Historical fiction about queer characters finds itself in a quandary. You can use the language of modern identities and break the historic setting. You can center the story on romantic and sexual relationships to communicate the characters’ identities to the readers. You can tell a story that leaves everything in hints and impressions, much like historic biographies that leave readers asking, “Were they or weren’t they?” Or you can do the legwork of figuring out how people in your historic setting understood and experienced queer identity in ways that are both clear to, but different from, the modern audience.
Rozild Pairmen, the protagonist of Floodtide doesn’t think of herself as having a sexual orientation–not in the sense of an identity. She and her friend Nan shared a bed because that was ordinary and normal for girls in service–or for the daughters of her employer, for that matter. It both meant nothing and provided opportunities. Women often had special friends–friends they loved deeply and dreamed of sharing their life with. Rich ladies wrote poetry and passionate letters about it. Poor folk like Rozild took more immediate comforts.
Roz and Nan fell into a sexual relationship because snuggling close against the cold led to kissing, which led to…other things. Those things might be sinful then, but so many things were sinful. When it all came out and Roz was fired from her position, it wasn’t because of who she was, but because of what she’d done. She might have been fired just as easily for oversleeping or talking back or any of the other things a servant wasn’t supposed to do.
And yet Roz knows that every time she falls in love–every time she wants to kiss someone until the heat stirs and limbs tangle–it’s been with another woman. She always assumed that she would marry a man some day. It’s what you did, after all. Now she’s not so sure.
“The thought of making do by kissing boys was like being hungry.“
Roz may not have a name for what she feels, but neither does she think she’s the only one who feels that way. There are jokes, there are stories, there are slang terms about rubbing or kneading. If it never occurs to Roz that her new mistress, Maisetra Sovitre, and her “special friend” the baroness get up to the same things in bed that she and Nan did, it’s not from ignorance but because you don’t think about fine ladies doing that sort of thing the same way ordinary folk do.
Rozild’s story in Floodtide isn’t a story “about” growing up queer any more than it’s a story about growing up poor. Her story is about learning to navigate through a harsh world, about making mistakes and recovering from them, about building alliances and reaching for dreams. And like all of the Alpennia books, it’s about magic and how it changes the lives and fates of everyone it touches.
If you want to learn more about how people understood sexuality in history, follow The Lesbian Historic Motif Project on my blog. And if you want to follow Roz through her magical adventures in early 19th century Alpennia, read Floodtide. This is an independent story in the Alpennia series. No familiarity with the previous books is necessary, but they’ll be waiting for you once you’re hooked!