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Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 20:12

As we move towards a consideration of how certain motifs entered popular culture in western Europe, we need to start taking note of repeating anecdotes and descriptions. These anecdotes might be repeated in multiple accounts because they reflected factual observations. But they might instead represent the recycling of material by authors who wanted to add more colorful specifics to their own accounts. Given that the bulk of Tavernier's discussion of lesbianism in Ottoman culture takes the form of highly specific anecdotes that we have encountered earlier by other authors (Busbecq for the old woman who fell in love at the baths, and Bon for the cucumber story) the simplest explanation is that Taverner is recycling other authors' texts, even when he contradicts their truthfulness (as with the cucumber anecdote). Does this mean that he offers no actual independent support for the prevalence of lesbian activity? That question could be asked of many of these authors, given their lack of access to firsthand knowledge.

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Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste. 1675. Nouvelle Relation De l’intéreur Du Sérail Du Grand Seigneur Contenant Plusieurs Singularitex Qui Jusqu’icy N’ont Point esté mises En Lumiere. Translated into English by J. Phillips as: A New Relation Of The Inner-Part of The Grand Seignor’s Seraglio, Containing Several Remarkable Particulars, Never Before Expos’d To Public View bound with A Short Description of all the Kingdoms Which Encompas the Euxine and Caspian Seas, Delivered by the author after Twenty Years Travel Together with a Preface Containing Several Remarkable Observations concerning divers of the forementioned countries. 1677. R. L. and Moses Pitt.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a French gem merchant and traveller in the 17th century. He traveled extensively for business to Persia and India, making six voyages between 1630-1668. At the request of King Louis XIV of France, in 1675 he wrote up his experiences as Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. While, no doubt, much of Tavernier’s descriptions were based on first-hand experience, his Voyages includes accounts of Japan and Tongking, which he never visited personally, based on second-hand information. Among the trivia of Tavernier’s biography was the acquisition of the “Taverier Blue” diamond that at a later date (and a couple of re-cuttings) was re-named the Hope Diamond.

But our interest falls on a different publication the same year, based on the two visits he made to Constantinople during his first and sixth voyages: Nouvelle Relation De l’intéreur Du Sérail Du Grand Seigneur Contenant Plusieurs Singularitex Qui Jusqu’icy N’ont Point esté mises En Lumiere. Chez Gervais Clouzier, 1st ed. Paris, 7 February 1675. The general fascination with accounts of the Ottoman Empire can be seen in how quickly the work was translated into English by J. Phillips: A New Relation Of The Inner-Part of The Grand Seignor’s Seraglio, Containing Several Remarkable Particulars, Never Before Expos’d To Public View bound with A Short Description of all the Kingdoms Which Encompas the Euxine and Caspian Seas, Delivered by the author after Twenty Years Travel Together with a Preface Containing Several Remarkable Observations concerning divers of the forementioned countries. 1st English Edition, R. L. and Moses Pitt, 1677. The text I used is from a 1678 reprinting of the English translation, which is available at

Excerpts from Tavernier’s account are discussed in Traub 2002 and Donoghue 1995 (who quotes a 1684 edition).

The excerpts included below are:

  • An explanation of the seclusion of the women of the Seraglio, including how Tavernier’s primary informational contact (a eunuch) did not himself have direct knowledge of the women’s quarters.
  • The cucumber anecdote
  • The old woman who fell in love at the baths

Tavernier provides a detailed description of the household of the Grand Seraglio, with all the various functions, officers, and activities. Within this, chapter 17 (p.619 of the pdf) concerns the women’s quarters. He also extensively describes male homoerotic activity within the court, noting that it is regulated for those of lesser status as part of general controls on behavior. It is telling that Tavernier explains how even his primary contact for information about the Seraglio (which can refer to the entire palace, not necessarily specifically the women’s quarters) “could give me no certain information of [the women’s] quarter of it.” Which necessarily raises doubts about how accurate the information he provides can be. In this context, it’s noteworthy that the two specific references he makes to lesbian activity are echoes of anecdotes previously published by others.

I Make a Chapter by it self of the Appartment of the Women, only to entertain the Reader, with the impossibility there is, of having a perfect knowledg of it, or getting any exact account, either what the accommodations of it are; or how the Persons, who are confin’d therein, behave themselves. There is not in all Christendome any Monastery of Religious Virgins, how regular and austere soever it may be, the entrance whereof is more strictly forbidden to men, than is that of this Appartment of the Women: insomuch that my white Eunuch, who has supply'd me with so particular a description of the inner part of the Seraglio, could give me no certain information of this Quarter of it, where the Women are lodg'd. All I could get out of him, was, That the Doors of it are kept by Negro-Eunuchs, and that, besides the Grand Seignor himself, and sometimes, the Physician, in case of great necessity, there never enters any man into it, no nor Woman, besides those who live in it, and they are never permitted to go out of it, unless it be in order to their confinement in the Old Seraglio. But we must except, out of that number, the Sultanesses, and their Maids, or Ladies of Honour, whom the Grand Seignor allows, when he pleases, to come into the Gardens of the Seraglio, and whom he sometimes takes abroad with him, into the Country; yet so as that they cannot be seen by any person whatsoever. Four Negro-Eunuchs carry a kind of Pavilion, under which is the Sultaness, and the Horse upon which she is mounted, all save only the head of the horse, which is seen on the out-side of the Pavilion, the two fore-pieces of which, taking him about the Neck, are close fasten'd, above, and below.

Tavernier asserts that the “cucumber anecdote” that he relates is a myth, based on a misunderstanding of the usual method of serving fresh fruits. Given that his anecdote closely matches that in Ottaviano Bon, we have two possibilities. Either Tavernier has adapted Bon’s anecdote (only to contradict it) or the cucumber anecdote was a longstanding trope within Ottoman society (there being almost a century between Bon’s publication and Tavernier’s) that was related to curious travelers (regardless of whether it was believed within Ottoman society itself). In contrast to Bon, Tavernier unambiguously connects the cucumber anecdote to homosexuality, and suggests that both male and female homosexuality in Ottoman society are a consequence of the extreme gender segregation. Tavernier then relates the “old woman falling in love at the baths” anecdote, clearly identifying it as an old story from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. As we first encountered this story from Busbecq, whose time in Constantinople was during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, either he is taking the story from Busbecq or the specific dating of the anecdote was part of its transmission to him. Although many specific details in Busbecq’s and Tavernier’s accounts match up, the two narratives are structured differently and Tavernier has fewer specifics. This could be consistent with oral transmission of a historic anecdote, but the exact relationship between the two accounts with regard to provenance cannot be known for certain.

Besides these things, which may be positively known, concerning the Appartment of the Women, in the Seraglio, it may well be imagined, that the embellishments of their Lodgings are answerable to those of the Grand Seignor, since it is the place where he passes away the most divertive part of his time. It is also not to be question'd, but that it has its Infirmary, its Baths, and the other accommodations and conveniences, that can be wish'd for. It may also be conjectur'd, That there is, in this Quarter, an observance of the same regulations, as there are in the Chambers of the Ichoglans: That some of the more ancient Maids are Mistresses over the Younger ones, and are, night and day employ'd in observing their actions, and that their unvoluntary restraint forces them to the same unseemly actions amongst themselves, as the brutish Passions of those Young Men engages them in, whenever they can find the opportunities to commit them. And this presumption has no doubt given occasion to the Fabulous Story, which is related of their being serv'd up with Cucumbers cut into pieces, and not entire, out of a ridiculous fear lest they should put them to undecent uses: they who have forg'd the Story not knowing, that it is the custome in the Levant, to cut the Fruit a-cross, into great thick slices, as I shall make it appear in the Chapter, where I treat of their Gardens. But it is not only in the Seraglio, that that abominable Vice reigns, but it is predominant also in the City of Constantinople, and in all the Provinces of the Empire, and the wicked Example of the Men, who, flighting the natural use of Woman-kind, are mutually enflam'd with a detestable love for one another, unfortunately enclines the Women to imitate them.

Of this, there was a strange instance in the time of Solyman the Magnificent. An old Woman was guilty of such an excess of extravagance, as to put on Man's Cloaths, and to give out, that she had bought a Chiaoux’s place, the better to compass her desire, of obtaining the only Daughter of a Trades-man of Constantinople, with whom she was desperately fallen in love, having made fruitless attempts, by other ways, to satisfie her infamous inclinations. The Father, not suspecting any thing of her wicked intentions, and being withal poor, grants her his Daughter, the Marriage is solemniz'd in the presence of the Cadi, and the imposture having been discover'd the very Wedding-night, the old woman was condemn'd the next day to be thrown into the Sea, there to quench the Gomorrhean Inflammations of her lewd desires. This Story is to this day related in Constantinople, and I have had it from several good hands.

These insatiable salaciousness amongst the Women, are the effects and conferences of the same inclinations in the Men; and the Turks are so much the more execrable and abominable as to this particular, the more they are permitted a plurality of Wives.

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Monday, November 13, 2023 - 07:10

Given Thomas Glover's background (born and raised in Constantinople) and his multi-lingual competence, we might expect him to have a much more thorough familiarity with Ottoman Society than some of the other authors in this series. But his accounts are more terse, high-level summaries than some of the others. Perhaps, being a "local" he didn't have the same fascination and curiosity that led some of the other authors to write more extensively. His knee-jerk distaste for the idea of lesbian sex in the bath houses may well reflect a solidly western European attitude (his father was English, after all), but we can't discount the possibility that it reflects the default male attitude towards the topic in Constantinople. As Glover (along with all the other male writers) emphasizes, it isn't as if he could have direct evidence of what women were doing in the baths, so we should conclude that the topic was "common knowledge" regardless of how accurate the details were.

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Glover, Thomas. 1610. The Muftie, Cadileschiers, Divans: Manners and attire of the Turkes. The Sultan described, and his Customes and Court. Included in George Sandys A Relation of a Journey begun Anno Dom. 1610 published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas (1625).

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Thomas Glover was born in Constantinople to an English father and Polish mother and was raised there, being fluent in Turkish, Greek, Italian, and Polish (as well as English). He served as secretary to two successive English ambassadors to Constantinople before being installed as ambassador himself in 1606. He was recalled to London in 1611 under something of a cloud, perhaps due to interceding in Moldavian royal politics, but evidently it blew over. The Wikipedia entry on him is scanty and doesn’t mention his writings.

Glover’s text is included  in volume II of Purchas His Pilgrimes, published 1625, as an inclusion in an account dated 1610 by George Sandys. Glover’s text is titled, The Muftie, Cadileschiers, Divans: Manners and attire of the Turkes. The Sultan described, and his Customes and Court. Sandys’ text is an account of his travels through Europe and the Middle East beginning in 1610. Assuming the inclusion of Glover’s text in conjunction with Sandys’ is due to Sandys having acquired Glover’s description during his travels, this happened in 1610 based on an internal reference in Glover’s text. But without additional research, I can’t be certain that the conjunction of these two texts isn’t an editorial decision by Purchas. On the other hand, given that The Muftie… is a sort of “introduction to Ottoman government and society” it might well be the sort of thing written to help a visiting English traveler. (Purchas His Pilgrimes is an extensive four-volume collection of travel writing, edited by Samuel Purchas and titled Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes. The reference to Hakluyt points to Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations and Purchas’s collection was partly based on manuscripts left by Hakluyt, who had died in 1616. My text is taken from a copy of Purchas at where it appears in volume 8, Chapter X (p.304ff).

There is a second text by Glover in the same volume titled, The Journey of Edward Barton Esquire, her Majesties Ambassador with the Grand Signior, otherwise called the Great Turke, in Constantinople, Sultan Mahumet Chan. Written by Sir Thomas Glover then Secretarie to the Ambassador, and since employed in that Honourable Function by his Majestie, to Sultan Achmet, which concerns an extensive description of travel logistics when the English ambassador accompanied the Sultan to the siege of Agria (modern Eger in Hungary) in 1596.

Glover’s text is briefly excerpted in Traub 2002.

The excerpts included below are:

  • A brief excerpt regarding the seclusion of women
  • A description of the baths

As usual, I’ll begin with an excerpt in which Glover describes the seclusion of Turkish women, casting doubt on whether any of his subsequent descriptions of women’s appearance and behavior can truly be considered “eyewitness.”

Yet give they no entertaynment unto one another, nor come there any into their houses but upon speciall occasion, and those but into the publike parts thereof; their women being never seene but by the Nurses and Eunuches which attend on them. Yea, so jealous they are, that their Sonnes when they come to growth are separated from them.

In describing households and women, Glover includes many details that don’t jibe well with the idea that men are not allowed to see women who are not their wives, such as women’s rituals with a bride before marriage, the appearance of women, their cosmetics, and their clothing. Glover’s description of the baths is a bit ambiguous with regard to gender, since he mixes in both male and female bathing practices. When he describes “unnatural and filthy lust” it isn’t clear whether he’s referring to both male and female practices, but with the specification “yea, women with women” he clearly indicates the latter at least.

They never stirre forth, but (and then alwayes in troupes) to pray at the graves, and to the publike Bannias: which for excellency of buildings are next to their Mosques. But having in part alreadie described some of their formes, I will treate of their use…. The men take them up in the morning, and in the afternoone the women. … The men are attended upon by men, and the women by women; in the outermost roome they put off their clothes, and having Aprons of stayned linnen tyed about their wastes, then entring the Baths to what degree of heate that they please, (for severall roomes, and severall parts of them are of severall temperatures, as is the water let in by cocks to wash the sweat and filth of the bodie) the servitors wash them, rub them, stretch out their joynts, and cleanse their skins with a piece of rough Grogeram; which done, they shave the heads and bodies of men, or take away the haire with a composition of Rusma (a minerall of Cyprus) and unsleakt Lime; who returning to the place where they left their clothes, are dryed with fresh linnen; and for all this they pay not above three or foure Aspers: so little, in that endued with revenues by their Founders. But the women, doe anoint their bodies with an oyntment made of the earth of Chios, which maketh the skin soft, white, and shining; extending that on the face, and freeing it from wrinkles. Much unnaturall and filthie lust is said to bee committed daily in the remote closets of the darkesome Bannias: yea, women with women; a thing uncredible, if former times had not given thereunto both detection and punishment. They have generally the sweetest children that ever I saw; partly proceeding from their frequent bathings, and affected cleanlinesse. As wee beare ours in our armes, so they doe theirs astride on their shoulders.

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Sunday, November 12, 2023 - 09:34

In my opinion, Ottaviano Bon represents the last of the male-authored accounts that appear to be solidly "original" as opposed to potentially recycling the material of previous authors. He also introduces the second motif that gets repeated by other authors: the cucumber anecdote. But overall, his descriptions are vague and ambiguous with regard to whether he's describing lesbian relations among Ottoman women, as opposed to unauthorized self-stimulation. (If a valuable attribute of young women in the sarail is the physical attributes of virginity, self-stimulation involving penetration is enough to be considered "wantonness" or "beastly uncleanness" within patriarchal society.)

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Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Ottaviano Bon belonged to an aristocratic family in Venice and was active as a diplomat. I’m having trouble finding a clear biography of him through online sources. He has no English Wikipedia entry, and the Italian Wikipedia entry is brief and sketchy. A biography included in David Thomas and John Chesworth’s Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History states that his “political career began in 1577, and he progressed through a series of positions of increasing importance, before beginning his diplomatic career in 1601 with his election as ambassador to Spain. In April 1604, he  was elected to one of Venice’s most sensitive and important diplomatic postings, bailo, in Istanbul, a position he held until early 1609.”

But the text we’re interested in apparently dates earlier than his official mission, and Thomas and Chesworth note, “Another product of his time in Istanbul, the Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore, is a rare first-person description of the sultan’s seraglio based on a surreptitious personal visit Bon arranged.” Traub (2002) indicates that the Descrizione was originally a “confidential document” written in 1587, and Thomas and Chesworth indicate it was first published (in Italian) around 1606. Very soon after, an English translation by Robert Withers appeared as The Grand Signiors Serraglio (with no attribution to Bon), which was published in 1625 as part of an extensive four-volume collection of travel writing, edited by Samuel Purchas and titled Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes. The reference to Hakluyt points to Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations and Purchas’s collection was partly based on manuscripts left by Hakluyt, who had died in 1616. My text is taken from a copy of Purchas at

In addition to Traub 2002, this text is discussed in a previous LHMP entry covering Murray 1997.

Bon wrote extensively on the sarail (serraglio) that housed the women of the sultan’s court. The excerpts included below that specifically reference lesbian desire are:

  • A vague reference to “wantonness”
  • A discussion of punishments followed by the “cucumber anecdote”

As noted above, there is a vast amount of text discussing the women of the court, their organization, their activities, their physical environment, and so on. This excerpt concerns young women who are servants of the court, rather than the sultanas and the sultan’s concubines. The reference to the desire to “keep the young wenches form wantonnesses” is decidedly vague, but given the emphasis made previously to the exclusion of any men other than eunuchs from this part of the palace, one must assume that the “wantonness” in question is with other women. The comparison to nuns is interesting, given the convents often had similar concerns about what young women in homo-social environments might get up to. As usual, we cannot simultaneously accept Bon's depiction of the extreme seclusion of the women of the sarail and the notion that he was writing from personal observation of the sarail and its inhabitants.

[Withers p.339] Now in the Womens lodgings, they live just as the Nunnes doe in their great Monasteries; for, these Virgins have very large Roomes to live in, and their Bed-chambers will hold almost a hundred of them a piece: they sleepe upon Sofaes, which are built long wise on both sides of the Roome, so that there is a large space in the midst for to walke in. Their Beds are very course and hard, and by every ten Virgins there lies an old woman: and all the night long there are many lights burning, so that one may see very plainely throughout the whole Roome; which doth both keepe the young Wenches from wantonnesses, and serve upon any occasion which may happen in the night.

I included the initial part of this next quote about execution by being “tied and put into a sack and in the night cast into the sea” because of the resonances with Busbecq’s description of being “packed away and drowned in the deep.” But it’s likely pure coincidence that Bon puts this in conjunction with an anecdote about being concerned that the women might use certain vegetables for “wanton” purposes. This is not a clear reference to lesbianism and is framed as being due to the unavailability of men for sexual satisfaction. In European references to dildoes during a similar era, their use isn’t necessarily perceived as indicating lesbianism, even when a female partner is involved. (Some day I will do a podcast on the history of dildoes and the contexts in which they do and do not intersect with lesbian themes.)

[Withers p.347] The Women of the Serraglio, are punished for their Punishments of faults very severely, and extreamely beaten by their Overseers : and if they prove disobedient, incorrigible and insolent, they are by the Kings order and expresse commandment, turned out and sent into the old Serraglio, as being rejected and cast off, and most part of that they have is taken from them. But if they shall be found culpable for Witchcraft : or any such hainous offence, then are they tyed and put into a Sacke, and in the Night cast into the Sea : so that by all meanes it behooveth them to bee very obedient, and containe themselves within the bounds of honestie and modestie, if they meane to come to a good end. Now it is not lawfull for any one to bring ought in unto them, with which they may commit the deeds of beastly uncleannesse ; so that if they have a will to eate Cucumbers, Gourds, or such like meates, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the meanes of playing the wantons ; for, they all being young, lustie, and lascivious Wenches, and wanting the societie of Men (which would better instruct them) are doubtlesse of themselves inclined to that which is naught, and will be possest with unchast thoughts.


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Saturday, November 11, 2023 - 15:28

The second item in my "Europeans talk about lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire" series introduces a topic that I'll come back to repeatedly and discuss in the upcoming podcast. For all that we have this variety of 16-17th century "travelers' tales" that make some reference to lesbian desire in women's spaces in Ottoman society, we should be skeptical about the independence of these reports. That isn't to say that we should be skeptical about the existence of female same-sex desire in Ottoman society, but only that we need to be aware that it is being presented in these accounts at least at third hand, if not more. Further, the attitudes toward lesbian desire embedded in these reports are filtered through European Christian attitudes that are far more sex-negative than those of Islamicate society, and don't take account of the nuances of attitudes toward same-sex activity within that society. So: substantial grains of salt are warranted, as well as an understanding that this mini-series that I'm presenting can be best understood as providing background for why Europeans became fixated on the idea that lesbianism was a "Turkish thing" in subsequent centuries.

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de Busbecq, Ogier Ghiselin. 1581. Itinera Constantinopolitanum et Amasianum (Journey to Constantinople and Amasya. Translated into English 1694 as: Four Epistles of A.G. Busbequius, Concerning His Embassy Into Turkey. Being Remarks Upon the Religion, Customs Riches, Strength and Government of that People. As Also a Description of Their Chief Cities, and Places of Trade and Commerce. Reprinted in 1744 as: Travels into Turkey: Containing the Most Accurate Account of the Turks, and Neighbouring Nations, Their Manners, Customs, Religion, Superstition, Policy, Riches, Coins, &c.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

( Project Gutenberg™ Advisory: This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at If you are not located in the United States, you will have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this eBook.)

The Flemish scholar Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was named an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. From around 1554 through 1562 he was in Constantinople, primarily to negotiate a border treaty. But Busbecq was deeply interested in manuscripts, in natural history, and in describing his experiences in an extensive correspondence with friends, which he later collected and published. Purely as a side note, Busbecq is also said to have been the person who introduced tulips into the Low Countries.

Busbecq’s Turcicae epistolae was originally published in Latin in 1581 under the title Itinera Constantinopolitanum et Amasianum (Journey to Constantinople and Amasya, presumably the Amasya in modern Turkey though there are are locations named Amasia in modern Armenia), later as  as Turcicae epistolae (Turkish Letters). An English translation appeared in 1694 under the title Four Epistles of A.G. Busbequius, Concerning His Embassy Into Turkey. Being Remarks Upon the Religion, Customs Riches, Strength and Government of that People. As Also a Description of Their Chief Cities, and Places of Trade and Commerce (See Google Books entry.) The version I used was published in 1744 under the title Travels into Turkey: Containing the Most Accurate Account of the Turks, and Neighbouring Nations, Their Manners, Customs, Religion, Superstition, Policy, Riches, Coins, &c.  (both these English titles are actually much longer) which is available from Project Gutenberg. Although I wasn’t able to find a text of the 1694 English translation online, I was able to compare the first pages of the 1694 and 1744 editions, which are identical except for some variation in punctuation. So I am assuming the this holds for the entire text.

Excerpts form Busbecq are discussed in the following publications previously covered by the Lesbian Historic Motif Project: Andreadis 2001, Donoghue 1996, Murray 1997, Norton (website),  Traub 2002 (who cites: Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, eds. Charles Thorton Foster and F.H. Blackburne Daniell (London: Kegan Paul, 1881) pp.228-29. Also available at Project Gutenberg. This is an entirely different translation than the 1694 and 1744 editions.

The excerpts included below are:

  • The seclusion of women
  • Lesbian desire in the public baths
  • Anecdote of an old woman who fell in love with a girl at the bath

In addition to the general topic of lesbian desire in the sarail or at the women’s baths, there are two specific anecdotes that recur in multiple Early Modern sources. One is the “old woman who falls in love”, for which Busbecq is the earliest known source, and which subsequently appears in Tavernier and then in Satan’s Harvest Home. The other is the “cucumber anecdote” which we will first see in Ottaviano Bon (to be covered next), which is also repeated by Tavernier. The repetition of specific anecdotes emphasizes that these authors are not necessarily (or perhaps often) reporting from personal observation, but are gathering up material from other sources for their reports. Those other sources may, in some cases, be men they interacted with in Constantinople. But given the unlikelihood that any of these European men had direct knowledge of women’s lives in Ottoman Turkey, some level of filtering must always be assumed.

These reports frequently emphasize this last point: the male authors did not have direct access to the lives of respectable women. Though Busbecq’s description here is somewhat in conflict with the second quotation in claiming that “no person living, either male or female…shall ever have leave to see them” and then describing how women of all sorts gather together at the baths.

[P.144-145] I preceed then to other Matters, and shall give you an Example of the Chastity of Turkish Women. The Turks take more Pains to have their Wives modest, than any other Nation; and, therefore, they ordinarily keep them close up at home, and hardly suffer them to see the Sun; but if any necessity calls them abroad, they go so hooded and veil’d, as if they were Hobgoblins or Ghosts. ’Tis true, they can see Men through their Veils or Hoods, but no part of their Bodies is open to Man’s View; for they have this Tradition among them, that it is impossible for a Man to look on a Woman, especially if she be young and handsome, without desiring to enjoy her; and by that Desire the Mind is excited, and therefore they keep them all covered. Their own Brothers have Liberty to see them; but their Husband’s Brothers have not the same Permission. The nobler and richer sort, when they marry, do it with this Condition, that their Wives shall never set a Foot out of Door; and no Person living, either Male or Female, be the Cause what it will, shall ever have leave to see them; no, not their nearest Alliance in Blood, except only the Father and Mother, who, at Easter, (their Bairam) are permitted to see their Daughter; and, in lieu of this Strictness, if the Wife have Parents of the better sort, and she bring her Husband a large Dowry, the Husband, on his part promiseth, that he will never have any Concubines, but will keep to her alone.

After a much briefer description of the women’s baths than Nicolay provided, Busbecq offers a detailed anecdote concerning desire between women and its possible consequences. There is a possible implication that the reason the woman was punished so harshly was not for lesbian acts, as such, but for the gender masquerade and creating a public scandal. And, of course, there’s the implication that if the girl had been a consenting participant, perhaps no one would ever have known about it.

[Pp.145-147] The great Men also have Baths at their own Houses, wherein they and their Women do wash; but the meaner sort use public Baths.

A Turk hates bodily Filthiness and Nastiness, worse than Soul-Defilement; and, therefore, they wash very often, and they never ease themselves, by going to Stool, but they carry Water with them for their Posteriors. But ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together; so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins.

By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them. But these Offences happen among the ordinary sort; the richer sort of Persons have Baths at home, as I told you before.

It happened one time, that at the public Baths for Women, an old Woman fell in Love with a Girl, the Daughter of a poor Man, a Citizen of Constantinople; and, when neither by wooing nor flattering her, she could obtain that of her which her mad Affection aim’d at, she attempted to perform an Exploit almost incredible; she feign’d herself to be a Man, changed her Habit, hired an House near the Maid’s Father, and pretended she was one of the Chiauxes of the Grand Seignior; and thus, by reason of his Neighbourhood, she insinuated herself into the Man’s Acquaintance, and after some time, acquaints him with the desire of his Daughter. In short, he being a Man in such a prosperous Condition, the Matter was agreed on, a Portion was settled, such as they were able to give, and a Day appointed for the Marriage; when the Ceremonies were over, and this doughty Bridegroom went into the Bride-chamber to his Spouse; after some Discourse, and plucking off her Headgeer, she was found to be a Woman. Whereupon the Maid runs out, and calls up her Parents, who soon found that they had married her, not to a Man, but a Woman: Whereupon, they carried the supposed Man, the next day, to the General of the Janizaries, who, in the Absence of the Grand Seignior, was Governor of the City. When she was brought before him, he chide her soundly for her beastly Love; what, says he, are you not asham’d, an old Beldam as you are, to attempt so notorious a Bestiality, and so filthy a Fact?

Away, Sir, says she! You do not know the Force of Love, and God grant you never may. At this absurd Reply, the Governor could scarce forbear Laughter, but commanded her, presently, to be pack’d away and drown’d in the Deep; such was the unfortunate Issue of her wild Amours. For you must know, that the Turks make no noise when secret Offences are committed by them, that they may not open the Mouths of Scandal and Reproach; but open and manifest ones they punish most severely.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2023 - 20:50

I've had a project on my to-do list to put together a podcast on Early Modern European perceptions of lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire. And as preparation, I wanted to do a deep dive into the source material on this topic. So this is the first in a series of primary source posts to that end. (I'll try to get all the source material posted before the podcast goes up.) One of the curious aspects of this topic is to see how much of the "travelers' tales" genre turns out to be recycled material from previous publications. I'll probably do a specific post on that topic to lay out the connections, once the source material is up.

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Full citation: 

de Nicolay, Nicolas. 1567. Quatre premiers livres des navigations. Translated by T. Washinton (1585) as The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie. Collected in: Osborne, Thomas. 1745. Collection of Voyages and Travels…, vol. 1. London: Thomas Osborne of Gray’s-Inn.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Nicolas de Nicolay was a Frenchman who served in various diplomatic roles in the mid 16th century, including escorting the young Mary Queen of Scots to France for her marriage to the Dauphin, and accompanying the French ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent (know to European courts as “The Great Turk”) in Constantinople. On this journey, one of his roles was to make an extensive survey of the lands and peoples he encountered, which was published in French in 1567 as  Quatre premiers livres des navigations (First Four Books of Navigations), and translated into English by T. Washington the younger in 1585 as The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie.

The text that I use is taken from the following publication (accessed through Due to the very poor quality of the optical recognition text provided at, I transcribed these excepts directly from the pdf images.

Osborne, Thomas. 1745. Collection of Voyages and Travels…, vol. 1. London: Thomas Osborne of Gray’s-Inn.

This—as the title indicates—is a collection of various travelers’ accounts, in 2 volumes, comprising a total of 42 separate texts. Nicolay’s account is in volume 1, part 10 and is divided into 4 sections with numbered chapters.

Nicolay’s references to female homoeroticism have been quoted or referenced in the following publications previously covered by the LHMP: Traub 2002, Loughlin 2014, Andreadis 2001.

The excerpts included below are:

  • A reference in chapter 19 pointing out Nicolay’s lack of direct access to women’s culture
  • An excerpt from an extensive discussion from chapter 21 about men’s public baths and their practices
  • The entirety of chapter 22 which describes the women’s baths and their practices

The initial focus of Nicolay’s work is on the palace and Suleiman’s household. The private women’s quarters of this palace are called the “Sarail” (possibly a more familiar term in the form “seraglio”) which housed not only the sultan’s wives and concubines, as well as their female attendants, but also the sultan’s female relatives (mother, unmarried sisters and daughters). The chapter describing the Sarail goes into much detail about the seclusion of these women from male contact with the exception of the Black eunuchs who formed their interface with the world. Later, Nicolay speaks of the situation of other women who, while still being secluded from casual contact with men, moved about the city more freely (within limits). But in understanding the position of women in Ottoman society, this physical segregation should not be read as a lack of social and political power. Various authors comment on how much economic and social power (some) women had within their marriages.

In Ch. XIX, Nicolay explains how he befriended one of the eunuchs of the Sarail who provided him with information and experiences. For example, when Nicolay wanted to see what the women of the Sarail wore, the eunuch supplied two “public Turkish women” (this may mean prostitutes?) dressed in “very rich apparel”. I.e., Nicolay had no direct access to the high status women of the palace, so even his understanding of their dress was mediated through a sort of “fashion show” modeled by women whose social status would not be damaged by being seen by him. Keep this in mind when reading anything Nicolay says about women’s lives: he is necessarily reporting at second or third hand.

Although the description of the men’s baths includes extensive details of massages and bodily care, there is no mention of homoerotic activity, although elsewhere there are references to rampant sodomy among the Turks. Whereas the discussion of women washing and doing bodily care for each other in the baths is sexualized. Nicolay would, of course, have had no direct access to knowing what goes on in the women’s baths. So one must wonder not only how he got his information, but how and why that source may have shaped the information.

Ch. XXI discusses the institution of the public baths in general, but from context this is clearly the men’s baths.

…tapestry of Turky, upon which they uncloath themselves, leaving their garments in sure keeping of the Capsaire; and such as will bathe themselves, after they have covered their privy members with a great blue linen cloth which is given unto them, do first go into the Tepidarie to make themselves sweat, and frm thence they enter into another great place of the bath, being much higher, and the ceiling thereof made clear with divers windows, to the intent to shew the brighter in the midst whereof is also a most magnificent fountain…[you lay yourself on a marble table on your belly] and then one of these graet lubbers, after they have well pulled and stretched your arms, as well before as behind, in such sort that he will make your bones to crack, and well rubbed the soles of your feet, mounteth upon your back, and so with his feet slideth up and down upon you, and upon your reins, as if he would bruise them in pieces; and then again maketh you to turn on your back, pulling and removing your joints, as before is said, and nevertheless without doing unto you any harm at all, but on the contrary doth so comfort your sinews, and strengtheneth your members, that ye shall be after it a great deal more fresh, lively, and better disposed: [more interesting details of personal care] … Now it is to be noted, that all nations, of what faith or religion soever they be, are all alike, and indifferently received and entreated for their money in these baths; but above all others, the Turks, Moors, and generally all the Mahumatised, frequent thither oftenest, as well for their voluptuous pleasure, as bodily health, and principally for the observing of their law, which commandeth that no Musselmen shall enter into their mosquest without they be first well washed and purified, these brutish Barbarians esteeming of the outward washing, and not that which inwardly toucheth the soul.  …

The following is the entirety of  chapter XXII. Some paragraph breaks have been added (that were not in the original) to improve readability.

Of the women of Turky going unto the baths, and of their apparel, and manner of cleanness.

The Turks wives, by ordinary customs, and ancient observation, which they reserve of the old custom of Asia and Greece, do delight at all times to haunt the baths, as well for the continauance of their health, as beautifying of their persons, which is not to be reputed as spoken of the women of base estate or condition, but likewise of the great and notable dames, which ordinarily do frequent the baths two or three times in the week, not the publick, but their private baths, which for the most part they have very fair within their houses or Sarails; but such as are of the meaner degree, go unto them at least once in the week, if by others they will be esteemed not infamed, or scarce honest.

And notwithstanding they will not gladly fail to go thither, for two several occasions, the one being for the observation of their Mahumetical law, which, as before I have said, forbiddeth them not to make their prayers within the mosques, except first their bodies be washed and purified, notwithstanding that few women do enter into the same mosques, but such as are dames of great reputation and authority; the other and principal reason is, to have good occasion and honest excuse to go abroad out of their houses, within the which they are continually closed up, from the great jealousy of their husbands, or rather for the observing of the antient custom of their ancestors, which after that sort kept their wives and daughters closed up in the backsides of their houses, which they call Ginaises; so that the Turky women being shut up, without permission to go abroad, nor to appear in the streets openly, except it be going to the baths, whereto they nevertheless go with their faces covered, to bring their jealous husbands out of suspicion, which continually keep them so under subjection, and closed in;

and oftentimes, under colour of going to the baths, they resort to other places, where they think good to accomplish their pleasure, and come home again in good time, without the knowledge or perceiving of their husbands, wherein they fear nothing at all, for that to those baths no men do frequent so long as the women are there;

and there are also certain women which do serve and attend on such women as come thither without any waiting-maids; and likewise that sometimes they do go ten or twelve of them together, and sometimes more in a company, as well Turks as Grecians, and do familiarly wash one another, whereby it cometh to pass, that amonst the women of Levan, there is very great amity proceding only thro’ the frequentation and resort to the bathes: yea and sometimes become so fervently in love the one of the other, as if it were with men, in such sort, that perceiving some maiden or woman of excellent beauty they will not cease until they have found means to bathe with them, and to handle and grope them every where at their pleasures, so full are they of luxuriousness and feminine wantonness: even as in times past were the Tribades, of the number whereof was Sapho the Lesbian, which transferred the love wherewith she pursued an hundred women or maidens, upon her only friend Phaon.

And therefore, considering the reasons aforesaid, to wit, the cleansing of their bodies, health, superstition, liberty to go abroad, and lascivious voluptuousness, it is not to be marvelled at, that these baths are so accustomably frequented by the Turks, and that likewise the women of estate do so gladly go thither in the morning betimes, for to remain there until dinner-time, being accompanied with one or two slaves, the one bearing on her head a vessel of brass, made after the fashion of a small bucket to draw water; and within the same is a fine and long smock of cotton tissed, besides amother smock, breeches, and other like linen, with a drug called Rusma, which being putuerised [possibly an error for "pulverised"?] and tempered in water, they rub upon all the parts of the body where they will have the hairs to go off, which incontinently with the sweat do fall off. This vessel thus garnished is borne, being covered with a rich pavilion of velvet or crimson satten, set with gold and silver, and hanged with tassels of silk and gold.

The other slave, if there be two of them, carrieth a fine coverlet with a fair pillow-beer, and in such order the slaves do go behind their mistresses, which under their gowns are cloathed with a fine linen smock, by them called Barami. Now being come to the place of bathing, the coverlet is spread abroad, upon the which they uncloath themselves, and lay down their garments and jewels; for their preparation and order is such, that going to the baths, whether they be Turks or Christians, the better to be liked the one of the other, they set forth themselves with their richest apparel, and most precious tablets; and being thus uncloathed upon the carpet, they turn the vessel with the mouth downwards, and the bottom upwards, for to sit the more easily; and then the slaves, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side, do wash and rub the body until it doth suffice; and then they go to repose themselves in a small chamber, being indifferently hot. In which mean space, and during this repast, the slaves do wash one another.

And after they have thus remained in the baths and hot chambers so long as it doth please them, the slaves do again lay up the smocks and other linen into the vessel, and so, following their mistress, do return homewards, after that she hath paid until the mistress of the bath such sum as men do pay, and as before I have recited.


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Saturday, November 4, 2023 - 18:57

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 272 - On the Shelf for November 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/11/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2023.

Trying to think of some clever way to start off the podcast. All of my clever is dried up at the moment. My schedules are all a bit off-kilter and that’s even before we adjust back to Standard Time here tonight. The podcast is just one small part of it, but swapping the fiction episode from September to October means that I’ve just done three episodes in three weeks and I can’t for the life of me remember how I used to do that all the time.

I was updating the episode planning spreadsheet the other day and penciling in some special episodes in the next few years for anniversaries. A year from now we should be airing episode 300, so I’ll have to come up with something special for that. The next round number will be a two-fer, when we hit our 10 year anniversary of the podcast almost exactly at episode 350. I’m not sure I want to predict that far out, since I’ll have been retired for over a year by that point and I intend to have rearranged my life significantly.

I do have some solid goals for the podcast. I’d like to complete enough of the trope episodes and other thematic shows to have material towards a book. That was my initial plan, you know: to put together a resource book on lesbian history for people who wanted to write historical fiction. The idea I had back in the ‘80s when I first started thinking about it was rather different from what I envision now, but I’d still like to turn my research into something less ephemeral than a podcast. Plus, get back to writing my own fiction, of course. I never meant to spend so long between books. But for the podcast, it would be a nice round number to make it to ten years of podcasting. Ten years is a very long time in podcasting.

Restarting my library adventures last month has broken a logjam and I’ve been back several times since then, pulling articles from sources that aren’t online. I’ll probably do a serious bit of journal downloads when I take some vacation time after Thanksgiving and can go to the library at a time when staff are available to help. But in the mean time I have about 30 articles on my iPad, ready for highlighting. When looking at my article folders, I’m also reminded that I’ve been gathering materials for a special topic on European perceptions of lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire, which will involve presentations of some primary sources, catching up on relevant publications, and then a podcast episode. No end of ideas, just short on time!

Publications on the Blog

In the past month, the blog finished up the relevant articles in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature. Specifically, the chapters on same-sex friendship in the 19th century, African-American writing, and the decadent era, but skipping over the purely 20th century chapters. I also blogged an article “The Female Rake: Gender, Libertinism, and Enlightenment” by Kathleen Wilson, as background for the tropes episode on rakes, though the article wasn’t as pertinent to the podcast as I’d hoped.

Book Shopping!

Several books that I’d ordered came in this month. You may remember that back in July I mentioned a Librivox audio collection of early queer-themed short fiction. Most of the sapphic stories included in it can be found in the collection Two Friends and Other Nineteenth-Century Lesbian Stories by American Women Writers, edited by Susan Koppelman. When shopping for something else, that book popped up and I realized that I didn’t actually own a copy. Well, now I do.

On that same shopping kick, when I was plugging in titles of books on my “want list” to see if I could find used copies, I ordered a copy of Margaret Goldsmith’s Christina of Sweden: A Psychological Biography. Now, this book was published in 1935 and the citation and attribution standards are…not what I prefer. But it was cited elsewhere as including a number of anecdotes about Queen Christina’s sapphic hijinks in Paris (after her abdication from the throne of Sweden), and it was cheap enough to be worth an impulse.

The article on African-American writing in the Cambridge History pointed me to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868. You may recall that one of the first episodes of this podcast was about Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown, but at the time I was basing it on a journal article. I didn’t know that there was a whole book about the couple. Well, now I own it.

The last two books aren’t relevant to the Project, but I always like to toss in the rest of my shopping so you can get a broader picture of my life. Another “stumbled across” item is Phyllis Kinney’s treatise Welsh Traditional Music. Welsh history is one of my other loves besides queer history, and someday I plan to merge the two in my fiction. And lastly I got a copy of Stephanie Forshee’s book for young readers, Hidden Gems: Margaret Getchell LaForge, which is a biography of my great-great-grandmother and her time as an executive at Macy’s department store. Stephanie Forshee is working on a series of biographies of pioneering American businesswomen, and I was delighted to help her research with information from our family archives.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Lots of new and recent sapphic historical fiction this month. I don’t usually buy quite so many books while putting together the new and recent releases segment, but the tally ended up at 8 books. I have no idea when I’ll get the time to read all of them, given how far behind I already am on fiction. But it’s great to stumble across so many intriguing titles. Now if only I didn’t have to work quite so hard to confirm that they fall in the sapphic category!

Several thematic clusters emerged this month. We’ll start off with some mystery series.

Jennifer Ashley’s Kat Holloway historic mystery series includes a lesbian couple as side characters, but in The Price of Lemon Cake (Kat Holloway #6.5) from JA/AG Publishing, that couple gets to be the protagonists. The main mystery series is published by Berkley, but this and another side-story are put out directly by the author.

When Kat Holloway approaches Lady Bobby Perry and Judith Townsend to help her discover what a young aristo is getting up to in a gentleman’s club, Bobby quickly accepts, coaxing a promise of Mrs. Holloway’s stupendous lemon cake in return.

But the investigation quickly turns into more than a simple spy mission, forcing Judith to confront a painful part her past. Both Judith and Bobby must bring their own unique skills to help Kat solve the tricky and dangerous problem.

Next up we have two mystery series that I only stumbled across when the third book in the series came out last month. We’ll start with the Mary Grey Mysteries, by Winnie Frolik from NineStar Press.

In book 1, The Illhenny Murders:

District Nurse Mary Grey saves the life of young architect, Anthony West, when he is involved a car wreck, only for West to tell her it was no accident. Someone tried to kill him. Mary is skeptical at first, but when West dies, she’s determined to investigate the matter. More blood is spilled, and Mary becomes embroiled in a tangled web of intrigue and murder as she joins forces with exiled Jewish German detective Franz Shaefer. And on top of everything else, Mary finds herself dangerously attracted to Anthony’s beautiful and unattainable sister Harriet.

The hopes that cover copy raises for our protagonist are confirmed in the second volume, Death at Bayard Lodge.

When district nurse Mary Grey and her lover Harriet accept an invitation to visit the latter’s godmother in the beautiful Lake District, they’re hoping for a relaxing outing. But from the very start, they find themselves pulled into a web of intrigue, resentments, deceit, and violent passions.

Young newlywed Rachel Florry is found on the lawn with her skull smashed in and there’s no shortage of suspects. From the girl whose fiancée Rachel stole, to a sinister vagrant, to Rachel’s own mystery lover.

Mary calls on her old friend and partner, private detective Franz Shaefer to come down to Bayard Lodge and help solve the case. But as they unearth buried secrets and hidden agendas, they themselves are at risk.

Since the first time this series turned up in my search was volume 3, you may see from the cover copy for A Swing of the Axe that I wasn’t at all sure why my keywords had turned it up.

When Mary Grey learns that her old colleague from nursing school has been viciously killed, she and private detective Franz Schaefer immediately rush up North.

They soon discover that before she died, the nurse in question had written to Scotland Yard, alerting them to a suspected crime.

In a village full of secrets, which one was worth killing for?

The next series also had me searching out reviews to see if the somewhat coy description carried through in content. But I was able to contact the author with my questions and she confirmed that the characters were based on a relative of hers who had a “very close female friend” and that the ambiguity of the cover copy intentionally reflected the discretion with which they had to live their lives. This is the Winslow and Fitzgerald Investigations Mystery series by Cherie O’Boyle.

A Preposterous Alibi (volume 1):

It is the spring of 1928 in San Francisco, an especially unruly city and a place where no one seems to care if the body of an unknown prostitute is unceremoniously dumped in a dark Chinatown alley. No one, that is, until young companions and amateur sleuths Evelyn Winslow and Flora Fitzgerald learn about the death from their housemate, Wu Chin Jaing.

The longer the garishly-dressed body remains in the alley, the angrier the women become at the injustice. Join in as Evelyn, Flora, and Jaing bring their quick wits, strong wills, and brave hearts to bear on the puzzle of the identity of both the victim and her killer.

An Unforeseen Motive (volume 2):

It’s the summer of 1932, an era rife with the challenges of keeping body and soul together even for companions Evelyn Winslow and Flora Fitzgerald. On summer break from teaching, the young sleuths accept a much-needed commission to investigate labor unrest roiling in the fruit orchards of the San Francisco East Bay. They’ve hardly started when a worker is brutally slain.

Evelyn uncovers the means of death, but too many have the opportunity. And possible motives for committing the murder remain a confusing mystery, leaving Evelyn and Flora on their own and in no small danger as they try to work out the puzzle together.

And finally, By Indelicate Means (volume 3):

Death by bludgeoning becomes the most telling clue in BY INDELICATE MEANS. As Evelyn, Flora, Jaing, and their young police officer friend Andrew become more skillful at investigating the seamier side of life in San Francisco by 1933, more crimes come to light, destitute children seek their help, and the mysterious disappearance of an infant even comes under their scrutiny. Finding the common thread challenges their fearless and adventurous natures and sends them into deeper dangers. Then the first body is found…

The next coincidental theme this month is cross-time stories, and especially the sort of story that historian Linda Garber calls a “romance of the archives,” such as Charlotte and Me by Carol Leyland.

Alice Hargreaves finds herself alone, divorced and lost since the discovery of her wife's infidelity. Smarting and scared after her first lesbian romance ended so badly, she begins anew, in a run-down house in York.

During her house renovations, she discovers old love and the possibility of future love with her striking, charming and helpful neighbour Charlie.

Inspired by the lesbian love letters she discovers in a hidden metal box under the floorboards, Alice finds hope. Their secrets, revealed in their historic writings, mirror the love and loss in Alice’s own life, and give her courage to move on.

A similar archival framing story presents a fictionalized biography of poet Christina Rossetti in The Rossetti Diaries by Kathleen Williams Renk from Bedazzled Ink

Historian Maggie Winegarden decides she needs to spend some time away from her partner Bethany, who is upset over Maggie's desire to be a painter. Maggie visits the seaside town of Hastings and while in St. Clement's Church discovers that poet Christina Rossetti and artist Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal had been frequent visitors to Hastings and the church. Agatha, the church caretaker, shows Maggie a chest of papers in the catacombs that the vicar said belonged to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Maggie discovers the papers are actually the lost diaries of Christina and Lizzie. She learns that Christina's and Lizzie's lives are intertwined beyond being sisters-in-law, that they become intimate friends and establish a community of women artists and poets, a Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood in Lizzie's ancestral home, Hope Hall.

Maggie is joined by Bethany and Agatha in the quest to solve the mystery of how the diaries were buried in the St. Clement's Church catacombs and uncover surprising revelations on the origins of Christina's most famous poem "Goblin Market."

Wrapped in a modern-day mystery, The Rossetti Diaries is a historical re-imagining that explores the indomitable artistic aspirations and achievements of the poet Christina Rossetti and the artist Elizabeth Siddal.

And last in this group is a straightforward time-travel novel. This is the fourth novel in Harmke Buursma’s “Magical Bookshop” series from Illusive Press. It looks like each book can stand alone, although the third book in the series has strong overlap in characters and events with Anne Through Time.

After the sudden passing of her father, Anne Blakeley discovers that her family is on the verge of financial ruin. Though Anne dreams of a different future, she is determined to marry for her family's sake. With finances dwindling fast and a debt collector requesting a final payment, Anne has no choice but to accept help from her friend Beth Easton for one final season in London to find a suitor.

However, a chance meeting with Willa Balfour, the daughter of a marquis, pulls Anne and Beth into a scheme to rid Willa of an unwanted suitor, an Irish duke invited by her father. Thankfully, the marquis seems distracted by the appearance of Melinda, a time traveler and owner of a magical bookshop.

Despite needing to find a suitor, Anne starts questioning her burgeoning feelings towards Willa Balfour. Anne is torn between familial duty and her own heart when Melinda proposes the offer of a lifetime to Anne and Willa.

The pitch for this next book calls it “Heartstopper meets A Knight’s Tale” (meaning the comic medieval-ish movie), so be certain you’re looking for some madcap anachronistic humor if you read Gwen and Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher from Wednesday Books.

It’s been hundreds of years since King Arthur’s reign. His descendant, Arthur, a future Lord and general gadabout, has been betrothed to Gwendoline, the quick-witted, short-tempered princess of England, since birth. The only thing they can agree on is that they despise each other. They’re forced to spend the summer together at Camelot in the run up to their nuptials, and within 24 hours, Gwen has discovered Arthur kissing a boy and Arthur has gone digging for Gwen's childhood diary and found confessions about her crush on the kingdom's only lady knight, Bridget Leclair. Realizing they might make better allies than enemies, they make a reluctant pact to cover for each other, and as things heat up at the annual royal tournament, Gwen is swept off her feet by her knight and Arthur takes an interest in Gwen's royal brother. Gwen and Art Are Not in Love is chock full of sword-fighting, found family, and romantic shenanigans destined to make readers fall in love.

Another accidental theme this month is fictionalized biographies. We previously mentioned Christina Rossetti, and now we get a 19th century civic leader in Richmond, Virginia in Mary's Grace by John Musgrove from Quarter Mile Press. The cover copy is rather scanty, but check on the Wikipedia article for the subject, Grace Arents [] and the linked article on her uncle Lewis Ginter, who is the subject of another fictional biography by John Musgrove, you can see why these subjects are so intriguing for a queer author.

Grace Arents, the niece of Lewis Ginter, built a new life in the twentieth century based on philanthropy, community involvement, and the help of her closest friend, Mary Garland Smith. The two women transformed the educational landscape of Richmond and found love in the process.

Despite the title, this next book doesn’t seem like a light-hearted holiday themed romance: My Christmas Gift to You: Forbidden Love by Julia C. Oliver.

It’s time to stop living a lie…

For years, Lady Dinna Lundon has secretly loved the same woman––her best friend, Chriss Rochosh, now Baroness Perterson. But five years ago, they were mere green girls, and Dinna was too scared to risk losing Chriss’ friendship if she told her how she felt. But when Dinna’s parents found out about her preference for women, her insanely controlling mother arranges a marriage to squelch any disparaging rumors that would hurt the family name. Dinna, however, has no intention of––or interest in–– men and escapes to China where she invents a faux husband and makes a large fortune shipping rare artifacts around the world. She has everything a woman could want…except love.

It's time to admit the truth…

Lady Chriss’ life took a much different path. Depressed by the loss of her best friend, and admittedly as curious about men as she was about women, she agreed to an arranged marriage to a much older man. He was kind––something she’d never known from her selfish parents––showing her a world of finer things. But too soon, a fatal illness took him, leaving her with a newborn daughter and an inheritance her parents would do anything to attain––even kidnapping or murder. They put in motion a plan to force her to marry her own cousin, then have her declared insane, so the three can split her money. With her daughter literally held as a hostage to make her go through with the marriage, Chriss writes to her old friend for help.

Time is running out…

Dinna immediately books passage for home, and with her money and connections, she knows she can save Chriss, whether her friend returns her love or not. But greed knows no boundaries and when Chriss and her child are abducted, Dinna must save the woman she wants to spend the rest of her life with…if she’s not too late.

Other Books of Interest

I have one book in the “other books of interest” category this month. Like many stories set in the American Civil War, this one involves crossing gender, and without clear indications of how the character understands herself, I don’t want to apply a sapphic label on my own. The book is: The Grass Widow by D.A. Chadwick.

In 1861 Bethel Erwin joins the Confederate army as Private Tandy Scott to escape the dreary life of a woman in the hills. She signs up for the 2nd Tennessee Infantry along with her younger brother and cousin. Bethel's medical skills earn her a promotion to assistant surgeon when she later deserts the CSA to join the Union army. After the bloody battle of Shiloh, Bethel and her brother, George, come to the aid of a young widow in Corinth and their lives are changed forever.

What Am I Reading?

So what am I reading? The only novel I actually completed is the audiobook of Ann Leckie’s science fiction novel Translation State. This is set in her Imperial Radch universe and has a very twisty non-linear plot with a solidly upbeat found-family-type ending. Just my cup of tea, but I’ll note that if you had trouble getting into her Ancillary trilogy, this is more of the same.

The main reason I haven’t finished anything else is because I then started the audiobook of Nicola Griffith’s Menewood, the sequel to Hild. Clocking in at nearly 29 hours listening time, it’ll be a while before I give a report on it.


Usually I’d try to have an interview with the author of last episode’s story in this show, but things didn’t sort themselves out in time, so we’re aiming to have that interview with B. Pladek next month.

And don’t forget, we’ll be opening for submissions for next year’s fiction series in January. Check the website for details and tell all your friends!

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, October 30, 2023 - 20:36

While this article is interesting in its own right, it wasn't the article on this topic I hoped to find. And I'm not entirely certain that "female rake" is the most appropriate way to categorize Con Phillips. She certainly appears to have had libertine leanings, and stands outside the ideals of English womanhood of the day. But I envision the role of "rake" as involving a bit less financial dependence on one's amours.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Wilson, Kathleen. 2004. “The Female Rake: Gender, Libertinism, and Enlightenment” in Peter Cryle & Lisa O’Connell (eds.) Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth-century. Palgrave, Basingstoke. pp.99-111.

I was excited to read Kathleen Wilson’s article, “The Female Rake”, but in the end it disappoints me. Rather than taking a broad look at the concept of women as rakes, it focuses on a biography of a specific individual, combined with a compare-and-contrast treatment of the active sexuality of women in English society with attitudes towards female sexuality in colonial and non-European settings. [Note: I’d be disappointed that it doesn’t touch on female rakes with same-sex interests except that that was too much to hope for in the first place.]

Wilson starts by emphasizing the gender differences in attitudes towards male and female rakes, with the male rake producing fascination for the concept of unlimited pursuit of sexual gratification, while the female rake is the object, sometimes of admiration, but more often embarrassment or disgust.

The focus of the article is courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips, known as “Con” Phillips. Wilson considers male libertines to represent a “bourgeois appropriation of aristocratic sexual privilege” rather than rakishness being a behavior prevalent primarily among the aristocracy. In which case, female libertines are doubly transgressing, both in gender and class, in appropriating the right to an unrestrained sexuality. At a time when the concept of women being inherently sexually restrained was developing, the courtesan represented an “unnatural” woman who did not adhere to expectations. But in contrast, the sexually unrestrained indigenous women that English travelers were encountering around the world, provided an argument that open and independent sexuality was a feature of the class of women who were considered most “natural”.

We know as much as we do about Con Phillips because, in addition to being fashionable and extravagant, she was witty and literate, and produced her own autobiography: An Apology for the Conduct of Mrs. T. C. Phillips, not only to raise money during a time of financial constraint, but also to blackmail the Earl of Chesterfield, a former lover, into providing her an income.

The biography presents a different image from the licentious courtesan by invoking tropes from fiction and stage drama to present herself as the victim of rapacious men who drove her into the demimonde by seduction and mistreatment. Phillips’ career wound through London, Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, and Spanish Town, as she worked her way through several marriages and a number of less formal liaisons. And even-handed view of her relationships identifies exploitation on both sides, as men loved and left her while she, at times, drove them near to madness with her refusal to allow her behavior to be controlled.

Throughout it all, in Phillips biography, she gives the impression of not particularly liking men very much, describing them as a “perfidious sex” and, claiming that “all they purpose is to make women instrumental to their vanities, and subject to the gratification of their grosser appetites.”

In return, Phillips hounded her former lovers for financial support, and succeeded to some extent in turning their avoidance of scandal into income. Eventually, she emigrated to Jamaica, where she gained the reputation of a “black widow” for marrying, and then burying a series of rich husbands. [Note: one difference between male and female rakes becomes clear in this biography. The image of the male rake did not include living off his mistresses.]

Phillips’ biography depicts her as being a saint, ashamed of her lack of sexual self-control, but also angry about the double standards for sexual behavior that condemned women, but not men, for extramarital affairs. She depicted herself as more virtuous than the men she railed against, but also as being set apart from women as a class, claiming in one place, “I am no woman” and denigrating other women for going along with the misogyny of the times. She claimed the right to take up her own cause in courts of law and in the press, in ways that went against the expectations not only for a woman, but also for a commoner, who was attacking male members of the aristocracy.

All this was occurring at a time when conservative forces in society were working to associate female sexuality and female luxury with foreignness, and especially with Frenchness. All things that were thought to be undermining the martial spirit and masculine virtue that Englishman should be embodying. She was depicted as something of a sexual vampire, consuming the essential energies of the men she partnered, and thereby weakening the state.

The remainder of the article compares attitudes towards and reactions to Phillips’ life with descriptions and reactions to the very different sexual mores of women encountered in the South Pacific and other regions, who challenged English notions of appropriate female restraint in sexuality.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 28, 2023 - 07:00

[Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 271 – The Salt Price by B. Pladek - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/10/28 - listen here)

We have a delightful story for you in this episode. The timing is a bit irregular—we should have had the fiction episode last month, but…well, things happen. History is a complex web. The events that seem prominent in the history books are accompanied by all manner of struggles and movements, their details shaping the larger events in small, inexorable ways. Who can tell what moves someone to act? A burdensome tax? A sense of loyalty to a place or a person?  In the early 18th century, in France, the trade in sea salt was one small piece on the game board. But it’s the one we consider today.

The author, B. Pladek is associate professor of literature at Marquette University. His debut novel, Dry Land, about a forester in WWI who gains the mysterious power to grow plants, was published by University of Wisconsin Press just last month. You can find him on twitter @bpladek or on his website, In the early eighteenth century his ancestors on his mom's side were exiled from France for (inept) salt-smuggling.

author photo of B. Pladek

Our narrator today is Jasmine Arch, who has narrated several stories for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project’s fiction series. In addition to her linguistic skills, I always feel that Jasmine does an excellent job with somewhat otherworldly stories.

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.

The Salt Price

By B. Pladek


Once in the days of the ancién regime, when the salt tax still starved the people, and armed taxmen beat each copse for smugglers up and down the Loire, a woman contracted a faery to run salt.

The lowlands of Guérande were salt country then. Each morning as the sun brushed the mist from the yellow reeds, the paludiers walked the dykes between the drying pools, plugging the sluices that fed seawater through the canals. Later, when the sun had burnt the water to brackish sludge, they raked green bay salt from the pools’ bottoms. At night the women skimmed flakes of fleur de sel from the waves.

Corentine had raked the faery in at dusk. Or perhaps she had simply appeared atop Corentine’s heap of green bay salt. Whichever it was, as Corentine watched the faery had risen, a tall woman, green and glossy as a beetle. They gazed at one another, wondering, until Corentine said,

“A faery. What are you doing in our king-forsaken Guérande?”

The faery’s voice had a whirr to it, like wings. “I am here to contract my magic to a human. Do you require magic?”

Corentine glanced over her shoulder, then opened the satchel at her side, revealing a half-minot of fleur de sel. In a low voice she said, “Perhaps. I must give this to a fisherman in La Baule tonight, for passage up the Loire. Can you conceal it?”

The faery’s dark eyes did not blink. But she took the satchel. Raising it, she shook the salt into the air, and as its flakes fell they shingled together until she held a soft white cloak. This she gave to Corentine.

Corentine drew the salt cloak through her fingers. “It’s like ermine,” she whispered, “as if I were a lady again.” She had been, once, before the Regent had claimed her estates and reduced her to raking salt. Donning the cloak, she asked, “But what will you wear? A marquise cannot walk unaccompanied.”

The faery looked startled. But in an instant she fashioned herself a second cloak from the green bay salt. Its drape hugged her hard shoulders, framing the knot of muscle where wings met nape. She did not look dangerous, but neither did she look quite safe.

For a moment Corentine stared at her, the color rising in her cheeks. Then she stammered, “Lovely. But you’ll need to raise a glamor when we reach town. Can you do that?”

Watching Corentine flush, the faery’s eyes had a question in them. But she only nodded.

That night in La Baule, the gabelous—the Regent’s taxmen, all Parisians—were drinking. On the clay streets bordering the quays they searched for contraband salt. They harassed the paludiers returning from the marshes, groped the breasts and bustles of the women, and drove rapiers into farmers’ bales of flax. Any smugglers they uncovered were shackled and bound for La Rochelle. There they would face trial and be sent to the galleys, or the gallows, or the Gaspé in Nouvelle France. The smugglers continued anyway. They had to, to eat.

But to the marquise who drifted by in a cloak of ermine, her guard beside her, the taxmen merely bowed. Nor did they notice when the marquise and her companion returned, cloakless, from the seafront. The local Bretons noticed, but said nothing. They knew that Corentine, once Lady Corentine de Cornouaille, was in league with the Marquis de Pontcallec, at work up the Loire raising funds for a coup against the Regency.

At home in La Croisic, Corentine and the faery greeted her grey-haired husband. “We strolled straight through La Baule, Sebastién, and the gabelous saw nothing. With this faery’s help we’ll have enough for the Marquis by Christmas. We must make a contract with her.”

Sebastién balked. “Don’t you know the stories? Faeries can’t be trusted.”

Corentine knew the stories: help from Faerie never came free. But she looked at the faery, her face limned by the kitchen firelight, and thought she would rather risk her debt than the Regent’s.

Touching the faery’s shoulder, she asked, “What are your terms?”

But the faery only looked at her, her hair a dark knife on her cheeks.

“I’ll have no part of this foolishness,” said Sebastién. “Braid your own noose, woman.” He grumbled off to the loft. It was the usual end to their arguments, having married late, and cordially, and not for love.

The faery watched Sebastién depart, then turned to Corentine, who tried to raise a smile.

“What should I call you?” she asked. “All evening you haven’t said your name.”

The faery’s wings shifted uneasily beneath their carapace. “Faeries of my—history—have lost their names.”

“Lost? How—” But the faery’s face flinched, and Corentine stopped. “Would you choose one, then, for me to call you? We have plenty: Lisenn, Trifin, Naig…”

“Trifin I like.” The faery cocked her head at Corentine. “You are fighting your Crown?”

“Our Regent. He taxes us to starvation, claims our estates, turns our old nobility into paupers.” Corentine’s voice soured with anger. “With the funds I raise, we’ll depose him.”

“And for this, you would pay my price?”

“I would do anything to rid our coast of a tyrant.”

In the faery’s dark eyes, something kindled. She looked at Corentine, as if for the first time. “Then I accept.”

A Breton saying runs, everything bad asks to be salted. On Guérande’s poor soil life was thin, and its people used salt to render it palatable.

In those days smuggling ran strong as the tides that drove their daily bulk up and down the Loire. On its waters salt flowed from Guérande to Paris in the north, Lyon in the south. As the border between the tax zones, the river hid caches, rendezvous, and punts of sympathetic fishermen. Its wet banks bristled with gabelous—more every year, since the Regent had determined to put the arrogant Bretons in their place.

The Bretons, for their part, refused to abandon their pride, even if that meant sacrificing a portion of their diminished income. Each month the paludiers saved a minot of salt for smugglers like Corentine and Sebastién, who disguised it to pass up the river to Nantes and the Marquis.

At first, Trifin merely aided these plans. When Corentine sewed a false rump beneath her skirts, Trifin charmed it so that any groping gabelous might feel its salt as flesh. When Corentine lined barrels of cod with excess bay salt, Trifin drew a magic barrier to preserve its taste.

With more sous coming in each month, Corentine sewed Trifin a cloak. “A real one this time,” she explained to Trifin, who despite the rumors of faery avarice had seemed unmoved by coin. “Try it,” she urged, smoothing the drape against Trifin’s shoulders. “It’s yours.”

Trifin stared at her. “You were a lady. Ladies do not give their servants presents.”

“I’m a smuggler, not a lady,” Corentine retorted. “And you’re not a servant. You’re my business partner. Aren’t I paying you—well, something? Come, try it on.”

Trifin ran the heavy fabric through her fingers. Corentine had left wide slits in its bodice for her wings. She slipped it on. In the small mirror over the mantel, she caught her reflection, and Corentine’s face behind her. Their eyes met, and Corentine looked quickly away.

“It suits you,” said Corentine, reddening. “More than a dress would, I thought. Was I right?”

Trifin turned, watching the fabric swirl behind her. With a sudden movement she reached to her side, as if to draw a sword, though her hands came up empty. Then she looked at Corentine, and flushed. “You were,” she said.

In La Baule, the marquise and her guard became a frequent sight. They strolled the streets arm-in-arm, Corentine proud and round-shouldered, Trifin vigilant beneath her glamor.

But one day as they entered the town square, Trifin jerked as if fettered. A hasty gallows had been erected on the mud. Around it, the people of La Baule clustered grim-faced. Upon it, three of the local brigands swung. A shrill gabelous was proclaiming in Parisian:

“Remember, salt fraud betrays the Crown!”

Behind him on the ground, two chained women stood with puffed faces. They were newly widowed, and bound as king’s virgins for Nouvelle France.

“There is no quarter for traitors,” the gabelous finished. “Respect the gabelle, my good Bretons, and keep faith with your king.”

Regent,” the crowd hissed.

Trifin was trembling so violently she nearly dropped her glamor. Frightened, Corentine took her elbow and drew her away. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Trifin did not hear, but wrapped her hands about her neck. Her fingers rubbed her nape, where the joints of her wings met beneath her glamor. “No quarter for traitors,” she said. “No—bargains? Exchanges? Is that how it is, here?”

Corentine unlaced her fingers, and held them. “Not for Bretons, no. But it’s either smuggle or starve.” She looked down, and her voice softened. “I’m sorry for drawing you into it. I thought you knew what happened to traitors. Is Faerie so different?”

Trifin looked away, and did not answer. Beneath her glamor a muscle jumped in her jaw.

Corentine swallowed. They stood there for a moment, hands linked, Trifin’s shudder running up Corentine’s arms.

“Well, no matter,” Corentine said at last. She threaded her arm in Trifin’s. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

As spring stretched into summer and sun drank the pools down to their salt beds, Corentine’s plans grew bolder. Trifin exchanged the down of Corentine’s grey goose for fleur de sel, and Corentine carried him to market. Corentine rode behind Trifin astride a sparkling green-grey mare to Bourgneuf, her arms tight on Trifin’s waist. Together they poled a punt up the canal to Guérande-ville, past stationed gabelous who wondered at their cages of flaking white doves.

Between salt runs, Corentine stitched Trifin clothes, for the delight that lit her face at each gift: an embroidered waistcoat, long jacket, fine lace jabot. At dusk they sat together in the front room, planning, while Sebastién dozed in the kitchen. Sometimes Trifin took the broomhandle and performed graceful maneuvers as Corentine clapped, dreaming of how she might look with a sabre. Sometimes—often—they danced.

After one such evening, Trifin collapsed panting in a chair, and Corentine sank to the floor beside, to rest her head on Trifin’s knee.

Gazing down at her, Trifin’s face clouded. She said softly, “Remember, we are business partners. My work comes at a price.”

Corentine flinched against her knee. “Of course. I would never cheat you, Tri. I know the magic won’t let you tell me what the price is. But you can be sure I’ll pay you what’s required, when the time comes.”

Trifin looked away. “I know,” she said.

Among the paludiers of Guérande it became known that Corentine employed a faery, for they were proud of their onetime marquise and the trouble she caused the Regent. As the summer wore on, she began to receive as much contraband as the brigands, whose ranks had been thinned by the spring arrests. Her neighbors left pots of salt on her doorstep, with requests to disguise it as canola hay or fly it magically to Nantes. At length the kitchen was so piled with saltkegs that Sebastién had to wiggle over them to reach his grousing corner.

“How much longer do you think you can hide this?” he asked Corentine. “That faery is too great a risk.”

Corentine snapped, “She’s helped us run more salt than we could have in a year. A bit more and the Marquis will have enough to recruit a militia. And we’ve got some good runs planned. Right, Trifin?”

At the table Trifin put a hand to her neck, the jabot Corentine had embroidered. She did not look up as she nodded.

One week later, a covered barge drifted saillessly up the Loire. Beneath its flapping cover, huge blocks of green and white marble sweated in the heat. Corentine and Trifin lounged together in the prow. Trifin, half asleep below the gunwale, had let her glamor slip.

On the banks, poplar stands alternated with reedy slips on which bored gabelous played cards. The August day was hot, the taxmen drowsy. Corentine prayed they would remain so.

But as they floated by a listless pier of gabelous, a young man at its edge leapt up pointing. “How is that barge moving?” he cried. “It has no sails!”

Trifin threw up her glamor a second too late. “A faery!” the taxman screeched. His groggy fellows stood. “Rifles! Rifles!”

“Get down!” cried Corentine. But Trifin had risen, lifting her arms. Like dark shears her carapaced wings snicked free. Before them, a wound opened in the summer’s day from which a night cold rushed, glinting darkness.

On the pier, flintlocks snapped.

Corentine hurled herself on Trifin—“Tri, down!”—only to watch the prow and its faery tip into the cold wound. The whole barge slid through as if down a dark throat. Behind it, summer closed like a mouth.

Her body still shielding Trifin, Corentine looked up. The barge was gliding down a river dark and polished as obsidian. Trees of black glass tinkled overhead. Below her, she could feel Trifin trembling.

When the faery stood, Corentine gasped. A metal collar bound her throat, chained to clamps that locked her wings shut. “Now you see my history,” Trifin said.

“Tri,” Corentine began, but the faery pressed a hand to her mouth.

“Don’t call me anything. I can’t have a name here. Quickly, we have little time. If we find a tributary back to your world before the Queen’s guards catch us, we can reappear on the Loire five miles upstream of those gabelous.”

“But those chains—”

Trifin’s eyes were hard. “Humans aren’t the only creatures with corrupt monarchs.”

While Corentine was still gaping, Trifin reached below the barge’s tarp and handed her a pole. “My magic does not work here. We have to steer.” 

They guided the barge downstream in silence. Little night-beetles ticked in the ebony reeds. No moon shone, but silver creases of starlight marked the boat’s wake in the inky water. In the prow Trifin poled painfully.

Watching her elbows brush her wing’s chains, Corentine began, “To free yourself, what do you need—”

“The tributary,” said Trifin.

She pointed to where an arm of dark water looped off the main course. Light spilled down it like carelessly thrown straw. Puffing, Corentine and Trifin steered the barge over. The channel was short, and its reedy cul de sac framed a wobbly square of sun, a window into summer just large enough for the barge.

Before it was a guard. 

“You have brought your human here, captain traitor?” he asked. On buzzing wings he hovered just over the water, his beetle’s horn nodding with amusement. “Do you hope to win her trust so? A strange choice.” He grinned. “Most humans do not recall Faerie fondly.”

“Let us pass, lieutenant,” Trifin growled. “I’m a Queen’s convict, bound by her laws.”

The guard laughed, then spat at Trifin’s feet. “I always did think the Queen let you rebels off too lightly. Bargains with traitors—fah! And just because she found it amusing.” He paused, and his pale eyes flickered over Corentine. “Though you have found yourself a pretty human. You always did do well for yourself, captain…”

Trifin’s shoulders stiffened. She glanced back, and raising her pole like a staff, stepped between Corentine and the guard.

He raised his eyebrows. “Or perhaps our Queen is wise. Your freedom will hurt you more than I thought. Imagine her face when—”

Trifin snarled and sprung forward, sweeping her pole up to hook the guard’s horn. With a great hollow crack she wrenched his head aside, hauling him out of the air. As he fell howling, his fingers locked on Trifin’s chains, dragging her after him. Together they crashed into the reeds. The dark water gagged the cry from Trifin’s mouth.

Corentine fell to her knees. “Tri!” she screamed. She drove her pole at the guard’s shelled neck. At the third blow his fingers jerked, and Trifin surfaced choking. Her bound hands scrabbled for the pole. Levering it beneath the faery’s body, Corentine flung her out and onto the barge. Trifin grabbed the pole and swept it down to deal a fourth blow to the guard’s submerged face.

She kicked Corentine the second pole. “Push!”

Snatching it, Corentine plunged it deep in the marsh below the stern. She hove. At the prow Trifin flipped her pole into the water and hove, too. The barge wallowed towards the sunlight. Below, the guard’s clawed hands scrabbled at the hull. Resurfacing for an instant, he spat at Trifin, “Enjoy your chains, beetle! Humans never forgive—”

With rage Trifin cracked her pole against his nose. He gurgled under.

Beside her, Corentine gave a final push. The barge lurched clacking past the reeds and fell through, into summer. Behind it, night closed like a mouth.

On the Loire, noon laid a white haze on the water.

Trifin dropped her pole and collapsed, blank-faced, in the prow. Her dark wings trembled, still free in this world.

Kneeling, Corentine wrapped the faery in her arms. She held her for a long time, but Trifin did not stop shaking. Finally Corentine pulled back and cupped her chin in one hand. “You saved us,” she said softly. “Thank you.”

Trifin did not reply.

Corentine brushed the hair from her bowed face and tried to meet her eyes. “What did he mean, ‘traitor?”

“The Faerie Queen.” Trifin’s voice was dull. “She is like your Regent, a tyrant. I was her captain, until I—we—rebelled. We lost. I will always wear chains there, until I pay her price.”

“So you can buy back your freedom? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Faerie is not like your world.” Trifin jerked away from Corentine’s touch. Her voice shook. “Our coin is trickery. Our laws are magic. Our contracts are binding.”

“And you can’t tell me anything more.”

This time Trifin made no answer. Instead she lifted Corentine’s hands, and, after pressing them hard for a moment, replaced them on the deck. Corentine could not make her meet her eyes. Leaning forward, she folded Trifin again in her arms.

They clung together for a long time, shivering, though the August sun was hot.

If Corentine’s schemes now grew more desperate, they also grew more careful. All the paludiers of Guérande sought her for their traffic: she had promises to keep. She grew haunted and silent. Trifin, too, drifted between rooms like a green ghost, and would answer no questions, about Faerie or otherwise.

As autumn fell and the saltkegs mounted in the kitchen, Corentine turned her thoughts to Paris. One last run there could secure the funds they needed; it lay in the Grande Gabelle, where the tax was heaviest and the profit greatest, and which could be reached by sea around Normandy. Corentine looked at the barrels of fleur de sel, white as wings. “Sails,” she murmured.

Three weeks later, as the first apples were falling, a chasse-marée slipped from the port at La Baule. Instead of fresh herring, its hold was stuffed with salt cod. Its sails were brilliant white. On its deck Corentine stood, and Trifin in her glamor, and Sebastién, coaxed from his kitchen corner to serve as mock merchant. Two hired sailors fussed with the rigging.

“I can’t believe I’ve consented to this madness, and I still don’t trust that faery,” Sebastién said, watching Trifin steady the salt-sails.

Corentine stepped beside her and took her hand. “I do.”

Trifin winced. To the question in Corentine’s eyes she said nothing.

Over the next week they followed the carbotage routes up the coast, sails flapping in the autumn gusts. Corentine sang Breton harvest songs in the prow. The hired sailors joined her, proud to assist the woman who had so roundly conned the Regent. Sebastién grumbled.

Though the chasse-marée was small, Trifin avoided them all. Nor did she break her silence, even for Corentine.

When at last they put into Le Havre at the Seine’s mouth, two gabelous boarded to shake down the cod. Wrenching open each barrel, they waggled a sample fish over a small scale to ensure it had not been packed in extra salt. Over their heads, the white sails flaked.

“Your cargo is legal,” one at last told Sebastién. “But I can’t understand why you sailed from La Baule just for salt cod. This is a swift little chasse-marée, and your fish will keep. Why such speed?”

Sebastién frowned at Corentine. “My reasons are my own.” 

Behind them, Trifin stood. Her eyes were hollow.

“Not one woman, but two?” added the gabelous, noticing her. “This is strange business, my friend. Let’s have another look at your hold.”

Trifin raised her arms.

Above, the sails stilled. Wind knocked them together like old plaster. Where they touched, a dry shuffle like rubbing chalk drifted down the air.

Corentine looked up, and her heart seized.

Trifin dropped her arms.

The sails burst. Like glaciers their shrouds split, calving white bergs that the wind punched to dust and then let fall in gouts, hundreds of minots of sparkling fleur de sel, an avalanche, drowning the deck in warm snow.

When Corentine had choked her way from beneath the drifts, she saw Trifin standing, arms limp, watching her.

“I’m so sorry,” Trifin whispered as the gabelous clapped Corentine in irons. Her voice broke. “It was the price.”

A dagger at her back, Corentine let herself be led ashore beside Sebastién and the stunned sailors.

Behind her Trifin held out her wrists to be manacled, as if the chains belonged there, as if she deserved nothing else.

In the prison at Le Havre, Sebastién raged. “She’s a faery! What did you expect?”

“Be quiet!” Corentine barked from across the dirt-floored aisle.

“I asked you to dismiss her and you never listened. But did I forbid you? No. I gave you your freedom, and you let a faery’s beauty fool you into—”

“Be quiet!” Corentine yelled again. Her voice cracked with tears.

“Now we’ll all hang for your foolishness,” Sebastién finished bitterly. “For choosing that faery over our lives, and your own good sense.”

“Please,” Corentine repeated, her voice wilting, “be quiet.”

One cell over, Trifin crouched, her face pressed to her knees. Corentine could not look at her.

In those days the prisons overflowed with salt-runners, so to make room they were brought quickly to trial. Not a week had passed when Corentine, Trifin, Sebastién, and their hired sailors stood before a weary provost who had already seen ten cases that morning and would see another ten before day’s end. Behind the dock, armed gabelous guarded the bay where Le Havre’s townsfolk crowded to cheer the smugglers.

“The crime is salt fraud,” said the provost over their noise, “in the form of false sails sewn from fleur de sel.” His voice remained level through this statement. He was an old provost, and had seen stranger. “What have you to say in your defense?”

Though he addressed Sebastién, it was Corentine who stepped forward.

Sebastién hissed, “What are you doing?”

In her eyes where pride had once floated, something harder and darker had crystallized. “Paying the price,” Corentine said. She turned to the provost.

“Honored prévôt,” she began, “I confess: for the purpose of fraud, I had my—my maid spin sails of sea salt, and did so without my husband’s consent. He did not know the true purpose of our trip to Le Havre.” Sebastién’s eyebrows rose, though he said nothing. Behind the dock, the crowd whispered. “Nor did the sailors whom I hired. All thought we had come to deliver salt cod. You should let them go free, for my maid deceived them.” Corentine risked a look at Trifin, who stood below her in the stand, head hanging. Her voice sharpened. “She deceived me as well.”

“How so?” asked the provost.

Corentine opened her mouth several times, then closed it. Flakes of salt trickled down her scalp. Across her mind darkness passed, and the memory of firm shoulders under chained wings; and those same shoulders, elegant in a linen cloak; or warm beneath her hands, dancing; or in her arms, trembling at the shout, no quarter for traitors.

The provost waved his hand. “Never mind. We’ll return to it later.” He straightened to address the room, one eye on the crowd jeering him from behind the dock. “This woman has confessed to salt fraud and exonerated her spouse and hired sailors. I believe her that they are guiltless. Bailli, remove them.”

The bailiff, his kerchief yellow with sweat, hustled Sebastién and the sailors out of the room. The crowd gave a few soft cheers. Sebastién struggled to glance back, though not too hard.

Resumed the provost, “Now, as to what to do with you and your—”

“Maid, prévôt.”

“Your maid.” He leveled his eyes at her. “I am not uninformed, Lady Corentine de Cornouaille. Of your activities, and those of your upstart Breton Marquis. Nor am I uninformed as to their origin.” He glanced at Trifin. “Word has reached me that your—activities—escalated after the arrival of a peasant woman who is not what she seems. Whether a noble in disguise or something stranger I do not know, but it is clear she is the leader in these ventures.” He looked back to Corentine. “You say she deceived even you. You had estates once, Lady Cornouaille. Our Regent is merciful, and rewards loyalty. Reveal this traitor and her plots, and you will walk free on your own land again.”

A murmur rippled the gathered crowd. Corentine stared at the provost. “But what will happen to her?”

“You know the penalties for treachery.”

Behind the dock, the murmurs ebbed. Into the falling silence rang a small chill sound. Corentine turned to look again at Trifin. Her manacled hands covered her face, and she was shaking. The iron gave small cries as the cuffs hit.

As the silence lengthened, Trifin grew aware of its spread around her. She raised her head. Salt lines streaked her cheeks.

“Well, Lady Cornouaille?” asked the provost irritably. “Will you buy your freedom today, or won’t you?”

Trifin met Corentine’s eyes. She nodded, once, as if giving permission. Then she looked down.

Through the darkness of Corentine’s mind flared a small, bright image like a flame—her cheek on a knee, and a promise.

She drew a deep breath.

“Honored prévôt, I don’t doubt our Regent’s mercy,” Corentine began. The crowd hissed. “But surely the Parisian families working my land now would advance their claims against mine. And as our Regent is also a just leader”—more hisses—“he must acknowledge those claims. Further, honored prévôt, you’ve seen fit to part me from my husband. My maid and I are two healthy women of childbearing age. I say it would be a pity to hang us when Nouvelle France needs wives. Surely our merciful Regent would agree?”

The provost frowned. “You plead transportation, for the both of you?”

“Yes, prévôt.”

“So you refuse to condemn your maid, and forgive her deceptions?” His eyes were sharp.

Corentine met them. “I do, prévôt.”

The provost leaned back in his chair. “Mercy is a virtue, in states and in persons,” he said in a tight voice. He addressed neither Corentine nor Trifin, but the whispering crowd. “If a smuggler can be merciful, so too can our Regent.” Sitting up, he straightened his papers and dipped his pen. “Lady Corentine and her, ah, maid: I sentence you to a life’s exile. You go as king’s virgins, to find husbands and yield children for the glory of Nouvelle France. Vive le roi.”

Vive le vrai roi, the crowd replied.

From a dark elsewhere, there came the sigh of falling chains.

One month later, seventy years before the ancién regime would end in blood, the Marquis de Pontcallec’s conspiracy to overthrow the Regency failed, and he too ended in blood on a scaffold at Nantes. Those conspirators who did not swing beside him were exiled, alongside their salt smugglers, to Nouvelle France. They shipped at La Rochelle aboard an airless frigate in October. Despite quays bristling with grenadiers, crowds cheered the smugglers from the shore as the ship sailed.

Belowdecks the mood was more somber. In Ville-Marie where they were bound, the smugglers could choose either military service or indenture. Passage took two months; lice crawled already beneath them in the straw.

Corentine and the faery, whose name was not Trifin, sat on a keg of salt-pork near the bow. Together they gazed out a porthole towards the grey waves.

Behind them, in the dark shadow of our world that is Faerie, the faery’s wings stretched.

“You know you don’t have to come with me,” Corentine said. “Ville-Marie is cold, and the work will be hard. I understand if you want to return to Faerie. You’re free now.”

“Because you forgave me even though I betrayed you,” the faery said softly. “That was what the magic demanded, but you did it yourself.” She touched Corentine’s sleeve, the prisoner’s rough hemp. “I’m in your debt.”  

Corentine took her hands. “You don’t owe me anything.”

 The faery smiled. “Then take this as a gift—one failed rebel to another.” She cupped Corentine’s chin in her hands. And drawing her gently forward, she kissed her.

Corentine flushed; then laughed; then bent her forehead against the faery’s. “Well, then.”

Above the hold, muffled thumps on the deck signaled sails being loosed. The ship bucked as the wind caught the canvas.

Far away in Nouvelle France, snow was already falling. But behind in Guérande, the last dry summer wind was raking across the salt pools, blowing white fleur de sel like lace from the waves.

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Salt Price” by B. Pladek, narrated by Jasmine Arch.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to B. Pladek Online

Major category: 
Sunday, October 22, 2023 - 15:33

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 270 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 10: Rakes - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/10/21 - listen here)

It’s “Our F/Favorite Tropes” time again! This occasional series examines how popular historic romance tropes play out differently for female couples. Once again, we’re going to look at a character type, rather than a situation, personal history, or relationship structure. One of the chapters in a book I was blogging recently dealt with libertines, rakes, and dandies, and the bibliography for that article led me to an article on female rakes, all of which inspired me to tackle the rake as a romantic archetype.

The rake is not simply a personality type, but exists within a particular historic and social context. The rake partakes somewhat of the sexual libertine–the person who pursues sexual (and other) pleasure for its own sake and rejects conventional morality. The libertine is associated with the rise of pornographic literature in the 17th century and, in England, comes into prominence when the restoration of the monarchy reversed the grip that conservative religion had over public culture.

But the rake—who also emerged in the later 17th century—adds several other layers to the archetype. The rake, above all else, is a personality. He—and the rake archetype emerged as a specifically male figure—he is an aristocrat, or at least claims the privilege of an aristocrat to be free of constraints on his behavior. He has an unrestrained sexuality, often of a somewhat predatory nature, but succeeds because he is charming, witty, and cultured. He may have a strong sense of honor, but usually only with regard to those he considers his equals. He is often a sportsman and usually drawn to drink and gambling. He is a supremely urban creature and moves easily among different classes, though without ever forgetting his own worth. What he is definitely not is responsible, respectable, reliable, or a promising romantic prospect.

The rake, in slightly different flavors, continues as a popular figure in literature into the early 19th century when the figure of the freewheeling aristocrat was being more a figure of scorn than of admiration.

In a male-female romance, the rake may achieve his happily ever after in one of two ways. The more traditional route is for him to fall in love with a virtuous and respectable woman for whom he’s willing to reform. The other possibility is for him to fall in love with an equally rakish woman who accepts and matches his every transgression. Among old-school romances, Georgette Heyer’s Venetia offers a good example of the latter.

But when we bring in this figure of the “female rake” we run into the sexual double-standard. In general, society was far less willing to admire a woman who was sexually unrestrained and aggressive than a man of those habits. The female libertine was considered little better than a whore. Certainly she could not slip in and out of respectable society with the same ease that a male rake could. And unlike male rakes, she did not have automatic access to the male aristocratic privilege that enabled him to shrug off the disapproval of conventional society.

So were there female rakes? Kathleen Wilson’s article “The Female Rake: Gender, Libertinism, and Enlightenment” (to be blogged soon) traces the biography of the 18th century courtesan Constantia Phillips, who cut a sexual swathe through prominent men in England, France, the Netherlands, and even parts of the Americas, including a handful of marriages and long-term but less formal relationships. She was dashing, attractive, fashionable, extravagant, spendthrift, and bitingly witty both in person and in print. While male rakes might be disparaged for their lack of morals, Phillips was looked askance for claiming an assertive sexuality that was viewed as a threat to masculine pride, to the image of feminine virtue, and even to the stability of the nation itself. Despite her many liaisons with prominent men, she gives the impression of not really liking men as a group very much—in the same way that male rakes often have an air of misogyny. In the autobiography that she wrote (in part to blackmail a nobleman who had dumped her) she draws on literary and theatrical tropes to depict herself as holding all the traditional “manly” virtues in contrast to the weak, self-centered, cruel men she left behind.

But Con Phillips lacks one aspect to make her of interest to this podcast: she never turned her rakish charm on a female target. So let’s turn our attention to some who did.

It is inescapable, as noted previously, that female rakes—whether in real life or fiction—were typically viewed harshly, rather than as charming rogues. (Although we should also note that real-life male rakes were not considered the charmingly amusing figures of romance novels either.) So the examples of female rakes that we find have been filtered through that misogynistic lens and we must, to some extent, unfilter them. What we’re looking for is a woman who embraces unconventional morality, who is at least somewhat open about unrestrained sexuality, who indulges in activities that may be considered “vices,” and above all else, who has some degree of class privilege that enables her to do all these things. She is likely to treat her romantic conquests somewhat cavalierly and is definitely not a likely prospect as a stable romantic partner. Whether or not her contemporaries called her a rake, who fits this general model?

If we look to the era when the image of the rake was being established—the mid to late 17th century—we find a good example in Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, a French aristocrat and sometime author of fairy tales. Perhaps in reaction to an unhappy marriage—as so many aristocratic French marriages were at the time—she not only indulged the acceptable pastime of participating in salons and writing bitingly satirical essays and allegories, but was reported to the police for singing lewd songs at all hours of the night, hosting evenings of debauchery, and having affairs with women that sometimes ended in violent quarrels. Despite the police investigation, aristocratic privilege and the disinclination of her peers to testify against her, kept the consequences away until King Louis put his finger on the scales of justice and she was packed off to a remote chateau. From which she attempted escape disguised in male clothing. (I did an entire podcast about her if you want more details.)

Delarivier Manley’s early 18th century political satire The New Atalantis envisions a group of women called “The New Cabal” some of whom solidly fit the model of rakes. They seek their romantic and sexual satisfaction from other women. Though many are depicted as being in stable partnerships, certain specific figures clearly have more passing and even predatory desires. The Marchioness of Lerma took note of beautiful young women new to the court and snapped them up before anyone else could. The Marchioness of Sandomire and her best friend Ianthe went off adventuring while cross-dressed to pick up prostitutes in the pleasure gardens. The gatherings of the New Cabal give the impression of being hedonistic parties, though they are private affairs rather than being performed as part of public culture. But the (fictional) women of the Cabal are definitely of the aristocracy and are accustomed to having their libertine adventures overlooked. And, of course, I have a podcast on this topic as well.

The main characters in the mid-18th century novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu do their best to take on the role of traveling rakes in their wanderings across Europe. Alithea and Arabella cross-dress, take on the persona of Chevaliers, and flirt madly with women in every town they come to (somewhat to the detriment of the obvious love affair they have with each other that they verbally deny). They fit the model in having aristocratic privilege that protects them from the full consequences of their flirtations, and in cheerfully plunging into all sorts of sensual pleasures. But Arabella and Alithea are always very conscious that they are playing the role of rakes, rather than actually being rakes. They have no intention of going all the way with the women they romance and it’s clear throughout the book that they are dedicated to each other. So it’s a good thing they’re allowed a happily ever after together in the end. (And, of course, I have a podcast about them.)

Although the figure of the rake is most commonly associated with England and France, details of the life of Catherine Vizzani from 18th century Italy fit the rake archetype. (And, as usual, I have a podcast about her.) Vizzani was definitely a sexual adventurer, courting a sequence of women both in female performance and passing as a man. As a valued employee (in male guise) of men with significant social and political power, she was able to leverage the umbrella of that privilege to continue her adventures even when complaints were made. Vizzani didn’t meet all the characteristics of a rake: she wasn’t from the aristocracy herself and her transgressive behavior seems to have been largely confined to her romantic adventures, rather than being part of a more extensive list of vices.

One classic literary example that I’ve mentioned repeatedly in these shows (in part because she stands out as an epitome of several archetypes) is Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda. Harriot is meant as a cautionary tale about inappropriate friendships, but she warrants attention because she is behaving almost exactly as a male rake would toward the more sympathetic Lady Delacour. Harriot is regularly depicted as wearing men’s clothing, either for a masquerade or as personal habit, and behaving in stereotypically masculine fashion. She takes on the role of rake in her interactions with women, with pretended abductions and bluster. She dares to express feminist opinions, arguing for the equality of men and women along with other Jacobin social ideals such as revolution, opposition to slavery, and sexual freedom. She courts Lady Delacour aggressively and draws her into adventures and scrapes, such as participating in a duel with another woman over a political campaign. Harriot delights in discomfiting those with conventional morals and is largely allowed to act as she does for reasons of social privilege, even though the plot of the novel requires her to be punished severely in the end.

Another literary example of the same era treats the female rake even more harshly. Mistress Hobart—the woman in charge of the young maids of honor at court, in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Count de Grammont is also depicted as a “mannish” predator on young women for sexual purposes. Or at least attempting to be so, though she is foiled at every turn by her male competition. She leverages her position for access and applies wit, charm, flattery, and gifts in her attempted seductions. Mistress Hobart is depicted as a rake, in competition with other rakes, whose methods and habits are parallel and are distinguished only in that she has the access to female spaces while they have the advantage of the author’s sympathies.

In the late 18th century, we have another real-life figure who fits the rakish mould: Anne Lister. For all that Lister holds herself forth as seeking a permanent marriage-like relationship, her actual romantic and sexual adventures are those of a pleasure-seeking rake who juggles multiple lovers and has very tenuous notions of fidelity. While she may ponder questions of the morality of her life in her diary entries, she shapes her conclusions in ways convenient to her personal goals. Her behavior, even outside the bedroom, is heedless of social conventions, though she doesn’t indulge in the traditional rake’s vices of gambling, drink, and casual violence. She definitely relies on social privilege to protect her life choices, and mixes easily with people of various classes despite being very much a snob, which isn’t that different from the attitudes of male rakes.

All of these women show that the archetype of the female rake was alive and well, if different in certain ways from the male version. Female rakes were, perhaps, sometimes more covert about the sexual nature of their adventures. And the social standing that protected them from the consequences of their immorality was sometimes based on felicitous marriages, though certainly not in every case. All they need to complete the romantic trope is to find that virtuous woman they fall for hard enough to contemplate reform…or the one who kicks convention to the curb and joins them in their adventures!

Show Notes

The continuing series about historic romance tropes looks at female rakes.

  • Other episodes mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Thursday, October 19, 2023 - 08:00

Maybe I'm just not in the right headspace for this article. Maybe it simply isn't operating on my wavelength. But I found it incoherent and boring (and of only tenuous connection to either "literature" or "gay and lesbian"). Sorry about that.

I'll wrap up this book with another post that simply lists the chapters that I didn't cover due to falling entirely within the 20th century. Then on to something more interesting!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Glick, ELisa. 2014. “Turn-of-the-Century Decadence and Aestheticism” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Part IV - Queer Modernisms; Chapter 18 - Turn-of-the-Century Decadence and Aestheticism

This chapter looks at two creative movements that intersected strongly with queer representation. Of these, the decadent movement was more pervasive. While centered in France, it was international in scope, while the aesthetic movement was primarily British. The author is interested in these movements in how they expressed the complexities and contradictions of developing “queer modernity.”

Unfortunately, in the middle of a self-indulgent dive into glorying in these complexities and contradictions, there isn’t really a coherent through-line in the article to summarize, and very little that relates directly to the concepts “gay and lesbian.”


Time period: 


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