The Wild and Wacky Queer Women of 17th Century Europe

This is a guest post by Heather Rose Jones where she discusses some amazing Queer Women of 17th Century Europe. While this is not our typical content, it is pretty interesting and worth a read – Sheena

Queer Women of 17th Century Europe
Hortense Mancini by Jacob Ferdinand Voet 1675

When I tell people I write historical fiction about women in lesbian relationships, I get a lot of disbelief. “But there weren’t any lesbians before the modern era!” “Why would you want to write about such repressive times?” “Aren’t you pretty much just making it all up?”

While a modern lesbian might reasonably contemplate life in previous centuries with horror, let’s be honest: any sensible modern woman would have a similar reaction to the past. And yet nobody complains that the entire genre of historical romance is “pretty much just making it all up” to please modern readers. It’s possible to find a balance between an accurate reflection of the past and a story that appeals to us today.

Your historic characters can have thrilling adventures and passionate romances without having to throw actual history entirely out the window. I recently took up the challenge to write a little story in a “Three Musketeers” setting (mid-17th century France and England) but with female protagonists. When I looked around for some historic models, I found an embarrassment of riches. Maybe some of them will inspire you, too.

First, let’s set our scene. In England, the 17th century begins with the last few years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, then sweeps on through the ups and downs of the House of Stuart, including the execution of Charles I, the English Civil War, the Restoration under Charles II, and the religiously-motivated politics that ended the century under the joint rule of William and Mary. The flavor of society swung wildly from literal Puritanism to the licentiousness of the Restoration.

France began the century coming out of violent religious conflicts into an era revolving around the consolidation of royal power and the growth of a sophisticated literary and intellectual culture presided over by women whose power lay in the salons. On the political side, we see the parade of figures that feature in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novels: King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and Cardinal Mazarin.

It was a century of social turmoil and change, a time of masquerades and play-acting, and an era when ideas of gender and sexuality came into close focus. Here is a cast of real and literary women who strutted upon that stage and who turned at least part of their desire toward their own sex.

We could start with a figure who literally strutted on a stage: Mary Frith (also known as Moll Cutpurse), a rough, working-class woman, who was notorious for dressing openly in male clothing and for having sexual relationships with both men and women. Her bisexuality was a major theme of a play based on her life (and which she may have attended performances of), The Roaring Girl.

Hortense Mancini was a niece of Cardinal Mazarin, the powerful minister serving King Louis IV. Despite her marriage and her famous lovers (including King Charles II), she had several famous affairs with women, including one as a teenager when she and her lover played havoc in the convent where they had been sent “for safe keeping”. When not playing around with King Charles, Hortense amused herself at the English court in a romantic affair with Anne, Countess of Sussex—a relationship culminating in a friendly swordfight in their nightgowns in a public park.

The evidence suggests that Hortense may also have had an affair with the English playwright and spy Aphra Behn. Behn dedicated a work to her noting, “among all the numerous conquests Your Grace has made over the hearts of men, Your Grace had not subdued a more entire slave.”

The figure who would seem the most implausible if she were a fictional invention rather than a historic figure is Julie d’Aubigny, known as Mademoiselle Maupin. A lover of both women and men, she ran away as a teenager and made a living giving swordfighting demonstrations, she broke into a convent to liberate her girlfriend, she habitually dressed in male clothing without trying to disguise her gender, she became a famous opera singer, she once flirted so scandalously with a woman at a ball that three men challenged her to duels over it…and she won all three.

The English poet Katherine Philips wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women in the mid 17th century and argued for the primacy of female romantic friendship over the bonds of marriage. Her poems express the emotional pain of being unable to achieve those ideals in her own life. Other literary women, such as Margaret Cavendish, imagined female separatist utopias in their writings, including the expectation of romantic (and sometimes sexual) attachments between their inhabitants. In Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure, a group of women for a separatist community and play at the edges of same-sex romance. The stage was a popular site for exploring the romantic possibilities of women together, often via gender disguise.

[tweetthis]Some amazing Queer Women of 17th Century Europe are profiled here. Take a look [/tweetthis]

Modern debates over same-sex marriage typically ignore the fact that, in an age when identity and marriage was less strictly regulated, there were any number of marriages performed between people of the same sex, using only the flimsiest of disguises. In 1680, the beautiful and talented court musician Arabella Hunt married a woman named Amy Poulter who, at the time, was cross-dressing and using the name “James Howard”. They lived together as a couple for half a year before some legal technicalities (like Amy’s previous marriage) brought an end to it. There are many other similar cases either related as gossip or recorded in court records when the matter was discovered and raised legal issues.

Legal records are the most common source for information about working-class women, such as one Madame de Murat in Paris who was the subject of several lawsuits relating to her openly passionate relations with various women. She seems to have inspired some rather violent passions in return, for one of the lawsuits mentions a former lover of her having slashed up a portrait of Madame de Murat after having been jilted by her.

And this catalog of women passes over all the many literary representations, in prose, poetry, and drama, of women who loved (or at least had sex with) other women. Anyone looking to set a story in this turbulent era can find a vast array of inspiration of all flavors.

Europe in the 17th century hasn’t been entirely ignored by modern writers of lesbian fiction. Moll Cutpurse features in Ellen Galford’s novel Moll Cutpurse, Her True History. Restoration theater is the context for Katherine Sturtevant’s A Mistress Moderately Fair. Jule d’Aubigny hasn’t received nearly as much historical fiction attention as she deserves. Catherine Lundoff devoted a short story to her “M. Le Maupin” (1997, Lesbian Short Fiction, vol. 3 ed. by Jinx Beers). Other writers have been less strict in focusing on lesbian relationships. Kelly Gardiner’s Goddess gives equal time to d’Aubigny’s female and male lovers.

My own 17th century novelette, “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer,” may be downloaded as a free e-book here.

Do you have any favorite 17th century lesbians in fact or fiction?

You can also get all Heather Rose Jones novels on Amazon

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