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Saturday, September 18, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 210 – Sapphists in Austenland - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/09/18 - listen here)

It’s not that I planned to take a tour through iconic figures of English literature, but sometimes one idea leads to another. Last month’s Shakespeare episode inspired me to tackle a much more promising author when it comes to sapphic possibilities: Jane Austen. What? I hear you exclaim, That ultimate author of heterosexual romances? Setting aside the alternate literary theory that marriage is not the prize in Austen’s works, it’s the side-plot to socio-economic horror stories, we aren’t talking about the canonical texts today, but about the structures and relationships embedded in the books that offer a branching point. A place the story could diverge and become a same-sex love story seamlessly and naturally. In point of fact, there are same-sex love stories threaded throughout the books. It’s only that they step aside for the relentless imperative of heterosexual marriage.

There’s something about Jane Austen’s work that has inspired endless retellings, re-settings, and re-imaginings. Whether it’s a matter of telling the existing story from a different point of view, or extrapolating the experiences of the characters after the final page, or mapping the personalities and situations onto the modern day, there’s an entire industry dedicated to giving us more Austen. Given that, it’s somewhat surprising that we don’t see more lesbian interpretations. Interspersed with this discussion of the novels and their sapphic possibilities, I’ll talk about some of the original historical fiction that I’ve found that takes off with those possibilities. But let’s start with the ingredients we have to work with. I’m not only looking at the central characters of the stories, but at the whole range of characters and relationships that might serve as inspirations, as well as how the social structures of Austen’s period either enable or hinder women’s same-sex bonds.


The key questions here are: what types of bonds and connections exist between women outside the immediate family? Are they the intimate friendships of people of equal station and similar interests? Do they involve the dependency of an unpaid companion, marked by a difference in finances, social station, and perhaps age? Is it a mentor relationship, where a more experienced woman teaches and guides another woman into flowering?

Which of those connections are fertile ground for romantic potential? Here a certain amount will depend on what type of story is being written. Austen’s heterosexual characters do not always constrain themselves to pursuing the unattached. Historically, the social divide between male and female spheres has meant that women often formed passionate same-sex bonds in parallel with marriages with men. But while a man might easily distract attention from his same-sex interests with a marriage of convenience, women faced the problem that marriage put control of their money and property into their husband’s hands and had almost no recourse if a “husband of convenience” decided to rewrite the terms of the arrangement.

How are social bonds between women made? Women of the gentry and aristocracy weren’t supposed to form connections with random strangers. You didn’t even dance with someone unless you’d been properly introduced by a mutual friend. And the cases where this rule is broken—like when Marianne Dashwood encounters Willoughby over a twisted ankle—show the hazards of falling for someone whose background has not been properly examined. The first circle of connections is that of the extended family, including not only cousins but in-laws. And don’t get too squeamish about “kissing cousins”. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are first cousins. In Pride and Prejudice, we aren’t told the exact relationship between Mr. Bennett and Mr. Collins, but Collins is a close enough cousin that he’s the nearest male-line relative and will inherit the estate. In Emma, two sisters marry two brothers. So consider that your heroine’s entire extended family is fair game for romantic potential.

The next circle of potential is the existing friends and acquaintances of your relatives: business associates, long-time neighbors, people that they were introduced to by existing connections, school friends. And let us not exempt your heroine’s schoolfellows as a means of putting her in contact with new faces. Many of Austen’s heroines have been homeschooled, as was common for women of that era. (While their brothers would more commonly be sent away for formal schooling.) But in Persuasion Anne Elliott and her sisters went to boarding school, and that’s where she made a crucial friendship with Mrs. Smith.

Another means of making new connections, somewhat related to the previous, is the sponsorship of a related party who takes the heroine under her wing and moves her from her immediate family to a new household context. This might be social visiting among relatives, as when the Gardiners host Jane Bennett in London and take Elizabeth Bennett on a holiday tour with them. It might be a companionship arrangement, as when Fanny Price is taken into the Bertram household in Mansfield Park. Or it might be the sponsorship of a hostess to introduce a young woman into society, as Mrs. Jennings does in Sense and Sensibility, or Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey. The key element in all these avenues to meeting your future romantic partner is that they are mediated through people you already know.

And finally, what are the economic relationships and dependencies among the people in the story? And how do those change when you’re considering female couples as the end goal? Every Austen novel is, at heart, a horror story of women facing economic desperation and trying to navigate the least unpleasant way of avoiding it. Elizabeth Bennett is told that if she rejects the unpleasant Mr. Collins she may never get another offer of marriage and she only semi-jokingly faces the prospect of living in her sister’s household as an unpaid companion and governess. Emma Woodhouse is in the extremely unusual position of not needing to marry to have financial security, but every other woman in her social circle faced those choices. The Dashwood sisters are haunted by the effects their comparative poverty have on their future plans. Two women together only magnify the gender inequities. So in visualizing possible same-sex relationships within Austenian worldbuilding, we can’t avoid the question of how our heroines will live. Will they have family money that is under their own control? Will they be permanent guests in someone else’s household? Do they have the possibility of employment and how would that employment affect their domestic arrangements? A great many of the occupational options for middle-class daughters involved living in someone else’s household, and unless their romantic prospects can be realized there, they’ll have to choose between their heart and their job. (This is a point of consideration where the historical realities were very different between female and male couples, though male couples faced more serious legal issues.)

So let’s take a look at the canonical relationships between women in Austen’s novels and the romantic possibilities they suggest, whether in terms of romance that could co-exist with the official story, or romance that could develop if the story takes a turn at key points.

I include only the briefest of plot summaries and I will rely on my listeners’ familiarity with the plots. If you need more details to orient yourself, there are links in the transcript to the Wikipedia entry for each book.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility follows the Dashwood sisters who have just fallen from a life of comfortable luxury into penny-pinching rustication due to the death of their father and the injustice of inheritance practices. Eleanor, the eldest, is the sensible “I’ll just keep all my feelings bottled up privately” one who falls in love with her brother in law but daren’t tell anyone because he hasn’t officially declared his intentions…which is because he’s already secretly engaged to someone even less suitable. Marianne is the flighty, emo, “I wear my heart on my sleeve” one who disdains the romantic interest of the stable, brooding, propertied neighbor for the fun of being courted by a spendthrift rake who will throw her over for an heiress.

The most relevant theme in Sense and Sensibility is the opportunities for mixing in society that the sponsorship of a hostess provides. The Dashwood sisters are given a chance to spend time in London due to the hospitality of Mrs. Jennings, a relative by marriage, who loves to make matches and provide social opportunities for young people. The Dashwood sisters fall only marginally into the role of companions to her—they are expected to provide company and an excuse for socializing, but their hostess doesn’t emphasize their dependence on her. If Mrs. Jennings were closer to the sisters in age, we might look for romantic potential within this arrangement.

In a parallel, but contrasting position, the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, have also been invited to be guests of Mrs. Jennings, but soon accept a different invitation that places them in a more classical companion situation in the home of John Dashwood, the half-brother of the Dashwood sisters, where they are expected to attend on Mrs. Dashwood, entertain her young son, and to flatter and toady to her.

The third strand of unattached female characters comes in the largely off-screen person of Eliza Williams, who is caught in a mother-daughter tradition of illicit love affairs and unwed motherhood. This places her in a very precarious position, but also removes her from the default expectations regarding marriage.

The strongest bonds between women in this book are between pairs of sisters, which is an unfruitful angle for same-sex romance. This is a story full of unusually solitary women without connections to non-familial equals. To create some romantic tension we could turn to an enemies-to-lovers scenario. Eleanor Dashwood and Lucy Steele are tied to the same man—a man who had no business attaching either of their affections at the time that he meets them: Lucy, because he was too young and dependent to make such a commitment, Eleanor, because he was already engaged to Lucy when they met. In the book, Lucy’s greed leads her to ditch her fiancé, thus allowing the passively patient Eleanor to step in. But what if there was a little more heat underlying their conflict? What if they came to a point of comparing notes and realized that wishy-washy indecisive Edward wasn’t worth their time and they made alliance together instead? Given that they both had familial ties to the wealthy Mrs. Jennings, whose own daughters were safely married off, the lack of financial stability that marriage might have brought could find a substitute by Eleanor and Lucy taking up a joint position of protégé-companions to Mrs. Jennings. There would be enough contrast of personalities between the three to provide useful conflicts in the plot.

Marianne is a bit more tricky—she’s so self-involved for so much of the story that there aren’t really alternate possible connections to build on. But there’s always the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret, who shows at least a few signs of independent thinking and adventurous spirit that might suggest a non-normative life path. And then there’s the new single mother, Eliza Williams, who is highly unlikely to achieve a respectable marriage, given her situation, regardless of the wealth and standing of her patron Colonel Brandon. Eliza is a solid candidate for being granted a financial allowance that would enable her to establish a quiet household with a female companion.

In the story “Margaret” by Eleanor Musgrove in the anthology A Certain Persuasion, we find just that arrangement. Margaret Dashwood longs for the joy of a female confidante and friend with whom she can share her doubts and uncertainties about the prospect of marriage. She finds that friend when she is solicited to lend respectability as a lady companion to the household of Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza (and her young son who bears a noticeable relationship to their neighbor Willoughby). And Margaret discovers that companionship can lead to love. I found this story to be a realistic study of the fine lines between respectable and scandalous for unmarried women of Austen’s era. I particularly appreciated that it presents a realistic picture of how women might broach the subject of turning companionship into something more passionate, without forcing modern attitudes and understandings onto the women.

And then, there is always the option of gender-flipping the canonical male love interest. But could it be done while remaining true to the social structures of the time? Edward Ferrars is the eldest son and thus his family sees his marriage as a dynastic matter, not to be left to individual choice. But the position he finds himself in, with a prospective spouse selected for him based on wealth and social standing, is in many ways more typical as a female experience. And the financial position he’s put in when disinherited is the expected reality for many daughters. What if it were Edith Ferrars, instead, who stubbornly resists her mother’s instructions to marry because of a pre-existing attachment of the heart? Before raising the objection that a same-sex commitment would be historically implausible to offer as a bar to marriage, this is very much the situation that Sarah Ponsonby was in when she eloped with Eleanor Butler. One could even retain the conflict between that foolish promise to Lucy Steele and a more passionate attraction to her sister-in-law Eleanor Dashwood. In an age when familial ties, however tenuous, were one of the most certain ways of meeting eligible prospects, the sister of a brother’s wife would be a natural candidate for a potential relationship.

Exactly this sort of gender-flipped retelling appears in “Elinor and Ada” by Julie Bozza, also included in the anthology A Certain Persuasion. There has been a certain reorganization of family relationships: instead of Ada being the brother to John Dashwood’s wife Fanny and to Robert Ferrars, she is a cousin of theirs and something of a family poor relation. She has been serving as governess to the Steele sisters (rather than being tutored by their uncle) and had formed an indiscreet connection with Lucy Steele, who now holds certain letters over her as earnest for a promise to have Mrs. Ferrars set them up with an independent household. With those alterations (and the eventual substitution of a position as village schoolmistress at Delaford rather than the ecclesiastical living that Edward was granted) the story otherwise follows the plot of Sense and Sensibility very closely. Rather too closely, perhaps, as it traces out the entire plot of the novel in the space of a short story, which makes for a great deal of summarizing and plot-outlining, as well as recycling significant chunks of text from the original story. (One feature of Austen retellings that I’m not always fond of, alas, is when authors re-use the existing text with only minor revisions.)

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the queen of the Austen novels, in terms of the number of times it has been adapted, reworked, reimagined, or spun off from. The clock is ticking for the five Bennett daughters, whose only hope of comfortable futures is snagging suitable husbands with only a pittance of a dowry to attract them, as their father’s estate will be passed to a male cousin. You have the pretty, modest, sweet-tempered one who falls in love with the jolly, easily manipulated man. You have the light-hearted, warm, judgmental one who clashes with the brooding, stiff, snobbish man. You have embarrassing relatives and tangled webs. Very tangled.

Relationships among the sisters give a taste of their potential for forming close bonds with women outside the family, and we see a lot of female friendships in this book. Two of the sisters (Mary and Kitty) are more or less ciphers but the rest have potential.

Elizabeth Bennett has a particular friendship with Charlotte Lucas—close enough to share their opinions of marriage and men, but fragile when the hard realities of those topics come between them. Charlotte concludes that independence from her family is far more important than loving—or even respecting—one’s husband. She sets about strategizing how to make what is for her a business arrangement function as well as possible. And that includes a lot of playacting and hiding her true feelings.

This is, of course, fertile ground for Charlotte to strategize other forms of emotional support that wouldn’t endanger the security of her marriage. This is exactly the situation explored in the novel Lucas by Elna Holst. Rather than redirecting the plot of Pride and Prejudice into an alternate timeline, it takes Charlotte Lucas, now Collins, past the end of the book and gives her a very passionate romance with a non-canonical character, all described in letters to her friend Elizabeth that she never dares send. And it was her earlier crush on Elizabeth Bennett that helped her recognize what she now feels. Lucas isn’t so much a classical romance—the two women have more of an insta-lust thing going on. But a great deal of the plot explores both the practicalities and social difficulties in how to turn stolen moments into something permanent. The financial questions are solved by making Charlotte’s new love an heiress. But how can Charlotte extricate herself from a stifling marriage and run away, without her choices having catastrophic effects on her family’s status and reputation?

Another author might find equal potential in exploring that alternate timeline in which Elizabeth convinces her not to throw away her hope of love for the security of Mr. Collins; in which Elizabeth never has the change of heart for Mr. Darcy; in which the two of them find some future together. It would be a difficult future indeed with no source of independent income on either side, and that problem would provide some excellent plot conflicts. They might find themselves eternally guests in the homes of relatives, either making a constant round of sequential visits, or settling in somewhere and trying to make themselves useful enough to be welcome. It would be a challenge to do so together. But it might be an interesting story.

The youngest Bennett sister, Lydia, for all her heedless self-centeredness, also seems to make friends easily. Her bond with the colonel’s young wife snags her a chance to spend time in Brighton and enjoy the freedom of separation from her family where she could form new connections. While it’s hard to imagine the canonical Lydia falling sincerely in love with anyone but her own self-image, I could easily imagine a spicy adventure in the militia camp at Brighton with Lydia having a sexual awakening with her female friend that spurs her decision to make a bold move to try to snare Mr. Wickham.

It's hard to imagine the canonical Jane Bennett straying from her fixation on Bingley, but let’s see if we can come up with some scenarios. A theme that comes up in a number of real-life 19th century passionate friendships is marrying your friend’s brother in order to establish a formal bond with the woman you love. What if Caroline Bingley’s interest in befriending Jane was more personal? Caroline might be seriously conflicted about furthering Jane’s relationship with her brother if she had a personal emotional stake in the matter. And the canonical Caroline’s interest in pursuing Darcy herself need not be removed from the equation. Caroline has family money that isn’t tied to property, and though one might guess that it wouldn’t be enough to maintain the high life she’s currently enjoying as her brother’s hostess, it would certainly be enough for a more modest independent establishment, if she were willing to make that sacrifice.

The established personality of Caroline Bingley offers a number of possibilities. Kate Christie’s Gay Pride and Prejudice builds on some of the parallels between Caroline and Darcy’s personalities and asks, “What if it was the prickly, sparring relationship between Lizzie and Caroline, rather than the one between Lizzie and Darcy, that developed into love? The author does a thing I’ve seen in a number of Pride and Prejudice pastiches, where she retains a vast amount of the original novel’s language and simply tweaks it here and there to make the building blocks tell a different story. I confess that it’s a technique I’m not fond of, and it made it hard for me to enjoy the story. I would love to have seen the romantic premise tackled in an original story rather than in this name-swapping fashion.

I said that the middle sisters, Mary and Kitty, are ciphers but that doesn’t mean we can’t see possibilities for them. What if Mary’s priggish disdain for the expected preoccupations of a young woman is cover for a deep discomfort with normative expectations? Without the conventional beauty and vivacity of her older and younger sisters—and given the family’s financial constraints—her marriage prospects must look dire. But what if that were a relief to her? And what if, after resigning herself to staying at home as her mother’s support and companion, she meets someone who encourages her to believe happiness is possible? There are the usual financial concerns. If she falls in love with a woman who has little more than pin money, the only realistic option may be for her beloved to move into the Bennett household. But if we look ahead to the day when Mr. Bennett dies and the remaining Bennett women must make other arrangements, perhaps a frugal establishment in Bath would serve. Frugal enough that Mary and her “friend” must share quarters, naturally. My imagination is already spinning away with that one. I’ve always felt that Mary deserved more sympathy than she gets in the original story.

Another unpaired woman whose circumstances offer her wider possibilities is Georgiana Darcy. As an heiress, she has many more options than the Bennett sisters have. And as an heiress, naturally she would be much sought after by male suitors. But her brother and guardian has already fended off one fortune-hunter in Wickham, and seems likely to take an over-protective stance toward Georgiana’s future. That could mitigate the social expectations for marriage long enough for her to find some nice girl to fall in love with. Maybe someone who could help improve her self-confidence and bring her out of her shell a little?

Anne de Bourgh is in a similar situation to Georgiana: an heiress in an overprotective household. But where Georgiana benefits from the loving protection of an elder brother and might be given space to discover her own desires, Anne is stifled and erased by an overbearing and autocratic mother—who, to be fair, takes the same attitude toward everyone in her orbit. Anne has never been given space to have her own desires in the least thing. And you can be certain that when Lady Catherine de Bourgh decides that her daughter will marry, Anne’s wishes will count for nothing. So setting Anne up in a potential same-sex romance has a lot of challenges that could make for a satisfying plot.

There are a lot of directions that such a story could go, and Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh tosses some additional challenges into the mix, such as a laudanum addiction, begun to quiet a colicky infant but continuing into young adulthood, leaving Anne sickly and sleep-walking through life. Once Anne decides to break free both of laudanum and her mother’s control, the first true friend she makes in London evolves into romance, though I would consider this more a literary novel than a romance novel by genre. The relationships and their difficulties are very realistically depicted (as is both the addiction and the process of escaping it). Greeley’s prose is gorgeous and well-suited to the story she tells. This one gets a high recommendation from me.

The most popular way to adapt Pride and Prejudice as a contemporary lesbian romance is a simple gender-flip on the Darcy character. But gender-flipping can be a lot trickier in a historic setting, if key aspects of the character are rooted in gendered social and legal structures of the time. A female Darcy in the early 19th century would be unlikely to be fabulously wealthy with an inherited estate such as Pemberley. The “entailments” that functionally disinherit the daughters of the Bennett and Dashwood families had the specific purpose of keeping real estate within the male inheritance line (however convoluted the connection), and keeping other wealth tied to the real estate for its maintenance. An Emma Woodhouse – as we’ll discuss in a bit – was definitely something of a unicorn. It would be easier to imagine Bingley flipped to a female character. His family made their money in trade and have no inherited estate—a significant plot point. Furthermore, Darcy’s solicitous concern for Bingley’s welfare might make more sense with a female Bingley, although one would need a different context for the friendship between the two. There are clear possibilities in that direction.

While it isn’t a direct mapping of Pride and Prejudice, Barbara Davies’ Frederica and the Viscountess borrows some recognizable motifs from the books with a gender-flipped Darcy equivalent. Davies has made it work by not aiming for a direct parallel of the canonical plot. While the protagonist Frederica, who fills the Lizzie role, is contemplating the unlikelihood of another proposal if she turns down her tedious suitor (who is clearly modelled on Mr. Collins), and while Frederica must beg the assistance of her love interest in rescuing her younger sister from the clutches of a seductive scoundrel (with elements borrowed both from Wickham and from Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility), that love interest—Vicountess Norland—rather than being a direct Darcy parallel, uses a trope belonging solely to sapphic historicals: scandalous, cross-dressing, devil-may-care, aristocratically-privileged, and just the person to entice our heroine to reach for her dreams. By not trying to create a female Darcy, the author has the freedom to provide a backstory that works for the times. The viscountess is married, but is believed to have deserted her husband, thereby making her both independent and outside the concerns of ordinary propriety. She is rich and aristocratic, thereby making it entirely believable that she might take on Frederica as a “companion” without any other need to justify the arrangement.

If gender flipping is tricky within the context of the Pride and Prejudice canon, gender disguise—that trope so beloved of sapphic historicals—is even more complicated. When you look at the circumstances of persons assigned female who transed gender before the 20th century, a strong theme is that of disconnection from the birth family and community of origin. It isn’t an absolute theme—there were rare exceptions where family and community were tacitly aware of the change, and either supportive or at least indifferent. But a major aspect of the tangled plotlines of Pride and Prejudice is the way in which everyone is connected to each other and has been so all their lives. Even a character such as George Wickham who trades on escaping from his past misdeeds by constant movement cannot avoid encountering people who know and recognize him and are willing to bring his past into the light.

This is why I was skeptical of the gender-crossing plot of “Father Doesn’t Dance” by Eleanor Musgrove in the anthology A Certain Persuasion. (The author indicates that it is intended as a transgender plot rather than a gender disguise one.) The premise is that the two Darcy sisters, with the support and assistance of their cousin, the future Colonel Fitzwilliam, decide to derail the entailment of Pemberley to a distant cousin by having the elder sister become her non-existent long-estranged brother Fitzwilliam. (Note that the Darcy siblings are related to Colonel Fitzwilliam through their mother, so he couldn’t be a beneficiary of the entailment.) From there, the story is projected to proceed much as the original, but with an additional reason for Mr. Darcy to be highly ambivalent about a romantic connection. But while an intriguing premise, I found the logistics to be implausible. There are entirely too many people who would know whether there was an actual older brother in existence. (The whole Lady Catherine de Bourgh plot rather falls apart.) There are ways to make gender-crossing plots more plausible. I point to the case of Mary Diana Dodds discussed previously on the blog and podcast. But they typically require a central figure who whose entire life history wouldn’t have been tracked by their family and community.

Mansfield Park

In Mansfield Park, poor relation Fanny Price is taken on as a charity case by her more fortunate relatives and never allowed to forget it. Saintly, long-suffering Fanny is exploited and taken for granted by everyone but her cousin Edward, on whom of course she develops a crush. In the end, everyone sees the error of their ways and comes to value Fanny’s virtues.

To my mind, the canonical characters and relationships of Mansfield Park highlight only one potential female couple. In Austen’s novel, Mary Crawford befriends and cozies up to protagonist Fanny Price with the dual goal of trying to disrupt any developing bond between Fanny and her cousin Edward (who is the target of Mary’s affections), and to manipulate Fanny into accepting the advances of her brother, Henry Crawford. But it would take very little adjustment to see the four characters much more entangled if Mary were also motivated by her own romantic attraction to Fanny. The self-involved and morally flexible Miss Crawford might well embark on a courtship of Fanny’s affections as a lark or a stratagem only to find herself genuinely attached. Success would, of course, require a Fanny who is a bit more willing to go against convention and stand up for herself. The canonical Fanny does this when refusing Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal—to the astonishment of all her relations. So it’s not impossible to imagine that she might do so out of attachment to Mary rather than to Edward.

The other available female characters are more or less limited to Edward’s sisters, who treat Fanny with condescension and disdain, so it would take a great deal of editing to develop an attraction there. A gender-flipped Edward offers possibilities (with an adjustment in which Crawford sibling is vying for whose affections). But there would be a challenge in finding an equivalent independent career to the clerical living that the male Edward anticipates. When looking across the entirety of Austen’s works, you’ll notice a strong pattern that the male romantic leads who do not have inherited wealth expect to make their living in the church. There’s no time to go into the whole socio-economic infrastructure of the Church of England in the early 19th century, but there was a significant amount of nepotism and patronage that could be manipulated to ensure that an unpropertied son could have a comfortable life and support a family. While women’s options for inherited wealth were much more limited, at least they existed. There was no equivalent of a clerical living that might be offered to a daughter to provide her with an independence.

Authors who have taken up the challenge of adapting Mansfield Park for a sapphic story seem to have settled on Mary Crawford as the character with the most potential, which makes a certain amount of sense given the canonical character’s daring and morally-flexible personality. Tilda Templeton’s erotic short story “Mary’s Secret Desire” comforts the post-rejection Mary Crawford with sexual escapades among a secret lesbian sex club masquerading as a Catholic order of nuns. I can’t really consider this an Austen spin-off, given that nothing much is borrowed other than the character’s name and a brief reference to her back-story. And the status of Catholicism in Regency-era England seriously undermines the premise that the pretense of a Catholic convent could provide cover to a sex club. The trope is, however, much in keeping with anti-Catholic English pornography of the 17th through 19th centuries, which considered convents to be a likely hotbed of lesbian activity.

There’s much more plausibility and more direct fabric taken from Mansfield Park in J.L. Merrow’s short story “Her Particular Friend,” once more from the anthology A Certain Persuasion. In this story, Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who has taken Fanny’s place as companion to her aunt Lady Bertram, encounters the now widowed Mary Crawford during a visit to Bath. Despite the family scandal that stands between them, they are drawn together. Mary is still playfully indiscreet, but Susan is not Fanny and is more receptive to her advances. Here we see a manipulation of the social dynamics that makes a romance possible. By turning Mary into a widow, the story gives her social independence and the right to have her own household. And Susan is given the opportunity to travel and encounter potential romantic partners by virtue of being companion to an older, wealthier, established matron. They’ll have a challenge in detaching Susan from Lady Bertram without repercussions, but it’s within plausibility.

Northanger Abbey

I’ve been going through Austen’s novels in their publication order, but at this point I’m going to save Emma for the finale, and move on to Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is Austen’s tribute to the gothic novel and the young women who love them. And like many of her works, it’s a tribute to the process of looking beyond superficial appearances to find happiness and security with a well-suited partner. Catherine Morland, like many of Austen’s heroines, comes from a family of comfortable but modest means and is given entrée into a wider world courtesy of a more wealthy neighbor couple who take her under their wing for a season in Bath. Once again, she fills a companion role, but more of a protegee, like the Dashwood sisters, rather than a dependent almost-servant, like Fanny Price. In Bath, she meets two sets of siblings who form the majority of the context for the story: Isabella and John, the children of her patroness’s friend; and the wealthy Tilney siblings, children of a cold and distant widowed father: kind, loyal Eleanor, handsome, clever Henry the love interest, and rakish Frederick the disruptive force.

Catherine forms close friendships with both Isabella and Eleanor, though Eleanor’s friendship is the more loyal and enduring. There’s some great story potential in a love triangle involving the three of them, where Catherine learns which of her friends truly returns her love. A happy ending in which Catherine becomes a long-term companion to Eleanor (rather than marrying her brother Henry as she does in the original) is structurally plausible, though it requires some management of Catherine’s past conflicts with Eleanor’s father if they are to gain a solid financial standing from that direction. Or maybe Catherine will become a successful author of gothic novels herself and the two can live comfortably in a modest establishment in Bath, as many such female couples did.

It's harder for me to come up with other sapphic scenarios from Northanger Abbey, perhaps because it’s the Austen novel I’m least familiar with. Isabella has some possibilities, I suppose. The canonical character is driven primarily by a desire of securing herself a wealthy husband, first pursuing Catherine’s brother James when she mistakenly believes that family to be wealthy, then succumbing to the seductions of Frederick Tilney who actually does have expectations of inheritance but, alas, no morals or intention of marrying her. Whether one follows the original story to its end, with Isabella’s reputation ruined, and then finds a different direction for her life, or perhaps branches the story off earlier and gives her a female rake to run off with instead, she does seem the sort to defy convention, given sufficient incentive.


Persuasion has a plethora of female characters to work with: the three Elliot sisters Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary; Elizabeth’s very special friend and companion Penelope—and there’s an obvious pair to rewrite as romantic; the Musgrove sisters (Mary’s in-laws) Louisa and Henrietta; and Anne’s now-widowed school friend Mrs. Smith with whom she clearly has a strong emotional bond. Of these, two pairings are the most obvious to adapt as romantic couples.

Elizabeth and Penelope are canonically framed as antagonists the to the central character, Anne, with a complex rivalry around strategizing for relationships that bring both personal security and access to the status of the Elliott title, which will go to a distant male cousin. (If a theme around inheritance is obvious in these summaries, it isn’t Austen’s theme but the rigid structures of English law. Primogeniture is a bitch and a glaringly obvious reminder of patriarchy in its most literal sense.) In canon, Penelope plays the role of companion to Elizabeth—the embodiment of the toad-eating dependent. She is also suspected of having her sights set on enticing the elder Sir William Elliott into marriage while settling for a less formal offer from the younger Elliott. The younger Mr. Elliott, in the meanwhile, is pursued by Elizabeth as a means of retaining her social status through marriage, as well as the usual goal of simple security, but he in turn has set his sights on Anne, a more congenial partner, with the aim of gaining leverage to foil Penelope’s ambitions, though presumably Elizabeth would have done just as well for that purpose. But what if, in the midst of all these plots, there were also a genuine romantic attraction between Elizabeth and Penelope? One that is greatly complicated by the practical considerations of their conflicting goals? If they were willing to settle for the status quo—at least for as long as Sir William survives—they’re well set up to do so. But either of them reaching for more conventional life goals would disrupt that balance and Sir William won’t live forever.

The canonical Anne Elliott is solidly fixated on what she believes to be her lost chance with Captain Wentworth, which is a bit hard to work around, even if we go into an alternate timeline where Wentworth carries through with what he believes to be his obligation to marry Louisa Musgrove. Would Anne, in that case, have a chance to find that her feelings for Mrs. Smith were more than friendship and the remains of hero-worship? Anne finds meaning in being needed, and Mrs. Smith is definitely in need. Their financial circumstances would be dire unless Smith’s property interests are sorted out and are substantial enough to support both. (There’s also an ethical issue for a modern author in that the location of Mrs. Smith’s property in the Indies strongly implies that any income would derive from enslaved labor. But that’s part of the landscape of Austen’s world.)

There are no clear candidates for same-sex romances for the Musgrove sisters, alas. But if we want to dig into back-story, one might also speculate on the obviously close bond between the late Lady Elliott and Lady Russell. An “intimate friend” the text says who “had been brought, by strong attachment” to move to live near the Elliotts, though it’s unclear whether this happened after she was widowed or before. Lady Russell’s attachment to her friend was of a nature that she considered herself a second mother to her daughters, yet also of such a nature that marrying Sir William was never on the table. Yes, one could definitely build a sapphic romance on those bones, if one were comfortable with it existing in the context of the women’s marriages.

If one chose, instead, to continue focusing on the Anne-Wentworth romance, by playing with gender, there are clear possibilities. A gender-flipped Wentworth would need an entirely different career than the navy. A situation where Anne wanted to set up housekeeping with a beloved female friend but was persuaded not to do so on the basis of the friend’s precarious finances and lower social status would work perfectly. How would they meet? In the same way as the original text: the enticing Miss Wentworth would be staying in the neighborhood visiting her brother the curate. The options for allowing Miss Wentworth to rise in the world, both in terms of status and fortune are more limited than they would be for a man. A strategic marriage and convenient death for the spouse would be the most plausible, but a legacy from a relative that was improved by clever investment is also possible, and more in parallel with the idea of someone who rose in the world by their own merits and effort.

A gender disguise plot brings up intriguing possibilities. The Regency was the tail end of the era when people assigned female were successfully enlisting in the British military while being read as male. Some were quite successful on a long-term basis, such as Dr. James Barry. Motivations were various: economic opportunity, gender identity, or as a means to enter into marriage with a woman. In military contexts it was common for such persons to engage in flirtations and even marriages with women, whether as a bolster to their male presentation or from personal desire. Such an adaptation of the plot of Persuasion would require either a disruption of the canonical Wentworth family structure or the knowledge and acquiescence of Wentworth’s relatives. (Would Admiral Croft know? Or would Mrs. Croft silently rely on the aura of her husband’s rank to deflect suspicion from her sister’s identity?) A gender disguise scenario would provide Anne Elliott with additional motivation to unwillingly disengage from their relationship if she thought her family’s hostility to Wentworth might put her secret in danger. And it would heighten the stakes when Wentworth’s flirtation with the Musgrove girls created the impression of a commitment. There could also be a belief on Wentworth’s part that Anne’s original susceptibility to persuasion was specifically because of the gender identity angle, rather than from protective concern. Yes, I definitely think something could be done here.


I’ve saved Emma for last, because it is both the most inherently queer of Austen’s novels as well as having substantial potential for queer adaptations. The Woodhouses are the most prominent family in their rural neighborhood, with the neighboring Knightley family a close second. The two families are joined by the marriage of the elder Woodhouse daughter to the younger Knightley son. The older generation of both families is now represented only by Mr. Woodhouse, an eccentric character who is overprotective of everyone he has influence over, including an assortment of secondary characters that includes the younger daughter, Emma’s, former governess and her new husband and adult step-son, and the impoverished Bates household, which includes the beautiful, talented, and destitute Jane Fairfax.

A major through-line of the story is Emma Woodhouse’s quest for intimate friendships with women. Those relationships are often framed as couples and Emma’s disinterest in marriage is emphasized for much of the book, only reversing itself somewhat unexpectedly at the last minute. First in her affections was her governess, Miss Taylor, who is described as follows: “less…a governess than a friend…. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters…they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached….” Emma recognizes the advantages to Miss Taylor of marrying but is rather devastated by losing “a friend and companion such as few possessed: intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers; one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault.”

Rewriting the story with a more solidly realized relationship between the two needs to deal with the implications of a connection that began when Emma was a child, even if romance isn’t depicted as developing until she comes of age. (Although for a real-life parallel of a similar relationship one might look to Katharine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field and enjoyed a marriage-like relationship.) I’ve found reference to one story that takes this angle: Kissing Emma by Gemma Harborne, but unfortunately the work appears to be out of print so I know nothing more than the basic premise.

Suffering from the loss of Miss Taylor, Emma casts about for another woman to become her companion and settles on Harriet Smith, a young woman of admittedly illegitimate birth—though evidently from a well-off family, who sent her to boarding school near the Woodhouses. Emma, though rather a bit of a class snob, convinces herself that Harriet must be of a good lineage and “had long felt an interest in [her], on account of her beauty. … She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired.” Harriet isn’t particularly clever or well-informed, but she has one very endearing trait: she worships Emma and is willing to be guided and advised by her. The canonical relationship between the two would be very reasonably described as romantic if it weren’t for the fact that Emma’s idea of patronage includes doing her best to set Harriet up in a suitable marriage—a task at which she fails spectacularly.

The most natural sapphic pairing, based on canon, would be Emma and Harriet. One can’t help but wish that Harriet might find a bit more independence of spirit and that Emma might lose some of her class prejudice, but in terms of expectations for a happy-ever-after, there are few structural barriers. Emma has no need to marry for the sake of financial security. She points this out to Harriet. “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. … Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield.”  Here is where one of Mr. Woodhouse’s flaws becomes Emma’s advantage: her father is very much set against her leaving the household and dreads the thought of her marrying. But for her to continue on as she is with an intimate companion for company? She would have his whole-hearted support on that point!

One of the stories in A Certain Persuasion takes this angle. “One Half of the World” by Adam Fitzroy depicts a delicate negotiation between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith regarding turning their friendship into a lifelong companionship like that of the Ladies of Llangollen (whom Harriet specifically references). I had some issues with it as a story—it was too talky and the romantic chemistry never seemed to gel. But it worked in terms of the social dynamics of the day.

The third natural pairing—and one might argue the one best suited for success—is between Emma and Jane Fairfax. Emma and Jane, by rights, ought to have been fast friends—as various of their acquaintance take pains to point out. They are both by nature intelligent and personable. Despite the difference in their economic status, they are from the same class, though at different financial ends of it. But Jane is Emma’s mirror-twin: poor where Emma is rich, dedicated to her accomplishments where Emma is a dilletante, secretive and self-controlled where Emma is open and spontaneous, expected to work for a living where Emma is a lady of leisure and provider of charity. And it’s clear that Emma resents Jane’s very existence as a rebuke of her own shortcomings. What better set-up for a rivals-to-lovers plot? In canon, Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, who in turn flirts openly with Emma to distract any suspicion from Jane. This nearly leads to a permanent break between Jane and Frank, until the convenient death of Frank’s aunt leaves him free to seek permission for the marriage. In the mean time, Emma has had some hard lessons about her behavior and is trying very belatedly to become closer and more supportive to Jane.

There is a potential crux available, where the break-up with Frank is never repaired, where Emma gains Jane’s confidence and trust, and this develops into love—a love more suitable than the rather awkward near-parental relationship that Emma gets from Mr. Knightley. A chance for Jane to escape the dire fate of being a governess by becoming Emma’s bosom friend and companion. I could swear that I’ve seen someone write that take on the story, but I can’t find it in my database. (It’s possible it was something I ran across on Archive of Our Own—I haven’t included fan fiction in my examples here, but goodness knows there are all sorts of pairings explored there, and this entire podcast is about fan fiction, by any meaningful definition.) I’d love to see someone take Emma down this alternative road. It would take so little divergence from the original.

If one goes into minor characters or gender-flipping possibilities, there are other ways to queer Emma, but since the canonical female relationships are so rich, let’s leave it at that. I hope I’ve demonstrated how sapphic romances can easily be constructed on the bones of the social and historical dynamics of the past, and how some of our favorite classic authors wrote stories that are already much closer to being sapphic romance than you may have thought.

This episode inspired me to do a special bonus fiction show. When I contacted author Eleanor Musgrove to find out whether her story “Margaret” had been republished after the anthology A Certain Persuasion went out of print, I impulsively asked if we could republish it in this podcast. That episode will be appearing next week. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, September 14, 2021 - 08:00

No time to compose an introduction this time; I want to get this up on the blog before going to the office. (I.e., before walking down the hall to the guest bedroom where my home office is set up.) More thoughts next time, I hope.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9

Chapter 2: Beyond Community

In this chapter Skidmore talks about trans men who live in rural communities and small towns within the period of her study. Of the 65 cases she studies, a third lived in non-metropolitan areas and perhaps another third lived in small towns or small cities rather than major metropolitan areas. While the mythology of queer history often emphasizes urban areas as the safest and most promising location for queer lives, the trans men who lived in small towns often deliberately chose those locations, suggesting another parallel view. As Skidmore demonstrates the acceptance trans men found in small communities wasn’t due to an absence of knowledge of sexuality in non-urban communities. The newspaper articles often demonstrate a clear familiarity with sexological theory and with the possibilities for homosexual and transgender lives. However small towns and rural communities seem to have offered latitude to trans men who performed normative masculinity in acceptable ways, sometimes even with the awareness of the transness. The mythology that associates rural communities universally with conservative values and sexual narrowmindedness can be demonstrated to be false.

The story of George Green is relentless in its ordinariness. George immigrated from England is in his 30s and married a few years afterwards. Mary Green later reported that she had been unaware of her husband’s trans status prior to the marriage but learned of it afterwards and chose to keep the secret to support him. She implied that the relationship was platonic.  They spent all their lives living in rural communities first in Pennsylvania then North Carolina than Virginia. George was not publicly known as a trans man until after death when preparation of the body for burial uncovered the fact. Rather than reacting with shock and outrage, the local newspapers commended his hard-working, virtuous life, his devotion to his wife, and honored Mary Green’s sorrow at her husband’s death. The local papers bristled clearly at the idea that George Green‘s life and death were of national newsworthy importance. The acceptance by his community is reflected in that George Green was buried with Catholic rites in the Catholic cemetery. While it’s possible that the level of acceptance might have been different if George hadn’t been safely deceased, the reactions of his community argue against popular images of queer life in rural contexts.

The highly similar story of William C Howard challenges the idea that rural communities might be less supportive of living trans men. Stories sparked by Howard’s death hit the papers just days after Green’s obituaries, though curiously many papers described each as if they were isolated, unprecedented events.

Howard’s transition can be traced in census records. Born Alice Howard in the 1860s, Howard was later described as having a fondness for masculine attire and work from an early age. By age 20, the 1880 census lists William Howard as a resident in his mother’s household in upstate New York, along with other extended family members. Later interviews with family members suggested that they had tried to pressure Howard away from a masculine presentation but eventually accepted it, even as Howard began to court young women in the neighborhood. In his early 30s, Howard married Edith Dyer and the couple adopted a daughter. Community members claimed to have been unaware of Howard’s trans status and praised him as a hard worker and devoted husband. A decade into the marriage, Howard died of a sudden heart attack, but because the death occurred hours after taking a medication, the widow requested an autopsy, at which Howard’s anatomical sex was made evident. Two of Howard’s step-brothers attended his funeral, and may have provided the information about his youth in that context. As the story spread to non-local newspapers, the positive and accepting tone of the stories shifted to one more objectifying and mythologizing. These stories emphasized the “mystery” of his death, implying that poison was involved (in contradiction to the actual autopsy findings), erased the support and acceptance the couple had in their community, and altered some details of Howard’s life to conform to an established template for trans narratives.

A different type of experience, but again one that demonstrates a certain tacit acceptance for trans men in rural communities, is that of Willie Ray, who appears in various records in rural Mississippi in the 1890s and 1900s. Ray revealed his trans status in the context of filing assault charges against James Gatlin for assaulting him with a horsewhip for being too friendly with Mrs. Gatlin. During the trial, in response to the charge of having an improper relationship with another man’s wife, Ray revealed that he was biologically female. Evidently this was sufficient to counter the accusation, though at least some of the people present must have been aware of the possibility of sexual relations between women. But the stratagem worked. People who might have seen assault on a man as an acceptable and non-criminal response to intimacy with one’s wife, may have balked at the acceptability of physical assault on someone categorizable as a woman. Ray did have to deal with a charge of masquerading in male attire but was immediately released when it was determined that there was no relevant law, either on a local or state level, that had been broken. The newspaper reports characterized Ray as a hard-working, honest person, who was well known in the community and had recently moved from being a paid farmhand to having his own farm and running a small store. After the trial, Ray continued to live in the same community. An interesting coda is that in the 1910 census, Willie Ray is listed as living in the same residence as Mrs. Gatlin and her two children, with Mrs. Gatlin recorded as a widow. (She wasn’t. Mr. Gatlin is also recorded in the same county, living with his sister, and listed as divorced.) As in the case of William Howard, the more distant the newspaper reports got from Ray’s own community, the more the story was altered to fit a conventional and stereotyped narrative, including a false claim that legal authorities had forced Ray to resume wearing women’s clothing.

The last biography in this chapter is Joe Monahan who was born in New York state but spent his adult life on the frontier, primarily in Idaho, as a miner, farmer, and rancher. Monahan was something of a loner and never married, but was well known and respected in his community.  As with the previous examples, his trans status was confirmed after death when the body was prepared for burial, but evidently his community had a quiet awareness that this was likely the case. A neighbor who was a clerk for the 1880 census recorded his reported sex as male but made a marginal note “doubtful sex”, and others remembered people commenting on suspicions that Monahan might be a woman, though nobody felt it was important to challenge him on that question.

Together, the trans men encountered in this chapter provide a very different image of the options and acceptance of non-urban queer lives around the turn of the century than the popular motif that queer history is focused in urban centers. But this was acceptance of a very specific type of life: someone who embodied the normative live of a hard-working, reliable, community-minded man. Someone whose actions and relationships fit easily into rural, working-class ideals.

Time period: 
Monday, September 6, 2021 - 16:00

I continue to see parallels between Jen Manion's book and Emily Skidmore's, especially in how they both use a small set of individual biographies to focus attention on the larger topic. The slight temporal overlap between the two studies means it's unsurprising that Skidmore starts off with a look at two cases that Manion also covered in detail -- just in case you're having a sense of deja vu. (Manion's book came out three years after Skidmore's, but given publishing timelines it's unlikely she had access to the latter while writing, unless they ran in the same academic circles.)

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9

Chapter 1: The Last Female Husband

This chapter focuses on an individual who story is relevant to a transitional period in US history with regard to trans identities. In 1883 a man named Samuel Hudson showed up in the small town of Waupun with two children, and claimed that Frank Dubois, who had recently married Gertrude Fuller, was actually his wife and the mother of the children. It’s a tribute to the speed of communications and the extensive network of local newspapers that the story broke simultaneously, not only in the local paper, but throughout the US. The range of reactions to the DuBois case that appeared in various locations illustrate the many different attitudes towards trans men in the late 19th century. There was no one coherent narrative to explain the phenomenon. Some viewed Frank Dubois as a harmless eccentric, others viewed him as a runaway wife. Some tried to create a context for understanding his story that drew in the stories of other trans individuals such as Joseph Lobdell.

Information about Dubois’s background, motivations, and later life are missing from the narrative, but the date places his story at an interesting juxtaposition. Dubois’s story may have been the last context in which newspapers regularly used the phrase female husband. And Lobdell’s story--which was cited as a parallel case--was the first known context in which a US publication used the word lesbian in a sexual sense. This juxtaposition should not be taken as indicating a sharp, clear divide in attitudes and reactions in the 1880s. The sexological theories that were applied to Lobdell’s case took quite some time to become part of popular understanding of sexuality.

If the personal details of Dubois’s case were mysteriously absent from the newspaper stories, his identity provided a context for discussing all manner of issues around gender roles and sexuality in general. These included the topic of same-sex marriage, the question of female sexual desire, and the subject of how sharp the practical divide was between male and female abilities and characteristics.

This chapter also provides context for why certain issues were prominent in the national debate, particularly those around the rise of the “new woman” as well as racial conflicts in the wake of reconstruction.

Time period: 
Sunday, September 5, 2021 - 16:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 209 - On the Shelf for September 2021 – Transcript

(Originally aired 2021/09/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2021.

After a few months of scrambling for podcast topics, I seem to have stumbled onto a few ideas that ought to keep me for a while. Last month’s Shakespeare podcast inspired me to do a Jane Austen themed one this month. I may cast around for other popular classic authors whose work either includes homoerotic themes or is a favorite to repurpose in new fiction. And after muttering on twitter about my idea of looking at how favorite romance novel tropes work or don’t work for female couples in history, I’ve decided to tackle that in a series of podcasts rather than hoping that I might someday get a chance to try it out as a convention panel. What’s your favorite historical romance trope? And would you be interested in joining me on an episode to talk about the different ways it would play out for women in historic settings? I always love to hear from listeners about what content you’d like to have on the show!

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has finished its coverage of Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. And after a brief digression to dis-recommend a book that I’ll mention in a minute, we’ve started on Emily Skidmore’s True Sex, which feels in many ways like a natural continuation of Manion’s study of trans-masculinity into the first few decades of the 20th century, but with a different emphasis largely due to the changing social context. Skidmore will complete my recent theme of new research on trans-related topics for the moment. I have a really exciting book that just arrived in the mail that I’ll move on to after that.

Book Shopping!

That sounds like a cue to talk about book shopping for the blog. The exciting new book is an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve covered a number of books looking at sexuality in classical cultures, but even the ones focusing specifically on homosexuality are 99% male focused, simply due to the distribution of the available content. That means that the authors of the books tend to be much more knowledgeable about and focused on male concerns, and that can skew how they cover even the small amount of female-related material they do find. More often it means that they don’t go digging for the source material that could speak to female experiences from other angles. Material that could help us reconstruct experiences that aren’t documented directly. But when you set out to write an entire book on a topic, you have the incentive to look hard and deeply for every scrap of information. In some cases, that means turning up new data that had been overlooked simply because previous researchers hadn’t been interested. More often, it means looking at familiar material in more detail. Presenting it with more context. Discussing all the many ways it could be interpreted and the arguments for each.

Understanding the social and historical context of data is of vital importance. That’s why I found Emily Stehr’s small compilation Tragic (but Interesting & Very Short) History of Sodomite, Lesbians, & Sapphics to be worse than useless, as I point out in detail in the blog. I spotted this title when ordering Boehringer’s book and thought it looked intriguing. But it turned out to be a random collection of short texts from books published in the 18th and 19th centuries that contained one of the keywords listed in the title. No discussion or context for the material is given, and in some cases the presentation fails to note that the source publication is reprinting and/or translating material from centuries earlier. There is always some value in a bad example, if only as a chance to talk about what makes a source good or bad and how one can evaluate it.

The rest of my non-fiction book shopping in the last month has been general background research on some of my favorite historic eras and topics, and isn’t directly related to sexuality or gender. Trevor Yorke’s Georgian & Regency Houses Explained can be a practical guide to getting house layouts and architectural details right in a Regency setting. Louise Allen’s Regency Slang Revealed organizes the contents of several 19th century books on slang or cant terms into topical groupings for the convenience of authors who might be looking for authentic language for a particular topic. Then there are two books I picked up for an online course about Black people in pre-modern Europe: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors and Olivette Otele’s African Europeans. These are part of my continuing personal project to decolonize my historic imagination.

I’ve pre-ordered a really interesting looking academic study of lesbian historical fiction that’s coming out in November, but I won’t count that as a new acquisition until it actually arrives.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

But speaking of books that have arrived, let’s look at recent, new, and forthcoming sapphic historical fiction in September. It’s a bit of a thin month with only six titles. The first is an August book that I missed previously.

The Adventure of the Golden Woman by Cynthia Ward from Aqueduct Press is evidently the final volume in her vampire thriller alternate-history series featuring LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and Lucy Harker, the daughter of Dracula. Set in an early 1930s that includes spaceflight, mechanical people, and a guest appearance by Sherlock Holmes, I’m not sure that I would have classified this as a “historic novel” if it had been the first book in the series that I encountered. But if you’ve been following Ward’s series starting with The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, then you probably know what you’re getting into.

Piracy in the South China Sea is the setting for C.B. Lee’s A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix from Feiwel & Friends. This is evidently part of a thematic series of new takes on classic novels from this publisher. Lee takes the basic themes of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s classic pirate novel—secret maps and hidden treasures and a legacy of piracy—and evokes the real historical setting of the Chinese pirate fleets that contended with colonial powers as well as local forces in the early 19th century. Two girls unite in their quest to decipher the clues hidden in a pendant that may lead them to a fabulous treasure. The cover copy makes no references to sapphic themes in this young adult book, but I’ve gotten verification from the author.

Jazz Hell, self-published by Charlotte K. Stone isn’t exactly set in a historic era, being concerned with the afterlife. A stage accident lands jazz singer—at least I think she’s a singer?—Minnie McCloud in the underworld. But there’s still jazz after death, and the deals with the devil are only a bit more literal. And falling for the boss man’s girl will still get you in a hell of a lot of trouble.

My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke from Sapphire Books tackles class  conflicts in 1930s Tennessee. Cecilia Howison’s wealthy family are evicting poor farmers from the site of a new national park. Musician Airey Fitch’s family is among those threatened. An unlikely pair even to meet, much less to fall in love. So many reasons not to trust, and yet so many dreams waiting to be pursued.

Second chances or missed chances? That’s the question in Late City Summer  by Jeanette Bears from Bold Strokes Books. In 1946, Emily Stanton is moving directly from college to marriage. But her wedding photographer is the woman who turned her life upside down four years previously. Will all her plans and dreams be overturned again or will new ones take their place?

It's always hard to tell where to set the cut-off between historical fiction and near-contemporary. Part of it is a matter of feel, and struggling against my reflex that my lifetime isn’t “history.” But I think Punk Disco Bohemian by Arya Jenkins from NineStar Press has that “feel” that makes it a historical. Provincetown in the mid 1970s is the setting for a story of teenage rebellion, sexual awakening, and coming to terms with the price of freedom and the end of childhood.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading or consuming that listeners might be interested in?

I finally capitulated and got an Audible audiobook subscription to listen to Rose Lerner’s sapphic gothic take on Jane Eyre, The Wife in the Attic. Listening to the audio version—it’s an Audible Original—made the gradually  building suspense all the more palpable.

I’ve been using audio books to cover more of my reading for the SFF Hugo awards, including the newest installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that my tastes simply don’t align well with Seanan’s writing, which is a shame because I’m in awe of the breadth and scope of her body of work and really enjoy knowing her as a human being.

I don’t usually plan my fiction reading around the podcast, except for a few topical shows, but I’m trying to fit in some of the Jane Austen-related fiction that I’m going to discuss in this month’s essay. So far I read the erotic short story “Mary’s Secret Desire” by Tilda Templeton which…well, I’ll say more about it in the future show. And I’m in the middle of Elna Holst’s Pride and Prejudice spin-off Lucas, which tackles some hard topics but has enchanted me by having a proper understanding of Regency-era clothing and how to take it off.

There are movies I’ve had sitting in my queue to watch that get put off for a long time because I don’t know whether the ending will be happy or sad. That’s been the case with Elisa & Marcela, which I watched on Netflix. It’s a fictionalized biography of two real-life early 20th century Spanish women who married, using gender disguise, then had to flee when discovered, first to Portugal and then to Brazil. The depiction swings from sweet to romantic to terrifying and leaves the viewer guessing until a subtly positive ending (which unfortunately is a happier fictionalization than the real outcome). This is, alas, one of those films that contributes to the stereotypes about lesbian historical movies, even though I found it sensitive and well made.

And that’s it for the September round-up. I have a little surprise planned to pair with the Jane Austen episode later this month, so stay tuned!

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: 
Friday, September 3, 2021 - 07:00

(Oops, I meant to post this a few days ago!)

This is another book that I read because “it fits in the waist pack I used for my Saturday morning bike ride.” Somewhat surprisingly, the main text was short enough to read over two croissants and a cup of coffee.

I bought this book (at a price that did make me wince) because it felt like the topic would make great inspiration for the activities of one of my fictional characters. The core of this book is a facsimile, transcription, and annotation of a printed catalog for a private sale of a collection of magical manuscripts in Germany in 1710. The catalog itself comprises slightly over half of this (somewhat slim) volume. The five chapters of explanatory material include somewhat more than 50% notes and bibliography. So the analysis here is thoroughly documented and cited—what there is of it. But given the extremely narrow focus of the book, that explanatory material feels entirely sufficient to the task.

The chapters are: Introduction, Exceptionality, Scarcity, Illegality, and Conclusions. That gives you a sense of the context being provided. What was the market for books, either printed or manuscript, in early 18th century Europe? How do we define a “magical text” and how did the people who created, owned, and used them view them? How were texts transmitted and why is the question of “authorship” so fraught? Were magical texts banned? How was that enforced and what were the consequences? How did both the methods of production and the restrictions on trade create scarcity? And finally, what are the conditions that made this particular collection of manuscripts special and noteworthy?

OK, I suppose a proper book review would answer some of those questions. But the most fascinating aspects for me are the details that will help me write better fiction about the topic. For example: one of the reasons that magical manuscripts were scarce (among other equally important reasons) was that some theories held that the creation of the “working text” was itself a ritual act. That the creation of one’s own copy of a text, when performed with the right materials, at the right time, in the right way, added to the efficacy of work done using the text. Also, in many ways, the manuscript tradition of magical texts was similar to the creation of household manuals and commonplace books: each person collected together the information, formulas, and reference materials of personal interest. This made even the most standardized texts (such as the Key of Solomon) more of a “modular” collection than a fixed text whose history could be traced by comparative methods. There is discussion of how the center of activity around magical texts shifted from monastic institutions to secular scholars, spurring interest in vernacular translations which in turn created even more diversity and decentralization of the textual content. In Germany, as well as other places, the Protestant hostility to anything “magical” affected the distribution of texts as well as encouraging the market for such books to be nominally “underground”. Governmental offices charged with the authorization and censoring of publications were intended to implement this official hostility, but in fact a lack of manpower, as well as a certain attitude of disinterest, meant that actual suppression of the trade was sporadic and often delayed for years after a publication began circulating.

One of the more trivial details that amused me about the introductory material is that, in discussing the prices for which similar book collections were sold, the authors dealt with the problem of converting the value of various currencies (and providing a concrete reference) by converting them into equivalent quantities of beer. The collection on which this book focuses was sold for 4000 “Reichs-Thaler” equivalent to the cost of building 2 or 3 mid-sized houses in the city of Leipzig (where the sale occurred) or about 260,00-320,000 liters of beer. In another case, a single book was noted as being valued at the equivalent of 1300-1600 liters of beer. I suppose in a modern era of uncertain currency fluctuations, this method provides a more useful gut-level (if you will forgive me) sense of cost than approaches like “so many thousand US dollars in such and such a year, adjusted for inflation.”

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Monday, August 30, 2021 - 08:17

I'm glad I decided to cover Manion and Skidmore back to back (well, with the exception of that little blip I posted last week) because they cover similar material, use similar research sources, and overlap slightly but not significantly in time scope. Reading them together not only provides a broader picture for the topic, but points out significant shifts in experience and reception that occurred around the late 19th century. While Skidmore's book, in isolation, is much more tenuously relevant to a blog focused on lesbian-like lives than Manion's is, the fuzzy boundaries around gender categories and the ways that different types of experiences shade into each other make it useful for understanding what can and can't be projected backwards based on the 20th century experience of gender and sexuality. And--let us be clear--people are writing historical sapphic fiction set in the early 20th century that involves gender-disguise motifs, and the experiences of trans men during that period will also speak to the possibilities for those who understand themselves to be women but are presenting themselves to the world as men. So this book fits solidly into the type of research material that my intended readership should find useful.

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Full citation: 

Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9


In many ways, Emily Skidmore’s True Sex picks up where Jen Manion’s Female Husbands left off with a few minor differences. Skidmore is only looking at US history, while Manion covered both the UK and the US. Manion, in theory, focused on transing gender in the context of marriages or marriage-like relationships, while Skidmore doesn’t have that as a specific focus (although many of the people she covers did marry). In terms of methodological approach they look at much of the same types of data, especially the spread of trans stories in news publications. Skidmore notes that the type of study she has produced would have been impossible before the era of massive digitization of newspaper archives.

Manion’s use of language highlighted the ambiguity of individual gender identity, systematically using they/them pronouns and providing information about the names her subjects used at different stages of their lives (which makes a lot of sense, given that her scope included people who transed gender in multiple directions at different times, and who lived in eras when modern understandings of gender identity don’t necessarily apply). Skidmore, whose work covers roughly the post-Civil War period up through ca. 1930, uses he/him pronouns for her subjects and focuses on their chosen names, not their birth names.

These choices make sense for the difference in subject. In Skidmore’s era of interest, there were multiple, individually distinguished modes by which PAF (persons assigned female) could diverge from cis-normative and hetero-normative expectations for their life paths. So the book’s focus on those who transed gender as a deliberate and permanent (or intended to be so) strategy are a somewhat more coherent and distinct demographic than the much wider range of motivations and strategies that Manion investigated. Skidmore’s era also reflects the growing dissemination of sexological theory and a reflexive interpretation that transing gender reflected sexuality, as opposed to economic necessity (even when the subjects themselves cited economics as a motivation).

As with other publications covering trans-relevant topics, I will default to following the language used by the author. I’ll also note that Skidmore explains that the phrase “true sex” – which is a common signifier in the newspaper accounts she uses – is employed strategically in the book (always in scare-quotes) to indicate assigned sex, and is not intended to be a judgment on validity.

The introductory chapter, in addition to the usual summary of the book’s subject matter, lays out some of the significant conclusions and patterns that Skidmore identified. While the majority of 20th century queer history has focused on urban centers and on self-conscious community building by people who understood themselves to live outside normative society, many of the people Skidmore identified chose to live in small towns and took advantage of personal connections rather than anonymity to build safe and stable lives. Many embraced an otherwise normative life as how they were read: an ordinary, hard-working, middle class, married white man. (Those who fell outside those parameters, especially in terms of race and ethnicity, often had different experiences, especially if discovered.)

Skidmore identified 65 persons assigned female at birth who lived as men in the USA during the 60 year scope of her study. A brief survey of the index suggests that fewer than half of those are mentioned by name in the text. (I imagine that many may have been brief newspaper accounts with insufficient context to be useful for discussion.) And these, of course, are only the ones whose stories did end up in the press—a factor that should always be kept in mind.

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Sunday, August 29, 2021 - 15:46

One of the peculiarities of my reading habits is that, while I’m often reading multiple things in parallel, I keep them sorted out mentally by reading in different formats and different contexts. The most eclectic reading context I currently have is “things I read over breakfast on my Saturday morning bike ride to Walnut Creek.” It has to be a book that will fit in my belt pack, which means either mass market paperback or the equivalent of a trade paperback (including hardback books of similar size). Mass market paperbacks are generally fiction, which means generally read them in ebook. Exceptions include kickstarter fiction anthologies, where I’ve supported at a level to get both ebook and hard copy—which is normally trade size. The non-fiction that falls in the appropriate size category is pretty random. So if I’m not in the mood for an anthology and I go into my library to look for a book of the right size that inspires me for breakfast reading, the results can get very random indeed!

Slavery in the Roman World by Sandra R. Joshel (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

There was a time in my historic-hobby life when I was invested in researching the material culture of imperial Rome far in excess of the amount of time I spent actually participating in Roman-era activities. One of my excuses is that I have at least one historic novel in process set in that era. This falls in the category of “excuse” because I’m not sure that I’ll manage more than one novel with that setting, but honestly I’m simply fascinated by the amount of information we have about everyday life and our ability to mentally inhabit it.

But writing a novel involves different sets of data than doing historic re-creation and involves some very different questions. I think one of the hardest topics to tackle when writing relatively fluffy historical fiction set during the Roman empire is how to handle slavery. One can take an unhistorical approach and ignore it. One can take a brutally historic approach and have your characters treat it unquestioningly as normal and natural. One can have the characters hold ahistorically enlightened opinions on the topic. Especially in the context of romance fiction, one can fetishize the relationship between the enslaved and the enslavers and redeem the latter via True Love. (Which: ugh. I have a hard time being neutral when including stories of this type in the LHMP new books listings.) Or one can try to thread the needle and find a balance that both respects and accurately represents the experiences of enslaved people in Roman society, alongside the experiences of more privileged characters.

In any event, I picked up this book (based on a recommendation on Twitter) to try to help educate myself with respect to the last option. It’s a fairly quick read (and very readable for the non-specialist, I think), trying for a balance between using primary source materials while recognizing how badly skewed those sources are with respect to whose voices are represented and how honest they are able to be in their expression. It addresses the sheer scale of the role slavery played in the Roman economic and social structure, while recognizing the wide range of experiences of enslaved people, depending on factors such as geography, the rural/urban divide, gender, occupation, and the random chance of the personality of enslavers. Another focus is on the everyday precariousness of life for the enslaved, even within the most privileged contexts. But also the opportunities, the ways people worked around and within the system, and the extremely variable opportunities for advancement or manumission.

The author puts a lot of focus on the humanity of the people involved in Roman slavery and both the parallels and differences between the Roman experience and systems of slavery in other eras and societies. Definitely fulfils the purpose for which I acquired the book.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2021 - 07:00

Sometimes when I run across a book or article that doesn't seem to add value to the Project, I simply take a note in my master list (so I don't keep "discovering" it) and move on. And sometimes a book or article promises so much and delivers so badly that I just need to get the whole thing out of my system by talking about it.

This is one of those times.

Full citation: 

Stehr, Emily (compiler). 2018. Tragic (but Interesting & Very Short) History of Sodomite, Lesbians, & Sapphics. Self-published. ISBN 978172000756

I’m doing this publication out of order because it doesn’t take very long to say, “Don’t touch this book with a ten foot pole,” and I want to get that out of the way and never look at it again.

It isn’t that the content of the book is particularly harmful, it’s that its very existence is an act of bad scholarship. Why did I buy it? Because I was on the website for University Press Books (which was a great browsing-bookstore back when they had a physical presence, right across the street from U.C. Berkeley) ordering an entirely different book. And recalling that UPB was a place where I’d happened by chance across all manner of books useful to the Project, I plugged the search word “lesbian” into their web site and skimmed through the listed items. This title was intriguing, the price was quite reasonable, and so I ordered it.

So what did I get? It’s best to introduce this by quoting the author’s forward: “Dear Reader, this “book” is ridiculously short. During my search on google scholar, I was amazed at the lack of documentation about same-sex relationships in history. I think this is an important story to be told. It is my hope that someone in the future will add to this document as other historical sources become available.”

I have no idea what she was searching for in Google Scholar, or why she seems to think that the items she turned up are the entirety of what is known of queer history in the 18th and 19th centuries, or how she managed to be working on anything relating to this topic without having a basic grounding in historic methods, but even in making a heap of all she found, this compilation is misleading, misattributed, and utterly lacking in useful context. The one virtue of the work is that it is short. (It lacks pagination and I can’t be bothered to actually count, but I think about 20 pages?) It consists of verbatim quotations from 16 publications, evidently identified through some sort of keyword search. The extracts are given a source, an author, and a date, but in many cases that information is misleading.

For example, one extract is cited as ”1839 Jean Froissart”. The 1839 date comes from an edition translated and edited by Thomas Johnes from the French original of the 14th century.

A similar displacement of attribution occurs for the excerpt cited as “Robert Kelham; Britton: Containing the Antient Pleas of the Crown, 1762.” Kelham was a legal historian and antiquarian of the 18th century. This is his translation of an early 16th century compilation of English law, which itself was based on a 13th century work. But Stehr’s presentation of the excerpt gives no context to suggest that it is anything other than an 18th century legal opinion. (And…look: it only took me five minutes with Google and Wikipedia to trace this back. It’s not like it was hard.)

A couple of excerpts seem to be included solely on the basis of quoting someone yelling “Sodomite!” as an insult, which is meaningless without understanding the social context in which it was hurled. Another couple seem to be included solely due to references to the poet Sappho as a “Lesbian,” but in contexts where her sexuality is not a focus.

In sum (and it would have been best to stop earlier), this book contributes less than nothing to the knowledge or understanding of sexuality in history. And if I were University Press Books, I’d be embarrassed to have it in my catalog.

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Monday, August 23, 2021 - 07:00

After what seems like entirely too long a period of covering a single book, we come to the end. Female Husbands: A Trans History has some interesting strengths and weaknesses as a historic study. The greatest strength (and my favorite aspect, given that I like the puzzle-solving parts of historic research) is Manion's willingness to dig through obscure public records to fill in the details of these people's lives. The original publicity around the story of James Howe/Mary East and their wife never mentioned the wife's name. (Which is entirely in keeping with historic misogyny and the erasure of women's identities and--from one angle--could be seen as validation of Howe's masculinity. Since Howe was considered worthy of having a name of their own to be identified by.) But Manion succeeded in finding Howe's marriage record, which provided the name Mary Snapes. In various other cases, Manion has dug deeply to connect the dots and answer the question of "what happened to these people after the spotlight of notoriety moved on?"

But I think the most obvious weakness of the book is the attempt to organize it by chronological themes, when no such chronology existed in the biographical data. Individual biogrpahies are  shoehorned into the chapter theme and sometimes tied to it by the most tenuous of connections. I could see how a book that was simply a catalog of biographies might be less readable. But the result of this approach--as well as the occasional digressions on social issues and movements of the times--makes the organization feel a bit patchy and haphazard.

Returning to strengths, I am always grateful to a book that gives me the tools to think about gender/sexuality in new and different ways, and Manion has added a significant tool to my box. In discussing "transing gender" as an action, rather than a state, it becomes easier to view female masculinity (to use Halberstam's phrase) not only as a continuum, but as a continual rather than a continuuous process. That is, transing gender is something one can do a little or a lot, periodically or all the time, permanently or temporarily. This approach makes it easier (for me, at least) to let go a little of the notion that cis and trans are distinct binary states. When considering people in history, it isn't simply that "we can never know for certain" (in that annoyingly prevalent phrasing), but that their placement on a cis-trans continuum depends not only on their motivations, experiences, and performance, but on where one chooses to draw the dividing line.

Female Husbands is a book that speaks equally strongly to several aspects of queer and gender history. For anyone who wants more aspects of the topic within the setting of western Anglophone society (which is a definite limitation of scope), I highly recommend it.

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Full citation: 

Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Chapter 8: The End of a Category & Conclusion

Manion identifies the end of the 19th century as a period when the meanings of gender and the various ways in which women pushed back against the restrictions of gender expanded enough that the category of female husband became less coherent. Transing gender had been an individual solution to the various social restrictions of gender roles, but feminism and other societal shifts were now offering systemic solutions to some of the same problems. Same-sex relationships between people presenting as female became more visible and included a range of gender expressions. Persons assigned female who adopted various degrees of masculine dress offered rational arguments for acceptability. Feminism laid claim to the right of women to enter male-dominated fields and spheres without needing to present as male to do so. At the same time, the hostility of men toward women’s invasion of their prerogatives and spaces also increased the hostility turned towards those who transed gender. Reactions that previously had centered around social gender roles now focused more strongly on sexual possibilities.

Several case studies are offered of people who were put into the category of “female husband” by public and press reaction. But in some cases the ways in which they failed to fit that archetype point out the growing incoherence of the category. Public discourse around Frank Dubois, who had a fairly standard female-husband story, points out some of the shifts in anxiety about those who transed gender. Dubois' story provoked a fair amount of discussion, both serious and satirical, that if women had an option of marrying women, then men might become irrelevant. But another aspect of the discussion focused on the performative nature of gender, in that many of the proofs that Dubois offered for their male status had to do with stereotypical male behaviors and gender performance, rather than physical characteristics.

There is a brief discussion of John Coulter, whom Manion identifies as the “last British female husband,” but the story offers no particularly new angles on the topic.

Samuel Pollard’s story reads much like some previous ones in that shortly after they married, their wife complained that her husband was actually a woman. As the matter tried to sort itself out in the court (having difficulty in finding the appropriate statute be considered) Pollard’s wife had a reconciliation and in the end the matter was dropped. The marriage was later dissolved, but Pollard continued to live as a man in the community despite their gender assignment being known to others due to the earlier controversy.

The next two cases show how the female husband paradigm was applied even in cases where it failed to fit the facts. Annie Hindle was an actress who performed male roles on stage, and wore male clothing to their wedding with Annie Ryan. However there was never any serious attempt to disguise their assigned gender. The minister who married them did not raise any questions of gender although it is likely that he was aware that there were questions to be raised. Hindle and their wife remained together until Ryan died. There was a flurry of publicity around the concept of “the widow of a woman”, but in general it was sympathetic and positive with regard to the couple. Hindle appears to have worn male clothing at least on a sometime basis after retiring from the stage, but did not attempt to pass as a man except in the very specific context of the marriage ceremony. But by applying the female husband model, Hindle’s marriage created a conceptual bridge to the idea of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Leroy Williams was a disabled veteran of the Civil War and in late middle-age married the widow Matilda Smith. Smith soon became unhappy with the marriage, citing various types of misrepresentation regarding income and housing that Williams had made during the courtship. But Smith also claimed that Williams had misrepresented their sex, saying “he was no man but a woman.” This would be a familiar story in the discussion of female husbands except that--based on all available evidence, including that of census records from Williams’ childhood--Williams does appear to have been assigned male. William successfully argued that their experiences in the army would have made an underlying female sex obvious, and no medical examination was made in the context of the marriage challenge. So why would Smith raise this accusation in the context of requesting a marriage annulment? Evidently the concept of female husbands was current enough in the culture to be a believable charge, even when easily falsified.

Manion explores the role of scandal sheets and crime-focused newspapers in recording and spreading stories of female husbands and similar gender transgression. But increasingly there were female identified people who openly wore male garments for a variety of reasons, whether practicality, career, or personal taste. Similarly, the end of the 19th century saw a number of types of female same-sex partnerships that were entered into openly and received varying amounts of social approval. (This was the era of the "Boston marriage" and of many couples formed among the faculty of women's colleges.) With these shifts, some of the motivations for female husbands begin to fall away from the central model and the term became less useful to describe a specific phenomenon. What remained as a motivation was an internal sense of gender identity. But marrying a woman was no longer seen as proof or validation for that masculine identity.

In the end of the chapter Manion summarizes many of the themes covered in this book and reiterates the reasoning for the particular approach to gender reference that she uses. There is also an epilogue discussing the first medically reassigned female to male transsexual (Manion’s wording) and the changes in approaches and attitudes to transing gender that came in the 20th century.

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Saturday, August 21, 2021 - 22:25

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 208 – Shakespeare’s Queer-Baiting - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/08/21 - listen here)

Same-Sex Themes in Shakespeare

I think that in the hearts of most queer girls, there is a cherished memory of some particular performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when you thought, “Say yes, Viola! Just say yes to Olivia and change the story!”

Because of Shakespeare’s ubiquity in Western Anglophone culture, we tend to be more familiar with the brief glimpses of female homoeroticism in his works than in those of his contemporaries. But was the Bard of Avon revolutionary and cutting-edge in his depictions of the possibilities of love between women? Or was he reflecting themes that were common in late 16th and early 17th century English culture? Or was he presenting staid and safely conservative versions of homoerotic tropes that would titillate his audience without challenging them? Was he queer-baiting the groundlings with a wink and a nudge and the image of two women together only to deflect the possibility at the last minute?

Valerie Traub asserts that early modern England saw a renaissance of representations of desire between women in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a gradual increase over that period in depictions of women’s same-sex physical and emotional relations across a wide variety of genres. These representations existed within a social context that believed women to have a stronger sex drive than men, and that considered same-sex desire to be an expected manifestation of that drive. But did those understandings lead naturally to an acceptance of those desires and a positive attitude toward them?

There were two major themes in the depiction of women’s same-sex desire during that era—themes that have chased each other across the landscape of history. One theme came from the philosophical tradition of amicitia—friendship—in which like was expected to be drawn to like, and the passionate expression of that attraction, and the love that resulted from it was treated as expected and normal. The second theme was based on a theory that erotic desire was driven by difference, and specifically from the contrast of masculine and feminine. In this model, female couples were attracted via an analog of heterosexuality, one being more masculine in nature (and sometimes thought to have masculine physiology) and one not simply more feminine, but an ordinary feminine woman who was attracted to masculinity regardless of the body it inhabited.

These themes drove two significant tropes used in early modern drama, but the conventions of the stage added other layers. Was the desire set up to be sympathetic or condemned? Did the characters know they desired someone of the same sex or was that information only available to the audience? Was the love between them allowed to persist at the end of the play or did it need to be contradicted or redirected?

In this podcast, I’m setting aside the complication that in the English theater of Shakespeare’s day, all female parts were played by male actors. This was, in some ways, an English peculiarity limited to a specific period. The Italian theater from which Shakespeare, um, “borrowed” some of his plots (including Twelfth Night) included women in acting troupes by the mid 16th century, and France embraced actresses by a similar era. Besides which, the fashion for homoerotic plots continued to be popular in England even as female actors took their place on stage in the later 17th century. So I’m not going to focus on this aspect of performance and the layers it added to interpretation.

As You Like It

Let’s take a look at a couple of characteristic examples from Shakespeare. As You Like It contains both of our primary motifs: passionate friendship based on similarity, and erotic desire based on apparent gender difference. Rosalind and Celia are cousins whose fathers have become enemies. Their love for each other is stronger than all other familial bonds: when Rosalind is banished on pain of death, Celia refuses to be parted from her and accompanies her into exile. Both will eventually be courted and won in marriage by men (conveniently, by a pair of brothers). This overarching marriage plot allays the anxiety that same-sex devotion might otherwise cause.

Here is the scene where Rosalind is banished and Celia cleaves to her. It begins with Celia imploring her father, the duke, to relent, and then the subsequent conversation between the two women.


I did not then entreat to have her stay;
It was your pleasure and your own remorse:
I was too young that time to value her;
But now I know her: if she be a traitor,
Why so am I; we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together,
And wheresoever we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.


She is too subtle for thee; and her smoothness,
Her very silence and her patience
Speak to the people, and they pity her.
Thou art a fool: she robs thee of thy name;
And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous
When she is gone. Then open not thy lips:
Firm and irrevocable is my doom
Which I have pass’d upon her; she is banish’d.


Pronounce that sentence then on me, my liege:
I cannot live out of her company.


You are a fool. You, niece, provide yourself:
If you outstay the time, upon mine honour,
And in the greatness of my word, you die.

    Exeunt DUKE FREDERICK and Lords


O my poor Rosalind, whither wilt thou go?
Wilt thou change fathers? I will give thee mine.
I charge thee, be not thou more grieved than I am.


I have more cause.


Thou hast not, cousin;
Prithee be cheerful: know’st thou not, the duke
Hath banish’d me, his daughter?


That he hath not.


No, hath not? Rosalind lacks then the love
Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one:
Shall we be sunder’d? shall we part, sweet girl?
No: let my father seek another heir.
Therefore devise with me how we may fly,
Whither to go and what to bear with us;
And do not seek to take your change upon you,
To bear your griefs yourself and leave me out;
For, by this heaven, now at our sorrows pale,
Say what thou canst, I’ll go along with thee.

The language of devotion here may seem fairly tame and conventional, but it is unambiguous. When Celia says they “went like Juno’s swans, coupled and inseparable” she is invoking the goddess of marriage and the motif that swans mate for life. When Celia notes that they “slept together and rose at an instant,” this is neither a salacious reference to “sleeping together” in a sexual sense, nor a meaningless co-location in the same bed. Sharing a bed was both ordinary and accepted and indicated a significant bond of friendship, intimacy, and trust between the bedfellows. It is an act infused with erotic potential while being free of any suggestion of immorality. When Celia says “let my father seek another heir…I’ll go along with thee,” there is an inevitable parallel with how marriage removes women from the family of their birth to partner with another.

But As You Like It also brings in the theme of desire arising from difference, via the popular stage motif of gender disguise and mis-directed heterosexual attraction. For greater safety after the two women flee to the Forest of Arden for a pastoral interlude, Rosalind puts on men’s clothing and adopts the name of Ganymede. If the homoerotic implications had not been clear enough, Ganymede was the name of Jupiter’s cup-bearer, abducted to be his sexual companion. Ganymede was slang for the younger or passive partner in a male homosexual couple. We now enter a world of gender play and gender confusion, as the shepherdess Phebe falls in love with Ganymede, despite—or perhaps because of—Ganymede’s scornful dismissal of her.

At the same time, Rosalind (as Ganymede) torments her would-be suitor Orlando by coaching him in courtship having him practice his wooing of Rosalind on Ganymede. This is something of a reversal of the trope that erotic play between women is harmless “practice” for heterosexual marriage.

Thus Orlando goes through the superficial form of a same-sex courtship, believing it to be make-believe, while actually participating in a heterosexual courtship; while Phebe throws herself into what she believes is a heterosexual pursuit, that in truth has a woman as its object. Rosalind declines to engage fully in either courtship: repeatedly rejecting Phebe’s attentions (and thus defusing the possibility of overt same-sex eroticism), and treating her interactions with Orlando as play-acting (again defusing the threat of the appearance of homosexuality).

But homoeroticism is not only present via disguise and pretend. When Phebe praises Ganymede in the following passage, it’s in terms of an androgynous and even feminine beauty.


Think not I love him, though I ask for him:
‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well;
But what care I for words? yet words do well
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear.
It is a pretty youth: not very pretty:
But, sure, he’s proud, and yet his pride becomes him:
He’ll make a proper man: the best thing in him
Is his complexion; and faster than his tongue
Did make offence his eye did heal it up.
He is not very tall; yet for his years he’s tall:
His leg is but so so; and yet ’tis well:
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper and more lusty red
Than that mix’d in his cheek; ’twas just the difference
Between the constant red and mingled damask.
There be some women, Silvius, had they mark’d him
In parcels as I did, would have gone near
To fall in love with him; but, for my part,
I love him not nor hate him not; and yet
I have more cause to hate him than to love him:
For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said mine eyes were black and my hair black:
And, now I am remember’d, scorn’d at me:
I marvel why I answer’d not again:
But that’s all one; omittance is no quittance.
I’ll write to him a very taunting letter,
And thou shalt bear it: wilt thou, Silvius?

As the resolution of all the disguises nears, the script once more flirts with images of same-sex love and marriage while leaving a secret escape valve. Rosalind, as Ganymede, tells Phebe:

I would love you, if I could. To-morrow meet me all together.
I will marry you, if ever I marry woman, and I’ll be
married to-morrow:

Meaning, in truth, that she will marry her male suitor Orlando, but teasing both the unknowing Phebe and the knowing audience with the idea of two women being wed.

The Wider Context of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama

There is a wide diversity of representations of female same-sex relations in early modern drama, ranging from the overtly sexual, through devoted platonic friendship, to a generalized female solidarity against patriarchal society. Shakespeare has available an audience that considers same-sex relations to be possible and familiar and he plays with those possibilities for dramatic effect. But Shakespeare’s plays include a relatively narrow range of those representations, when considered in context.

Popular culture viewed women’s same-sex erotic possibilities simultaneously as suspect and threatening, and as tolerable and pleasurable, particularly if viewed through the lens of friendship and homosociality rather than strictly in terms of sexual activity. In general, expressions of explicit sexual desire are presented negatively while depictions of romantic love are the most accepted. And it must be noted that depictions of gender disguise on stage are taken largely as harmless, while real-life cross-dressing was a significant point of anxiety and treated as sexually charged.

Scenarios of homoeroticism on stage or in literature could be used as social criticism, but often tangentially, to address entirely different areas of social, religious, or political concern. Yet an overarching theme was that homoerotic desire must be addressed and resolved in some fashion within the story. Idealized, romantic, non-sexual attachment may be presented as praiseworthy and simply diverted into a heterosexual resolution, but predatory, anxiety-provoking sexual scenarios tend to end in tragedy. Direct sexual transgression (and the need for its punishment) can be avoided by misdirection (for example, in cross-dressing plots) or by sidelining the desire in a deniable subtext via innuendo or allusion. The homoerotic presence may be created by the act of denying its possibility, or may exist only by the way in which that possibility disrupts a more central heterosexual plot. A character who protests the impossibility of desire between women acts to raise it as a possibility in the audience’s imagination. A potential heterosexual romance that is disrupted by a gender-disguised woman suggests that a woman could be a more attractive partner for a woman than the man she’s expected to marry.

Fictional treatments of female homoeroticism tended to focus on desire, and to treat it neutrally or sympathetically, while non-fictional evidence focused on actual sexual activity and condemned it. Between those two poles, the assumptions and models through which female homoeroticism was presented followed certain principles.

  • Erotic attraction is driven by beauty rather than by biological sex. Beauty exists as an abstract quality and is not gendered.
  • Similarity of body, age, temperament, and situation drives attraction. It is natural and expected for two people who are highly similar to be attracted to each other and to express that attraction openly.
  • But also, in contrast, female same-sex eroticism is inspired by differences in age, rank, power, and experience.
  • Gender-segregated institutions and social contexts tend to encourage and inspire same-sex eroticism.
  • Female same-sex eroticism is always something that belongs to the past, whether it belongs to classical antiquity, to an earlier phase of the history of one’s own culture, or to an earlier stage of a specific person’s life.

“Innocent” intimate friendships between women in such stories typically exist in parallel with heterosexual plots and are abandoned, or at least set aside, at marriage. But rather than framing women’s intimate friendships as being entirely non-erotic, literature regularly draws explicit parallels between same-sex affections and the heterosexual bonds and interactions that are purportedly the ultimate goal of the narrative.

It is a general pattern in comedic works of the early modern period that anxieties are raised explicitly only to be resolved. Femme-femme couples in this literature become significant only when they challenge the patriarchal and marital imperatives of society--when they threaten to become exclusive--at which point they must be dismantled.

Valerie Traub identifies this motif exclusively with courtship plots, but Denise Walen’s study of female homoeroticisim in early modern theater shows the motif occurring more generally. And, by the way, if you are intrigued to the slightest degree by the topic of sapphic themes in early modern drama, do check out Walen’s book: Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama.

Shakespeare Plays it Safe

Femme-femme couples were not viewed as disruptive to the social structure unless they went beyond using the language of marriage to trying to appropriate the social function of marriage. Shakespeare’s women never go quite that far, but various interpretations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, including John Lyly’s Gallathea directly raise the image of marriage between women, only to nullify it with a magical physical transformation of one of the women to a man.

Shakespeare’s plays are, in many ways, more “innocent” in their depictions of female same-sex erotics than some of the works of his contemporaries. Unlike Lyly’s Gallathea his gender-mistaken women do not continue in their desire once the disguise has been revealed. Unlike several of Thomas Middleton’s plays, his characters don’t engage in ribald jokes that take it as a given that women can engage in sex together. None of Shakespeare’s women knowingly kiss and fondle another woman as in Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage. Unlike Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, his cross-dressing women are not seen as advertising their underlying desires by their clothing.

When Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women are desired by another woman, the misdirected love is unambiguously redirected, not simply into a heterosexual relationship, but into marriage. Olivia transfers her affections rather abruptly and without much motivation onto Viola’s twin brother. Rosalind sends Phebe off with her shepherd suitor and marries the man she’s been teasing as Ganymede.

In romantic comedies, desire for a cross-dressed woman can be treated humorously rather than creating anxiety. In many of these works, the characteristics of the cross-dressed woman that provoke desire are traditionally feminine ones, such as beauty, courtesy, and kindness. Thus, although the desire that the femme-presenting women feel occurs within a superficial framework of heterosexuality, their motivation supports the validity of female-female desire, even though those same characteristics would not provoke female desire if displayed by one known to be a woman. That is, on stage, women can desire female-coded personal traits, but they only perceive this desire as erotic when those traits are overlaid on an apparently male body.

Twelfth Night

Let’s return to the topic of Twelfth Night to see how this “safe” same-sex desire plays out. Viola (in disguise as Cesario) does take an active role in provoking Olivia’s desire, largely in her role as spokesperson for Duke Orsino, but also in the playful bantering between them. In spite of this, Viola herself is unshakable in directing her own desire toward Orsino. Here Viola tries to divert Olivia’s desire:


I pity you.


That’s a degree to love.


No, not a grize; for ’tis a vulgar proof,
That very oft we pity enemies.


Why, then, methinks ’tis time to smile again.
O, world, how apt the poor are to be proud!
If one should be a prey, how much the better
To fall before the lion than the wolf!

[Clock strikes]

The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.
Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you:
And yet, when wit and youth is come to harvest,
Your were is alike to reap a proper man:
There lies your way, due west.


Then westward-ho! Grace and good disposition
Attend your ladyship!
You’ll nothing, madam, to my lord by me?


I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.


That you do think you are not what you are.


If I think so, I think the same of you.


Then think you right: I am not what I am.


I would you were as I would have you be!


Would it be better, madam, than I am?
I wish it might, for now I am your fool.


O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In the contempt and anger of his lip!
A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid: love’s night is noon.
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,
But rather reason thus with reason fetter,
Love sought is good, but given unsought better.


By innocence I swear, and by my youth
I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.
And so adieu, good madam: never more
Will I my master’s tears to you deplore.

Of course, not all of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women attract female desire. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice has the practical purpose of needing to act as a lawyer. Innogen in Cymbeline and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona both cross-dress for safety in traveling (and to avoid recognition by the man they are seeking). Though one possible source for Two Gentlemen did include the Julia character attracting a woman’s desire.

So even in employing the trope of desire within gender disguise, Shakespeare sticks to only the most inoffensive manifestations of the concept.


Given this tendency to dodge around the most sexually charged possibilities, it’s interesting that there is one brief scene where Shakespeare touches on the trope of a sexually-experienced older woman “training” a young woman in the arts of love (or at least sex) in preparation for heterosexual relations. We saw a very tame, gender-flipped version in As You Like It when Ganymede teaches Orlando how to court a woman. But in Pericles, that most trope-tastic jumble of a play, we get the version where the proprietor of a whorehouse purchases a maiden to work in her establishment and explains how best to excite a customer, saying:


Pray you, come hither awhile. You
have fortunes coming upon you. Mark me: you
must seem to do that fearfully which you commit
willingly, despise profit where you have most gain.
To weep that you live as you do makes pity in your
lovers. Seldom but that pity begets you a good
opinion, and that opinion a mere profit.

[When the maiden is confused, the madam’s servant suggests:]

O, take her home, mistress, take her home!
These blushes of hers must be quenched with
some present practice.

Once again, Shakespeare’s use of this trope is fairly tame—especially as the maiden’s virtue proves invincible. The motif is far more prominent in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London or James Mabbe’s The Spanish Bawd.

Bosom Buddies

There’s a greater range of potential within the depiction of femme-femme love. Characters can express extremes of affection because the absence of a gender contrast doesn’t challenge the social expectations. Without the superficial appearance of a male-female couple, the language of romance is more easily dismissed as non-erotic.

We previously discussed the expressions of passionate friendship between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, but the evidence is more fleeting in other cases. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and Helena make reference to an established intimate friendship. Hermia reminds her friend how:

in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,

But almost from the start of the play, that closeness is disrupted by their competition for the affections of a man.

Dead Girlfriends

A more drastic way to deflect the transgressive potential of women’s passionate friendships is the dead girlfriend approach. Shakespeare allows women to get really intense about the love they felt for someone who’s already dead at the start of the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the domestic conflict between Titania and Oberon that underlies almost everything else that happens is sparked by Oberon’s greed to take possession of a young boy whose mother was beloved by Titania. “A votaress of my order” Titania describes her, which is to say a sworn devotee. A human servant of a fairy queen. But the scenario that Titania paints for us indicates a level of intimacy that justifies Titania’s stubborn refusal to part with the boy.


Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

In the end, of course, Titania surrenders and becomes a good obedient wife once more. The resolution by marriage is much more obviously forced in the case of Two Noble Kinsmen. Since this play isn’t as well-known as some, a brief plot summary may be in order.

Emilia is an Amazon, the sister of Queen Hippolyta who has just married Theseus. That is, just married within Two Noble Kinsmen, though also in the just aforementioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by coincidence. Emilia is disinterested in marriage and is mourning the death of her friend Flavina. Emilia’s description of how she loved the dead Flavina is charged with passion. The conversation starts with Hippolyta.


…[that] which he loves best.

There is a best, and reason has no manners
To say it is not you. I was acquainted
Once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow;
You were at wars when she the grave enriched,
Who made too proud the bed; took leave o’ th’ moon,
Which then looked pale at parting, when our count
Was each eleven.

’Twas Flavina.

You talk of Pirithous’ and Theseus’ love.
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgment, and their needs
The one of th’ other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love. But I,
And she I sigh and spoke of, were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements
That know not what nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved, what not, condemned,
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts—O, then but beginning
To swell about the blossom—she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, Phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern; her affections—pretty,
Though haply hers careless were—I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn—rather, dwell
And sing it in her slumbers. This rehearsal—
Which fury-innocent wots well comes in
Like old importment’s bastard—has this end,
That the true love ’tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex individual.

As a consequence of war, two kinsmen become Theseus’s prisoners. Theseus decides (without input from Emilia) that the two will fight with the victor marrying Emilia and the loser being executed. Don’t worry, it sort of makes sense in context. Emilia spends the whole play saying, “Look, this is stupid. I don’t want to marry at all and I certainly don’t want someone to be executed in my name.” When the rules of the duel are set, Emilia goes to the altar of Diana—goddess of those who refuse marriage—and prays to her.

O sacred, shadowy, cold, and constant queen,
Abandoner of revels, mute contemplative,
Sweet, solitary, white as chaste, and pure
As wind-fanned snow, who to thy female knights
Allow’st no more blood than will make a blush,
Which is their order’s robe, I here, thy priest,
Am humbled ’fore thine altar. O, vouchsafe
With that thy rare green eye, which never yet
Beheld thing maculate, look on thy virgin,
And, sacred silver mistress, lend thine ear—
Which ne’er heard scurrile term, into whose port
Ne’er entered wanton sound—to my petition,
Seasoned with holy fear. This is my last
Of vestal office. I am bride-habited
But maiden-hearted. A husband I have ’pointed,
But do not know him. Out of two I should
Choose one, and pray for his success, but I
Am guiltless of election. Of mine eyes,
Were I to lose one—they are equal precious—
I could doom neither; that which perished should
Go to ’t unsentenced. Therefore, most modest queen,
He of the two pretenders that best loves me
And has the truest title in ’t, let him
Take off my wheaten garland, or else grant
The file and quality I hold I may
Continue in thy band.

Emilia is loathe to be the prize in this contest and refuses to watch the fight. In the end she is resigned to her fate, not eager to embrace it. This clearly isn’t one of the romantic comedies with eager lovers. But although Emilia puts up the strongest resistance of any of Shakespeare’s heroines to having her love hijacked from a woman and turned toward heterosexual marriage, in the final analysis, Flavina can’t compete because she’s safely dead.


So is it fair to characterize what Shakespeare is doing in these plays as “queer-baiting” in the sense of teasing the audience with hints and promises of a same-sex relationship only balk at the fence? I think it is. The context is different from the present day. He didn’t have an audience that actively and openly longed to see a story resolve with two women together. But he did have an audience that accepted such a pairing as within the scope of imagination. And if he didn’t think they would enjoy being presented with that possibility on stage, he wouldn’t have included the motifs in his plays.

Not that the early modern theater audience was ready to have two female-presenting people officially paired off at the final curtain. Even Lyly’s Gallathea dodges that possibility with a magical sex-change. But even within the limitations of the time, Shakespeare is coy and timid with his homoerotic tropes. Viola may whet our appetites but comes nowhere near to sating them. For that, we must write our own stories.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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