The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter
To be honest, I think the meta around this book is more interesting than the book itself (no offense!). It was printed by the Naiad Press, which was founded in 1973 by Barbara Grier (who also was a major editor and writer for The Ladder) and Donna McBride. Over its thirty active years, they published over 500 lesbian-themed books, including original fiction, reprints of older stories, poetry translations, sex manuals, cookbooks, lesbian history books, and more (Bollinger). Many of their books can be read on the Open Library, run by the same people as the Internet Archive (but it doesn’t seem like they have this particular one).
More particularly, though, Ramstetter thanks a number of local women’s and lesbian organizations in her preface for all their support and help and companionship. When you search for these names in Google, nothing comes up, which is so sad. Like, she mentions a local lesbian/feminist bookstore. According to Mic, in the 1970’s, there were over a hundred self-described feminist bookstores, but, in 2014, that number was down to 13. It’s the sort of situation where, yes, the internet brings the world together in ways that have never been possible before, but it feels fake. You may be “mutuals” on Tumblr or whatever, but you don’t really ever get to know these people. And all over you see the effects of women being pitted against each other, separated from themselves and other women….
Anyway, let’s actually look at the book! In the preface, Ramstetter talks about how when she was younger, her guilty pleasure was old gothic romance novels and that inspired her to write a lesbian gothic romance. I totally relate -- I have to admit a soft spot for titles like “Baronness” or “Marquise” or “Countess,” etc… It just gets me, and that’s a major reason I bought the book in the first place (on top of wanting to own something from the aforementioned Naiad Press).
Basically, it’s 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…
Again, honestly, I thought the pacing and general prose was weird throughout the book. Like, at one point, toward the end, suddenly all the maids come up to Kathleen, crying, and tell her la Marquise has been shot. She stumbles to Anneliese’s room, holds what she believes to be her dead body to her chest, mournfully. Then, suddenly, la Marquise sits up, laughing: “Haha, got you! Oh no, you see it’s actually really funny because I was just held up at gunpoint by my deceased husband’s deranged nephew who want to steal my fortune! Sit, I’ll tell you all about it!”
That said, though, I actually really liked the vibe of la Marquise. I can’t overstate just how much I love the trope of women riding horses!
Also, this scene has particularly stuck with me:
”Dine with me tonight.” She flung the words over her shoulder.
”What time?” I called after her.
She mumbled something unintelligible.
”What time?” I repeated too eagerly. I kicked myself mentally for forgetting so quickly my resolve to behave in the mature, dignified manner of a governess.
She turned and plucked a rose, lifted it to her nose for a moment, then threw it toward me. By some miracle of fate, I caught it. Her face broke open into one of her rare grins. “Seven,” she called out and then was gone down the path by the stable. (Ramstetter 26-7)
I feel like I’ve seen something similar to this, but I just cannot think of what it was… It reminds me of some old 70’s shojo manga!
Overall, I think it was a decent enough read. A bit of action, suspense, sapphic romance… Again, I think the meta story, about the prominent feminist/lesbian culture when this was written, is more interesting.
Ramstetter, Victoria. The Marquise and the Novice. The Naiad Press, 1983.