I asked Twitter for a topic to write about--something frivolous, since I've been focusing so much on promotion lately--and Chasia Lloyd (@WriterCMLloyd) came through with, "What fashion trend do you wish would come back in style?"
I have an uneasy relationship with fashion and style. I spend a lot of time resisting the notion that I should put a lot of effort into "performing" through my appearance, rather than focusing on performing through accomplishments. I also sometimes let myself be manipulated by the desire to avoid attracting certain types of attention through dress. I blogged about that last year.
But today I'm going to answer in a totally frivolous context, rather than a sociological one.
The fashion that I love, and that I'd love to have the guts and the excuse to wear on a regular basis, is 1720s-1730s western European upper class men's wear. The embroidered waistcoats! The bright, full-skirted coats with the enormous cuffs and pocket flaps, all picked out with gold or silver braid! The buttons! And, of course, swaggering around with a gilded walking stick. *swoon* This sort of thing.
I've actually made a couple of dressy business suits that were inspired by that era, though I rarely have an appropriate context for wearing them. They're both a bit too dressy for the occasions at work when I might wear a suit, and yet at the same time, too subdued to fulfill my fashion fantasies. But there you go: the style I wish would come back so I'd have an excuse to wear it.
OK, let's just plunge into this.
It is, I suppose, a testament to Burnett's talent that the character of Ram Dass as an interesting, sympathetic, inventive, witty, and accomplished human being shines through from under the layers of Orientalism, condescention, and an oblivious racism that is shared by both the author and the viewpoint character. As the barest of backgrounds: Sara is up in the attic, taking a brief opportunity to view a gorgeous sunset through her garret window, when Ram Dass appears in the corresponding window of the house next door, holding a pet monkey. They acknowledge each other wordlessly, and then the monkey escapes and makes for Sara's open window, precipitating a closer encounter. Sara invites the man to climb over to her attic to catch the monkey. (I suppose we should imagine this to be a set of connected row houses, based on this scene and later ones.) He does so, gets a good look at her living conditions, thanks her, and leaves again.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on Ram Dass's subservient manner and his verbal performace of respect and gratitude. "He poured forth a flood of respectful thanks. ... [he] thanked Sara profoundly ... as if he were speaking to the little daughter of a rajah ... those moments were given to further deep and grateful obeisance." But his manner is not simply presented as a performance. And it never seems to occur to Sara that it is a performance, as opposed to a spontaneous expression of inner nature. When Sara reflects that, in her old life in India, she was "surrounded by people who all treated her as Ram Dass had treated her; who salaamed when she went by, whose foreheads almost touched the ground when she spoke to them, who were her servants and her slaves," she finds irony that she, who had been set so high is now insulted and mistreated by the other servants of the school. But it never seems to occur to her to map her experience onto those "servants and slaves" and recognize their equal personhood.
Well, no, why would it? This is a story about Sara's inherent nobility, not about her being a class revolutionary. And so she accepts the respect of Ram Dass as her due--as a reminder of a now-lost world. And that reminder inspires her to re-dedicate herself to being a princess, in behavior if not in station. I want to come back to Sara's peculiar notion of what it is to be a princess, but this entry is about Ram Dass.
It would be more comfortable if we were able to to read Ram Dass's behavior purely as a performace of servitude, necessary for comfortable survival in his situation of employment. But the authorial voice of Burnett disrupts this possibility by assigning elements of this performance as essential characteristic. When Sara greets him in Hindi, "The truth was that the poor fellow felt as if his gods had intervened, and the kind little voice came from heaven itself." (Note that if we are reading Ram Dass correctly as a Sikh, then "his gods" is wildly inaccurate, as Sikhism is monotheistic. So it's quite likely that despite the cultural trappings of the Sikh religion, the author is presenting him as relgiously Hindu. Or we can just chalk this up to an error from ignorance.)
There continues to be an interesting conflict between interpreting offensive stereotypes as authorial truth and as meta-performance. Ram Dass inhabits the trope of the "Ethnic Magician", but in a way that is explicitly fictional. That is, he is never ascribed actual supernatual power, but rather he is assigned--and takes up--the role of magician in being the driving engine (and most likely the mastermind) behind the "magical" transformation of Sara's attic, later in the story. Jumping ahead, we are repeatedly told of his ability to move soundlessly and invisibly, to observe without being obeserved. And in his discussions with Mr. Carrisford, the image of the magician is repeatedly invoked: "When she awakens [to the transformed attic] she will think a magician has been here." Mr. Carrisford's secretary tells him, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."
In addition to tropes of supernatural Orientalist fantasy, Ram Dass is occasionally infantilized--he does not simply enjoy things, he experiences "a childlike pleasure" or is "filled with rapture" (a description he shares with Becky). On one element under this general umbrella, I will acquit Burnett. When Ram Dass describes how he would sneak across the roof at night to spy on Sara in her bedroom, the lack of any whiff of a sexual element is not a specific desexualization of Ram Dass but a blanket desexualization of the story entirely.
It is not enough simply to say that the book is a product of it's times, or that Burnett is actually quite enlightened in how she presents Ram Dass for her day and age. One of the reasons I have labeled this series as a "problematic favorite" is that I recognize that the presentation of his character is offensive and riddled with stereotypes, and that this presentation goes unchallenged even by the nominally enlighted protagonist. Despite the positive character traits that shine through it all, I squirm every time I read or listen to these passages. (In the same way I squirm every time Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy gets to the Jewish moneylender chapter. Though it isn't nearly as bad as that one.)
Next week, I'll tackle Sara's rather startling choice of Marie Antoinette as a role model.
In presenting teasers for Mother of Souls, I find myself jumping around a little. Since I'll mostly be choosing "atmosphere" scenes, in order to avoid spoilers, I hope no one will find it confusing. (I make no promises about spoilers for the first two books. If you don't want those, then go out and read them already!) Today's excerpt skips back to Chapter 2, Barbara's first chapter, when she has finally traveled to take formal possession of her new lands in Turinz.
I am inordinately fond of the supporting character René LeFevre, Margaret's business manager and Barbara's oldest friend from when he served in the same capacity for the late Baron Saveze. He was a significant presence in Daughter of Mystery, not least because he served as a foundation stone for both women as they struggled through the changes in their lives. I've been sorry that there hasn't been a good opportunity to continue that level of presence, but I have a lot of characters to juggle and the women come first. It's quite possible that, at some point, I'll feature LeFevre in one of the stand-alone short stories I have planned. (It's how I console myself when I cut various subplots from the novels. It's also a way of getting around some of the rules I have for viewpoint characters in the novels--though those may soften up eventually.)
But in Mother of Souls, I provide a bit of context for why LeFevre might be stepping a bit more into the background of the action.
* * *
[From Chapter 2]
LeFevre ran a hand through his thinning hair leaving an uncharacteristically unkempt look, then drew off his spectacles and closed his eyes briefly. “We’ll need to find someone trustworthy to take on the management here. Someone local who knows all the secrets, and then a second clerk to keep him honest. And you should find someone in Rotenek to oversee the Turinz accounts separately.”
“Separately?” Barbara was startled. “Do you expect it to be that much work?”
He shuffled the papers before him and stacked them neatly. Barbara knew it for a delaying move. It was a habit of his before opening a delicate subject.
That caught her attention. He hadn’t addressed her by her Christian name since the day Prince Aukust had set the signet of Saveze on her finger.
“Barbara, I’m not a young man. Haven’t been for a very long time. With Maisetra Sovitre’s properties, and your lands in Saveze…I don’t think I can do justice to another entire estate.”
Barbara examined him closely. Did he indeed look more tired than usual or was he only now allowing it to show? Or had she simply not been paying attention? There had been a time in her life when that inattention could have been fatal. She tried to remember LeFevre’s age. Near what her father’s had been. Marziel Lumbeirt had fallen before his time, but… She felt a worm of fear. In many ways, LeFevre had been more of a father to her than the old baron had been. How could she not have taken more care for him?
“Of course,” she said quickly. “We’ll find someone. Perhaps it might be better to appoint separate managers for all of the properties. That would leave you to review accounts and read their reports.”
LeFevre let his breath out in a sigh. “I don’t know. That’s becoming the worst of it. The reading. My eyes. Mostly Iannipirt reads for me these days, but…”
Barbara followed his thoughts. A clerk who could no longer read was crippled indeed, even with as faithful a secretary as Iannipirt at his side. “Why didn’t you ask Ianni to come with you? He would always be welcome at Saveze.”
“I didn’t want to say anything,” LeFevre continued. “It comes and goes. And Ianni spends the summer with family. The holiday is good for both of us.”
Barbara reached out and took his hand. “You should have told me. Did you think I’d turn you out into the street?”
They both laughed at that. He had enough properties and investments of his own in Rotenek to live comfortably. But most of his life had been given in service to Saveze. It must pain him to admit his growing incapacity.
One of the questions raised by today's LHMP post is, "What does it meant to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" especially in an era with different categories and expectations than our own. I raised a similar question in yesterday's blog about queer characters in historical fiction. When we write a character in a historic setting, we're telling two stories: the story of how that character relates to the past, and the story of how that character relates to present-day readers. When the character and the readers fit into cultural defaults (e.g., straight, white, middle-to-upper class, and usually male) the necessary distinctions between those two stories are not as often challenged as when either character or readers are marginalized. If someone had written a study of Katherine Phillips that presented the passionate expressions in her poetry as nothing more than metaphor, and her relationships with women as simply very close friendships, they would not feel the need to proclaim, "Katherine Phillips, Straight Poet".
Fiction is a great way to break through those quiet assumptions about the past, which is why I'm once again going to plug the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle as a great way to enjoy both rip-roaring adventures and non-default characters. (You knew I was going to find a way to do that, didn't you?)
* * *
A lot of good blog topics start out, “So somebody asked me about....” Well, nobody asked me about this, but it would be a very excellent question and I’m kind of surprised nobody has. Let’s pretend it happened. So nobody asked me, “Heather, given that you write stories with lesbian protagonists, why the heck do you put them in oppressive historic settings? Why not put them in contemporary settings? After all, it’s rather an exciting time to be non-heterosexual in the USA. Or why not put them in futuristic settings where we can imagine that prejudice will be entirely eliminated? If you’re going to create secondary world fantasies, why use ones that carry over prejudice from our own past? Why not create a fantasy world -- even a pseudo-medieval one -- where being LGBTQ simply isn’t an issue?”
I wrote a blog with that opening paragraph back two years ago. And my answer boils down to this: I refuse to cede history to straight people. I refuse to let stand the position that same-sex desire was invented by late 19th century sexologists. That lesbian history started in the ‘50s with butch-femme culture. That the only pre-20th century gay stories are tragic ones. I refuse to accept that it is not possible to find and write satisfying historic novels about queer people. I refuse to yield the stage, abandoning it to default to straight actors. I love the rich and detailed tapestry of history and I have as much right to own it as anyone else.
It seems I’m not the only author to take that position. The Historic Fantasy Storybundle has representation from a wide spectrum of sexualities. Character sexuality doesn’t alway fit well into a book blurb, but here’s what I’ve been able to identify, with the help of the authors.
Steel Blues by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham traces a coast-to-coast air race in the early 20th century, with the aviation team beset by both supernatural and human perils. One of the several protagonists is a gay man.
The Emperor's Agent by Jo Graham follows the exploits of a bisexual woman blackmailed into becoming an agent for the Emperor Napoleon in a France where not all the battlefields are mortal.
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones plunges two young women into the excitement and danger of exploring mystical talents, while juggling the hazards of early 19th century high society and trying solve the mystery of their past. They add to those hazards by falling in love.
The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone by Geonn Cannon is a steampunk thriller in which several women, some of them lesbians, forge an unlikely partnership to stop an ancient evil.
The same author wrote Stag and Hound, an occult shape-shifter adventure set in WWII. The four protagonists include two gay men and two lesbians.
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells takes place in the gas-light world of Ile-Rien where noblemen, thieves, and necromancers clash wits. A significant supporting character, Captain Reynard Morane, is gay, and features as a protagonist in one of the stories in...
Between Worlds by Martha Wells, which collects shorter stories set in Ile-Rien.
The Armor of Light by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett brings real historic figures to its stage, including playwright Christopher Marlowe as one of the protagonists.
Similarly, Judith Tart’s Lord of the Two Lands tackles the story of Alexander the Great, including a realistic portrayal of sexual attitudes of the times and his relationship with Hephaistion.
I haven’t been able to confirm whether the other two books in the StoryBundle (PIllar of Fire by Judith Tarr and The Orffyreus Wheel by David Niall Wilson) have any significant LGBTQ characters, but the bundle contains plenty to interest historic fantasy readers who wish to stray from the straight path.
(Apologies if I’ve misrepresented any of these characters or their settings. In writing brief sumaries, I may have emphasized aspects differently from what may strike the reader.)
You can buy the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle for as little as $5 for the basic bundle of five titles, or get an additional six titles if you pay more than $15. All details are explained at the website.
Eighteenth-century opera and alchemy and convoluted plots against royalty and improbable romances! There's a lot of alignment with my interests there, so the only question was whether Burgis could pull it off in terms of the story-telling. Short version: yes.
The newly widowed Baroness Charlotte von Steinbeck has come to stay with her younger sister Sophie at the dazzling Eszterhaza palace, home of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy who is patron to the talented composer Haydn and host to the famous castrato Carlo Morelli, as well as an odd assortment of alchemists. Prince Nikolaus also happens to be Sophie's lover, and the domestic politics including Sophie's husband and the reclusive princess are only the beginning of the tangle that Charlotte has fallen into.
The story combines a number of honorable and likeable characters, several outright nasty villains, and a larger number of people desperately trying to find a path to survival, whether that path is honorable or not. The prose doesn't stint on the callous violence meted out by people of privillege, or the ruthlessness of those driven either by a cause or by revenge, but neither does it overly dwell on those aspects. The background of musical production and performance in the later 18th century was solidly grounded. The promised alchemy was a bit more on the side of pseudo-Masonic ritual and sorcery than philosophical endeavors in the laboratory, bringing in the fantasy elements that are responsible for the major climax.
Given the genre of the book we are never in doubt that the improbable romance will turn out well. The only question is whether we will believe in that ending. I did, though perhaps I have the advantage of a great deal of reading in the history of the era. Given birth and privilege, one could make some very improbable choices if one were willing to include the necessary sacrifices.
I found Masks and Shadows to be a quick read, and one that passed my "treadmill test" with flying colors. (Since most of my pleasure reading is done on the elliptical at the gym, I evaluate books based on whether they make me lose track of when my session is supposed to end.)
Before I dig into the chapter in which Sara meets Ram Dass, I'd like to talk a bit about one curious inconsistency regarding him.
I presume that the character of Ram Dass in A Little Princess was named after one of the significant early figures in the development of the Sikh religion in the 16th century, Guru Ram Dass. I have no idea whether it is a typical Sikh practice to name children after significant founding figures. It's interesting that the book never identifies him as a Sikh specifically, but rather as a "lascar", which is neither an ethnic nor religious label, but more in the line of a job description. Per Wikipedia, the term lascar applied originally to sailors from India or south-east Asia generally who took service on European ships. But it also came to be used to indicate an Indian servant, especially those employed by British military officers. It is in this latter sense that Ram Dass is identified as a lascar, although the nautical sense is used early in the book as well. Ram Dass is desribed as wearing a turban, which is strongly consistent with identifying him as a Sikh. We may easily presume that he entered Mr. Carrisford's employ in India at some time well previous to the disaster around the diamond mines, and traveled with him to England.
One of the first things we learn about Ram Dass is that he speaks Hindi. (WIkipedia indicates that the primary language associated with the Sikh community is Punjabi, but that Hindi is also spoken.) In fact, later in the book, in the context of his interactions with the Carmichael children, it is noted, "[Ram Dass] could have told any number of stories [about India] if he had been able to speak anything but Hindustani." And when Sara first meets him and speaks to him in Hindi, "[Sara] thought she had never seen more surprise and delight than the dark face expressed when she spoke in the familiar tongue."
So. In that case, when Ram Dass is describing his interaction with Sara to Mr. Carrisford, how does it never come up that the little girl who lives in the attic next door speaks Hindi? Now, it's possible that Ram Dass never mentions this point, and that he describes Sara's circumstances without ever mentioning that they'd had a conversation. But the subject is touched on again when Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford's secretary are surveying Sara's attic in preparation for redecorating it as a surprise. Ram Dass mentions that he spies on Sara sometimes at night and has heard her describe to her friends her "pretends" about how the attic could be made over into something more comfortable. Presumably Sara wan't speaking Hindi to the other girls!
We can squeak through on plausibility if we make two allowances. First: that Ram Dass--as most multilingual people--has a passive linguistic competency that's larger than his speaking competency. So it's plausible that he could follow what Sara was describing in English but that he wasn't comfortable telling stories in English to the Carmichael children. Secondly: we may presume that Mr. Carrisford's secretary is fluent in Hindi and this is the language in which they are discussing the redecoration of the attic.
But that still leaves us with the puzzle that Ram Dass knows that his employer is searching for a little girl who was born and raised in India, and he knows that the little girl in the attic next door speaks Hindi, and he never thinks to mention this matter. It is, of course, an essential plot element. But this goes beyond Donald Carmichael's observation that if he'd just asked Sara's name when he gave her his Christmas sixpence, then he could have told Mr. Carrisford exactly where Sara Crewe was, the first time Carrisford mentioned who he was searching for. After all, one doesn't typically ask the names of beggar girls. But conversely, running into a servant girl in London who speaks fluent Hindi would seem to be a matter worth mentioning.
Of course, the other option is that I'm looking for logical consistency in an idiot-plot motif.
* * *
Obviously, my usual weekly schedule got hijacked yesterday in favor of the Storybundle announcement. For the next three weeks, you're going to get regular reminders about the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle that Daughter of Mystery is included in. I'll be running some guest-posts on that topic periodically. If you want a sampler of a variety of great stories by fabulous authors (and especially if you like your history a bit on the queer side), check it out!
(Not meaning to slight my other fellow authors: Jo Graham, Geonn Cannon, David Niall Wilson, and Lisa A. Barnett!)
What's this about? I'm delighted to have been invited to participate in a Historic Fantasy Storybundle, organized by the fabulous Melissa Scott. If you aren't familiar with StoryBundle, it's a promotional project that rests on a few basic principles:
- If you like one book in a particular sub-genre, you're going to be interested in other authors and books in that sub-genre.
- If you're given a chance to pick up a collection of books at an incredible deal, you're going to seek out other books by those authors on your own.
- Offer people a sliding scale, and they'll pay what they consider an honest price.
Now, I assume that if you're reading my blog, you already know about Daughter of Mystery, my early 19th century Ruritanian fantasy with religious magic. Maybe you've already read it; maybe you've been thinking about picking it up but were waiting for a good deal. So what if, for a sliding scale from $5-$15, you had a chance to get:
- The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
- The Emperor's Agent by Jo Graham
- Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones
- The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone by Geonn Cannon
- The Orffyreus Wheel by David Niall Wilson
And what if, by exceeding that $15 base, you could also get:
- The Armor of Light by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett
- Steel Blues by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham
- Between Worlds by Martha Wells
- PIllar of Fire by Judith Tarr
- Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr
- Stag and Hound by Geonn Cannon
Each book comes in DRM-free mobi and epub formats, for the ultimate in e-reader flexibility. And it's easy to give a StoryBundle as a gift, using a convenient download code. Click here for many more details: https://storybundle.com/fantasy
StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.
There's a lively conversation online these days about representation of non-default characters, the intersection of identities, and the importance of representation that comes from authors' "own voices" (Twitter hashtag #ownvoices). That is, understanding the distinction between authors who are writing from within their own cultures, their own histories, their own identities, and authors who are writing those things as an outsider but who may have more access to publishing and publicity support, and who thus may become the "face" of those identities in preference to #ownvoices authors.
When writing historical or SFF fiction, there are additional complexities to the concept of #ownvoices. Who best represents the voice of a historic culture? Anyone descended from the people of that culture? People living in the same geographic area? What does it mean to write a marginalized culture in a secondary world? Are invented marginalized cultures a way of respecting real-world marginalizations by not appropriating them, or a lazy dodge to avoid having to engage with how readers are identifying with the characters?
When I...realized? decided?...that Serafina Talarico in the Alpennia series had an Ethiopian heritage, I knew I was going to have to do serious work to place her in the context of this conversation about representation. It would be entirely too lazy to say, "Well, I don't really represent any of the various intersectional identities in the Alpennia books--not really even their sexuality, because 19th century understandings of sexuality are very different from modern ones. So there's nothing special about Serafina in that respect." There is something special, because where the world is full of historic fiction and historic fantasy about early 19th century white Europeans, and it is definitely not full of fiction about early 19th century Ethiopians (fantasy setting or no). So I have to accept that there will be readers for whom Serafina may be their most memorable representative of that set.
Given that, what is my responsibility? Firstly, to write a complex, three-dimensional character who is true to her cultural and historic setting to the best of my ability. Secondly, to not promote her as an authentic representative of that culture. This may seem contradictory, but consider: if I were writing a generic heterosexual Regency romance full of improbably young and handsome single Earls and clever but impoverished gentlewomen, would they be "authentic representatives" of early 19th century England? No, absolutely not. And anyone who gave five seconds' thought to the question would know that. That's the sense in which I mean "not an authentic representative".
My third responsibility is still under construction because it involves research and fact-checking: to identify and promote books that share Serafina's characteristics that are #ownvoices stories with regard to culture and ethnicity. I doubt I'm going to find any #ownvoices books about an early 19th century bisexual Ethiopian immigrant to Europe, never mind the fantasy setting. But I can find some of those intersections. And thanks to the wonders of Goodreads thematic lists, I have a list of titles to look into further. (I've also identified some websites and blogs that may be useful for vetting the results of my initial lists, if they are willing to help.)
The message I want to send my potential readers is: don't read Mother of Souls instead of #ownvoices books, read it instead of the books I chose not to write that didn't include marginalized identities at all. That was the choice it was within my power to make.
And with that, here's the next teaser for Mother of Souls: a bit of Serafina reminiscing about her childhood in Rome.
* * *
It hadn’t felt like this when she was a girl. Visions had been a joy, a gift, a promise. A tiny white-walled room, with the blazing Roman sun slanting through the shutter slats to form stripes on the carpet. She sat cross-legged on a cushion, practicing her letters on a slate. Her mother sang as her dark hands lifted up another sheet of injera from the griddle. Serafina knew it was a charm-song, even without understanding the words, by the way the light danced in harmony. In memory, the visions mixed with the aroma of the spices and the sharp scent of clove and sandalwood in the oil Mama used to dress her hair. The magic seemed to dance in time with the swaying of her gauzy white shawl that somehow never slipped from her shoulders or fell into her work.
And when the dancing sun-stripes slanted just so, Papa would come through the door, looking all important in his dark suit just like the Roman men in the world outside, with her brother Michele trailing after him, carrying his books and writing case. Papa and Mama would say the prayers together in the tongue she’d never learned, and she and Michele would repeat the Pater in Latin and the everyday prayers in Romanesco—there was no Coptic church here and she and Michele had been baptized by the Catholic priests. Then there would be the sharp sour taste of injera and the rich spiciness of the stew wrapped within it. Papa would sigh and say he could almost think himself back in Mekelle at their wedding feast. He and Mama would be sad together for a time, remembering, but it was their sadness, not hers.
In time, the magic faded from her mother’s work. She stopped singing the old songs. Serafina hadn’t noticed, for the visions still came in church. They would stand together in the back and Mama would say her own prayers quietly, but Serafina would drink in the way the lights of the candles and the colored windows rose up in a great symphony of movement, answering the priests as they celebrated the Mass, or flowing throughout the crowd of worshippers during the special holidays. When she gasped and exclaimed at the sight, Mama would grasp her hand and murmur, “My little angel!” and Papa would smile with pride and say, “You will become a learned woman!”
* * *
Friedli, Lynne. 1987. “Passing Women: A Study of Gender Boundaries in the Eighteenth Century” in Rousseau, G. S. and Roy Porter (eds). Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. Manchester University Press, Manchester. ISBN 0-8078-1782-1
In the initial discussion in this article, Friedli notes the significantly different experiences and motivations of women cross-dressing or passing as men, and men cross-dressing or passing as women. These are, of course, derived from the massively different social and legal positions of men and women at the time. But it is a reminder that research into homoerotic or transgender issues in history can never assume that the issues relevant to one gender will carry over to another. It might even be considered impossible to treat homosexuality as a unified concept, with concerns of equal relevance to men and women, prior to an increasing acceptance of gender-equality. (Which, of course, means that it still can't be treated as such today.)
Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.
One of the most obvious benefits of passing was access to the greater social and economic opportunities available to men, as well as reducing certain physical risks experienced by women. Clearly, another attraction (or side benefit) for some was the opportunity to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with women under the cover of a heterosexual appearance. There was also a fascination with men cross-dressing during this period, but that was a social (and sometimes sexual) practice, as there were no economic or status advantages to be gained.
The most common source of information on passing women is not from the occasional medical case history or court record, but from newspapers. In general, passing women were not prosecuted unless there were a marriage (to a woman) involved, and the concern was typically categorized as “fraud”. However, the discovery of a “female husband” did not inevitably result in prosecution, or at least, there are news stories of women marrying each other that mention no legal action. In contrast to the treatment of male homoerotic activity, there is no evidence for legal concerns focused on women’s sexual activities, and none of the same overt public disapproval that effeminate men received. [Note that this article is looking specifically at England, and these statements do not necessarily hold true elsewhere at the time.]
Due to the anecdotal nature of the evidence, it is impossible to attempt quantitative studies of passing, and Friedli has also chosen not to consider it in the context of medical debates considering sexual difference. Instead, this article considers three contexts: changes in definitions of femininity and masculinity; medical interest in hermaphrodites and anxiety around gender boundaries; and the use of pornographic representations of transgression that also function to define the limits of acceptable behavior.
During the 18th century, the concept of “wife and mother” as a professional job description began to be defined and addressed in didactic and educational literature. [Although Friedli doesn’t note this explicitly, this discussion seems to focus on the middle class.] The notion of the “companionate marriage,” based on a supportive emotion bond, rather than being primarily an economic contract, contrasts with the negative image of marriage in 17th century intellectual culture. While the idealized mother described and prescribed in 18th century literature was scarcely an achievable ideal, it left little room for a public role for women outside of that framework. Women’s sexuality was not denied, but was circumscribed within the role of wife+mother.
The corresponding masculine role with respect to the family was supervisory: in charge but disengaged. Failures of child-rearing were thus inherently a maternal failure, and the rejection of a material role created doubts about a woman’s inherent femaleness as well as her femininity. It is in this context that passing women challenged the understanding of what it meant to be female.
The focus in prosecutions of passing women on the idea of “fraud” might be seen as an implicit admission of the performativity of gender roles, but must also be understood in the context of a concern with fraud in the fields of religion and medicine. Women were considered to be constitutionally more credulous, and thus more susceptible to religious extremism and medical quackery. But conversely, women were also considered to be inherently more deceptive, taking as examples the use of clothing and cosmetics to alter the appearance. [To clarify, these are characterizations in the literature of the time.] Comparing this last with satires of men for effeminate foppishness, we see that both men and women are criticized for an excess of femininity. Masculinity is increasingly defined by ridicule of characteristics defined as feminine. In contrast to some eras and contexts when individual women’s appropriation of “masculine” characteristics was seen as aspirational, in the 18th century it was characterized as a rejection of the “natural” role of wife+mother and an assault on the clear boundary between male and female.
Friedli examines four case studies to explore these issues. Perhaps expectedly, these are not the more casual journalistic mentions of passing women, meant for sensation and amusement, but instead are individuals for whom significant evidence is available.
Mary Hamilton began passing as a man at 14, served an apprenticeship to a quack doctor, began practicing on her own under the name Charles Hamilton, married a woman named Mary Price in 1746, and in the same year was arrested when Mary Price brought a legal claim that Hamilton was a woman, not a man. The court case when led to her conviction and punishment focused on the matter of fraud, however the story was taken up by novelist Henry Fielding, whose fictionalized treatment, The Female Husband, focused more sensationally on the sexual aspects. (Mary Price testified that she had not at first realized that her husband was not a man, as they had enjoyed penetrative sex.) Fielding seems to have invented a backstory for Mary Hamilton involving being initiated in same-sex erotics by an older woman who is additionally stigmatized as being part of a circle of Methodist lesbians, entangling religious prejudice into the mix.
Friedli’s second example seems a bit marginal in the context of passing women. Charlotte Charke was an actress famous for playing “trouser roles” who also regularly cross-dressed in off-stage life. On some occasions this seems to have been for economic reasons (taking male jobs to make ends meet when not on the stage), in other cases by personal choice. Although Charke did not attempt an extended disguise, she regularly traveled with a female companion (who may or may not have been a romantic partner) as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown”. On a different occasion, her male persona was pursued romantically by a young woman who hoped for marriage but Charke revealed the disguise to defuse the situation. Her autobiography (which was a very self-conscious work of public relations) gives no clear indication of her romantic inclinations, except to note that her brief marriage to the father of her daughter was an utter mistake.
Women passing as men to enlist in the military was a common motif in popular culture but had a solid basis in reality. The two examples of Deborah Sampson (in the American Revolution) and Hannah Snell (in the British army) are noted. Women discovered to be passing in military contexts seem to have been treated more kindly in the public press, though descriptions of them often emphasize their features and habits as masculine in character, possibly to reinforce the gender boundary. There is also a clear effort to assure the public regarding the absence of any sexual deviance in these military heroines, especially if a subsequent heterosexual marriage can be provided.
Friedli’s last example points out the ambiguous nature of the gender boundary, and the contortions given to particular stories in order to fit them to the prevailing narratives. The Chevalier D’Eon first came to public notice as a French nobleman in the 1750s, but in that same era began to appear publicly presenting as a woman. A story circulated that D’Eon was born female but raised as a boy for political reasons and was only now returning to femininity. Historians are unclear on the underlying political and personal motivations involved, but it is known that D’Eon collected newspaper clippings of references to cross-dressing and hermaphrodites. Public fascination with the case created pressure for an expert judgment to clarify D’Eon’s status. During a trial sparked by wagers about the issue, two doctors testified that D’Eon was physiologically female (and some newspaper columnists then held D’Eon up as a critique against cross-dressing women, who were admonished to return to their proper dress as D’Eon had). D’Eon continued living as a woman until death in 1810, at which time a medical examination made a determination of physiological maleness. [I’m sorry about the convoluted grammar here, but I’m trying to remain linguistically neutral.] Thus, although part of D’Eon’s public narrative was that of a former “passing woman”, the story appears to fall in the far smaller category of “passing man” (a small enough category that this doesn’t really exist as a standard term).
A medical fascination with the idea of hermaphrodites and their relation to both gender identity and sexual orientation dates as early as the 16th century. While the popular attitude toward the concept of hermaphroditism ranged from sensational interest to medical pathology, throughout the 16-18th centuries, the idea of the hermaphrodite was used to explore and define the nature of gender. The hermaphrodite motif was intertwined with the motif of an enlarged clitoris either causing or being the result of sexual activity between women. 18th century medical writers began advancing the theory that hermaphroditism had always been a fiction, perhaps originating in an unfamiliarity with the potential for clitoral size. Other writers accepted the existence of a range of hermaphroditic physiologies, but focused their attention on the means by which specific individuals with ambiguous genitalia could be “correctly” assigned to the gender binary.
The article concludes with examples of the lengths to which public narratives tried to exclude women’s transgressive gender performance from the definition of femaleness. The case history of Catherine Vizzani--who dressed as a man to romance a series of women and in the end was shot while eloping with one--was translated from the original Italian into English with a number of editorial changes by the translator who faulted the original author for not more clearly finding an assignable medical cause for Vizzani’s behavior. The question of Vizzani’s physiology was only raised after her death, and the examining doctor found “nothing unusual.” The French case of Anne Grand-Jean had more immediate consequences. Having confessed her sexual desire for women, Anne was told that she must therefore be a man and should dress accordingly. But although Anne received a medical diagnosis of hermaphroditism, this was accompanied by an order to live as a woman. The two cases suggest a drive to “rationalize abnormal behavior in terms of pathology.”
In contrasting the medical and legal reactions to passing women, there is a clear distinction between the medical desire to situate gender difference in the body, and the legal concern with deception, fraud, and policing masculine privilege. Conversely, the many cases of long-term gender disguise suggest that, in practice, the standard for “successful masculinity” was not high. Demographics may have played a large part, with half the male population under 16 --an age at which it was accepted for boys to be economically independent.
The article concludes with a return to the consideration of how policing of gender categories and boundaries was driven and enabled by shifting understandings of gender roles within the family, and the ways in which passing women and the image of the hermaphrodite challenged those roles by existing outside them.