The Bodice Ripper: Lesbians in Corsets

2nd Feb 2012

The Bodice Ripper: Lesbians in Corsets

Ever since Kitty Butler strolled onstage in full drag and won Nan’s heart, lesbians in historical fiction have gained notoriety.

But it’s not all ‘lesbo Victorian romps’ as Sarah Waters self-deprecatingly puts it – in fact, as well as Tipping the Velvet’s funny and touching account of mashers, rent boys and socialism, Waters’ Sapphic sweethearts dabble in the dark arts, survive a World War (even if their relationships might not) and cook up salacious schemes to steal the fortune of damsels in distress.

But whilst the heroine of lesbian literature may have popularised the ‘queer corset’ genre, she’s not the only one to take a look at our history.

As well as putting us centre stage, there’s an increasing trend towards queer minor characters in historical fiction – Tracy Grant’s historical mysteries have an endearing gay, and Deanna Raybourn’s snarky, stylish Lady Portia is one of my favourite things about her Lady Julia Grey series.

This isn’t merely updating plots for a contemporary audience, nor is it an anachronism – as 2010’s adaptation of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister shows, we’ve always been around, and now we’re writing ourselves back into the history books.

So without further ado, allow me to present the snappily titled Bodice Ripper’s Top 5 Historical Novels With Lesbians In*:

*alternate titles greatly appreciated

Forget Tipping the Velvet, Sarah WatersAffinity is a truly chilling tale of two women – one haunted by her past, another who claims to communicate with the dead.

Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter, provides a compelling insight into relationships between women against a backdrop of Victorian feminism (check out our review for more), but her brilliant earlier novel Life Mask takes a lengthier look at burgeoning lesbian identity pre-1900. Sculptress Anne and actress Eliza Warren head a cast of ‘so real you couldn’t make them up’ aristocrats of the Beau Monde, and when the nature of their close friendship is called into question, all sorts of sordid secrets emerge.

The Dark Road to Darjeeling is Deanna Raybourn’s fourth book in her Julia Grey series, and allows Julia’s sister Portia and her erstwhile lover Jane to take centre stage. If you’re already a fan, I interviewed Deanna last Valentine’s Day about Portia and Jane – if not, make sure you read the first three books before cracking the spine on this one…

Jane Eagland’s Wildthorn is an engrossing, if melodramatic, account of the price a young woman living in the 19th century pays for transgressing the social and sexual mores of her time.

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller proves that gay ladies in historical fiction isn’t just a 21st century invention – it was first published in 1969, and has been a staple of a certain kind of women’s book club ever since.

Without giving anything away, there’s a tendency in the majority of these books to deny readers a happy ending. While I’m a fan of the tear-jerker – and one of the above contains a twist I genuinely didn’t see coming – it’s easy for writers to fall into the trap of implying that life as a pre-Pride lesbian is a one-way ticket to sad spinsterhood. Hopefully, as the popularity of queer historical fiction continues to rise, we’ll start to see more same-sex couples get the happy ending of their hetero counterparts.

Something I’ve missed? Are you working on a lesbian bodice ripper you want to share with the world? Tell us in the comments below…

Kaite Welsh


  • Fictavia says:

    I wasn’t working on a lesbian bodice ripper, but now I might have to! ‘Life Mask’ sounds cracking.

  • Libby says:

    My favourite of all time (and I say this about a very select few books) is Waters’ Fingersmith …. so dark and twisted. I expect her PhD thesis would good bibliography to explore, that’s been on my to do list for years.