Classic Authors with Lesbian Literature on Project Gutenberg

Thought it was impossible to get free lesbian fiction from before the internet? Think again!

Whenever I read about tips and tricks on getting free books or borrowing books online, one site that comes up, again and again, is Project Gutenberg. For anyone searching for queer fiction, this can be incredibly frustrating! There are hundreds of lesbian authors and writers producing books with wlw characters today, but if you are looking for Lesbian books from authors whose work is old enough to be featured on Gutenberg then you’re in trouble.

That’s why I decided to put together a list of Classic Authors with Lesbian Fiction on Project Gutenberg! So if you want to read some fantastic classic lesbian fiction, from masters of literature, then take a look!

Did you know that there is free sapphic fiction on Gutenberg? Check out the list of Classic Authors with Lesbian Fiction on Project Gutenberg Click To Tweet

I’m an author of adventure books with lesbian main characters, so I am always aware not only of how difficult it can be to write in this genre, but also how lucky I am to live in an era where my books can be published without being subject to obscenity laws.

Many authors in the past have had to work around these laws, disguising their work behind a veil of suitability. That means we are often left searching through the subtext and hidden meanings, and while for some this can be frustrating it can also be a lot of fun.

Vernon Lee

‘Vernon Lee’ was actually a pseudonym for the British writer Violet Paget, who passed away in 1935. As well as writing supernatural fiction, she was also an essayist and composed work on art, music, and travel.

As a 19th Century lesbian, Vernon obviously could not always be over, however, she often hinted at lesbian subtexts in her work.

The work listed on Gutenberg includes:

  • Hauntings
  • The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics
  • A Phantom Lover
  • Belcaro; Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions
  • Hortus Vitae
  • Renaissance Fancies and Studies
  • The Spirit of Rome
  • Euphorion – Vol. I
  • Euphorion – Vol. II
  • The Countess of Albany
  • Laurus Nobilis: Chapters on Art and Life
  • Vanitas: Polite Stories
  • Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh coast in the Eighteenth Century
  • Limbo, and Other Essays; To which is now added Ariadne in Mantua
  • Ariadne in Mantua: A Romance in Five Acts

Amy Levy

 Amy Levy was a Victorian essayist, poet, and novelist. She was the first Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University and one of the first women to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was known to have had relationships with both women and men in literary and politically activist circles in London during the 1880s, including Vernon Lee, and wrote love poems to women using the voice of a heterosexual man.

Titles available on Gutenburg are:

  • London Plane-Tree, and Other Verse
  • Minor Poet, and Other Verse
  • Miss Meredith
  • Romance of a Shop

Christina Rossetti

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862)

Christina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems. She also wrote the words of two Christmas carols well known in the British Isles: “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and “Love Came Down at Christmas”.

Although she had three proposals during her life, she never married and suffered bouts of depression as well as a major religious crisis.

Her 1862 poem “Goblin Market” has been widely read as a narrative of lesbianism even though it attempts to paint itself as a narrative of sisterly love.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte was the eldest of the Brontë sisters. She lived long enough to witness the death of all her siblings, dying herself of complications during pregnancy in 1855.

Famous for being the composer of ‘Jane Eyre’, her novels, particularly Shirley and Villette, (in which the female main characters engage in close or even obsessive relationships with other women) have often been interpreted as having a sapphic subtext. 

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was known locally as an eccentric and a recluse. She often refused to greet guests, preferring to talk to them through the door, and the friendships she did maintain were largely by correspondence.

Although she was a prolific poet, it was only after her death that her poems reached a larger audience and even then her work was edited significantly; altering the unconventional style and removing the name ‘Susan’ (referring to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert) from her work.

(Bonus points if you watch Wild Nights With Emily after reading her poetry.)

Algernon Charles Swinburne

A member of the landed gentry, Swinburne attended Eton and Oxford, although he never graduated from the latter.

He thrived on notoriety and spread damaging rumours about his own vices including cannibalism and bestiality, although it is doubtful that he ever indulged in either.

He also enjoyed writing about taboo subjects such as sadomasochism, anti-theism, and lesbianism. In 1866, he published Poems and Ballads, which contained the poems “Anactoria” and “Sapphics” concerning Sappho of Lesbos and dealing explicitly with lesbian content.

Henry James

Henry James is considered by one of the greatest novelists in the English language. His most famous works include The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw.

But the reason I have included him here is because of his portrayal of Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant in his 1886 novel The Bostonians [Vol I, Vol II]. The two women shared a ‘Boston Marriage’, which was simply the cohabitation of two wealthy women. It is impossible to know how many such ‘marriages’ were purely platonic but it is safe to say that should wealthy lesbians have wanted to live together, then they would have chosen the route of a Boston Marriage.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella “Carmilla,” [ebook, audiobook] tells the story of the relationship between the innocent Laura and the vampire Carmilla. This is one of the few books on this list in which there is a clear erotic attraction between the women, and the books itself has become the inspiration for an awesome little web series of the same name.

Check out the trailer for Carmilla: Season 1

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was an English writer best known for The Woman in White. Although born in London, he grew up in Italy and France, learning French and Italian. He was a mentee of Charles Dickens, an opium addict, and was critical of monogamy, deciding instead to split his time between two women.

In 1859 Collins wrote The Woman in White and many readers have seen lesbian potential in the character, Marian Halcombe, whose motivation throughout the story is her love for her half-sister, Laura Fairlie.

Théophile Gautier

Théophile Gautier was a French poet, playwright, novelist, and art critic whose work deified convention and categorisation. He wrote four novels, one of which was the romance Mademoiselle de Maupin.

Although about the real-life bisexual, duelling, nun-impersonating, sword-wielding heroine; Julie d’Aubigny Gautier turned the thrilling real-life plot into a simpler love triangle between a man, d’Albert, and his mistress, Rosette, who both fall in love with Madelaine de Maupin, who is disguised as a man named Théodore.

Check out this fab video giving a bit more background on the REAL Julie d’Aubigny:

D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence is a somewhat notorious literary figure, known largely for his banned works. Most famously, Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was subject to an obscenity trial and was not published in the UK in full until 1960.

In 1915 he published The Rainbow. Also subject to a ban, the book includes ‘Ursula’ who has a number of affairs including a same-sex relationship with her teacher while at university.

Who did I miss? If you know of any authors who should be added to the list, then let me know in the comments!

Did you know that there is free sapphic fiction on Gutenberg? Check out the list of Classic Authors with Lesbian Fiction on Project Gutenberg Click To Tweet

If you enjoyed this, then you’ll love my post on Ten Awesome #LesFic Authors Who Are Giving You Their Work For Free

2 thoughts on “Classic Authors with Lesbian Literature on Project Gutenberg

  1. Thank you very much for compiling and publishing this reference material. I, for one, will take advantage of your efforts. While I fall comfortably under the Q part of the spectrum, about 60-70% of my sexual adventures involve L and B persons. I’m sure I’ll learn something valuable from those books. Thanks again from a demigirl pansexual poly human ;-}

    1. Thank you! It did take a little while to put together, but I really hope it’s useful! There are some beautiful works of fiction on Gutenberg, it is such an amazing resource 😀

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