Sunday, April 29th, 2012 09:36 am
or "One reason my Pride and Prejudice femslash fizzled out". This is for The 3rd Annual Femslash Mini Meta Fest in response to the prompt "What's your approach to writing femslash in times and places that are notoriously unfriendly for f/f relationships, especially historical settings?"

The very first femslash fic I ever wrote (and also my first fanfic at all) is about Mary Bennet and Anne de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. One of my motivations was annoyance at the fact that pretty much all the femslash fic I've read set in historical fandoms is full of bittersweet angst, or experimentation before marriage. There's nothing wrong with these sorts of stories, but I yearned for "and then they lived together happily forever and ever".

Of course once I started trying to write such a happy ending I realised why they're so rare.

So, my relatively small focus is the world of Jane Austen: upper class women in England in the late 18th/early 19th century. There are many obstacles to a f/f happily ever after set in this world (and many others): Women were expected to marry, and unless independently wealthy would probably have to unless they wanted to spend their life relying on the charity of others. While two "spinsters" living as housemates was just barely acceptable they could never admit to the true nature of their relationship. There was no support network or easy way for queer women to meet each other or even a general conception of queerness existing. And of course there was internalised homophobia: few women would be comfortable admitting same sex desires to themselves, let alone each other.

Individual women did get past these obstacles. The Ladies of Llangollen were two female friends who refused to marry who they were supposed to and lived together off their relatives grudging support until the Queen persuaded the King to grant them a pension (they were seen as an adorable example of female friendship). Such households became more common in the late 19th/early 20th century with the rise of feminism. There's also Anne Lister, an independently wealthy diarist who went around happily seducing other women. Another option is a loveless or polyamorous marriage with an understanding or clueless husband.

For my particular couple, I don't have to worry too much about all of these issues: Anne de Bourgh is independently wealthy, and while her mother is determined to see her married to a Good Man in general I think most people would assume she'd stay single due to her age and sickliness. Mary is not wealthy, but her family is (by the end of the book, at least), and I think would be happy enough to support her if she didn't want to get married. It wasn't even too hard to construct a situation where they met and started living together. What tripped me up was the internalised homophobia: Mary is canonically incredibly sexually conservative, and I just could not figure out how to have her get to a point where she was ok with being in an f/f relationship without being unforgivably hypocritical.

I do sometimes think about writing f/f for different, more tractable women from that era, but have yet to have an idea occur to me that doesn't hit one obstacle or another. The closest I can come up with is a cheerful Isabela/Katherine/Henry threesome for Northanger Abbey.

It can certainly be done, see for example Sarah Waters brilliant original novel "Fingersmith". But for now I find it easier to write for settings where I don't always have to wrestle with such intense homophobia in the characters or the world. It helps that two of my main fandoms are Dragon Age and Avatar: the last Airbender/Legend of Korra, both of which have fantasy settings based loosely on real historical periods, but minus a lot of the repressive social attitudes.

nb: I've only talked about writing since that was the question asked. In general I find it easier to draw scenarios that if I wrote them would have me tangled up in questions of how it could all possibly work, but for some reason all the historical femslash I've drawn has been based on my own or other people's stories, I'm not sure why.
hl: Drawing of Ada Lovelace as a young child, reading a Calculus book (Default)
[personal profile] hl
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 04:04 am (UTC)
I totally see this. I've the cake with poison (i.e. Emma/Jane femmeslash with zombies) which I've never been able to really write beyond a couple of chapters (for mostly other reasons having to do with benign a crap plotter of adventure stories) and the internalized homophobia trips me up, too (see my only attempt in the Persuasion slash story, with which I'm not entirely happy, and the new ending of NEG, which is still more manageable for Reasons). And Emma and Jane would be waaaay easier than Mary -- I think almost any character would be easier than Mary. I still want to see you try more, though. That story is awesome.
hl: Drawing of Ada Lovelace as a young child, reading a Calculus book (Default)
[personal profile] hl
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 08:02 am (UTC)
I fully support any femslashy thoughts, though Isabella is... not my favourite character.

If you ever look towards Emma, I can vouch for some very femslashy bits of descriptions (lots of dwelling on how pretty Jane is :P).
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 05:23 am (UTC)
I do like your Mary but she's extremely intransigent. I think in that case, she's also very attached to a particular Christian model of worthiness and work, in which (despite her particular set of privileges or maybe because of them) everything she enjoys has to be justifed to herself and her religion.
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 05:25 am (UTC)
I suppose Fingersmith has a happy ending, but by god it takes them a journey to get there! Given the, uh, I don't want to spoil people so I'll just say the switch midway through involving characters getting taken places they don't want to be, I'm hard pressed to consider it a cheerful book. I love it, but not for happy-place reasons.

I've been wondering about this 'dangerous time' issue myself re. the 1930s era series The House of Eliot and figured that I had to envision a scenario for women to get a pass on conformity - independent wealth, not marriageable, dead husband, political/charity activism etc. I wonder if the trouble with Austen femslash fic may be less that there weren't unmarried women who could have been cohabiting during that era but that she's writing upper class romances where the goal is to pair off her characters. Of course it has yet to be seen if I can, in practice, write this kind of story...

In terms of examples, would The Secret Diaries of Miss Ann Lister be relevant? I also read a great short novel about a lesbian women's domestic education teacher in the Victorian period who had a happy ending with a student, but the name currently escapes me.
Monday, April 30th, 2012 12:47 pm (UTC)
Well, that's an issue with the characters who end up paired off, but many don't. Right, but I'm suggesting that there would have been a lot more unmarried women in early C19th Britain than one might think from Austen's books (e.g. governesses, teachers, nurses). Plus, the romance format means that unmarriagable women are often portrayed as unfortunate, in a way that compounds the difficulty in writing happy stories about those characters. As such, the cause of the difficulty in writing upbeat Austen femslash may lie less in the historical era and location than in the nature of the source canon.

I'm reminded of a quote by Sarah Waters that I saw on The Guardian: "We underestimate the amazing variety of people's lives in the past, their ingenuity and resilience in dealing with the society they had to live in."
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 07:24 am (UTC)
This is a great problem for so many of us. And it's compounded by the many ways one can make a gay male relationship work when one cannot fit a lesbian one into the historic slot. Nothing like it to foster an ever-increasing resentment of male privilege.

Which is why I write my fem fic in the present day or as science fiction.
Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
I fell in love with the Age Of Sail, such a shame...
Sunday, April 29th, 2012 06:17 pm (UTC)
I've written some medieval fantasy (Tolkien) f/f relationships in a collaborative writing project. Our "happy" resolution was for our lady-loving heroine to marry a man who did not much care she had a female lover, as that was preferable to her sleeping with another man. Happy? Depends on what you mean by 'happy'.

I think different periods experience this pressure differently. While the overwhelming majority of women marry men through most of history, there are definitely periods where this is an exception. We also know the medieval world was mostly indifferent to women loving other women, as they "couldn't have sex" (sex being penetration in medieval law) up until the point where it involved "simulating" heterosexual sex through use of sex toys! (Really, this is documented in the western world). So for those writing in that period we have the possibility of long-term female friendships with sexual behaviors.

I've seen femslash written in Narnia fandom (Aravis/Susan or Aravis/Lucy is a known quantity) which isn't exactly historical, but closer, and for lots of reasons doesn't usually end in happiness (namely the fact that Susan and/or Lucy will vanish in about a year after meeting Aravis, according to canon). In such a context, a pass is often given to nobility or fics don't delve into the long-term consequences of such engagements.

I wonder that more historical fics do not make use of one woman crossdressing or keeping a public appearance of being male in order to protect her lover or even marry her under her assumed male identity. We know this scenario happened with the rise of post-medieval armies, with women going to far lengths to maintain a male identity, including having female companions, who presumably knew their secret. This seems like an excellent way to support historical femslash that offers the possibility of a "happy ending" in a romantic sense, though like any other ending it is complicated in its own way.
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
I would not be able to read that comfortably. I would be waiting all the time for the Big Betrayal where the protag is unmasked and has to take the brutal consequences.

No fun.