interest of Lord Suthmeer, the sad necessity for a woman to marry, and the awkward surprise that her betrothed expects to defend her reputation. The solution includes some unexpected twists and a very historically accurate acceptance of open relationships (at least, open when it comes to having a same-sex lover on the side) that may not fit some readers’ definitions of “happily ever after.”
The subtitle proclaims the work “a novella”, but it’s quite short--much more in novelette territory by word-count. It’s competently written, although I kept wishing for a more solid sense of time and place. Place is clearly England, but none of the spaces in which the story plays out feel anchored by concrete details, and the protagonist’s domestic arrangements are implausible for her apparent class and status. I still have no idea when the story is supposed to be taking place. From the passing details, it could be anywhere in the 18th or 19th centuries. (At first I thought the ca. 1790 cover image gave us a clue, but the back cover image is more 1870s so who knows?) Erotic content dominates the first part of the story and the plot revolves entirely around sorting out the various interpersonal relationships.
So don’t go into this looking for a solidly historically grounded story, or for eloquent prose, but it’s entertaining enough for an afternoon’s reading.
What was the social purpose of the motif of women wearing men's clothing in early modern England? What did the cross-dressed woman mean to men and what did she mean for women? How was the reception different for cross-dressed women in literary or theatrical contexts as opposed to ordinary women in real life? Lucas's article looks at the association between female cross-dressing, disorderly conduct in general, sexual misconduct, and anxiety about the disruption of all social categories, not just gender categories. She also looks at how pop culture cross-dressing figures were co-opted in support of traditional norms of chastity and marriage.
Lucas, R. Valerie. 1988. “’Hic Mulier’: The Female Transvestite in Early Modern England” in Renaissance and Reformation 12:1 pp.65-84
This article looks at the fascination with cross-dressing women in popular culture in 16-17th century England. “Cross-dressing” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean serious gender disguise, but includes ritualized cross-dressing in the contexts of celebrations, as well as partial cross-dressing where the use of specific male-coded garments was viewed as transgressive.
Among the literary figures cited are Mary Frith, Long Meg of Westminster, and Frederick of Jennen, whose celebrated (although mostly fictionalized) adventures are co-opted to defend women’s chastity and promote traditional concepts of marriage.
Festival cross-dressing is more familiar from traditions in which men take on female roles, as with Maid Marian in Robin Hood plays. But an example is cited of a Welsh tradition, given in an early 19th century book on folk customs around marriage and courtship, where a bride would be concealed in men’s clothing on the eve of the wedding and there would be a ritual “search” by the groom’s friends to discover her before they all settled down to party. Also mentioned are Christmas mumming and various gender role reversals that were part of carnival celebrations.
Outside of festival license, women’s cross-dressing was often treated as part of a pattern of “ungovernable” behavior, indicating insufficient control by husbands or fathers. Even when done in jest, this might be addressed in criminal court, as for Susan Bastwick who, in 1578, came to her father “in a merriment...on horseback in a cloak disguised and demanded of him if he had any good ale.” Or a female servant in 1585 who “did wear man’s apparel disorderly in her master’s house.”
Wearing male garments was associated with sexual misconduct, as when a woman was accused of unchastity with a man not her husband in 1592 and part of the testimony was that she wore “young men’s garters” and challenged an unspecified person to try to take them from her. Another married woman in 1585 “put on man’s apparel and went forth from one house to another...with other naughtiness of words.”
These are specific anecdotes that provide context for polemical tracts and satires that condemned female transvestites, asserting that by wearing male clothes, such women wanted to transform themselves into men. John Calvin took up the argument that God had ordained gender-specific clothing, and Philip Stubbes, in The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) argues that an essential function of clothing was as “a sign distinctive to discern betwixt” the two sexes. Preacher John Williams in 1619 sermonized against women who distracted men in church by wearing such masculine accessories as points (ties that attached one piece of clothing to another), feathered hats, daggers, and having short hair. Some unspecified set of such attributes, described only as “man’s apparel” was worn in church by Joan Towler in 1596, resulting in charges.
One underlying theme in the objections has to do with transgressing categories, “none being content with their own estates and conditions,” and was also leveled against men wearing “effeminate” garments. It was not the specific garments themselves, but they way they contradicted category membership. A feathered hat becomes “ruffianly” and “wanton” only if worn by a woman in Hic Mulier (1620). Nor was it necessarily the wearing of breeches (and exposing the shape of the legs) that was being criticized as such women might be described as wearing a male doublet or male accessories in combination with a skirt.
The association of cross-dressing with loose sexual morals was taken up as a signifier in the theater, where characters depicting prostitutes are often put in situations where male disguise is called for.
A regular theme is that women who wear male garments want to change themselves into men, though reading through the accusation, we see an anxiety by the (invariably male) writers that women bold enough to cross-dress will claim authority over their own lives (as with a character who cross-dresses in order to run away with her male lover) and further will tyrannize over men. Cross-dressing characters on the stage were depicted as man-beaters and brawlers.
To the modern eye, the distinction between approved feminine garments and prohibited masculine ones may be difficult to understand. As an example, many tracts specifically mention the doublet as an inherently male garment: “manlike doubltes”, “the loose, lascivious open embracement of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice”. But the doublet is, to all intents and purposes, simply a sleeved jacket, buttoned up the front, and with a higher neckline than most feminine bodices boasted. The offence was not in the objective nature of the garment, but its assigned gender.
Gender disguise to defend chastity is a regular literary motif, appearing in several early medieval stories of transvestite saints. It still appears in the early modern period, as in the 1560 tale of Frederick of Jennen where a woman falsely accused of infidelity disguises herself as a man in order to investigate and prove her virtue. (This motif appears in a number of earlier stories as well--I think there's a version in the Decameron?) Heroines of this group are admirable as the purpose of the cross-dressing is to restore honor within marriage.
This type of cross-dressing figure may also be portrayed as admirable if she acts to protect other women’s honor and chastity, as in the case of the carnival figures of Long Meg of Westminster, or one of the theatrical incarnations of Moll Cutpurse. These women represent the feared anti-male tyrant but with her aggressiveness soften by the purpose she puts it to. Men are still beaten and humiliated, but only those who deserve it for doing wrong to women.
Even within these motifs, a strain of misogyny asserts itself. Acceptable femininity is defined in terms of a lack of masculine virtues, and the transvestite warrior women too often punish their male victims by forcing them to take on feminized roles or tasks.
The play Love’s Cure, or, The Martial Maid (by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, 1606) demonstrates this view with a pair of siblings each raised as the opposite gender. There is some exploration of whether gender performance is inherent or socially conditioned and initially the second position seems to be supported, until each falls in love with a member of the opposite sex and then instantly embraces traditional gender performance.
The article concludes that female transvestism in early modern England was socially significant because it challenged existing sexual hierarchies--an act that might be permitted in a carnival atmosphere to “blow off steam” but must be suppressed and renounced in everyday life in order to maintain the sexual status quo.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30c - The Favourite - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/01/19 - listen here)
[Note: I’ve embarked on a project of commissioning transcripts for the interview shows. When we get to this one, the discussion segments will be inserted into this scripted introduction, which I’m afraid is all you get for now.]
When I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I knew I wanted to talk about it on this podcast. But talking about movies all by yourself isn’t anywhere near as much fun as talking about them with a friend. I managed to rope two friends into discussing The Favourite with me, although not at the same time. First I’ll have Farah Mendlesohn, to chat about historical aspects of the story and how they were adapted for the movie. Then Trystan Bass and I will discuss the visual esthetics, among other things. And, of course, we’ll all talk about the treatment of sexuality in the film and our appreciation for it as queer women.
If you want a refresher on the historic context, pause this show for a bit and go back and listen to my podcast on Queen Anne that came out a month ago. Since we pretty much plunge into the details, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the plot.
Queen Anne of England is in the later part of her reign. The country is still finding its balance after the upheavals of the mid 17th century, which included the English Civil War. There are those who question Anne’s support for war in France. One strong supporter of the war is Sarah, Duchess Marlborough, whose husband leads the English armies and who has been an intimate friend of Anne’s since they were both children. But Sarah has come to take Anne’s affection and loyalty for granted, and when Abigail, a cousin of Sarah’s, joins the queen’s household, the two find themselves in a struggle for the power and influence that comes with being the queen’s best friend...and lover.
So that’s the background.
The last time we talked to Farah Mendlesohn on this podcast, it was in connection with her wonderful Regency-era lesbian romance, Spring Flowering. This time, she comes to us as a historian. Dr. Mendlesohn is in the middle of writing a book about fiction set during the English Civil War and is a visiting fellow at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. But she has also recently become managing editor of Manifold Press, which is seeking submissions in the field of queer historical fiction. Check out the show notes for links to her various projects.
[This discussion has not yet been transcribed.]
For the second half of our discussion, I’m joined by Trystan Bass, one of the founders, and the editor in chief of Frock Flicks, a blog and podcast dedicated to the love--and loving critique--of historical movies and tv shows. The Frock Flicks site is a hoot, and the women who run it are extremely knowledgeable about historic clothing and style, and the popular culture of historic costume and its reproduction.
Check out the show notes for links to the Frock Flicks blog and podcast.
[This discussion has not yet been transcribed.]
I finally have the projected publication date for Floodtide (by virtue of simply asking about it). It's on the Bella Books schedule for October 2019. My mind immediately goes to thinking about where that falls with respect to conventions and whatnot. It won't be out for Worldcon (which in some ways is easier, because I can talk it up without the anxiety of having actual books in hand), but it should be out in time for Sirens (which I hope it's a good fit for in terms of readers, though not an event where I'd feel comfortable holding a launch party). Ok, planning brain, time to rein you in a bit. I have a pub date! Now you can officially put Floodtide on your list of "anticipated books for 2019."
One of the topics looming over this blog (though likely to be addressed in the podcast) is the historic ambiguity between the expression of gender identity and the use of gender presentation to accommodate heteronormative expectations in the context of same-sex desire. Or, to put it in less academic terms: the conflict between interpreting a historic individual as a trans man or a cross-dressing lesbian. One of the approaches to mapping out this territory is to gather individual life histories that provide examples of how people on the gender/sexuality spectrum behaved and discussed their lives, as well as exploring the social structures and attitudes that they were inhabiting and engaging with.
Thomas(ine) Hall provides one of those stories, all the more interesting for occurring in the early colonial history of North America. Hall’s case also provides a context for examining the phenomenon of modern individuals desiring to “claim” historic persons for a specific gender or sexuality category. Depending on which parts of the story and testimony one finds most compelling, Hall could be seen as a trans man who had been assigned female at birth, as a cis woman who sometimes passed as a man for economic and sexual purposes, as a trans woman (who somehow escaped being assigned male at birth), as a cis man who had been raised in a female role and was comfortable returning to that role at times, as an intersex person who was trying on various gender presentations to see what fit, or as someone (regardless of anatomy) who had a non-binary gender identity and was struggling to express that in a society that required a fixed binary identity. Although some of these possibilities don’t fit as well with the evidence as others, trying to come up with a single, definitive classification inevitably requires erasing key aspects of Hall’s life history and self-expression--much in the way that Hall's contemporaries erased key aspects in order to assign a gender category. Lives like Hall’s may be a better context that simple sexual orientation for considering the changeability of gender/sexuality categories over time.
Brown, Kathleen. 1995. “’Changed...into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:2 pp.171-193.
[Note: Content advisory for coerced physical examination to determine sexual category.]
In 1629, in a small settlement just across the river from Jamestown, Virginia, 22 years after the first settlement at that location, Thomas Hall was accused of fornication with a servant girl. This fairly ordinary offense became more complicated and interesting after the community took it on themselves to investigate exactly what had happened.
Hall was a recent arrival (though there’s some confusion due to another individual of the same name being recorded earlier) and Warrosquyoacke was a small community, so it’s understandable that the residents were dismayed to find that they didn’t know their neighbors’ business as well as they thought they did. As well as the local investigation, the case was eventually taken to the Virginia Colony’s general court at Jamestown and the following story emerged.
In England, Hall had worn women’s clothing and practiced the traditionally female trades of needlework and lace making. After emigrating to Virginia, Hall sometimes wore male clothing and performed traditionally male occupations, but also sometimes wore female clothing. (Virginia still had a fairly low female population at this time.) During the investigation of the fornication charge, Hall was asked “whether he were man or woman” and replied “both.” When asked further what the reason was for the women’s clothing, Hall answered somewhat obliquely, “I go in women’s apparel to get a bit for my cat.” [Note: Google does not turn up any other context for the phrase “get a bit for my cat” but that doesn’t mean it may not have been an obscure bit of slang that had a clear meaning to hearers, even if we are befuddled.]
As was typical in the early modern period, the primary social crisis that Hall sparked was the need to determine exactly what gender category to place them in. Ambiguity was not acceptable and alternation was right out. In any event, whatever Hall’s true gender, it was clear that some sort of punishable offence had been committed. It just needed to be determined which one.
Eventually the local officials in Warrosquyoacke threw up their hands and sent the case to Jamestown, where the details of the existing investigation were recorded for posterity, including efforts by community members to obtain physical evidence on the question. Hall provided a detailed and candid personal history and these records are essentially all we know of the case. But the records include details of the responses of Hall’s community that shed light on popular beliefs among ordinary people about sexual difference, in contrast to the opinions of professionals, which are the more common source of information for this period. In the absence of relevant medical and/or legal professionals in the colony, community members did their best to gather physical and behavioral observations and interpret them in light of their understanding of what constituted male and female identity.
The scientific/medical understanding of sex difference in this era still followed the Galenic “single-sex” model that emphasized physiological parallels between men and women and the belief that women were “imperfect men” but had the potential to undergo spontaneous sex change. This theory held that strenuous activity or masculine performance could cause a woman’s organs to “emerge” from the body as a penis and testicles, constituting a genuine change in physiological sex. At the same time, the clear legal distinction of personal status based on sex made it necessary to establish a person’s “true sex.” But the means of establishing this was left to community custom and individual performance.
Performative gender was established through customary distinctions in clothing, names, occupations, and the participation in heteronormative relationships. [Note: This last is one of the things that complicates applying concepts like “homosexual” or “transgender”. If heterosexuality is considered a fixed universal, then participation in apparently same-sex relationships can only be considered as evidence for gender identity, not for sexual orientation.] Medical literature recognized a physiological continuum of sexual morphology (treated under the concept of the “hermaphrodite”) but the law did not allow for such ambiguity. As Brown notes, “the courts, which were mainly concerned to preserve clear gender boundaries, rather than explore anomalies, had the power to coerce individuals to alter their gender performances.” The legal pressure was to pick one clear gender identity and stick to it, rather than to identify a “true” anatomical sex.
In the 16-17th centuries, transvestism was recognized as different from the anatomical ambiguity of “hermaphroditism” and treated, perhaps, as even more threatening to society, as it undermined the ability for clothing to define and stabilize gender identities. [Note: Brown simultaneously claims that transvestism was primarily a matter of women dressing as men, but then notes the English tradition of transvestite theater, which would have been primarily men dressing as women. So I’m a little confused in this section.]
Returning to the legal records of Hall’s case, one confounding aspect in interpreting the records is that the language followed the needs of the legal setting, which dictated certain elements of the descriptions. The court pursued Hall’s personal history and past performance to answer the question of their gender identity, while the community investigation had inquired far more directly into what was in Hall’s breeches. Curiously, their investigation was inconclusive as there was disagreement as to the meaning of their findings.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Hall’s testimony is that Hall treats gender identity as malleable and opportunistic. Gender identity could be claimed by the simple expedient of a change of clothing, and justified by the opportunity for gender-segregated employment. Hall’s narrative does not align with a sense of stable, internal gender identity from which public gender performance was a passive consequence. Rather, Hall seems to treat gender as an actively chosen self-presentation that is distinct from any issue of personal identity. And given the overtness of Hall’s gender transgression, the legal penalty that eventually was applied was comparatively mild.
Brown discusses at length the social and political context of the community that underlay certain of the gender dynamics of Hall’s situation and resulted in the responsibility for investigation falling in the hands of ordinary community members, including the gender politics of women claiming responsibility for the task.
The Warrosquyoacke settlement had existed for less than 7 years when Hall arrived and--like most of the English colony in Virginia at the time--was focused primarily on the economic project of producing tobacco for export. Most of the population were recent arrivals, including a number of enslaved African people diverted from a different destination. A few had been in Virginia for a longer period, which helped to establish personal authority among the residents. Among the named individuals in the court record was Alice Long, a married woman who had been in Virginia since 1620, and Dorothy Rodes, another married woman who assisted her with the physical investigation, who may have been there for several years. Another key figure was John Tyos who was a former employer of Hall’s at a time when Hall was presenting as a woman. (To complicate the historic trail, several years earlier, Tyos had shared living space with a different Thomas Hall, a man, at a time when the relevant Thomas Hall was hypothetically present in the colony. This is presumed to be a coincidence of names on the assumption that Tyos would have recognized his former servant even if presenting as a different gender.)
Female authority in the investigation was claimed by Long and Rodes in their roles as midwives and matrons, with the responsibility to perform physical examinations of women for legal purposes. (Legal purposes such as determination of pregnancy or childbirth, or to identify evidence of sexual activity if, for example, a husband were accused of impotence.) Their roles depended on the acceptance of sexual categories and gender boundaries and assumed that women who interacted with female bodies in intimate ways (e.g., childbirth) would have special authority in interpreting those bodies. But this authority only applied to the extent that Hall’s body was accused of being female.
At the time Hall was accused of fornication with the maidservant of Richard Bennet, John Tyos claimed that his servant Thomas Hall was female (evidently despite wearing male clothing and performing male work). This provoked the community matrons to take the authority into their own hands (without the request of a court) to examine Hall with regard to this question. The matrons asserted, based on this examination, that Hall was a man. Tyos continued to maintain that Hall was female and the question was escalated to the local landowning authority, Captain Bass.
Bass took the perhaps radical approach of simply asking Hall “whether he were man or woman” to which Hall, as noted above, replied “both” and explained further that this answer was based on having what was described as a very small penis but that “he had not the use of the man’s part.” Bass chose to define maleness in terms of the ability to successfully perform penetrative sex with a penis and assigned Hall a female gender on this basis, ordering Hall to put on women’s clothes. This aligned, to some extent, with the Galenic view of gender: Hall might be a little bit masculine but insufficiently male to be granted categorical male status.
This decision was challenged by the matrons who had performed the examination and were still convinced of Hall’s male nature. To them, a male Hall now going about in women’s clothing (per Captain Bass’s legal requirement) was an insupportable breech of gender categories. They demanded a second inspection from Hall’s new employer (who was convinced enough of Hall’s female presentation that he referred to Hall with female pronouns in the record, where everyone else used male pronouns). On further interrogation of Hall, this time with regard to the presence of female anatomy, rather than the inadequacy of the male anatomy, Hall claimed to have “a piece of a hole” but the investigating women failed to confirmed this on examination.
This shifted the official position. Hall’s new employer then ordered that Hall “be put into” male clothing and be punished for impersonating a woman. When Hall had been classified as female (or even potentially female), social rules had restricted the physical investigation to women, but now having been officially categorized as male, Hall was subject to some spontaneous (and forcible) confirmatory investigations by men. These did not contradict the male classification.
Setting aside the appalling nature of the investigation methods, we see a whole sequence of attempts to define the nature of maleness and femaleness. Was maleness something that had to be achieved above a certain threshold? Or was there a clear and uncrossable physiological dividing line between male and female? The result had major consequences for Hall’s day to day life, determining what occupations were allowed, what responsibilities were imposed, and what socializing was permitted. (Brown also hints that being classified as male protected Hall from sexual advances from his new employer and others, that might have been a hazard when classified as female.)
Brown provides a discussion of the socio-political stake the various parties had in both the process of the investigation and its conclusions. She notes that one key party--the maidservant that Hall had been accused of fornication with--was not called as witness, with several speculations on why this might have been the case. In any event, the question of gender transgression was more important to them than that of irregular sexual activity.
Having come to a decision on Hall’s gender categorization, the authorities in Warrosquyoacke were stuck on an appropriate punishment and passed the case along to Jamestown. The governor reviewed the testimony and then elicited Hall’s own biographical narrative.
[Note: at this point, I’m going to follow Brown’s lead and shift pronoun gender in alignment with Hall’s shifting presentation, except when quoting from Hall’s testimony. I hope this finds a balance between clarity, sensitivity, and narrative function.]
Hall was christened Thomasine (an unambiguously female name) when born in England and grew up living a female life and wearing female clothing. At age of 12, she was sent to London to live with an aunt (it was typical at that time for adolescent girls to be “placed out” to learn the skills of a housewife) for the next ten years. When Hall was 24, her brother was pressed into military service and she “cut off her hair and changed his apparel into the fashion of a man” to join the English forces supporting the Huguenots in France. On returning to England, Hall “changed himself into women’s apparel” and took up the (feminine) profession of needlework. She lived in the port of Plymouth, which may have inspired the next step in 1627 when she “changed again ...into the habit of a man” and sailed to Virginia.
After considering all the evidence and testimony, the court imposed the following sentence: Hall was required to take a male identity and wear male clothing, with the exception of being required to wear a (feminine) coif and apron. That is, the court enforced Hall’s gender ambiguity, not in the serial form that Hall had performed, but as a permanent hybrid presentation. The judgment that Hall was “a man and a woman” was to be published to the inhabitants of Warrosquyoacke so that they “may take notice thereof.” This suggests that rather than following the long legal tradition of requiring a fixed and unambiguous identity following the gender binary, the court had to some extent recognized Hall’s elusive non-binary nature and, instead, chose to enforce that non-binary identity.
The question of the original charge of fornication was not addressed, but neither was the question of the consequences for Hall’s future sexual activity. The ruling also problematized how Hall was to be treated within the gendered work and social environment of the community.
The article concludes by situating Hall in the context of other gender transgression narratives of the 16-17th century, including Elen@ de Cespedes, Catalina de Erauso, and Mary Frith. Unlike most such narratives, rather than the eventual conclusion being that the subject was a “hermaphrodite” or female transvestite, Hall was concluded to be male.
I want to focus on part of Brown’s analysis that I think needs to be interrogated. She says, “Hall’s atypicality...alerts us to another possible explanation for his otherwise difficult-to-fathom behavior. In a world in which dressing as a man brought women expanded economic and political opportunities, Hall found it difficult to suppress his female identity. ... Despite the attendant risks and disadvantages of being female in the seventeenth century, Hall found it personally useful, necessary, or comfortable to dress occasionally as a woman.” And then, after further discussion, “Perhaps ‘his’ female identity was so deeply embedded as a consequence of a childhood and adolescence of female training and identification that he could not shed it.”
I think this analysis overlooks two key aspects. One of them is what Brown notes: Hall was raised from birth to adulthood in a female role, treated as a woman and interacting with the world as a woman. To require some extraordinary explanation for Hall being comfortable returning to that performance smacks a bit too much of gender essentialism for comfort. To the extent that gender is performance--and Hall’s life story suggests a personal sympathy for that position--is it the historian’s place to impose a judgment that performing the gender one was raised as is “difficult to fathom”? The second aspect that is absent from this article is a consideration of Hall as potentially intersex. Brown invokes the early modern concept of the “hermaphrodite” as it was used in the discourse around gender categories and gender performance, but doesn’t seem to recognize the most plausible context in which an infant would be classified as female but then would present with under-developed male genitalia as an adult. Setting aside the question of whether physiology does (or should) attract one to a particular expression of gender performance, being intersex might well have motivated Hall to “try on” different genders and feel equally comfortable (or equally uncomfortable?) in each.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30b - The State of Lesbian Historicals in 2018 - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/01/12 - listen here)
One of the things I’d like to do this year with the podcast is to start looking more broadly at the field of publishing lesbian-relevant historical fiction. I’ve also started using the phrase “lesbian-relevant” to describe my topic because it seems to better sum up my organizing principle of using the lesbian gaze. Both in the blog and the podcast, my content isn’t defined in terms of historic facts or personal identities, but rather in terms of topics, individuals, and texts that are likely to have resonance for lesbian readers. Not that I have any problem with having non-lesbian readers and listeners too!
One of my back-burner projects has been to try to compile a comprehensive list of current lesbian-relevant historical fiction. Quite a daunting task! I started off with the contents of my own library, a list from another long-time collector of lesbian historical fiction, and several Goodreads lists on relevant topics, as well as mining the back catalogs of lesbian presses. But at this point I can’t claim my database is anything close to comprehensive except for the last year, when I stared hunting down new releases systematically.
With those caveats in mind, here’s an overview of what’s getting published in lesbian-relevant historical fiction and who’s publishing it. Keep in mind that I include historicals that have fantasy elements as long as they’re set in an identifiable time and place.
For books released in 2018, I’ve identified a total of 83 titles. Slightly more than a fifth of them don’t have a named publisher (other than Amazon Digital, which is not so much a publisher as a distribution service). Many of the named publishers are one-author shops, but I’m not in the business of evaluating the line between micro-presses and self-publishing.
The remaining 65 titles were put out by 46 different named publishers, with 3/4 of them putting out only a single relevant title. Some of those are major publishers, but I’m only interested in the historical titles with lesbian relevance. Only 3 publishers put out 3 or more relevant titles in 2018, and it won’t surprise anyone familiar with the field to know that those were Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and Regal Crest Enterprises. But together, those three presses only put out 14 historicals in the year. Just a smidge more than one a month.
How does that compare to the last couple decades of publishing? Publishing via Amazon Digital may have increased substantially, but self-published books are the ones I’m most likely to have missed prior to this past year. The overall rate of singe-title publishers seems fairly constant. And when looking at the top producers for my entire data set, the top three come in the same order, with Bold Strokes Books at double the number of its nearest competitor, Bella Books, and Regal Crest coming in about half of Bella. The next competitor is Naiad Press, which is a pretty strong showing given that Naiad closed in the mid ‘90s!
So when and where are the stories being set? Several popular topics emerge: stories set in a mythic early Greece, pirate adventures in the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerns generally involving a woman passing as a man or simply dressed like one, Victorian-era steampunk adventures, women who find a chance at love during the two world wars.
About 80% of the stories published in 2018 are set in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority being generally from the “wild west” era through World War II. I use those landmarks advisedly because the settings cluster strongly around key events and genres. And where are they set? Other than a cluster of stories set in the Greco-Roman mythic past, settings are dominated by the British Isles up through the early 19th century, after which American settings take over. Settings outside the British Isles and US are mostly related to World War II and its aftermath.
In my complete data set covering the last couple decades, the distribution is about the same, except that we’re currently getting a bit more coverage before the 19th century. There’s a lot of literary territory there for the claiming if you want to write something other than British Regencies, American Civil War and Wild West stories, and books set during the two world wars.
I have a more detailed breakdown by geography and timeframe, but currently a lot of this data is my best guess from the book blurbs, so I’ll spare you. Eventually, I hope to keep track of themes and tropes, which should make for some interesting analysis of how people imagine the lives of lesbians in the past. I plan to continue adding to my master database and will try to find a way to make it a searchable resource once the meta-data is a bit more complete.
What does all this mean for readers--and for authors, for that matter? With 83 titles, there’s certainly plenty to read. I’ve only read a tenth of the 2018 books, though several others are queued up on my iPad. But with the titles distributed across so many publishers -- most of them either self-published or micro-presses -- it can be a full-time job to try to track them down. Hint: that’s why it’s a great idea to follow this podcast!
For authors, I think one of the take-home messages is that if you want to stand out from the crowd, pick a setting before the 19th century or somewhere other than America or the British Isles. Of course, there are reasons why those settings are popular. They’re familiar, or they match popular genres in mainstream romance, or they match our own family backgrounds. But there’s so much more to explore!
For publishers, I think one message is that authors of lesbian historicals aren’t finding a place with you. I have no idea whether historical authors prefer to go independent, or whether publishers generally aren’t picking up historical titles. For that matter, I don’t really have the comparative data for other genres to know how the numbers compare. But I do know that readers who are hungry for historicals find slim pickings from the more recognizable presses and that creates a downward cycle. In mainstream romance, historicals are a booming business. I’d like to think that there’s a similar potential for people looking for romantic lesbian stories set in the past. And someone who focused on that might find a wide-open market niche.