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Monday, January 11, 2021 - 07:00

History is littered with women-loving-women whose biographies would make excellent inspiration for dramatic interpretation. Not all of the women in question would be comfortable neighbors. The Countess de Murat was certainly a ... ahem ... colorful character, no matter whose opinion you consult. What this article doesn't touch on (perhaps because it assumes the reader is already familiar with her) is that de Murat participated in the late 17th century Parisian salons that created the vogue for literary fairy tales. Close to 20 fairy tales by her were published around 1700.

The fallout from the charges and scandal discussed in this article included estrangement from her husband, disinheritance by her mother, confinement in several different chateaus, a failed escape in men's clothing, and an eventual partial reprieve and release courtesy of the Countess d'Argenton. (See her Wikipedia entry for an outline of her biography and a list of her works.) That information fleshes out the scandal into something definitely worthy of the screen or of novelization.

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Full citation: 

Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuailty in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3

Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat”

I first encountered Madame de Murat and here rather sordid escapades in another of Jeffrey Merrick’s projects, but this article fills in more of the details of her life. Extensive quotations from the police report can be found in: Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6.

Right at the turn of the 18th century (ca 1700), a Parisian police official collected a series of reports on the scandalous behavior of Henriette de Castelnau, countess de Murat. The official noted that it was particularly shameful for a noblewoman to have engaged in such actions. While a number of offences were detailed, the core accusation was her sexual relations with other women. In addition to “a monstrous attachment to persons of her sex,” the reported noted profanity, singing dissolute songs at all hours, pissing out her window into the street after a drunken carouse, and a blasphemous conversation with a vicar. The sexual relationships included an ongoing tempestuous affair with one Madame de Nantiat, and a violent attack on Murat’s portrait by a jealous ex-girlfriend.

The point of this report was a request that the king either exile her from Paris or put her in prison. (Though one wonders whether a man of similar rank singing drunken songs, pissing out a window, or blaspheming to a churchman would have been similarly harassed, absent sexual crimes.)

Setting aside the extremely negative tone of the references to lesbianism, the reports are intriguing for the details of the relationships and the difficulty the police had in obtaining testimony from witnesses.

In literature of the time, such as Nicolas Chorier’s Académie des dames, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, or Antoine Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count de Gramont, the attitude toward lesbian sex is more one of amused condescension. Authors and their audiences were quite aware of lesbian possibilities, but give the appearance of considering it as of little importance. Something to mock, but not to be concerned over.

In contrast to both the horrified reaction of the police official and the mockery of libertine literature, there were also texts that treated lesbian encounters almost neutrally, such as Madame de Villedieu’s novel Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, in which the queen mother takes the protagonist under her protection, noting that she “loved passionately beautiful women” and had befriended her in order to be able to kiss her regularly. Robinson also cites Aphra Behn’s “To the Fair Clorinda” as a positive expression of female erotic desire.

But possibly Madame de Murat has left us another such positive text, to contrast with her police record. Her presumably autobiographical novel, The Memoirs of Madame the Countess de M—,” while primarily focusing on refuting alleged heterosexual misconduct [which we note is not mentioned in the police report], include an episode where an enemy of hers wrote letters accusing Madame de Murat ad her friend Mademoiselle Laval (in somewhat vague but significant terms) of “horrible things,” bringing them to the attention of both women’s husbands as well as the queen. While the nature of the “horrible things” is not specified, the language and context strongly implies sexual improprieties. The parallels in language and the desired punishment (imprisonment through royal intervention) with the police report (which was written several years later) are noteworthy. [Note: Mademoiselle Laval is not one of the women named in the police report as one of de Murat’s lovers, instead listing Madame de Nantiat, though the vengeful ex-lover is not named.]

In de Murat’s Memoirs the two women thus accused are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent until the accusations can be settled. But in the police report, when the possibility of confinement in a convent is raised, the official advises that he is doubtful of the morals of any convent willing to take her on, alluding to the contradictory reputation of convents both as a place of chastity, and as a hotbed [ahem] of lesbian desire, as reflected in pornographic literature of the time. [Note: lesbian encounters by secular women staying in convents are noted in the biographies of women such as Hortense Mancini and Julie d’Aubigny.]

De Murat and de Nantiat were eventually placed under house arrest in separate chateaus as a result of the accusations, though de Murat is reported as continuing her former behavior there and corresponding freely with all her existing acquaintances.

Robinson suggests that the brief episode in de Murat’s memoirs—when combined with the more detailed and explicit accusation in the police report, as well as the larger social context of how lesbian activity was discussed, and the reputation of convents—is a lightly veiled in-joke, acknowledging the (likely) truth of the relationship with Laval and using it as an excuse for a temporary retreat to an all-female space where the relationship could be continued. This suggests a new context in which positive depictions of lesbianism might be found, if they can be decoded.

The article concludes with a discussion of the problems of reading “closeted texts” as Robinson suggests this to be, and the asymmetric effects of dismissing authorial intent when interpreting texts when the author may be constrained to speak obliquely. These effects create particular problems for queer history and the erasure of neutral or positive depictions of queer sexuality when historians insist on taking texts only at face value.

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Monday, January 4, 2021 - 07:00

I waver between thinking that each period I read about it the absolutely most fascinating one with regard to gender and sexuality, and thinking that the period immediately before the one I'm reading about is. But every time I read articles about the 17th century (especially England or France, but let's be honest: that's where the publications skew) I come back to the idea that it was a fascinatingly queer era. In contrast (and, in many ways, in opposition) to the artificially glittering world of Versailles there was the woman-centered world of the French salons, and their export of precieuse culture to England. Beside the libertine activities of the court and family politics that ensured that love and marriage were largely separate experiences, there was the chaotic gender-transgressing culture of the common people, meticulously documented by disapproving preachers who considered the dissolution of clear gender signifiers to presage the apocalypse.

This is the context in which Madeleine de Scudéry ventured to write about the ideals of friendship and to dream about a different way for men and women to relate. One shouldn't take this as an actual blueprint for behavior, but more of a critique of the status quo. But underlying it is the firm principle of 17th century social politics that women's best and most lasting relationships were not with men, but with their female friends. (Even if social conventions required them to end up with men in the end.)

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Full citation: 

Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuailty in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3

Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’”

This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.

But what was the context in which a 17th century French aristocrat understood the ancient poet’s life? The article looks at four questions. Why did Scudéry choose to work with Sappho as a subject? How as Sappho understood and represented in 17th century France? How did Scudéry adapt the story for French  salon culture? And how did Sappho’s sexuality influence the depiction of female friendship and heterosexual love in the work?

Hinds references DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho ( for a detailed answer to the first question. Scudéry uses Sappho as an entry to women’s role as author of heroic fiction (a newly popular genre at the time). Scudéry’s Sappho exists in a utopian space where a woman can not only claim the role of author, but can define the terms of her relationship with a man. But while the plot of the narrative accepts (a version of) the Phaon story, in which Sappho turns from the love of women to a man, the representation of sexuality and gender identity are complicated.

Taking up the second question, Hinds reviews the French translations and interpretations of Sappho available in the 17th century. Rémi Belleau’s 16th century translation of Fragment 31 (“he seems like a god”) retains the original’s female voice and female beloved, but other versions of the era substitute a male narrator, turning the triangle into two men in conflict over a woman. While many other French works allow Sappho to voice her same-sex desire, there is often a moralizing overlay, suggesting that pursuit of pleasure will be her downfall. By the late 16th century, Sappho is often depicted as a woman whose love of sensual pleasure has ruined her.

French law of the time included lesbian acts under the rubric of sodomy, and Sappho’s name comes up regularly in discussions of historic context for the laws. Though poetic texts may depict Sappho as indiscriminately licentious, legal texts focus specifically on her lesbian reputation. The application of these legal prohibitions appears to have been rare, certainly in comparison to prosecutions of male homosexuality. But several case studies, especially ones involving cross-gender presentation, appear repeatedly in medical literature of the time.

At the same time, Sappho’s role as a respected poet was being revived in the early 17th century, also including Ovid’s episode in the Heroides of the Phaon myth. The depiction of Sappho ashamedly turning from desire for women to the pursuit of Phaon resonated with French moral attitudes of the time toward same-sex desire.

Scudéry does not simply accept this interpretation of the Phaon episode, but rather models Sappho’s relationship with Phaon on female friendship bonds. Scudéry’s Sappho may be seen as a reflection of the author herself (she used Sappho as a nickname on occasion) and so we can see in the Histoire Scudéry’s vision for ideal relations between women and men, as well as her idealized understanding of female friendship.

Scudéry’s ideal friendship is steeped in the précieuse culture of propriety and decency, the use of refined language and adherence to proper behavior. Given this context, the Histoire focuses on emotion and sentiment as expressions of love, not on erotic desire, regardless of the genders of the participants. Traditionally-gendered characteristics and virtues are distributed to characters of both sexes in the word. Sappho is ascribed “male” virtues (as defined at the time) while Phaon is described in terms more conventionally reserved for women, focusing on refined physical beauty, while not being framed as effeminate.

In the Histoire, Sappho surrounds herself with women with whom she has intense platonic friendships, based on a free and equal sharing of thoughts and confidences. This alone, she asserts, is the basis for genuine love and friendship. Sappho confides to her friends that she prefers their company to a husband, who would be incapable of providing the same type of devotion.

It is Phaon’s ability to conform to these ideals of (female) friendship that allows Sappho to love him, while it is the passionate poems Sappho has written to her female companions that convince Phaon she is capable of the intense love he seeks. But Sappho recognizes that their love would be doomed within a conventional marriage and could not remain equal and true. The solution is found in a utopian land ruled by Amazons whose laws prescribe faithfulness between lovers. Phaon must swear never to ask for marriage, but also to remain always at Sappho’s side. He must become the “inseparable companion” so prized among female friends.

So Phaon wins over Sappho, and she accepts his love, only when he moves into the role of female friend, companion, and confidant, and abandons the framework of heterosexual marriage.

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Saturday, January 2, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 191 - On the Shelf for January 2021 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2021/01/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2021. The New Year is most often thought of as a time for fresh starts, new beginnings, and revising one’s path in life. This year, it feels like we’re all still in the middle of the awfulness and it will still be a while before change will come. But for this podcast, at least, this month marks a shift in gears and some fresh directions.

We’re now broadcasting only through the new, independent show and it means we’ve lost a significant part of our previous listeners, though I hope it’s only temporary. Thank you to all the listeners who followed us over, or who recently joined. And thank you especially to all of you who talk the show up and help new listeners find us.

The big format and content change is that the interview segments will now be shorter and combined into this monthly round-up, reducing the schedule to twice monthly, plus the quarterly fiction shows. Another minor change is that the new book listings will include a brief description of the setting and plot rather than reading the cover copy. And there will still be occasional news items and discussions on the field of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction in general.

2021 Fiction Series

And speaking of the fiction series, it’s January so submissions are open for the 2021 fiction series! All month we’ll be accepting submissions of short stories up to 5000 words featuring sapphic characters in historic settings, including some types of historic fantasy.  I’m looking forward to seeing what this year brings! See the Call for Submissions link in the show notes for full details and how to submit.

Publications on the Blog

The blog finally finished discussing Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends and I confess it became something of a slog, with the book turning into more literary and psychological analysis than the history of people. Rather than continue with my original plan, which was to tackle a book with a similar feel, I went through the shelves and grabbed several works that may be a bit more exciting. I’ll start with a collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis. Only a few of the articles focus on women, but I already found one of them quite valuable when writing the episode on the Anandrine Sect. That should take care of January and then I’ll see what catches my eye.


For this month’s essay, I’ve been inspired by reading through excerpts from Anne Lister’s diaries to take notes on how her courtships and sexual encounters were scripted. It’s an interesting study in the social dynamics of the early 19th century.


And this month we have our first fiction episode of 2021, with a lightly fantastic tale of medieval Provence, “A Soldier in the Army of Love” by Diane Morrison.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Last month I wondered where all the December books were, since I only knew about two to mention then, but this month when I looked, I found another five titles of interest, plus six January books. The eras cover a wide span of time and the settings extend outside of the anglophone world.

Three of the December books are continuations of previous series. Mary D. Brooks’ “Intertwined Souls” series has a new entry with Promise is a Promise, set just after World War II beginning with a promise made in an Egyptian refugee camp and ending with a Christmas surprise. This is an extended series following a group of continuing characters and may work best for those already familiar with the series.

Lee Swanson’s earlier novel of medieval merchants and gender disguise, No Man’s Chattel is now followed by a sequel Her Perilous Game, with the series title “No Man is Her Master”. In 14th century Europe, Christina Kohl takes on the identity of her dead brother to become a merchant of the Hanseatic League, encountering both political chaos and scheming rivals during a trading voyage to England. I’m always excited to see stories with authentic medieval settings and some day I hope to find time to read this series.

Renaissance Italy is the setting for the final book in Edale Lane’s “The Night Flyer” trilogy, Chaos in Milan. A combination of superhero adventure and romance, set among feuding city-states infused with the imaginative technology of Leonardo da Vinci.

Mariah R. Embry’s Beyond the Vines is a bit more down to earth and deals with independence and growing romance as well as trauma. In 1918, Amina flees an abusive husband with her son and travels to Washington state where she is taken in by vineyard owner Celeste. While struggling to establish herself and find a new path, she is surprised by an unexpected romance.

The final December book is a Christmas-themed novella set in Victorian England. The Christmas Chevalier by Meg Mardell is not a sapphic book, as the protagonists are a woman and a trans man who is enjoying the temporary freedom to be his true self. But because of the fuzzy edges of categories in historic contexts, I thought it might be of interest to some listeners. A masquerade dance provides the context for two friends to see each other in a different light.

The January books start off with this month’s author guest, Malinda Lo with Last Night at the Telegraph Club. In 1950s San Francisco, Lily Hu juggles being a good Chinese daughter, dreaming of a career in science, and sneaking off to a lesbian nightclub with her friend Kath…who she hopes will become more than a friend. We’ll be talking about the book later in this show.

From Lianyu Tan comes a book more on the mythic side of the fence than the historic. Captive in the Underworld is a sapphic take on the legend of Persephone, but this is a dark tale of coercion and abuse, not a romance. Content note for non-consensual sex.

On a very different note, Maxine Kaplan’s Wench has a medieval-ish setting in an unspecified location, with a spunky teenage tavern wench holding her own with the help of a little bit of magic. This is a YA story with what sounds like a loose connection with history but it sounds like a lot of fun.

Another fun working-class romance is the graphic novel Patience & Esther by S.W. Searle which tells the story of two maids in an Edwardian country house, falling in love in a rapidly changing world that offers them new opportunities. Bonus points for diverse ethnic representation. I supported the Kickstarter for this book and I’m looking forward to enjoying it.

A speculatively alternative wild west is the setting for Anna North’s Outlawed, which plunges our heroine into a seriously gender-bent version of the Hole in the Wall Gang who push back against an epidemic-ravaged society obsessed with female fertility. Don’t go into this book expecting a traditional western or a feel-good adventure, but rather a gripping dystopia steeped in queerness.

The final January book falls in the genre of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, but this one focuses and expands on the character of Anne de Bourgh, who is more or less a cypher in the original book. Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh traces Anne’s struggle to get out from under her mother’s thumb and the laudanum addiction imposed on her from childhood. With the help of cousins in London, she begins to invent a new life and identity for herself. The cover copy doesn’t touch on the sapphic elements but reviews confirm that one of the things she finds in London is love for a woman. This is Greeley’s second Austen-inspired novel, but the first doesn’t have queer elements.

Have a sapphic historical coming out? Or know of one that you think I might not know about? Drop the podcast a note to make sure we include it! Or drop us a note if you’ve found a book you loved through these listings.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been consuming lately? After my flurry of reading in November, I went back into my slump. But I did watch the new historical movie, Ammonite, based on the life of Victorian fossil-collector Mary Anning and her lifelong friend Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a leading geologist. Although the erotic relationship that the movie focuses on is interpolated into that friendship, Anning had several very close female friendships that supported her career, including her mentor, paleontologist Elizabeth Philpot. (The character of Philpot also appears in the movie, but I’d have to re-watch it to see if it’s the woman that Anning is implied to have previously had a romantic relationship with.) I’m not the one to complain about exploring the erotic potential of Victorian-era romantic friendships. But I do think the movie does a disservice to the historic Charlotte Murchison, who was a talented scientific illustrator and may have inspired her husband’s interest in geology, whereas the movie depicts her as a frail, neurotic dilettante. Given the historic facts of Anning and Murchison’s lives, I’m a bit impatient with the criticism of the movie as not having a “happy ending” for the romance. But if you know a filmmaker who wants to make a movie about female couples in history living happily ever after, I can give them a shopping list of ideas for inspiration.

Author Guest

Now on to our author guest!

[The interview with Malinda Lo will be included here when it has been transcribed.]

Show Notes

On the Shelf for January 2021

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 191 with Heather Rose Jones

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Malinda Lo Online

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Thursday, December 31, 2020 - 20:00

This finishes up Vicinus, just barely in time to complete it this year. (I need to get back to sticking to my LHMP-Monday thing.) I'm going through another phase of "why am I doing this? who cares?" which means I need to get back to blogging things that are fun for me, rather than having some grand plan. I hope 2021 brings you better things than this past year has. For me? At the moment I'll settle for 2021 bringing me lots of great submissions for the podcast fiction series. (Submissions open tomorrow!)

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Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 8: “A Love of Domination” – The Mannish Invert and Sexual Danger

This chapter examines several lives in the context of sexological theory and the rise of the binary homosexual/heterosexual model of desire. Psychologists pathologized previous models and patterns of same-sex relationships and focused on the sexually adventurous, dominating, “mannish” woman as the core prototype of the lesbian. At heart, these models revolved around “gender inversion” seeing the homosexual (male or female) as someone whose entire life and personality partook of a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth (to use the current terminology). [Note: it’s interesting that, in many ways, the sexologists forced homosexuals into a transgender framework, without allowing for transgender identity as a viable experience. This isn’t too different from many earlier gender-based understandings of same-sex desire. It was innovative only in couching the theory in a new, medicalized vocabulary.]

The chapter spends several pages on people and theories among the sexologists, then moves on social anxieties about homosexual dynamics in all-female school situations, as expressed both in advice literature and in fiction such as Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women. The works of Colette are offered as an illustration of the more neutral French treatment of the topic.

Radclyffe Hall was, in some ways, an iconic representative of the sexologists’ “invert”. Her classic novel The Well of Loneliness accepted the psychological models but argued for acceptance and tolerance. She used the “born this way” argument but seemed to accept that homosexuality was a sort of tragedy. (Though unlike her protagonist, Hall had a long-term partner in Una Troubridge, disrupted only by Hall’s infidelity.)

The chapter discusses the struggles around the publication of the novel and its reception.


Vicinus reviews the various models that women used to imagine and describe their same-sex relationships, including a variety of family analogues, as well as models that rejected conventional relationship types. She discusses how the social meanings of such concepts as friendship, marriage, love, and sex have changed and affect how women have understood their bonds. The changing fashions in women’s writing, as well as the perils of public writing about private matters, have affected what we are permitted to know about women’s lives and loves in the past. Examples are given of how women’s expression of their love has shifted among romance, passion, sensuality, and sexual activity at different times.

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Saturday, December 26, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 190 - So You’re Writing a Sapphic Historical Romance: Questions to Consider - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/12/26 - listen here)


When I first got the idea that ended up becoming the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I envisioned putting together a simple sourcebook of background information for authors of lesbian historical fiction. How hard could it be, after all? It’s not like there was that much information available on lesbians in history. Silly me. I was so delightfully wrong. But as I began realizing the scope of the historic information available, and as I began thinking about the fuzzy edges of what a resource of that type should cover, I set aside the idea of a sourcebook and focused on a more granular approach to familiarize myself with the field.

That dream has never entirely left me. When I interview authors on this podcast, one of the questions I always ask is, “how did you approach researching how your characters would have understood and experienced their sexuality?” And time and again I get responses that focus on the difficulty of finding information and the need to extrapolate from modern experiences and to rely on imagination. I keep returning to that idea: just as there is a market for reference books that tell you about everyday life in historic settings like Jane Austen’s England, I think there’s a market for a reference book that tells you about the experience of women who loved women in historic settings. Not in all the academic ambiguity, but laid out in a practical way for authors who just want to get on with writing a story. And I think, just maybe, I’m ready to start working on it for certain times and places.

Any guide to writing sapphic characters needs to examine two different topics. What do we know about the specific experiences of women who loved women? And what was the range of experiences for all women in the chosen setting? So my outline falls into the following categories. For women’s experiences in general, we start with demographics and the sociology of family life. Then we look at the legal, religious, and economic context of people’s lives. Next we examine the range of women’s interpersonal relationships outside the family. This is followed by a gradual look at the norms of women’s physical relationships and displays of affection, starting from the very public, through more private contexts, and finally addressing the specific question of erotic behavior. Having broached the topic of erotic same-sex relationships, we look at the available social models for gender and sexuality, and how same-sex relations were viewed in popular culture. Finally, we step back a little to consider a slightly broader context in space and time.

What I’m discussing today is not the answers, but the questions. It may not be possible to answer all these questions for any given fictional setting. But thinking about them can get you started down useful pathways.

Demographics and Family Relations

Before we start thinking about the presence of same-sex love, consider simply the absence of heterosexual marriage. While it’s true that many women in history negotiated the complexities of both, in historical romance we tend to expect our protagonists to be free of other ties. So what proportion of women in our chosen culture were never married? What proportion were previously married but are now single, whether widowed or separated? What was the typical age at which women married? At what age would an unmarried status be seen to be outside the norm, or at least the ideal? What were cultural attitudes toward non-married women? Do we actually need to come up with extraordinary pleading for our heroines to be unmarried or is it something unremarkable?

To what extent do women feel able to make choices with regard to marriage? How much influence can they have over timing or the choice of a spouse? What are the reasons (other than lack of heterosexual desire) that a woman might put off or avoid marriage? How is the social context different for a widow as opposed to a never-married woman?

Looking at the lives of singlewomen as models for our characters goes beyond the simple question of marriage. Until very recently, a woman in a same-sex partnership would be treated by society as if she were single. So what were the circumstances in which a non-married woman might live outside the parental home? What were the plausible household arrangements? We often forget how the simple logistics of everyday life made living completely alone impractical. How common was it, and under what circumstances, for two or more non-married women to share a household? What circumstances might make that unremarkable?

For that matter, what were the typical or possible dynamics for relationships with her extended family? How did a non-married woman relate to her siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or more distant kin? What were the range of attitudes toward her?

Another very important question is how the answers to these questions differ based on family class and/or income. It’s popular to focus historic romance on the lives of the privileged, but might the story we’re telling work better in a middle class or working class setting? This question will come up time and again because differences in lives and attitudes by class or income can entirely change relationship dynamics.

Economics, Law, and Religion

The next set of considerations are related in that they are external forces that have both a strict, formal aspect, and a more variable practical aspect. These are economics, law, and religion.

What is the range of possible economic situations for a non-married woman? And how do these options affect her interpersonal relations? How do class and family wealth affect these options? Are certain economic possibilities closed to her due to class expectations? How does all this affect her possible living situations? This is one of several contexts where it’s important not to rely on popular culture to limit our expectations. I can think of lots of stories that started with a premise of “women couldn’t do X” – couldn’t work outside the home, couldn’t run a business, couldn’t have an independent income – when counterexamples can be found in history. Be aware of what is typical, but also of what is possible. Is your character being truly transgressive or only unconventional? Or can she do what the plot requires without even flouting convention? Conversely, we need to know what the constraints were. What ways of making a living would need careful justification as opposed to being ordinary? What options are so implausible you’ve used up your readers’ suspension of disbelief all on that one thing?

Narrowing the focus down to setting up a romance plot, what economic circumstances could enable or prevent two women from co-habiting? How do the economic possibilities shape our possible happily ever afters? This is a context where looking at the demographics of everyday life for all social classes can be an eye-opener. How did actual women make an independent household together and how did they come to that place?

The law is another context where we need to examine not only the letter but the practical application. And keep in mind that laws were not the same everywhere, or in all eras. Furthermore, application of the laws could change depending either on public mood or private whim.

The first question to ask is, were there any laws addressing women engaging in same-sex relations? The answer isn’t necessarily “yes”. But if so, what specific aspects of those relations was the law concerned with? When we look at historic cases when lesbian-like women ran afoul of the law, it’s rarely the case that the simple fact of being a lesbian was on trial. The law might concern itself with specific sex acts. Or with gender transgression.

Even when there were laws against certain acts, we need to know who was actually at risk of having those laws enforced against them. Was class a protection from either the suspicion or the accusation of those acts? Were women in certain professions either automatically suspect, or silently given a pass with regard to transgressions? If women got in trouble with respect to the law, were the authorities specifically looking for transgressions or did the matter only arise incidentally? Was homosexuality only brought in as an issue when there was some other complaint to begin with? What were the hypothetical and the actual penalties? Were legal penalties only enforced for very specific offences within the larger sphere of same-sex relations?

The legal questions are a major framework for how our heroines view their lives. For example, unusually in the European context, England never had laws addressing female homosexuality, very much in contrast to the legal position of male homosexuals, or the situation of women in some continental cultures. So a gay male historic romance set in England will involve some critical concerns that a sapphic romance in the same setting won’t deal with. Similarly, when you look at trials in France or Germany or other places in central Europe, the cases that were pursued and that involved the rare extreme punishments most often involved gender-crossing or penetrative sex using an instrument. Two women who presented as feminine and whose sexual activities did not mimic penetrative sex rarely seem to have been at serious risk under the law. So if we don’t want the fear of legal reprisals to be a part of our story, what are the ways that our characters could be functionally invisible to the law, within our chosen setting?

Religion is another context where it’s important to consider not simply what the official opinions were, but how they were applied in context, and how women’s same-sex relationships were interpreted within that context. (And remember that not all religions have had similar opinions about same-sex relations, and that attitudes have changed at times.)

How does our characters’ religion (whether their personal beliefs, or those of the culture they live in) view same-sex relationships? Do those attitudes focus on the sexual aspect or more broadly on romantic relationships? What is the range of attitudes our characters might have about how their lives fit into their religious beliefs?

Does the religion have formal positions on same-sex activity? Does it have informal positions? What aspects of same-sex relations are central to those positions? How do attitudes toward same-sex relations differ from those on similar opposite-sex relations? What is the range of opinions?

This is yet another context where it’s important not to look only at formal, learned positions, but on the interactions of everyday life. Even when the formal religious position is that homosexual relations are unacceptable, they may be viewed simply as a human weakness. Conversely, there have been eras in Christian culture when same-sex relations were considered one of the worst possible sins. At those same times, intensely romantic same-sex relationships could be treated as praiseworthy, as long as there was no suspicion of sexual activity. And individual people have regularly found their own philosophical accommodation between their romantic and sexual desires and the teachings of their religion. It’s rarely a clear black-and-white situation.

Emotional and Romantic Relationships in their Social Context

When plotting the problems and opportunities for your romantic couple, keep in mind how their experiences will differ from the courtship of a heterosexual couple. In many historic societies there is a presumption that male-female interactions will always carry a sexual overtone, but the same assumption is rarely made about same-sex interactions. It is usual for every society to have established patterns of intimate friendships – of close and enduring emotional bonds taken on by choice, rather than the chance of birth. These can provide fertile ground for how our characters might “try on” their romantic leanings.

Within our chosen society, what is the degree of mixing or separation of the genders in everyday life? In what context do women socialize in mixed-gender groups versus all-women groups? Is there any special meaning placed on a woman who primarily socializes only with women or is this typical?

Does the society have models for close emotional relationships between women who are not immediate family members? What is the range of possible relationships of this type? How are women expected to behave in them? What are their benefits and consequences? What is the vocabulary used to talk about them?

At what age, and in what context do women typically establish lasting emotional bonds with other women? How long are such bonds expected to endure? How are these bonds expressed? How are they described and characterized by others? What other models do people compare them to? What are the similarities and differences between relationships within the family and those with someone outside the family?

Just because a society has some established models for intimate same-sex bonds doesn’t mean those models are value-free. How are women’s intimate friendships viewed within the context of society? How are they viewed in comparison to marriage? How does class or income affect this? Are close friendships praised or viewed with suspicion? Are they expected to be fleeting or life-long? Are they expected to be exclusive or are women expected to have many close relationships?

What do people think about the erotic potential of close same-sex emotional relationships? Is it even considered a possibility? Is eroticism expected to be a normal part of intimate friendships? Or is it unimaginable—that is, to those not involved in them!

Whether erotic or not, how did women approach each other with regard to establishing a close relationship or increasing the intimacy of a relationship? Were there conventional rituals? Was there a vocabulary for the process? Were there rites of passage in establishing an enduring intimate friendship? How did women indicate the desire for an erotic relationship? How did they react to being solicited for an erotic relationship by another woman? Were there particular signals they might use?

In this section we’re presuming that the romance will involve some sort of romantic bond and not only a sexual relationship—which seems a reasonable presumption for writing historic romance—but we could ask some of the same questions about purely sexual relations. And not all romantic friendships had sex as a component or a goal. But in general, knowing how our target society feels about close friendships between women gives us a lot of useful information on what our characters will experience and what their options are.

Public Displays of Affection

You know that stage where you like someone and you want to give them a hug but suddenly you’re all self-conscious about how they’ll take it? Or you thought you were talking casually and you put your hand on their arm as you’re talking…and you realize that you’re feeling more than just the enthusiasm of making a point. Or you’re walking with your girlfriend in an unfamiliar place and you wonder how the people around you will interpret it if you two hold hands? How about if you hear someone address another person as “sweetheart” or “darling” or “beloved” and you’re trying to guess what their relationship is?

The societal norms of physical and verbal affection can vary enormously and shift subtly in meaning. What are the gestures and words that would be unremarkable between strangers who have just been introduced? Between casual friends? Between bosom buddies? What are the gestures and words that would unmistakably signal an intimate or erotic relationship? And who can use those in a general public setting without comment? And do any of these vary according to the apparent genders of the participants?

These questions are significant for three aspects of story development. Firstly, what is the “background noise” of affectionate interactions between women in our historic setting? What is the range of behavior that would be ordinary and unremarkable between two women with no erotic or romantic relationship? For that matter, what is the range of behavior that would be remarkable in its absence? Secondly, what are the subtle shifts in behavior that our characters can use to either initiate or recognize the developing intimacy in a relationship? Which of these would their society find unremarkable (and I use this word in the sense of “no one would think to comment on it”) and which might be considered significant to others? Thirdly, what are the behaviors that might be considered suspect or transgressive if done out in the public eye, regardless of who does them?

Are there differences between the gestures and language of affection used within a family versus those used with outsiders? In what contexts and with what meaning are these extended to non-family members? Are there differences between displays of affection that are assumed to be purely conventional and those that are always assumed to carry personal meaning? Are there systematic differences in the norms of how a woman displays affection to an unrelated man as opposed to an unrelated woman? This particular question can be useful not only in the sense of what two women can “get away with”, but also if one character is using masculine-coded behavior to signal romantic interests as opposed to platonic interests.

What is the catalog of specific actions used in our setting? Keep in mind that certain gestures may have fallen out of use, or may have only arisen recently, or the assigned meaning may have changed over time. As a specific example of what I mean, in Europe from classical times well into the early modern era, there was a conventional gesture known as “chin chucking” in which one person gently holds the other person’s chin in one hand. This was strongly associated with erotic love. If you see two figures in historic art using this gesture, you can assume the two people are either getting it on or are about to. It faded in more recent centuries to being more a signal of power or age differentiated invasion of personal space. And today it has largely faded from the social repertoire entirely. So we need to consider not only how our characters might have used or interpreted the displays of affection that we are familiar with, but whether they had ones we don’t use.

That said, consider the following types of physical gestures and what meaning they have for our characters and in our setting: embracing, holding hands, touching the hand, arms, face, etc., kissing the cheek, kissing a hand, kissing the mouth, sitting in close contact, sitting or walking together with arms around the shoulders or waist, sitting on someone’s lap. Does our setting have special terminology for any of these gestures? How would they describe them?

Similarly for verbal endearments: what is the range of use that is considered ordinary or typical between people who aren’t married to each other? Are there terms that one would only expect married people to use or that would signal a marriage-like relationship? How do people address each other directly (either face to face or in correspondence) and how do they refer to the other person when speaking to a third party? Are there clear differences between conventional social language and language that indicates an intimate emotional relationship?

All of these details can give us a context for showing the development of a romantic relationship within the conventions of the setting. Which is our couple likely to do first: address each other by the first name or kiss? The answers can be surprising.

Private Displays of Affection & Bedroom Behavior

Every culture has degrees of privacy in how affection is displayed, regardless of whether that affection is romantic in nature, or is within an approved relationship. The previous considerations were about how our characters might act out in public: on the street, at a social event, while traveling. But it’s also useful to know the accepted range of affectionate behavior in more restricted settings, while still considering both actions that would be unremarkable between platonic friends and those that would be understood as signaling a more intimate relationship. How do people behave within the family home? At a small party limited to close friends? How do women behave when socializing with each other in private, whether in small groups or in pairs? And which of those behaviors might provide an opportunity either to make or to respond to a suggestion of an even more intimate encounter?

The specific possible behaviors and language are similar to those considered for the public sphere, but we might find them carrying a different meaning in different contexts. The length of a kiss, the language used for flirtatious teasing. Are there affectionate gestures that are acceptable and “neutral” in private that are not considered appropriate in public? Are there gestures or forms of address that are considered merely conventional in public that become more personal in private? For example, a man who kisses a female acquaintance in public as a neutral greeting might find the same action taken differently if the two are alone together. Would the dynamic be the same between women?

Before we even get into the question of erotic activities, what meaning is placed on others entering one’s private space within the home? How does our culture define and manage privacy? What are the spaces in which one might interact with strangers? With mere acquaintances as opposed to close friends? Are there spaces reserved for only those most intimate friends? As an example, the French salonnières of the 17th century would often preside over their gatherings from their bed, when the bedchamber was a more public location that it would become in later centuries. How does the domestic geography of privacy intersect with the domestic geography of erotic activity? How much privacy do people expect or get? As always, how is this affected by class and status? For the wealthy and privileged, what is the place of servants in one’s expectations of privacy? For the lower classes, in what contexts might one expect to have privacy at all?

Is it normal or common for women of equal status, who aren’t immediate family members, to help each other dress and undress? Or to be present when another woman is dressing or undressing? So many opportunities!

Is it normal or common for women friends to share a bed without this having an erotic implication? “There was only one bed” is a trope that doesn’t carry the same significance if there is an assumption that people will share beds as an ordinary thing. But conversely, in our target culture, does bed-sharing have a symbolic importance within intimate friendships? What is the range of interactions that people have in bed together other than sleeping? Is it a place for conversation? For reading? Is it normal or common for people who share a bed, but do not have a sexual relationship, to cuddle together?

For that matter, do people typically share a bedroom whether or not they share a bed? If our characters employ servants, would a servant typically sleep in the same room? What is the expectation for privacy in the bedroom? For comparison purposes, do heterosexual married couples of an equivalent class to our characters typically sleep in the same room and bed? Or is it common for them to have separate rooms? To what extent is sexual activity closely associated with bedtime and sleeping?

Sexual Practices

And that brings us to the consideration of sex. In considering the sex lives of our characters within their cultural setting, it’s important to keep in mind that women in same-sex romantic relationships exist within a continuum of erotic and sexual expression. This is true for the present day and it’s true within history. The point of having a special section to talk about sex is not to say that all sapphic historical romances should include activities that we would today classify as sex, but rather to explore how sex was understood within that historic setting and to consider how our characters would engage with it if sex is part of their relationship.

A key question that should not be overlooked is how our target culture defines and classifies “sexual activity.” It can be possible for our characters to engage in a variety of sensual and erotic activities without thinking of what they’re doing as “having sex” within the understanding of their times. This can have a big effect on how they think about their lives!

Cultures can give us clues to how they define sex by what types of activities they talk about in conjunction with the central case of heterosexual procreative sex. Some cultures may define “sex” exclusively as male-female activity, and while that can be maddening on a philosophical basis, it can mean that our female couple don’t consider that any rules or taboos on sex apply to them. Similarly, some cultures focus very specifically on penetration as defining “sex” regardless of the genders involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that activities not classified as “sex” have no social significance attached to them. For example, masturbation may be categorized as “not sex” but still have social stigma attached. The idea here is to shake up our modern assumptions about how people think about sex and see what we can discover about what our characters would think. Or at least what some of their contemporaries would think.

The worm in the apple here is that it’s extremely rare in Western culture before very recent times for women to write candidly about their own sexual knowledge and sexual experiences. Given the double standards around gender and sex, it has often been common for women to hedge this information about with metaphor, coded language, or simple omission. On top of that, women’s writing was often prevented, suppressed, self-censored, or erased after the fact. This can mean that for some eras and cultures, the only recorded information about women’s same-sex practices that have come down to us has been filtered through men. And in some eras it has specifically been filtered through a male pornographic gaze. So when we’re exploring the information about women’s sexual practices, it can be very useful to sort things out into “what men thought or fantasized about lesbian sex,” “what women were willing to admit in public about their sex lives,” and “what women recorded about their sex lives in records that weren’t intended to be public.” All of this still leaves vast gaps where we must muddle though as best we can.

So having covered basic kissing and embracing and cuddling in previous sections, and having delved into the philosophical question of “what counts as sex?” let’s move on to thinking about some specific sexual practices women enjoy together. Are there specific practices that are associated with female couples? Is there evidence in this culture for “tribadism”, that is rubbing the vulvas together? Is there evidence for performing manual stimulation? What about digital penetration?

Is there evidence for using a dildo for penetration? If so, do we know what it might have been made out of? Would it be held in the hand or attached to the body? If a dildo is used, would it be associated with particular types of gender expression? Is there any specific social meaning attached to using one? Are they also used for solitary stimulation?

Is there evidence for open-mouthed kissing or tongue-kissing? Is this considered to fall under the category of sex? Is there evidence for oral sex generally regardless of the genders involved? How about between women? Is any special social significance attached to oral sex?

How does the culture understand female orgasm? Is it generally expected to happen during sex regardless of the genders involved? Was sex between women expected to result in orgasm? How did popular culture view sex between women, assuming it acknowledged the existence of such a thing? What did people think about it compared to heterosexual sex? What sort of social meaning was placed on the idea of sex between women? Why did people think women might engage in it?

What was the vocabulary of sexual anatomy, acts, and accessories involved in sex between women? Were there words specific to lesbian sex? Were there different levels of politeness available in talking about lesbian sex? What sorts of euphemisms were used? To what extent was there a common, shared vocabulary, or to what extent do women seem to be putting together their own language, based on borrowings from heterosexual practice and individual invention?

How did women negotiate the initiation of a sexual relationship? Did the culture have specific customs or rituals that might be used in this context? Is it something that women felt able to talk directly about before an encounter? How did they talk about it after a sexual encounter? Does there seem to have been a shared progression of how a sexual relationship developed?

What is the degree of general awareness of erotic potential between women? How is that awareness communicated within the society? Does it show up in literature or popular culture? Is there a general awareness of specific women in the culture known (or believed) to be engaging in same-sex erotics? How are they viewed? What sort of popular culture representations (if any) of women’s same-sex erotics are in circulation within the culture? Who has access to them? Do pop culture depictions of sex between women vary depending on the class or status of the participants, or of the audience?

Cultural Understandings of Gender and Sexuality

Having focused in on the specifics of sexual activity, let’s step back to consider the context of how relations between women were understood in our target culture. This takes the phrase “same-sex” and looks individually at the “sex” part and the “same” part. How does the culture (and our characters) understand gender and understand sexuality? How do our characters categorize male and female? How does the culture understand and deal with people who don’t fit neatly into those two categories? Is gender considered to be innate or performative – that is, is it something you are or something you do? Are there categories other than gender that are relevant for romantic or sexual relationships? How do class or social status interact with gender?

How does the culture view the dynamics of romantic or sexual desire? Are there default expectations of who will desire whom? To what extent is desire prioritized as a basis for formal relationships? What about for informal ones? Are people thought to have an innate tendency to desire a particular type of person? Are certain objects of desire more acceptable than others? Does the culture have a theory that explains individual preferences in desire? Do different groups in the culture have different models or understandings of desire?

Looking at some of the possibilities more specifically, does the culture include understandings of same-sex or same-gender desire that consider it to be “normal” or at least ordinary? Is same-sex or same-gender desire viewed neutrally, or is it given a positive or negative judgement?

Is there a model of desire based on gender difference? If so, are there understandings that view same-sex desire as caused by variant gender identity? (For example, that desire for a woman is “inherently masculine” and implies some degree of masculine identity in the experiencer?) Does this relate to other cultural understandings of gender, or of gender-appropriate behavior?

Is there a model of desire based on similarity? That is, is there an assumption that people will be drawn to those most similar to them? If so, what does this mean for same-sex relationships? Does the model cover sexual relationships or are they treated differently from non-sexual relationships?

If the culture has both difference and similarity models for desire, how do they interact? Are they applied in different circumstances or coexist as equal alternatives? Are there differences in how couples are perceived based on whether they involve gender-similarity or gender-difference? To be more specific, does the culture view the equivalent of butch-femme couples differently from femme-femme couples?

Does the culture have concepts equivalent to transgender identity? Is there a perceived relationship or continuum between female homoeroticism and transmasculine identity? If so, are there characteristics that distinguish within this continuum? Do we have evidence for how people understood their own identities within this context?

Does the culture expect couples to experience symmetry of desire or is there an expectation that one member will experience a more active desire and the other will accept that desire? If this model exists, how does it play out in courtship and in erotic activity? Does the culture expect an active/passive contrast or does it expect both parties to actively pursue the relationship? Are female couples different in this regard than heterosexual couples? If there is an active-passive difference, are people viewed differently depending on which role they take?

What is the vocabulary for women with same-sex desires? Is there a range of terminology that covers everything from platonic friendship to sexual partners? What sorts of nuance can be expressed with different words? Does the culture have explicit words that only apply to same-sex desire, as well as more euphemistic expressions? Are there cultural differences in who these words are applied to or who uses them?

Is there a belief or perception that certain physiological, behavioral, or sartorial traits are signs of lesbian desire? Are certain habits or actions perceived as communicating same-sex interest? Are they used deliberately to communicate interest or identity?

Women Loving Women in Popular Culture

That question merges seamlessly into the question of representations in popular culture, which we’ve touched on in several categories already. But it makes sense to gather some of the topics together.

What is the range of representations of women’s close emotional relationships in popular culture? How do those representations vary with class? How does access to those representations vary with class or other demographics? What sort of models do women encounter in their culture that help them put their own feelings and experiences into context?

More specifically, what is the range of representations in popular culture of romantic relationships between women, that is, relationships expressed using the same language and symbolism that would be used for a heterosexual couple? Similarly, what is the range of representations of erotic activity between women in popular culture? Who has access to those representations? What purposes do they have?

What are the boundaries between positive and negative depictions of all these categories? What types of relationships are depicted as praiseworthy and which as bad examples? Is there a social purpose to pop culture representations of female couples? Are they intended to shape behavior? To satirize? To entertain? To express the author’s experience?

Outside of fictional representations, were there women who had a reputation of being in romantic or sexual relationships with women? How was this reputation communicated? What language was used? And how were these women viewed?

General Historical Trends

No era or culture is an island. In every generation, there will be older people who remember when Things Were Different. Change around gender and sexuality may happen gradually or rapidly enough to create a generational clash. It can help to understand what attitudes or practices around gender and sexuality have changed leading up to the setting for our characters. What lingering ideas will they be exposed to? What stories about the goings on of the previous generation will they hear about? In what direction are things changing?

If one looks at only the last century or so, it can be easy to assume that attitudes around sexuality and gender have always evolved in the same direction, from more repressed to more open and accepting, but that’s far from the case. It seems like every couple of centuries attitudes revolve in a cycle. And those older attitudes will definitely affect our characters’ lives and experiences. For that matter, with hindsight, we can know how the culture will change after the period of our story. How will those changes affect their happy ending?

In addition to the larger context of time, consider the larger context of space. Cultures aren’t isolated from one another. What do our characters know about same-sex relationships in the countries they might visit? Or the ones that visitors come from? Might our characters be more or less comfortable if they traveled abroad? Might there be hazards in another land due to different laws and customs? Or might there be more freedom away from one’s own culture? Might our characters “get ideas” about the possibilities available to them from the people or popular culture of other places? What does our target culture think about their neighbors with respect to same-sex relationships? What do their neighbors think about them? Are those cultural beliefs true or are they embedded in stereotypes?


I realize that this discussion may feel daunting! Do you really have to know the answers to all these questions before embarking on a sapphic historical romance? Absolutely not! As I pointed out at the beginning, for many cultures, a lot of the answers are unknowable. But there are more answers out there than you may think. And sometimes it helps to know what the questions are.

I want to read all manner of historical romances that are deeply rooted in the settings they’re depicting. I want to read about relationships that are both positive and true to their times—stories that have happy endings that work for the culture they’re set in. I want to read stories that aren’t modern characters in fancy dress. And I will do my best to continue providing authors with help finding the information they need to write them.

Show Notes


Major category: 
Monday, December 21, 2020 - 21:00

When browsing through the history of women who love women, there are certain confluences of time, place, and people that cry out to be mined for their fictional potential. Get enough women of the right sort together in the same place, and you have a great setting for your own invented characters, who can borrow bits and pieces of real lives and inherit their historicity. The Paris of Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Colette, Vita Sackville-West, Radclyffe Hall, Liane de Pougy, and all the rest is just such a place and time. Invent yourself a devil-may-care heiress. Have her fall in love with a decadent aristocrat. Plunge them into the world of Parisian theater, salons, and cafes filled with outrageous women. Have them come out of the lost generation to find themselves again.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing

Part IV – Modernist Refashionings

In this part we see the emergence of a “modern lesbian” identity, as illustrated by four biographies. [Note: I find it curious that Vicinus refers to them as “case studies” rather than biographies, but perhaps because she bases the discussion more on themes in their work than their lives?] Chapter 7 focuses on the Anglo-American expatriate community in early 20th century Paris, who created an alternate parallel society of women who loved women. Chapter 8 focuses on women who accepted, to some degree, the psychological models of ‘inversion” but argued – not always coherently – for their acceptance and inclusion in society.

Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing

Themes in this chapter include the deliberate use of cross-dressing and performance to establish and signal identity within the Parisian community centered around Natalie Clifford Barney. Also featured are two of Barney’s lovers, Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks. For these women, cross-dressing was a claiming of gender instability, a “misquotation” of gender for artiastic effect.

In contrast to the “mannish” stylings of an earlier generation that had plausible deniability with respect to sexuality, the Paris set used fashion to establish a variety of transgressive identities: the androgynous gamine, the rake, the aristocratic dandy. All represented the ability of self-definition and a performative display rather than a reflection of the self.

Natalie Barney had the advantages of being a railroad heiress and having a flamboyant mother who disregarded convention. She was aware of her preference for women from an early age. She rejected the sexologists’ theories of the lesbian as “abnormal” and “masculine”. Though the delighted in theatrical presentation, she embraced a feminine style. Her circle engaged with the “decadent” French literature of the later 19th century, featuring lesbians and enjoying a revival of Sappho as a lesbian icon.

While existing in parallel with women who were marginalized for their sexuality, the Paris circle simply disdained to care what others thought. It helped that many of them were wealthy and were not dependent on social approval, but there was also something of a critical mass effect sufficient to shrug off the opinions of others.

The loved theatricals and in turn were treated as a spectacle by the French press. This chapter is rife with references to the many artists, writers, and celebrities that made up Barney’s community, held together by ties of ties of love and friendship. (Barney was notorious for keeping her ex-lovers as friends, which was a good thing since she went through so many of them.) Together they created a new and positive lesbian mythology to counter the growing medicalization of sexuality.

Barney’s salon became the center of a vibrant ongoing community that continued in some form from 1909 to 1968(!) interrupted only by an exile during WWII. Through it, she supported an entire generation of intellectuals, outliving her transgressive beginnings to become an establishment.

One of Barney’s more famous lovers, Renée Vivien, takes up most of the rest of the chapter. Like Barney, she inherited wealth, kicked free of family ties, and settled in Paris. In personal style, she took the androgynous path and adopted the stylings of the decadent poets for her métier. She lived and loved very intensely, full of extremes. She saw lesbianism as the most natural state for women and expressed this position in her art. Having rejected bourgeois conventions and the ideals of family, it’s little surprise that neither she nor Barney established long-lasting partnerships. The discussion delves into some of the prominent themes in her writing.

The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of another of Barney’s lovers, the artist Romaine Brookes, who came into the Paris circle when both of them were in middle age. The themes of her work and personal style feature isolation and suffering, perhaps reflecting her childhood experiences, though like the others she emerged into adulthood with money and free of family attachments, despite a brief marriage.

This chapter spends a lot of time analyzing the themes in the three women’s artistic and literary output, as well as cataloging many of the personal connections that formed within their social circle.


Time period: 
Saturday, December 19, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 189 – Book Appreciation with Diana Pinguicha – transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/12/19 - listen here)

(Transcript pending)

Show Notes

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Diana Pinguicha Online

Major category: 
Monday, December 14, 2020 - 20:00

I'm going to confess that Vicinus's Intimate Friends is becoming a bit of a slog. (Did you notice I failed to get a blog up last week?) The material is becoming more and more literary critisicm and less biography. And there's a fair amount of psychological analysis that feels at odds with the historic context of the subjects. Or maybe I'm just going through a reading slump. Two more chapters. And then maybe I'll throw out my plans for the next publication and hunt through my shelves for something I can get excited about.

In the mean time, I'm having a lot of fun with the fulfillment of the auction item I donated to Romancing the Runoff. Per the winner's request, I'm putting together a historic guide to writing f/f relationships in the Regency era. Eventually I'd like to do a number of focused guides of this sort (and friends are convincing me to save them for publication and not just give them away on the blog, on the theory that people won't value them unless they pay for them).

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 6: Passion…Immense and Unrestrained

This chapter looks at examples of intense, perhaps even destructive desrie that didn’t fit neatly into the available 19th century models for female love. So how did these women depict and understand their desires? One method was to displace the desire through taking on roles or working it out through fictional depictions. Some women understood their desire for a dominant position as a type of masculinity, as with the two women considered in this chapter: Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

Linton came to terms with her inner conflicts over desire for women via a masculine identity, played out in her fiction and in idolizing “masculine” virtues such as intellect and self-control. Lee was suspicious of male power in society and looked to a non-mateiral feminine ideal of virtue and leadership. Both writers focused on characters driven by irrational feelings, while valorizing self-discipline and intellect. And both had difficulty dealing with their desire for women, which was expressed in destructive ways in their own personal lives.

Linton’s life story suggests a trans-masculine identity (though Vicinus doesn’t fasten on this), but she went beyond rejecting conventional femininity in her own identity to despising it in others. Her books tended to contrast two female types: one feminine but treacherous, the other boyish and virtuous.

These attitudes carried over into her journalism, which features anti-feminist positions while embodying many of the goals of feminism in her own life. Similarly, she disparaged “gender inversion” as a concept, while embodying it. She creates strong lesbian-like characters in her novels then turns them into villains, while depicting her own desire for women through transparently self-insertion male characters, including the protagonist of a fictionalize autobiography that traced her own relationship with a much younger woman (who left her to marry).

Vernon Lee emerged from a somewhat chaotic childhood abroad to be acclaimed as an author at a fairly young age. Though her unconventional personality and habits (including wearing mannish tailored suits and having unfemininely outspoken opinions) initially inspired fascination among the Pre-Rafaelite set, her work was considered too edgy for literary success.

Lee’s fiction featured women whose same-sex desire played out in turbulent plots in which they ended up becoming saviors of weak, degraded men. She envisioned a new type of womanly virtue that lay in rejecting marriage and sexual desire to serve others. Although Lee’s heroines were depicted as “sexless” it was in a form that included an idealized same-sex desire. A generation later, her characters would have fit well with the image of the “new woman”.

Lee’s own life included a couple of extended intimate friendships. The first with a fellow writer ended with the latter’s marriage. Another with a woman she idolized for her physicality and beauty foundered on a mis-match of personality, with Lee’s intellectualism at odds with the other woman’s desire for someone in need of emotional support. Lee’s fiction expanded into horror, often involving the consequences of obsessive love.

Both Linton and Lee lived during the emergence of sexological theories of homosexuality. These theories sorted out the women involved in same-sex relationships into the “true invert” (masculine-presenting and emotionally disordered) and “normal” women who accepted their love but were not necessarily driven to same-sex relations. Rather than this pathologized image of the “masculine invert”, Linton and Lee worked with an images of female masculinity that aligned more with an androgynous boy. In the remainder of the chapter, Vicinus explores this image in their work, especially as it interacted with the figure of a distant or unavailable mother.

Time period: 
Saturday, December 12, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 188 – Interview with Diana Pinguicha – transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/12/12 - listen here)

(Transcript pending)

Show Notes

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The myth of the “enchanted Moura”
  • Social, political, and sexual dynamics around the Reconquista
  • Medieval and modern resonances around eating disorders and self-harm
  • Dipping into Portuguese history for fictional inspiration
  • Books mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Diana Pinguicha Online

Major category: 
Saturday, December 5, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 187 - On the Shelf for December 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/12/05 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2020.

For those who thought that 2020 would never end…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still the rest of the month to go. But there are reasons for hope. Three Covid-19 vaccines are in the approval process and if we can all hold on, keep practicing good anti-transmission hygiene, and push off trying to pretend we’re back to normal for a while longer, we can get through this together. If there’s any lesson the pandemic should have given us, it’s how inextricably intertwined our lives are, both on a global level and on a local one. Every action, every decision we make affects people we will never meet. And the essential framework of civilization relies on us being willing to shape our individual actions, not only for our own personal immediate satisfaction, but for the benefit of all those other threads in the fabric of our society.

Maybe current events seem an odd topic for a history podcast, but history is full of lessons, if we only take the time to pay attention and to look for the parallels. For example, if you look at the historic parallels, it’s easy to see that the current reactionary agenda against transgender people is closely parallel in its rhetoric and methods to campaigns in the past against homosexual people. And any cis lesbian or bisexual woman who thinks that the anti-trans forces won’t return to a more general persecution of queer people in the fullness of time, is as blinkered as the Republican establishment in Georgia who is suddenly shocked—shocked, I say!—to find that the anti-rational, violence-inciting mob that they have tacitly supported all this time is now willing to turn on them.

History will warn and teach us about these things if we’re willing to pay attention and look for the connections. But history also teaches us happier and more positive things: like the myriad of varieties of relationships and identities that people have forged for themselves across time and space. Studying how people lived, and thought, and felt in the past has a usefulness beyond entertainment. Sometimes we will find lives with a deep personal resonance—lives that speak to us on an individual basis and provide models for our own path. The series of books I’ve been blogging in the last several months are a good example of that, as they survey the lives of women who loved women in many different ways across a wide span of time.

Publications on the Blog

Originally I’d planned for the blog to get through at least one book a month in the current thematic series, which meant posting at least two chapters a week. Instead I ended up slacking off a little because the world is on fire and I was feeling overwhelmed. So November and most of December is all taken up with Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends, a selection of biographies of relationships between women in the “long” 19th century, illustrating a wide variety of dynamics those relationships could involve. At the end of December, rather than starting the first chapter of Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, I think I’ll keep things tidy for the year-end by finding a shorter article to summarize.

Book Shopping!

And I have no new books purchased or otherwise acquired for the blog this month, though I have one ordered and on its way. So: a slow month all around.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Diana Pinguicha whose debut novel A Miracle of Roses has just come out. I loved this story, not only for the unusual medieval setting—I’m very much a medieval history geek at heart—but for the connections it makes between the social forces that warp the lives of adolescent girls in every society. So often girls are taught that everything they do, everything they are is wrong. It takes strength and courage to stand up to those forces and say, “No, there’s nothing wrong with who I am, and I will honor that.” I had a great discussion with Diana about those themes, so I hope you enjoy it too.


Back when the Lesbian Historic Motif Project was just a twinkle in my eye and a small collection of books on my shelf, the vision I had for it was to be a sourcebook of information organized for authors to use in developing characters and stories.

As I encountered the ever-expanding amount of research available on the topic, I set that idea aside in favor of a more granular review and presentation of individual publications. But I’m all too aware that my original target audience—authors—may still find it difficult to pick through the hundreds of blog entries to find the resources most relevant to their own projects. So I’m circling around again to the idea of providing another layer of synthesis—focused articles that look at specific historic contexts and discuss the range of experiences and understandings of women who loved women in that time and place.

For this month’s essay, I’d already planned to take a step in that direction and talk about how that sort of information might be organized and presented. What questions should a historic snapshot answer? What topics should be considered? What practical information would authors find useful? And what are the misperceptions I see most commonly in sapphic historical fiction?

Those plans got an additional boost when I decided to participate in the fundraiser Romancing the Runoff, raising money to support voter organizations for the Georgia Senate run-off. What could I donate to the auction that people might consider valuable enough to bid on? And my answer was: a personalized sapphic history consultation on the historic setting of your choice. I confess I agonized a bit over the chance that the winning bidder would choose a setting I haven’t yet covered in my research! But fortunately the winner picked the English Regency. So in laying out the outline of what my consultation package will include, I also wrote up the basis for this month’s podcast essay, which will be a discussion of topics and questions that will help prepare an author to write well-grounded historical characters.

2021 Fiction Series

Since it’s December, we’re rushing toward the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series. Submissions will be open during the month of January, so you have plenty of time to get a story all polished up. I feel like I haven’t been cheerleading for the fiction series enough this year, and that makes me worry about submission numbers. I’ll be making a big push to get the word out and you can help as well. There aren’t a lot of markets for specialized genres of lesbian short fiction, and even fewer that pay market rates. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to explore the historical field. We’re looking for stories of up to 5000 words, with pre-20th century settings, focused on characters who fit into the category of women who love women. We accept stories with some fantasy elements as long as they’re rooted in a specific real time and place. Check out the full call for submissions linked in the show notes.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

December is a thin month for new books this year. I only have three titles to talk about this month, all of them from mainstream presses, and all with fantasy elements. It’s only a temporary drought – I already have 7 titles for January and expect to find more.

The first two books are both from SFF publisher, which is establishing quite the reputation for diversity of representation. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is based on an actual historic labor action…then adds a bit of magic.

Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line. For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.

Loosely following on from a previous novella in the same setting, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2) by Nghi Vo follows the nonbinary story-collecting monk Chih, in an encounter with a tiger and the woman she loves. I really enjoyed the first story in this series and look forward to reading this one.

The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history. Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

The third book is by this month’s author guest, A Miracle of Roses by Diana Pinguicha from Entangled Publishing.

With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies. There's a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic--her curse--has turned her meal into a bouquet. She's on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain. If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers...into food. Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse--if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss. As the King of Portugal's betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death? With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She'd sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel's destruction.

What Am I Reading?

What have I been reading lately? I read Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune while sitting on an emergency room gurney the week before Thanksgiving, which made a lovely distraction. The other two books I’ve read have been in preparation for interviews: Diana Pinguicha’s A Miracle of Roses and Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, for which I received an advance review copy. That would be a good book count for the month even outside of quarantimes!

Podcast Changes

As a reminder, if you’re listening to this show through the TLT podcast channel, make sure to subscribe to the new independent show through your favorite podcast app because TLT is going away in January. For those who have already switched, thank you! And we’d love it if you drop a review into your podcast site to let other people know how great the show is.

Also remember that starting in January, we’ll be combining the interviews and book appreciation segments into the On the Shelf show. With the special topic episode, that takes us down to two shows a month, plus the quarterly fiction episodes. The same content as before, just in a slightly different arrangement. And a smidge less burnout on the part of your host. I hope you’ll be continuing the adventure with us as we move into this new phase of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project!

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 


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