lesbian


lol3Extraordinary Female Affection was the title of a 1790 newspaper article on two female friends, Miss Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who had defied convention by running away to live together.

The article, which appeared in St. James’s Chronicle, the General Evening Post and the London Chronicle, made it quite plain what the author thought of such goings-on, describing Butler in disapproving tones as of masculine appearance (this was true) and the couple as bear[ing] a strange antipathy to the male sex, whom they take every opportunity of avoiding – which was decidedly false; the ladies entertained many male guests, including the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. The author described Ponsonby as Butler’s particular friend and, more censoriously (for the time), the bar to all matrimonial union. Needless to say, the ladies were less than happy with the tone of the article, and took legal advice.

However, the attitude of society in general was very different. The zeitgeist of the time was for romanticising all things, including nature, landscapes and the bonds of friendship, and their story captured the popular (educated) imagination. The ladies were celebrated for their romantic friendship and presumed celibacy, to the extent that they became celebrities of the day—similarly, one supposes, to many early female Christian martyrs who were lauded for their chastity as much as for any miraculous deeds.

There is plenty of the romantic in the ladies’ story: both were from aristocratic (though attainted) families in Ireland and both were under intolerable pressure from their families—Butler to enter a convent, and Ponsonby to accept the advances of her guardian. Close friends for many years, when Ponsonby was 23 and Butler, 39, they hatched a plot to run away together dressed as men, taking with them a pet dog and a pistol. Having ridden through the night to catch a ferry to Wales, they were hit by what we tend to think of as a bane of modern life: transport cancellation. Unluckily, they were discovered and brought back home.

Much as for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (who would have known of the Ladies of Llangollen), for Ponsonby, romantic disappointment was swiftly followed by dangerous illness. To comfort her friend—and escape her family, who had stepped up attempts to ship her off to that convent—Butler fled to Ponsonby’s house, where she concealed herself in her friend’s bedroom, aided by a sympathetic maid, Mary Carryl. When, after some days, she was discovered, the families evidently decided that enough was enough, threw up their hands and consented to the couple removing to Wales as they’d wanted all along.

Ponsonby later wrote up the tale in Account of a Journey in Wales perform’d in May 1778 by Two Fugitive Ladies, showing she had an eye for a catchy, if long-winded, title.

The ladies eventually found a house near Llangollen where they settled down and lived happily for the next fifty years in quiet retirement—apart from the steady stream of society visitors.

Were they lovers? Nobody knows. Even in their own lifetimes, opinion was divided. They addressed each other in terms used between husband and wife, and they shared a bed—but this was not unusual behaviour for friends at the time. They also cropped their hair and wore masculine hats and coats—although retaining their petticoats. Their visitors included Anne Lister, who was, by her own writings, what we would nowadays term a lesbian and had physical affairs with women, and Anna Seward, who although romantically interested in women is not known to have had a sexual relationship with any.

It’s often speculated that Butler, the more obviously masculine of the two, was a lesbian, but that Ponsonby, the younger, more femme partner, might have been just as happy with a man. I personally tend to take this more as evidence for the enduring quality of stereotypes than as anything else.

 

Further reading: Rictor Norton (Ed.), “Extraordinary Female Affection, 1790”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 22 April 2005, updated 15 June 2005 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1790extr.htm>.

Nancy Meyer, Regency Researcher http://www.regencyresearcher.com/pages/ladies.html

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Waterhouse_a_mermaid hiresJL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com, on Twitter as @jlmerrow, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jl.merrow

A CERTAIN PERSUASION 1600px.jpgJL Merrow is the author of “A Particular Friend” which appears in A Certain Persuasion, a new anthology of stories set in and around the writings of Jane Austen, featuring LGBTQIA characters, which was released on 1st November.

Thirteen stories from eleven authors, exploring the world of Jane Austen and celebrating her influence on ours.

Being cousins-by-marriage doesn’t deter William Elliot from pursuing Richard Musgrove in Lyme; nor does it prevent Elinor Dashwood falling in love with Ada Ferrars. Surprises are in store for Emma Woodhouse while visiting Harriet Smith; for William Price mentoring a seaman on board the Thrush; and for Adam Otelian befriending his children’s governess, Miss Hay. Margaret Dashwood seeks an alternative to the happy marriages chosen by her sisters; and Susan Price ponders just such a possibility with Mrs Lynd. One Fitzwilliam Darcy is plagued by constant reports of convictions for ‘unnatural’ crimes; while another must work out how to secure the Pemberley inheritance for her family.

Meanwhile, a modern-day Darcy meets the enigmatic Lint on the edge of Pemberley Cliff; while another struggles to live up to wearing Colin Firth’s breeches on a celebrity dance show. Cooper is confronted by his lost love at a book club meeting in Melbourne while reading Persuasion; and Ashley finds more than he’d bargained for at the Jane Austen museum in Bath.

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When people ask me what I write, I usually say: “Penny dreadfuls. But they cost more than a penny and aren’t dreadful.”

A historian might point out that this statement is not really correct (and some may argue that, indeed, my writing is quite dreadful), because penny dreadfuls firmly belong in the 19th century, while I aim for an 18th century feeling. Amandine de Villeneuve’s woodcut-like illustrations for my books are in the style of the 18th century, too. And in the 18th century, it was the chapbook that ruled the readership.

Penny dreadfuls were stories published in parts over a course of several weeks, costing one penny each. And for that, the 19th century teenager got Adventure! Drama! Swordfighting! Highwaymen! Pirates! Vampires! A damsel in distress! Spring-heeled Jack and Knights of the Road!

The Victorians did a pretty thorough job at cleaning up the act of the “Penny Merriments”. There was also a shift in the readership. While chapbooks had been read by all ages and classes, penny dreadfuls were mostly aimed at male teenagers with a working class background.

The origins of the chapbook can be tracked back as early as the 1600s, and it could be just about anything from religious pamphlet to printed gallows speech to folk tale to coverage of the Great Fire of London. The natural lifespan of a chapbook was short; due to its very poor paper- and print-quality, it usually ended as toilet paper. It was intended for quick consumption and disposal. As a consequence, much of our knowledge is guesswork. Luckily, Samuel Pepys was an avid collector, so at least a few copies survived the centuries. His collection is held at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

Given the nature of many chapbooks, it’s not surprising that Samuel Pepys, naval administrator, diarist and Lothario was so fond of them.  To quote Steve from “Coupling”:  “When man invented fire, he didn’t say, “Hey, let’s cook.”  He said, “Great, now we can see naked bottoms in the dark!” As soon as Caxton invented the printing press, we were using it to make pictures of, hey, naked bottoms!”

Some months ago, the national press reported of a rare and exciting find:

STASH OF ‘SAUCY’ LITERATURE UNCOVERED AT HISTORIC LAKE DISTRICT HOUSE

“They often contained rather saucy and even rude tales, which were found to be very amusing by their 18th century readers.”

Here’s an excerpt from “The Crafty Chambermaid”, dating back to 1770; the tale of a chambermaid who tricks a young man into marrying her/of a London merchant who tries to romantically pursue a chambermaid (it depends on one’s point of view, I suppose…)

The Merchant he softly crept into the room,
And on the bedside he then sat himself down,
Her knees through the Counterpane he did embrace,
Did Bess in the pillow did hide her sweet face.

He stript of his cloaths and leaped into bed
Saying now lovely creature for thy maidenhead,
She strug led and strove and seemed to be shy
He said divine beauty I pray now comply.

Love and lust, presented in a raunchy, saucy and rude manner – what sells today also sold back in the 18th century. From erotic to pornographic: the chapbook catered to a great variety of needs and interests. And as this is the Macaronis-blog, the question begs to be asked: were there chapbooks with gay, lesbian or bisexual content as well?

Answer: as with so many details in history, we can only guess. There are some indications that such content was published, but one has to read between the lines, and there’s a significant difference in the way same-sex experiences were portrayed: what might have been acceptable for women was absolutely taboo for men.

Sexuality between women often featured in heterosexual erotica and pornography. However, this wasn’t a portrayal of sexual orientation, it wasn’t about lesbian or bisexual women: the ladies would always end up with the dashing hero in the end. The stories left no doubt that they were 100% heterosexual, and any same-sex experience only served the purpose of preparing a woman for “the real thing”, as an introduction to sexuality and preparation for her future (male) lover, often with the help of a more experienced woman.

In her book “Lascivious Bodies – A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century”***, Julie Peakman writes:

“Thus, in erotica, the reader is guided through the rules of sexual initiation in a three-stage process: masturbation, lesbian sex and, finally, heterosexual intercourse.”

Women were expected to be loving and affectionate, so being loving and affectionate in public was normal. Correspondence between women that we’d think to be “love letters” today were not unusual. Society would often turn a blind eye when it came to very close friendships which may or may not have been of a sexual nature as well, especially if the ladies were discrete. The case was different for women who tried to wear the breeches (especially if those were equipped with artificial “yards”!) and threatened the superior status of men in society, though. But that’s for another day and article.

Now, even if scenes of lesbian sex were written with the erotic imagination of male readers in mind, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they were consumed and enjoyed by female readers as well. In any case it was much easier for a woman to get her hands on such content than for a man to find erotica involving male-male sex.

Homosexual men – “sodomites” – were almost universally despised. In the hierarchy of society, they were at the very bottom. Sodomy was a crime punishable by death, so it would have been very risky to publish erotic material which portrayed male-male love in a positive light.  “The most detestably sin of buggery” was sometimes brought up in a satirical way, but the connotation was always negative.

However – where there are customers, there are suppliers. Morals are good, but so is money. If a business could be made, it was very likely made, though not in public. An underground press for homosexual erotica – why not? After all, there was a potential audience. No matter how harsh the punishments and how determined the guardians of public virtue were in the prosecution of gay men: they still met, they still loved, they still had sex.

And if one looks at the professions of those “sodomites” who were brought to court, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if we’d learn one day that, among the butchers and blacksmiths and clerks and furniture makers, there also were a typesetter and printer who weren’t caught…

*** Review to follow.

China has a long history of tolerance towards homosexuality, beginning from the first references to same-sex relationships in the records of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC) and ending (after a rather shaky period from 1740 onwards) with the persecution of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution. That’s over three thousand years of a society that occasionally celebrated same-sex love, occasionally denigrated it, but more often than not, just let people get on with it.

In typical elliptic style—because direct talk of sexual matters was considered unbelievably vulgar—Chinese literature referenced homosexual acts by means of phrases such as ‘cut sleeve’, ‘bitten peach’, or by name-dropping gay historical figures. The most famous stories are of Mi Zi Xia and his royal lover, Duke Ling of Wei, who shared a peach (yutao, ‘leftover peach’); and Emperor Ai, who cut off his sleeve to avoid disturbing his sleeping lover Dong Xian, which created a court trend whereby everyone went around cutting their sleeves (duanxiu, ‘breaking the sleeve’).

Qu Yuan, an admired poet of the Warring States period (340-278 BC), wrote poems to his lover, the King of Chu. Historical documents such as Sima Qian’s Memoirs of the Historian and the exhaustive dynastic records of the Han dynasty list scores of male favourites of the ruling monarchs. Throughout the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-23 AD), ten of the thirteen emperors took male lovers in addition to the necessary wives and concubines. Sima Qian wrote that the male favourites were often admired more for their skills in war, administration, or cultural pursuits than for their beauty.


My favourite of the Western Han emperors, Han WuDi (‘the Martial Emperor’)—or Liu Che, to give him his real name—was one of these ‘bisexual’ emperors. Liu Che liked to keep things within family units, too—his male lovers included an uncle and nephew, plus the famous musician Li Yan Nian and Yan Nian’s sister, Lady Li. My novella Fall of a State (available now from Dreamspinner Press) is a somewhat fluffy version of the relationship between Liu Che and his musician. Li Yan Nian is credited with writing the ‘Northern Beauty’ song (a version of which appears in the film House of Flying Daggers when Zhang ZiYi performs for Takeshi Kaneshiro), which—due to the Chinese language having no gender for its nouns and pronouns—means the Beauty could refer equally to a man or a woman. In my story, it does both.

During the period of disunion (265-589), in which six separate dynasties ruled and overlapped, the historians of the Liu Song dynasty record that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality:

“All the gentlemen and officials esteemed it. All men in the realm followed this fashion to the extent that husbands and wives were estranged. Resentful unmarried women became jealous.”

Efforts were made during the Tang dynasty (618-907) to restore more of a ‘traditional’ moral order. Somewhat ironically, the first Crown Prince of the dynasty, Li Chen Qian, was gay. He was later removed from succession, though not for that reason.

By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), an increase in urbanisation and the introduction of paper money caused a growth in prostitution. A law was passed against male prostitution, but it seemed not to have been enforced with any rigour. The merchant classes, suddenly given a voice in the historical and literary records, had money to spend and lusts to fulfil. With their respectable wives raising families at home, the merchants went out partying with pretty young sing-song boys.

[Rest of the post cut because of explicit historical erotic images – NSFW!] (more…)