Demographics -- and especially demographic studies that include individual illustrative examples -- are fertile ground for thinking about character backstories. As I read this article, I took a lot of mental notes for my long-trunked-for-massive-revisions 1st century historic romance. I’d already decided to give one of my protagonists an Egyptian background to make use of some of the evidence and hints regarding f/f relations in Roman Egypt. The demongraphic and inheritance data discussed here are giving me some new ideas for fleshing out her backstory (including just how she ends up in Britain on the eve of the Boudiccan rebellion).
Huebner, Sabine R. 2019. “Single Men and Women in Pagan Society: The Case of Roman Egypt” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
Huebner, Sabine R. “Single Men and Women in Pagan Society: The Case of Roman Egypt”
Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches
Almost of all of the articles in this collection spend some time talking about the difficultly in identifying "single" as a demographic category in the records of the era, not simply because the vocabulary to distinguish single people wasn't clearly defined, but also because the attributes used to define singlehood in the modern world were organized differently in that society. (And in many modern societies, for that matter.)
It's also interesting--when reading through the collection as a whole--to see how assumptions about singlehood taken for granted in some articles are undermined in others. For example, this current article challenges the idea that there was a significant increase in the number of single people (however defined) in Coptic Egypt, due to the rise of Christian attitudes toward chastity and religious singlehood, compared to pre-Christian Egypt. But then later articles covering Coptic Egypt state this change in the demographics of singles as an accepted fact.
Given the observed difficulties in applying numbers to demographic categories in both eras, we see how easy it can be fore preconceptions to affect how one interprets the scanty data.
# # #
This article looks at the demographics of pre-Christian Egypt to evaluate the claim that the presence of never-married adults is a Christian phenomenon. Roman legal and literary sources treat single adults as a special anomaly, such as Vestal Virgins or priests of Cybele. Augustine law encouraged marriage and even penalized potential heirs if not married. This applies only to the citizen class and specifically does not apply to those in the military, sex workers, and enslaved people.
In general, Roman Egyptian society followed the “Mediterranean marriage pattern” which involves early marriage for women and a significant age gap, with men being older, a universal expectation of marriage, and no lifecycle period of unwed labor for (free) women.
The data for this analysis comes from surviving census records from approximately 0 to 250 CE. Available records include 400 documents which record 250 households and nearly 500 individuals. Most were lower or middle class. Approximately 11% were enslaved people. Census records were completed by household, counting all those at the same residence, including names, relationships, and identifying characteristics. They do not indicate marital status directly, though it can be interpolated from other relationships, if the spouses are in the same household. Divorce was easy and common and often simply for incompatibility.
Rarely, the word “parthenos” occurs to identify an unmarried young woman, but it does not automatically mean “virgin” in the sexual sense. Pre-marital chastity was not required for pre-Christian Egyptian women, though it could be a concern for upper class Romans and became a general expectation in Christian society. Compare also to Jewish concerns for virginity. Marital status is referred to explicitly by widows to emphasize their legal vulnerability, but not typically by divorced or never-married women.
Marriage was created by cohabitation and ceremony, but not by legal formality. Widows might head their own household (with children) without remarrying. There are examples of widows protesting a daughter’s marriage when the daughter had been a business asset.
So what are we looking for in the census that would fit in the category “single.” Based on normative life stages, the author settles on defining “single” as anyone 15 or over, currently not married (defined as the absence of a spouse in the household), but regardless of whether the person has had children and regardless of the rest of the household composition. This will be a diverse group in terms of age and life situation. The evaluation excludes people who were not legally able to marry.
Out of 1116 people whose situation can be reconstructed from records almost half (554) were 15 or older. Of these, almost half (232) were single, as defined above. Unlike the “northern pattern” which included lifecycle employment for young unmarried people, there were no free domestic servants. The census identifies 253 households, of which 132 included at least one single person.
Looking at gender, of the 232 singles, 109 were women. And as women comprised roughly half of the 15-and-over population this meant women and men were equally likely to be single, and roughly half of all adults of either gender were single. Of these 109 single women, 49 had children living with them, and so may well have been married in the past. [Note: Given the reference to children typically living with their father’s extended family after divorce or parental death, this statistic seems to beg for some explanation. It would be interesting to know the ages of the children in this set. Was this primarily older widows living with their adult children? Is is the assertion that the children of disrupted families typically lived with the father’s family over-blown? See the comment about widows with children heading households.]
So 60 women-–about a quarter of all adult women-–have no evidence of ever being married (of those, some may have been previously married, but had no living children). This is a much higher proportion than for otherwise similar Mediterranean societies at various times that have been studied demographically.
Children created a significant social distinction. A widow with children could head a household while a childless widow or never-married woman would belong to a near relative’s household. (Typically a male relative, but presumably the adult daughter of a widow could belong to her mothers household and there is reference to this).
Therefore “single women” do not constitute a homogeneous group. But since children typically remain with the father’s family in the case of divorce or one parent’s death, male demographics also provide information regarding the proportion of never married people (which may be under-counted for women, when relying on the presence of children as an indicator.)
[Note: of course men and women aren’t directly comparable because one possible pattern would be for a smaller group of men sequentially marrying multiple women, resulting in lower never-married rates for women and higher rates for men.]
Men typically married younger women, giving women a good chance of outliving their husbands. But widows, especially older ones, often chose not to remarry. Men who married young would have wives of similar age (due to age limits for women to be considered marriageable), but those who married (or remarried) later were typically more than 10 years older than their wives. Overall this led to a surplus of single younger men and some men who never had the opportunity to marry.
Of the 283 adult men in the census (excluding enslaved people), 91 did not have a wife or their own children living with them, meaning about 1/3 of all men gave no evidence of ever having been married. (Though they may have had past childless marriages or ones where the children had died, similarly to the stats for women.) This also means that the vast majority of single men (3/4) had no living children, while ¼ were single with children.
[Note: given that we observed that about a half of currently-single women had children living with them, this suggests the possibility that currently-single men were more likely to have been never-married than currently-single women. But I think these numbers also raise questions about the claim that children typically went with their father's household, unless the vast majority of the single-with-children women were widows as opposed to divorcées. If so, this would have been a useful clue to apply to hypotheses about relative numbers of divorced versus widowed women.]
The pressure and opportunities for marriage varied according to gender and age. The normative pattern was for women to be married by 20 and for men to experience pressure if still unmarried by their mid-30s. But having been married, the pressure to remarry was lower, e.g. for widows with children. And the high proportion of singles reflect these differing pressures.
In Roman Egypt inheritance was not gendered – daughters inherited equally with sons, and children inherited from both parents. Spouses did not inherit from each other. The typical household structure involved multiple married couples related by the male line, with their children, including unmarried adult daughters and married sons. Women, when divorced or widowed, usually returned to their father’s household. Women with surviving parents and unmarried siblings tended to marry later (mid 20s) while those whose parents were dead or with married brothers tended to marry earlier. The author suggests that this tendency might reflect social dynamics where there was increased friction between a young never-married woman and her sisters-in-law when sharing the same household. Or that women who expected to receive a substantial inheritance, but whose parents were still alive, may have felt either enabled or pressured to postpone marriage.
By some statistics, 3/5 of women had married by age 20 and nearly all by their late 20s. How then do we explain the relatively higher rate of single women in their mid 20s? The author suggests it may represent childless divorcées or widows (whose children lived with their father) who had returned to their birth household. But interpreting these statistics involves guesswork and assumptions.
The article now presents some case studies.
Several more examples are given, focusing on single men living in extended households.
The overall conclusions are that, despite the social context that assumed marriage as the normative life, a significant proportion of the Roman Egyptian population was unmarried at any given time, either never married or not remarried after divorce or spousal death. The reasons in specific cases are nearly impossible to uncover, but personal circumstances could clearly affect both the ability and the desire to refrain from marriage. Yet the lives, expectations, and more informal liaisons of these singles are absent from letters and documents of the time, which helps provide the illusion of universal marriage.
This raises the question of whether the rise of religious singlehood in the fourth century under Christianity was a true demographics shift or simply a new option for reframing the context of singlehood.
I'm starting another collection of articles, this time with a hybrid approach: some blogged at length, some with a fairly short note, and those that aren't relevant to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project simply listed at the end of this first entry. (That doesn't mean they aren't interesting! Just not directly relevant.) Depending on how I schedule the individual articles, this may take me well into September (which would be convenient as I'll be doing some traveling then) or I may post them more frequently to get through the lot in August. I have an idea for what I want to post after this (to tie in with a podcast episode), so either option would work.
Laes, Christian. 2019. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
Laes, Christian. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach”
The introduction begins with the definition of what we mean by “single” in this context, then looks for Greek and Latin vocabulary that carries that meaning, as well as similar meanings in other ancient languages. The modern sense is “a person not married or in an exclusive relationship.” But cross-culturally, the vocabulary of singleness may emphasize celibacy, solitariness, or loneliness, or distinguish the state for men and women. But in modern international use, the untranslated English word “single” has come into use as a general and neutral term.
This contemporary review identifies three features of singleness that need not co-occur: not being legally married (or in an exclusive relationship); living alone, with associated economic and emotional consequences; and an implication of a transitory period in youth free of obligations. There follows a discussion of modern marriage demographics.
Pre-Christian classical society doesn’t correspond to those categories well. There was no official legal registry of marriages nor was marriage expected to involve exclusivity for men. Marriage was a contract: easily created, easily dissolved. Yet there were legal consequences to marriage, including inheritance, citizenship, and there were different forms of union for which the consequences varied.
The association of singleness with loneliness is also culturally dependent. Christian ideals around marriage, celibacy, asceticism, etc. changed how singleness was viewed.
Roman male citizens may have had an expected period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, associated with a certain lifestyle, but older unmarried men might also see bachelorhood as a lifelong option.
The pattern was different for women. Practices such as female infanticide may have skewed the demographics, putting more pressure on women to marry. Household and family responsibilities may have affected options for divorced or widowed women to remarry. The legal position of women could exacerbate the economic and emotional consequences of singlehood. The normative age of marriage was lower for women than men, reducing the opportunity for an identifiable lifestyle associated with unmarried women. The positive associations that Christianity gave to female virginity, chastity, and marriage resistance were a newly emergent phenomenon.
Given all this, where do we look for vocabulary that would identify “singleness” in classical society? For women, there was a change of vocabulary when a girl reached marriageable age, and in some cases vocabulary specific to a married woman. Terms for “unmarried” include Greek “anandros (f)” / “agamos (m)” or “eitheos” and Latin “caelebs”. “Eitheos’ usually refers specifically to a young unmarried man but may have sometimes been used of a young woman. Agamos/anandros may also be used for widowed people, but female widows or more commonly called “chera” in Greek.
Latin “caelebs” refers to the state of not being married, but it’s unclear to what extent it was used for women. It could also indicate a widowed man, but a female widow was typically “vidua.”
In Christian use, “caelebs” and associated vocabulary picked up the sense of sexually celibate. This set of vocabulary picks up associations with loneliness in late antiquity, but this may have a specific association with asceticism.
Greek and Latin literature include celebrations—sometimes ironic—of the delights of a (male) single lifestyle, free of responsibilities. In contrast, there was social pressure to marry, and some cultures imposed penalties for not doing so.
Philosophical literature, both before and after the Christian era, offered arguments for and against marriage. Earlier arguments for singlehood tended to address men, while Christian arguments expanded the audience to women, arguing for virginity as the preferred state. Arguments in favor of marriage present it as the “natural” state of humanity, necessary for the continuation of the species, and—for men—providing household support and the benefits of the wife’s labor.
The introduction now provides an overview of the volume’s contents: demographics, archaeological evidence, epigraphs, legislation, literature. A couple articles focus specifically on women. Other specific topics include Jewish society, the rising influence of Christianity in Late Antiquity, and some comparative material from other eras and regions.
I plan to skim for content related to women. The following articles with little or no relevance are not blogged separately.
Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches
Being Single in the Roman World
Singles in Judaism
Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single
(Originally aired 2022/08/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2022.
It’s getting to be that time of year to start beating the drum for next year’s fiction series! Each year I usually have a moment when I think, “Do I want to do this again? Is the fiction series doing well enough to keep going? Are people interested enough that it makes sense?” But this year I’d already committed myself back at the beginning of the year when I agreed to commission a story for next year’s series. It’ll be the sixth year for the series, which feels like we’ve been doing it forever. Let all your author friends know that we’re doing this again! Check out the show notes for a link to the Call for Submissions, which will have more details than you ever wanted to know about what we’re looking for and how and when to submit it.
And speaking of audio fiction, I’m really excited about the release of the audiobook of my first novel, Daughter of Mystery this week. It should be available from all the usual audiobook sites. I’m looking forward to hearing what the narrator did with it. And if sales are good, we should get the other Alpennia books out in audio eventually. I know that I’ve been getting much more into audiobooks lately and I hear a lot of people saying something similar. So here’s hoping that this will open up a new audience for the Alpennia books.
News of the Field
If you’re a fan of queer podcasts in general, I’d like to direct your attention to a website that I recently learned about. QueerPodcasts.net is an aggregator of information about … well, what it says on the label. You can use it to search for new shows to check out, and filter by topic or representation. And if you don’t have a preferred podcast delivery system, you can use it as a place to subscribe to your chosen feeds. It’s a relatively new site and is looking into adding more features, so if you have suggestions about features you’d find useful (or shows they haven’t included yet) I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.
And speaking of shows I hadn’t heard about, QueerPodcasts.net tipped me off to the existence of another lesbian history show that I’d somehow missed previously. It’s called Vintage Lesbians and mostly focuses on biographies of historic figures. Alas, the show appears to be on hiatus currently. I had no luck trying to contact them to see if there was an update. But all the previous episodes are still available through your favorite podcatcher. Check out the show notes for links to both these resources.
Publications on the Blog
In July, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog read through Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian. This work written in 1993—and especially the title essay—still gets cited regularly when discussing how lesbian identity gets “disappeared” or displaced into the realm of unreality in popular culture. It’s an interesting theme that appears in various forms across the centuries. Castle asserts that lesbians always exist in some other place, at some other time, or in some entirely fictional space, never right here and now. Does that conclusion stand the test of evidence? Check it out and decide for yourself.
For August, I’m lining up some articles from the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. Some of the material in this collection helped inspire Ursula Whitcher’s story “The Spirits of Cabassus” which we aired back in April. In fact, it was her reference to the book that led me to pick it up, and it joins the other books and articles on the theme of singlewomen and how their lives can provide inspiration for sapphic stories.
I haven’t done any recent book shopping for the blog, alas. I mean, not that it’s an enormous tragedy, given how many titles are on my to-do list! But it’s always fun to talk about new discoveries.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Fortunately, there’s never a lack of new fiction to talk about every month! Let’s start with a couple of July books.
The Valkyrie's Daughter by Tiana Warner from Entangled: Teen follows the usual trend for stories with an early Norse setting in having strong fantasy elements. It’s probably a bit questionable to consider it a historic story, but the dearth of more historic Norse settings makes it hard to know where to draw the line.
For as long as Sigrid could remember, she’s wanted to become a mighty, fearless valkyrie. But without a winged mare, she’s a mere stable hand, left wondering who her parents were and why she’s so different. So when the Eye shows her a vision where she’s leading a valkyrie charge on the legendary eight-legged horse Sleipnir, she grabs the possibility of this greater destiny with both hands, refusing to let go. Too bad that the only one who can help her get there is Mariam, an enemy valkyrie who begrudgingly agrees to lead her to Helheim but who certainly can’t be trusted―even if she does make Sigrid more than a little flustered. As they cross the nine worlds, battling night elves, riding sea serpents, and hurtling into fire to learn the truth about Sigrid’s birthright, an unexpected but powerful bond forms. As her feelings for Mariam deepen into something fiery and undeniable, Fate has other plans for Sigrid. What happens when the one thing you think you were meant to do might end the nine worlds?
Lex Croucher’s Infamous from Zaffre Books looks like it follows the path of her previous novel Reputation in blending modern rom-com sensibilities with a Regency setting.
22-year-old aspiring writer Edith 'Eddie' Miller and her best friend Rose have always done everything together-climbing trees, throwing grapes at boys, sneaking bottles of wine, practicing kissing . . . But following their debutante ball Rose is suddenly talking about marriage, and Eddie is horrified. When Eddie meets charming, renowned poet Nash Nicholson, he invites her to his crumbling Gothic estate in the countryside. The entourage of eccentric artists indulging in pure hedonism is exactly what Eddie needs in order to forget Rose and finish her novel. But Eddie might discover the world of famous literary icons isn't all poems and pleasure . . .
When I was mining the forthcoming book listings at the Reads Rainbow website for August books – and, by the way, I highly recommend Reads Rainbow for hearing about queer books – I ran across a new-to-me author writing solidly-grounded medieval stories. Reads Rainbow indicates that Coirle Mooney’s My Lady's Shadow from Sapere Books has a sapphic main character, but as is often the case, there’s no clue to that in the cover copy.
1198, France. Lady Maria of Turenne has long been engaged in a flirtation with Count Hugh La Marche. It is a match which her father has strongly encouraged. However, Maria is her own woman and she is determined to choose for herself. Maria is unaware that her clever, scheming maid, Maryse, is secretly in love with the count. Soon after, the young troubadour, Gui d’Ussel, arrives at the castle and Maria is instantly captivated by him. He shares her distaste of convention and her love of the arts and they soon become inseparable. Meanwhile, Maryse develops a strong dislike for Gui and her resentment for Maria grows. Angered by her treatment of the Count of La Marche, Maria’s father has arranged a new wedding match. This time, Maria will not be allowed to decline. Forced into marrying a wealthy viscount against her will, Maria and Gui are torn apart from each other. However, Maria is determined to find a way to use the power she has gained through marriage to raise Gui in society. Will Maria and Gui find a way to be together? Can Maria escape her marriage? Or will they be fated to remain apart?
As I say, no clue what the sapphic content might be. I might have skipped including this book on the principle that if the publisher is that determined to hide any hint of queerness, who am I to argue? But researching the question turned up a duology by the same author published earlier this year where a sapphic relationship is more clearly indicated. Since I didn’t find these two when they were originally released, but it wasn’t too long ago, I’ll go ahead and include them now. The first in the two-book series is The Lady’s Keeper.
1168, France. At Eleanor of Aquitaine’s palace in Poitiers, fourteen-year-old Lady Joanna of Agen is coming of age. Her aunt and guardian, Alice, rescued Joanna from her brutal father by bringing her to court. But now Alice fears Joanna could once again be at risk from the men around her. When Queen Eleanor’s son, Henry, arrives at court, Joanna quickly catches his eye. But Alice overhears the lewd conversations of the male courtiers and worries that Joanna’s honour is at stake. And as the relationship between Queen Eleanor and King Henry II of England becomes fractious, a dark mood settles over court. Drawn into a world of intrigue, danger and adventure, Alice must fight to keep her and Joanna safe. Will Joanna find a love match? Can Alice secure her place at court? Or will they fall victim to the dangers of court life?
The sapphic reference shows up for the second book, The Cloistered Lady. Both of these are also from Sapere Books.
1173, France. Eleanor of Aquitaine has been arrested for rebelling against her husband, King Henry II of England. Her loyal ladies-in-waiting, Alice and Joanna of Agen have fled to the nunnery at Fontrevault, where they are anxiously awaiting news of their queen. Alice and Joanna struggle to adapt to their cramped new home at the Abbey. Each is secretly nursing a broken heart – and harbouring unholy desires. Joanna left behind a lover, Jean, at Eleanor’s court in Poitiers, and Alice has long been in love with the queen’s daughter, Marie. And as the days stretch on with no news, they both begin to fear the worst. What has happened to Eleanor? Will Alice and Joanna be forced to remain at the Abbey indefinitely? And will they ever be reunited with the ones they love?
We have an unusually large proportion of books with medieval settings this month. The next item is Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu from Legend Press.
In medieval Moldova, two women from opposing backgrounds fall in love. But this is a world where a woman’s role is defined by religion and class. To make a life together means defying their families, the law, and the Church. The closer they become, and the more they refuse the roles assigned to them, the more sacrifices they have to make. While Mira’s rebellion puts her life in the gravest danger, Elina must fight to change her legal status to ‘son’ so she can inherit her father’s land and change their destiny. Set in Stone delves into the past to uncover a story which is just as relevant today: the desire to forge your own path while constantly having to resist a patriarchal fear of women’s strength – and how ultimately love can help you choose your own truth.
If you’re a reader who prefers your sapphic romance free of complications involving male characters, you may want to be aware that Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak from Berkley Books involves a romantic threesome that includes a man. But the setting and central character sound intriguing enough to potentially balance that.
Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising--in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves--most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornelie Duplay. As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie's race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornelie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre's ideology and Cornelie's love. When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents...or risk losing her head.
Jane Walsh continues her focus on Regency romances with the start of a new series: The Inconvenient Heiress (The Spinsters of Inverley #1) from Bold Strokes Books.
In the quiet seaside town of Inverley, nothing exciting ever happens to gently bred spinsters like Miss Arabella Seton. Content with her watercolor paintings and her cats, she is confident that no one suspects her forbidden and unrequited passion for her best friend, Caroline. The eldest in a family of six children, Miss Caroline Reeve has the unenviable task of shepherding her siblings into adulthood with little coin and even less patience. The only benefit to being an eternal chaperone is that no one ever expects her to marry. When the Reeve family inherits an unexpected fortune, Caroline must take her rightful place in high society. Fortune hunters abound, and it is up to Arabella to save her from their snares and convince her that love has been in front of her all along. Can the heiress and the spinster discover an unconventional love outside of the Marriage Mart?
Ashthorne by April Yates from Ghost Orchid Press feels like it has a bit of a gothic horror vibe with a romance overlay.
In the aftermath of World War One, Adelaide Frost is on the run from a family who do not understand her. Hoping to do some good, she signs up to become a nurse at Ashthorne, a manor house newly designated as a convalescence home for injured soldiers. She quickly falls in love with the owner's daughter, Evelyn, who hides a warm heart beneath a chilly exterior. But Evelyn has her suspicions about what's really happening at the hospital, and as Adelaide helps her investigate, it soon becomes apparent that there are more inhabitants residing at Ashthorne than first thought.
The Lady Adventurers Club by Karen Frost from Bella Books sounds like it’s aimed at fans of properties like Indiana Jones, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
A barnstormer. A Wild West trick shooter. A mathematician. When archaeologist Anna Baring announces the founding of the Lady Adventurers Club in May 1923, none of the other three members expect to ever meet again. After all, they live halfway around the world from each other. What could possibly bring them together once more? Then they each receive an unexpected letter. Anna has found a tomb that promises to be even grander than that of King Tutankhamun, and she wants them to come to Egypt for the opening. It’s the find of the century. The tomb will make old Tut look like a pauper. But will the women of the Lady Adventurers Club get to see it? Egypt is a political powder keg. Unscrupulous criminals keep shooting at them. And weird, unnerving things seem to happen wherever they go. As the women race across Egypt, their friendship will be tested as they fall deeper into danger. They’re not the only ones after a pharaoh’s treasure.
As long-term followers of this podcast may know, I have a special place in my heart for stories set in medieval Wales. So it may come as no surprise that I’ve already pre-ordered The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both. The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing…but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.
The Oleander Sword – the second book in Tasha Suri’s alternate-India Burning Kingdoms historic fantasy series from Orbit Books – continues the story of two women whose lives and hearts are entwined even as their fates pull them apart. I loved, loved, loved the first book in this series, which I strongly recommend reading first.
The prophecy of the nameless god—the words that declared Malini the rightful empress of Parijatdvipa—has proven a blessing and curse. She is determined to claim the throne that fate offered her. But even with the strength of the rage in her heart and the army of loyal men by her side, deposing her brother is going to be a brutal and bloody fight. The power of the deathless waters flows through Priya’s blood. Thrice born priestess, Elder of Ahiranya, Priya’s dream is to see her country rid of the rot that plagues it: both Parijatdvipa's poisonous rule, and the blooming sickness that is slowly spreading through all living things. But she doesn’t yet understand the truth of the magic she carries. Their chosen paths once pulled them apart. But Malini and Priya's souls remain as entwined as their destinies. And they soon realize that coming together is the only way to save their kingdom from those who would rather see it burn—even if it will cost them.
What Am I Reading?
So what I have I been reading or otherwise consuming? I do my best to keep a log as I go, which definitely helps to jog my memory both for this podcast segment and when I go back to do reviews (which I am very seriously behind on). But sometimes I’m startled when I look at the log and wonder if I’ve been forgetting to enter things…and then realize that I’ve had a month go by without finishing much of anything. The only titles in the “completed” list this month include the third book in Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor series, titled The Grief of Stones. The series is evolving into something like a fantasy police procedural. There’s solid queer representation though it's not sapphic. But if “fantasy police procedural involving a main character who listens to the dead” sounds intriguing, you might want to check out this series. The first book, The Goblin Emperor centers on an entirely different character and plot, but provides the setup and background for the later books.
The other item I finished this month was the audiobook of Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, the first in a historic romance series set during the American Civil War and featuring Black protagonists. I’m developing the realization that Cole is rather hit or miss for me. Too often, her romances seem to depend too strongly on an immediate, non-rational, sexual chemistry between the characters. And that just doesn’t work very well for me. I love the topics and characters she tackles, but I’m not the right reader for the ones that depend so strongly on insta-lust.
And to finish up, this month, we have an interview with author Rebecca Fraimow about her story “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” which we aired in the last episode.
[Interview transcript is pending.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Rebecca Fraimow Online
We come to an end of Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian. There's a steadily shrinking list of early "foundational" works that I have yet to cover in the Project. The remaining ones tend to be dense and theory-focused, like several works of Judith Butler on gender theory. (Older works on gender theory can be particularly tricky, given how rapidly the field morphs.) But for now, I'll be moving on to cover some of the articles in the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. I haven't decided whether to stretch that out to run into September (given that I'll be traveling the first week or so of that month) or whether I'll push to complete it in a single month and maybe take some time off during my vacation.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 9 – In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender (A Musical Emanation)
As a final summing up for this book, when people reference The Apparitional Lesbian as a key work of theory, I would suggest that they’re speaking primarily of the chapter/essay of that name rather than the collection as a whole. The collection was published in 1993—I can’t find any clear indication whether the titular essay was originally written and published independently at an earlier date. This is still fairly early in the flourishing of lesbian historical studies, so both its status as a foundational work and the types of existing scholarship it had to draw on can be understood in that context.
I have to say that, at a position in the development of the field that offers a much wider scope of study, I am less convinced of the universality of Castle’s theory about the “ghosting” of lesbian content in literature and popular culture. That is, I think that some of her conclusions are right on, especially the degree to which the hidden and filtered nature of lesbian representation helped it to escape scrutiny and be more available to a wider range of consumers. But the supposed connection to a motif of dead, ghostly, and “ghosted” lesbian-like figures in literature seems to me to be, in part, the phenomenon of “if the tool you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail”.
Castle notes that she came to this essay after planning and working on a major study of ghosts in post-Enlightenment Western culture. Having been steeped in ghost lore, it is little wonder that the examples of lesbian-like characters in literature that she was most familiar co-occurred with ghostly phenomena. That is, she was working with the subset of ghost stories that happened to have lesbian subtexts, rather than working with the set of stories with lesbian subtexts and being in a position to conclude that ghosts were a prevalent theme. So, to the extent that the “apparitional lesbian” is concluded to be the prevalent mode of lesbian representation, I find the argument unconvincing--and the contradictory evidence far more accessible these days. But that's not to say that I reject the "apparitional" motif entirely.
In yesterday’s blog, I wrote: “When people wrote or left evidence of their lives prior to the development of modern categories and vocabulary around lesbian identity, the work of trying to connect those lives with concepts of identity is necessarily difficult. That difficulty may include deliberate obfuscation, either by the subjects themselves or by those writing about them, but it may also simply involve a lack of clear and explicit language. When we move into the 20th century, then silence or obliqueness around the topic of sexuality can be presumed to be more deliberate. Can that whole scope of time be gathered into a single phenomenon of the "ghosting" of lesbian identity? In some ways, yes; in others, no.”
One can trace certain themes in the treatment of lesbian(like) identity across time, even if it's questionable to conclude that they are the dominant mode. The displacement of f/f eroticism onto the Other, either culturally or in time and space, is something that Judith P. Hallett discusses in “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” and that several authors discuss in connection with early modern allegations that f/f sex is either a "new phenomenon imported from abroad" or "a thing not seen since ancient times", as well as the regular connection of f/f sex with racialized populations, especially in Egypt or Turkey. Similarly the displacement of lesbian possibilities into an imagined alternate reality, such as the pastorale fantasies of neo-platonist poets such as Katherine Phillips, or the unfulfilled longings of 19th century romantic friends for a life together, can be viewed as another flavor of Castle's "ghosting". There are other parallel themes that similarly reflect the failure of most historic societies to include f/f eroticism within the accepted public modes of life.
But it seems to me that in bringing these motifs together and claiming an overall unity under the "ghosting" umbrella is a work of artistic creation, rather than scholarly analysis. It is a perfectly valid way for one person to make a collective sense out of the disparity of historic experience around female homoeroticism, but it's not the only way, nor is this quest for a collective thematic unity in lesbian history an obligatory goal. It's possible for the vague amorphous mass of experiences, identities, and interpretations that we treat under the heading of "lesbian history" to not have a single, overall unifying thematic structure. One of the concepts that keeps coming back to me as I work on the Project is the "cluster model" of conceptual category. That is a category defined by relationship to a set of focal concepts that have strong overlap to the point where you can say "this is an identifiable phenomenon" but where no set of definitions or conditions can mathematically define all memebers of the category and exclude all non-members. This is an approach I'd like to explore further in some future essay -- the idea that there are multiple focal identities/experiences/images across history that contribute to the modern concept of lesbian identity. They overlap in various ways, but cannot easily be treated as a single, clearly definable category. (And perhaps should not be so treated.)
# # #
For this chapter I will mostly skim for aspects of Castle’s theoretical structure rather than the topical content.
This chapter concerns German opera singer Bridget Fassbender. Castle discusses the context of opera that has given women in the 19th and 20th centuries license to openly admire other women. [Note: although Castle focuses exclusively on opera singers, the same observations can be made about actresses, see for example the female fans of Charlotte Cushman.]
The discussion offers a survey of examples of this f/f diva worship across the 19th and 20th centuries. After this general exploration, Castle tackles the subject of female diva worship from within her own admiration for Fassbaender.
In the end, this chapter is simply a celebration of the topic rather than creating an underlying theoretical argument. From this position at the end of the collection, it demonstrates that the collection overall is not so much an integrated work of theory, but simply an expression of the range of Castle’s writing.
Moving on into the solidly 20th century topics of Castle's collection of essays, the framework of interpretation shifts. When people wrote or left evidence of their lives prior to the development of modern categories and vocabulary around lesbian identity, the work of trying to connect those lives with concepts of identity is necessarily difficult. That difficulty may include deliberate obfuscation, either by the subjects themselves or by those writing about them, but it may also simply involve a lack of clear and explicit language. When we move into the 20th century, then silence or obliqueness around the topic of sexuality can be presumed to be more deliberate. Can that whole scope of time be gathered into a single phenomenon of the "ghosting" of lesbian identity? In some ways, yes; in others, no. I'll return to this question in my final summing up, tomorrow.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 8 – The Gaiety of Janet Flanner
This chapter looks at mid-20th century journalist Janet Flanner, publishing in the New Yorker under the ambiguous pen name “Genêt”, who worked in an era when being open about her homosexuality was not a practical option. But evasiveness and compartmentalization was also a feature of her life and work more generally.
Here Castle returns to her theme of the “ghosting” of lesbian identities, noting that later biographies of Flanner – even those that were otherwise detailed – appear to have found her sexuality at best uninteresting, if not taboo, even though those biographies were written at a date when attitudes were more open about sexuality.
Having embedded herself in the bohemian expatriate Parisian society of the Left Bank, that aspect of her life seems unlikely to have been uninteresting. Castle makes an effort to fill that biographical gap to some extent.
Flanner’s move to Paris was not only to pursue literary interests as an aspiring novelist, but to escape a stifling home situation. There she met the women who would be her partners, and her sexuality provided entry to the Parisian artistic circles dominated by American and English lesbians such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Flanner found her stride writing “Letters from Paris” that combined travelogue and artistic commentary. (Castle provides a detailed summary of topics and personages, and a description of Flanner’s literary style.)
Flanner’s official biographer not only skims over the evidence of her several romantic relationships, but inflates – or perhaps invents – Flanner’s internal conflict over her sexuality. This idea of conflict is contradicted by the pervasive gay content and subject matter of her public writing. The writing is riddled with cues and only semi-coded references to the sexuality of the community she moved in.
Castle concludes that a biographer cannot do justice to the life of a lesbian subject without engaging with the sensual aspects of her life.
You've been asking about this for years -- long before it was a glimmer of a project. But now it's out in the world. Daughter of Mystery has an audiobook from Tantor Media, narrated by Kitty Kelly. Here's the Books2Read link page with all the audio outlets I've tracked down and added so far.
I started listening to the first couple of chapters while making breakfast this morning and am loving it! (I'll probably add it into my sleep-listening rotation.)
Spread the word! There are more and more people listening to audiobooks for the multi-tasking ability, and maybe we can tap into a whole new readership.
Sorry, no contemplative introduction today. Slept late.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 7 – Haunted by Olive Chancellor
Note: because this essay is a work of literary criticism, much of the content is a detailed tracing of parallels and connections between texts that are “in conversation” with each other. By its nature, this sort of analysis is impossible to summarize neatly.
This chapter tackles the question of the way in which Henry James’s The Bostonians can be considered a “lesbian novel”. The central character of Olive is clearly experiencing and motivated by same-sex desire, and critics of the work regularly dismiss it as concerning “perverse” desires, but the actual “lesbian content” is elusive when pinned down.
James claimed he was merely writing an “American tale” about “one of those friendships between women which are so common in New England.” This is, of course, not at all in conflict with the external analysis of Olive and Verena as a romantic couple of the type that gave rise to the term Boston marriage – the type that James’s sister enjoyed with her “beloved friend” and companion (who otherwise did not at all resemble the characters in the novel).
Despite James’s emphasis on the story as “American”, Castle traces its connections to French decadent literature of the 19th century that treated lesbian relationships far more explicitly. Despite James’s avoidance of any explicit reference to lesbianism, he hints at it through oblique references to Emile Zola’s Nana – perhaps the most notorious work of its type. Castle traces these references in detail.
The chapter concludes with a look at how James than diverges from the underlying logic of the “decadent lesbian” plot (however concealed) to maintain his heroine Olive as pure and virtuous, and as an innocent victim of Verena’s omni-sexual desirability. Olive is betrayed by Verena’s decision to marry her male suitor, but she is not destroyed by this betrayal in the way a more stereotypical lesbian protagonist of the era would be.
We're more than halfway through the year, so it's time to start beating the drum for next year's podcast fiction series! I mentioned late in 2021 that I was committing to continuing the series in 2023 by virtue of having agreed to commission a story in advance. But that's different from starting the active promotion. So spread the word.
The call for submissions is essentially identical to last year's. (I've made some minor revisions in the CfS text, but mostly because I can't read anything without feeling compelled to tweak the wording.)
When I look back over the stories that we've published in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, I continue to be amazed and gratified by the work that authors have been willing to entrust into my hands. (Or voice, as the case may be.)
I'm also going to take this opportunity to touch on the topic of the financial basis for the fiction series. The default business model for podcast fiction that pays authors and narrators (at least the model I'm familiar with) is for the content to be completely free to access and for support to come through voluntary donations, either using a Patreon-type model, or a year-by-year kickstarter model, or by hosting advertising. Or there's the fall-back option, which is "podcast producer fronts the money."
I use that last option. The LHMP has a Patreon, which goes toward hosting expenses but doesn't address royalties or narrator fees. I have a strong aversion to including advertising. And I don't have the energy for a regular cycle of kickstarter-type funding campaigns. What I do have is a day-job that allows me to create this show without worrying about where the money's coming from. I like to be upfront about this. In a few years when I retire, I might have to reassess that approach, but there's always the possibility that I'll reassess the Project as a whole.
So what I'm getting at here is that I'd love for people to show their appreciation for the podcast by signing on to the Patreon. (I'm afraid you don't get much in the way of extras -- just the satisfaction.) But honestly, your financial support isn't all that critical. And if you feel inspired and appreciative about what the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast provides, then you can do a lot more by promoting the show and giving it a review at Apple Podcasts (or the equivalent).
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2023 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.
What We’re Looking For
Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.
Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:
If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here is a good basic format:
As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)
Notes on Sensitivity
I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid exoticizing the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"
What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.
A note on transfeminine characters: I am completely open to the inclusion of stories with transfeminine characters who identify as women-loving-women. This is a complicated topic for historic stories, though, as this is not a motif with much known historic grounding before the later 20th/21st century. (In all my research, I've found only one possible, fictional example that was not presented as gender deception for ulterior purposes, and no non-fictional examples of any type that don't involve intersex persons.) If you're submitting this type of story, you may have to work harder than usual on making it work in the historic context.
(Originally aired 2022/07/30 - listen here)
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has published several stories set in Eastern European Jewish communities around the late 19th or early 20th centuries. This hasn’t in any way been a deliberate plan, but there seems to be something about that era of social change, peril and upheaval, exciting social and political movements, and tantalizing dreams of new possibilities that inspires stories. It’s also a rich era of literary creativity for Yiddish culture and new stories in the same setting participate in that heritage.
Our story today, “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, focuses on a Yiddish theater troupe at a time when that field was just in its infancy. In the next episode, we’ll have an interview with Rebecca and talk about the setting, the story’s inspirations, and how it connects to Rebecca’s other fiction. I confess I hadn’t realized when I chose this story that I’d already loved several of her tales.
Rebecca Fraimow is an author and archivist living in Boston. Some of her other short fiction about queer Jews encountering unexpected situations can be found at PodCastle and Diabolical Plots. Rebecca's work has also appeared in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, The Fantasist, and Consolation Songs: Optimistic Speculative Fiction for a Time of Pandemic. She can be found on Twitter at @ryfkah and has a website at rebeccafraimow.com. Check the show notes for links.
Our narrator today is Violet Dixon, who has appeared previously as a narrator. Violet lives with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats outside Philadelphia. When not in the recording booth, she plays and teaches acting. Other lesbian titles that she has narrated include Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain and KC Luck’s Venandi and her Darkness Series.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
“It’s a disaster,” said Ida Glickl, head in hands. “To leave St. Petersburg before we’ve even had a chance to recoup our costs --”
“We’re leaving?” said Chava-Leah.
“-- and Goldfaden will hear the news, of course, so he’ll turn back before he gets here, and no doubt will beat us back to Odessa with ‘Two Kuni-Lemls’ –”
“But why are we leaving?” said Chava-Leah.
“And when I think how we raced to get here before him, and how many shows we missed! We’ll make it all back in St. Petersburg, says Chaim! – oh, you haven’t heard?” Ida raised her head, shoving her luxurious hair back from her face. “The Tsar’s been killed. So the theaters have been closed, and they say there was a Jew involved, so of course the news for us will only get worse. You must start packing up the costumes, darling, as quick as you can – oh, and here I almost forgot what I came down here to tell you to begin with! There’s a new girl who’ll be coming with us when we leave St. Petersburg this evening, we’ll have her as Libenyu in Two Kuni-Lemls if we ever get a chance to perform it. I’ll send her down today so you can get her measurements before we go. We’ll need the costume altered for her, but of course that will be no trouble for you and your clever fingers. Bless you, Chava-libte, for being my rock!”
She blew Chava-Leah a kiss as she left, which normally would have Chava-Leah blushing; at this moment, she could hardly think to notice it.
The Tsar dead! And killed by a Jew! Who’d be such a fool?
She was packing up the last of the hats when she heard footsteps behind her, and sprang to her feet. Her heart was hammering in her chest, as it had been, on and off, ever since Ida brought the news.
The new arrival took a startled step back. “Ah – you’re the costumer? Ida said you’re to take my measurements.”
Chava-Leah took in a breath, trying to calm herself. “Then it should be done, of course. You’ll take off your clothes, please. What’s your name, new girl?”
“Greta,” said the new girl. She looked around at the small room, piled high with trunks, then picked one to sit on and began to unbutton her plain dark dress without a trace of shyness: a relief, under the circumstances. Chava-Leah had been worried she’d need coaxing they didn’t have time for. She folded her dress and petticoats carefully over one of the trunks, then stood up in her drawers and chemise. “Sufficient?”
“Stand straight,” Chava-Leah told her, and picked up her measuring tape. She ran the tape down the knob of Greta’s spine down her center back, and noted the value. The familiar motions were soothing. Practical considerations. Ida had been right, to focus only on what had to be done. “You’re too long to match our last Libenyu, more’s the pity.” She knelt down to measure the length of her leg, from the hip down. “The old skirt, I think we could make work. How much do you mind if your skirt’s a bit short? You’re not fussed about a little ankle?”
Greta laughed, short and harsh. “I’m not fussed about much.”
“You’d be amazed, some of the girls I’ve seen come and go,” said Chava-Leah, straightening. “What they think is going to happen for them, I don’t know. Silks and feathers appear for them out of nowhere? This is the Yiddish theater, not the Ballet Russe! Once they see what’s what, they’re not so loud when their mothers come fetch them home. Hold your arms out, please. Can you read?”
Greta raised her eyebrows. “I’ve a degree from the Academy of St. Petersburg.”
She bit her lip as soon as she said it, and Chava-Leah barked out a laugh. “Well! Good for you for saying so. The theater’s no place for a modest girl, that’s for sure.”
“If a person can’t read, that’s no shame to them,” said Greta. “The shame should be for those who made it hard for them to learn.”
There was something about her diction – a little hesitant, a little stilted. “Still,” said Chava-Leah, “if you read only Russian, that won’t help you here, either. What about Yiddish?”
“Of course,” said Greta, chin high – then, after a moment: “But … I’m a little out of practice.”
Chava-Leah suppressed a sigh. Well, actresses were always in short supply around the Yiddish theater, and beggars couldn’t be choosers. “That’s what I needed to know. You’ll ride in the wagon with me when we leave, I’ll go over the part of Libenyu with you so you learn it.” She began to walk the measuring tape around Greta’s narrow frame.
Greta held herself stiffly as the tape wrapped around her, with a touch of embarrassment that Chava-Leah hadn’t expected from someone who’d shucked her clothes with so little fanfare. “You know all the parts, as well as making the wardrobe?”
“There’s always more work to do around the troupe than hands to do it. I’d have been Libenyu, next time we played, if you hadn’t come along to save me from it.”
Greta raised an eyebrow. “You’re not sorry, then, to lose your role?”
“I’m no actress. It’s my husband who’s the actor – he’s a star with Goldfaden’s troupe, God rot him. So it’s the theater or my mother-in-law’s house, and I like the theater better than my mother-in-law, and Ida Glickl better than Goldfaden – or my husband, for that matter.”
She chuckled at her own joke as she checked the under-bust measurement, then moved on to the next. Greta tensed as the measuring tape slipped over her breasts. “Really,” said Chava-Leah, not sure whether to be annoyed or amused, “you’re jumpy as a bride!”
“That I’ve never been,” said Greta, “and don’t intend to be.”
Chava-Leah drew the tape taught and answered, lightly, “Well, I can’t say I get much use out of the man himself, but it’s not so bad having the paperwork.”
“No?” said Greta, glancing backwards over her shoulder. “I suppose you get more use from Ida Glickl?”
Their eyes met. Chava-Leah became irritably aware that the color had risen to her cheeks. Greta’s face went wary for a moment; then she smiled, ruefully and shook her head. She looked as if she had been making a joke to herself, and hadn’t expected Chava-Leah to understand it.
But there was no denying that they both had understood it.
And now Chava-Leah understood, too, the particular quality of Greta’s stiffness while being measured. Chava-Leah had taken a lot of measurements in her day: there were girls who’d never had a hand on them, and girls who knew what a man’s hands could be good for, and then, more rarely, the girls who knew what a woman’s hands could be good for, too. The latter, it could be a pleasure to meet – but even if Greta and she were alike in that way, it still didn’t give her call to make personal remarks. “Don’t turn your head,” she told Greta. “When your back twists like that, it sets the measurement off.”
To the wall in front of her, Greta said, “I didn’t mean to give offense.”
With a figure like this, the new girl would never be in competition with Ida for the leads. Chava-Leah finished her measurement and snapped the tape back into her hands. “You can put your clothes back on. I’ve got what I need for now.”
The inn was a beehive of activity, actors in every corner shouting for each other’s belongings or fighting each other over trunk space. In the midst of the confusion, Ida found Chava-Leah and pressed some letters into her hands. “Chava-libte, you’re packed up already? I knew you would be! Be a darling and post these for me if you can, will you? If we’re lucky, we’ll have a stage to play on in Odessa!”
As always, Ida’s endless energy was contagious. Chava-Leah set out briskly into the streets without thinking twice about it, but she hadn’t gone more than a block before she started to feel a prickle on the back of her neck. When they arrived in St. Petersburg three days ago, she’d been impressed by the bustle of the streets. People didn’t hang around the corners to schmooze; they’d talked as they walked, moving with purpose, heads held high. They all had business to be about, even the Jews. But today all the Jews she saw – and there weren’t many – kept their heads low and their voices quiet, and the further she got from the friendly chaos of the inn, the more Chava-Leah felt her own shoulders shrinking in.
When she reached the post office, the doors were closed. There was no sign on the front. Thinking someone might be on their lunch break, Chava-Leah rattled the door, then knocked, but no answer came. As she turned away again, a woman glared at her from across the street.
Chava-Leah went back the way she had come, conscious of her pace. She didn’t want anyone to think she had a reason to be running.
After the uneasy silence of the streets outside, the familiar squabbling of her troupe attempting to organize itself in the inn-yard felt like a Purimshpil. Chava-Leah shoved the unsent letters into her pocket and dove into the middle of it, as relieved as a fish thrown back in the water. She found a cake of rosin for Jacob the violinist, a treasured false beard for the younger Schmuel, and a box of illegal fireworks that the other Schmuel had hidden under the bed for safekeeping and then forgotten about.
Into the middle of all this stormed Ida and her husband Chaim, caught in a moment of high drama. “How could you be such a fool?” Ida roared, then caught sight of Chava-Leah, and swung round to her, grabbing her hands. “Chava-Leah! Tell me you didn’t leave the costumes unguarded!”
“The new girl’s there,” said Chava-Leah, promptly. She wasn’t entirely sure that this was true – Greta had certainly been there when she left, but she might easily have wandered off by now – but she wasn’t going to tell Ida that until she knew there was trouble. She pressed Ida’s hands, and said, “What’s happened?”
“The innkeeper’s taken the trunk with our scripts in it hostage,” said Chaim, “and won’t let us leave with them unless we pay his villainous bill.” He raised his voice. “Three times what our stay was worth, here in this rotten, flea-infested --”
“How could you let them out of your sight!” cried Ida, whirling back on her husband. “You never learn! And now we’re trapped here for days, for all we know – well, there’s nothing to be done for it. I’ll go throw myself on the innkeeper’s mercy, and see if he’ll bend. A part below my merits, and an offense to my pride --” She cast one more glare at Chaim, and lifted her chin high. “-- but what’s that, when necessity calls?”
She swept off towards the inn, leaving Chaim and Chava-Leah staring at each other in her wake.
“What’s going on?” said Greta, from behind her. Her eyes were wary in her thin face. “I heard shouting.”
Chava-Leah swung round. “What are you doing here? You should be with the costumes! Quick, quick --” She herded Greta back towards the inn, glad enough to leave Chaim Glickl behind to stew in his own pot. She saw the practical necessity of keeping a Chaim around, but that didn’t mean she had much to say to him.
“I thought we were leaving,” said Greta.
“I’d be glad if we were,” said Chava-Leah, and explained about the kidnapping of the scripts.
Greta didn’t look impressed. “Surely you can get more scripts --”
“You think they’re so easy to come by?” Chava-Leah picked up her stride, suddenly impatient with Greta; why had she come at such a time, and knowing nothing! “Goldfaden guards his plays more jealously than he does his wife! Ida and I copied them out secretly at night, while my husband snored in his bed beside us – the only plays ever written in Yiddish, the first time it was ever done. If it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t have a troupe. If we had no scripts, we would have no troupe again. So how could we leave them behind?”
She heard her own voice coming louder and faster as she spoke. The silence of the streets, the glares from all sides, were still in her mind.
Greta was right. Nothing good would come of staying. They’d no way to raise the money, or do anything but go deeper into debt.
But she remembered sitting shoulder by shoulder with Ida, scribbling pages upon pages of prose in guttering candlelight. She remembered the way her heart had pounded at Ida’s nearness, at the feeling that they were stealing their own futures. Once, her husband had woken in the middle of the night, and asked what they were doing. “Copying recipes,” Chava-Leah had answered, at random, “to cook for you Ida’s blintzes!” When he snorted and rolled over again, they’d clung to each other in silent laughter.
“So write your own,” said Greta now, unmoved. “What does it matter?”
“What does it matter --” Chava-Leah threw open the door to the room she’d been using as a wardrobe, and then turned around to throw up her hands as well. “Maybe it’s so easy for you! You write us more scripts, if it’s so simple, you with your degree from the Academy of St. Petersburg!”
“In midwivery!” said Greta.
“Midwivery!” Chava-Leah stared at Greta. Despite everything, she really had to laugh. “Really, what are you doing in the theater?”
“It’s the only course available to women,” said Greta, a little defensively. “That and nursing. But it’s not like you need to be Tolstoy to write a script, either. I’ve seen one or two of these Yiddish plays – it’s nothing but farces and fairy tales. Pure distractions, to make people smile, and not think about serious things.”
“You think it’s so easy to make people smile these days?” said Chava-Leah. “You’ll find out what hard work it is soon enough – but never mind, there’s no point wasting time while we have it.” She didn’t want to think about the hardships ahead of them. Her hands itched to be doing something. She looked round at the various trunks, considering and rejecting various tasks – it would take too long to find the old Libenyu’s costume, and create more work for herself in packing everything up again later – before flinging open the smallest box. “Easier to do this here than in a jostling wagon, anyway. All right, sit down over there –”
Greta looked at the box, then at Chava-Leah. Her voice dripped disbelief. “Right now, you want to do my makeup?”
“Test your makeup,” said Chava-Leah, irritably. “We’ll need to see what works with your coloring. What else should I be doing?”
“You could tell Ida that we have to leave,” said Greta. She took Chava-Leah’s arm, urgently. “You and she, you’re close like that, aren’t you? Chaim’s nothing, anyone can see that but you – if you can convince her we should go, and not wait on this nonsense with the scripts –”
Chava-Leah’s heart pounded, and she pulled her arm away. “You don’t know everything you think you know,” she snapped. So she and Greta had something in common – who was Greta, to use that against her like this! To guess at what Chava-Leah would most want to hear, and try to pull her strings with it! “Ida’s the one who runs this troupe. I don’t tell her what to do, and neither do you.”
Greta thumped down into a seat on one of the other trunks. “How sweet,” she said, caustically. “Just like a real marriage – one above, one below. How pleasant it must be, to know one’s place and never question it!”
Chava-Leah turned back around, sticks of grease-paint in her hand, and a sharp retort in her mouth, and saw Greta looking pale and defeated.
Despite herself, her heart softened. She never could find it in herself to stay angry when someone was so clearly unhappy. Greta was rude, but she was new to this life, and nervous, and these were frightening times. “Have a little trust,” she told her. “Ida wants to leave more than any of us, and she’ll turn every stone to make sure it happens. I promise you, she’s a person who gets things done! Now, keep your mouth shut – I need your face to be still for this.” The paint wasn’t cheap, she didn’t want to waste it.
She didn’t particularly want to spend more time arguing, either. It wasn’t for this newcomer to say what was or wasn’t fair, between Ida and Chava-Leah. It wasn’t for Greta to try to make Chava-Leah unhappy for her own gain.
Under Chava-Leah’s practiced hands, Greta’s worn, pale face filled in, and turned a rosy ingenue-pink. It didn’t look particularly natural to her, but on a stage in dim light it might do well enough. It did seem a pity that Greta had been assigned to play Libenyu, the ingenue. Chava-Leah’s hands itched to emphasize the starkness of Greta’s features, highlight her piercing eyes and the imposing presence of her nose. Erasing the lines on her face with paint dimmed all the charisma she had. Young, she didn’t look interesting; she could have been anybody.
Chava-Leah frowned at her handiwork, and stepped back again to assess it from a distance. Just as she did so, the door behind her flung open, and nearly smacked her in the rear.
“Watch it!” cried Chava-Leah, spinning around. Younger Schmuel stood there, clutching the false beard she’d found for him in his hand. “What did you lose now?” she demanded, in exasperation.
“Nothing – only,” stammered Schmuel, “there are police at the front, and I –” He cast a nervous glance at Greta. “I wanted to make sure she –”
Chava-Leah sighed. Schmuel should have been on his military service, but he had papers to show that he was exempt for health reasons. Unfortunately, the papers had been written for a man named Hershel Kremer. It had never been a concern so long as everyone remembered to call Schmuel by the name of Hershel when the authorities were about. She turned round to explain this to Greta.
Greta was sitting on the trunk with her hands gripping the edge. Below the smooth pink grease-paint, her eyes shone black with terror, like a calf on a wagon bound for market.
Looking at the fear in her eyes, Chava-Leah felt a horrible certainty forming in the pit of her stomach.
And to think she’d laughed, just a few moments ago, when wondering what unlikely event could have brought Greta to the theater!
She turned back to Schmuel, and snatched his false beard out of his hand. “I’ll be having that,” she told him. “You run along now, Hershel, and stay out of the way.”
Schmuel nodded, and went. Chava-Leah stalked back up to Greta and thrust the false beard at her. She could hardly bear to look at her, she was so angry. “You put that on,” she ordered her, and then went to another trunk – she’d packed them all so neatly! – to pull out the belted coat and black hat that Chaim wore as Kuni-Leml. Without looking over her shoulder, she asked, “Does Ida know?”
“Know what,” said Greta, warily, and Chava-Leah whirled around and furiously shoved the costume in her direction.
“Really? You think I’m that stupid?”
“No – I don’t. No, she doesn’t. Are you –” She looked from the coat and hat in one hand, to the false beard in the other. Blankly, she said, “These are for me?”
“Not if you just stand there without putting them on they aren’t,” snapped Chava-Leah. She turned back around and reached back into the trunk, looking for a pair of trousers that were thin enough to fit.
Behind her, she could hear Greta’s voice, muffled through the fabric of the coat as she pulled it on. “But my papers –”
“My papers have my name and my husband’s on them,” said Chava-Leah. “His name is Yakov Spivakovsky and he plays leading men only. You can be him for five minutes.” Finding the trousers she’d been looking for, she grabbed them and tossed them back over her shoulder towards Greta.
Greta’s laugh came harsh, with a note of hysteria. “This doesn’t seem a little farcical to you?”
“Oh, yes, a real comedy!” Were those footsteps coming down the hall? Chava-Leah turned around to see Greta in Kuni-Leml’s clothes, her hair shoved under the hat, her features bland and blurry with makeup. She was still holding the false beard in her hand, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with it. Chava-Leah snatched up the spirit gum. Thank God for all the times young Shmuel had turned up late and drunk! Thank God for the adrenaline that came before a performance, when everything had to be done before curtain went up!
She shoved the beard onto Greta’s face. The footsteps stopped in front of the door. “It’s a farce,” Chava-Leah hissed, and then swung towards the door, ready to play her part. It couldn’t be so difficult; she felt as bitter at Greta right now as she did at Yakov whenever they happened to meet.
The door swung open.
Ida Glickl stood behind it.
She blinked at Chava-Leah, and then at Greta, and said, “Who’s this?” she said, and then looked again, closer. “Is that young Schmuel’s favorite beard?”
“You mean young Herschel’s,” said Chava-Leah, cautiously.
“Oh,” said Ida, and laughed. “Is that what this is about! The polizei didn’t stop here, Schmuel caught sight of a green coat and panicked, that’s all. But this handsome young man can’t be our Greta? Dear girl, you should be careful how you let Chava-Leah work her witchcraft on you – if they really had come in, they’d have grabbed you as a draft dodger too!”
She laughed again, her face pink and pretty with satisfaction, as it only ever was when she’d solved a difficult problem. Chava-Leah said, “You’ve got us the scripts back?”
Ida waved a hand triumphantly behind her. “Chaim’s coming with the trunk. We’ll be on the road in an hour, so you two need to stop playing around and get packed up. You mustn’t let Chaim see you like that, Greta, or he’ll start to think his roles are in danger!”
She shot Chava-Leah a smile with a hint of warning in it before waving and closing the door.
Chava-Leah looked at Greta, and Greta looked back at her from under Schmuel’s beard and Kuni-Leml’s Hasidic hat.
“A farce,” said Greta, her voice full of self-mockery, “from beginning to end,” and pulled off the beard.
Chava-Leah crossed her arms over her chest, still thumping with the fear of a moment ago. This time, it had been nothing. It wouldn’t always be so. “Please,” she said, “don’t tell me you killed the Tsar. Tell me anything but that.”
She meant it to come out strong; she didn’t like the frightened note in her own voice.
Greta gave her a tight-lipped smile. “You can’t tell me you’ll miss him?” Seeing Chava-Leah’s face, she let out another one of her harsh laughs. “I didn’t throw any bombs. But I’ve been to enough meetings – I’ve hosted some, I know people, and that – with the people who’ve already been arrested, it was only a matter of time. My cousin had mentioned the troupe would be coming...” She shrugged. “I thought it was a clever enough way to try and disappear. But you don’t look impressed.”
“By what should I be impressed?” said Chava-Leah, flatly. The quiet in the streets of St. Petersburg rang, rang in her ears. “You’re a fool, and your friends are worse.”
“Once you realized I was running, you were so quick to try to hide me –” Greta hesitated, then looked into Chava-Leah’s gaze, serious now, searching. “I thought perhaps you were a sympathizer.”
Chava-Leah said, really confused, “And I could have done what else?”
She felt stupid a moment later, and angrier because she felt stupid. As Greta opened her mouth, she rushed on before Greta could say anything. “Yes, of course, I could turn you in – what good would that do? Perhaps they’d arrest us all as accomplices. With the police, who knows? Safer not to attract their attention at all.”
Now she could think through the reasoning; at the time, it had only been instinct. Greta was here, part of the troupe, and you protected your own.
“You really don’t have any politics at all, do you?” said Greta, after a moment. She sounded as puzzled as Chava-Leah had earlier. “I confess I don’t understand you.”
“Why should you?” snapped Chava-Leah. “You don’t know me.”
“No, not really, I suppose, but –” Greta hesitated, then forged on. “A woman who finds it easy to take joy in a man, to care for children – I can see how such a woman has no politics. If you fit in the place you’re given, it’s hard to learn to look outside it, you have to be taught to see it. But for me – it feels like I was born knowing that either I was wrong, or the world was. Aren’t we like each other in that? Doesn’t it bother you for the world to be so wrong? How is it that you’re content to keep house for Ida Glickl, and not look outside yourself at all?”
She was still looking hard at Chava-Leah, as if hoping to see something in her face; she was twisting young Schmuel’s beard absently in her hands.
Chava-Leah reached out and took it back from her. “You’re going to damage that,” she said, shortly. “We’re not so like each other, I think – and it’s not so easy to be happy, so I don’t know why you should sneer at it. You can think my life is small and silly if you want, but it wasn’t so easy to come by either. And it’s farces and fairy tales that will get you out of St. Petersburg, so perhaps don’t say so anymore where I can hear.”
Greta, who’d clearly been ready to argue further, shut her mouth again at this. She began to unbutton Kuni-Leml’s coat, with slightly shaking hands. When she got to the fourth button, she muttered, “I assumed – since you’ve no sympathy for the cause, I thought you’d ask me to leave.”
“Well,” said Chava-Leah, resigned and unhappy, “most likely I should.” It would have been safer by far to leave Greta in St. Petersburg. She had meant all she said about Greta and her friends. It was hard to see that the things they had in common were all so important, weighed against the things they didn’t.
And yet – it didn’t sit right, to turn her away, either. However you looked at it, she was a kind of landsman. “In a farce,” she told Greta, shortly, “even the fools end happily enough. That’s why people like to see them. Now give me that coat, we’ve got to pack everything up again.”
The morning after they left St. Petersburg, Chava-Leah woke to find that Greta had already left.
Well, she had never been going to stay. Presumably she was off to find other political friends in exile, and plan some other stupid activity. With some regret, and more relief, Chava-Leah banished Greta from her mind, and didn’t think on her again until the next time she had cause to look in the costume trunk.
Placed carefully on top of Kuni-Leml’s coat was a very short stack of pages, written in an unpracticed hand.
I stayed up all night writing this, read the note at the top. You’re right – it’s not so easy, and I don’t know if it will make anyone smile. But perhaps you’ll get some use out of it anyway.
There were ten pages in total, more a sketch than a full play. The plot concerned a young Jewish woman whose beloved friend was sent to labor in Siberia for her politics. The dialogue was stiff, the characters prone to wordy speeches, and towards the back half the pages got notably less coherent. Greta had also, unfortunately, made a dutiful attempt to add jokes.
As Chava-Leah turned through the draft again, a line of dialogue from the heroine to her friend caught her eye:
If you fit in the place you’re given, it’s hard to look outside. But isn’t it different, if the world won’t let you fit, and you know the world is wrong?
Chava-Leah laughed and shook her head as she put the play back down. It was a kind gesture – or perhaps it was only an attempt to continue the argument that Chava-Leah hadn’t wanted to have, masquerading as a kind gesture. Either way, they’d never be able to stage it.
Still, she folded the pages up, carefully, and put them in her pocket.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, narrated by Violet Dixon.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Rebecca Framow Online
One of the hazards of any vast sprawling research undertaking, such as the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, is anxiety about doing any sort of synthesis or conclusions with incomplete material. I still give an ironic mental wince when I recall that my original idea for the Project was to gather all the research and write a definitive sourcebook on lesbian motifs in history.
But it regularly happens that I'll create some sort of topical essay and then later trip over material that it would have been nice to incorporate into it. For example, Castle's detailed tracing of the development of the "lesbian Marie Antoinette" motif would have been useful as source material when I put together the podcast on the Anandrine Sect, with its side-bar on Marie Antoinette. Somewhat more seriously, the podcast on classical Roman sexuality would have been significantly improved in nuance if the English translation of Boehringer's work on female homosexuality in classical societies had been published three or four years earlier, so I'd had a chance to read it before doing that podcast. And there are definitely potential podcast episodes that I haven't produced yet because there are publications I want to cover before doing so.
And yet, you can't spend all your life being perfectly ready and sufficiently skilled to Do The Thing. Otherwise you may never do it at all.
Chapter 6 – Marie Antoinette Obsession
This chapter introduces a late 19th century spiritualist who, along with other supposed past lives, recounted her past life as Queen Marie Antoinette. Her performance as Marie Antoinette was knowledgeable but erratic, often “forgetting” that she wasn’t supposed to be familiar with modern objects and activities, then reacting to audience skepticism by reverting to ignorance of them. Her audience, including a psychologist studying her, recognized it all as an act, but one with significant verisimilitude.
Another early 20th century woman became convinced she was being visited by the ghost of Marie Antoinette and became obsessed with the queen and artifacts associated with her. This evolved into vivid dreams in which the dreamer was a boy struggling to save the queen from execution. The woman wrote a memoir of this lifelong obsession.
A few years later, two respected female Oxford academics claimed to have encountered the ghost of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers in the gardens at Versailles. Having later learned that their visit had been on a significant anniversary associated with the revolution, they postulated that they had experienced some sort of mental time travel, and went on to try to document the people and events they had seen as historic fact. These efforts were met with a certain amount of understandable scorn.
Castle asks the question, why is Marie Antoinette the focus of so many supernatural encounters? She suggests the possibility that above-mentioned experiences were linked directly – each woman having access to and being aware of the previous account. But this doesn’t answer the question of why Marie Antoinette would inspire this sort of sequential mass delusion.
The psychologist who studied the “past lives” example analyzed it in Freudian terms as reflecting emotional isolation from her parents and an antagonism toward her middle-class background. Marie Antoinette was a natural fixation for someone who dreamed of elegance and extravagance, possibly sparked by a story about Marie Antoinette by Alexandre Dumas that closely matched some of the characters and themes in her delusion. A similar psychological background can be traced in the second example.
The two academics also came from large and distant families which did not support their academic careers. For them, as for the other dreamer, Marie Antoinette may have represented an idealized mother figure. The rigorously academic approach by which the analyzed their experience could be seen as showing up their unsupportive male (academic) parents.
However, the Freudian idea of the “royal romance” (the fantasy that one is secretly an adopted lost aristocrat) doesn’t address an aspect of all three experiences in which Marie Antoinette carries a romantic, lover-like connection.
All of the women involved were resistant to marriage, in some cases mediating this through male figures in their visions, either as mentors dissuading them from marriage, or as an alternate persona through which they could express passion for Marie Antoinette, though not in an overtly homosexual framing. The two academics, however, only recently acquainted at the time of their supernatural experience, afterward became domestic partners in a relationship described by others as marriage like. Marie Antoinette, as it were, was their matchmaker.
We come back again to “why Marie Antoinette?” [Those who follow this blog may already have identified the connection.] Marie Antoinette had become something of a cult figure of royalist romantics in later 19th-century England among women, imbued with a homoerotic tinge (not uncommon to women’s romantic culture of the time). And, Castle suggests, the rumors of Marie Antoinette’s own lesbian relationships may have been a strong factor in attracting homoerotic fascination.
The next section of this chapter lays out the historic background and documentary evidence for the development of those rumors. This section is a good survey of the evidence on the topic, which I won’t summarize in detail.
After the restoration of the French monarchy there was a program of rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette’s reputation, which included rejection of the lesbian rumors. But rejection of the sexual aspect of Marie Antoinette’s relations with women did not require erasing the romantic nature of those relations, which were refashioned to fit later 19th century ideals of romantic friendship. Her friendship, especially with the Princess de Lamballe, was framed as noble and faithful until death, creating an archetype for a “safe” model of f/f passionate devotion. To suggest that it was (also) sexual was declared a monstrous slander. There is extensive exploration of depictions around this theme.
This, then, provides a motive for Marie Antoinette as the focus of hazily homoromantic fantasies and experiences. [Note: although outside the scope of what Castle is discussing, we can see this at play in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess, in Sarah Crewe’s fixation on Marie Antoinette and Lamballe as a fantasy escape.]
In “sanitizing” Marie Antoinette of lesbian overtones, biographers and romantics contradictorily transformed her intense same-sex friendships into a symbol of homoerotic romance, with an imprimatur of acceptability.
But alongside this creation of Marie Antoinette as a “sanitized” icon, lesbian writers of the 20th century romanticized the queen as an overtly lesbian figure, including (as only one example) Stephen Gordon’s pilgrimage to Versailles in The Well of Loneliness. Several other similar literary references are cataloged.
Castle’s summary returns to the motif of Marie Antoinette as ghostly figure, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to tie this in to the theme of lesbian presence enabled by its erasure – it was the sanitization of Marie Antoinette's slegacy that enabled more women to connect with her homoerotic symbolism.