Interview with Farah Mendlesohn
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 16b
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about
- I chat with Farah Mendlesohn about her brand new lesbian Regency romance Spring Flowering.
- How did a literary theorist specializing in fantasy and science fiction come to write historic romance?
- Why was the 17th century a great time to set fiction about women loving women?
- How does historical fiction writer Geoffrey Trease come into things?
- How Spring Flowering came out of a challenge and a NaNoWriMo project.
- Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn (2017, Manifold Press)
- In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
- Beulah Marie Dix (she wrote historical fiction in the early 20th century and was known to have relationships with women)
- Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery (mentioned as “In the Georgian Household”)
- A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain by Simon Goldhill
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project lives at: http://alpennia.com/lhmp
If you have questions or comments about the LHMP or these podcasts, send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
this is Heather Rose Jones with the lesbian historic motif podcast in this podcast I talked about lesbian themes in history and literature historic research into gender and sexuality and have interviews with authors who write queer women into history in their fiction including fantastic versions of the past the podcast also includes a historic book appreciation feature where people talk about their favorite books featuring queer women in historic settings and will talk about what’s going on in the blog version of the lesbian historic motif project today the lesbian historic motif podcast is delighted to welcome author Farah Mendelssohn to the show Farah I’m so glad you could join us thank you it’s fantastic particularly doing this across the Atlantic yes so I’m going to start off with a slightly different opening question that I usually ask authors Farah you’ve written a number of critical studies of science fiction and fantasy literature you’ve even won a Hugo Award for Co editing the Cambridge companion to science fiction you’re currently working on a massive definitive study of the works of Robert Heinlein so why is your first novel a historical novel rather than fantasy or science fiction oh well first of all because I’ve never been any good at writing science fiction which is what I would write if I could I must say here I never intended to be a fiction writer and maybe the only person you ever interview who never wrote fiction as a child and as absolutely forced to did it once as an undergraduate because the alternative was a major theoretical essay and of course I had lot of the listed one word I was teaching creative writing a few years ago and a colleague who shall be nameless turned around and said I shouldn’t be teaching creative writing unless I’d written fiction well one will be irritated so I spent the next year learning to write fiction and one of the people I modeled my cellphone is a British children’s right to call Geoffrey trees because he always wrote 60,000 word books and because I’m very much a structuralist I could break them down see what he was doing and I guess his work as a model and wrote several historical pieces because all my degrees are in history I’m not a literature person at all I have three degrees in history that was actually it’s something something that was gonna come up later in the interview because it looked like all of your teaching work has been in literature but I know know I started in American Studies moved into history when American Studies started a fold in the UK which it did across the country and then I got pulled into cultural studies and then somebody said we need somebody to teach horror you know lots about science fiction can I get what kinetics and I found myself being pulled into the publishing department because of my work on science fiction conventions and work with publishers and that’s how I ended up drifting but I’ve hardly ever taught straight literature so what’s your a specialty in history other than American Studies well I trained good 1930s American history I have a passion for the English Civil War and my current critical book is a book about children’s literature written about the English Civil War which is fascinating that’s pretty much my second look yeah it’s fascinating really is riveting there is almost nothing more exciting than English Civil War for all sorts of reasons not least because the rate of literacy Wizards an all-time high and lots of people from sections of society you would not expect either to have left documents or to be engaged in politics left documents and were engaged in politics how can you resist brilliant Holly who in one breath is telling herself led to send home some socks so she can be knit them and then the next is writing to him about the arguments between Parliament in the king oh yeah amazing stuff but the Regency of course will read Georgia ter yes it’s just part of growing up and the early 19th century got more and more interesting to me through reading a book by somebody called Jenny agloe called in these times and it’s about Britain during the years of the Napoleonic war and the stuff I’ve never quite understood about that period started to make a lot more sense which is a Britain is under siege its pull it’s isolated and it’s insular but also by the end of the war it’s got a man shortage one of the things I realized that was fascinated about is that georgette Heyer starts writing about the Regency during the man shortage and a twenties thirties oh yeah watch replicating is the post-war to lose situation with two periods actually match quite neatly in terms of the romantic stresses of the period and that I think may be why that the stories she tells works so well for her in the initial audience and it’s where you have quite a lot of characters in it two older women who’ve missed out because their generation died on the field of Waterloo it is a fascinating period and it’s one that a lot of people don’t really make enough of when they write in that period and they always tend to focus on London or a countryside when it’s the period that the great cities like Birmingham Manchester and Leeds and rising up but I come from Birmingham and if you come from Birmingham you tend to be a bit of a patriot it’s a lot like Chicago if you think of the answer is Birmingham has been very similar to Chicago that sense of being a second capital uh-huh and I was thinking that what you were saying about the types of stories that get written during a man shortage that with the American Civil War the same dynamic was part of what contributed to women’s relationships the whole you know romantic friendship Boston marriage era yeah where women were making their own households because they were extras and this is total piece of trivia so one of the writers I’ve been looking at this week is an American writer called Mary Beulah Dix I think about her name right she’s an American Boston woman who wrote historical fiction which is very good two of which are set in English Civil War who had close relationships with her female publisher and another writer and never got married and one of her stories is about a girl dressing up as a boy agree to go off to the wall because this child desperately wants to be a boy and there’s a lovely line in it’s about any sensible girl has always wanted to be a boy is going off everywhere I think she went to Radcliffe and I’d love to find out more about obviously a late 19th century lesbian writer yeah so let’s let’s move on specifically to your book I think it’s it has become apparent in our discussion that this is a a Regency romance type so let me read the cover blurb for spring flowering the the got the cover blurb to work from because at the time we’re recording the book hasn’t actually come out yet though it will be out as I understand by the time we air so here’s the blurb everything changes for Anne gray when her father dies and her closest friend Jane Marie’s and moves away and must give up the independence and purpose she found as mistress of her father’s parsonage in the country and moved to her uncle and aunts new style house in the growing city of Birmingham the friendship advanced cousins especially the mathematically inclined Louisa is some compensation for freedoms curtailed but soon and must consider two very different proposals either of which will bring yet more change should she returned to her village home as the wife of the new person mr. Morden will become companion to the rather deliciously unsettling widow mrs. King do you follow more georgette Heyer or are you following Jane Austen is it is it more the the modern Regency romance style or I don’t know in some ways it’s not quite either in that there are no grand happenings in this book it’s a very straightforward story in which Anne’s father dies and she goes to live with her family in Birmingham and she meets people and she starts to settle in and she starts to develop and it’s quite a domestic story so in that sense possibly closer to Jane Austen but you can’t be Jane Austen because Jane Austen is writing for people who take for granted the world she’s writing about yes yes and very often is actually easy to miss reader just a little example I had a PhD student who wrote about how Jane Austen’s work reflects the esteem in which the Navy was held and having read Jenny Oakland I was able to say to her no Austin is writing about the esteem she wants than the Navy to be held in the Navy is actually looked down on in this period partially because it’s a vehicle for social mobility or something let’s become Admirals that comes up in a number of places I’ve noticed it does and she’s assuming lots of stuff that we can’t because I can’t assume that for example you know the city of Birmingham I can’t assume that you know the button trade of Birmingham oh okay so I had to set the book within a particular three years because if I didn’t there’s no Theatre why is there no theater why do the Birmingham isn’t long but nonconformist city I think the Unitarians are growing so fast and there’s the Methodists they’re growing superfast that they build three separate chapels on the same site over 20 years the chapel Paul doesn’t say beginner and I had to explain things like that the fact that the nonconformist and actually came with things like Music Hall because that’s just performance but they aren’t okay with theater because that’s pretending to be somebody else and that’s untruthful yes what in the in the excerpt from your book that I saw on the website it was clear that the nuances of the various religious movements were going to be key to some of the characters yes and that’s the kind of thing that a 19th century person would take for granted but I can’t assume that a 21st century reader will know anything about I mean I didn’t touch to include the Quakers even though it’s a group I know most about because 19th century Quakers don’t look like anything like 17th or 20th century Quakers and getting into that people wouldn’t believe me when I explained that so when they were writing this book were you treating it sort of as an homage to the genre of literature or more as a historical project actually it was a challenge a friend of mine Jane Connell I’ve known for many many years we were having a discussion about whether you we thought you could write a LESBIAN Regency and she felt it couldn’t be done because you couldn’t get the hierarchies of the relationships rate and I thought it could be as long as I stayed within certain conventions that were an issue in the period so there’s a very good book called in the Georgian household the bassinet book victory it talks about the degree to which industrialization left families very anxious about their daughters uh-huh and a lot of reason why some women stayed unmarried was it because they didn’t get to meet men so and the if you look at the Victorians they tend to marry cousins and friends of brothers yet they very much within the family because that way you can make sure your daughter is safe in the world that is increasingly full of strangers realize that I could meet some of Jane’s concerns if I moved into a quite tight-knit context so ends possible sutures are either relations Oh business partners and refer further by passing uncle uncle Joshua and I wanted to make that work and that was part of the challenge that I set out to do and the other challenge was that I really wanted some sex ha I think director coming out in there a chest so this isn’t a coming out narrative not least because I don’t think the Georgians would have understood it that way to start with there were much more sexual beings than the Victorians they are much more comfortable about talking about sex they knew what was underneath women’s skirts and in men men’s trouser flaps because well 80% of the population is still warned in this period they you know one of the things that that I find interesting in talking to authors of lesbian historic fiction is how many of them don’t understand the cyclicity of sexuality and think that you go back to the Victorian era and everybody was uptight and nobody had sex and it must have been like that all the way back in history and the Victorians have big families yes I’m talking mr. big homeless by not having sex but I remember my father talking to me years ago when I very first told him about my sexuality and he told me about the nice two ladies who lived next door and he had one bed but everybody knew but nobody talked about straight sex either so in some ways the most tricky point for homosexuals has been when heterosexuals start talking about sex publicly when everybody’s not talking about it it’s actually kind of easier so one of my aunts was known as a career girl for example and her literature and everything let me do friends I’ve no idea what it meant but it was a perfectly acceptable term I still remember the point when when my mother casually mentioned while working on genealogy materials that’s like oh you’re your gradient salad so she was a lesbian you know and it’s like what and this was have any in the early part of the 20th century and the question that most infuriates me is how do you know they were having sex well thanks to Mary Stopes we know that quite a lot of straight couples weren’t either as a definition of an emotional relationship that’s just yeah but yes there’s also this thing that sex may be fairly similar and not change much although even then if in practices are acceptable at different points and desirable at different points but the way people come together and bond has often got much more to do with economics well the first nating thing accounts is all William an orange and his wife Mary because there’s some suspicion that both of them were gay and that both of them had partners and there’s a fascinating book there let me get this right they’re not off as I particularly go for the author of map and Lucia his father was a bishop and was quite well known for the young men he hung out with but his wife and she has six kids it’s very clearly a lesbian on my list – word to cover for my history blog it’s a wonderful book it’s hilarious but it is quite clear that in a a world in which to the Victorians women aren’t supposed to be very sexual but for what women are doing together can’t matter right now the joshan’s think otherwise the Georgians think of women as predatory and their approach is different but it’s perfectly plausible in a relatively homo social world for men and women to just be getting on with what they want to do well coming together to produce children yeah we didn’t the economic unit and unless you find that utterly revolting which some people do assert those people kind of got on with it and then had their fun on the side yeah this is solely even thinking of it that way just thinking which is their intimate friend with whom a kiss it yeah this is this one one thing that I find fascinating in the looking at the researching of lesbian history and the writing of lesbian historical fiction have the same problem that so many modern people are looking for an exact mirror in the past and instead of like embracing the past for what it was yes and I think any people have always made their lives and the various points that has been interfered with with whatever the current scare was which has been expressed in many different ways I mean some accusations of witchcraft were probably about sexual practices but it’s hard to tell what we cannot assume though is that people did not have close emotional and physical relationships because they probably did but are they sort of them that’s trickier I gave to my to a more open and clear sexuality in part because they’re Georgians not Victorians they’ve not very not protective they’ve grown up seeing it when those do things but also because I get really bored with coming out stories oh and I get really bored with the one true love trick thank you right you seek one and it might get a little more complicated I agree with you on coming out stories when one of the reasons that I dug deep into starting my historic research project was because I wanted to write historical lesbian fiction and I didn’t want to just write a whole series of coming-out stories I wanted to know what did they know what what community did they have and people do construct community people know each other people recognize each other I said I’m thinking of a sequel and that will involve some of that construction of community great I’m looking forward to that so in addition to this sequel are there any other projects of yours that you’d like to mention for the listeners although the book I haven’t finished is a book on the children’s historical writer Geoffrey trees they’ll be working on that later next year aha so if you’re interested in historical fiction he’s fascinating because he starts writing in the nineteen thirties he is a genuine communist fellow traveller by which I mean he goes to all the meetings but doesn’t join he writes some of the first Jews American phrase coed historical fiction so from 1940 he always has a boy and a girl has an awful lot of cross-dressing girls he tries to write feminist heroines from very very early on before it’s too long for male writers that might interest people yeah but there are paths work it’s definitely something I think I’m going to pursue it was at the terrible rather a shock when this got picked up I should explain I tend to blog when I’m writing and I do it because people asking me questions about my writing keeps me going and he’s actually in NaNoWriMo project and as I was blogging and got to the end of it fear the pickles asked if she couldn’t read it and I said yes thinking nothing of it for the next thing I knew found myself with a contractor thinking what anybody will tell you I’ve been saying for 20 years I’m not a writer it’s just I have things to say and the only way I can do those is to write them very firmly I am NOT allowed to say I’m not a writer and I assume that the book will be available through all of the regular outlets Amazon and yeah it’s a standard Kindle book I mean if you want a description I would say it’s nice slushy bedtime reading it was never intended to be a super exciting thriller or anything like that I think that’s the kind of thing I would want to read at night in bed in chocolate so on the off chance that our listeners find you utterly fascinating like I do and want to follow you online do you have a blog do you want to give out your your Twitter handle Facebook my twitter handle which is at fjm spell e double F J a ye M and I will also have a web page going live probably this weekend actually it’s already done if it just doesn’t have much on it and that’s my full name which unfortunately is very difficult to spell but if you click Farrah Mendelsohn and I usually come up yeah I’ll put all of the links in the show notes so that people can find easily well thank you again Farrah for joining us on the lesbian historic motif podcast thank you very much this has been Heather Rose Jones with the lesbian historic motif podcast at the lesbian talk show see the show notes for more details about items discussed on the show and for contact information I’d love to hear questions or suggestions from listeners if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on iTunes stitcher or pod bean and if you’d like to chat about this or any other lesbian talk-show podcast please join the Facebook group the lesbian talk show chat group you [Music] English (auto-generated)