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Broadway Review: The Encounter

As has become custom, while in NYC for Thanksgiving, I took in the show playing at the theater where Lauri is house manager. This time it was "The Encounter" created, directed, and solo-performed by Simon McBurney. This work clearly falls in the general category of "experimental theater" so I'm going to come at this review from several different angles. The synopsis from Playbill gives the most basic background of the work: "In 1969, Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. Conceived as a theatrically aural experience, the audience is drawn directly into the middle of the action."

Starting with the technical angle: the aural environment is a major element of the performance--one might say the most important element aside from the script. Each audience member is given a set of headphones and--after a brief introduction--all sound, both live and recorded, is channeled through the sound system. The 360-degree stereo aspect is regularly played with, not merely to position sound effects behind the listener and provide the illusion of movement and location from imagined characters, but sometimes to deliberately contradict McBurney's physical position to reinforce the subjectivity of perception that is a major theme of the play. The physical staging is spare: a desk, a mannequin head on a post that stands in for the viewer/listener (as part of the sound pick-up system) and also stands in for various characters being interacted with. A handful of other props, such as water bottles and a mass of video tape, that are repurposed at various times.

The story itself is told in constantly shifting layers: McBurney the playwright interacting with the bedtime rituals of his daughter, McBurney the playwright collecting anecdotes others tell him about the photographer McIntyre, McBurney the narrator telling McIntyre's framing story, and McBurney the actor as McIntyre in the midst of his adventure. Shifts between the layers not only serve to comment on the act of storytelling and the ways in which narrative is bent to differing purposes, but also serve to break up some of the more intense scenes and "reset" the audience's emotional baseline.

All this fictionalization and subjectivity created (for me) a cloud of confusion over what messages the performance was meaning to communicate. For me the deepest story--that of the photographer McIntyre--kept feeling like it boiled down to, "white dude disrupts the lives of indigenous tribe and makes the whole thing about his own personal spiritual transformation, including attributing Mystical Powers and Spiritual Wisdom to the Magical Natives." But at the same time, the version of the story being presented on stage had gone through several transmissions and interpretations, so it was difficult to tell what aspects reflected McIntyre's view on his experience, versus how he presented that experience to others, versus how those others interpreted that story, versus what McBurney felt would make a compelling stage performance.

The various layers of narrative framing kept bringing my attention back to the play's commentary on the act of storytelling. From one angle, McIntyre's experience is set up almost as a portal fantasy or hallucinatory vision. The portal framing begins when he is dropped by plane in the middle of the Amazon jungle, encounters two members of the Mayoruna tribe, and follows them through the trackless vegetation until he loses his way and has no choice but to keep following them. The portal is exited later, after a climactic ecstatic ritual, when a sudden violent storm and flood leaves McIntyre floating downriver, separated from his Mayoruna companions and returning to western civilization.

But conversely, these distancing techniques that move the events of the story farther and farther into fictional territory are contradicted by the play's conclusion, which presents the playwright as having traveled to meet with the Mayoruna and discuss the performance with them. The problem is: by the time we get to this part of the performance, I've settled into an assumption that no specific element of the script can be taken as factual. So even this purported touch-back to the real people being depicted on stage (well, for a value of "depicted" that doesn't involve actors or physical presence) feels just as fictional as everything else.

So. What did I think? The work is technically impressive and memorable, but it feels exploitative. I keep coming back to "white dude makes encounter with indigenous people all about his own subjective spiritual transformation in which they are primarily stage props." In this light, the staging as a one-man show that seems designed to center McBurney's stage-chewing abilities is a perfect mirror.

When you read Stephanie Burgis's guest-post below, I think my regular readers will understand immediately why I'm delighted to have her as a guest, and why I think anyone who enjoys my writing will probably love hers as well. I haven't read her newest book Congress of Secrets yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed her previous work Masks and Shadows (see review) and gave it one of my highest accolades: passing the "treadmill test" with flying colors! (Since I read fiction mostly at the gym, the "treadmill test" is, "Did I blow right past my workout target because I was so engrossed in the book?") Although the new book has similar themes and setting to Masks and Shadows, they are independent of each other.

--Heather


Finding the Fantasy in History – Guest Blog by Stephanie Burgis

The best thing I ever did for my writing career was to go to grad school. I didn’t get an MFA in Creative Writing, though. Instead, I studied opera history and politics, and the way those two things intertwined.

There are lots of obvious reasons why it’s good for any fiction writer to study history. You get to see the way the world really works (sometimes over and over and over again, in distressing repetition). You get to see the (sometimes unimaginable) ways real people have schemed and fought for power, as well as breathtaking acts of real heroism, generosity and self-sacrifice, too.

But sometimes, you get another bonus, as a fantasy writer. Sometimes, you get magical ideas handed to you.

As I got ready to write this guest blog, I kept thinking back to the first line in the Acknowledgements of Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful book The Curse of Chalion (which is set in a fantasy world based on Renaissance Spain): “The author would like to thank Professor William D. Phillips, Jr., for History 3714, the most useful four hundred dollars and ten weeks I ever spent in school.”

In Bujold’s case (if I’m remembering this story right, from an interview I read many years ago!) she took a course on Spanish history just for fun, in mid life, and it sparked a whole new setting for her next few books and also a basic historical setup that she could turn into something astonishingly unique and powerful. (I am a huge Bujold fan in general, but I love her Chalion books best of all!)

Her kingdom of Chalion bears a number of resemblances to Renaissance Spain, just as her fiery young heroine has a lot of overlap with Spain’s own historical Queen Isabella – but Bujold made that world her own with the addition of an all-new, original and convincing religious system that includes five gods taking an active part in history and directly affecting all the characters and their struggles.

…So it started with history, and became something new. That’s a fabulous way of doing it!

But sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding what was already there.

In my own case, I spent my years as a PhD student studying opera and politics in late eighteenth-century Vienna and Eszterháza…which meant, inevitably, that I read a lot about the many different secret societies that were rife in Vienna in that time period. Most famously, Mozart’s The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbolism – and the provocative chapter title of one academic book I read, when studying Mozart’s operas, was: “Why did the Freemasons Visit Hell?”

Of course, that visit never literally happened. The author of that book was only discussing a rite in which they symbolically visited the underworld.

But as a fantasy reader and writer, of course I immediately thought: What if it wasn’t just symbolic? What would that have been like?

Vienna also happened to have a number of active alchemists working in the late eighteenth century. Some of them, of course, were proto-scientists…but others were fabulously successful showmen who held audiences rapt with their astonishing “supernatural” summonings.

As a lifelong fantasy reader, it didn’t take long for me to wonder: what if those weren’t just fraudulent performances? What if that kind of mysterious, supernatural alchemy actually worked?

And I was at an academic conference at Oxford University (run by the Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) when, just for fun, I attended a talk about Sir Isaac Newton, who had nothing whatsoever to do with my own work. I had attended a lot of talks that day, and I’d listened with more or less interest to lectures on dozens of different aspects of the eighteenth-century world, trying to pick out any details that might be relevant to my PhD thesis, and also daydreaming a little about where I might head out for dinner afterward, until…

…Halfway through that particular talk, I suddenly perked up, stopped daydreaming, and started frantically scribbling notes on my program book, as the speaker discussed Newton’s theories of the aether, the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ethereal medium that (according to that model) hovered in-between the two worlds, just beyond the limits of our vision.

Those theories went on to become the direct basis for the work done by one of my alchemists in Masks and Shadows, when he summons very real and dangerous elementals from the immaterial world into the luxuriant palace of Eszterháza, with bloody results.

My latest novel, Congress of Secrets, is set 35 years later, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and it’s a standalone novel without any recurring characters– but the same kinds of alchemy have been going on behind the scenes in Vienna ever since the events of Masks and Shadows. Unfortunately, the head of secret police has figured out his own methods...as my powerful, driven heroine knows only too well.

But she’ll risk anything to get her father back – even resorting to the same dark alchemy that devoured her childhood.

...The same kind that came to me from that one Oxford conference.

It wasn’t what I’d expected to get out of that academic gathering – but when you start studying history, you never know what you’ll find!

In my case, I found two novels full of dark, alchemical magic – and it all came out of looking at dry historical facts and wondering… What if???

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, spent 2 years in Vienna, and now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops. She is the author of two historical fantasy novels for adults (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets), a trilogy of MG Regency fantasy novels (the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy), and over 30 short stories in various magazines and anthologies. You can find out more and read excerpts of all of her books at: www.stephanieburgis.com

Give-away!

Bella Books has authorized me to do a few e-book give-aways to celebrate the release of Mother of Souls--and entice, new readers, of course! I'll be spreading them out around various online venues, so keep your eyes peeled for chances. In fact, let's do a giveaway right here and now! Comment on the blog post at alpennia.com and I'll select a random winner on Saturday. (Note: winner must set up a Bella Books account to redeem, but this only involves giving them an e-mail address, no financial information.) And if you already have a copy, you can transfer your win to someone else as a gift! (As long as they're willing to follow the redemption requirement.)

Comments are still going through manual moderation, so don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately. Check back on Saturday for the winner!

* * *

Margerit Sovitre knew that setting up a women's college would be a complex, intense, and difficult project. But she didn't expect the opening of the first term to be accompanied by an avalanche of other disasters.

Chapter Twenty-One: Margerit

On returning home to Tiporsel House, there was barely a moment for Margerit to sense something was amiss. It was in the way the footman at the door glanced sideways with an ostentatious air of not telling her something important. But there, just beyond him, was Barbara, pacing the floor with a scowl and clearly waiting for her arrival.

Barbara jerked her head in the direction of the corridor to the back of the house and led the way, saying, “I’ve already sent a messenger to your aunt and uncle.”

Margerit’s stomach clenched. “To Aunt Bertrut?”

“To Chalanz, to the Fulpis. Best to reassure them with no delay. I took the liberty of suggesting that if the matter hasn’t gone beyond all hope of repair, it might make sense to put it about that the visit was planned.” Barbara paused at the closed door to the office. “I’ve left the scolding for you.”

The confusion resolved itself. Margerit slipped through the door and shut it behind her.

The figure that stood nervously before the small hearth might have been taken for a boy except that the cap that had hidden her tumbling riot of chestnut curls was now clutched and twisted in her hands. Margerit could guess the rest of the story from the ill-fitting brown wool coat and trousers—respectable enough not to provoke questions about a young man traveling alone on a public coach—and the small valise at her feet, barely large enough for the most basic necessities. Knowing her cousin, the first of those necessities were her journals. The stricken look on the girl’s face suggested either that Barbara had not been honest about the scolding or that her cousin had grown mindful of the enormity of her situation.

“Iulien Fulpi, what are you doing here?” Margerit demanded, seizing her cousin by the shoulders and shaking her violently. She wanted desperately to embrace her instead, relieved at safe passage through hazards only imagined now that they were past. “You’re too old to be running wild! What were you thinking?”

 

Iuli’s mouth quivered. “You promised.”

I'm swapping around the Tuesday and Wednesday blogs this week due to the disruptions of vacation travel. In March 1864, Abiel is spending much of his time escorting troops and prisoners from place to place. Arrangements for his promotion continue as well as plans to rejoin his original regiment. (As we will see next month, those plans fell through for reasons beyond his control.) And in this midst of all this, there is time to enjoy and comment on some more theatrical performances in Washington. Abiel's army career won't be all plays and fine dining by any means, but it's an interesting window on the contradictions. One of the more intriguing escort excursions is noted on the 15th, involving a prisoner whose behavior Abiel is so confident of that he not only removes the man's leg-irons, but allows him a "visit to his cousin," which appears to be a euphemism for a visit to a house of ill repute.

Cut to be kind.Collapse )

The version of this post at the Alpennia site includes actual tag-links for the items being discussed. Check it out to explore. The tag display page currently has some technical issues that limit the number of entries displayed for each tag, but I hope to have that fixed soon. At the very least, it will give you a taste of what's available.

The purpose of tags is to make information relatively easy to find. The topics covered under “misc. tags” are a combination of themes that guided my choice of publications to cover, and themes that emerged from those publications. This essay is intended to explain briefly how the “misc.” tags are being used.

The second purpose is to provide a tag list that the visitor can use to explore the site. The number of tags used in the project, and the organization into four different categories, doesn’t lend itself to a traditional tag-cloud. The Place and Time Period tags each have a single essay. The Event/Person and Misc. Tags will be covered in thematic groups in multiple essays due to the larger number.

I’m planning three essays for the Misc. Tags, each covering a general category with several subcategories. This present essay includes the following:

  • Medical/Physiological Topics
  • Specific Genres of Source Material

Medical/Physiological Topics

  • essentialism - The debate between understanding homosexuality as an inborn orientation versus a chosen or socially-conditioned behavior exists as far back as the records go. In general, the default is to view it as chosen (e.g., as “sin”) or as a context-specific social role (e.g., “romantic friendship”), therefore I have only tagged sources when they give evidence for understanding it as an “essential” inborn aspect of personality.
  • clitoris - Around the 16th century, European physicians “discovered” the clitoris and its role in female sexual response. This interest cast new light on possibilities for sexual activity between women.
  • enlarged clitoris - Associated with medical interest in the function of the clitoris, starting in the 16th century, there arose a persistant myth that an enlarged clitoris (long enough for penetrative sex) was associated with lesbianism, either as cause or effect.
  • clitoridectomy (as treatment for sexual deviance) - Female genital mutilation as a “treatment” against what was considered excess female sexual desire is mentioned frequently in medical texts from the 16th century onward. In some cases it is discussed as a “foreign” practice, but there is solid evidence that it was performed in Europe.
  • hermaphroditism - This was a persistant concept in European history, either indicating an individual who had both male and female sexual characteristics (the Classical model) or as someone with genitalia indeterminate between male and female (most likely inspired by intersex individuals, but perhaps also by unfamiliarity with the range of normal genitalia). Hermaphroditism was often suspected or claimed in cases of apparent female homosexuality in order to resolve the relationship into heterosexuality.

Other Genres of Source Material

These tags identify genres of source material, although I have not included poetry or fiction in this grouping.

  • anthropology - This indicates anthropological accounts of lesbian-like individuals and institutions. These are generally covered as part of more general articles as they tend to be relatively recent.
  • artistic representation - This tag is used for discussing visual art depicting sex between women or lesbian characters from literature.
  • astrological texts - Astrology was felt to determine a wide variety of behavioral characteristics and in some cases sexual preference was included.
  • case history/diary - This tag identifies life stories of historic individuals, excluding court records.
  • court case - This tag identifies court records of legal cases involving either the suspicion or reality of lesbian sex.
  • magical texts - This tag identifies magical texts that concern love or sex between women.
  • medical treatises - This tag identifies medical studies or manuals that touch on lesbianism or physical characteristics thought to be related.
  • Orientalism - This tag identifies texts that associate lesbianism with non-European cultures, and particularly those of the Middle East.
  • penitentials - This tag identifies discussions of homosexual activity in religious manuals for assigning penance for sins.

Tags:

Movie Review: Arrival

Lauri asked me to save this movie to see with her in NYC, which wasn't hard given the distractions of the last couple weeks. (My book release. Of course I'm talking about my book release.)

Arrival tells the story of twelve vast and mysterious UFOs arriving in scattered locations across the earth, the beginnings of attempts to communicate with the inhabitants, and the impending political disaster as those communications go semantically awry in entirely predictable ways. The central character is linguist Dr. Louise Banks, with hard-science colleage Ian Donnelly as her foil. The central characters are completed by an army colonel who is overseeing the U.S. contact mission...and, I suppose, by the two aliens that Banks interacts with.

There are a lot of pluses in this movie. As a linguist myself, I have to say that they did a good portayal of the nature and process of linguistic acquisition unmediated by a common third language. At least in the flavor, though of course the timeline was vastly sped up from even what a computer-assisted process could manage. There was also a certain glossing over of the extreme luck that human and alien communication both operated on aural and visual channels rather than any of the less filmable possibilities.

The aliens were satisfyingly alien, both in concept and execution. Banks's frustration in trying to explain to the military the difficulting in what they expected her to produce in a single session was quite realistic both in its flavor and particulars. ("What is your purpose here on Earth?" Do you have any idea how freaking complicated and subjective an utterance that is?) I was a bit surprised, given that visual communication was a major tool, that more wasn't done with pictorial representation in order to  build vocabulary. (This is where the unrealistic time-compression comes in. Very hard to develop a grasp of abstract concepts without building on concrete ones.) Anyway, enough about the linguistics.

The climax relies on an interesting (and very SFF-nal) twist on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. One might say the strongest of strong S-W interpretations. To say more would be a spoiler. That twist ties in the running subplot involving Banks's memories of her daughter who dies young of some unspecified condition (the visuals suggest cancer) and of the related break-up of her marriage.

And here comes my one philosophical gripe with the movie (because the linguistic gripes are more logistical than philosophical). Even though we get a very central female protagonist, her story is framed in terms of family, motherhood, and emotional relationships. And we get the classic gendered contrast between the female humanities expert and the male hard-science expert. Furthermore, although there's a good gender balance in the tertiary characters (random crowd scenes, people on tv screens) and although the scenes between Banks and her daughter are key to the movie (though perhaps the sole basis for passing the Bechdel-Wallace test), there's a noticable lack of women among the crowd of secondary figures involved in the contact encampment. One can no longer use the military nature of that context as an excuse for the omission of women. Skimming through the imdb.com cast listings, of the twelve roles listed with personal names (rather than occupations or functions), only Banks and her daughter are female. So: good job on having a female protagonist in an only-tangentially-relationship-centered movie. But Arrival is still rather marginal in terms of supporting and normalizing women's roles in movies and in expanding beyond what are still highly gendered dramatic functions.

Beyond that gripe, I really enjoyed the movie and will be mulling over the plot implications of the conclusion. It's unfortunate that I can't talk about those implications without entirely spoiling it for those who haven't seen it yet. So go see it, and then we can talk.

This continues transcripts of my great-great-grandfather Abiel Teple LaForge's Civil War diaries and correspondence. See here for earlier material and background. The site there contains the original transcripts. The versions I'm posting here have been lightly edited for spelling, but especially for punctuation and paragraphis to add readability.

When you think about “care packages” sent to servicemen in war time, you probably think about the WWII program, or Red Cross deliveries in a similar era. But the longing of a soldier for the comforts of home has existed as long as there have been soldiers serving in the field. (I believe one of the surviving wax tablet letters from the northern frontier of Roman Britain includes a request for more warm socks.) Abiel wasn’t serving in a battle zone at the time of today’s entries, and the folks back home on the farm were close enough that they could send perishable foods by “Express wagon”, though as you’ll read, the handling wasn’t always optimal. For an even more impressive package, check out this letter from February the year before (1863) when the shipment included boiled chickens!

Serving at “convalescent camp” on the outskirts of Washington DC, and duties that regularly included escorting people into the city, meant that Abiel was able to enjoy a number of cultural entertainments: plays, fine dining, attending congressional debates. Not exactly your image of a typical Civil War soldier! But things are moving in the background to get him back to more active duty. His temporary commanding officer has recommended him for promotion in anticipation of this, but the wheels of bureaucracy will grind slowly.

There's one extremely uncharacteristic episode of impulsive stupidity recorded this month, which stands out from what is otherwise a record of very steady character. Interesting, that there never seems to have been any question that Abiel or the friend who witnessed it would report his part in causing it--something that might well have ruined his career!

One of the other interesting incidents this month, from a personal point of view, is Abiel's encounter with a woman who disguised herself as a male soldier in order to accompany her husband in the army. His diary doesn't note how the disguise was discovered, but the consideration and sympathy with which the woman is viewed and treated is interesting.

Cut to be kindCollapse )

What I've Written This Year

I'm still considering whether I want to continue posting teasers for Mother of Souls now that it's out. They don't serve the same purpose now that people can actually go read the book, and it's getting harder and harder to pick interesting selections that don't include significant spoilers. So while I'm thinking about what I want to do with Writing Blog Tuesday, it seemed a good time to do a year-end summary of what I've produced this year. At this point, everything that's going to be published is out there.

Within the SFF community, this sort of post evolved as an "award eligibility" reminder--a convenient place to list all the publications of the year for the convenience of those who are contemplating their award nominations. I don't know how useful this post will be for that purpose. I've only published one thing that's solidly SFF this year: Mother of Souls. But there's still a usefulness in reminding myself that I have accomplished some writing goals (even if I'm berating myself internally for not having the next novel solidly in process yet).

So here are what I consider my writing accomplishments for 2016. Many of these are on-going projects, which makes it more awkward to treat them as a "2016 publication." They also don't have a clear unifying theme (other than "stuff Heather writes"). As usual, doing cross-genre work means I don't really have a clear identity in people's minds as "an SFF blogger" or "a lesbian blogger" or "a history blogger", just as my fiction defies easy genre categorization. That's not something I have any plans to change, but it tends to make my work more invisible, I think.

Novel

Mother of Souls - The third novel in the Alpennia historic fantasy series. The ensemble of familiar characters from Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage are joined by two new protagonists, and the stakes of Alpennia magic expand to take on a sorcery that threatens half of Europe. But the unlikeliest factor is a widowed music teacher who aspires to write an opera about the philosopher Tanfrit.

The book is still too freshly out for me to be able to point to prominent reviews and whatnot. I hope that at least some people read it in time to consider whether they'd want to include it in award nominations.

Novelette

"The Mazarinette and the Musketeer" - A historical romp, pulling together an assortment of outragous late 18th century women for an adventure that involves a lot less invention in it than you might think. I put this out as a free e-story on my website for a variety of reasons, some more relevant than others. It's hard to say whether that was a mistake and it might have gained more readers if I'd gone ahead and tried to find somewhere to submit it. The major problems with that are that it isn't SFF (the markets I've researched), novelettes are an extremely difficult length to place, and the market for non-erotic lesbian historicals is functionally nonexistent. I have fun writing it, but I'm not sure that it served the purpose of attracting new readers and fans.

Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project - I covered 27 new publications for the project so far this year, for a total of about 80 separate posts. (I'll do a round-up post at the end of the year listing them all.) I made a couple of new contacts for publicizing the project from the SFF community where there's a lot of interest in resources for writing diverse characters. Relatively little interest from the lesbian writing community, though, which is a continuing disappointment. This year saw a major overhaul in the format of the project as the new version of the Alpennia.com website came online, with a lot more back-end tools for managing and accessing the material, though some of those tools are still having the bugs worked out.

Queer Fantasy Roots - In August I started doing a mothly column at the Queer Sci Fi website entitled "Queer Fantasy Roots" as a sort of spin-off from the LHMP, looking specifically at historic and literary themes relevant to fantasy, but with a broader scope than just lesbians. Topics covered so far include m/m shapeshifting pregnancy in the Mabinogi, gender change in Ovid's Metamorphoses, queer themes in the fantastic fiction of Margaret Cavendish, and the changing perception of Amazons in fantastic literature.

Podcast

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Another new project I started in August is a monthly podcast supplement to the LHMP, hosted by The Lesbian Talk Show, a magazine-style podcast with multiple contributors. I hope that as part of a continuing podcast feed it will introduce the project to a larger audience that might not otherwise stumble across it. My current plans are to use it to focus on "human interest" stories and to present some more extended excerpts of texts than would fit well in the blog. Requests are always welcome (if they fit in the scope of the project).

Reviews

I'll wait until the end of the year to do a round-up of all my reviews, including my extended analysis of Frances Hodgeson Burnett's A Little Princess. Suffice it to say that I've maintained a schedule of reviewing some new item every week.

Civil War Source Material

A reader might possibly find connecting themes among all the above material. My new Wednesday project sticks out as a bit of an odd duck. I've returned to the project of formatting my great-great-grandfather's Civil War diaries and correspondence for the web. (My mother did the original transcription and editing.) This project does connect in with my interests in history and especially the everyday history of ordinary people.

The version of this post at the Alpennia site includes actual tag-links for the items being discussed. Check it out to explore. The tag display page currently has some technical issues that limit the number of entries displayed for each tag, but I hope to have that fixed soon. At the very least, it will give you a taste of what's available.

The purpose of tags is to make information relatively easy to find. The topics covered under “misc. tags” are a combination of themes that guided my choice of publications to cover, and themes that emerged from those publications. This essay is intended to explain briefly how the “misc.” tags are being used.

The second purpose is to provide a tag list that the visitor can use to explore the site. The number of tags used in the project, and the organization into four different categories, doesn’t lend itself to a traditional tag-cloud. The Place and Time Period tags each have a single essay. The Event/Person and Misc. Tags will be covered in thematic groups in multiple essays due to the larger number.

I’m planning three essays for the Misc. Tags, each covering a general category with several subcategories. This present essay includes the following:

  • Topics about household and living arrangements associated with, or conducive to female same-sex relationships
  • Topics about specific types of relationships or social status
  • A wide variety of occupations, activites, and organizations (both real and fictitious) relevant to lesbian-like lives

Households and Living Situations

  • bed-sharing - In many eras and cultures, same-sex bed-sharing was completely ordinary and even expected, not only among family members, but perhaps by employer and servant, and certainly by close friends. In these cultures, sharing a bed carried no implication of engaging in erotic activity. But conversely, this practice created a context where erotic activity could take place with little notice or comment.
  • co-burial - In many cultures, it is standard practice for spouses to be buried together after death and to share a memorial marker. In this context, the occasional practice of same-sex pairs being buried together accompanied by symbols or text usually associated with marriage may indicate social acceptance of a marriage-like bond between them.
  • female co-habitation - Sharing a household is not a pre-condition for participation a close same-sex romantic or erotic relationship, but cultures which normalized co-habitation by unrelated women created a context where such relationships could be more easily accommodated.
  • female head of household - One of the strongest barriers for women trying to establish a permanent, stable partnership could be a social or economic necessity to be part of a male-headed household. This tag identifies discussions of the times, places, and circumstances in which female-headed households existed, and in some cases were considered unremarkable.
  • homosocial environments/communities - There were many different reasons and contexts where people interacted and socialized primarily with their own gender. These ranged from entirely single-sex communities, such as some religious institutions, to single-sex schools, to simply a strong differentiation between the everyday activities of men and women that resulted in separation. In such contexts, it was often considered typical (though not always desirable) for individuals to form strong emotional same-sex bonds.
  • monastic communities - Monastic communities are a special case of homosocial (single-gender) environment. They were often a focus of anxiety around the potential for close same-sex emotional bonds, both within the community and from those hostile to it.
  • Turkish harems - European contact with the gender-segregated institution of the harem in Ottoman Turkey, beginning around the 16th century, led to a fascination with the potential for female same-sex eroticism. This combined with a preference for “othering” lesbian activity both in time and space.
  • women’s communities - Both in literature and life, women-only communities created a focus for speculation on (or the experience of) romatic or erotic attraction between women. This tag includes not only formal single-sex institutions such as convents, but de facto ones such as women’s charitable organizations, or fictitious ones such as amazon societies or separatist utopias.

Relationships and Status

This group of tags focuses on specific types of relationships between women, across a whole spectrum from marriage to friendship and mentorship. In general, a relationship will be tagged if there is a strong emotional component that is not familial, or if the relationship is one that, between opposite sex participants, would be considered romantic.

Marriage and marriage-like relationships

  • marriage between women - This tag is used for any occasion where two female (or assigned-female) persons entered into marriage, whether or not both were aware of the other’s identity.
  • female husband - This tag is used for occasions when two female (or assigned-female) persons entered into marriage with one passing as male to the rest of society.
  • dextrarum iunctio - (Latin) This phrase “joining right hands” indicates an action or the artistic representation of that action that represents entering into a marriage under Roman law. A formal depiction of two women with joined right hands could reasonably be understood as indicating a marriage-like relationship.
  • marriage resistance - In cultures where heterosexual marriage was normalized, the act of resisting marriage was sometimes considered a sign or a possible consequence of close emotional bonds between women.

Romantic relationships

This group of tags covers circumstances where no formal marriage-like relationship exists but the outward forms of courtship are seen, or there are behaviors that would be considered romantic for an opposite-sex couple.

  • emotional/romantic bonds between women - This is a very general tag for any circumstance where specific emotional bonds are established between a pair of women.
  • romantic friendship - Romantic friendship refers to a specific set of behaviors and social circumstances, largely confined to the 17-19th centuries, where close and intensely emotional “friendships” between women were normalized by society and even considered expected or desirable. Romantic friendship were generally considered not to preclude heterosexual marriage although they were often seen in conflict with it.
  • love poetry - I have tagged as “love poetry” any poetic expression written by a woman (or in a woman’s voice) to a woman that would be considered love poetry if written between an opposite sex couple.
  • predatory lesbian - In the 18-19th centuries, and possibly earlier, the recognition of the potential for female same-sex desire was sometimes depicted in the form of an agressive, “predatory” lesbian expressing desire for a “normal” woman.

Close non-romantic relationships

  • female comrades/friends - There is sometimes a fuzzy overlap between the depiction of bonds of friendship and bonds with romantic overtones. This tag identifies topics where the friendship interpretation is stronger but where the recognition of the importance of female friendship allows space for stronger feelings. This tag is distinguised from the “friendship” tag by the presence of a couple-like relationship but without romantic elements.
  • female mentors - There is a regular theme over time, expressed in a number of different ways, where same-sex erotic relationships (both male and female) exist within the power differential of a mentor-student relationship. This tag also covers some situations where a close non-familial mentorship bond exists between women without erotic overtones when other circumstances make it relevant to the purpose of this Project.
  • friendship - This tag covers general themes of friendship between women when the context is relevant to the purpose of this Project.

Occupations, Activities, Organizations

This is a rather random grouping of tags that have in common referring to some identifiable subset of women whose common feature has at some time been associated with the themes of this Project, though not necessarily with love or desire between women. Alternatively, the tag identifies some social or economic issue that is relevant to women’s relationships with each other. I haven’t tried to give these subgroupings.

  • amazons - Although Classical Greek stories of the amazons don’t necessarily associate them with same-sex love, amazon figures in medieval and renaissance literature were often a context for romantic gender-confusion plots.
  • class issues - This tag identifies themes where class difference is a significant factor in a relationship between women.
  • courtesans - A courtesan is a professional companion, typically educated and sophisticated, whose duties may include sex. It was a regular motif that courtesans might sometimes have female clients, or that they might enjoy sexual relationships with women as a change from “work.”
  • economic independence - This theme is not specifically associated with lesbians historically, but for the purposes of the Project is is useful to identify historic and social contexts in which economically independent women were not unusual.
  • education - Education is a regular theme around lesbian-like figures, either as a homosocial context or as a context for escaping a normative life.
  • female warrior ballads - The central characters in this literary genre may be passing as men or simply stepping outside a normative gender role. In the former case, they may hint at the potential for same-sex desire.
  • inheritance by women - As with economic independence, this theme is not specifically associated with lesbians historically, but for the purposes of the Project is is useful to identify historic and social contexts in which economically independent women were not unusual.
  • literary heroine - This tag somewhat inconsistently identifies lesbian-like figures who feature as protagonists. I’ve tended to use this more for pre-modern literature than novels of the modern period.
  • martial activity - I’ve included this tag not simply because women engaged in martial activities are inherently gender-transgressive, but also because the motif is popular when writing historic or fantasy fiction about nonconforming women.
  • prostitutes - Like courtesans, prostitutes sometimes had a reputation for turning to other women for love and recreational sex as a change from “work.”
  • singlewomen - The study of the lives of non-married women, regardless of their affectional preferences, identifies contexts in which women who preferred not to marry men would be unremarkable.
  • widows - In many societies, widowhood gave a woman the best chance at economic independence combined with control over her marital status.

Tags:

Ordinary historical romance is a bit of a rarity in the lesbian publishing field. The majority of lesbian historicals fall solidly on the erotic side and tend to stick very close to the 20th century (with a small foray into the American West). It is, perhaps, understandable: authors of lesbian historicals report that sales are much lower than for other subgenres, and this doesn’t encourage writers to develop the sort of research background and writing expertise necessary to write the books that could expand readership.

Penelope Friday’s The Sisterhood is a refreshing exception to this trend. Like her previous novel from Bella Books Petticoats and Promises, this story is set in England in the early 19th century, a bit late in date to be a true “Regency Romance” but very much with that flavor.** Although the romance plot is central, The Sisterhood expands beyond the small personal dramas of a young woman whose secret desires set her at odds with society’s expectations for her. Charity Bellingham has been an awkward tomboy all her life, burdened with the knowledge that she wasn’t the son her father wanted. Her older sister accepts an advantageous (if far from brilliant) marriage to a wealthy social climber and when their mother washes her hands of her daughters and decamps to Bath, Charity is left as a dependent on her brother-in-law with no good prospects of escape.

Her life changes when she falls in with a circle of women who secretly share same-sex desires--a circle that cuts across the barriers of class, wealth, and education and gives Charity access to possibilities beyond being an eternal wallflower at balls. Where this book takes a step in seriousness beyond Friday’s earlier endeavor is that “the Sisterhood” as they call themselves, also have strong (if variable) interests in social welfare, and especially in anti-slavery activism. If the activism of the characters sometimes seems naive and superficial, it is true to the times. Also true to the times is the overlap between the communities of female social activism and women-centered women (whether or not romance was involved). In my opinion, Friday’s previous Regency suffered for the lack of a parallel non-romance plot and I’m delighted to find this book much stronger in terms of story.

Just as the non-romance plot adds complexity, the romance is far from straight-forward and the reader is allowed enough hints to be kept on the edge of their seat as Charity stumbles through her choices. I think I would be tempted to classify this as a “sweet” romance, in that there is very little in the way of on-page sex (though much implied off-page activity). The sexual content felt very natural and comfortable. There are a few hanging threads left at the end of the book, but tying up the largest of them would require significantly more writing--possibly another entire book--and the conclusion comes at a natural point for both major plot elements.


[Minor disclaimer: Penelope Friday is a fellow Bella Books author, but people who follow my reviews know that I call 'em like I see 'em and am not influenced by personal connections to authors.]

**ETA: I was confused as to the date of the setting due to having used the keywords "Slave Trade Act" and "William Wilberforce to triangulate. There was more than one act by that name that Wilberforce was involved with and I had mistakenly thought it was a later one.

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