Posts Tagged ‘lesbian history’

Where do I get the ideas for my historical novels? The answer isn’t simple. I might get the seed of an idea from one place, then find another seed somewhere else; several ideas come together and germinate into the plot of a novel. Let me tell you about one of the seeds for my recently published novel, Testimony.

I don’t expect many people have heard of Martha Deane. I would never have heard of her myself if I hadn’t stumbled on an article titled “The Case of Martha Deane: Sexuality and Power at Cold War UCLA” by Kathleen Weiler.

In 1952, Deane was a full professor of Physical Education at UCLA, having taught dance for almost 30 years. Well-known in her field and a respected teacher, she was one of only two female full professors on campus.

Then, in the fall of that year, the university received an anonymous letter complaining about Deane. The writer, possibly a disgruntled neighbor, reported seeing Deane kiss another woman through the window of her own home.

The woman with Deane was her partner, Ruth Fulton, an assistant professor. When confronted, Fulton resigned, but Deane stood firm against allegations of “unprofessional conduct” and “moral turpitude.” Even though a faculty committee recommended her exoneration, the dean suspended her without pay.

Female faculty banded together to help support Deane financially during her lengthy hearing process. Finally, probably worn down from the ordeal, Deane settled with the university and left for early retirement. UCLA scrubbed her case from its records, but Weiler, an education historian, unearthed the story 50 years later.

Dean herself never spoke or wrote about what happened; maybe it was a condition of her retirement. When interviewed for a UCLA oral history project in 1966, she made a vague reference to the early 1950s. “It’s a time that I couldn’t even sort out in my mind if I had to,” she said. “It was a time of great turbulence on the campus … and a real reactionary kind of force coming in.”

Deane’s story ends on a positive note. “She survived all this unbroken, how I don’t quite know,” one of her female colleagues reported. Deane and Fulton built their own house in a rural area outside of Los Angeles, and Deane became active in the League of Women Voters.

Testimony took some of its inspiration from Deane’s story—I’ve been married to a female professor for 28 years, and the story pushed buttons. I transported my novel to Virginia in 1960, but cases similar to Deane’s have been plentiful throughout the country. Another seed: Renowned literature professor and scholar Newton Arvin—a gay man who was once lovers with Truman Capote—lost his position at Smith College in 1960 for “possession of obscene photographs.”

Like so many people fired for simply being queer, Deane and Arvin—and my protagonist, Gen Rider—endured much more than the loss of their livelihoods. As Weiler puts it, Deane lost “a central part of her identity.”


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Gladys Bentley

For your reading pleasure, Buzzfeed brings you “17 Badass Historical LGBT Women Who Absolutely Gave No Fucks.” I love Gladys Bentley! Who is your favorite on this list?

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Author Jesse Blackadder’s novel The Raven’s Heart is set in the court of Mary Queen of Scots – and was partly inspired by the discovery that the queen was a regular cross-dresser. The Raven’s Heart has just been published by Bywater Books in the USA, UK and Canada (it was published in Australia last year by HarperCollins).

However, it was another Mary from the time who penned a love poem to her female friend that has survived down the centuries. Here, Jesse crosses the historical divide to “talk” to Mary Maitland and tell us about the inspiration behind The Raven’s Heart.

Mary Maitland, you wrote a passionate poem to another woman and slipped it under your father’s nose, to be published in his 1586 Scottish collection The Maitland Quarto Manuscript. You were compared to Sappho – a poet who was part of classic education in those days – and in the poem you dream of changing into a man so you can marry the woman you love.

It’s (just) within the bounds of friendship poetry of the era, though the lines:

 You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection

suggest a passion struggling to stay within social limits. You compare your love to that of Penelope and Ulysses, Pollux and Castor, and Ruth and Naomi (source of the declaration “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge”). At the end you write that your fervent friendship will endure until “death shall us divorce.”

Was a passionate – but chaste – friendship the only option for women who fell in love in the 16th century? Although men of the day were often accused of being sodomites – including the husband of the Queen of Scots – lesbianism didn’t openly exist as an identity. The fact that Mary Maitland’s poem was published in a collection compiled by the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, suggests there was no hint of indecency about her declarations.

But this poem (reproduced in The Literature of Lesbianism by Terry Castle) was one of the little jewels I found while researching and writing my story of powerful women struggling for their birthright in the time of the Queen of Scots, herself a powerful and attractive woman.

Unusually tall and highly charismatic, the Queen loved sports and outdoor activities and was accomplished at riding and hunting. She disguised herself as a man and slipped out of her palace at night to explore Edinburgh’s streets and drink in its taverns. Perhaps these experiences piqued the Queen’s interest in clothing, gender and power, for Mary began cross-dressing more politically. She turned up in masculine clothing to a banquet in honour of the English ambassador and joked about how a marriage between herself and Elizabeth I would solve their political problems. When one of her powerful lords in the north of Scotland defied her, Mary donned armour to lead her armies to defeat him and admitted that she loved to live as a soldier. She rode out again when her lords rebelled against her marriage to the unpopular (and rumoured homosexual) Lord Darnley, putting on such a show of strength that the rebels fled without a fight.

There’s no suggestion in contemporary or current history that the Queen was a lesbian, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by this extraordinary character. Mary was the most famous cross dresser of the time – but surely not the only one?

And so the main character in The Raven’s Heart, Alison, is disguised as a boy from a young age to protect her from kidnapping. When Alison goes into Mary’s service to petition for the return of her family’s castle, how can she not fall in love with the charismatic Queen of Scots?

So great joy does my spirit fulfil

Contemplating your perfection

You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection.

Mary Maitland isn’t a character in the book, but I can’t help wondering: did she and her loved one remain “In perfect amity forever”? Or did her marriage to one Alexander Lauder end the constancy of her “holy and religious” love?

Jesse Blackadder’s website is www.jesseblackadder.com

Extract from The Raven’s Heart

Scotland, 1561.

We come across the North Sea, bearing the face of heaven in our hold.

A fleet of ships brings such a treasure, our galley speeding ahead and the rest following slowly with her horses and fineries, her tapestries and clothes. She returns from thirteen years in the French court to take up the reins of power.

Does she remember that she returns to a city of stone? Stone is too old to care what human hands press against it, what blood spills in its crevices. Even the palace, with its French architecture, is made of stone, and looming above it, Edinburgh Castle hewn from the cliff so that none may attack it and none may escape. She sails to a stone city, an icy country and a cold people.

As we draw close to the coast, heavy fog envelopes us. Bass Rock materialises through the mist like something enchanted, its sides steep and forbidding, and the gulls scream and wrack and sweep around it in circles. The sea is brown and heaving, the outpour of the Firth River is a scum of Edinburgh’s rot slapping at the side of the boat. She waits on the deck to set eyes on the land, but it stubbornly refuses to reveal itself through the mist. It is not a forgiving country and she has been gone since she was five.

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