Whoosh! Issue 40 - January 2000


Heroic Deeds and Moral Dilemmas:
Reading About Women Before and After Xena




Historical Fiction: Exciting Morality Tales

[20] In my youth, in the 1950's, I read obsessively and eclectically, inhaling vast quantities of historical fiction, classical literature, and teen-age romances, and I lived in a rich and wonderful fantasy world, wherein I was always the hero who had to save the girl. Under the influence of my grandmother, a painter and art history teacher, I grew up on myths and legends along with Greek and Roman art. In the first thirty years of my reading life, I can recall only one book with a woman 'hero', The Unwilling Vestal, A Tale Of Rome Under The Caesars (1918) by Edmund Lucas White, in which a young woman is forced by family obligations to serve as one of the virgins serving Vesta, Roman goddess of the hearth. The story is a hazy memory, because the book was old when my grandmother recommended it, and I have never been able to find another copy, which says volumes about the obscurity of strong women characters in literature.

[21] Historical fiction was my favorite reading. Two which I read over and over again, and wove into my fantasy life, were Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott, 1820) and Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1939). I could never understand why Ivanhoe preferred that wimpy, washed out Rowena to the dark, beautiful, and brave Rebecca, and I always appreciated the way Melanie and Scarlett were there for each other, no matter how badly their menfolk let them down. My fantasies were set in whatever dramatic situation I was reading about at the time, but the pattern never varied. Some girl was in some kind of danger, and I had to get her out if it. Indeed, sometimes I would rescue a whole bevy of girls, because when all your relationships are in your mind, it is possible to have several at a time. The rescue effort always culminated in my having to hold the object of my (distant) devotion, just as Xena and Gabrielle do in the non-sexual 'hurt/comfort' stories of the Xenaverse.

[22] Imagine my surprise to come upon the realization of all my youthful fantasies in Xena fan fiction on the net: dramatic settings, great action, and a pair of women in charge of their own lives and in love with each other!

[23] In my youth, of course, it never occurred to me that a book could have anything but a male hero, so I read what interested me: exciting stories with themes of honor, justice and morality. Most historical fiction that I read, and I do not believe I ever read a 'bodice ripper', was some kind of a morality tale, like Robin Hood robbing the rich and fighting evil Prince John, or Thomas Costain's Below The Salt (1957), about a medieval serf acting with honor despite his lowly station. Loving sailing and the sea, my father introduced me early on to C. S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower series, about a British naval captain during the Napoleonic wars. Hornblower was a superb captain and leader of men who constantly struggled against his real and perceived failings. On the TV show, it is Xena's dark side and efforts to redeem herself that give Xena: Warrior Princess its special edge and have generated reams of fan fiction.

[24] In college, in the early 1960's, I discovered Mary Renault's retelling of the legend of Theseus, the first king of Greece, in The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. These are thumping good stories, exquisitely written, and rich with historical detail. I wonder if Xena could have been modeled on Theseus? Both have ice blue eyes, were possibly fathered by a god, travel around the Attic peninsula fighting for good, and combine the lyrical grace of Athens with the martial skills of Sparta. Theseus is aggressively heterosexual, but the books contained numerous, non- judgmental references to homosexuals.

[25] Then I read her modern novel, The Charioteer, set in England during around World War II. This was a novel about men who loved each other! Over the next two decades, Renault produced half a dozen more novels set in classical Greece, including a trilogy about Alexander the Great. All were about men as comrades and lovers, but in contrast to most modern literature about gays and lesbians, 'coming out' and 'sleeping around' were non- existent issues. Rather, the relationships were driven by the Platonic ideals of deep friendship and moral excellence, with the friends always striving to lead honorable lives in order to be worthy of each other.

[26] Women, when they do appear in Renault's Greek novels, are usually treated negatively. Unfortunately, this is historically accurate, since ancient Greece was unabashedly male-oriented, with women valued only for their childbearing capacity. For the fascinating story of Mary Renault's life, literary work, and place in the political milieu of World War II and post-war South Africa, read David Sweetman's fine biography, Mary Renault: A Biography.

[27] Not until years later did I learn that Renault had started out writing about women. Her first book, Purposes of Love (1939), published in the US as Promise Of Love, was drawn from her experiences as a hospital nurse and included explicitly lesbian characters. Published in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War II, it was a popular best seller. Her next two novels, including one of my all time favorites, Friendly Young Ladies (1945), published in the US as The Middle Mist, got lost in the turmoil of the war, not to be rediscovered until years later.


Early Lesbian Literature: Few and Far Between

[28] Having spent the last 25 years amassing a collection of about 1600 pieces of lesbian literature, what would I recommend to someone who wanted to read the earlier stories, presumably for their intrinsic interest rather than historical value? Although 1600 items seems like a lot, only a few hundred fiction titles predate the 1970's advent of Women's Liberation. Of those, over half are paperback originals from the fifties and sixties. All are well-written, because literary quality was a pre-requisite for such obscure titles to be published. Most are about intensely emotional attractions between two women, and they often have unhappy endings, which is why I have not bothered to read very many of my collection. It is interesting to note that a significant number of titles are the author's first and sometimes only publication, because it is conventional wisdom that an author's first novel is autobiographical.

[29] What remains is a very small handful of books that I enjoyed reading at the time, and which still hold up well even against all the competition on bookstore racks and the Internet. I hope readers will want to search out these books, not just because they are positive portrayals of women together, but because they are so well- written that you would want to add them to your literary memory file and model your own prose after them if you are an author.

[30] Herewith follows a description of what I found most readable in the trickle, stream, then flood of lesbian novels in this century. My original list was compiled from Gene Damon's The Lesbian in Literature (Naiad Press, 1981), Jeanette H. Foster's Sex Variant Women in Literature (Naiad Press, 1985), and book reviews in The Ladder, A Lesbian Review (San Francisco, Daughters of Bilitis, 1957- 1972.). Foster's book, originally privately published in 1957, is a highly readable account of popular attitudes over the centuries toward 'feminine sex variance' as mirrored in poetry, fiction and drama. Foster selected the term 'sex variant' because it was not controversial or rigidly defined, and included a spectrum of expression from overt lesbian to intense emotional attachment.

''Pink, as the bing on your cherry.  Pink, 'Cause you are so very.''

Dust jacket of Sex Variant Women in Literature, privately published by Jeanette Foster.
[31] On the topic of heroes, a place of honor goes to Barbara Grier, a.k.a. Gene Damon, who almost single- handedly rescued lesbian fiction from oblivion. With Marion Zimmer Bradley, she put out mimeographed Checklists of lesbian books starting in 1960. For many years, she wrote book reviews and edited The Ladder, first published in 1956 and initially circulated in mimeograph to a small private list of subscribers. Using the pseudonym 'Gene Damon' to protect her then-partner's anonymity, she published three editions of The Lesbian in Literature, in 1967, 1972, and 1975. For the past twenty-six years, she and her partner Donna J. McBride have operated Naiad Press, biggest and best known of the lesbian little presses. Many of the books described below can be found in Naiad Press reissues.

''Pink, it's the colour of passion.  'Cause today it just goes
with the fashion.''

In the mid-1960's, it became a fad for daring young lesbians to appear on the cover of 'The Ladder, A Lesbian Review'. Left to right, issues of Feb. 1957, Oct. 1964, Sept. 1965, Jan. 1966.
[32] I was introduced to Barbara Grier and her bibliography by Lee Lynch, now a popular Naiad Press author. At 29, after a lifetime of silence, isolation and thwarted feelings, I had finally come out. It was 1970, the beginning of the New Haven Women's Liberation Movement, and lesbians were just beginning to identify themselves. In the midst of all the activity I was always an activist as well as a bookaholic. I began to search out books recommended by Foster and Grier. Eventually I even had a little mail order book business, Independent Woman Books, specializing in old, rare and out-of-print lesbian literature, that allowed me to add to my own ever-growing collection, and to share these books with other women as eager as I was to read them.


Personal Favorites

[33] I have three all time favorites, starting with The Middle Mist, (UK edition, Friendly Young Ladies). The "friendly young ladies", who live together on a houseboat, are Leo, a writer of western novels, and Helen, a nurse. None of Renault's books are explicit about sex, and this one is least of all, but the relationship between Helen and Leo is beautifully drawn. It was probably based on the relationship of Renault and her lifelong partner, Julie Mullard, whom she met in nursing school. Leo is so vivid that she leaps off the page. Helen is a quiet, loving presence in the background. In fact, the literary characters are much like Xena and Gabrielle, respectively. Just as on the TV show, they are loving comrades on screen/on the page, and the exact nature of their relationship otherwise is left undefined. As in all of Renault's books, there are memorable characters, layers of historical meaning, a good story, masterful command of the language, and lots of dandy moral dilemmas to solve. If The Middle Mist had been written today, instead of fifty years ago, it would have had a much less ambiguous ending, and been an Oprah Book Club selection.

[34] Also at the top of my list is Elizabeth Craigin's Either is Love (1937). This book is so beautifully written that 'Elizabeth Craigin' must be the pseudonym of an otherwise well-known author, for this is the only title I have ever found by that name. It is the memoir of a mature woman who loved another woman, fully, completely, and without guilt, in the first part of her life. Later, she finds that she loves a man, equally as fully, in the second part of her life. The title conveys the respect with which both relationships are described, and it was a revelation, amidst the Sturm und Drang pervading the genre then and now, to read how naturally two women could live and love together. This author was prescient in more ways than one. In the three decades of the Women's Movement and Gay Liberation, many women have come out as lesbians. In recent conversations with old friends who did come out in those years, several have mentioned, somewhat hesitantly, that they are now happily living with a man. My reply is always "Best wishes!" and goodbye to another stereotype.

[35] Third on my top trio is The Price of Salt (1952) by Claire Morgan, pseudonym of the well- known mystery writer Patricia Highsmith. Written in 1952, this is a contemporary story in which two women meet, fall in love, and are still together at the end of the book! I recently reread Salt - it holds up very well - in a 1990 English reissue titled Carol (London, 1990), with a foreword by the author, using her real name and describing what it was like to publish a love story of two women in the conservative, McCarthy-dominated 1950's. Now for a vignette of the times: soon after this book was published, I was in the main bus terminal in New York City - afraid to buy a copy of The Well Of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall, New York, 1928) because someone might think I was a lesbian.

''Pink, you could be my flamingo.  'Cause pink, it's the new kind
of lingo.''

Three versions of The Price of Salt. Notice the progression from the undistinguished hardcover dust jacket on the left; to the tasteful couple on the cover of the first paperback edition, middle; to the shadowy figures of a later paperback edition. It took me ten years of searching to find the hardcover original, and the paperbacks sold a million copies.
[36] There is just one historical fiction title in my entire lesbian collection, The Green Scamander by Maude Meagher (1933). (Is it just coincidence that books hinting of 'the love that dare not speak its name' have such undescriptive and unmemorable titles?) The Scamander River runs through the plains of Troy, where, according to legend, the Amazons were destroyed when they fought in alliance with the Trojans against their ancient enemies the Greeks. Penthesilea, noble and doomed last Queen of the Amazons, loves her brash young Sister Queen, Camilla, in the Platonic tradition of Achilles and Patroclus. She and Helen of Troy have a fascinating discussion about the relative positions of Amazons and other women in their world. It is a wonderful story, rich with the kind of fine writing and historical detail later found in Renault's work. But it is a tragic story as well. The battle destroyed the Amazons and marked "the end of a three-thousand-year long period in which, in the civilizations of Egypt, Crete, and Babylonia, the position of women in general was better than it was to be again for another three thousand years. [Penthesilea] stood at the beginning of the Iron Age, and with the rise of the marauding Greeks in the West, the principle that might is right had begun to dominate the world" [Note 04].

''Pink, like a deco umbrella.  It's kink that you don't even tell
her.''

Some personal favorites. Dust jacket of The Green Scamander, 1933; first paperback edition of Either is Love, 1952; You Are the Rain, Laurel Leaf Young Reader's series, 1978.

1900-1955: A Trickle of Mainstream Hardcovers

[37] The similarity in the following recommended books, besides the main character being a lesbian, is the common decency, morality if you will, of the protagonists. Despised and rejected though they may have been in the eyes of the world, they conduct their lives honorably and productively, and are still interesting to read about.

[38] Mary C. DuBois's The Lass of the Silver Sword appeared in 1910, when it was still possible for women to speak openly of loving each other. It contains one of the all time great schoolgirl-crush scenes in juvenile literature. Here, the two girls are introduced. "Carol [basketball star and popular senior] was a fine, handsome girl, just eighteen; tall and vigorous and graceful, with an air about her of being all sparkle and life... her sunny, brown eyes were dancing" (pg. 4-5). "Jean [newcomer and writer] was tall for her age, and pale, and in her own judgment she was homely, for she did not know what charm lay in her strong, yet delicate face... Her eyes were large, deep-set, and of a dark, clear blue" (pg. 6).

[39] There is a beautiful hurt/comfort scene when Carol finds Jean upset.

"Why, Jean, dear!" [Carol] cried, as she saw the poor girl's face... Carol seated herself beside the pathetic little figure, and, putting her arms around her, drew her close and kissed her. ... The poor girl's face was feverishly flushed, and disfigured with the burning tears that had been shed. ... Jean listened to the girl who had seemed so far above her, and had suddenly come so close, and her poor, little, lonely heart began to be consoled. ... [F]or Carol's arms were holding her fast, and she heard a soft voice speaking the first loving, petting words that she had heard in all those dreary months at school. ... She pressed her hands to her temples where it seemed as if hammers were pounding. ..."I'll go to bed later, but I want you now." (pp. 50-54)
Jean's physical symptoms in this consummation-of-friendship scene could come right out of any fanfic first-time scene.

[40] An obscure little British novel, A.T. Fitzroy's Despised and Rejected, (1918) about conscientious objectors during World War I, appealed to me because it was about opposing injustice (the CO's were viciously persecuted) and had a well-written, albeit minor, lesbian character.

[41] Surplus (1924) by Sylvia Stevenson refers to the 'left over' women who had done exciting, meaningful work during World War I, and were then expected, without success, to return to traditional post war society. In this bittersweet story, the protagonist starts a motorcycle transport service with another ex-motor pool driver, to whom she is immediately drawn. "But it was impossible to say to a perfect stranger, without any notice, 'I believe you're the [one] I've been looking for all these long, dreary years, till I'd given up hope - only I find you're a girl, instead of a man'" [Note 05]. She loves and loses, but always remains true to herself, and the story ends with dignity, as the narrator takes over the transport business alone.

[42] In the mid-1930's, Gale Wilhelm published two short novels written in the spare, economical style of Ernest Hemingway. We Too Are Drifting is a strong character study of a lesbian artist of masculine temperament, and Torchlight to Valhalla depicts two women who find each other out of loneliness, and form a lasting bond.

''I want to be your lover.  I, I wanna wrap you in rubber.''

Caption: Left and right are the undistinguished dust covers for Gale Wilhelm's lesbian novels of the 1930's. In the center is the paperback reprint of We Too Are Drifting, which has that shadowy look conveying that it is the story of two women, but not trash.

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