The Emergence of the
Lesbian Romantic Hero
and the Plot She Thrives In

DC Bardfest October 2004

Remarks from a Panel by Authors:
Jane Fletcher, Jean Stewart,
Radclyffe, and Lori L. Lake

An Historical Backdrop
by Lori L. Lake


If you are an aspiring or published writer, you've probably attended this session to find out new or interesting ways to contribute to the lesbian literary tradition. If you are a reader, you're here because you love immersing yourself in books about lesbian romantic heroes and plots that feature events and conflict that may in some way echo themes or experiences in your own life.

But lesbian writing has not always been something you could enjoy.

Before we focus on the specifics of character and plot, I want to take you all back in time, so sit back, take a deep breath, maybe close your eyes . . .

Imagine you're an intelligent, spunky, and curious young woman in a small village-pretty much anywhere in the world. It's the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Actually, it doesn't really matter when it is. Women living in all those times had little or no overt power.

Regional wars and skirmishes plague your area, just as they have for all time, sometimes spilling into your town. Your brothers or neighbors occasionally get killed in these little wars or by rival gangs. Sometimes women are captured and taken by enemies, never to be seen again. People die very young in this time in history, often not making it much past age 30. If you get to the age of 40 or older you're considered ancient. You and your sister have to be careful at times, for the price of a woman's life is ridiculously low. No matter that you lust to learn, that you are far smarter than most of the males in your family, that you passionately love - not a young man of your town or tribe - but another girl. None of this matters. You don't have the size, the stature, or the clout to have much say. Your every thought is overrun by your culture's rules and morés. You also know that any woman who challenges the status quo is likely to be put out from home and hearth. Rumor has it that the last girl shunned by your people was killed by highwaymen while plying the oldest profession known to Woman.

You have few choices. You are obviously female, and you can't disguise that fact. There's nowhere to go, nowhere to turn where women are not subjugated, not even by escaping into a book. Books are something outside your whole clan's experience. And libraries? They weren't even available to most of the masses until the 20th Century. You have nothing to read to affirm your lesbian existence.

You are Gabrielle of Potadeia and no one writes a story remotely resembling your internal life until the mid-1990s.

Switch gears - but keep imagining. It's the mid-1800s. You're a white child, 10 or 12 years old, not promised to any man, and therefore a burden upon your household. You eat more than you can provide in the way of income. But you don't have any of what they used to call "great expectations." In fact, without very quickly attaching yourself to some young man with money or to a family with money, your prospects are not good. Out on the street, there are few ways to survive other than by crime. You recognize already that you're not interested in men. In fact, you end up falling in love with another orphan girl. Again, you have no models for how to live, for how to survive, for how to be who you are. You have nothing to read to affirm your lesbian existence. You are Margaret Prior, of Sarah Waters' "Affinity" and no one writes a story remotely resembling your internal life until the year 2000.

Now let's imagine you're a Latino girl. Or wait -- you're Black. Or Jewish or Swedish or any kind of immigrant to the shores of the New World, the tired, the poor, yearning to breath free. It's 1899, it's 1905, it's the eve of WWI in 1914. You have no desire for men, and yet, your family prays you will marry well. Chances are you work as a housemaid, a launderer, a baker, a cook's helper, or some other menial position. You are one of millions of faceless, nameless lesbians living all through the centuries. No one writes your story -- not for a very long time.

Let's imagine that you're Black and not particularly attractive. Your stepfather sexually abuses you, and you bear two children by him, both of whom are taken away, and you are married off to a cold, self-centered farmer to take care of his pack of unruly kids. You barely have the skills to write letters, and you have nothing to read to affirm your lesbian existence. You fall in love with a woman filled with light, a woman who sings. She's beautiful. She's kind to you. She teaches you the wonders of love. You experience the first love of your young life. You are Miss Celie, of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," and no one writes a story with a happy ending for your life until the year 1982.

Flash forward to the 1940s, the time of World War II. In America, as in other countries, women are recruited for or volunteer to do paid jobs formerly done only by men. Just to keep the economy going, women must leave the house and work in coal mines, oil refineries, factory lines, warehouses -- tough jobs never before allowed to women. Rosie the Riveter with her slightly bulging biceps is now paraded about as a wonderful model. (I can only imagine that lesbians everywhere let out a silent cheer.)

Never mind that women all through time have worked the fields, run households, borne and reared children, nursed the sick, helped bury the dead, sewed and worked leather, gathered and put up fruits and vegetables, fought marauders, and learned all they could about protecting their loved ones, their home, their farm, their neighborhood. Still, none of them have ever had anything to read to affirm their lesbian existence.

But World War II let the cat out of the bag. For a terrifying time, many people believed it was the end of the world, especially after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the 1960s, Bertha Harris, who wrote the novel "The Lovers," which was published in 1969, said:

"Between the time of Sappho and the birth of Natalie Clifford Barney lies a 'lesbian silence' of twenty-four centuries."

(Remember that Sappho lived in 630 BC.) Some of you may not know of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), but in 1894 at the ripe old age of 21, she wrote revolutionary things:

"It seems to me that those who dare to rebel in every age are those who make life possible -- it is the rebels who extend the boundary of right, little by little."

Barney was one of the women at the turn of the 20th century who rebelled against convention and against Victorian attitudes. She had the courage to say repeatedly, "I will live as I choose!"

Of course, she was rich as all get out, and she could afford to live as she pleased. In fact, when we look back at women writers in general, whether lesbian or not, there is one thing most of them have in common: they came from riches or owned property and had funds in their own right. Emily Dickinson, Katherine Lee Bates, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Natalie Clifford Barney. Even Radclyffe Hall, she of "The Well of Loneliness," came from money, which enabled her to write.

It's no surprise to me that the ability to write -- the simple opportunity to write -- was effectively denied to lesbians until major changes were made in women's place in the economic world. Once vast numbers of American women got a taste of working outside the home, there was no way to get that cat back in the bag. Society - the church - the returning soldiers - mothers and sisters and society dames - none of these were entirely successful at keeping women down after they had tasted a bit of freedom.

It's amazing to think that all women -- much less lesbians -- have survived for more than two millennia with so few role models, without heroines whose lives we could emulate and live by. We haven't had open, clear-cut heroes, anyway. I remember reading Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" and other novels of the 1800s, and though there is a lesbian sensibility to Jo March, it was little to cling to once she married Professor Baer.

Once women began reading (which, surprisingly, wasn't all that long ago; we've had merely a couple hundred years of decent literacy), they must have been struck by the absence of overt and heroic lesbian characters. But there were no lesbian presses, no online venues, no print-on-demand technology, no champions of lesbian writing, and no way to get anything published with open lesbian themes. One thing lesbian writers did - writers such as Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf - was to create a lesbian subtext in their poems and novels, which you could sift out if you paid attention. Radclyffe Hall's "Well of Loneliness" was an anomaly; the few books with even the slightest lesbian themes that did get published were more like Djuna Barnes' "Nightwood" - with the lesbianism very subtle, surreal, convoluted, and below the surface.

Researchers Flynn & Schweikart, in their ground-breaking book "Gender and Reading," make the case that women are constantly translating the mostly male-dominated world around us into feminine terms and realities, and I would further state that for lesbian readers, there has to be a double translation, an added subtextual examination.

I started reading before kindergarten, and by age 9, I was scouring the public library, searching desperately for books about girls like myself who ran, jumped, climbed trees, played tackle football, won at War, beat the boys at baseball, and grew up to marry their best girlfriend. In 1969, I didn't find any books that reflected my experiences. Story girls were docile, ethical, and encouraged to be homemakers, or, if necessary, teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Boys got to be wild. They got to drive the fast cars, travel to exotic places, attend exciting events, and play sports. Boys got in trouble. Boys had all the fun.

From the earliest books I read, I was aware that I usually superimposed myself upon the male hero and transformed "him" into something that was an amalgam of me, including both male and female elements. I was almost never the damsel who was rescued; I was the rescuer who won the fair dame. For the first twenty years of my life, in retrospect, I realize I saw (or imagined) homoerotic pairings in everything from "Little Women" to "Nancy Drew" to Perry Mason mysteries. (C'mon! He doesn't marry Della in a heartbeat? I wanted to marry Della! But what was his deal with Paul Drake?).

I could also give credit to incredible gender/sexuality-blurring sci-fi/fantasy authors like Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Mercedes Lackey upon whom the careers of fantasty/adventure writers like Jean Stewart and Jane Fletcher are descended. But they were the exception, not the norm, and their writing tended to obscure lesbian characters.

There was no Internet for looking up things. No Yahoo groups to join to talk to other women all around the world about lesbian issues. In the card catalog at the school and public library, the most common word after lesbian or homosexual was DEVIANT. I was a freshman in college before I finally read my first lesbian book, one of the earliest explicit tales of lesbian lives, Isabel Miller's Patience & Sarah, which was finished in 1967 and first published in 1969. (Did you know her real name was Alma Routsong, and she picked the name "Isabel" because it was an anagram of "lesbia"?)

I was 19 when I read and was profoundly affected by Patricia Nell Warren's gay love story, "The Front Runner," and days later, I devoured Rita Mae Brown's 1973 novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle," and soon after, her "Six of One." Of course, I found the Beebo Brinker stories and Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness," among others, but none of those books came close to telling about my inner struggles.

I scrounged everywhere to find lesbian books. Patricia Highsmith (writing in the closet as Claire Morgan) gave us "The Price of Salt" in 1952, and Jane Rule published "Desert of the Heart" in 1964, but I didn't find either book until decades after they had come out, and they were, by then, somewhat dated. I still have the shabby paperback copy of Ann Allen Shockley's 1974 novel "Loving Her," about an interracial love affair. These books were a start toward affirming a lesbian existence, but where were the books that reflected what I saw and felt? If there were thousands of mysteries and thousands of fantasy books, why weren't their thousands of lesbian books?

I went around my world with very little fiction - heck, very little non-fiction - that affirmed my lesbian existence. Yet all around I was meeting young women who were lesbian or bisexual. Where were the books? In many ways, before the advent of Naiad Books and the increasing availability starting in the 1980s of books containing clear and overt lesbian themes and plots, authors were mostly penning, with subterfuge, covert plots and characters who could be interpreted as lesbian. But my oh my--so much work! Couldn't somebody just write some romantic love stories and action/adventures with real lifelike lesbians?!

And then along came a little genre of lesbian books in the category of crime fiction. Barbara Wilson's "Murder in the Collective" was the first lesbian mystery with an amateur sleuth; Katherine V. Forrest's "Amateur City" gets the honors for the first professional detective; both were published in 1989, following auspicious debuts by straight female detectivess written by Marcia Muller (1977), Sara Paretsky (1982), and Sue Grafton (1983), all of whom revolutionized the way female sleuths were personified. But it was the Jane Lawless books, about the amateur sleuth written by Ellen Hart and published by Seal Press in 1989, that had the most affect on me. It was around then that I realized that if I was feeling deprived - and I was! - then so must other women. What does a lesbian do, when she has little or nothing to read to affirm her lesbian existence!

I decided to write novels myself. I had been writing short stories for several years, but by 1990 my mind was made up. I wanted to write a book by, for, and about a lesbian character. I wanted to add my voice to the lesbian literary tradition. Granted, the tradition was basically less than 100 years old, but we've got to start somewhere, right?

We need romantic heroes. We need women with guts who'll go after the glory. Lesbians have served and lived and loved and fought and been of major consequence all through time. No longer do we want to be invisible. We want a multitude of things read to affirm our lesbian existence. We deserve to have our stories told and to share the stories of our lives.

In closing, I want to share a few words that Patricia Nell Warren wrote back in 2001:

"There are a thousand different ways to write a novel, from "Tale of Genji" and "Ulysses" to "Hunt for Red October" and "Rubyfruit Jungle." There are as many different ways to write novels as there are novelists. Essentially, a novel is a point of view in some way -- the novelist's point of view as suffused through the characters and story line in some way.

You are on a journey of discovery to find YOUR OWN WAY to write that great lesbian novel (and I believe there is plenty of room for more major lesbian novels!!) There is only YOUR WAY. But you have to find it. You are on a quest no different than the knight-errant following the difficult path through the dark forest, in search of the magic cave where the gem of wisdom is to be found. And you are challenged to find how to make that way "work," in terms of what's on the page. In other words, the magic of how the book engages the reader, is believable, and convinces, and keeps the reader going to the end."

I encourage you all to write. If you aren't cut out to write, please keep on reading. Encourage your favorite writers. Buy their books. We need heroes, we need to tell our stories and hear those of other lesbians.

Never ever let it happen again that you have nothing to read to affirm your lesbian existence.

Next up in the presentation's order: RADCLYFFE.

 
An Historical Backdrop
Lori L. Lake
The Hero and
The Lady

Radclyffe
 
The Femme Heroine Archetype
Jean Stewart
...And The Plot
She Thrives In

Jane Fletcher
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