The first lesbian book I ever read was Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. I was fourteen years old, and would save up my pocket-money for trips to the big Borders bookshop in Glasgow. This was, mercifully, before that tense two year stretch when it occurred to my mother that she ought to police my reading material. I still remember sitting up to finish the story, our house silent save for the steady pattering of raindrops against windows. And I was enchanted, not only by the gothic mystery, but the truth of the connection that drew Sue and Maud together through layers of deception.
I hadn’t realised, until reading Fingersmith, that such lesbian stories existed. That story was a revelation. It dealt masterfully with themes I was just beginning to grow conscious of: gender, power, sexuality. It also sparked a lifelong love of lesbian historical fiction. Fingersmith was like a gateway drug. After reading it I devoured Waters’ other books, Maureen Duffy’s Alchemy, Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter and Frog Music. Later on, volunteering at Glasgow Women’s Library, I accessed classics such as The Color Purple and Patience and Sarah.
It was through Glasgow Women’s Library that I met Sarah Waters, just over ten years after reading Fingersmith. She was speaking at a conference on women’s history. And I brought all of her books to be signed, presenting them in a teetering pile. We ended up sitting next to one another at the post-conference dinner and, marvelling over my good fortune, I tried not to slip into a state of fangirl meltdown.
I revealed, with more than a little pride, that Kitty Butler had thrown me her rose during the Edinburgh run of Tipping the Velvet, which had recently been adapted for the stage. And Waters congratulated me, saying that this incarnation of Kitty was quite dashing. She also spoke of Sue and Maud with authorial insight. To my fourteen-year-old self, this couple had seemed so grown-up and knowing. But, as an adult rereading Fingersmith, I saw how innocent they really were.
In revisiting books, we also revisit past selves, and in so doing map personal growth. In the fifteen years since I first read Fingersmith, I’ve moved from furtively reading lesbian novels to founding a lesbian book group. In November Labrys Lit will be joined by Jay Taverner, a lesbian writing partnership responsible for some of the most exciting historical fiction Britain has seen in the last twenty years. And it is an immense privilege to be connecting other women with this rich lesbian culture.
These books overturn the homophobic assumption that being lesbian or gay is just a modern lifestyle choice, highlighting the existence of same-sex attraction in times before our own.
Lesbian historical fiction serves an important purpose. Not only do these books entertain readers of all sexualities, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of writers like Waters and Donoghue. They also affirm lesbian readers, who are not necessarily used to seeing our lives recognised in popular constructions of the past. After all, lesbians were written out of history for centuries. From the destruction of diaries and letters by families wishing to avoid scandal, to women being institutionalised and forced to undergo conversion therapy, heteropatriarchal society has long sought to redefine lesbian women as heterosexual.
Contemporary historians add to this erasure by reframing lesbian romances as platonic. Even modern-day publishers such as Penguin – who have a dedicated Pride page on their website – described Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as “friends” in their About the Author section of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Which is a bit of a stretch, as Stein bragged in code about giving Toklas orgasm after orgasm in her notebooks, calling herself “the best cow giver in all the world.” Just gals being pals…
It doesn’t matter how ardent the love or how passionate the sex between lesbians of yore; straight people will still perform the most elaborate mental gymnastics in order to interpret those relationships as straight. This is why lesbian historical fiction matters. It’s a way of recontextualising lesbian lives; of writing ourselves back into the narrative.
These books overturn the homophobic assumption that being lesbian or gay is just a modern lifestyle choice, highlighting the existence of same-sex attraction in times before our own. They treat lesbian herstories with dignity – something that, for all the recent gains in gay rights, many still struggle to do. Although we now have a wealth of contemporary lesbian fiction, published by mainstream and independent means, I believe this is why lesbian historical novels retain such a powerful hold on so many readers. The imagined lesbian past in historical novels serves a replacement for the herstory of which we were robbed.
Claire Heuchan is an author, essayist, and Black radical feminist. She writes the award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.