In order to maintain safety, the Exeter Pride Committee decided to keep Pride online in May 2021, and we were excited to join forces to celebrate Exeter Pride Month with them. RAMM usually has a stall in Rougemont Gardens for Exeter Pride, so we thought that creating a programme of events would remind us all of what Pride means to us and allow us to spend some time together online! You can find the full programme of events and catch up with some of the recorded sessions below.
Welcome –What Does Pride Mean to You?
1:30 pm to 2:30 pm
Join Natalie McGrath, Prof Jana Funke, and Ellie Coleman to launch our collaboration with Exeter Pride. Hear from the Exeter Pride Committee about what Pride means to the queer, trans and non-binary community in Exeter and beyond, and what else they have in store for us as part of this year’s celebration.
We will also be joined by Sharifa Hashem Al Hashemy (Head of Diversity and Inclusion, SWASFT) to honour the contributions of NHS workers during this time of global pandemic.
Finally, we will introduce our three new commissioned artists, Shiri Shah, Sachal Khan and Rushaa Louise Hamid, who will be presenting their new artistic responses to RAMM’s collection at an event on the 27th May 2021.
Don’t forget to also visit our YouTube Channel for another opportunity to watch the work by Oren Shoesmith, Caleb Parkin, Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles.
You can also learn how to make a Pride inspired cocktail by Exeter Phoenix’s amazing Adam. More details will be announced soon!
Queer & Still Here: Writing for Performance Workshop (£3 + booking fee)
2 pm – 3:30 pm
Join poet and performer Chris White, and spoken-word artists Jasmine Gardosi & Charice Bhardwaj for a fun, dynamic online session exploring writing for performance. We’ll talk about how to write and prepare for different types of performance as well as how to bring our own words to life, with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ artists and how we amplify our unique queer voices. A chance to share work and learn new performance techniques.
Open to all LGBTQ+ artists, poets, writers and anybody who speaks their words out loud, of any experience or ability.
What can the RAMM collections tell us about LGBTQ+ history and heritage?
The brilliant team of Out and About researchers will share some of their discoveries from RAMM’s collections to explore LGBTQ+ history and heritage. Join us to find out how objects and artefacts can resonate with LGBTQ+ people today and offer insights into our histories. One particular focus of this session will be queer and trans perspectives on the natural world! There will also be time to ask questions and discuss what queering the museum might mean to you.
The event will be introduced by Prof Jana Funke (University of Exeter).
Instead of icing cakes, our four contestants will be sugar-spinning wonderful words to convince you, the audience, that their book review is the best, thereby winning them the title of ‘British Queer Bookoff Champion’ and a copy of Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo. There will also be a book-related prize for best question from an audience member! This event will be hosted by Exeter Pride’s Katie Moudry.
Interested in being one of the contestants? Email Katie at email@example.com.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds a number of seaweed and algae specimens collected by the early Victorian botanist Amelia Warren Griffiths (1768-1858). Revered by many of the leading experts of her day, Griffiths was so renowned for her scholarly expertise that several seaweed specimens were even named after her, such as the Griffithsia and Furcus Griffithsia. Whilst Griffiths published relatively little in her lifetime, she maintained a constant correspondence with experts such as W. D. Harvey, who dedicated his seminal 1849 text British Marina Algae to Griffiths.
Seaweed collecting had become a popular activity for Victorian women. In an essay entitled ‘recollections of Ilfracombe’, the author George Eliot described her fascination for the intricate algae forms, noting ‘these tide-pools made me quite in love with sea-weeds’. Nevertheless, many raised an eyebrow at the sight of women wandering alone on the edges of the beach, an occurrence at odds with the Victorian expectation that middle-class women should always go about accompanied, in order protect their modesty.
Griffiths, however, was not entirely alone in her efforts to collect and preserve seaweed specimens across the Devon and Cornish coast. At her side was Mary Wyatt, owner of a pressed plant shop in Torquay. Wyatt had originally worked as a servant in the Griffiths household, before developing a close friendship with Griffiths and setting up a business independently. Together, they scoured the coast, searching for specimens, and Wyatt eventually published the results of their findings in Algae Danmonienses, a multi-volume compilation consisting of specimens from Devon and Cornwall. Their work, in other words, was an active collaboration, as they scrambled across rocky shores in cumbersome skirts, compared notes and exchanged specimens in real time.
This intimate collecting history rewards further consideration. At first glance, the story perhaps appears unremarkable. Two female friends working together does not immediately suggest romantic involvement, an idea particularly at odds with our received notions of the Victorian period. If we press further, however, it becomes evident that the early Victorian period had a number of such close companionships, framed around the common activity of collecting. In her book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes, Lisa Moore has drawn attention to the popularity of such activities, suggesting that they were a way of celebrating partnership and companionship amongst women. Might these ‘friends’, and their activities, actually evidence a form of intimacy that contemporary viewers would call queer? Whilst words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ did not then exist in the way that we use them today, they can still be helpful terms for understanding a longer history of same-sex desire. Moore argues that the ordering of natural history in a domestic setting, like the arranging of algae within a scrapbook, was one way of expressing love for women, and one that has often been overlooked.
To understand the history of queer identity, therefore, we might need to reconsider how we lookfor evidence of same-sex relationships. The story of Griffiths and Wyatt roaming the coasts and working together, in fact, might be a tale belonging to LBTQIA history.
Queer Objects, Queer places
The queerness of seaweed has been recognised for a long time. In 1898, the writer and women’s rights activist Edith Ellis published her first novel, Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll, which narrates the tale of a forbidden love affair and its consequences. Ellis was a queer author who argued for the creative superiority of the ‘invert’, an umbrella term then used to describe gay and gender non-conforming people. The novel, set in rural Cornwall, is framed around collecting seaweed, as Janet, wife of ex-sailor Kit, leaves the house for long periods of time, on the pretext of gathering seaweed to make an ointment for her husband. Kit’s mother and her friends in the village are suspicious of the activity and of the supposed benefits offered by the seaweed. They see seaweed as a symbol of deceit and treachery, linking it to witchcraft, ‘nothin’ but pap to stop up Kit’s mouth wi’, an object that threatens the stability of the normal family unit. Seaweed, in other words, becomes a byword for forbidden activities, a symbol of female transgression. Janet gathers seaweed in order to be able to see her love. As collecting becomes a synonym for female desire, could we also read a subtext of same-sex desire in the novel?
Kit reflects on his marriage with Janet during her long periods of absence. He is frustrated that he is unable to offer her sexual satisfaction due to complications resulting from an accident at work. He tries to explain this to the village’s new curate, who is horrified at the suggestion that women might have sexual desires: ‘but, my good man, you don’t suppose for one moment that women have animal passions like ours[?]’. Kit is clear that this is the case, and the curate interrogates him further,
Do you seriously meant to imply that you have some idea of letting your wife – ahem! – cohabit with another man while keeping up a semblance of a relationship with you?
The idea has an interesting connection to Ellis’ own life. Married to the prominent sexologist Havelock Ellis, the pair were in a non-romantic life partnership, built on the values of mutual understanding and respect. It is commonly suggested that Edith is ‘Miss H’, an example of the ‘female invert’ used by Havelock in his groundbreaking study Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897). Whilst Edith had taken a deep dislike to Havelock on first meeting, after a chance encounter in Cornwall in 1890 the pair developed a deep friendship and married the following year. The relationship was ultimately an important source of great companionship for both. This type of relationship is matched in Kit and Janet in Ellis’ novel. Whilst other characters encourage Kit to restrain Janet, his mother even claiming that ‘a woman must be captained same as a ship’, Kit and Janet work out a relationship based on their own needs. The story’s queerness resides in its presentation of a fulfilling relationship outside of social mores, in ways that people around the couple struggle to recognise.
The portrayal of disability suggests a further connection to queer history. At the beginning of the twentieth century, homosexuality and gender non-conformity (lumped together as ‘inversion’) were considered to be a form of disability, a so-called defect of development. Both disability and queerness would often result in partial or total exclusion from society; Ellis, however, campaigned for the acceptance of those who felt, in her words, an ‘alien amongst normal people’. These intersections between disability and queerness – in particular the shared experience of exclusion – have been powerfully reclaimed thanks to the pioneering work of queer disability activists over the past fifty years. Ellis’ novel, despite its use of outdated language, may be reread as an early effort to counter the ableist and prejudiced assumptions prevalent in her society, through its celebration of a relationship built carefully around the sexual and physical needs of both individuals. This type of relationship was exactly what Havelock and Edith aimed to build together.
In the same period that Ellis was writing the novel in Cornwall she met the artist Lily Kirkpatrick, and the pair would be lovers until Lily’s death in 1903. Cornwall was an important site of refuge for many queer writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, who considered the place as almost foreign to England with its apparently wild and untouched landscapes. The trans writer Bryher, for instance, based their name on the island ‘Bryher’ in the Isles of Scilly. They introduced their eventual life partner, H. D., to this “personal” place, and the couple spent much time in Cornwall, where Bryher was able to show H.D. their “boyhood”, an experience not acknowledged by others at the time of their childhood. Similarly, the queer writers Michael Field (a pseudonym for the couple Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) found religious and sensual value in the landscape on their holidays to Cornwall a few decades earlier. Common to these writers is a deep appreciation of place, a quasi-spiritual connection to the nature around them that allowed them to realise who they are and what they desire, beyond the expectations of their society.
In 1938, Daphne du Maurier published Rebeccca, a gothic novel set in Cornwall. The novel plays on the unfamiliarity of Cornwall that so many queer writers found attractive, suggesting it is a place still inhabited by ghosts. Cornwall is a kind of space beyond, a land at the edge of the sea. Seaweed marks the final boundary between the ground and the water, ‘the woods came right down to the tangle of seaweed marking high water’. In this sense, it is an object between things that is constantly changing, both in and out of the water, ‘as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare’. Seaweed is the final frontier between the known and the unknown.
Seaweed seems a particularly beautiful object for queer history. It defies classification, the word referring to the thousands of forms of algae that litter the water floor. A weed of the sea, it officially lacks any formal definition, and yet it is nevertheless essential for the eco-system of the sea. Some writers, like Timothy Morton, have suggested that ecology, free of hierarchical structures and order, is a queer object of study. According to queer ecology, nature is fundamentally queer because it undermines any of the certainty of human control. Random, erratic, aesthetic, ecology teaches humans the capacity of queerness.
Preserved almost translucent on the pages of Griffiths’ collection, the intricate networks of veins threading across blades of seaweed suggest a hidden life of non-human activity. The collection is unexpectedly beautiful. Considering such unexpected objects, stories and places, a rich network of queer histories is revealed to be threaded through the museum’s collection.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. (Duke University Press, 2015)
Ellis, Edith. ‘Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll’ (London: The University Press, 1898) – available on archive.org
Moore, Lisa. Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
What diversity lives in the ocean, yet to be discovered by humans?
These starfish were collected near Nova Scotia, Canada in 1873 as part of the Challenger Expedition. HMS Challenger, a repurposed warship, undertook the first large-scale oceanographic expedition, discovering over 4,000 previously unknown species as it circumnavigated the globe between 1872 and 1876.
When seahorses reproduce, it’s the male, not the female, who carries the embryos in a kangaroo-like pouch. Seahorse has become a term for transgender men who carry and give birth to their children. Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Seahorse (2019) follows Freddy McConnell, a transgender man, throughout this process as he becomes a new father.
Go Fish (1994), an American film written by Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche and directed by Troche, is considered a milestone of lesbian cinema. A low-budge indie shot in black and white, it follows a group of Chicago lesbians in the 1990s. After ten months without sex, Max is desperate to meet women but is unimpressed by her roommate’s suggestion that she date Ely. Ely, already in a long-distance relationship, isn’t initially interested either. Eventually, however, their relationship tentatively blossoms. The film is notable, especially for its time, for not centring around the ‘coming out’ story or ending in tragedy for its lesbian characters. Instead, it simply depicts a group of friends navigating love and daily life together.
In their memoir Life as a Unicorn (2019), non-binary drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi reflects on keeping sea creatures as a teenager. They learn that physical transformation, including changeable reproductive organs, is common in many sea creatures. Admiring the free-moving, colourful and shape-shifting bodies of fish, coral and anemones, Al-Kadhi feels a new sense of belonging in recognition of their own gender fluidity. Al-Kadhi’s short film Anemone (2018) explores similar themes: Anemio, a non-binary Nigerian teenager struggling to express their gender identity, feels comfortable working at an aquatics shop amongst the formless marine life and begins to transform into a sea anemone.
Fish and Elephant (2001) is often referred to as the first mainland Chinese film about lesbians. The film was an underground production (the script and print weren’t submitted to the Film Bureau for approval) using non-professional actors. The two leads, Pan Yi and Shitou, were discovered at a Beijing lesbian bar by director Li Yu. Xiaoqun (Pan Yi) is the elephant keeper at Beijing Zoo and keeps a fish tank at home. Her conservative mother is determined to find her a husband before she turns thirty, unaware that her daughter is a lesbian. Xiaoqun eventually moves in with her new girlfriend Xiaoling (Shitou). Xiaoling’s ex-girlfriend Junjun appears in their life as a fugitive after murdering her father. Fish and Elephant won the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2001.
What sea creature, real or mythical, do you most identify with?
Sometime between 1809 and 1811, along a stretch of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, a young girl discovers, along with her brother and father, a strange-looking fossilised skull of about 5 metres in length. The father, Richard, is a cabinetmaker by trade who harbours a passion for collecting fossils; his daughter, Mary – just a child of about 10 or 12 at the time – shares his interest in the developing field of geology and often accompanies her father as his fossil-collecting sidekick. Like her father, she has little formal education – her interest and knowledge of the subject instead originating from the research she undertakes independently into the natural sciences. Over the course of many days, they work to unearth the remains of the peculiar creature that they have found. It is a species unknown to the scientific community in England at the time, appearing on first glance to resemble a kind of primordial crocodile; it is later determined to be a 201-million-year-old marine reptile called the Ichthyosaurus (or ‘fish lizard’). This is not the only discovery that the young girl, Mary, will make over the course of her life, or even her most significant contribution to the field of palaeontology. Although often side-lined by the scientific community due to her gender and class, this young girl would latterly become one of the “greatest fossilists the world ever knew”: Mary Anning (1799-1847).
Her life and work might have become more familiar to many within the last year thanks to her recent portrayal in the 2020 film, Ammonite, by Kate Winslet. Much like 2021’s The Dig (a film which covers the discovery of the Sutton Hoo collection), Ammonite attempts to rehabilitate Mary Anning’s scientific reputation from relative obscurity – Illuminating the oft-erased, yet vitally important work undertaken by figures whose personal circumstances frequently relegates them to the footnotes of history. Ammonite, however, goes beyond that: it both showcases Anning’s scientific aptitude and charters her developing, romantic relationship with a young woman called Charlotte Murchison.
Within the film itself, these two strands often work in tandem: the process of physically digging up silt and dirt for these fossilised remains ultimately parallels Mary and Charlotte’s attempts to interrogate their own sexual desire; the unearthing of the literal ammonite precipitating the more metaphoric discovery of their love for one another. Geology and palaeontology, in other words, becomes a metaphor for their queerness. In much the same way that contemporary interest in fossil-hunting was largely motivated by a desire to learn about the origins of life on earth, geology becomes a vehicle of self-discovery and revelation for these two women. Queer love, the film proposes, is as ancient and worthy of excavation – or engagement and memorialisation – as the fossils that Mary discovers.
Responses to the film by those who claim descent from Mary Anning herself express interesting reservations about the historical accuracy of this queerness. For all that Mary’s work has undoubtedly revolutionised our understanding of prehistoric life on earth, the details of her life remain largely unknown. Although Mary neither married nor had children, critics maintain that the film’s portrayal of her queerness is unsubstantiated and often point to how the exact nature of Charlotte and Mary’s relationship remains speculative. In a national newspaper, Barbara Anning expressed her reservations about the film’s attempts to queer the past:
“I do not believe that there is any evidence to back up portraying her as a gay woman. Do the filmmakers have to resort to using unconfirmed aspects to somebody’s sexuality to make an already remarkable story sensational? This adds nothing to her story.”
Queerness, in other words, becomes an anachronism and an apparent facet of the film’s wider campaign to mould history according to its creators’ beliefs. The film director, Francis Lee, highlights within his response the limits of adopting a historical outlook which views heterosexuality as a consistent default:
“After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”
Why is it, Lee asks, that we view absence of evidence for any sexuality as confirmation of Mary Anning’s heterosexuality? Why is heterosexuality seen as a historical truth – one which is almost impervious to doubt or reassessment- whilst queerness is viewed as anachronistic, something which is merely supplied in order to add extra entertainment value?
Ironically, criticism of the film’s perceived inaccuracy fails to recognise how this self-same capacity to imagine an infinite number of possible natures and lives is a fundamental aspect of palaeontology, and one that Mary herself had to exercise. The fossils that Mary discovered over the course of her life lay physically and metaphorically beneath the surface; they needed to be literally dug up and examined in order to be understood. The secrets and information they contained- the lives that they testified to- relied on the burden of that evidence. At a time before Darwin’s theory of evolution, such ideas about the origin of life were still heavily informed by church doctrine. Much like those who criticise Ammonite’s portrayal of Mary Anning’s sexuality, absence of evidence for life that preceded humans was seen as sufficient validation for this belief system.
In light of how queer lives are often buried or erased over the course of history, and the need to often express queer love via coded, subliminal means, we can perhaps discern a comparable impulse between the processes of queering the past and paleontological research. In both, we must think beyond conventional ideas about the past and open our minds to what lies hidden beneath the surface. To queer the past is not to compromise its veracity, but to recognise that the past is a shifting, dynamic variable which can continue to yield revelations and thereby influence the present. In much the same way that Mary Anning’s contribution to palaeontology and geology has been downplayed due to the prejudices of the contemporary scientific community, queer history can be seen more as a relegated presence than an absent one. Indeed, by attempting to metaphorically unearth queer voices, do we not resemble palaeontologists like Mary Anning, as we mine beneath the silt of history for kernels of past life that have long been erased?
This bust depicts a bacchante, a female priestess of the Roman god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus in Graeco-Roman religion. The female followers of Bacchus were also known as maenads. Graeco-Roman deities played an important part in the Victorian discourses of aestheticism and decadence, and Dionysus was an especially important figure to the author Michael Field, the pseudonym of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913).
Aestheticism and decadence were all about challenging mainstream values and were associated with sexual dissidence, evidenced by the multiplicity of queer proponents, including Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Edward Carpenter and Amy Levy. Classical studies played an important role within these discourses. It’s easy to see Dionysus’ appeal to a queer audience. Dionysus was the god of wine and hedonism, a concept appealing to certain queer aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde. He was also seen as a foreign god, giving him a sense of otherness that those of marginalised gender and sexual identities may have identified with. Dionysus was seen as an object of male and female desire in Rome, according to works by Lucian and Euripides. In visual presentations of the god, he often has an androgynous look. For the ancient world, this was a celebrating of youthful masculinity, which has homoerotic connotations, and for the Victorians, androgyny and effeminacy were certainly associated with queerness.
Whilst many figures who engaged with aestheticism and decadence were interested in classical studies, few were as committed as Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper were an aunt and niece who wrote together under the name Michael Field, but were also in a lifelong romantic and sexual partnership. Most of the scholarship surrounding them focuses on their literary contributions to aestheticism and decadence, and one of the most important scholars on them was Ivor Treby, a queer biochemist and poet who collected sand samples and donated them to the museum. For more on Ivor Treby check out Caleb Parkin’s work. Bradley and Cooper worshipped Dionysus, until their conversion to Catholicism in 1907. They studies ancient Greek together, which informed their erotic language towards each other. They had shrines to Dionysus in the gardens of their shared home, as well as what they called a “bacchic library”. In their diary they described “the Bacchic altar”, and the ritual they performed when they moved from their family home, The Durdans, to an independent home, 1 Paragon; “Then Michael has lighted the alter + we have knelt together naturally, simply […] These lights will be lit again at Paragon – we carry our sacred fire”. They wrote a verse drama, Callirhöe and Fair Rosamond in 1884, which tells the story of the erotic conversion of a virgin to the cult of Dionysus, and her becoming a Maenad. They were referred to as “Bacchic Maenads” by Logan Pearsall Smith and “Greek women” by Robery Browning.
But what can we learn from their identification with this historical and mythical figure? Maenads have come to embody female rebellion, unruly sexuality and gender inversion. It is likely this is what Bradley and Cooper were channelling in their maenadic lifestyle. The history of maenads is not as simple as that, and there is a great deal of uncertainty and mystery around the rituals of the Bacchus cult. However, what we do know is that women marched into the mountains with wine, removed their clothes and let loose their hair, and carried out a series of ritual performances such as orgiastic dancing in order to induce delirium. Men were often involved in these celebrations in later periods, and these rituals were an accepted part of civic life. However, they were eventually banned in Rome due to their notoriety. We can see the appeal of these rituals where women were able to do things they were unable to do in everyday life for Bradley and Cooper, two women living a life quite different from the expectations for women at the time.
On 31st March 2021, we were thrilled to host a conversation between project researchers Elliot Falkus and Rowan Frewin for Trans Day of Visibility. Elliot and Rowan discussed the importance of trans visibility in museum spaces and heritage sites and addressed some of the challenges we face when trying to engage with these histories and make them more accessible. They also proposed ways in which the ongoing erasure of trans and non-binary lives in the past can be addressed through new methodological means. After their rich conversation, we opened the event up for questions from the audience.
We also put together a list of resources for people keen to learn more about trans history, culture and politics! This is an incomplete and growing list, so please email us if you want to add texts or resources.
Elliot Falkus is a recent graduate of the University of Exeter. He has career goals in creative writing and reconciliatory heritage. His work with the Out and About project consists of research and writing on the objects within the RAMM’s collection, highlighting the history of trans people in popular media, the legal history of LGBT+ people and communities in the UK, and historical and literary interpretations of queer figures.
Rowan Frewin is an English graduate and freelance illustrator. They are particularly interested in examining ways that we can re-frame trans history as well as looking at ways that information about LGBTQ history in general can be made more accessible. They have recently published the A Potted Trans History zine.
On 9th April 2021, we organised an online workshop led by project co-directors Nat McGrath, Ellie Coleman and Jana Funke together with Holly Morgenroth, one of the curators from RAMM. As part of the workshop, participants shared their queer objects from home. We also explored the museum catalogue to think about the challenges and joys of trying to queer objects in the RAMM’s collections.
Scar care cream made by my boyfriend for me to use after my surgery in order to soften and loosen the scar tissue. On the sides he put an anchor and two inter linking chains and on the lid there is a protective rune. The image shows the front of a large circular jar with shiny silver holographic vinyl on the front. The vinyl is cut into the shape of a joyful dancing figure and the words scar care cream with two little stars adorning them. In the jar is a creamy off-white cream made from a mixture of butters, oils and perfumes.
Leather harness made by trans owned company, Aslan Leather. Never used only worn as bought in between the second and the third uk lockdown. A black harness is hanging from a wooden bed post. It has silver buckles and rivets and there is an emblem of a lion wearing a leather cap on the front.
Cracked and dyed raw quartz crystal. The quartz is shaped like an irregular and many faceted cylinder with blue mottled cracks and crystalised protrusions jutting out. This crystal was used as a phallic prosthetic to place between my legs as I sat in the shower. It was the only way I could bathe my body for a series of months as I waited for hormones.
The remaining scab from my nipple graft that I found like a pulled tooth in my bed one morning after two months of recovery. The scab is a small, perfect, dark brown disk retaining the irregular texture of skin on its surface. It is laying on cotton wool in a blue archival box. The night before I found it, I had a dream where it had fallen off. I held the scab to the light and it shone around the room with the multi colours of a stained glass window. When I got up and looked in the mirror to discover it had fallen off in reality too, it was the first time I had seen my chest unobstructed and laid completely bare since surgery.
The morning woke abruptly. The house shifted in its sleepy state, unable to lie still against the dust and the sun. Floorboards started to creak; laces started to be tied. It was time to move. I felt for the warm body next to me and it stirred softly, giving small noises of discontent. ‘Time to leave’ I whispered in her ear. She turned over, looking at me with sad, half-closed eyes. Giving a small nod, she pulled the bedding tighter against her, creating a barrier between us. She held my wrist tight, forcing it down, nails gripping into my skin. There was little we could or should say. Noises were coming closer and closer, signalling the end of our time together. The door shuddered, anxious of the duty it had to perform. Glancing towards it and knowing that it would soon have to open, I put my hand lightly under her chin and brought her close to me. ‘I’ll be back’, I said in the smallest voice I could find. Again, she nodded, first with a slight and almost imperceptible motion, then again with more force, so that hair unloosed further from its ribbons. I picked up the stream of linen lying on the floor and started to wind it round and round and round myself. Once bound in it I dressed, until finally cloaked and concealed I could leave.
Out on the street dawn was already receiving visitors. Carts rushed up and down, vendors set up their stalls and the stench was rising. I hurried home taking, as always, a new route. It wasn’t a long way back, but sometimes I would double over on myself, nervous always that a local would spot this cloaked stranger who had such a liking for the street. There wouldn’t be trouble back home so long as my brother hadn’t disturbed the house coming back late at night. In that case, my absence would surely be noticed. But as I returned, slipping in at the back, all seemed still. The day could begin again.
I can’t say that I was much liked by my family. The whole family was swallowed up by the interminable grip of business. There seemed to be little need or room for me. Not being a son, I could contribute little, although I did my fair share in the workshop when required. For the most part I was left alone. They seemed in no rush to marry me off. Cheaper to keep me than to pay another to keep me. I knew, though, that my time was running out. Soon I would have to be given over. It was a horrible thought. On those nights that I was not with her, I would lie thinking about what was going to be forced on me. Sometimes I imagined wildly that my chosen unwanted would not want me either and that we could live two distant, separate lives within the household. Other times I felt with graphic intensity the terrible duty that would be required. On those nights the sheets turned damp from sweat, of cold, dripping fear.
As I dressed for the second time, this time in the inconspicuous clothes of a young woman, I ran the scenes of last night through my mind. She was still on me: her weight, her smell, her feeling. The thought made me half mad with such a confused rush that I had to sit down. The stool rocked uncertainly underneath me. I felt myself to be turned inside out, half wild with despair and pleasure. The situation was so impossible that I laughed with a choke, spluttering quickly into quietness. The room straightened itself up properly again. Time to work.
Work was duty after duty. Task to perform, small, menial, endless. But I had free roam of the streets and I was my own person out of the house. Not being of class enough to limit my movement, as long as I kept my wits about me the streets were mine to perform. I liked best of all to shadow behind beautiful men, noting the swagger of their hips, the placement of the hand, the kick of the boot. I would mime the kick under my skirts, storing it all for later when I could become alive before my love. As my girdle clinked against my legs I would imagine it to be heavier, the weight of a cool sword on my thigh. Always, I was watching. If I could, I went down to the waterside, though this was easier said than done. I so obviously did not belong there that my presence attracted enough attention to cause trouble. But I wanted to learn, I wanted to look. So I trailed through the grime, head tipped down enough to see but catch no-one’s eyes. Calls and whistles soon followed me. I had just enough street sign to gesture a few select obscenities; enough to stun them to allow for me to dive away. I chose my clothes carefully on occasions I wanted to make it waterside.
Within the city, which still seemed vast and uncontainable, I had one lover and one friend. My love was trapped in the day, bound by her wealth to remain indoors. I didn’t know how she could bear to be so observed. My life was invisible. It had only gained shape through her regard, filling in with every kiss, every touch. Without her I could feel that shape flickering. It was ready to lose form without it. I would take only her look, I vowed. I would not be seen by any other. My one friend, a girl from a friendly neighbouring workshop, had an invisible enough life too. She was not like me, but we had known each other for so long things like that didn’t matter anymore. I could trust her, and her me. On more than one occasion I had played the part for her sake, delivering secret messages t to her sweetheart, a sickly-seeming boy with little hopes other than for her.
Today I decided to go and visit my friend. And on my way, the incredible happened. A cart went barrelling down the street, too fast. Someone called out for the driver to be careful at the corner, but it was too late. Two carriages collided, the fall of the horses pulling the second carriage over at a sickening speed, so that all was noise and confusion. The world seemed to explode with things. Wares were suddenly suspended in the air before crashing down in a hopeless wave. Everywhere people seemed to rush about, and the smell of shit and blood newly mingled together in the air. Things spread across the street, turning the road into a living, crawling carpet. Towards me, a single sovereign rolled to me with solemn intent. I picked it up and looked at it. I had never taken anything from the street that wasn’t mine before. But following some impulse of the coin I placed it within my skirts. Turning slowly on my heel, I walked straight out of the scene and through a clutch of streets. My head didn’t turn to the side for an instant. I knew, though, that my cheeks must be flushed as I could feel the heat rising and constricting my sides. My head span. Coins were not normally mine to keep. But this – my fingers itched irresistibly for it – was for me, and my love.
I knew without fully knowing what I should use it for. It was too paltry a sum to buy my independence outright, but it could allow me to realise myself. I headed for the market. I wanted a dead man’s clothes. Before reaching the market, I passed through the streets of the goldsmiths and lingered longingly there. My pound would not stretch far in this district. But at the tattier end, where used items were sold, there I could find what I wanted. It was there, waiting for me. Its shine was the lick of my love’s lips, its soft curves all-feeling. The sovereign longed to be reunited with its brood. I argued for it, pleading for it to be allowed to come home with me. Eventually, wrested from its owner, it was mine. I caressed it all over.
The trip to the market brought its goods too. With pennies left, I was back in my solitary room, pacing until nightfall. In the dark I awoke to return. This time it was for the last time. With a half regretful glance back my old home, I left. Slipping through soft veils of shadow I arrived for her. I found my way through the usual means and soon I was pressed close by the candlelight, feeling for her against coarse linen. She wondered at myself, as I stood proud in my market self. I was anew and for her. My hands found the ring and pressed it over her unsuspecting finger. My betrothed, I told her.
As it had each day before, the morning woke again. This time I left intact. Bound, attired, I promised her I would return. How, I did not know yet, but I would return. I would not let her be taken by another. We chose this together.
The pulp fiction novel Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon was published in 1957. This was the first novel Bannon wrote in the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and it was the first lesbian pulp fiction book I ever bought. I was inspired to buy it after listening to a talk by historian Dr Amy Tooth Murphy on the golden age of lesbian pulp fiction. Dr Murphy’s talk was the first time I had properly understood the LGBTQ+ history could be possible as an academic field. It helped me to develop a love of historical lesbian fiction and a pride in my own identity.
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