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Saturday, April 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 284 - On the Shelf for April 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/04/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2024.

I sit here writing the introduction to this episode and trying to think of what you-all might find interesting. There are times when my life currently feels like just counting down the days until retirement. (390 days as of the date this episode airs.)

The most exciting thing I’ve done in the last month was buy a recumbent tricycle—a rather fancy high-end machine that will keep me bicycling confidently for decades to come. Some nerve damage in one leg has meant that I’ve taken a few falls—rather embarrassingly, always when at a complete stop. The stability of the tricycle addresses that, while the mechanics of the recumbent configuration mean I still have the power and maneuverability of a good road bike.

It's always interesting to meet someone that you’ve only known through language—whether the written word or audio. Do you have that experience of: “Gosh, you’re…different from what I imagined”? Do you get images in your head of what an author might look like, based on their writing? Since I don’t have a good visual imagination for people, I’m often surprised to discover that I must have imagined what someone looks like—because when I meet them I have to readjust. It's something I struggle with when describing characters because I don’t always have a clear image of them in my mind. So I’m sometimes curious how listeners visualize me, based on the bits of my life I mention in these introductions. That is, assuming you don’t already know me in person!

Last week we aired the first fiction episode of this year’s series. I continue to be amazed at the quality of the stories people are willing to entrust to me. Every year it gets harder to choose just four stories, and I’m more able to design a truly diverse line-up. On the days that I’m tempted to say, “Maybe this is the last year for the fiction series,” I find myself thinking, “But what about that author that I encouraged to revise and resubmit? What about that author who never gets discouraged if I only buy one out of every three stories they send me? What about that author who wrote me a thank you for my feedback who might send me something totally amazing next time?”

In my secret heart, I wish I had it in me to start a publishing house specifically for sapphic historical fiction, but I know my limits and I know my competencies, and that isn’t one of them. But this small corner of publishing continues to give me joy. I only wish the stories I publish would get even more listeners and readers so my authors would get the acclaim they deserve.

Book Shopping!

Once again, I’ve gone a month without blogging any new books. And once again I promise not to beat myself up about it, though I wish I could figure out where I once found the energy to post a blog every day and produce a podcast every week!

But one of the books from this month’s shopping will probably pop up to the top of my reading list. This is Before the Word Was Queer: Sexuality and the English Dictionary, 1600-1930 by Stephen Turton. Thanks to the power of social media, I heard about this book when the author made a release announcement on BlueSky and was able to ask some questions that convinced me I absolutely needed this book. As the title implies, this is an exploration of the language used to describe and express sexuality in English over the last four centuries, and how that language has been described in dictionaries—as well as how it has been censored in dictionaries. I was delighted to discover that there is an entire chapter addressing the language of lesbianism that solidly demolishes the perennial claim that “we didn’t have a word for lesbians until the late 19th century.”

I picked up two other books that fall more in the deep background research category, although Emma Southon’s A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire does have one biography that discusses theories around the possible sapphic leanings of one woman, based on her writings. And I confess I do love the Virginia Woolf pun in the book’s title.

The third book is yet another resource for my future Restoration-era romance series. Like the other two books picked up this month, it’s a brand new release. This time I heard about it on the podcast “Not Just the Tudors.” The book is Pomp and Piety: Everyday Life of the Aristocracy in Stuart England by Ben Norman. I don’t expect there to be anything specifically on queer history—or at least not women’s queer history—but it takes many ingredients to cook a dinner and not all of them have to be the main dish.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But of course, books that do focus on women’s queer history are the meat and potatoes of this podcast, so let’s take a look at new and recent releases.

I first heard about Eliza Lentzski’s Lighthouse Keeper when it was in progress and she posted about it on social media. So I popped it into my spreadsheet and was delightfully surprised to find it out in the world.

In 1874, in the quaint coastal town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the ocean’s waves echo with tales of lost love. Lizzy Darby, a resilient young woman with a heart marked by past sorrows, seeks refuge in the familiarity of her parents' general store. Scarred by the loss of her first love to the unpredictable sea, Lizzy strives to find solace in the routine of her daily life.

Joana Maria Pascoal is a spirited immigrant from the Azores Islands. In her quest for a brighter future for her family, Joana adopts the guise of a man to secure a lucrative position as the town's lighthouse keeper. As Lizzy and Joana's lives become intertwined, an undeniable connection forms, one that transcends the boundaries imposed by their society.

Haunted by the wreckage of her past romance, Lizzy grapples with the fear of opening her heart again. Joana, trapped by a disguise that shields her from prejudice but endangers her livelihood, battles the urge to succumb to a forbidden love. Her dual identity hangs in the balance, a secret that, if exposed, could shatter the financial support crucial for her family's survival.

Clandestine meetings, stolen moments, and the heart's yearnings collide with the harsh realities of a world bound by tradition and familial expectations. Will the secrets that Lizzy and Joana harbor tear them apart, or can their burgeoning relationship overcome the circumstances that threaten a promising new love?

I know that I miss a lot of non-English-language releases, simply because my search terms aren’t attuned for them, or I can’t easily determine if they have sapphic content. But this month I ran across the German translation Eine Lady für die Diebin or A Lady for a Highwayman by Dani Collins (translated by Emma Schwarz). From the author’s website, it looks like the story was originally part of a collection of a dozen erotic Regency-era stories with a diverse assortment of romantic couples, but the German version appears to be a standalone of this sapphic encounter. The German cover copy is in the blog, but here’s the shorter summary the author provides for the English-language collection: “Robbed at gunpoint by a female highwayman, a young lady loses her locket but gains self-knowledge in a stolen kiss.” If you’ve been listening to the podcast long enough to remember the highwaywomen episode, you’ll recognize several of the stock tropes of sapphic highwayman encounters!

Als ihre Lippen sich berührten, hatte Annabelle das Gefühl, dass dies der einzige Ort auf der Welt war, an dem sie sein wollte. Genau hier, um diese süße Empfindung mit dieser Frau zu teilen.

Annabelle ist einem Adligen versprochen, obwohl sie sich viel lieber dem Studium widmen würde. Als sie mit den Eltern auf dem Weg zu ihrem künftigen Gatten überfallen wird, traut Annabell ihren Augen nicht. Denn der Wegelagerer ist eine Frau! Als die Diebin sie in einem unbeobachteten Moment küsst, wird Annabelle alles klar. Sie weiß: sie muss die schöne Diebin wiedersehen - und erneut küssen …

Teil der Lovers and Liaisons Regency Collection. Willkommen in der Welt glitzernder Bälle, geheimer Sehnsüchte und skandalöser Begierden! Zwölf fesselnde Kurzgeschichten laden ein zu einer unvergesslichen Reise voller Lust und Sinnlichkeit in die Regency-Ära.

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland from Dell looks at the darker side of selkie legends.

When a sharp cry wakes Jean in the middle of the night during a terrible tempest, she’s convinced it must have been a dream. But when the cry comes again, Jean ventures outside and is shocked by what she discovers—a young woman in labor, already drenched to the bone in the freezing cold and barely able to speak a word of English.

Although Jean is the only midwife in the village and for miles around, she’s at a loss as to who this woman is or where she’s from; Jean can only assume she must be the new wife of the neighbor up the road, Tobias. And when Tobias does indeed arrive at her cabin in search of his wife, Muirin, Jean’s questions continue to grow. Why has he kept his wife’s pregnancy a secret? And why does Muirin’s open demeanor change completely the moment she’s in his presence?

Though Jean learned long ago that she should stay out of other people’s business, her growing concern—and growing feelings—for Muirin mean she can’t simply set her worries aside. But when the answers she finds are more harrowing than she ever could have imagined, she fears she may have endangered herself, Muirin, and the baby. Will she be able to put things right and save the woman she loves before it’s too late, or will someone have to pay for Jean’s actions with their life?

Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkis from Transworld Digital combines gothic and paranormal elements.

Paris, 1866. When Baroness Sylvie Devereux receives a house-call from Charlotte Mothe, the penniless sister she disowned, she fears that her shady past is about to catch up with her. With their father ill and Charlotte unable to pay his medical bills, Sylvie is persuaded to reprise her role as a gifted medium, to perform one last con.

The marks are the de Jacquinots, a dysfunctional aristocratic family who believe they are being haunted by the ghost of their great aunt, brutally murdered during the French Revolution. There's rumours she buried some valuable jewels before she died: a fortune that would restore the family to their former glory. The Mothe sisters are tasked with finding the treasure and exorcising the poltergeist, for good.

The con gets underway, with the duo deploying every trick to terrify the family out of their gold. But when inexplicable horrors start to happen to them too, the sisters start to question whether they really are at the mercy of a vengeful spirit. And what other deep, dark secrets threaten to come to light . . .

Other Books of Interest

I have three titles in the “other books of interest” category, in all cases because the sapphic content is either very minor or is only vaguely implied by the available information.

Teach the Children to Pray by Rebecca Harwick from Kastanien Press is a rather uncompromising look at coming of age during the Thirty Years War in Germany.

1618. A witch hunt forces ten year-old Josefine Dorn and her father to the harsh, unforgiving roads of Germany. That same year, Bohemian Protestants throw the Holy Roman Emperor’s regents from a castle window, sparking a religious war that soon engulfs the whole Empire. Driven by misfortune and desperation, Josefine’s father enlists, and Josefine follows him into the army’s baggage train.

In the army, Josefine learns to survive, first as a child looking after her soldier father, and later, in the unlikely role of field surgeon, tending to the war’s broken and ailing.

Josefine’s story is interwoven with the ordinary people of Germany—men and women; Protestants, Catholics and Jews; believers and unbelievers—as they strive to hold onto what truly matters in spite of plundering armies and narrow-minded princes. Evocatively written and infused with warmth and humanity, Teach the Children to Pray brings to life a richly-drawn cast of characters through the eyes of its striking heroine and her extraordinary story of lost faith, forbidden love, and the search for peace in a time of endless war.

The description I received from the publisher for Grey Dog by Elliott Gish from ECW Press calls it a “queer awakening” story, but it appears primarily to be horror.

The year is 1901, and Ada Byrd — spinster, schoolmarm, amateur naturalist — accepts a teaching post in isolated Lowry Bridge, grateful for the chance to re-establish herself where no one knows her secrets. She develops friendships with her neighbors, explores the woods with her students, and begins to see a future in this tiny farming community. Her past — riddled with grief and shame — has never seemed so far away.

But then, Ada begins to witness strange and grisly phenomena: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. She soon believes that something old and beastly — which she calls Grey Dog — is behind these visceral offerings, which both beckon and repel her. As her confusion deepens, her grip on what is real, what is delusion, and what is traumatic memory loosens, and Ada takes on the wildness of the woods, behaving erratically and pushing her newfound friends away. In the end, she is left with one question: What is the real horror? The Grey Dog, the uncontainable power of female rage, or Ada herself?

The Final Curse of Ophelia Gray by Christine Calella from Page Street YA is tagged as LGBTQIA, but advance reviews seem to indicate that sapphic content is limited to some side characters and the title character is aro/ace.

After a lifetime of abuse at the hands of superstitious townsfolk, Ophelia Young, a bastard child of the notorious pirate queen, is tired of paying for the sins of her mother. Despite playing by the rules her whole life, she’s earned nothing but spite and suspicion. So when a naval officer saves her from the jeering crowd at her mother’s hanging, Ophelia hatches a new hope of enlisting in the navy to escape her mother’s legacy and redeem her own reputation for good. But Ophelia soon discovers that a life at sea isn’t as honorable as she hoped.

Betsy Young is as different as she could be from her half-sister Ophelia. She’s a nervous homebody who wants to keep her family safe and longs to be in love. So naturally, she’s devastated when the son of their family’s business partner rejects her hand in marriage and her sister joins the navy. But when her father contracts a life-threatening illness as well, Betsy has to bring Ophelia home to save the family business.

Unfortunately for the Young sisters, Betsy trying to get Ophelia recalled reveals that Ophelia enlisted fraudulently under Betsy’s name, a secret which Ophelia struggles to keep from crewmates who would kill her if they knew she was the pirate queen’s daughter. To save Ophelia from the naval authorities, Betsy will have to board a ship during hurricane season and brave all the dangers of the sea to get them both home safe.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? When a new book by Aliette de Bodard comes out, it immediately goes on my to-read list, though I’m a bit behind on the actual reading. But one of my two audiobooks this month was her Monte-Cristo-inspired adventure A Fire Born of Exile which gender-flips the main character (producing a central sapphic romance) and sets the story in her space-faring Xuya universe.

It was interesting to follow the plot knowing that this was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, because it meant that part of my brain was constantly working to match characters up with their originals and try to predict where the plot would go on that basis. I’d be interested to hear from readers who aren’t familiar with the details of the Dumas story. De Bodard’s version kept me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything would work out through a very layered and tangled plot. The emotional work of the novel was strong and the relationships all felt very real, within the context of the setting.

The second audiobook I listened to this month is quite a change of pace from my usual: John Scalzi’s Starter Villain about a guy who gets a surprise inheritance from a mysterious uncle and quickly finds himself out of his depth among international criminal conspiracies. Oh, and it’s a comedy and involves genetically engineered intelligent cats.

It feels a bit odd to call a book “light and fluffy” which it involves a fairly high body count, but it’s more in the realm of cartoon violence and you never worry that any character you’re meant to care about will be offed. And the twist at the end is both cleverly surprising and yet not at all unexpected if you’ve been paying close attention. All in all, I can’t say it grabbed me, but it was fun and I don’t regret listening.

So that’s it for the April books and now I need to brainstorm which historic romance trope I’m going to tackle in the next episode.

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: 
Sunday, March 31, 2024 - 17:08

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 283 – Daughters of Derbyshire by Daniel Stride - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/31 - listen here)

The first story for our 2024 fiction series, “Daughters of Derbyshire,” is set in 17th century England in one of the repeated outbreaks of plague that devastated that century. It’s hard not to think of the terrible toll of the Covid pandemic when reading it. For all that, this is a quiet, contemplative story.

The author, Daniel Stride, lives pretty much on the opposite side of the globe from his story’s setting, in Dunedin, New Zealand. He has a lifelong love of literature in general, and speculative fiction in particular, although this story is purely historical. He writes both short stories and poetry and his work has been featured in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Te Korero Ahi Ka. His first novel, a steampunk-flavoured dark fantasy, Wise Phuul was published in November 2016 by the small UK press, Inspired Quill. A sequel novel, Old Phuul, is due out in 2024. Daniel is an aficionado of chocolate and cats, and can be found blogging about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, among other things, at his blog A Phuulish Fellow, which is linked in the show notes. (

 Daniel Stride

I will be your narrator for this story.

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.

Daughters of Derbyshire

By Daniel Stride


The cart crept along the dirt road. Wheels splashed through the puddles left from yesterday’s rain. Kate sat beside the driver, clutching a cloth bag to her chest. She paid little heed to the creak and rattle of the wooden planks, nor to the clop of the hooves. The journey was not uncomfortable, and there was little rush. Billy Phillips’ donkey was a slow and steady beast, and would not hurry, though the armies of Satan himself marched behind.

Kate pondered the impending walk back to Tideswell.

Five well-known miles, past the glistening green of field and pasture, and through copses of shadowy oaks. Travellers often passed through her village, on their way to Sheffield, but she herself rarely journeyed further than this old and familiar road. Tideswell to Eyam, Dan unto Beersheba.

“More grim news from London,” said Billy. Gnarled hands gripping the reins, he stared ahead, lost in thought. The old folk of Tideswell said Billy had not been right since the wars, when he had lost his three sons in service to Parliament. “Fresh tidings reached the tavern last night. A rider on horseback.”

Kate frowned. “Have people sought to flee the city?”

“Always. Fear runs through the streets, for the great pits are full and grow ever-fuller. But by the Grace of God, the surrounding countryside turns back escapees, and even within London the dead are not left outside during the day.”

Plague and disease had stalked this land for years beyond count. Men, women, and children suffered and died. It was the way of the world, the reflection of a sinful race. Even so, this outbreak of pestilence in the capital sent terror through the hearts of all Englishmen. Even here, in quiet Derbyshire.

No. Especially here in quiet Derbyshire.

Death had reached out its cold and clammy hand to Eyam, and even now was tightening its grip. The Rector, William Mompesson, had decreed a cordon around the village. No-one entered Eyam, and no-one left, in the hope the plague might be contained here, and not spread across the countryside. At the boundary stones, the people of neighbouring villages left food-gifts and supplies, and in exchange Eyam’s locals left coins soaked in purifying vinegar. 

Billy Phillips, he of the white beard and distant stare, was making such a food delivery this very morning.

I’m making a delivery too.

Kate had finished her morning chores, mopped the floor, and chopped the firewood. She fetched the eggs from the hen house too, finding a bounty left among the straw. God smiled even in the midst of calamity. But she prayed the pestilence had not carried off Mary since their last meeting.

There is always God’s will. We must accept what He decrees.

Kate pulled the book from her bag. Not the family Bible. That remained on its shelf at home, and taking it upon a journey would have earned her the scolding of a lifetime. This was a bound collection of printed Psalms, for study in her own time.

Her parents had taught her to read, so she might comprehend the true and unalterable Word of God, without resort to papist blasphemies, or to the infamous errors of The Book of Common Prayer.

Kate opened the book at random, and mouthed the words to herself.

 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

The boundary stone loomed beside the road, flat and grey in the noonday sun. It had been placed months ago, together with others like it. Past here, only the damned might pass.

Billy tugged at the reins. Donkey and cart halted.

“Be a good young woman, and fetch the coins,” he said. “I’ll unload the parcels.”

Kate hopped down onto the road. She left her bag on the seat.

The day was clear and quiet. No birds sang, and no wind rustled the trees. She and Billy may have been the last mortals left alive. Step by step, Kate approached the stone. She felt a vast unseen wall looming over her.

She might neither see it, nor touch it, nor smell it. But she could feel it. The wall ran across the road, in its grim and all-encompassing glory. Thus were the folk of Eyam cut off from the world of the living. Thus was Kate cut off from Mary.

Save for the Rector’s letter.

The rock had small holes in it. Kate picked out the coins. Soaked in vinegar, the coins had now dried, but the sparkle remained.

Pennies, ha’pennies, and farthings, all the poor villagers of Derbyshire could afford.

Kate laid them on her palm. The faces frowned.

Carolus Rex.

No quarrel with the King. These parts yet mourned Oliver Cromwell, a just and true man, but Charles had returned to rule his realm, and the days of the Commonwealth were over. Alas the King had acquired malicious advisers, who steered the realm away from God and towards sin. The pagan festival of Christmas was celebrated again in the land, the debauched theatres had reopened, and Kate’s own father now murmured that the pestilence showed God’s displeasure.

The righteous always suffer in this world. The whore of Babylon raises her foul head, so we must commit ourselves yet more strongly to the path of Christ.

Kate heard the scuff of Billy’s boots. She turned. The old man approached, food-parcels piled high.

“What have they left?” he asked.

“Little enough. Soon they shall rely only upon on our charity.”

The pair arranged the parcels around the stone, and Billy slipped the coins into a leather purse. The money would be divided upon the Rector’s table back in Tideswell. Kate knew there would be no complaints. This charity was freely given and pleasing to God.

Billy cupped his hands, and shouted across the green fields.

“We have brought fresh supplies, and now we leave.”

No answer. If any of Eyam heard, they hid amidst the shadows. Billy wiped sweat from his wrinkled brow.

“You desire a ride back?”

“No,” said Kate. “I shall walk. I am meeting Mary Famwell, so we might talk across the stones.”

“As you wish. But come not close to her, nor cross the boundary. Even for a moment.”

“I understand.”

“God is watching.”

 “God is watching,” Kate agreed.

Kate stuffed the cloth bag under her arm, hiked her petticoat, and trod across the fields. A creek lay near, brown and slow-flowing, home to frogs and dragonflies. Mary showed her this place, before the pestilence, when Kate’s father came to Eyam on business. Kate still treasured that day, as she treasured their first meeting at the Tideswell market, behind the clothier’s stall.

   This creek was also mentioned in the letter, cryptically, so none save God might spy upon them. She had persuaded Rector Merton to write the communication, and send it with the last load of deliveries. Thus might Mary hear of her coming.

I brought her bread. If she lives, she will eat well.

The trickle of water came to Kate’s ears. Her heart beat faster.

There it lay, past the chestnut trees, ale-brown and inviting. The creek gleamed in the noonday sun. Stones both smooth and rounded thrust up from the bed. The grass along the banks grew green and lush, dotted with clover.

Kate had last been here at the height of summer, and she and Mary had dipped feet into cool waters until their toes wrinkled. Today, the air hung humid, but not so hot. A pleasant day for luncheon.

But the creek also ran with foreboding. This was a boundary between Eyam and the world. That far shore stood distant as the Virginia colony, and the water might be the full width of the Atlantic Ocean.

The boulder sat where she remembered. Shaped like a moss-covered tombstone, to make a grim comparison. But when death ravaged the world, grimness became a decadent luxury. Kate thought it best to endure, to treasure the joys God deemed appropriate, until righteousness inevitably prevailed, and the wicked were cast down. The world lay within His hands, and even King Charles must tremble before His word.

Kate found a comfortable spot beside the boulder. Mary had not yet come.

But she shall.

A cloud covered the sun, and for a moment Kate shivered.

She opened the cloth bag, and pulled out her Psalms. She flicked to one hundred and thirty-seven, and read the words aloud.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

Then she saw the figure, across the water. Cloaked and masked, it had left the shadow of the trees, and came across the fields towards her.

Kate twitched in excitement.

The figure waved, and Kate leapt to her feet.


God in His infinite mercy had seen fit to spare her.

Mary was of age with Kate, and in soul stood closer than any sister. In the time before the pestilence, they met at market, and ate apples while their fathers discussed wool prices and lead mines. Both had newly come to the flower of womanhood, and both shared a devotion to God and His word. Mary set Kate’s heart afire, and to hold her hand was the best thing in the world.

The other girls of Tideswell might titter over young men, and soon enough wed them, but Kate felt no such desires. Young men, in her experience, were universally fools or brutes, afflicted with much vice and little virtue.

Would that no husband separate her from Mary.

But I cannot see her face. Neither the sparkle of her grey eyes, nor the rosiness of her cheeks.

Kate could not look upon Mary’s face while the plague raged. Only the beaked mask, which warded the wearer from dreadful airs.

Might she ask Mary to remove the mask, just this once?

No. She could not endanger Mary. The plague and its airs lurked in strange places. Even on the quiet banks of this ale-brown creek.

And God is watching.

Kate contented herself with a smile.

“You live,” she called. “How goes it in Eyam?”

Mary reached the far bank, and settled upon the clover. She wore not merely cloak and mask, but also gloves that stretched to her elbows.

“Poorly,” she said. “Much death and disaster. Some are struck down as if with lightning from on high; others cling to life in agony for many long days, or lie in their beds delirious with fever until the end takes them. There is little rhyme or reason behind the suffering, and few who sicken live to tell the tale. By happy will of God, my own parents and brothers have yet been spared.”

“Your Rector survives?”

“Aye. Mompesson lives. And Stanley, our true Rector. Mompesson received your letter, and slid it beneath my father’s door with a note of his own. My father’s hands shook as he read it aloud, but it warmed our hearts to hear from you.”

“The folk of Tideswell will never abandon Eyam.”

“And we shall never abandon each other.”

“I have brought you a gift myself.”

Taking care not to hit Mary, Kate threw the cloth bag across the creek. The bundle landed amidst the softness of the long grass. A monarch butterfly fluttered away.

“A loaf of bread, and a lump of hard cheese,” she said. “So that you and your kin shall eat well, even in these dark days.”

Mary fetched the bag, and looked inside.

“Your charity lies beyond reproach.”

“I also have my book of Psalms. I thought to read the verses aloud, so we might bask in the glory of His word.”

Behind the beak, Mary laughed. A sweet laugh, one belonging to happier times.

“You know me well. I too have brought His word. But not merely Psalms.”

She produced a fat blue book from within the folds of her cloak.

Kate blinked. “The Bible? You brought your family Bible?”

“I have.”

“Your father will scold you! It is far too precious to take out here.”

A full Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, printed and bound. Worth many hours of toil and labour.

“He granted me permission. He considers it far too precious to leave upon the shelf.”

“You shall return it when done?”

“That was the agreement. He taught me to read. He sees fit that I should read this.”

“What if it rains?”

“I have my cloak.”


“On the very borders of the plague village? Where Death itself walks? Kate, the people of Eyam scare the worst bandits, and those seek money and not Bibles.”

Kate relaxed.

“I am sorry,” she said. “This is more than I ever expected.”

“I understand. But would you like to hear me read?”

“With all my heart,” said Kate.

Kate walked home that afternoon, the five miles passing as a dream. But the haunting remembrance of Ecclesiastes hovered beside her like a ghost:

For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Kate stopped, and looked back towards the trapped and hapless village. A place snared in an evil time, caught as with London in this net of terrible plague.

Would that Mary live to see better days.

Death found Billy Phillips the night of New Years Eve. A peaceful death, and not from pestilence, a better end than most in these times. He had known one Queen, three Kings, and the rise and fall of the Commonwealth, and yet he left no line or legacy, save his friends, of whom he had many. His wife died before the wars, his last son perished upon the battlefield at Newbury, and he had neither brothers nor sisters, nor even cousins. But he did not leave this world alone. Tideswell villagers mourned Billy as one.

But there was property. No sooner had he been buried – with difficulty, and labour, given the frosts – than Billy’s cottage and chattels were sold off by Rector Merton.

The donkey and cart fell into the hands of George Taylor, a man Kate’s father disliked for having once been found drunk in a ditch. On the Sabbath, no less.

The February snows had lessened, but even wrapped in her thickest wools, Kate shivered atop the cart. The weak and pallid sun gleamed through the clouds, and the trees stood leafless and barren, like so many skeletons.

George Taylor’s eldest son, John, held the reins. Large, muscled, and indisputably handsome, he had earned himself much admiration and notoriety among the maidens of Tideswell. Widow Butcher, old enough to know better, claimed his brown eyes might melt the iciest of hearts.

He did not melt Kate’s heart. Kate did not care much for John Taylor. But he had volunteered to drive the five miles to Eyam to deliver food parcels, and this was Kate’s first chance in months to see Mary again. She had little choice but to accompany him.

“Good news from London,” said John.

Kate said nothing. John went on. Scarfless, he did not seem to feel the cold.

“They say the plague has eased. King Charles shall shortly return to the city.”

“Hooray for the King.”

John laughed. “By my faith, Kate. You are a sour one. Let’s bottle you for vinegar.”

“My only hope is for the pestilence to depart Eyam.”

“Where London leads, Eyam shall follow.”

“As God wills, so it shall be.”

“And what does God will for Kate Pym?”

 She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You are no longer a mere girl, Kate. Your bosom is that of a woman, and your hips are ripe for childbearing. Why do you not seek a husband?”

“It is not my time.”

“Then when?”

“When God decides.”

John Taylor looked at her oddly. They continued in silence for the rest of the journey.

No coins in the boundary stone. The folk of Eyam had naught left to give.

Kate unloaded the parcels, grateful for the warmth of woollen gloves. Then she offered John a frosty farewell, and trudged out across the snow.

“You’re mad, woman!” John called to her.

She did not turn to argue.

Trees haunted Kate all the way to the creek. All shorn of leaves by the dreary season. Branches twisted and gnarled, and powdered with white.

Mary was waiting, a lonely figure in the desolation of winter. Once more, she stood enshrouded by a cloak, this time of thick grey wool. She wore leather gloves to the elbow, and that terrible beaked mask. But it was Mary. Kate knew her companion.

“You live!”

Such weight lifted from my shoulders.

“Aye,” Mary replied. “I am so fortunate. Thanks be to God.”

There was no sitting to enjoy each other’s company, not with the heaviness of the snowdrifts. Kate stood separated not by the trickle of flowing water, but by the harsh and immovable beauty of ice. The creek lay frozen between them, still and silent as the grave.

“I bring no loaf or cheese today,” said Kate. “Tideswell has gifted Eyam another cartload of charity parcels – all we can spare during the February snows.”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Eyam shall not forget. But in truth, we grow desperate. Since we last met, the pestilence has carried off both my mother and Thomas. Richard came down with those dark swellings, and wrestled with death for twelve terrible days, but at last survived. Others are not so lucky. The Thorpes have been wiped from the earth, and mothers bury their children in the cold soil, one by one.”

Would I could take you in my arms, and comfort you. But I cannot. God is watching.

“Your father?”

“He sits gloomily beside the hearth, and mutters of the end of days.”

“Perhaps his trials are ending,” said Kate. “The pestilence in London has eased. It will ease too in Eyam.”

“It shall ease when all lie dead. Pity the last soul, for he must bury the others.”

“Mary, place your trust in God.”

A bitter laugh from behind the beaked mask.

“I cling to Him as a drowning man clings to a raft. But Eyam rots before my eyes. The roofs and roads go unrepaired, the cows go unmilked. Stones chip and stores spoil. The Church gathers dust, for our services must be open-air, even in the whiteness of winter. Men flee one another, knowing at any time they or their children might be struck down. Each one of us waits for Death, Kate. It walks among us, sits at our tables, and sleeps in our beds. We cannot escape it. But I now wonder if madness shall come first.”

Kate shook her head.

“This world is the vale of tears, the place of sorrow. There is naught I can do, and naught you can do, save hold fast to our faith. Let us read His word, and take what comfort we can in the face of death.”

A pause. At last Mary nodded.

“You’re right, Kate. Sorry to have been so sour.”

“No apologies needed. I am not like you, trapped amid the walking dead in a Babylonian Captivity. My mother awaits me in our cottage back in Tideswell, and not beneath the earth. Did you bring your Bible again? If not, I still have my Psalms.”

“I brought it. But rather than Ecclesiastes, I planned something more hopeful…”

The gloom might eat away at her soul, but even amid snow and plague, Kate found warmth in the Gospels, and in the company of Mary. Would that she had the power of Biblical Joshua, to stop the passage of the sun across the sky.

Later, Kate followed her own footprints back over the snow. Beside a tree-trunk, she turned one last time. Mary still stood far-off, beak and cloak outlined against the white fields.

Kate waved.

The figure waved back.

The snows melted, and grass reappeared. Winter turned to spring, and spring to the heat of summer. John Taylor wedded a heavily pregnant Ruth Hadfield in July, and Kate could only shake her head.

News from Eyam suggested the pestilence still ravaged the village. Deliveries of food and supplies continued, but Kate had no chance to see Mary. Not when so much work was needed at home, and her own mother was ailing.

It was early September before Kate could again make the five-mile journey.

“Fire has devastated London,” said Sam. He sat in the driver’s seat, clenching the reins until his knuckles whitened. “St Paul’s Cathedral burned down. Everyone’s homeless.”

It was the third time he’d said this since leaving Tideswell. Kate herself had learned of the Great Fire yesterday. But she let him natter. The afternoon was too hot to yell.

Red-haired and squint-eyed, Sam Hipkins was not the comeliest lad to grace God’s green earth. Nor had God favoured him with brains, though if some mule had kicked him in the head, Kate had never heard. Worse, his family’s views of The Book of Common Prayer left much to be desired. Kate would not accuse Sam of papism – he wasn’t bright enough for that sin – though she did wonder.

The Taylors were dealing with childbirth, so it fell on Sam to deliver the parcels to Eyam. Kate would ensure the food got through. The cart itself… if George Taylor trusted this poor fool to return it in one piece, that was his business. She just pitied the donkey.

But sitting atop the cart meant she tasted a refreshing breeze. To live through this summer had been to endure the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar without divine protection. One sweltering day followed another, trees and grass turned tinder-dry, no-one able to sleep at night… small wonder London had ignited.

Truly, God tested His people.

The grass grew green and lush, and the creek ran as ever. Kate was relieved. She had feared the creek had dried up in the summer heat.

But though she longed to stretch herself out beside the waters, best to hide from the sun. An overhanging willow grew not far off, arching across the creek. Shade, within sight of the meeting-boulder. She trudged over, and nestled down amid the twisted roots.

Slipping off shoes and stockings, Kate dipped her feet into the creek. She found a nice deep hollow. The cool water ran over her ankles, and up to her shins.

So good. So fresh.

Mary had not yet come.

She’ll swelter in that blasted beak.

There was naught to do but wait, and trust that God had again delivered Mary from the plague. The disease had gripped Eyam for twelve terrible months… the end must surely be in sight. They had not been cursed unto the seventh generation.

Kate opened her copy of Psalms, and commenced reading from the beginning.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Dragonflies darted about. One even landed on the page, wings obscuring God’s word.

A flick of the fingers, and Kate chased it away.

Hours passed, and the heat grew less. But the shadows around the creek lengthened, and with them the dread grew in Kate’s heart.

She had talked with Rector Merton, of course. He had written her message as before, including the cryptic reference only Mary would understand. The message had been sent with an earlier delivery, and Kate had come on the appointed day.

So where was Mary?

The plague, you foolish woman. The plague.

Kate continued to read aloud from Psalms.

Her hands shook as she turned the pages. Nor was her mind on these words, for she pondered the verse from Ecclesiastes. The one Mary had read those months ago, as they sat upon the banks of this very creek.

“We have been snared in an evil time,” she whispered.

Tears in her eyes, she offered a desperate prayer to Him.

God is watching.

With the coming of November, the pestilence vanished from Eyam, and the villagers were finally freed from their torment. For fourteen months, the stalwart courage of this brave few had stopped the plague spreading beyond the boundary stones.

Kate knew this well.

Tideswell, as much as Sheffield, owed these people their lives. Eyam had endured in darkness, so that others might walk free beneath the sun. Herself among them.

But standing amid the Eyam cemetery, seeing the graves, row on row, as the dry husks of fallen leaves lay scattered about them…

A dagger in the heart.

Kate turned, and looked Mary in the eye.

“I cannot believe you survived. When you did not meet me beside the creek in September, I feared the worst. That you had followed your mother and brother…”

It was as before. Ere the coming of the pestilence, when all seemed right in the world. Mary was herself again, without that beaked mask. Grey eyes, and cheeks both pink and merry. The autumnal breeze ruffled her dark hair.

But a sorrow still hung over her, one harder to shed.

“I cannot believe I survived either,” said Mary. “I lay abed for weeks, fevered and sweating. Worse even than poor Richard, apparently, and Death shadowed my bedside. Only my father saved me. While Richard tended to the goats and hens, he tended to me. Dour and stubborn old man, he brought me water and broth, until I was well again.”

“He watched over you too.”

“Aye. He did.”

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

“Indeed.” Mary slipped her hand into Kate’s. “Indeed.”

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Daughers of Derbyshire” by Daniel Stride, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Daniel Stride Online

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Sunday, March 17, 2024 - 20:43

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 282 - Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/17 - listen here)


Last month, in the favorite tropes episode on Bluestockings and Amazons, I explicitly said I was not talking about the classical concept of Amazons, but specifically the use of the term for a “sporty” woman, especially one associated with equine activities. So when I was casting about for a topic for this month, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever done an episode on classical Amazons. So I’ll fill that gap now.

Amazons show up regularly in sapphic historic fantasy set in the ancient world, reflecting a modern association with homoeroticism. But when did that association begin? And why are Amazons a continuing theme across western history?

The mythic Amazons had two distinguishing features: they were warriors, and they lived in all-women societies, interacting with men once a year for the purpose of procreation, and raising only female children. When Amazons were taken up as a literary motif or an iconic image, one or both of those features might be emphasized, but the purpose for which those images were used shaped what other feature might be assigned to these women.

Classical Amazons

When we look back into history for Amazons, there are two layers to the evidence. One is the image of the legendary warrior women such as Penthesilea and Hippolyta, the other is the archaeological and cultural evidence that suggests what the legend may have been founded on.

 The more historic side is addressed by authors such as Adrienne Mayor in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, and Lyn Webster Wilde’s On the Trail of The Women Warriors. To sum up: there is strong evidence from the region around the Black Sea of nomadic, horse-riding cultures in which women had high status and participated in warfare. These motifs can be associated with the Scythians and Sarmatians, but similar finds can also be identified in a broader geographic area. While the motif of women warriors has solid evidence among these groups, there is no evidence for single-sex cultural units.

How did that motif arise? One can only speculate, but the supremely patriarchal Greek states must have been a bit traumatized by encountering groups in which women warriors were an ordinary phenomenon—traumatized enough that Amazons became something of an icon of wild peoples living on the fringes of what they considered the civilized world. In Greek art, these warrior women, dressed in trousers and jackets and mounted on horseback, represented the antithesis of Greek culture and must be shown to be defeated in battle to set the world right. (Later Greek art shifts to depicting Amazons in short chitons, similar to what Greek men wore—possibly to allow for showing a bit more skin.)

Still speculating, if you’re a Greek man in a patriarchal society, it might be a natural conclusion that the only context in which women could be warriors would be if there were no men around to put them in their place. In any event, it became a standard part of Amazonian myth that the women lived without men. They needed men to get pregnant, so the idea arose that they met periodically with men from a neighboring tribe—in some versions, men who also lived in a single-sex community—and from the resulting children, raised only the daughters. In some versions, they handed the boys over to their fathers; in a darker version, they killed the boys. Other misogynistic features of the legend are more clearly later additions, such as the idea that the Amazonian archers would cut off their right breast to make it easier to draw a bow.

One popular type of Amazon story in Greek literature was that of the male Greek hero who subdues an Amazon queen, as Heracles or Theseus does with Hippolyta. Or maybe it was Heracles and Melanippe. Or Theseus and Antiope. There are a lot of different versions. Another motif is that of the band of Amazon warriors showing up to participate in Greek wars, as Penthesilea’s band does in the Trojan war. Some of the more legendary biographies of Alexander the Great involve the Amazon queen Thalestris bringing a band of 300 women warriors to join him and having sex with Alexander in hopes of begetting a heroic daughter.

In addition to the legends of Heracles and Theseus, Homer’s Illiad, and the fictionalized Romance of Alexander, Amazons are treated as entirely historic in the 5th century BCE writings of Herodotus, and the 1st century BCE writings of Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. As we move into the common era, references more clearly locate Amazons in the distant past. Virgil brings them into his Aeneid, Suetonius says that the Amazons once ruled a large part of Asia, and many other writers mention them as an accepted part of history, including repeating references to specific named queens and lists of their companions. This fictionalizing tradition in which named Amazons are integrated in both historic and literary works continues on long after the classical era as we shall see.

But what is missing from classical stories about Amazons is any reference to female homosexuality. From one angle, this isn’t entirely surprising. As Sandra Boehringer takes pains to point out, male-authored classical Greek literature is for the most part uninterested in what women might do in bed together. To the extent that Greek writers considered the Amazons historic, it might not have occurred to them that a society of women would have any purpose for sex outside of procreation. And to the extent that Greek writers were telling fictional stories, the purpose of Amazon characters was to be subdued and sexually dominated by men.

It isn’t until later that writers start giving their Amazon characters same-sex desires.

Classical Amazons in Post-Classical Literature

Post-classical references to Amazons alternate between treating them as historical fact and using them as a convenient literary trope. John Mandeville’s highly fanciful 14th century travelogue describes, “Beside the land of Chaldea is the land of Amazonia, that is the land of Feminye. And in that realm is only woman and no man; not as some may say, that men may not live there, but because the women will not suffer men amongst them to be their sovereigns.” Despite the clearly fictional nature of many of Mandeville’s details, the book represents itself as factual.

In contrast, most of the Amazonian references in medieval literature are playing with motifs that, on some level, are recognized as part of a fictional tradition, interweaving them with mythic figures, legendary plots, and Arthurian characters.

Sarah Westphal notes that Amazon characters in medieval and Renaissance literature, rather than functioning as the uncivilized, anti-patriarchal Other of Greek depictions, served as an idealized chivalric figure, combining masculine military ideals with “feminine” characteristics of diplomacy and pragmatism, essential for statecraft. In these stories, we may see a contrast between characters identified as Amazons and those simply identified as female knights. The “lady knights” more often participate in heterosexual love stories—although they may feature as an object of desire for other female characters—while the Amazons represent an overturning of social norms.

A classic example appears in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A sub-story within the poem describes a country of Amazon warrior women, ruled by Queen Orontea that struggles with the hazards of accepting men. But the prominent “warrior woman” characters of Bradamante and Marfisa are not “Amazons” in the sense of belonging to a woman-only culture, even though it is common for them to be referred to as such due to their martial prowess. (On reviewing my notes, I see that in previous episodes I have referred to Bradamante as an Amazon, but on stricter review she doesn’t seem to fall in the strict definition.)  Bradamante does become an object of female desire by the Princess Fiordispina who initially mistakes Bradamante for a man. After this gender confusion is resolved, Fiordispina continues to proclaim her love for the warrior woman and express frustration and uncertainty on how to proceed until all is resolved through Bradamante’s convenient twin brother.

Another contrasting appearance of “lady knights” and Amazons occurs in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen where the virtuous (and hetero-romantic) Britomart is set in opposition to the Queen of the Amazons, Radigund, who has enslaved a number of male knights and degraded them by forcing them to do women’s work. But Radigund’s misandry is framed as the wrath of a woman scorned by a man. It is Britomart who—like Bradamante—unintentionally attracts female desire when taken for a man.

Often, medieval Amazon characters are borrowed from author to author across the centuries. Giovanni Boccaccio’s poem Teseida takes up the story of Hippolyta and Theseus, when the Scythian women break away from men and elect Hippolyta as their queen. Theseus sets out to rectify this situation, forcing Hippolyta to surrender and become his queen, also taking captive Hippolyta’s sister Emilia. Two noble prisoners of Theseus fall in love with Emilia (who only wants to remain single) and bloody tragedy ensues in the fight for Emilia’s hand. Geoffrey Chaucer takes up the story in The Knight’s Tale, following a similar storyline, in which the Amazon Emilia—who petitions the goddess Diana to remain single—becomes the prize in a vicious competition between two suitors. It’s only when William Shakespeare adapts the tale in Two Noble Kinsmen that Amazonian Emilia’s disinterest in her male suitors is hinted to be motivated by mourning the death of her beloved, Flavina. Once again she prays to Diana to allow her to remain unmarried…unsuccessfully. Given Shakespeare’s rather hands-off treatment of female homoeroticism, the intensity of the language used to describe Emilia’s devotion to the late, lamented Flavina is significant and can reasonably place this in the “lesbian Amazons” category.

The framing of Amazons as somewhat essentially masculine contributes to the Amazon romance theme in Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590), where a man disguises himself as an Amazon in order to gain access to his love object who is being secluded from men. The choice of an Amazon as the vehicle of disguise may reflect the idea that it would be less suspicious for an Amazon to act “manly” than for an ordinary woman. Flipping the script on Bradamante, where the maiden mistakenly believes the Amazon is a man and falls in love, in Arcadia, the maiden Philoclea gradually recognizes her desire for the supposed Amazon and struggles with accepting this non-normative romance. Only after Philoclea declares her love is the disguise revealed. Arcadia was adapted multiple times for the stage, as in John Day’s The Isle of Guls (1606) and James Shirley’s The Arcadia (1640) although neither plays out the homoerotic plot quite as satisfyingly.

Denise Walen explores the use of Amazons in 17th century drama to explore themes of praiseworthy versus condemned versions of female homoeroticism, contrasted within the same play. One example of this is The Female Rebellion (1657-59) which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. The spectator is left to draw the expected relationship between homoerotic desire and villainy, and the two chaste and noble Amazons are redeemed with marriages to Scythian men.

Madeleine de Scudéry’s History of Sappho vacillates between following the heteronormative Phaon myth and concluding that the only true form of love is based in female friendship. Her story concludes with Sappho escaping to a utopian land ruled by Amazons and with her male lover accepting the role of devoted female companion.

So we see that while lesbian themes begin to be interwoven in the larger context of Amazonian and pseudo-Amazonian themes, we are only introduced to the possibility of homoerotic desire among Amazons, rather than establishing it as an expectation.

Identifying with Amazons

The prevalence of Amazon imagery in literature made it available to apply to actual women who stepped outside of prescribed roles in similar ways. The Greek historian Niketas Choniates described European women accompanying the second crusade in Amazonian terms: “…riding horseback in the manner of men…bearing lances and weapons as men do…more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea….” Some historians interpret this as a reference to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Some of Joan of Arc’s defenders excused her cross-dressing with references to the legends of Amazons, as well as biographies of transvestite saints and biblical stories of heroic women such as Deborah and Esther.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when individuals assigned female who participated in the military as men were discovered, positive publicity might invoke comparisons to Amazons, while negative reactions leaned on religious prohibitions.

While the literary Amazons discussed previously have been authored by men, when we get to an era when women’s writing is more visible, we see them adopting the Amazon tradition for their own purposes. As Elizabeth Wahl points out, French women active in the Fronde conflict against King Louis XIV saw themselves as part of a tradition of Amazons, although reaction against them resulted in the Amazon becoming a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any sort of public intellectual activity. But images of all-female societies had symbolic meaning for many women intellectuals.

The fashion for—and anxiety about—secret societies in 18th century France was heightened when female societies were involved. One female Freemason lodge specifically titled its leader “Queen of the Amazons” and raised the specter of women forming communities independent of men—a specter that also invoked suspicions of homosexuality.

Extending the Amazon Label

For the most part, in this episode, I’ve been focusing on the image of the Amazon using that name. There is a larger context of individuals or groups of warrior women within patriarchal societies that aren’t directly connected with the Greek legends of the Amazons, but perhaps where westerners applied that label when encountering them.

While Amazons had been restricted to literature for many centuries, during the age of European explorations, imaginations were piqued by the possibility of discovering genuine colonies of women warriors. In an early 16th century sequel to the medieval romance Amadis of Gaul titled The Adventures of Esplandián, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo writes, “Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.” These Amazons were ruled by a queen named Calafia, who takes her army of women warriors, mounted on griffins, to join a battle at Constantinople.

Fiction and reality cross streams, for when Hernán Cortés and his men were poking around the west coast of Mexico, they mistook a long peninsula for an island and named it California after the mythic land. Although it doesn’t appear that Cortés encountered any female warriors, the situation was different when a 16th century colonizing expedition in South America led by Francisco de Orellana was attacked by a band led by women, resulting in the river there being dubbed Rio Amazonas.

Europeans encountering troops of fighting women in Dahomey and other places in Africa, were quick to label them “Amazons” as well, though without an assumption that the represented a gender-separatist culture.

A 17th century account of a Persian court tells that the shah’s harem “went hunting with him dressed as Amazons,” by which we might understand that they appeared to be dressed in masculine clothing for masculine-coded sports. There were traditions of warrior women in Arabic literature, similar to European literature. Both Sahar Amer and Samar Habib discuss the motif of the warrior woman within medieval Arabic literature, identifying the figures as Amazon-like, although the Arabic terms are different. These figures are sometimes depicted as rejecting men and desiring women.  They also often appear as non-Muslim, and the stories’ resolutions typically involve both a religious and sexual conversion to “orthodoxy”, similar to the heteronormative resolutions found in medieval European literature. An example of this character type appears in the story cycle of Dhāt al-Himma in the figure of Nūrā.

Amazons and Lesbians

While modern popular culture, in our more progressive age, tends to see the image of the Amazon as inevitably linked with the idea of same-sex relations, we can see that across history those motifs have played something of a coy dance with each other. Stories of separatist societies of warrior women did not necessarily interrogate the question of what that meant for sexual desire. And when Amazons did have homoerotic encounters in literature, there often seems to be an underlying explanation that it is due to their masculine natures. One book I wish I’d had time to read for this episode looks like it addresses those questions in more detail. This is Kathryn Schwarz’s Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. She notes, “Imagined as embodiments of female masculinity, Amazonian figures stimulated both homoerotic and heteroerotic response…[and] their appearance in narratives disrupted assumptions concerning identity, gender, domesticity, and desire.”

While modern Amazonian fictions such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Wonder Woman in many ways continue the long tradition of the Amazon as a disruptive figure in conventional action-adventure tales, they also bring in—with varying degrees of overtness—a much stronger assumption that homosociality breeds homoeroticism, and that women warriors aren’t necessarily just waiting around for that annual procreative meet-up with the men who are excluded from their society.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 281 - On the Shelf for March 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2024.

The On The Shelf episodes vary a lot in terms of how much content I have. I wouldn’t have predicted that the new book listings would be the one constant back when I set up this format—they weren’t even part of the template originally! But after a couple of bare-bones months, we have a lot to talk about this month.

First off is announcing the fiction line-up for this year. One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect! I haven’t sorted out the order in which they’ll appear, because that can depend on when I locate appropriate narrators, but in no particular order we’ll be publishing the following.

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (And I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

I’m going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators will be welcome!

News of the Field

Listeners are probably aware that I’m fairly active in the science fiction and fantasy community, and wow has the chatter been going at full volume in the last month. The very short version (for those who don’t read my blog regularly) is that the nomination data for the Hugo awards that were given out last year (when Worldcon was held in China) finally was released. And it was immediately apparent from the data that something very strange had happened. In fact, several different very strange things happened. And the people who knew the most about what happened—who, by the way, were non-Chinese members of the convention committee—were not providing much in the way of useful explanation.

Now, poking at strange data and trying figure out how it got that strange is not only something I enjoy, but is also much of what I do for a living. So along with a number of other people I started poking at the data and published a few blogs about what I observed, both on my own and in collaboration with another data geek. This has taken up a fair amount of my so-called free time in the last few weeks.

At this point, it’s clear that there were several types of data manipulation going on that not only resulted in some specific people and publications being removed from the Hugo ballot, but that appear to have systematically suppressed the number of Chinese publications and people from appearing on a ballot that should by all rights have seen them significantly represented. Needless to say, there are people working diligently on making sure that nothing like this can happen again.

Book awards can get an unwarranted amount of attention sometimes. There are always many more excellent books being published than there are awards to recognize that excellence. But if the awards are going to mean anything, the process needs to be transparent and reliable. And last year’s Hugos definitely were not. It will take a while for the community to recover from this. If you want to know more, there’s a link in the show notes to the article “Charting the Cliff” which covers many of the issues.

Publications on the Blog

Given all that, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for only blogging two publications for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project in the last month. One is the pop-history book I mentioned buying last month: A Short History of Queer Women by Kirsty Loehr. As I indicated previously, it’s light and fluffy and not very solid on the history, but it could be a fun read.

The second item was the article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” by Kirsti Bohata, which I read when I was working on the tropes episode about employment-based romances.

Book Shopping!

Shopping netted me one new book this month: The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: 1685-1712. These are the travel journals of a woman who traveled by herself through all the counties of England in the late 17th century. “By herself” meaning with servants, of course. I love this sort of source material for women who did things that run contrary to the historic stereotypes. Not necessarily women who are ”breaking the rules” or becoming social outlaws, but simply ordinary things that get erased from the popular view of women’s history. And, of course, this specific book will be added to the background reading for my planned Restoration-era series.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Speaking of writing, let’s look at the new and recent books. I found five titles from the last few months that I hadn’t identified previously, five March books, and then three titles that I’ll mention in the “other books of interest” segment.

First up we have an American West romance, Above Rubies by Fyn Alexander from JMS Books.

The year is 1885 and all May Jakobsson wants is a home of her own and a woman to love. Leaving behind her poor immigrant family, she claims her one hundred and sixty acres under the Homestead Act in Dakota Territory. Life on the farm is lonely and there seems no hope of meeting the right woman, or any woman with her inclinations. That is, until an itinerant seamstress arrives in town.

When wealthy Boston socialite Temperance Lowell decides to take her sewing machine and travel the rails staying in different towns, she is seeking adventure while escaping Boston where the woman she was having an affair with is getting married. The last thing she expects is to meet a tall, shy woman wearing men’s clothes to whom she is instantly attracted.

Not only does their attachment cause an uproar in the town of Livingstone, especially among the men who were already hostile to a woman like May, and were more than interested in the beautiful and elegant Temperance, but it confuses May who, in her own words, is “as common as the dirt I dig.” Temperance, a little older and very sure of herself, knows May is the woman for her.

Can they make a life together in a rough town among farming folk? Will their love survive the challenges thrown their way?

Next is another romance with a western setting: Silver Heels: Women of the Wild West by Olivia Hampton.

Sabrina was born into wealth and privilege, but after she’s forced to run for her life, she finds herself in the newly formed Colorado Territory, and in the town of Big Antler. Becoming Silver, one of the most popular entertainers on the stage of a seedy theatre named The Pearl was never going to be Sabrina’s first choice for an escape plan, but that’s exactly where she ends up.

Maddie’s spent most of her life in boomtowns. She’s always ready to gamble, just not with her heart. No woman can tie her down. No town can keep her interest for long. A past filled with scars and a need for adventure keep her on the run.

The masked and mysterious Silver, and her devastatingly sexy high heeled shoes, gets Maddie’s attention and fast. The sparks fly faster. But love is dangerous. So is the man hunting for Sabrina. Will they risk it all for love and each other or will they fold under the pressure of their pasts and secrets?

The cover copy for this next book feels a bit over-the-top, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite match the hype. Whispers in the Shadows: The Untold Story of a Love that Defied Convention by Haley Ruby

Step into the enthralling world of "Whispers in the Shadows," a captivating novel that transcends time and convention. This extraordinary tale, set against the backdrop of Victorian England, unveils the forbidden romance between Amelia, a woman of high society, and Charlotte, a spirited artist. Their story is a powerful testament to the enduring strength of love amidst societal constraints.

In the midst of London's rigid societal norms, Amelia and Charlotte's paths cross in a fateful encounter that ignites a passion both profound and forbidden. As they navigate the complexities of their hidden relationship, they confront not only personal conflicts but also the pressures of a society unwilling to accept their love. From secret meetings in moonlit gardens to the grand masquerade balls of London, their journey is one of courage, defiance, and unwavering commitment.

There’s an author’s advisory for Lies that Bind by Rae Knowles & April Yates from Brigids Gate Press that indicates it contains graphic sex and violence and potentially abusive situations.

Lorelei Keyes and Adele Hughes are content, if not entirely happy, running a sham séance business in the English tourist town of Matlock Bath. Lorelei's business savvy and Adele's gift for mimicry provide for their basic needs, but the customers are not the only ones deceived. With the arrival of a mysterious visitor, Viola, the couple finds their long-held secrets under threat of exposure and their quiet life upended. Viola pulls the pair onto a transatlantic crossing bound for Adele's homeland of New York, and the turbulent seas are nothing compared to the treacherous and tawdry happenings aboard the ship. Adele's gifts run much deeper than mimicry. Lorelei's past is more depraved than she lets on. The couple faces the end of their romance, and may stand to lose much more than that if they cannot discern Viola's true intentions before reaching their final destination. Not for the faint of heart, Lies That Bind challenges its readers as it investigates power dynamics, the nature of power, and the ways it can be expressed-whether by domination or self-acceptance; treachery or honesty.

It feels like there’s been a regular theme of sapphic historicals featuring female boxers in the last couple years. This one also tosses in some paranormal elements and is part of a series set in an alternate 1920s world with magic, but it’s the only sapphic entry in the series. Of Socialites and Prizefights (Flos Magicae) by Arden Powell.

When Deepa Patel rejects the wrong man, he curses her: every night, she will transform into a wild animal until her curse is broken by true love’s kiss. The problem is twofold. One: Deepa needs her nights to seduce shallow men into spending money on her—money she desperately needs to buy herself and her mother a better life. Two: she doesn’t believe in love. She’s never met a man she wanted to keep longer than a week, never mind forever.

She never considered her true love might be a woman.

Roz is unlike any of Deepa’s past suitors. She’s working class, with a nose that’s been broken at least once, courtesy of an underground boxing club. And she makes Deepa feel lighter and softer than she ever thought possible. But Roz can’t afford to give Deepa the life of luxury she craves.

Meanwhile, Deepa is posing as a wealthy nobleman's fiancée. There’s no love between them, but his lifestyle is everything she’s ever wanted. Caught between a real relationship and a loveless fake one, Deepa has to choose: give up on her dreams for a chance at true love, or make her dreams come true but stay cursed forever.

Due to the advance scheduling dynamics of indie books versus books from publishers, the March books are mostly the latter. First up is a historic fantasy from this month’s author guest: Song of the Huntress by Lucy Holland from Macmillan.

Britain, 60 AD. Hoping to save her lover and her land from the Romans, Herla makes a desperate pact with the Otherworld King. She becomes Lord of the Hunt and for centuries she rides, reaping wanderers’ souls. Until the night she meets a woman on a bloody battlefield – a Saxon queen with ice-blue eyes.

Queen Æthelburg of Wessex is a proven fighter, but after a battlefield defeat she finds her husband’s court turning against her. Yet King Ine needs Æthel more than ever: the dead kings of Wessex are waking, and Ine must master his bloodline’s ancient magic if they are to survive.

When their paths cross, Herla knows it’s no coincidence. Something dark and dangerous is at work in the Wessex court. As she and Æthel grow closer, Herla must find her humanity – and a way to break the curse – before it’s too late.

Pelican Girls by Julia Malye from Harper has that dancing-around-the-topic language that sometimes leads me to place a book in the “other books of interest” category if I can’t be certain of the sapphic content, but early reviews indicate that there’s a romance between two of the female characters. For those who keep track, this falls more in the literary genre.

Paris, 1720. La Salpêtrière hospital is in crisis: too many occupants, not enough beds. Halfway across the world, France's colony in the wilds of North America has space to spare and needs families to fill it. So the director of the hospital rounds up nearly a hundred female “volunteers” of childbearing age—orphans, prisoners, and mental patients—to be shipped to New Orleans.

Among this group are three unlikely friends: a sharp-tongued twelve-year old orphan, a mute ‘madwoman,’ and an accused abortionist. Charlotte, Pétronille, and Geneviève, along with the dozens of other women aboard La Baleine, have no knowledge of what lies ahead and no control over their futures. Strangers brought together by fate, these brave and fierce young women will face extraordinary adversity—pirates, slavedrivers, sickness, war—but also the private trauma of heartbreak and unrequited love, children born and lost, cruelty and unexpected pleasure, and a friendship forged in fire that will sustain through the years.

Stacy Lynn Miller’s “Speakeasy” series from Bella Books continues with a third volume: Last Barrel.

Three years after Whiskey War, Dax and Rose live the high life at the Foster House, running the poshest speakeasy on the west coast. Half Moon Bay is about to claim its place as the top tourist destination in Northern California, with a second club and the remodeled Seaside Hotel under Grace Parsons’s ownership and Dax’s management. Repeal of Prohibition is on the horizon with the prospect of making their illegal liquor businesses legitimate. Dax’s fractured friendship with Charlie Dawson is the only blowback from her battle with Frankie Wilkes. If she could fix it, her life with Rose would be perfect.

Or so Dax thinks until an election sweeps in Roy Wilkes as the new county sheriff. With the law behind him, he’s hellbent on revenge for the death of his brother in the wake of the whiskey war and puts everyone involved in his crosshairs. On day one, he wreaks havoc in Half Moon Bay with arrests and beatings. Nothing is off the table. No one close to Dax and Rose is safe, and they must leverage every resource to protect the people they love. How far will Dax go? Will beating Wilkes at his game come at too high a price? Who will survive to open the last barrel?

Another book in a continuing series is The Weavers of Alamaxa (Alamaxa #2) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager. This series is inspired by Egyptian history, although set in a world with fantasy elements.

The world is on fire...but some women can control it.

The Daughters of Izdihar—a group of women fighting for the vote and against the patriarchal rule of Parliament—have finally made strides in having their voices heard...only to find them drowned out by the cannons of the fundamentalist Ziranis. As long as Alamaxa continues to allow for the elemental magic of the weavers—and insist on allowing an academy to teach such things—the Zirani will stop at nothing to end what they perceive is a threat to not only their way of life, but the entire world.

Two such weavers, Nehal and Giorgina, had come together despite their differences to grow both their political and weaving power. But after the attack, Nehal wakes up in a Zirani prison, and Giorgina is on the run in her besieged city. If they can reunite again, they can rally Alamaxa to fight off the encroaching Zirani threat. Yet with so much in their way—including a contingent of Zirani insurgents with their own ideas about rebellion—this will be no easy task.

And the last time a weaver fought back, the whole world was shattered.

Two incredible women are all that stands before an entire army. But they’ve fought against power before and won. This time, though, it’s no longer about rhetoric.

This time it’s about magic and blood.

We finish up with a book in Portuguese, Julieta e Cinderela by Vicky Fiorez which blends the characters of Cinderella and Shakespeare’s Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, set in 19th century Verona.

Juliet Capulet is devastated when she discovers that her family arranged her engagement to Romeo Montague, with the intention of ending the bloody feud between the families. But on her first visit to the Montague house, she meets Cinderella, the family's maid who wins her heart with generosity. Divided by class and background, the two find connection, even as the engagement progresses. But the Montagues can be brutal when crossed… [Note: This is a paraphrase of a Google translation of the Portuguese cover copy.]

While we’re talking about non-English books—and I have a couple more on the list for the near future—I’ll mention that the French translation of my book Daughter of Mystery is also coming out in March, after being pushed back for production changes.

Other Books of Interest

I put three titles in the “other books of interest” section, not because there’s any question of the sapphic content, but because they appear to fall more in the erotica category than the historic fiction category. I tread a fine balance here. One of the reasons I generally exclude erotica is because, if I don’t set my search terms to exclude it, I end up wading through an awful lot of male-gaze content that has only the barest acquaintance with historic settings. Even when written for the lesbian market, erotica rarely has a solid historic grounding, tending to fall much farther into the fantasy side of the line. But three titles popped up in my search that some listeners might be inclined to check out further.

Coming of Age (Bintanath #1) by Joan Fennelly is set in the Egypt of the ancient Pharaohs and combines the supernatural with a lesbian relationship.

Jewels of the Harem: Love's Secret Treasures by Lucilla Leigh is set in the harem of the Ottoman palace of Topkapi. In general I’d be wary of orientalist harem fantasies if you’re looking for solid representation of historic cultures.

And the same author has released Victorian Passions: Lesbian Romance Amidst Historical Intrigue which is more or less what it says on the label.

What Am I Reading?

What have I been reading in the past month? One of the books that got caught up in the Hugo award shenanigans was R. F. Kuang’s historic fantasy Babel, about linguistic-based magic and 19th century colonialism. It’s a very powerful book with an ending that found the right balance between tragedy and grim determination. As a linguist, I really enjoyed the magical premise.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up another one of K.J. Charles’ backlist: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I always enjoy Charles’ work but this one didn’t grab me as much as many of her other books.

A different audiobook sale inspired me to get Courtney Milan’s historic romance The Duke who Didn't. I’m having some interesting thoughts about what does and doesn’t throw me out of a historic romance, due to listening to this while also being in the middle of Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. Both books are set in the Victorian period, both are very engagingly written, and both present characters that feel entirely like modern people dressed up in costume. Usually, that’s a “nope” for me. And…it’s sort of a problem for me in both these books? Except I enjoy the quality of the writing enough that I’m just pretending they’re actually contemporaries with a few quirks. But I’m not enjoying them as historic romances. I had a similar issue with Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower and Jane Walsh’s Her Countess to Cherish, except those two didn’t sweep me up in the writing and story enough for me to be able to ignore the modern attitudes and behaviors. And the non-sapphic historical mystery Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley had solid writing chops, but that didn’t make up for the character failing historic plausibility for me. (Although in that case it was slightly different from a modern character, simply one that didn’t make sense in her own time.) So I’ve been pondering the interactions of these elements in terms of which directions a book can fail me and still leaving me glad I’d read it.

Author Guest

We’ll finish up this month’s episode with an interview with Lucy Holland.

(Interview will be included in the transcript when it has been transcribed.)

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

Links to Lucy Holland Online

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Saturday, February 24, 2024 - 13:37

The analysis I did in two previous blogs (part 1, part 2) has been incorporated into a much broader and more detailed analysis by Camestros Felapton, and published under both our names (but be aware that he did a much larger proportion of the work). He introduces the report on his blog here, but the report and its associated data tables are being hosted by File 770 here.

While I sympathize with a certain sentiment that enough time and attention has been invested in hashing over "what happened" (to the extent we can sort that out), I feel there's still value in putting together a historic record of what we know and don't know for posterity. So I may be posting a few more, tight-focus discussions on the topic.

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Monday, February 19, 2024 - 07:00

I really really mean to get back on a regular schedule of LHMP blogs. Silly things like analyzing Hugo voting statistics and internet interruptions and processing the fiction submissions keep getting in the way. But each day is a new chance to get back on track.

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Full citation: 

Bohata, Kirsti. 2017. “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” in Victorian Literature and Culture 45:2 pp.341-359

I read this article when working on the trope podcast about employment-related romances, but it’s taken a while to turn my highlighted copy into a useful write-up. People looking for pre-20th century sapphic-leaning fiction might want to check out some of the titles listed.

In addition to the economic dynamics of domestic employment, the mistress-maid relationship as depicted in 19th century fiction brings in themes of loyalty, devotion, and female alliance, although the last is mostly a fictional invention. When servants feature in fiction (which is rare) these conditions create a homoerotic potential. Two women, separated by class but existing in close physical proximity, invite images of unrequited love and yearning, and sometimes their fulfillment. Conversely, the appearance of an employment relationship may serve as cover for a queer relationship. Most of the stories examined in this article involve layers of misdirection, both cross-class and cross-gender.

Some novels may use the context of domestic employment in order to be able to address love between women, leveraging the allowance that women were offered for open homoeroticism (which is not to say, open lesbianism). Some authors may have intended to depict desire between women, others may have used the motif more obliquely to address other topics.

The texts examined here include Amy Dillwyn’s quasi-autobiographical novel Jill (1884), Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1897 story “Martha’s Lady”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story “Miss Grief”, and Edith Wharton’s 1902 story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.”

The potential for the hazards of cross-class intimacy was recognized in domestic handbooks that instructed on the proper relations between employers and servants. Female servants were often viewed as sexually suspect, either being available [note: this is an odd term for a situation often void of consent], or prone to lesbianism due to sharing beds, or engaging in erotic play with children in the household that they were responsible for. Outside the household, upper class people could find an erotic potential in deliberately crossing class boundaries (slumming). For women, the charitable impulse to help poor and “fallen” women might partake of this similar fascination with the other end of the class spectrum.

Within the mistress-maid relationship, several dynamics with erotic overtones are present: dominance/subservience, ritualized interactions especially around personal care access to private spaces—the ordinary activities of a servant can be hard to untangle from spying and eavesdropping.

Within the stories under consideration, the relationship between employer and employee takes various forms: unrequited desire, chivalry, spiritual sublimation, jealousy, and female marriage. The imbalance of class power within the relationship can be balanced by a tendency to masculinize the role of servant, thus creating a power dynamic at cross-purposes. In “The Grey Woman” this masculinization is overt, with the servant cross-dressing to rescue her mistress from domestic abuse, and then adopting the role of husband and protector. Servants are often depicted as stronger, more clever, and more resourceful [note: allowing the character of the mistress to fulfill the feminine ideals of passivity]. Conversely, the social power of the mistress may manifest as pressuring the employee for an unsolicited erotic relationship.

When the relationship between mistress and maid is too close, it is viewed as disruptive to the household and even sinister. The servant who dominates her employer is framed as a villain and their bond can make the danger concrete if they conspire against the man of the house. If such a bond is disrupted, then a jealous response may make the underlying nature of their relationship clear. Such boundary-crossing themes brought cross-class romance into the popular realm of sensational fiction.

Even as the vocabulary of sexology introduced ways of pathologizing desire between women, writers who wanted to address themes of same-sex love used the employment relationship as a framework to do so. In the story “Martha’s Lady” the yearning of a servant for the women she temporarily attends becomes a life-long spiritual ennoblement, finally requited when the two are reunited in old age. In “Miss Grief” the narrator mistakes a woman’s devoted companion for her maid, erasing their marriage-like relationship under the veil of a more conventional image.

The issues of how class differences stand in the way of potential romantic connections are brought to the fore in Jill, when a young runaway of good family takes on the role of lady’s maid in order to see the world. The title character is aware of her social equality with her employer, with the story focusing on the physical intimacy of their interactions, but Jill cannot take a further step or confess her desire without revealing the cross-class disguise and is left with what-if fantasies, until a dramatic and gothic climax breaks down the barriers when they are imprisoned together in a tomb. (The article returns to the motif of the servant character being masculinized, both in description and in agency.)

In summing up the themes of the article, the author notes that she has tried to avoid ahistorical assignment of lesbian identity, while noting that the disruptive potential of desire within a cross-class context allows for the subtle (or not so subtle) introduction of eroticism.


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Sunday, February 18, 2024 - 10:44

I've received all the contracts and sent off the royalty payments so it's time to announce the 2024 Fiction series! In no particular order:

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect!

It does mean that I'm going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators. In particular, I'm looking for narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators welcome!


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Saturday, February 17, 2024 - 16:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 280 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 12: Bluestockings and Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/17 - listen here)


This rather short episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes.” As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

The usual premise of this series is to examine how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. But in some cases, you have a trope that is specific to female couples—whether it’s rooted in history or has arisen within modern romantic fiction.

Today’s episode is focused on one of the former: two character types that are specifically associated with sexually transgressive women, and that are sometimes intersected as a natural couple: the bluestocking and the amazon. In this case, by “amazon” I don’t mean the probably-mythical all-female tribe immortalized in Greek myth, but rather the “sporty” woman, the jock, if you will, who were nicknamed “amazons” in early modern Europe. As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

Although this trope may feel like a special case of the butch-femme couple (which needs to be considered on its own), there are some important differences. Both the “amazon” and the bluestocking transgress against ideas of conventional femininity of their time.

The Athlete

The amazon is an athlete, often specifically associated with horseback riding, who partakes of physical activities that were typically considered unfeminine. We’re talking about women of the leisure class here, because obviously working class women didn’t have the choice to avoid intense physical activity. For those with the privilege to be physically idle, the choice to engage in sports was considered a risk to femininity—not simply on a behavioral basis, but also on a physiological basis. Too much exertion, it was feared, would damage the reproductive organs and thus make a woman unfit for her expected role.

It wasn’t simply that the active, horseback-riding woman set herself apart from conventional femininity, but she intruded herself into spaces that men might consider to be a private “old boys club.” She hunted. She raced. She drove her own carriages. She moved within male society to participate in those activities in ways that would be indecorous without the excuse of the sport. Or, in a somewhat later era, in the context of all-female schools, she might participate in field sports as part of a women’s team. She might expect to be admired and valued for her physical prowess in the same way a man would be.

The amazon often had a distinctive appearance, as I discuss in the show on the development of butch imagery. The amazon “uniform” often involved wearing masculine-style coats over their skirts. (And until the very end of the 19th century, skirts were still involved, even if a rider wore pants under them.) Even when not presently involved in riding, the riding habit was the default uniform of the amazon. This was not cross-dressing in the usual sense, but the clothing borrowed the tailoring of men’s active wear and the decorative details of military uniforms.

The amazon might be thought of as a grown-up tomboy. She might—if her social standing were solid enough—be treated as something of a mascot by the men in her social circle. Not accepted as an equal, but viewed as an approved exception, so long as things didn’t go too far.

The Intellectual

The specific term “bluestocking” wasn’t invented until the mid-18th century when Elizabeth Montagu presided over the English literary salon known as the Blue Stockings Society, named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. But women as intellectuals had been challenging gender stereotypes for much longer. As I discussed in the episode on various waves of feminist sentiment across the centuries, women who pursued learning, philosophy, and science were considered to be infringing on masculine territory and—just as with physical pursuits—might be felt to be endangering their mental and reproductive health. The intellectual world was supposed to be the provenance of men. Women simply didn’t have the chops, and if they tried—poor dears—they might sprain their brains.

The answer women found was to create social circles where they set the rules and the agenda. Within those circles, they could thrive and support each other. But creating a group identity also attracts group stereotypes, and in various ages the image of the intellectual woman became associated with certain characteristics and labels.

A common theme was that if women devoted their time and energy to learning, they must necessarily be neglecting the pursuit of beauty and fashion. So whether it was the précieuses of the 17th century, the French salon movement, the English bluestockings, or the late 19th century “new women,” such women were accused of being frumpy and unfashionable, or dull and pedantic, or frigid and undesirable. It was difficult for a woman to devote herself to learning if she married, so female intellectuals became synonymous with spinsters.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

But now let’s introduce our two characters to each other: the sporty, freewheeling amazon and the brilliant, ink-stained bluestocking. The jock and the nerd, in an earlier age. They both stand slightly outside conventional society. They both reject the norms of femininity of their time. And they both long to find someone who accepts and appreciates them for who they are and the things they love—even if they both love different things. And perhaps even more relevant, they are both considered to have poor chances on the marriage market.

What more natural pairing than to bring them together? The bluestocking will admire the amazon’s energy and boldness. The amazon will be in awe of the bluestocking’s wit and conversation. And—for that matter—there’s no reason why their attributes need be completely separate. If you introduce them to an environment such as a women’s college, it might be a natural for both women to embrace both their physical and intellectual aspirations.

In the context of these character types, I’ve regularly trotted out the example of Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia with the not entirely sympathetic depiction of what is clearly a romantic couple: the Amazonian Miss Sandford and bluestocking Lady Cornelia. Once you strip away the novel’s misogyny, we see Miss Sandford in her military-style riding habit, riding to the hunt fearlessly and declaring her firm intention never to marry, and her close companion the “learned and scientific” Lady Cornelia who refuses to be embarrassed by the depth of her learning.

I confess that I’m excessively fond of the amazon-bluestocking pairing myself, as readers might guess from the characters of Barbara and Margerit in my Alpennia series. It’s a way of setting up a romantic couple who are misaligned with the conventional expectations for a woman’s life, but in a way that draws on archetypes that are solidly grounded in the culture of their times. Introduce them to each other and watch the sparks fly!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The archetypes of the bluestocking and the amazon and why they make a natural romantic pairing

A transcript of this podcast is available here.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Saturday, February 3, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 279 - On the Shelf for February 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2024.

Since it’s February, that means that submissions are closed for this year’s fiction series. But since I’m recording this in January, it means that I haven’t started reading the submissions yet and certainly haven’t made the selections yet. So watch the blog for that news. Based purely on what I’ve seen when logging in the submissions as they come, there are some interesting shifts this year. But there’s also a bit of disappointment that the numbers of submissions are on the low side. All this will be taken into account when I decide whether to continue the fiction series next year.

On the personal side, I dodged another layoff at work but this time I’m a bit disappointed, because the layoff package would have taken me out pretty close to my planned retirement date. Ah well, still another year and change to go. Also on the personal side, I have a change to a book that was in the January listings. The French translation of Daughter of Mystery got a title change, which required pushing the release date a bit later. So now it will be coming out in March as L’Héritière des Mystères. (Sorry about my French.) I also just signed the contract for a short story in an upcoming anthology from Bella Books, so more on that when a date is set.

Publications on the Blog

After pledging last month to get back on a weekly schedule for new articles on the blog, I only managed one last month: Liza Blake’s article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” which was background reading for last month’s essay show.

But if you’re one of the folks who reads the blog, you’ll also see I’ve been posting some analysis on the rather peculiar data for last year’s science fiction and fantasy Hugo Awards. If you enjoy geeking out on statistics and data analysis, you might want to take a look. But behind that data is a community upset that a process that has always previously been relatively transparent and reliable has shaken our trust in the system.

Book Shopping!

I picked up one new book for the blog, though it will probably get just a brief high-level review. This is Kirsty Loehr’s A Short History of Queer Women. Loehr’s book isn’t meant to be serious academic history—more of a satirical and lighthearted survey of lesbian icons through the ages. Don’t go to it for research, but it might amuse you for an afternoon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Which brings us to the new fiction. I have a few catch-up titles from December and January, starting with Alice: A Ghost Story by Mats Evensson. Evidently this gothic tale uses the same setting as a previous book by the same author, The Beast of St Ender, however that one doesn’t have sapphic content.

1844, England. Alice Reed, a promising young reporter, is sent to interview the reclusive Baron Thornbow when her coach crashes. Barely surviving the accident, Alice finds herself in the baron’s ancient mansion, haunted by strange occurrences—and caught in a perilous game of cat and mouse with a vengeful spirit hellbent on her demise.

Amid this swirling nightmare, Alice finds friendship—and perhaps more—in the baron’s entrancing maid, Miss Poole. Together, they must stop the malevolent entity before Alice’s very soul is lost forever.

This next title appears to be erotica, which I usually filter out in my search terms, but the premise and setting are rather interesting. This is The Belle (One of the Outcasts #1) by Violet Knight.

Set against the backdrop of Queen Mary I's reign in England, this romantic tale follows Antoinette, a French gardener navigating the complexities of life in a foreign land. Battling the scars of betrayal from her homeland, Antoinette's world transforms when she encounters Lady Lavinia St. Claire, a Deaf noblewoman.

Before she ever meets her and knows her name, Antoinette calls Lavinia "the belle." Lavinia's intense beauty attracts Antoinette, but signing with one another makes her fall in love.

The Knowing by Emma Hinds from Bedford Square Publishers is a historic fantasy set in the later 19th century and inspired by real people such as Maud Wagner, one of the first known female tattoo artists.

Whilst working as a living canvas for an abusive tattoo artist, Flora meets Minnie, an enigmatic circus performer who offers her love and refuge in an opulent townhouse, home to the menacing Mr Chester Merton. Flora earns her keep reading tarot cards for his guests whilst struggling to harness her gift, the Knowing - an ability to summon the dead. Caught in a dark love triangle between Minnie and Chester, Flora begins to unravel the secrets inside their house. Then at her first public séance, Flora hears the spirit of a murdered boy prostitute and exposes his killer, setting off a train of events which put her life at risk.

Historical fiction takes a wide variety of approaches to dealing with the realities of past ages. Beards by Cheyenne Isles depicts one survival mechanism in the mid 20th century.

As soon as she was old enough to escape her prejudiced Georgia hometown, Audra Lynch ran away to New York looking for the freedom to be herself. It was there that she met the beautiful Vivian Porter whom she fell deeply in love with. Everything about her was perfect, except for one thing: she was married. The marriage, however, wasn’t what it seemed. Her husband, Nathan, was gay and in a relationship with his longtime partner William McMahon.

Five years later, in 1959, Audra and William find themselves following in their partners’ footsteps and preparing for a wedding of their own to help hide the truth about their relationships. As the date draws nearer, Audra begins to question their decision when she starts feeling as trapped as she did back in Georgia. While she contemplates her upcoming nuptials to William, Vivian and Nathan find themselves faced with a big decision: one that could impact all their lives.

Moving on to the February releases, we start with what might be characterized as “Biblical fan-fiction” in The Scrolls of Deborah (Desert Songs Trilogy #1) by Esther Goldenburg from 100 Block by Row House. I have to confess I find the cover copy to be a bit over-the-top dramatic, but I’ll read it as-is.

The Scrolls of Deborah transports us to the awe-inspiring landscapes of the past and uncovers the intertwined lives of Rebekah, a revered matriarch in Judaism, and her devoted handmaiden Deborah. In this mesmerizing tale, their strength, wisdom, and love take center stage, shaping their destinies amid a world steeped in tribal tradition.

With poignant vulnerability, The Scrolls of Deborah, a work of Biblical fiction and the first installment of the Desert Songs Trilogy, illuminates the hidden stories of these remarkable women, whose pivotal roles have often been overshadowed. Against the backdrop of the desert and the opulence of palaces, the narrative weaves a tapestry of captivating tales. Each page reveals stories filled with heartbreak and inspiration, leaving an indelible mark on the very fabric of religious thought.

Through the telling of Deborah’s day-to-day life, the book exposes the profound beauty of connection and community, showcasing the transformative power of shared experiences. It invites readers to witness the immense strength found in the bonds between women and how their choices reverberate across generations.

The Scrolls of Deborah is a testament to the enduring legacy of these extraordinary women whose stories challenge and reshape our understanding of history, faith, and the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.

In the current fashion for spinning off a sapphic novella from a primarily heterosexual historic romance series, we have Letters to Her Love (Northfield Hall Novellas #3) by Katherine Grant.

Louisa Hoggart is about to leave Northfield Hall. Her charge, Miss Caroline Preston, is fully grown and hardly needs a governess anymore. Even more exciting, Louisa plans to move to London as a children’s author. She just has one major task left: help Miss Preston host her first house party.

Opera singer Elena Zilio accepts her invitation to the Northfield Hall house party for the free room and board. She also hopes to find a new protector for herself and her eight-year-old daughter. When she hears Louisa Hoggart will be at the party, she is excited to reconnect with an old acquaintance.

It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two women. Yet what Louisa recognizes as attraction, Elena labels as friendship. Armed with nothing but her pen and big dreams for the future, can Louisa convince Elena to take a chance on the feelings swirling between them?

This next book sounds like it’s a fantasy set in a turn of the 20th century re-named Paris, but it isn’t entirely possible to tell how rooted in real-world history it is: The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton from Peachtree Teen.

After running away from home, Sybil Clarion is eager to embrace all the freedom the Belle Époque city of Severon has to offer. Instead, she’s traded high-society soirées for empty pockets. At least she has Esme, the girl who offered Sybil a home, and if either of them dared, something more.

Ever since Esme Rimbaud brought Sybil back to her flat, the girls have been everything to each other—best friends, found family, and secret crushes. While Esme would rather spend the night tinkering with her clocks and snuggling her cats, Sybil craves excitement and needs money. She plans to get both by stealing the rare posters that crop up around town. With rent due, Esme agrees to accompany—and more importantly protect—Sybil.

When they’re caught selling a poster by none other than its subject, Maeve, the glamorous girl invites Sybil and Esme to The Absinthe Underground, the exclusive club she co-owns, and reveals herself to be a Green Faerie, trapped in this world. She wants to hire thieves for a daring heist in Fae that would set her free, and is willing to pay enough that Sybil and Esme never have to worry about rent again. It’s too good of an offer to pass up, even if Maeve’s tragic story doesn’t quite add up, and the secrets could jeopardize everything the girls have so carefully built.

Other Books of Interest

Perhaps that last book should have been put in the “other books of interest” group instead, which has several entries this month.

The Fox Maidens by Robin Ha from Balzer + Bray gets the “other interest” category because it’s entirely too coy about the hinted queer content.

Kai Song dreams of being a warrior. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father, the commander of the Royal Legion. But while her father believes in Kai and trains her in martial arts, their society isn’t ready for a girl warrior.

Still, Kai is determined. But she is plagued by rumors that she is the granddaughter of Gumiho, the infamous nine-tailed fox demon who was killed by her father years before.

Everything comes crashing down the day Kai learns the deadly secret about her mother’s past. Now she must come to terms with the truth about her identity and take her destiny into her own hands. As Kai desperately searches for a way to escape her fate, she comes to find compassion, and even love, in the most unexpected places.

Set in sixteenth-century Korea and richly infused with Korean folklore, The Fox Maidens is a timeless and powerful story about fighting for your place in the world, even when it seems impossible.

Guide Us Home by Jesse J Thoma & CF Frizzell from Bold Strokes Books is a contemporary story with cross-time elements from an old book.

Nancy and Sam have no intention of playing nice. Each aims to win the bid for the abandoned Narragansett Island Lighthouse, and compromise isn’t in the cards. It’s preservation versus profit, but the lighthouse’s dissatisfied governing board insists on better from both women.

Ironically, a battered old book at the lighthouse just might provide the key to success. Inspiring parallels are discovered in the dog-eared pages: the struggles, dreams—and love—between two Danish women braving WWII’s desperate days, guided by a valiant lighthouse they know well.

The heroic tale could navigate Nancy and Sam to success, if they stop floundering long enough to see love coming to their rescue.

And finally, An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson from Redhook is decidedly unclear about whether it has a historic setting. The implication is there. And I think perceptive readers will spot the references to a gothic classic.

Deep in the forgotten hills of Massachusetts stands Saint Perpetua’s College. Isolated and ancient, it is not a place for timid girls. Here, secrets are currency, ambition is lifeblood, and strange ceremonies welcome students into the fold. 

On her first day of class, Laura Sheridan is thrust into an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Together, they are drawn into the confidence of their demanding poetry professor, De Lafontaine, who holds her own dark obsession with Carmilla. 

But as their rivalry blossoms into something far more delicious, Laura must confront her own strange hungers. Tangled in a sinister game of politics, bloodthirsty professors and magic, Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.   

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? I seem to have a lot of books in-process at the moment: five different ebooks, two audiobooks, and a couple of hard copies. But only two titles that I finished in January.

First is Perfect Rhythm by Jae, which I confess I’d been putting off because I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the book being promoted as “the” book to read for lesbian romance with an asexual character. Unfortunately, I found the asexual representation to be decidedly unsatisfying. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I’ll save them for a different venue.

I also listened somewhat randomly to a historic mystery, A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn because it was in an Audible two-for-one sale and looked interesting. Alas, I found the heroine unlikeable, especially for how much latitude she was willing to give the awful male co-protagonists. So January was a bit of a wash. But somewhere in those nine books in progress, I’m sure to find something that hits the spot.

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

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Thursday, February 1, 2024 - 10:10

Submissions are now closed for the 2024 fiction series. I'll start reading and making decisions over the next week and should have offers out by the weekend of Feb 10/11.

2024 tied for second place in the number of submissions. Based on what I've seen in people's cover emails, this may be the most diverse year yet in terms of author backgrounds and story settings. (I don't require author details in the cover email, so I'm basing this on incomplete information.) About 40% of the submissions arrived in the last 3 days of the month, which tends to make me nervous about numbers. There were 2 years when submissions came in at a more steady rate, but the last minute rush is a bit more typical.

I'll probably chat more about trends in the submissions after I've announced the line-up. And once again I swear that I'm going to work on lining up narrators well in advance, even though I know how that resolution has gone in the past.

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