Oopsies, I realized that the previous way I was doing reviews didn't really make sense, sorry! This new iteration is more streamlined and less rambly. I'll still link to related books and articles, though! Feel free to suggest new books or just pop in for a discussion via my guestbook! Or my email and Tumblr are also always available!
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) | ★★★☆☆
It's a decent enough short story, overall. It hinges entirely around the "plot twist," but literally everyone, even if they've never read the book, knows that she's a vampire. In popular culture, people basically just talk about it like, "Oh, is that the one about the lesbian vampire?" That kinda makes all of the talk about how random village women disappearing and Carmilla's "sickness" much less suspenseful, y'know?
That said, while the writing is quite stuffy and overly formal, it's more explicitly romantic than I thought it would be. Still, Laura seems confused and uncomfortable by Carmilla's affections and, as you would expect from the time period, I guess, doesn't seem to realize that homosexuality is a thing, instead thinking that Carmilla is actually a long lost relative or a boy disguised as a girl trying to court her or something. The story's interesting to look back at as the origin of the whole vampire romance trope, etc, at least.
Méphistophéla by Catulle Mendès (1890), trans. Brian Stableford (2019) | ★★★★☆
This story follows a wealthy woman, Sophie, and her unrequited love for her childhood best friend, Emmeline. She is forced to leave home after being outted and subsequently beaten by her husband for being gay, and learns the wonders of sapphic love making from Magalo, a tourist on the island she's hiding on. Still, despite engaging in copious amounts of drugs and lesbian sex, she can't stop feeling empty inside. Nothing she tries works and, seeing as Emmeline has moved on, she is left in an eternal depression, unable to escape even through death.
This was a really difficult read for a variety of reasons, both in regards to subject matter and just the way it's written. A particularly poignant example of this is when we see the main character, Sophie, being raped, from her rapist's perspective. As marital rape was first considered a crime in France in 1990 (literally a hundred years after this was written), he feels completely justified in his actions, believing that it's his right as a husband to violate her. In fact, it talks a lot about how the subjugation of women at the time, going into particular detail about prostitution (which is bad enough on its own, but the mere suggestion of Sadistic brothels is almost too much for me…).
Additionally, the narrative is very much left open to interpretation, with the narrator often doubting themself or showing conflicting information. Written just before the separation between Church and State was (very controversially) established in France, the book was first serialized in L'Echo de Paris, an extremely conservative journal. According to Stableford's introduction, Mendès was quite liberal and likely hated this conservative readership, wanting to subtly challenge their views. As a result, there's a lot of talk about demons and hell: do demons and demonic possessions really exist, or are the perceived symptoms attributable to other things like seizures or drug addiction? There's also the whole metaphor of Sophie as being demonic herself – is she evil for stepping outside of traditional gender roles and carrying herself in a "virile" manner? Is she evil for being a lesbian? Is she a lesbian / gender non-conforming because she was born of a cursed bloodline? Is she depressed because of this demonicness, because of this inability to conform to social standards? Is any of this actually wrong? [I wrote about this more in this essay, if you were curious.] It's interesting to imagine how the intended audience would've felt about all of this, if nothing else…
In summary, it’s not a particularly happy or positive book in regards to the treatment of lesbians and homosexuality, but, frankly, you wouldn’t expect it to be – 1890’s France just wasn’t a good place for women or homosexuals or anyone who wasn’t a French straight wealthy Catholic man, really. But I would definitely say that it’s thought provoking, at least…
Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs (1894) | ★★★☆☆
I've been meaning to write about this one for a while, especially since it's the namesake of the namesake of this site (the first lesbian organisation in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis, took their name from this book, mostly because it was vaguely lesbian and unknown to the general American public so it wouldn't set off any alarms). Finally getting around to reading it, though, it seems like I've built it up in my head to be something it's not...
A bit of context: in the 1880's, various archeological digs, including one site in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, lead to the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts and, subsequently, increased interest in images and themes from classical mythology and culture. It also led to a lot of people not fact checking or straight up lying about "new" poetry, etc. Essentially, this is a book of loosely related "autobiographical" poems, allegedly written by a contemporary of Sappho... but, that turned out to be an elaborate hoax. That's not, like, an issue or anything, I just think it's a neat story.
The book itself follows Bilitis through various stages of her life. In part one, we see Bilitis during her pastoral adolescence, "practicing" kissing with her friends, etc, and it ends with her getting married to some man. In part two, she leaves him and her kids to go to Mytilene, the land of Sappho, where she has many affairs, joins a Lesbian cult devoted to Aphrodite, and marries a younger woman who ends up cheating on her and poisons her idea of love. The third part has her becoming more and more bitter, and eventually prostituting herself. She finally dies at age forty after lamenting that she's too old to find love, or something... Overall, there's a lot of very beautiful imagery and poetic language, and also a lot of weird, extremely uncomfortable bits -- personally, I don't really have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other.
Still, the book's historical and artistic relevance is undeniable. For example, in her book The Amazon & the Page (1988), Karla Jay talks about how Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney were both big fans of and inspired by Pierre Louÿs, and it's pretty easy to see why -- namely, this was one of the few books at the time to mention lesbian relationships, let alone portray them in a morally neutral to even positive way (which is particularly notable, considering the earlier works involving lesbians, like Baudelaire's "Les Femmes Damnées" and Mendès' Méphistophéla, showed them as explicitly demonic and going to Hell). It also inspired a number of artworks, including Debussy's "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" where three of the poems are set to music, and various illustrations from artists like Antoine Calbet, Georges Barbier, and Willy Pogany.
The Scorpion by Anna Elizabet Weirauch (1919 - 1933) | ★★★★★
A bit of meta to start us off: this is a trilogy of books originally published between 1919 and 1932 in Germany. In the US, they were translated and released first as The Scorpion (which comprised the first and second parts) and The Outcast, and later all together in pulp form as Of Love Forbidden (but this translation apparently really sucked). This is relevant because they were translated by different people and, for some reason, they decided to change the main character’s name, so, for ease of access, I’m just going to refer to her here as “Metta,” yeah? (Lol, "meta" about "Metta.")
We follow Metta, an anxious mess who quickly becomes overly attached to women in her life, and her journey from her restricted, aristocratic childhood to becoming her own independent person. Book one deals with her childhood and adolescence, where she meets Olga Rado and their experiences trying to run away together and the fallout of that. Book two has Metta moving out to the big city, Berlin, and making friends with a group of fellow "inverts," but ultimately feels that she doesn't belong (see the additional reading if you aren't familiar with that term). And, in book three, she moves to a small house in the country and (after a few intrusions from an arrogant, sadistic woman) finds herself content in isolation with a few friends and her pea plants.
To be honest, I think this was written for a very specific type of person living in 1920’s Germany. There are pages and pages where characters just discuss their favorite German Romanticism authors and other culturally specific things that I just don’t have the context for and, often, Weirauch would off-handedly mention something that would send me off into a Wiki rabbit hole for hours – but, also, I don’t think I’ve ever personally related more to a book in my life!
The main characters were really fun! Metta has such over-the-top internal reactions to everything, but, externally, due to her aristocratic upbringing, she just keeps a stiff upper lip while thinking about how much she wants to jump out the window after an awkward situation or whatever. At one point, Olga Rado talks about how much she loves a certain author (Fraulein Günderrode) that she wants to astral project and meet her, because they were certainly meant to be together! Damn the centuries between them!! (Relatable.) Honestly, Olga really reminds me of a mixture of Ms. Frizzle and an old Russian Lit professor I had, a couple years ago. Also, there's a lesbian couple in the second book – everyone parties at their house, and Nora is portrayed as the "queen of the castle" and Sophie, her loyal page. I love them and want what they have someday…
I really, truly would recommend reading this for yourself, honestly, not even just as a “historically important lesbian book,” but just as a really good coming-of-age novel (with a female protag, no less!). Please, I want to be able to talk about this with someone!!
Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (1949) | ★★★☆☆
We follow the titular Olivia reminiscing about her experiences at a girls' school in France and the joys and sorrows of one's first love. In the first chapter, she talks about how after you've experienced it once, you spend the rest of your life trying to chase that high and analyzing yourself, trying to decide whether you're actually in love or just emulating some poetry you've read or something – whereas that first time, you're genuinely, uncontrollably experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion. I thought that was interesting.
Looking beyond that, the school she's at was opened by Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara. They had always been very close, but their relationship has been strained recently due to the addition of some new teachers (as well as Olivia, herself…). Mostly because the teacher closest to Mlle Cara, Frau Riesener, has been purposefully trying to sow the seeds of jealousy and mistrust, but there are definitely big issues with their relationship, as well. Everyone takes sides on which they like best and the girls make bets on whether new students will be a "Cara-ite" or "Julie-ite." Cara cries whenever another one picks Julie over her.
After one meeting with Mlle Julie, Olivia falls in love with her and they have long one-on-one discussions in the library after class about poetry and literature. During one of these meetings, in a fit of blind passion, Olivia takes Mlle Julie's hand and kisses her, and it kinda snowballs from there.
The last straw comes when Mlle Cara sees Mlle Julie going to Olivia's room one night – they decide to officially separate (which is handled like a divorce), with Mlle Cara taking over the school and Mlle Julie moving to Canada and opening another there. However, two days after the papers have all been signed, Mlle Cara turns up dead, an apparent overdose. It's officially considered an accident, but…
Mlle Julie is devastated. The light is extinguished from her eyes. She treats Olivia coldly as she says her goodbyes and dies shortly after moving to Canada.
Again, it is definitely more explicit than you would expect a fairly mainstream book about lesbians from the 1940's to be. On top of Julie and Cara being described like a married couple, there are lots of other lesbian affairs and loves going around the school – the only ones Olivia, the narrator, really seems to care about involve Mlle Julie, though, so we see her dancing with students, kissing them on the neck, etc. Also, Mlle Julie's TA (just referred to as Signora) is also deeply in love with her, and runs off with her to Canada. I'm not actually sure if Julie knows, though, and Signora is perfectly fine just taking care of her and being beside her.
Overall, I just didn't really get that into it. It's a bit too short and written a bit too distantly for me, I think. (The whole underage thing also kinda freaks me out, uhh…)
Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon (1957) | ★★★★★
This is technically the first in a series of five pulp novels, but they can stand alone, so I’m going to talk about them separately, yeah? In this one, we follow Laura and the course of her relationship with her roommate, Beth. They have to keep their relationship a secret, to the point of fake dating men to avoid suspicion:
She needed a man just then as insurance against a dozen ills. Charlie stood for Laura-likes-men, men-like-Laura, everything-is-right-with-Laura-so-look-no-further.
It's really interesting (if sometimes extremely uncomfortable!) to see the cultural differences between the 1950's and today. A notable example is how differently consent is treated – it really is a lot like the song, "Hey Baby, It's Cold Outside," where, due to strict moral codes and shame, men will make and continue to make sexual advances while women are expected to politely refuse and everything just laughs this off and thinks it's cute…
Another interesting thing is how they seem to view lesbian relationships as having a "boy" and a "girl," an "active" partner and a "passive" partner… It's not quite a "butch / femme" dynamic, because, here, the roles change relative to who you're with rather being than a specific, fixed identity. (This comes up more in the next book, though.) Still, there's a fear of "looking queer:"
Laura sat up and pulled away from her. "I don't care what he thinks. I don't care, I'm not ashamed. Are we doing something dirty or wicked to be ashamed of? Are we, Beth?"
"No," She shut her eyes and said slowly. But other people don't understand that, Laur. We have to keep it secret – absolutely secret. People will say we're queer–"
"But we're not! I know what queer is. I've seen people–"
"Laura, we're just as queer as the ones who look queer," Beth said sharply, looking at her. "We’re doing the same damn thing. Now, let's not kid ourselves. Let's be honest with each other, at least." Her own deception shut her up.
Honestly, I really loved the characters, their relationship, the tenderness (and eroticism – like, this is weird to talk about, but the kissing scenes here are much better than modern lesbian fiction!). The ending is kind of bittersweet yet hopeful – with them breaking up and Laura moving to the big city, New York, to better connect with the gay community out there. I really would recommend reading this! It's obvious Bannon put her whole heart and soul, hopes and anxieties into her writing.
- The Ladder: a lesbian newsletter also from the late fifties that gives more context about what life was like for lesbians back then
I Am a Woman by Ann Bannon (1959) | ★★★★★
The second book in the Beebo Brinker series. This installment follows Laura settling into life in New York, getting introduced to the gay scene out there, and falling helplessly in love with her new (straight?) roommate, Marcie.
Honestly, I cried constantly while reading this, both out of happiness, sadness, fear – the highs of learning that there are other people like her out there, the lows of her basically speedrunning ruining every personal relationship she has… God. It also talks a lot about the pain of unrequited love with straight people and performing little acts of service, hoping without hope that somehow that will change things, even though you know it won't (which unfortunately is so relatable…)
We also meet the eponymous Beebo Brinker in this installment and she's great, such a little shit! Laura absolutely hates her from the moment they first met, but often runs off to her house to "let off steam" whenever things get too unbearable around Marcie… It also talks about the whole "butch / femme" bar culture (without using those specific words) and how butch / gender non-conforming women were seen and treated by society.
Again, just like the first book, I love the characters and their dynamics! …And, again, a lot of uncomfortable bits.
[click here for spoilers / a warning]
I've been trying to avoid giving warnings, but this one is just so big and weird… There's a whole Freudian bit here where Laura's talking to her estranged father, who hates her because there was a boating accident when she was a child and he could only save Laura and not her mother. Then he starts talking about how much Laura reminds him of her mother and tries to kiss her… She bashes him over the head with an ash tray and runs away. There's also the implication that he "made her gay" by being a distant father or something? What the hell was that??
Overall, it was still quite a good read, honestly!
The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter (1983) | ★★★☆☆
It’s a cute enough story about a young woman, Kathleen Thorn, who briefly leaves her convent to work as a governess and English tutor to Raoul, the son of la Marquise Anneliese de Rochelle. At first, Kathleen is really intimidated by la Marquise, but eventually they grow close after many meals, games of chess, and horseback riding lessons. Also, she learns the secrets of the house, ranging from how the townspeople are all wary of la Marquise (because they think she’s a witch who killed her husband) to all the secret lesbian rendezvous occurring in and around the estate.
Honestly, I bought this book because I wanted to own something from this specific indie publishing company, the Naiad Press, more than anything. Like, the pacing's a little funky in places and the tone can be weird, but, also, it's the kind of story where the author's mother is a featured review on the back, y'know? Even the preface is a neat piece of history, where Ramstetter thanks various women's groups and members of local feminist book clubs for encouraging her while writing. It makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew…
The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer (2011) | ★★☆☆☆
A lesbian Hades & Persephone retelling. Whereas I feel that Captive in the Underworld kinda failed on the romance front but did pretty well as a mythical retelling, this book failed on both fronts, unfortunately. I feel like this interpretation of Hades came off as too soft and motherly (and even described as "motherly" in text!) that not only did it not seem authentic to the mythical character of Hades, but also ruined the romance between her and Persephone – they just didn't feel like equals (also, they're still each other's aunt / niece!).
The presentation of morals also seemed very heavy handed in this story. Like, I think Diemer tries to show Zeus as the physical embodiment of the patriarchy and how everything bad in the world is all either directly Zeus' fault or due to his influence – besides outright rape on multiple occasions, he's also personally responsible for every lingering doubt in people's minds, for every war that's ever been declared, etc. I don't necessarily think that's a bad metaphor on its own, but, considering the way he's defeated:
[click here for spoilers!]After a number of peptalks from various characters, Persephone finally stands up to Zeus and wraps him up with vines to the point that he is humiliated and begs for mercy. His ego is apparently so broken that Olympus itself (the condition of which is tied to his sense of self-esteem) falls from the sky – he later dies offscreen and is sent to Tartarus (basically Hell). The final battle lasts all of two pages and everything wrong with the world is magically fixed with him gone…
It's just so anticlimactic! There's also such a preoccupation with the idea of being a "kind, just god," which is literally a Christian ideal and not relevant in Greek Mythology. Honestly, the majority of the book feels like an extended afterschool special with exaggeratedly black and white morals – like, you would normally excuse this by saying it's made for a young adult audience, but the rest is weird graphic sex and explicit rape scenes, so I have no idea…
The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (2019) | ★★★☆☆
I don't necessarily think this was a bad book or anything. The plot is interesting enough, with a rich, widowed countess sponsoring a woman as she's translating a recent scientific book and them slowly growing closer. It also talks about how women were discriminated against in early 19th century England and the ways women would work together to get around that – like opening their own literary societies and publishing houses, employing each other, etc. I also appreciated the discussions about how women's art (like embroidery) was considered inherently lesser to men's art, and how women were structurally excluded from places of higher learning and their work misattributed to men. Additionally, the writing is very pretty and descriptive with phrases like, "her touch is like the warm golden silky rays of an embroidered sunset." I think it would be a really good choice of reading for a feminist book club, honestly!
But, first and foremost, I bought this as a lesbian romance novel and I just thought the romantic aspects were dull. Repeatedly as I was reading it, I found myself thinking, "This is too cute and soft and happy…" And that's kind of an issue that permeates through the rest of the book. Like, the ending, where it's revealed
[click here for spoilers!] that Oléron, the highly respected French astronomer and mathematician whose work Lucy has been translating, is actually a woman, and that makes the men realize they've been wrong to exclude women from the Polite Science Society this whole time.
Everything that you want to happen in this book happens – the women emerge, victorious and in love, having successfully defeated the evils of patriarchal oppression! It feels like it was designed to particularly appeal to modern day readers rather than ring true for the actual setting. That's kind of just nit picking, but I do think that it makes the book undermine its own message and that's why I rated it kinda low.
Captive in the Underworld by Lianyu Tan (2021) | ★★★☆☆
A lesbian dark romance retelling of Hades & Persephone. There were some things that I think the book did really well and some that were horrible and made me extremely uncomfortable. My biggest issue was the romance as a whole: namely, the weird Stockholm Syndrome aspects…
Aside from that, though, the actual prose was very enjoyable and I appreciated how much detail went into the worldbuilding. Tan ties together other myths and classical characters, like Theseus and Pirithous kidnapping Persephone and Daedalus and his nephew Perdix desperately trying to out invent each other, as well as detailed descriptions of ancient clothing and foods. I also am just such a sucker for coming of age stories and it's so satisfying to see Persephone really find herself over the course of the story – not only does she go from a child who was beaten into submission into a grown, resourceful woman who sets her own boundaries, we also see how she changes the world around her as she grows and begins making decisions as a co-leader of the Underworld!
I also found Demeter and Hades (besides the entirety of the romance arc!) to be interesting characters, with a certain godly indifference to human morality that I've found lacking in other mythical retellings. That's why I think the way that romance is approached in this story is that much more upsetting, because of how the narrative seems to try to soften Hades' actions or even justify them (she's just so lonely and in love! she waited as long as she could, but—!). I think the story would've been better if these things were left raw, rather than having a convoluted ending that somehow leads to a happily ever after.
Comics / Manga
Gunjou by Ching Nakamura (2007 - 2012) | ★★★★☆
This was bizarre... I read it all in one sitting and cried multiple times.
It's about a woman who, seeing no other option, asks her lesbian 'friend' who was desperately in love with her to murder her abusive husband, and their subsequent experiences on the run from the law. It also talks about the tangled webs of their lives before and after the murder and how it affects others around them.
The main women obviously come to care a lot for each other, but are horrible about actually talking about their feelings and lie and lash out a lot. They also manipulate each other and violently attack each other at multiple points. I feel like this is the sort of vibe Killing Eve was trying to go for with both characters dragging each other deeper into hell, but still unable to break away.
It was incredibly fucked up and both women are incredibly flawed people... I really liked it, honestly! I'm sad that it doesn't seem to be on many people's radars.
Renai Idenshi XX (Love DNA XX) by Eiki Eiki & Mikiyo Tsuda (2009 - 2013) | ★★☆☆☆
The premise is pretty interesting: after all the men have died, the remaining all female population is split into two classes, Adams and Eves, to maintain the social hierarchy. Relationships between two Adams are forbidden and, if discovered, result in a duel where the loser is 'demoted' to an Eve. It does have the 'yaoi but yuri' vibe going on, and the main couple are pretty cute together...
Other than that, unfortunately, the plot is shaky at best and the pacing is garbage. There's also a lot of weird fan service-- like why would you even do this?? It's pretty short with 17 chapters, but I'm not really sure if it's worth reading, honestly.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) | ★★★★☆
Set in the later years of the Weimar Republic, this film follows fourteen year old Manuela and her experiences at a girl's boarding school. All the other girls claim to be in love with their kind, affectionate governess, Fräulein von Bernberg, but Manuela becomes particularly attached.
While celebrating after a class play, Manuela gets drunk and proclaims her love for Fräulein von Bernberg in front of the whole school. The headmistress is disgusted and is about to have her expelled on the spot when she receives word that the princess is arriving later the same day. To avoid making a scene, the headmistress instead decides that everyone should just shun Manuela for the rest of her time at the school to teach her a lesson. Fräulein von Bernberg goes against this order and calls Manuela to her room to comfort her and gently explain the situation – that she is going to be moved to a different dorm and they won't see each other again.
Shortly after this conversation, Manuela goes missing. The other girls frantically search the whole dorm for her while Fräulein von Bernberg is chastised by the headmistress for insubordination. Eventually, the girls find her: at the top of the staircase, ready to jump… They run up and pull her back over the railing. The headmistress is initially angry at them for disobeying as well, until Fräulein von Bernberg explains that they prevented a tragedy that would haunt both of them for the rest of their lives.
The cinematography was interesting with frequent headshots at different angles (like, at one point, while the headmistress is angry at Manuela, the camera is looking up at her to show her as more imposing) and stuff like the scene at the very end where the headmistress just quietly walks off into the distance after being told off – a lot of symbolism!
The ages in story are a little, uh… but, actually, the lead actresses (Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck) were the same age, 23, when the film was made. In fact, of the few actresses whose ages I could find, it seemed like they were all in their mid-twenties or older… But, especially compared to modern shows about teenage girls, they weren't sexualized at all which is a nice change of pace.
In fact, typically, teen girls are shown from a very unsympathetic outsider's perspective, but here I was surprised by how lively and authentic they were, honestly! Even though books and magazines and most forms of personal expression frankly are banned by the extreme authoritarian Prussian headmistress, the girls still find ways to smuggle things in and be themselves – like, they were very goofy and frequently mocked authority figures once they turned their backs, and one girl, Ilse, has a shrine to her favorite movie star hidden behind a piece of cloth in her locker.
I think it was an engaging movie, overall! I was crying by the end – anything about suicide always gets me… Also, Dorothea Wieck (Fräulein von Bernberg) has a very pretty and expressive face!
- "Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany" by Meghan C. Paradis: talks about how lesbians viewed themselves and how society viewed them at the time. The article also talks about the significance of suicide in gay and lesbian media.
- While not specifically related to this film, I'd also recommend Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto (1936). It describes the rise of fascism in the Weimar Republic with a backdrop of stage acting, theatre, and interpersonal drama. I also wanted to bring this up because Klaus' sister Erika Mann stars in the film, as one of the teachers.