By Her Pen She Conquers by Catherine Lundoff – original fiction produced by The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast
Episode 35e with Heather Rose Jones
The second story in our 2019 fiction series: “By Her Pen She Conquers” by previous LHMP author Catherine Lundoff.
Catherine is an award-winning writer, editor, and publisher from Minneapolis. She is the author of the queer werewolf novel Silver Moon and the collection Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and is the editor of the fantastical pirate anthology Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), as well as having a number of published short stories in many genres. She is also the publisher of Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world.
Update Note: I unintentionally truncated the title to “By Her Pen” in the original post and recording. I apologize deeply to Catherine Lundoff for this mistake and have corrected it in all the places I have access to, but the audio version retains the shorter title.
Listen to the episode here
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Catherine Lundoff Online
please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect
[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with the lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment today we present the second story in the 2019 fiction series by her pen by Katherine Linda Katherine is an award-winning writer editor and publisher from Minneapolis she is the author of the queer werewolf novel silver moon and the collection out-of-this-world queer speculative fiction stories and is the editor of the fantastical pirate anthology scourge of the seas of time and space as well as having a number of published short stories in many genres she is also the publisher of queen of swords press genre fiction publishers specializing in fiction from out of this world by her pen is set in the London theatre scene at the very beginning of the 19th century this story represents a repeat appearance for Catherine Lundoff in the lesbian historic motif podcast fiction series her story one night in st. Maarten was our debut fiction episode last year the narrator for this episode will be me your podcast host I’ll skip the bio because you probably already know as much about me as you need to this recording is released under Creative Commons Attribution non-commercial no derivatives 4.0 international public license you may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it you may not transcribe it and you may not adapt it by her pen by Katherine lund off narrated by Heather Rose Jones miss penny Armstrong walked slowly out of Drury Lane from the Theatre Royal and stifled a quiet sob she clutched a parcel to her scant and somewhat chilled muslin covered bosom and tried not to wonder too much where she would find shelter for the night ahead she had been so certain that this play her best would be the one that would impress mr. Sheridan or mr. Bannister enough to perform it even enough to advance her a few shillings until it opened to great acclaim her father’s stories about mrs. inch a bald and mrs. Cowley whose acquaintance he had made when he himself trod the boards in bath and London swirled around in her mind an admirer of both women and their skillful use of the pen encouraged his only child to follow in their footsteps his death and that dream had been enough to send her to London to try her luck here that the best-known Theatre in the land with no introduction or connection or aught besides her writing and her father’s scarce remembered name to recommend her the depth of her naivete took her breath away down though the sensation of faintness that she also felt might have been due to the smoky air of London and having eaten no more than a crust of bread a day for the past Sun night she leaned back against the stone wall of the theatre and tried not to consider its cold impenetrable surface as a metaphor a passing labourer muttered something crude at her and she blushed and cringed she had to leave this place but where could she go her last shillings had been spent yesterday her room was lost to her and she had neither family nor friends in London as for her position as seamstress at one of the less fashionable shops near Cheapside that had vanished when she left to try her luck at the theatre what more was left to her but the rivers embrace she shuddered at the thought and closed her eyes for a moment trying to think of an alternative that was long enough for a street urchin to dart up an attempt to yank her precious package from her drooping hands the small act of violence was enough to summon the tiger in her soul and she snarled at him to get away locking her hands around her precious papers as tightly as she could hear now scrap or leave off even no use for what you can’t read a sharp cuff on the head and a tossed copper cent Penny’s assailant scrambling to retrieve it before running off down an alley with his prize penny eyed her rescuers sidelong wondering if she should run after him what she took to be a tall thin lad a few years older than herself gave her a lopsided grin and a knowing look your no light skirt from the looks of you what are you doing loitering by the theatre door then penny blinked and her head swam for a moment surely he couldn’t think that she was didn’t assume that the alley snapped back into focus as the young man caught her arm he very gently pried her fingers loose from her precious bundle and put it into a sack that he was carrying a moment later she realized her loss no she lunged forward only to find herself caught and held up by the arm once again I’m not for stealing the myths this is just for carrying come with us and get some supper there’s a lass then you can tell us all about how you came to be tangling with the likes of scrapper outside the Drury Lane finest theater in the land he gave her another crooked grin and she realized something that she hadn’t noticed before you’re a last two she gasped out the words then clapped her hands over her mouth what if it was a secret she had met such girls before living his men to earn their way had she unmasked one of them a motley crew of striplings lads and lasses both stood on the cobbles some yards away watching them one of them called out something to her companion a phrase she couldn’t understand and the land who was no lad laughed she did not seem offended or distraught come on we’re off to the King’s Arms for ale and stew you can tell me what this is all about while we eat she extended her elbow to penny as if she was the lad she seemed to be and penny took it eyes wide and hands trembling what do you call a blasts penny penny Armstrong my father was Richard Armstrong he was a player in Plymouth and math ah her companion nodded as if the name was familiar though she was far too young to have known Penny’s father Jess she gestured with the package toward herself or was it himself how was she to think of her strange new companion Jess must have seen her puzzlement but then they were surrounded by the others and swept down a grimy alley and into a somewhat cleaner tavern before anything more could be said penny had an impression of dark corners and heavy furniture in a crowded room where the bright fire cast shadows over the whitewashed walls from habit she recognized many at the tables as actors another theatre folk from the way they carried themselves as well as their accents and dress just tugged her into a corner table and nudged her onto a bench before she could get too bewildered by the tumult you must think me a country mouse indeed she took her package from Jess’s bag and wrapped her arms tight around it again for a long moment just as an eye for the damsel in distress she does too many young lovers rolls have gone to her head the dark eyed Beauty on the other side of the table gave Jess a jealous sidelong glance before meeting Penny’s eyes and where might you be from country mouse her tone said Penny’s back up and she narrowed her eyes in annoyance her answer when she gave it would have put scrappers barely comprehensible Whitechapel can’t to shame gar and what makes you think I’m not from London then she tilted her head and a fair imitation of the urchins that she tried to avoid on the streets around Drury Lane and Covent Garden and glared at the other girl just burst out laughing at both of them I Susan her father trod the boards and baths and trained her well but the looks of it here penny give over the ales here and the stew not far behind let us quarrel on full stomachs at least a plump barmaid planted tankards before them Paul another brought Bulls penny grabbed her clumsy pewter spoon and seized a chunk of what might have been meat floating on the top of a warm muddy sea it was in her mouth and swallowed before she remembered her circumstances stricken she put her spoon gently down and stared at Jess I have only a few pennies left I forgot susan rolled her dark eyes heavenward as Jess gallantly assured her that she had a few shillings to pay for them both besides everyone knew them at the King’s Arms and to knew when the nearby theatre paid its actors unsurprisingly Susan’s expression and Jess’s words caught the attention of their friends and soon penny was the focus of a circle of not entirely friendly eyes what’s in the parcel then asked a blond girl on the other side of Susan her cockney accent clipped and harsh a chorus echoed the question and even Jess raised an eyebrow and looked at her a table full of curious faces awaited her answer penny stumbled through her thoughts looking for a safe version of her tale to tell would they laugh at her if she told them the truth could they somehow make this worse she hadn’t even been able to talk to mr. Sheridan her play and by extension she herself had been dismissed out of hand by one of his managers but there were other play houses in London perhaps if she had helped a manager at one of the others might Susan cleared her throat loudly in annoyance breaking into pennies spiraling thoughts for a moment penny saw the same look of dismissal that the manager at the theatre had given her and flinched jess murmured it can’t be all that bad penny closed her eyes again for a moment and dug her fingers into the grimy cloth wrapped around her plaits hunting for her courage had never seemed so difficult when she opened them she looked only into Jess’s friendly blue eyes it’s my my Play her voice squeaked on the last word and it was all she could do not to look away a playwright is it a country mouse fancying she can write plays what does she know about it what’s it about show it to us the chorus of demands and dismissals was overwhelming and penny looked from one to another of them in a panic at last she stammered I could write plays I can then she burst into tears and just patted her shoulder awkwardly the girl’s touch sent an odd jolt through penny and she choked off a sob to stare blankly at the other girl their eyes met and penny felt herself flush and looked away quickly here here let her eat first before you start demanding that she read a play to us even you lot know better than that just scowled around the table and pushed Penny’s bolt back in front of her still weeping penny did as she was told and spooned up a few more mouthfuls of her rapidly cooling stew after a few moments of comparative quiet at their table she stopped eating long enough to ask are you all players then a couple of nods including an imperious one from Susan and after a moment a more tentative one from Jess and some of the others and you are you also a player like your father Susan didn’t look like she thought it was possible and penny felt her back stiffen certainly she was not come Lea enough for the maidens roles but she had played maids and cooks and once even the role of the principal boy in the pan toe at Plymouth somehow she didn’t think that would impress London players I have trod the board’s penny said at last but not here in the city there now she had shown herself to be the country mouse they all thought her but there was no help for it her play was what she cared about and now even that long-held hope was dwindling does the company seek players she asked at last perhaps she might work her way in demonstrate her abilities until she could get them to recognise the one that she hoped would be of greatest interest to mr. Sheridan Jess raised a blondes eyebrow what if your play players we have been plenty but a lass that seeks to live by her pen that is something different now tell us what your tale is and why you came here to the Theatre Royal instead of the play houses in Plymouth or Bath & trippingly with a will or master Barstow will come to fetch a soon and shouts at slender dark-haired boy on the other side of the table added his words sent a ripple of apprehension around the group penny nodded she’d had her fair share of ill treatments even in Plymouth she could only imagine that in London were so many aspired to be players it would be even worse with a deep breath she began her words scrambling over each other at first in their hurry to get out of her mouth then slowing as she pitched her tail as she would her lines perhaps if she couldn’t persuade the manager she might persuade the players and come to the Theatre Royal that way in any case a sympathetic audience might help her to find lodgings or even a place at a panto or perhaps the theatre at Covent Garden until she was able to try again she polished her words like river stones weaving a tale of being raised in the theatre by her parents both players themselves until they died her father a few years after her mother then she had been left to find her own way from the pantos to the theatres to the shops and from there into service and back again all the while she dreamed of writing a play of emulating mr. Shakespeare and this has been and spending her words into something that a talented player might speak up on the stage their stage to be exact and this company of players when she finished they were all looking at her and most seemed more sympathetic than they had been when she started Susan was the main exception her voice was contemptuous disbelief dripping from her words but what is your play about a country lass was always dreamed of Drury Lane a large man swung the door open and stomped over to their table here you lot back to the theatre with you master Sheridan wants a new rehearsal and you’re to stay until he says it’s done and ready for the Prince Regent himself all around penny the players scrambled to their feet and fled the ones closest to him ducking to avoid his rapid cuffs and curses he glared when penny cringed away from him but didn’t get up come on just murmured to her just tilted her head up to look at the big man she’s my cousin master Barstow up from the country she’s a good hand with costumes she’s trod the boards in the pantos and could speak lines in bargain penny forced herself to look up if you please sir I worked at the play houses and bath and Plymouth until my father died and I came to London looking for work Barstow growled and into his beard and narrowed his eyes you he gestured it Jess back to the theater with you then after a moment he added with a gesture at penny well go on we’ll soon find out if you’re telling the truth about knowing lines as well as a needle penny scrambled to her feet and followed Jess her heart once more full of all the hope that she had thought lost a few hours before and her personal clutched tightly under her arm it was a fortnight before anyone finally returned to the subject of Penny’s play by then she had learned to hide behind the scenery while fixing an actor’s costume to assist in memorizing lines and to duck when master Barstow was in his cups or was filled with one of his rages she slept in a couple of squalid rooms near the theatre with Jess Susan and some of their friends and she fancied that their sophistication was rubbing off on her most importantly of all they didn’t interrupt her when she was writing with a dogged determination she returned to the play the one that mr. Sheridan’s manager had rejected as she spent more time at the theatre she began to see the scenes that could be made stronger the lines that needed to be cut the precious pennies that the actors tossed her way were spent on old quills that she could piece together and rag paper that she had to smooth before she could use ink was scavenged from the leftovers from mr. Sheridan’s office and whatever the other apprentices and just as other friends could find Jess and Jess’s friends particularly Susan they occupied and expected an unwelcome prominence in her thoughts as the days passed she slept and ate with them her bed a pile of clean rags in a corner of the room where the other girls slept in experienced as she was with the ways of London life it did not take long for her to become aware that Susan was just as layman she stumbled over the unfamiliar word even in her own thoughts and the more she turned the realization over in her mind the more she was surprised that she wasn’t as shocked as she thought she would be Jess was kind and handsome and penny felt her ears grow hot at the direction that her thoughts were taking besides mrs. Siddons maid was beckoning her now and she needed to look sharp or risk the great actresses displeasure she puzzled over to do mrs. Jennings bidding belatedly aware of Susan’s speculative gaze upon her she forgot about the girl at her errands and tasks but Susan it seemed had not forgotten her when they gathered at the King’s Arms that evening she turned her dark eyed gaze on penny once again what is this play that you were writing Penelope her habitual London accent vanished into her stage accent the one that she was developing for her role as Juliet in the theaters next play penny preferred her normal voice she could read the other girls moods better when she spoke that way even though those were as abrupt and shifting as the tides where the Thames met the sea she wanted to tell Jess and the others endured the worst of them a mocking laugh recalled her to where she was and who was interrogating her it’s based on a tale about a Turkish sultan and a shipwrecked english girl she spoke hesitantly bracing for mockery and worse her heart still ached when she remembered its previous reception is it now and what do you know of Eastern potentates and shipwrecks Susan’s eyes sparkled with malice and jess stiffened at her side ready to interrupt as much as you know of being a young virgin like Juliette I imagine the words were out of Penny’s mouth before she could stop them it was an open secret that Suzan flirted where she would Jess or no Jess there were rumors of that and more and though penny had tried to ignore them it was too late to plead ignorance now Susan leaned across the table holding Penny’s keys with her own the country muffs is growing closet seems what are you implying little mouse do you think that stirring up the pot of ill-will and rumor will get you what you want she glanced sidelong at Jess than back in penny Penny’s face burned as if it were on fire did Susan mean the knowing Snickers all around them were enough to keep her from looking just this way that would only make things worse I meant only that our levels of ignorance of the parts we play or write are perhaps not so far apart as your words suggest she had imagined herself as her hero win’ a young English would marooned in a strange land more than once since she began writing and never so much as now unlike her heroine she was in danger peril that she barely understood that much was clear from the way that Susan’s eyes flashed she leaned forward clearly about to say something cutting and cruel only to leap to her the startled oath just righted her cup and stood up with her I am so very sorry how very clumsy of me she sponged ineffectually at Susans beer-soaked to dress with a rag from her pocket penny pinched her lips together to bite back the startled laugh that was rising up her throat Susan glared at both of them and stormed out the sound of laughing actors lending wings to her feet penny looked up at chess looking for a way to express her gratitude but just wasn’t looking at her instead she was watching as one of the other actors trailed out the door after Susan Jessa’s face was tight and closed in her hands balled into fists and a moment later she followed them the others herded penny back to the theatre before she had a chance to wonder more about what was happening once there they all spread out seizing upon different tasks some of them Susan’s or Jess’s so that Master Barstow would not find them missing when they were done penny was so tired that she could scarcely stand leaning against each other she and the other girls staggered back to their room what they found there made penny freeze in the doorway jess was pulling some ashes from the fire small pieces of paper and scraps of rag she wouldn’t look up to meet Penny’s eyes but even then the shadows they could all see that she had a shiner and that she’d been crying while the others ran to see to Jess Penny’s gaze darted to her corner and her precious pile of rag paper gone it was all gone with a wail of loss and despair she ran to justice sighed and dropped to her knees before the pile of ashes scattering it no no no she seized a handful of ash and a few fragments and waved it under Jess’s nose did you do this one of the other girls Sarah penny thought her name was grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little that baton justice fault she’d never harm your words that were Susan rhyme sore mistook she took one hand from Penny’s shoulder and gestured at Jess’s face and that’d be Sam’s work Jess grimaced then gave a cry of pain pressing her hand over her injured eye penny reached out and hesitantly patted her shoulder you’ll be needing some raw meat for that bloody as you can find she wondered where the words came from she had no more in her and where would we be finding such a thing this time of night sarah rolled her eyes come on Jess there’s a lass we’ll get you something cool from the wash barrel to take the swelling down she nodded to penny and they both scrambled to their feet brushing ash from their skirts mechanically together they pulled Jess to her feet and steered her over to the wash barrel Nunley penny grabbed a clean rag and began washing Jess’s face with it she barely knew what she was doing until Sarah gently plucked the cloth from her fingers and knotted at the hearth go see if there’s lot left penny turned like an automaton barely noticing Jess’s tightly closed eyes and red skins where she had rubbed too hard she walked over and knelt near the pile once more she combed her fingers through the pile her mind rejecting the evidence of her fingers it was gone all of it her lively English laughs the handsome but villainous Sultan the clever English sailor who was a nobleman in disguise all of them existed now only in her mind as for the dialog all the clever speeches she had been at such pains describe they came back to her only in bits and pieces a word here a line there before she knew it she was crying if she had not cried since her father’s death deep wrenching sobs that shook her whole body how could this have happened why would Susan have done such a thing they had not cared much for each other but penny could not imagine destroying something dear to the other girl out of spite a grubby bit of cloth dangled before her face and she snatched at it blowing her nose with a great honk like a goose the image made her laugh despite her sorrow and soon she was laughing and crying all at once and could no more stop herself than she could have run away horse not even the realisation that Jess and Sarah were staring at her as if she’d gone mad was enough to stem the flow of mirth and sorrow finally just his hand on Penny’s shoulder pulled her back to herself with a shudder and a blush she gave one last choking sob and wiped her tears away what am I supposed to do now this was my only copy of my play I’m not good enough to be an actor or to sew costumes all the time I had only my words and now those are gone too she stared piteously up at Jess but it was Sarah who spoke first right another master Sheridan sissy starts and stops with his plays changing one for another finishing or forgetting them as needs must and there are none Baron him at scribing plays in all England she nodded to emphasise admiration for the great man’s playwriting prowess why he has said as much just confirmed with a nod but what am I to write about penny began as her gaze dropped to the pile of ash and scraps before her and how would neither paper nor pen left to her as if Jess could read her thoughts she picked up a broken quill from under the wooden table beside them and plucked a small knife from her pocket she began to trim the quill as Penny dragged herself to her feet to find whatever paper survived Susan’s inexplicable rage jealous she is jealous of me the thought struck penny so hard that she nearly sat down in a heap on a pile of ash for a long moment she couldn’t fathom why the other girl felt that way what cost did she have then Jess caught her eye and held out the sharpened bit of quill with a shy half smile that twisted a little against her swollen cheek a spasm of guilt and tenderness went through penny then and she scrambled for another wet rag to place on Jess’s face when she turned back a couple of pieces of crumpled rag paper lay on the table along with the broken quill and a small container of ink that they had found somewhere sarah gestured at her a penny sat down on the stool that wobbled while sarah began to sweep away the ashes around the hearth for a long moment penny imagined her original play tried to remember the exact words and scenes but she found her gaze turning to Jess and her thoughts to Susan she turned it all over in her mind while the candle burns low when the others finally went to sleep penny herself slept for a bit her head on the hard table her dream strange and filled with bits and pieces of plays that she had seen panto she had been in even Jess and Susan she awoke before anyone else and blinked the sleep from her eyes she moistened her pen and thought of a sultan who was a sultan no longer but instead a lovesick countess one who had fallen in love with a girl disguised as a boy a girl who loved someone else her ink blotted on the rough paper at first but after a few moments her quill flew across it as her thoughts took flight I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on itunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]