October 31, 2016 by kitmoss
Part of the appeal of historical fiction when it comes to GLBT novels is seeing how people find love and fulfillment in a time even more unfriendly to their happiness than now. When they overcome the odds set against them, it is just that much more gratifying to see love take root and grow. That is very much the case with the two women, Agnes and Rose, in Mary Winter’s Southern Rose, a lesbian erotic novel.
The setting is new Hope, Missouri, and the Civil War rages in the background. Rose is a widow who lost both her beloved husband and her child to scarlet fever no more than a year earlier. She has come to live with Agnes, a seamstress, in order to take a job as the town’s schoolteacher. She does not suspect the truth about Agnes, that in fact she is no respectable married woman but a former prostitute whose husband is a gay man who married Agnes to give her what she needed in polite society, a cover story. He is away at war, so the two women are thrown alone together. Each has had experience of love of another woman, though Agnes’s is much more sophisticated. When Rose nervously asks her landlady whether she gets “urges”, Agnes takes her to her room and shows her her wooden dildo collection. You can guess where that leads.
Of course, though this is clearly erotica, there is a story other than the ensuing sex. This is where the historical element shines. Beyond the two women’s inevitable inner conflict about whether she will think this, or whether the other will respond, and whether each is imagining the other’s interest, you have the social pressure that what each is doing is “wrong” and could be dangerous. The level of tension that results can be painful. What pulls the women together in spite of all that is stacked against their union is the compulsion of desire and ultimately true love. Agnes for instance is terrified to let anyone know, especially Rose, about her past. Will Rose be disgusted? Will she reject Agnes once she knows?
An interesting aspect of the two women’s relationship is the play of who’s stronger and who’s the more innocent. At first it seems that Agnes, the worldly wise, is the rock. Then Rose, all Southern womanhood turns out to be the “steel magnolia”. Though not so street smart as Agnes, Rose turns out to be the sensible one when it comes to dealing with society.
The story takes place over just a few days, liberally supplied with erotic scenes that are explicit and poetic at the same time. The sense of the era is provided with brief effective observations, such as how a woman could not own property in her own right unless she inherited it from a late husband. Winter offers contrast between the outside world and the two women’s intimacy rather charmingly with the many layers of clothing that a respectable woman must wear no matter the weather, and it is the topic of appropriate dress for a widow that provides the resolution of the story.
If there was anything I found unpleasant in this short novel is that each woman in her own way shows a selfish disregard for the men in their lives when each expresses satisfaction that the guy died, making this new relationship possible. Agnes thinks about whether the official looking letter from the army will prove to be the news that will free her to pursue Rose. Rose tells Agnes that her late husband’s death is fine since it freed her to love Agnes. I was not comfortable with the throwaway notion of these men’s lives. It communicated a coldness and lack of empathy on the part of the women to me. They may of course have felt this way, but if so, I liked the two women the less for it.