The Best Historical Queer Women’s Fiction: A List of Personal Favourites

Sometimes you just don’t feel like living in your current time and place and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Luckily, we have historical fiction to fill that need.  Personally, I love reading books that were written in ye olden times (i.e, those published before the 1950s-ish) and I have a particular soft spot for Victorian novels.  I love the Brontës, Jane Austen, and all those long-winded descriptions, melodrama, and witty banter.  That said, as a contemporary queer person, (explicitly) queer ladies in such books can be pretty hard to come by, if not impossible.  This is a list for those times when you feel like re-reading Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, but wish there was just a dash (or more) of girl-on-girl action.  By the way, I’d really like to add more books by and/or about women of colour, so if you have any suggestions in that vein, please let me know!

she risesShe Rises by Kate Worsley

What?

Mid-1700s fiction with navy action and a lady’s maid falling in love with her lady.  Enough said.

Why?

It’s beautifully and compellingly written.  Worsley somehow manages to combine historically accurate rough sailor’s language and dazzlingly gorgeous descriptions.  You really feel like you’re there in the grit and the grime of 18th century life, the saltiness of the sea on a ship and in a port town.  Worsley doesn’t shy away from the grotesque parts of the past either, let me tell you, but there are some fascinating historical details in the book—like how the attics of adjacent buildings were connected so you could sneak from a house into a pub without going outside!  Also, it’s a brilliant meditation on conceptions of gender and sexuality in a time before identities like trans and lesbian existed.

How will it make you feel?

Mesmerized.  Flabbergasted.  Like you learnt a lot of cool shit.

What Else?

If you’re desperately awaiting Sarah Waters’s new book, this should tide you over.

sparrowSilhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

What?

A beautifully understated young adult novel about a curious teenage girl who’s a mix of artist and ornithologist (someone who studies birds).  There’s romance, environmentalism, feminist rebellions, and tomboys!  What more could you want?

Why?

While the main character Garnet is rebellious by 1920s standards, Griffin resists the urge to make her so modern as to disturb the carefully constructed historical accuracy of the book, which deals thoughtfully and realistically with issues surrounding class, gender, race, and sexuality.  This book is smart, and it’s also beautiful:

I looked closely at my edges, my boundaries, the slightly elongated lines that set me apart from lake and sky and island and bird and boat.  I looked closely, pretending that I knew nothing about the girl I saw, pretending that she was some beautiful creature whose borders contained something worth holding in—something unique and extraordinary, something worth saving.  I looked closely, the way I’d taught myself to look at birds, the way I’d learned to look at Isabella, and I saw myself.  Then those scissors were cutting after all, as I snipped out my own image.  I ignored the small ripples of the water and traced the lines that separated me from the world, and the lines that fit me into that world like the piece of a puzzle.

How will it make you feel?

Nostalgic about the first time you fell in love.

What else?

Spread the word about this book!  It’s not very well known and I don’t know why.

last nudeThe Last Nude by Avery Ellis

What?

A tragically doomed romance between two bisexual women in 1920s Paris.  Oh yeah, and one of them is the famous artist Tamara de Lempicka and the other is one of her most famous models, Rafaela Fano.

Why?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll revel in the luscious descriptions of Bohemian 20s Paris, full of artists and writers and glamorous parties and women with smoky eyes wearing blood-red lipstick, gauntlet-length gloves, and smoking using those fancy long cigarette holders.  Also, Rafaela’s journey of re-discovering and embracing her sexuality is beautiful and moving:

And suddenly I remembered a day when I was very small, before my brothers came along.  When my mother went out for groceries, I slopped … oil on the banister and slid down.  I climbed those stairs again and again, to get that feeling: how slick my knickers got, how distinctly I could feel the spreading wings of my little figa, how the shock of bliss pleated through me like lightning.  I had forgotten this kind of eagerness until now, as my body sobbed into Tamara’s hand.  Again, again!  I wanted to crow.  I was a giddy witch on a broomstick.  I was a leaping dog.  I was liquor; I was laughter; I was a sliding girl on a shining rail: something I’d forgotten how to be.

How will it make you feel?

Like you need to start building a time machine right now so you can go hang out with all the queer artsy ex-pats in 20s Paris.

What else?

Maybe write the folks at Lambda Literary and ask why one earth this novel didn’t win the award for lesbian fiction the year it came out.

the salt roadsThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

What?

An ambitious, wide-reaching novel that is at once historical, spiritual, magical, and fantastical, imagining the lives of historical queer black women.  I said historical, but Hopkinson refuses to stay within the bounds of realist historical fiction: there’s a dash of Caribbean voodoo, fourth century Christian pilgrimages, and smoky visions emerging out of a pot of surprising liquids.

Why?

This book is like three in one: you get to read about Mer, a queer midwife, doctor, and plantation slave in 18th century Haiti; Jeanne, a biracial, bisexual dancer living in 19th century Paris; and Saint Mary of Egypt, living in 4th century Egypt and doing sex work.  I’ve never read anything like this novel.

How will it make you feel?

Like you need to educate yourself on all the other amazing women of colour throughout history that have been overshadowed by white dudes.  Also, just in awe of the scope and power of Hopkinson’s work weaving this gigantic, impressive tapestry of narratives. Also, this part might turn you on:

A tiny pulse from Lisette’s thigh beat under my ear: stroke, stroke, stroke.  I contemplated the thick red bush of her jigger, so close to my face.  I breathed her scent in deep.  ‘You smell…’ I said.

‘I smell of cunt,’ she laughed, making my head shake as her body shook. ‘And spit, and that honey dust you wear.  And I have your face powder all over my skin.’  She raised up on one elbow.  I hung on to her uppermost thigh for purchase.  Oh, so warm, so fair, her skin!  She said nothing, just reached a hand to me.  I felt a tug along my scalp.  She was stroking the length of my hair, spread out so all along her legs. ‘Beautiful,’ she breathed.  ‘My beautiful Jeanne.’

What else?

Once you’re done with this one, pick up another of Hopkinson’s amazing books, like Skin Folk or Sister Mine.  You won’t regret it!

name of salomeIn the Name of Salomé by Julia Álvarez 

What?

Two interweaving narratives of mother and daughter: one of the Dominican Republic’s most revered national poets Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila.

Why?

Moving from different parts of the US to the Dominican Republic to Cuba and from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, this striking novel somehow manages to sustain your suspense despite the fact that you know the end of each woman’s story from the beginning.  If you don’t know much about the history of the Dominican Republic or Cuba, like I did, you’ll learn a lot.  This novel is also a moving investigation of what it means to love a land and its people, as well as how to be an artist and a revolutionary.

How will it make you feel?

Astonished at the way that our family and our past live on in us in unexpected ways.  Disoriented—I suspect purposefully on Álvarez’s part—by the narrative point of view switches and style.

What else?

This is the only book by Álvarez that I’ve read.  Has anyone read any of her other work?

Tipping_the_Velvet_UK_coverTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

What?

This is the mother of queer women’s historical fiction and it’s possibly everything I’ve ever wanted in a novel: a delightful romp through late-Victorian England, its cross-dressing theatre performances, romance, survival sex work, betrayal, and working class revolutions.  It’s actually like a Victorian novel, with its excess, melodrama, style, even structure (the book is divided into three neat sections), except there is hot lesbian sex in it.

Why?

Because this list would never be complete without this book.  Because your life is incomplete if you haven’t read this.

How will it make you feel?

For me, it was like two worlds that I had loved for so long were finally brought together: queer literature and Victorian literature.  The rest of you non-nerds will be cheering Nan King on, revelling in the scandals, and re-reading the sex scenes.

Fall-on-your-kneesFall On Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald

What?

This book is the only other on this list that could compete with Nalo Hopkinson’s in ambition and scope.  At over 500 pages, this Cape Breton family saga set in the late 19th and early 20th century is not for the faint of heart (in particular, trigger warning for incest and sexual assault).  In addition to rural Cape Breton, the novel also takes us to Europe during the first world war and New York in all its Jazz-era glory.

Why?

I read this book years ago and some of the scenes haunt me to this day.  It’s one of the most vivid, memorable pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.  It’s a difficult, disturbing book, no question, but one I am very glad that I read and that I plan to re-read some day.  This story is not without its moments of joy, as well.

How will it make you feel?

I’m not going to lie: like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks.  And yes, it will make you cry.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Halifax, Jewish, Lesbian, Nalo Hopkinson, Non-Canadian, Queer, Romance, Rural, Sex Work, Trans Masculine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Best Historical Queer Women’s Fiction: A List of Personal Favourites

  1. Widdershins says:

    Tipping the Velvet is one of those books that unless you read it you are not complete

  2. Pingback: Link Round Up: Sept 4 – 10 | The Lesbrary

  3. Set in the seventies, so recentish historical fiction, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls: A Novel by Nayana Currimbhoy, set in India. Also, great list! I’d also add Hild.

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