In Episode 41c of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, Heather Rose Jones talks about the novels, non-fiction, and visual media relevant to queer women in history that she enjoyed in 2019.
Listen to this episode here.
Transcript for Today’s Show
Please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect.
Calendars are arbitrary things, and yet it’s hard not to get caught up in the urge to summarize what we’ve done, what we’ve consumed, what we’ve loved when that arbitrary reference point in the Earth’s solar circumnavigation arrives.
For a number of years, I’ve done a year-end round-up on my blog titled “What Hath She Wrote” to remind myself that I’ve actually accomplished something. The title is, of course, a word-play on the famous Biblical line used to test the first Morse Code message transmitted by telegraph in 1844: “What Hath God Wrought.” I like hiding bits of word-play in titles. Have you recognized that the episode category “On the Shelf” is a take-off on the slang term for an unmarried woman common in Regency Romances?
But I digress. I do that a lot.
As I say, I’ve taken to doing a year-end round-up of my writing and blogging (and podcasting), but today’s show is something different. It’s a discussion of what I loved from the content of what I’ve been writing and blogging and podcasting about, sticking to material with historic and lesbian-relevant themes. Last year I did a combined top ten of fiction, non-fiction, and movies, but this time let’s separate them out.
This isn’t a list about things that came out in 2019, it’s a list of things I consumed in 2019, because that’s how I organize my life. Only one of the non-fiction books I picked was published this calendar year. Sometimes my non-fiction favorites are decades old by the time I read them. I’m never up-to-date with my fiction reading. And as an author who has twice had a novel published in November, I consider it totally unfair to do year-end round-ups that disadvantage books that people don’t even know exist at the time they’re deciding what was “best.”
It’s always tough to pick just five novels for a list of what I enjoyed, but here’s my best shot. I’ve organized them by the order in which I reviewed them on my blog.
First up is Life Mask by Emma Donoghue. This is a strongly biographical novel about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, whose real life story hints very strongly at same-sex romance in her life. Donoghue has coaxed those hints and embers into a satisfying, if very slow-moving, depiction of what Damer’s interior life might have been like. This is definitely much more of a historic saga than a romance novel, though, so don’t go into it expecting sex and drama. There is a vast amount of 18th century British politics. I love this sort of thing, but it’s a specialized taste.
That said, I’m also a sucker for a specific type of vibrant throat-grabbing prose that plunges you into the middle of a story and holds your head under until you come up gasping for breath at the end. I had no clue that I was going to get that sort of experience from Benny Lawrence’s The Ghost and the Machine. It’s a difficult, hard-hitting story of abuse and psychological manipulation, set in an era when it was possible to imagine a chess-playing automaton but still far from possible to actually construct one. The historicity of the setting was gripping which was one of the aspects of the book that startled me, because none of Lawrence’s other books give a clue to this side of her writing.
The field of f/f historical fiction is unfortunately dominated by white voices and white viewpoints, even in cases where more diverse settings and characters are depicted. So I’m delighted to include two books among my favorites that avoid that problem. Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury tells an inter-racial love story embedded in a mystery-thriller set in Philadelphia just on the cusp of the American Civil War. The era and setting is depicted in fascinating detail. And although some details of the characters’ attitudes toward sexuality felt a bit too 20th century, the characters themselves pulled me in and made for a satisfying read.
This year saw a small blossoming of f/f historicals from authors who have already gained a mainstream reputation writing other types of romantic couples. Of those, the one that most grabbed my heart was Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. This Regency romance braids in not only the challenges of pursuing a same-sex romance in an era that didn’t recognize them as having equal weight to straight marriages, but also the frustrations of being a female scientist at a time when people were all too willing to attribute or appropriate your work to the nearest man working in the field. Although, come to think of it, that still happens regularly. There’s a lovely plot twist at the end with regard to that aspect. But even more, I loved how deftly Waite developed a plausible romantic arc that was true both to the era and to the tropes of the genre.
Another blossoming trend these days, is the proliferation of queer characters in mainstream fantasy and science fiction. And when this trend meets the popular sub-genre of historic fantasy, there are some truly exciting books being produced. Malaysian author Zen Cho burst onto the scene with her Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, centering the presence and role of people from all the far-flung parts of the 19th century British empire. In the second, and more or less independent, book in this series, The True Queen, we have a Malaysian heroine traveling to England to rescue her sister and falling in love with a young woman studying magic along the way. But it’s a far more complex story than that, involving the politics of dragons, deep betrayals in the realm of Faerie, and trying to navigate unfamiliar social structures, while still preserving the comedy-of-manners core of the Regency novel.
Just like I did last year, I’m going to break my rules by adding an extra book at the end that doesn’t fit the historic theme. Once again, it’s an entry in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series, envisioning Holmes and Watson as queer black women in a near-future dystopia that is frighteningly believable. The Hound of Justice is a story of trust, terror, and regaining self-confidence when everything you know might end up being a lie.
For non-fiction, I chose five titles from the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog to feature. This far into the project, there’s a lot of repetition in the publications I’m reading and summarizing. There are valid reasons for that repetition. Some of the historic people or concepts that are most relevant to female same-sex history involve a lot of nuance that can be analyzed in multiple contexts. Or they are exceptional examples of some particular topic. Or they may be the only example of some particular aspect of gender or sexuality.
So rather than picking my favorites based purely on the excellence of the research or writing–though that comes into it as well–I’ve chosen favorites that present something new and different.
Two of my favorites focus strongly on the margins of gender categories, and how competing understandings of gender shed light on attitudes towards same-sex relationships. If a culture is arguing over how to define differences between the sexes, that becomes highly relevant to whether a relationship involves two people of the same sex.
Kathleen Brown’s article “’Changed…into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” examines the conflicting testimony around a charge of sexual misconduct in the early American colonies. The most likely understanding is that Thomas or Thomsine Hall was intersex. They were assigned a female gender at birth, but early in adulthood began situationally presenting alternately as male or female. When asked which category they belonged to, Hall replied “both.” This put the law court into a quandary whether Hall’s erotic relationship with a woman constituted the crime of fornication or of impersonating a man. In the legal arguments and testimony, two different models of gender were presented. In the model that might be labeled “performative gender”, you are how you behave. Part of this model was the belief that gendered performance was a symptom of underlying gender identity. If someone felt driven to wear male clothing and pursue male occupations and to desire women, then that was evidence that they were a man. The problem was: Hall alternated between male and female performance and felt no need to choose. The second model argued that anatomy was the ultimate determiner of true sex. But Hall’s ambiguous anatomy raised the question of where to draw the line. The detailed documentation of Hall’s life and the questions around their status is unusual, but Hall’s situation most likely was not. And Hall’s story suggests innumerable lives that might have been lived more quietly and invisibly in history, cheerfully contradicting the binaries and norms that western society was determined to enforce.
Another publication that shows how gender categories shed light on understandings of identity and sexuality is “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” by Cary J. Nederman and Jacqui True. The term “hermaphrodite” is currently considered offensive when applied to intersex people, but the use of this term in the middle ages was more complex and covered a range of concepts that today would be considered unrelated. Medieval use of the term covered any situation where a person combined aspects that were considered to belong to different sexes or different genders. Thus, although physiologically intersex people might be categorized as “hermaphrodites”, so would people we today would consider homosexual, or gender transgressive, or simply out of step with gendered personality traits and habits. Due to the misogynistic nature of western society, calling a woman a hermaphrodite might even be considered praise if she displayed positive traits that were categorized as masculine. In the context of the 12th century’s “renaissance” of scientific and philosophical thought, questions of the nature of gender were explored within the idea of the hermaphrodite. Did hermaphrodites represent the expected ambiguous middle ground on a single polar scale of gender with male at one end and female at the other? Did they represent a portentious failure of nature to produce a clearly gendered individual? Or did they represent a third category, apart from male and female but partaking of both? For those who think questions about the nature of identity and competing models of gender are a modern phenomenon, this is an excellent survey of the wide range of thought present in the middle ages.
Not all of my favorite history publications have involved analysis and theory. One of the most fascinating genres in medieval European literature for thinking about gender and f/f sexuality are the gender-disguise romances. The Romance of Silence was published in a scholarly edition with English translation back in 1999. But the primary text of my favorite, Yde and Olive was only published in a bilingual edition last year, translated and edited by Mounawar Abbouchi. This is a medieval adaptation of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, very loosely speaking. It has the one character living in disguise as a man for reasons involving her father, and the other falling in love with her and holding to that love even when her secret was revealed. In both, the same-sex romance is revolved by the magical transformation of the first character into a man. But in both cases, this resolution clashes with modern understandings of identity whether interpreted as a lesbian story or a transgender story, while simultaneously having attractions for both audiences. Yde doesn’t put on men’s clothing and take up a man’s life because she identifies as male, but rather because it is a way to be safe as a woman alone in the world. But having done so–following the medieval principle that you are what you present to the world–she becomes the ideal of chivalric masculinity. And the miraculous transformation is not for the positive purpose of aligning body with identity, but for the negative purpose of avoiding the fatal consequences of engaging in a same-sex marriage. There are three versions of this story, all with different resolutions. In one, there is no transformation and the two lovers end up married to each other’s fathers instead, which…sorry, no. Just no. But I’m glad to finally have an accessible version of the primary text. Now I just need a bilingual edition of L’Escoufle, my second favorite medieval romance with women in love, though it doesn’t have any cross-dressing in it.
My fourth favorite non-fiction book this year doesn’t directly address sexuality, but it does speak to some of the stumbling blocks writers face when writing f/f historical romances. This is Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages by Kate Kelsey Staples, which analyzes gender differences in what daughters inherited when compared to sons, primarily in middle class families in London. Writers of historical fiction sometimes go through contortions to give their heroines economic independence and the social standing to live a life independent of heterosexual marriage. But as studies like this one show, women’s situations in the past were varied and often involved far more opportunity than modern stereotypes assume. My rule of thumb has become, “If you can’t find data on women in same-sex relationships, look to the single women.” And in many times and places, inheritance laws and customs gave women the freedom to support themselves in an unmarried life.
My fifth pick brings a couple of different lessons. This is Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918, edited by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey. It’s interesting to compare this collection of personal and revealing correspondence to the diaries of Anne Lister, earlier in the 19th century. The women lived in rather different eras and circumstance. Lister was a member of the English gentry, living in the Georgian era, frank about her sexuality in the privacy of her coded diaries, but moving through a woman-centered society that both enabled and disguised her romantic relationships with other women. If we had only her public records and not her private coded diary, it would be difficult to prove anything about her sexuality–as it is for so very many women in similar circumstances. Rose and Evangeline were Americans, living in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, moving through fairly high society due to wealth–both inherited and self-earned–and family connections. (Rose served as White House hostess for her brother, President Grover Cleveland.) Their correspondence is steeped in romantic sentimentalism, but is also woven through with the sensual physicality of their relationship and the conflicts Rose had over Evangeline’s marriage. What do I find interesting to compare and contrast? In both cases, these women were not unique. Their lives and loves followed paths shared by many of their contemporaries. They weren’t “special” in experiencing same-sex romance. What is special is that detailed documentation of their lives survived the years and the looming threat of erasure, in both cases due to a certain amount of chance and luck. Rose and Evangeline’s love was not unique or unusual. If you dig through the correspondence of other women of a similar era, you will find that intensely romantic relationships between women were normal and common. And if we had similar private records preserved from Anne Lister’s contemporaries, I am utterly confident that we’d find many of them similarly “loved, and only loved the fairer sex.”
As with fiction, I’m claiming a bonus item for my non-fiction Top Five. This is a brief article from a series of studies of the Oxford English Dictionary–considered the definitive historical dictionary of the English language–tracing the deliberate erasure of vocabulary and word usage around the topic of lesbianism in the compiling of the dictionary. So many historians struggling to discuss the context of same-sex relations have fallen into the trap of assuming that if the OED doesn’t have a word or a meaning for a word, then it didn’t exist. Thus we have text after text asserting that the very idea of lesbianism only arose in the 19th century, because how could we have a concept for something without having words for it? The study of history–whether the history of sexuality or the history of words–is never neutral.
There haven’t been enough movies and tv shows with historic f/f content to put together a top five favorites, but the ones we did have…wow!
I loved the irreverence and meta-commentary of Wild Nights with Emily, telling the story not only of Emily Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, but also telling the story of how their passionate feelings for each other were deliberately erased from the historic record. Although details of her life were fictionalized, rearranged, or simply turned into metaphor, the movie did an excellent job of focusing on essential aspects of the poet’s life and legacy.
And, of course, 2019 was the year that brought us Gentleman Jack, the ongoing series about the early 19th century lesbian Anne Lister and her quest to establish a marriage-like partnership with neighbor and fellow landowner Ann Walker. I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how mind-blowing it is that such a series has been created, with such amazing production values and writing. There are many stories of women loving women throughout history that could make equally amazing tv shows. Let’s hope that Gentleman Jack is successful enough to convince the powers that be to support them.
I’m still planning to do an Anne Lister show–perhaps several of them–at some point. I need to figure out what my special contribution can be, because the pod-world is full of people gushing over the show. I’ve been following a really fun podcast titled Shibden After Dark that combines complete fangirl squee with expert analysis of the technical production aspects of the show. And if any film or tv producers out there want ideas for which queer woman in history to tackle next, I have a very long list of suggestions.
- Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
- The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence
- Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury
- A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
- The True Queen by Zen Cho
- Bonus non-historical book: The Hounds of Justice by Claire O’Dell
- 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.
- Nederman, Cary J. and Jacqui True. 1996. “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:4: 497-517.
- Abbouchi, Mounawar. 2018. “Yde and Olive” in Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality, vol 8.
- Staples, Kate Kelsey. 2011. Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 978-9004203112
- Ehrenhalt, Lizzie and Tilly Laskey (eds). 2019. Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul. ISBN 978-1-68134-129-3
- Bonus non-fiction item: Examining the OED – Case Study: Terms for Lesbian(ism) – http://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/main/content/view/435/485/index.html accessed 2019/04/28
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online