If you've found your way here from the GCLS panel on historical fiction, let me give you a quick tour. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has an introductory page here, or you can just browse the bibliography of works we've covered so far. The best place to start with the podcast is with our chronological index. It has links to both the audio versions and the transcripts. For my own historical fiction (as well as my fantasy publications) check out the publications tab. And if you want to follow me on social media, your best bet is Twitter, where I have a personal account as well as an account focused on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.
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I’m never going to complain about the hints and beginnings of an openness in mainstream romance publishing to consider f/f historical romances. Hopefully we will eventually have so many that I don’t find myself pinning all my hopes on each individual title. Sebastian’s entry into the field branches off from an existing series, matching a lady’s companion with a haunted past and a maid with a suspicious present in something of a revenge caper. The romance worked for me, but there were a number of improbabilities in the depiction of the social context that kept throwing me out of the story. Including the resolution to the revenge-caper. So: enjoyable, but not quite up to what I always hope for.
All of the Dominion of the Fallen books have their harsh and horrifying moments, but this one feels like the darkest going in (though maybe not so dark coming out). If anyone with less skill than de Bodard were writing this series, I might have noped out after the first book, but she gets past my uneasiness around horror with gripping characters and masterful worldbuilding. The fallen angels, dragon kingdoms, and loose-cannon magical creatures of Paris are plunged into something close to all-out war. Each character finds themselves having to decide what and whom they would save, if they had the power, knowing they can’t save everything. If, like me, you reach the 90% mark and have no idea how the story will end in anything other than complete obliteration, I’ll just say: keep reading.
A free short story set in O’Dell’s “Janet Watson” series. Following the framing motif of journaling that features in the main series, this story takes the format of a diary of a teenage Janet Watson during the year that inspired her to pursue medicine. Something of a character sketch in form, we’re offered more background into the near-future worldbuilding that underpins the series. For those who love Janet, this shows the girl who will become the woman, already facing a dangerous and frightening future but without quite as many smashed dreams.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character of Miranda is something of a cipher – a pawn who exists only in other people’s image of her and plans for her. Duckett’s novella images her after her father’s return to Italy, as she begins to shake free of being a silent pawn and ask some hard questions: like what actually happened to her mother and what is lurking in the tunnels beneath the castle? She makes an uneasy alliance (and finds the possibility of romance) with a serving woman who has her own reasons to distrust the power structures in Milan. There are elements of almost gothic-style horror as well as mystery and the romance sub-plot. The fantasy elements drive the plot, but also provide a positive resolution that would not have been available in a purely historic setting.
I read this book through an interesting lens, because I was reading it in parallel with a how-to book on writing romance plots. And while I loved 90% of Lady’s Guide, the parts that clunked for me were all plot elements that the how-to book insisted were absolutely necessary plot elements in a romance. While that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of Waite’s book, it did lessen my inclination to take writing advice from the how-to book. This is a well-grounded historical romance between two women with unusual avocations: astronomical calculation and fine embroidery. In between we get an “undermine the patriarchy” plot, a sexy romance, and a fun last-minute twist. The requisite roadblocks to the romance center mostly around the characters’ pre-existing emotional damage, with a touch of disparity of economic status. The one that didn’t work for me was the last-minute fight/misunderstanding at a point in the plot where I felt an external conflict would have worked just as well (or even better) to move the plot where it needed to be. But the characters are engaging and the history, as I said, is solid – including the social context for women’s same-sex romantic experiences. Definitely recommended.
The books in the Glamourist Histories series have been somewhat hit or miss with me. This one, I’m afraid, missed. I might have been more articulate as to why if I’d succeeded in reviewing it closer in time to reading. It mostly boiled down to the protagonists doing foolish things due to unwillingness to communicate or admit weakness, plus some contrived plot twists. At this point I doubt I’ll finish the series. I wish I’d liked it better because I think the author is an amazing human being.
In some ways, this chapter feels like Manion is happy to play fast and loose with the theme of "female husbands" in order to cast a wider net on the subtitle "a trans history". The people transing gender to take up roles--whether temporary or long-term--as a soldier or sailor generally did not end up in marriages with women, though they might use flirtations with women as a strategy for gender acceptance. One perhaps unusual feature of the figures covered in this chapter is that they all had (auto)biographies published about their trans experiences. Though of course we wouldn't know as much about them if they hadn't. But those biographies often tell us more about the accepted shape of gender-crossing narratives of the time than they do about the actual experiences of their subjects. We know this because there's enough supporting evidence from other sources to point out where they diverge from history in favor of standard tropes. While their actual lives were diverse in details and ambiguous in meaning, the biographies create a standard narrative of essential femininity, constant risk of discovery due to female physicality, flirtatious but ultimately futile romantic encounters with women, and eventual resolution into a normative female life.
Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Chapter 3: The Sailors and Soldiers
PAF transing gender to join the military or go to sea were common both in life and popular culture, with a wide variety of motivations. In isolated cases those who performed well before being unmasked might be celebrated and even rewarded, such as James Gray, William Chandler, and Robert Shurtliff whose (somewhat fictionalized) autobiographies helped ensure their fame. Common knowledge of stories such as theirs kept trans possibilities in mind, although there were significant barriers to success. Their roles in popular culture were contradictory, both establishing trans possibilities but always framing them as women and therefore both “normal” and anomalous.
Within the male-dominated world of sailors and soldiers, the romantic or sexual pursuit of women could be an essential feature of gender crossing, as well as sometimes aligning with their own desires. But these stories often do not feature permanent partnerships in the way the previous examples of female husbands do. Rather they focus on flirtations that are framed specifically as a strategy or an unwilling necessity.
The chapter focuses on the three aforementioned people. James Gray (née Hannah Snell) served briefly in the army and then at sea, eventually being wounded in battle and was discharged with a pension. Only then did they deliberately announce their assigned sex. Gray then turned their experiences into a celebrity career, writing an autobiography. Manion discusses how the publicity around great focused strongly on the act of disguise and supposed near misses at being discovered, all of which emphasized their female body.
Samuel Bundy has a less typical story, alternately presenting as a man or a woman, and while they adopted a sailor’s outfit it isn’t clear that they served on a ship. Bundy entered into a marriage with Mary Parlour and when Bundy’s assigned sex was revealed, resulting in a charge of fraud, the charge was dropped because Mary declined to pursue it. This again points to the difficulty English law had with identifying an actual crime involved in marriage between two women. But the marriage was dissolved, Bundy returned to skirts, and sometime later married a man.
William Chandler preferred male coded activities from a young age and in 1759 at age 19--with no particular trigger for the decision--decided to leave home, change into male clothing, and make their way in the world as a man. Within a few days they had an offer to become a sailor. After some time at sea, the apprentice to a ship right in Portsmouth. After working in that trade for a time, Chandler returned to wearing female clothing, wrote an autobiography of their adventures, and eventually married a man they had first known as a fellow shipwright. Chandler’s autobiography follows tropes of the genre that are at odds with their actual experiences: fear of discovery, concerns about being physically weak, near-miss sexual encounters with women. Given this, some doubt the too-tidy resolution in heterosexual marriage, and there is ambiguous evidence regarding cohabitation with a woman named Elizabeth Slade. But Manion has turned up a marriage record to a Mr. Slade by one Mary Lacey, Chandler’s birth name. So Chandler’s story defies categorization in all manner of ways.
We cross the Atlantic to take up the story of Robert Shurtliff (née Deborah Sampson). Shurtliff’s proclaimed motivation in joining the Continental army in 1782 was simple patriotism. They served as a man for a year and a half. Later they returned to female dress and eventually married a man with whom they had three children. Many years later, Shurtliff was approached by a writer who wanted to tell their biography and the money was too good to refuse. Turning their experiences into performance art via a speaking tour, Shurtliff also had the opportunity to claim a government pension. (Cross-gender soldiers were often rebuffed and denied pensions solely due to their perceived sex, if discovered.) Shurtliff’s biography--like Chandler’s--is full of stock tropes, especially romantic and sexual encounters with women while being read as a man. These encounters are framed as harmless and even natural, given that the women took Shurtliff for a man.
But the story of simple patriotic fervor side-steps the fact that Shurtliff continued inhabiting a male role as a farmer after leaving the army and returning home, also continuing flirtations with women. And early stories about Shurtliff’s experiences were somewhat more condemnatory than the later attribution of patriotic motives, perhaps assigned in order to make their actions more palatable to 19th century images of womanhood.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the overlap in themes of trans-masculinity and male effeminacy that could create a double-bind for those transing gender.
A historic fantasy set in medieval Portugal and inspired by a legend of the miraculous transformation of bread into roses. But is it a miracle or a curse for your touch to turn food into flowers? This story explores themes of self-harm, disordered eating, and the legacy of religious intolerance, all tied up in a slow-growing romance between a future queen and the magical woman who may be her only hope of surviving. Pinguicha has the knack of framing her story with realistic historic attitudes, beliefs, and reactions without suggesting that it places a happy ending out of reach. Highly recommended.
(Originally aired 2021/07/17 - listen here)
I thought it would be fun to get back to doing some biography episodes. For this one, I’d like to give a shout-out to my friend Carl Cipra, who sent me a magazine article about French artist Rosa Bonheur which was sitting there on my desk waiting to inspire me for a podcast topic.
Bonheur’s story is not simply that of a fascinating and talented woman who also engaged in a long-term domestic relationship with another woman—and whose family was enthusiastically supportive of that relationship—but also the all-too-familiar story of women who were considered geniuses and superstars in their own time but have been gradually erased from public awareness. It’s the tiresome phenomenon where people are tricked into thinking that “women didn’t do X” and each generation has to assemble lists, and write books, and do podcasts to prove the falseness of the claim.
But let’s start out with Bonheur’s life and background. She was born in 1822, the oldest child, in a family that would be full of artists. Her father painted landscapes and portraits and married one of his drawing students, a brother and sister were also painters, and another brother was a sculptor. Her father’s preoccupation with the religious-philosophical movement of San-Simonianism left the family destitute, although the movement’s embracing of gender equality led him to support education for girls and was a significant influence on Bonheur’s refusal to let gender limit her. She was evidently a boisterous child—a trait that led people to view her as masculine—and her formal schooling was something of a trial for all concerned. But she took to drawing avidly and her mother used her joy in art as a gateway to get her through the other basics of education.
Her mother, alas, died when Bonheur was eleven. Her formal education ended at that point, but after an abortive assignment as an apprentice dressmaker, her father took her on as an art student and set her on the same program of study that she would have had access to in art academies if only she had been a boy. Eventually, the Bonheur family became their own art studio.
Throughout her life, Bonheur’s love and greatest triumphs were with naturalistic paintings of animals and landscapes. She studied her subjects both from life—eventually collecting something of a menagerie for the purpose that included a pet lioness—and in death, studying anatomy at slaughterhouses. At age 18 she had her first salon exhibition, including a painting of two rabbits. But her most famous works were monumental paintings of agricultural scenes: her first professional commission Ploughing in the Nivernais and perhaps her best known work The Horse Fair—a painting measuring 8 feet tall and 16 feet wide, depicting horses being displayed for sale in the heart of Paris. The horses crackle with energy and movement, depicted with photographic realism against a somewhat softer and more nebulous landscape. I love that particular work. It’s unforgettable. I remember first seeing it used on the endpapers of the edition of Anna Sewell’s equine biography Black Beauty that I was given as a child. Though of course at the time I knew nothing about the artist.
With works like The Horse Fair, Bonheur catapulted into artistic fame and economic success. She bought a chateau to use as a home base and studio. She traveled to Scotland to paint and made a fan of Queen Victoria while there. The French empress Eugénie presented her with the Legion of Honour. She hobnobbed with royalty and the artistic elite of the day. She intersected with other prominent female celebrities such as actress Charlotte Cushman’s circle, and novelist George Sand. But none of that is why I’m doing a podcast about her.
Bonheur rejected conventional norms of femininity in all manner of ways, from choosing an artistic career, to habitually wearing trousers “for practicality,” she said, when tramping about in fields and slaughterhouses in search of models. This was at a time when it was literally illegal in France for women to wear trousers and she had to be granted a “permit to cross-dress” from the police, by a doctor’s request that it was “for the sake of her health.” Formal portraits and photographs of her show her in skirts with a braided masculine-style coat, but personal reports indicate that trousers were her more typical everyday dress. She joked, in a letter to a friend, that people who met her weren’t always sure what sex she was. When asked why she had never married, she deflected. No one had ever asked her. She was married to her art.
But a more relevant fact is that Rosa Bonheur lived for four decades in a loving committed partnership with Nathalie Micas, a woman she had known since childhood and a fellow painter. The partnership ended only with Nathalie’s death, after which Bonheur entered into another partnership, this time with American artist Anna Klumpke, whom Bonheur named the sole heir to her estate—somewhat to the dismay of her birth family.
But the story of Bonheur’s relationships with women is even more intriguing for the acceptance they found from their family and community. Around the time that Bonheur was 19, the wealthy Monsieur Micas hired Bonheur’s father to paint Nathalie’s portrait and the two young women met. The Micases became something of surrogate parents to Bonheur, encouraging her to set up her own studio and helping her find commissions. Rosa and Nathalie became inseparable. And about a decade later when Monsieur Micas was on his deathbed, he evidently commended the two women to each other and gave them his blessing as a couple. I say “evidently” only because the account is a dramatization by Anna Klumpke of what Rosa Bonheur had recounted to her, so a certain amount of interpretation may have been involved. So whether Nathalie’s father actually had the two women kneel down at his bedside so he could place his hands on their heads and proclaim, “Never leave each other’s side, my dear children, and may God keep you.” or whether the reality was somewhat different, in any event Bonheur moved into the Micas home and the two were openly recognized as a couple until Nathalie’s death 40 years later.
In the 19th century, professional women with female partners had to deal with societal expectations that one would play the husband role and the other the wife. Even when the couple themselves didn’t share out their labor that way, society might assign the labels, following assumptions based on age or status. But an extremely common pattern was for the couple themselves to adopt roles modeled after heterosexual partnerships. A woman with a career, particularly one in the arts or education, would find it difficult to maintain her professional independence in the context of a heterosexual marriage, and many such 19th century women offered this as the reason for not marrying. But a household still needed management, and when the majority of women were trained up to perform that management, it might seem natural for the member of a female couple who did not have an outside profession—or whose profession was seen as less prominent or less prestigious—to take on that role.
A few years after Nathalie’s death, Bonheur—now in her late 70s—struck up a relationship with 43-year-old Anna Klumpke, an American artist of portraits and genre scenes. Klumpke was born in 1856 in San Francisco to a family whose wealth came from real estate. (When you consider that she was born only 7 years after the California gold rush of 1849, you can imagine the context of that success.) A childhood leg injury that resulted in permanent disability motivated her mother to take her to Germany for treatments, and that—along with her parents’ divorce—meant that she spent most of her youth in Europe. In her mid-20s, Klumpke began studying art formally in Paris, with exhibitions of her work in the mid 1880s. Rosa Bonheur’s work was part of her studies at the time, though it isn’t clear that they met until later. After a few years back in the States teaching, Klumpke returned to Paris. She met Bonheur in 1895 with the intent of painting her portrait.
Bonheur was bluntly honest with her about what a relationship might mean. “Most people take a pretty dim view of women who live together,” she wrote. “I’ve been battling that prejudice my whole life long.” But 3 years after they met, they moved in together and signed a contract that may have served as a formal engagement, though the substance was that Bonheur would create an art studio for Klumpke and in return Klumpke would paint three portraits of her and write her biography. Bonheur died the next year, but Klumpke fulfilled the promised biography and completed at least one portrait. The nature of what they were to each other may be interpolated from the fact that Anna Klumpke was named Rosa Bonheur’s sole heir, though Klumpke softened some of the Bonheur family’s objections by auctioning off a number of Bonheur’s works and splitting the proceeds. She founded a women’s art school named after Bonheur and established an artistic prize in her name, as well as setting up a museum of Bonheur’s life in the chateau she had inherited from her. Klumpke divided her time between Paris and San Francisco and finally settled in the latter, but after her death she returned to Paris to be buried alongside both Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas.
How do we interpret these women’s lives? If they never used the word “lesbian” should we apply it to them? How should we honor Bonheur’s life-long gender transgression? Their lives were set against the background of late 19th century Paris, when an entire subculture of queer women and men was developing, yet they don’t appear to have participated in the world of demi-monde cafes and decadent literature that was the more overt face of French lesbianism at the time.
Bonheur was somewhat cagey about the nature of her relationships with Micas and Klumpke, perhaps in understandable reaction to the mean-spirited speculations of others. She once wrote about Micas, “Had I been a man, I would have married her, and nobody could have dreamed up all those silly stories. I would have had a family, with my children as heirs, and nobody would have any right to complain.” She described her relationship with Klumpke as “the marriage of two souls” using the language of romantic friendship, and described her love as “wholly virtuous,” while referring to Klumpke as her wife. And yet the woman who has purchased Bonheur’s chateau-studio and is reviving it as a museum in her honor finds it possible to claim she was, “A woman without a husband, a family, children, a lover—imagine!” So we will imagine, and perhaps see that family and lover that the world had trouble recognizing.
A biographical sketch of 19th century French painter Rosa Bonheur and the two women she shared her life with.
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