June 30, 2008
Yes – that’s him.
As a fun post I thought I’d ask you all some questions based on Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) and see how many you get right.
No cheating now!!
1. What would you be doing if you were cocking your organ?
2. “She’s an owl in an ivy bush” – is this a good thing?
3. “The flashman bounced the swell of all his blunt” – Is this something you’d want to do?
4. What would you be doing if you were riding a horse foaled by an acorn?
5. If someone told you that your beau had been seen in his altitudes the night before, would you break off the association?
6. Someone’s just told you that your youngest daughter has sprained her ankle. Would you call a doctor or throw the baggage from the house?
7. Is Arbor Vitae the Latin name for a tree? Or something else?
8. You see a gorgeous man at the ball, and you overhear one rake say to another that the object of your attention is a great backgammon player. Surely that’s a good thing?
9. How many rolls ARE in a baker’s dozen?
10. What would you wear to a Balum Rancum?
11. Wow-wow Sauce – Invented by the Regency or by Terry Pratchett?
12. What’s a beau trap? An eager spinster? or something dirtier?
13. Your husband announces he’s off to Bedfordshire. You don’t have any estates there and it’s dark! Where’s he really going?
14. Where would you dance at Beilby’s Ball?
June 27, 2008
Brutes, Wimps and Heroes.
The alpha male, the beta male and the chivalric ideal.
“Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”*
I’ve been wondering about the ‘alpha male’ recently and why I find him such an inadequate ideal for a hero. Several things have come together to spark off this post, one of which was finding the essay by CS Lewis on ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ from which the Mallory quote above was taken. Another was watching an interesting TV programme on the BBC recently called ‘Last Man Standing’. Both of which seemed, to me, to contrast the alpha male with the chivalric ideal.
My understanding of the ‘alpha male’ is that an alpha male is a man who is completely without doubt as to his ability to handle a situation. He’s arrogant. He knows best – or at least, he believes he does. He is physically strong and doesn’t hesitate to use that physical strength to get what he wants. He is prepared to over-rule anyone who opposes him. He does not feel, let alone express, fear or weakness or admiration for others. He gets what he wants, and if he wants a heroine or beta male, that person had better learn to like it, because they are not going to get away.
The alpha male is ruthless. He is not riddled with guilt or doubt, and weakness in others attracts his contempt. He doesn’t give quarter. If you bank on his pity, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise.
In short, the alpha male is a barbarian. He’s like a Viking hero who, having captured a bishop and being unable to understand what the educated man is talking about, beats him to death and thinks he has won the argument. He’s like Achilles in The Iliad, for whom nothing matters but his own glory. Snubbed, he’s willing to sit by and watch his friends die because someone took away the captive he was going to rape and thereby proclaimed that they were more powerful than he was.
This is not the sort of man I want to have to deal with, either in writing or in real life.
But what does that leave me with in terms of my own heroes? Must my heroes be ‘beta males’?
Well, I have to say I don’t really understand what a beta male is. I presume, from the fact that you typically have an alpha/beta pairing, that the beta male is a man who doesn’t mind being constantly overruled, controlled and dominated by his alpha partner. As he fulfils the role of a heroine, perhaps he’s meant to be more emotional, less self-assured, maybe a little passive? Is he a bit of a pushover? Maybe inclined to cry and hope for someone to come along and solve all his problems? Is he, in short, something of a wimp?
I’m sorry, but are these really my only choices? Brute or wimp? I don’t want either. I’m – to quote the song – holding out for a hero.
So what exactly do I mean by that?
Well, what I’m looking for in a hero is the chivalric ideal. It’s not my own invention – it came into Western culture in the Middle Ages – and it is epitomised by the quote by Mallory up there. My hero is a man who is ferocious at need, who can be an alpha male if the situation requires it. A man who is the fiercest and most deadly warrior on the battlefield, accustomed to death and hardship, sure of himself, strong. A man who wins.
But – and this is the clincher – he’s also a man who can then come home, get cleaned up, and discuss the curtains with his maiden aunt. Who can weep over a sentimental film and be trusted to look after a child. A man who listens to others, respects the rights of the weak and is gentle with those who need help. He doesn’t boast or dominate. He is meek, and by his restraint he allows others to exercise their own power. He is both alpha and beta at once, depending on what the occasion requires.
But, you may say, Launcelot wasn’t real. No real man could fulfil such an ideal. It would be completely unbelievable.
At which point I drag out my copy of ‘Men of Honour’ by Adam Nicolson and direct your attention to the battle of Trafalgar. This is of particular relevance to me because the naval officers who fought at Trafalgar are the role-models, the real life examples from whom I’ve taken Peter and Josh in ‘Captain’s Surrender’ or John and Alfie from ‘False Colours’.
Nicolson describes Admiral Nelson thus:
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would not have occurred unless he had allowed and encouraged free rein to the less conscious forces of devastating aggression, the desire to excel, the desire for prizes, the desire to kill and the desire to win.
But this is what Admiral Collingwood, who was second-in-command of the British fleet says of Nelson:
There is nothing like him left for gallantry and conduct in battle. It was not a foolish passion for fighting for he was the most gentle of all human creatures and often lamented the cruel necessity of it, but it was a principle of duty which all men owed their country in defence of her laws and liberty.
Collingwood himself, who was at war most of his life, wrote long gossipy letters home to his sisters and was devastated at the death of his dog, Bounce.
The violence and overwhelming bloodshed of Trafalgar are well known, but what is less well known is that immediately following the battle, the British fleet did everything humanly possible to save the lives of the French, during the three day storm that broke over them all.
Violence and gentleness coexisting, switching from one to the other when needed. Proving, if you like, that the chivalric ideal is something which is very far from being unobtainable.
Indeed, it’s not even a phenomenon of the dim and vanished past. ‘Last Man Standing’, which takes six modern young men out to compete against the warriors of various different tribes at their own particular forms of sport/ritual combat, showed that the ideal was alive and well. I’m thinking particularly of Richard and Rajko, who – when forced to kill animals for food – mourned. They were self-effacing, they spoke of their doubts and hesitation rather than boasting about how inevitable it was that they would win, and they attacked the challenges with every bit as much aggression as the ‘alpha males’ on the show. Rajko’s stepping up to the mark in Trobriand, despite a half-severed toe, and taking his team to victory against all the odds was a ‘Chariots of Fire’ moment I’ll not soon forget. All the better for being real and not fiction.
So I have no hesitation in making John Cavendish from ‘False Colours’ the sort of person who would blush in real discomfort on hearing a dirty joke, and take on a dozen men with an axe in the next breath, nor in letting Alfie Donwell beat up the boatswain of a rival crew and weep inconsolably over a dead bird.
If this means that both of my heroes are alpha and beta males at the same time I can’t help but feel that not only is that historically accurate, but that it makes for an interesting dynamic. There should be a back and forth – and a potential for conflict – there that just doesn’t exist in a less equal relationship.
Plus, of course, they both get to be awesome, and they both get to be tender. Twice the value! They know, as Captain Anselm Jon Griffiths says in his ‘Observation on some Points of Seamanship’ published in 1809
The man who endeavours to carry all before him by mere dint of his authority and power would appear to me to know little indeed of human nature.
You tell it how it is, Captain! No one likes a smart-arse or a bully ;)
*Thomas Mallory; ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’. Sir Ector is describing Sir Launcelot.
June 24, 2008
Bisexual historical romance: writing the woman into that special relationship
The idea that inspired me to write, what ultimately led to the unholy marriage between gay male romance and Regency romance known as Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, was probably not so very different from what inspired the other members of this group: two men in love, and making love, is a beautiful thing. From the age of twelve, when I first read Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, I was captivated by her ideal of love between two noble citizen-warriors, as in ancient Athens, and commended by Plato: the highest form of love known to the human species.
Of course, living in New York City, I had many opportunities to know actual gay men. I saw that love is love, whatever the genders of the people involved, and that gay men are people like any other, with the same mix of good and bad qualities as any of us. Still, as I grew older, and interested in sex and boys for myself, I never quite forgot this inspiring image of the “superior relationship.” Somehow, I thought, I want to be a part of that.
Now, I want to say up front that I in no way consider women inferior to men. While I never wanted to be a man, I have been very grateful to live in the modern world where women can do everything men do and where equal opportunity is the law. Like many people, I have a divide between what I know intellectually, that women are as good as, if not better than, men; and what I feel emotionally, that there is this “superior relationship” that only two men can have. One solution I have found as a writer is to write myself into the story, to choose one of those “superior” men for mine: a “bisexual” husband. (This affects only my writing, unfortunately, and has nothing to do with my “real life”—even assuming I had one.)
A number of years ago, having read far too many heterosexual romance novels than is good for anybody, I discovered fantasy fiction. In one of those imaginary worlds, a planet in a distant galaxy, in a time far in the future and yet with many archaic, faux-medieval customs, I discovered a fictional character, primarily same-sex oriented, who, “a man of impulse,” had a brief affair with a woman and fathered a child. Aha! I thought, taking my first step toward the idea of “bisexual romance.”
From fantasy fiction to fanfic is but a quick and easy truncation. Soon I was writing stories in the first person as the wife of this bisexual husband, in a world where same-sex relationships were acceptable and where a man with both a wife and a male lover was considered a perfectly fine arrangement.
But apart from the fact that the original author of the world I was writing in changed her mind about allowing fanfic, I was faced with an even greater hindrance to my dreams of a career as a fantasy writer: my voice is a comic one. No matter what I was writing—war, death, political machinations, steamy love scenes between my hot husband and his even hotter younger boyfriend—it all came out with a humorous tone. I was faced with two choices: go on writing bad comedy or try to write good comedy.
To write good comedy, it helps to write in a comic genre. Finally, all that romance reading paid off. The Regency romance, as begun by Georgette Heyer in the 1930s and 40s, is a comedy of manners. Later romances, more properly called historicals set in the Regency period, incorporate some sex into the plots. This is when I had my epiphany: why not “slash” the Regency romance? (Slash fiction, for those unfamiliar, is fiction that takes an existing work—a novel, stories, film or TV show—and rewrites it, or writes stories set in its world, with same-sex relationships between the characters, usually, but not always, m/m).
And so Phyllida was born. My original idea, very soon abandoned, involved a hero torn between two lovers, a man and a woman, and having to choose. Well, that wouldn’t work. If he chooses the man, I was writing myself out of the story—a story I had spent half my life trying to get into. But if he chooses the woman, then what am I saying? That heterosexual love is better? That a gay man can “change” or be “converted” by the “right woman?” Barf! And gack! That’s not only disgusting, it’s immoral—or should be.
Luckily, comedy came to the rescue. The romantic comedy, and the romance novel itself, are full of conventions, standard ideas and situations, that are used over and over. This is one reason that romance is considered formulaic, but we shouldn’t confuse form with formula. A sonnet has the same form, used for centuries. A good poet can write a fresh sonnet using the same centuries-old form. A poor writer will write stale, tired, formulaic prose whether or not s/he uses a conventional plot.
Once I got going, there was no end to the romance-novel conventions I could put a “twist” on, starting with the basic plot premise itself: the typical rakish gentleman, sexy and domineering, who is forced to marry for convenience. Just suppose, I thought, I make him gay. He’s had lots of experience, but with men. Settling down and marrying isn’t a problem of choosing one woman out of many, but of having to choose a woman at all.
My opening scene, in which our hero, Andrew Carrington, wakes up, supremely hung-over, to discover he’s picked up a seventeen-year-old boy prostitute the night before, is a way of establishing the hero’s just-right mix of libertinism and honor. Yes, he’s red-blooded man enough to go for a young street boy when he’s lost all his inhibitions through too much “blue ruin,” but he’s principled enough to feel shame the next day, and determined to reform. This was the impetus for him to do his duty to his family and choose a wife. (In the interests of shielding modern sensibilities, I made the boy “almost eighteen” rather than the younger age I thought likely. The age of consent at the time was thirteen, but why push more buttons than the elevator-bank full I’d already jabbed?)
The idea that our gay hero might fall in love with his bride is only slightly more farfetched than many other comic devices of this genre. Some kinds of comedy require that readers accept a certain amount of absurdity. They forgo surface truths of realism and probability in the interest of discovering deeper truths of human nature as the story unfolds. We’ve all read obituaries, perhaps known instances, of a gay man married to a woman, not for camouflage, but because this was the one person he loved enough to marry. The writer Joseph Hansen, author of the Dave Brandstetter mysteries, is one example. That our hero will fall in love with the bride chosen for him or forced on him is a given in this kind of comic story. It’s the writer’s job to persuade readers that this woman is the right one for this man, not to renounce comic coincidence or serendipity.
One detail that disappoints some people is that Matthew Thornby, our hero’s “true love,” only makes his appearance more than halfway through this long novel. But there’s a limit to how much improbable stuff you can make readers swallow. I was convinced that Andrew, honorable as he was, would never have submitted to “duty” if had already met the love of his life. He’d let his younger brother do it, or shrug off the whole problem as something that will be of no concern to him after he’s dead. No, in the interests of getting this unusual romance started, Andrew had to be alone at the start of the story, his young man away overseas for almost three years in the Peninsular War, for him to be willing to shoulder the burdens of family obligation and inheritance.
But I also made sure to keep him actively “gay.” It was important for me to show that marriage to a woman hasn’t made Andrew lose interest in men. He enjoys a friendly night of sex with his club-mate from the Brotherhood of Philander, the upscale molly house he belongs to, on the eve of his wedding, and pursues his casual affair with a handsome young actor during his early married life. Good fiction has no agenda—it should tell the story that’s right and true for the characters, whatever that is—but a writer can’t help having preferences. This was my ideal husband I was writing, and I was damned if marriage to a woman was going to turn him straight. A very slight degree of “bisexuality” was all I required, just enough to encompass one woman.
As to my heroine, Phyllida, some readers have objected that no proper young lady of the period would be so accepting of a sodomite husband or so sexually aroused by seeing him with his lovers. This is where I think people’s personal preferences are skewing their judgment. While the love match had triumphed in the popular imagination by 1812, there were still many people making more practical alliances, as Jane Austen’s fiction demonstrates, albeit for a different level of society. I gave my heroine a mother with a rather shady background, a woman who had begun her adult life sold by her family into a form of prostitution, and ever alert for a good chance for her daughters to make their own fortunes. In other words, there were undoubtedly many young women who, whether by coercion or by choice, were willing to put up with a great many unpleasant things for the sake of marriage to a wealthy aristocrat.
But, people still protest, Phyllida likes it. This sounds a little too much like those Victorians who didn’t believe women could or should have sexual feelings, or the many people even now who don’t think that a woman can enjoy anal or oral sex. The fact that some women nowadays enjoy seeing men together means it’s highly unlikely that nobody two hundred years ago had the same feelings. I imagine the same basic things that turn people on now in front of the TV and computer were exciting people thousands of years ago around cave fires. Young people, especially those in the middle and upper classes, have always been told by their elders what they should and shouldn’t do, and many societies have told women (and men) what they should like and what they should not. But there are always some rebels who discover their tastes for themselves…
Of course, the one ingredient in this story essential to romance and often lacking in real life is honesty. We know that many gay men in the past made marriages of convenience to women; some more or less successfully, in the sense of producing children and not killing or divorcing each other; others less so. But it was unlikely that these men felt free or safe enough to be honest and open with their wives, or that many of these marriages developed into what we would recognize as a romance. In order for the possibility of love to exist in my contrived comic form, I needed my hero and heroine to be honest with each other from the start. For all the deceit and misunderstanding that occur subsequently, the only chance this gay-bisexual man and his wife have of finding love is to begin with honesty on his part and acceptance on hers. Whether this is any more or any less “realistic” than other conventions of the romance novel, I leave for readers to decide.
After I had finished writing Phyllida, I joined a listserv called RomanceScholar, for academics who study romance seriously as a form of popular fiction. At one point the topic of gay male romance written by women came up on the list, and there was a lot of discussion of why? Why did women write it? Why did they read it? One woman on the list said she couldn’t understand the appeal, because when she reads a love story with two male protagonists she misses the woman’s point of view. “Where is she?” she wonders. “Where am I?
Aha! I thought. Here’s one possible answer.
2. Getting published
But what now? I’d written this slashy, trashy, twisty, romantic-comedy thingy. Did I have a hope in hell of getting it published? I tried, going the slush-pile route first to publishing houses and editors, then to agents. After six months of rejections (about the average for writers’ breaking points), I decided to do print-on-demand. The upfront cost isn’t high and it’s a way to get the book out there.
The only interesting thing about my particular choice of POD company (AuthorHouse, one of the biggies) was the resistance I encountered to my “bisexual” story. My first submission of material, on CD, was mysteriously “lost,” along with a scan of my headshot I had gone to a great deal of trouble to have made. A second submission, by e-mail, was necessarily acknowledged as being received, as I was on the phone with a representative as I sent it. During the formatting process (there is no editing, copy or otherwise, unless you want to pay a penny a word or more on top of the basic fee—in my case, with a large book, over $1500), the technician brought up “words” and “phrases” of a “sexual nature” he had noticed. (This was a young man, as far as I could tell from his voice.) I pointed out to him that AuthorHouse had an Erotica category, with a large number of titles, and that my content was below the level of even soft-core. He actually denied it, although the category is right there on the company’s website for the public to search. (They also have a “Gay and Lesbian” category.) In all of these altercations, I simply brought up the fact that I had prepaid $500 for them to format and print my book, that it was neither hard-core porn nor hate speech (the only two things they won’t handle) and that if they wouldn’t print mine I would have my $500 back, please.
The POD went ahead, released in September of 2005.
Time passed. Phyllida sold perhaps 200 copies, the average for a self-published work. I don’t have much in the way of family, and just the few friends that a middle-aged, single writer has managed not to scare off. I did my best, although perhaps I might have done better if I were a Mormon or living in some sort of polyamorous society.
Exactly a year and a half later, in March 2007, I received an e-mail message on my website address from a young editor at HarperCollins asking if the rights were available. In a month or so, I had a contract for a small advance, and a year after that, at the end of April 2008, the HarperCollins edition was released. During that year, as people who have been published learn, the work of internal selling is going on. Junior editors are “selling” senior editors on the book’s potential appeal, categorizing it for easy sales pitches, and editorial is selling the in-house marketing and publicity staff, who will then go out to distributors and bookstores, fired up with enthusiasm for the forthcoming titles. This is how what was originally subtitled “a bisexual Regency romance” became “a novel.”
Oh, yes, there was some actual editing. But it was mostly copy editing (grammar, punctuation, and clarity), not content. Not one word of my original story was changed because of sexual content, and the story line was kept intact. There was a lot of discussion of anachronisms, because the book was going to be marketed as a historical novel rather than a romance. My original version had included a number of deliberate anachronisms, inspired especially by the similarities between the gay subculture of 1800 and my own memories of the 1970s. (Filled with the hubris of the unedited writer, I had imagined myself to be a new Tom Stoppard or Jasper Fford of The Eyre Affair, playing brilliantly with time and language). These anachronisms were changed to language more accurate for 1812. The only other difference from the POD version was that I wrote a new and improved History Essay (like an Author’s Note) for the back of the book.
I learned eventually that my editor had discovered the POD Phyllida on someone’s Amazon list of “fun reads.” He liked it because of the comedy and the writing style, as I had already seen during the process of writing the press kit materials, where I was encouraged to stress the comic aspects of the story and to stay away from the B-word. For him, the book’s writing style trumped any flaws of length and convoluted plot. During the copy editing process, my editor insisted he “liked it as it is,” and had chosen not to make any substantive changes.
So that’s how a “bisexual” romance sneaked into the mainstream. I often think a (dare I use the word?) “straightforward” gay male romance is less threatening, or at least clearer to many people. They get it, a lot of them, that two men might fall in love and want to spend their lives together. But the husband who gets to “have it both ways”? That’s scary and a little discomfiting, which is why I think it’s the perfect subject for comedy. Comedy makes us uncomfortable, and it’s highly subjective. What makes one person scream with laughter leaves another person scratching her head in bewilderment and a third person ready to punch the so-called comedian’s lights out.
It’s interesting to see that the few reviews I’ve received so far from the mainstream media have all been positive, and they all “get” both aspects of Phyllida as I had only dared hope: the romance and sympathetic characters; and the comedy-satirical side. Readers are another matter, as should be expected. I’ve had some wonderful reactions from people who love the story and identify with parts of it. I’ve been thanked by bisexual men for telling what is ordinarily considered to be a tragic situation as a love story. Many women of all orientations like the heroine, and are delighted with her sexual exuberance. And I’ve heard from some of the people who think the book is too long, the plot confusing, or that the whole damn thing, especially Phyllida herself, is stupid and trashy.
Well, now I know I’ve succeeded. If it turned out I pleased everybody I’d be lying awake nights asking myself where I went wrong.
June 10, 2008
Posted by ruthsims under history
Jeez, but this is an intimidating bunch of people! (g) I mean that in a good way. I don’t post often because everyone else has so much to say that is interesting, pithy, and intelligent and … well, actually that’s the reason I don’t blog much anywhere.
I was reading a bunch of recent posts and trying to catch up, when I noticed this (and, forgive me, I don’t remember who said it but I thought it was interesting):
“I think it’s the killing of one of the main characters that throws a story completely out of the romance genre.”
I think you’re right. Which will make it a puzzle how to classify my next book Counterpoint. It’s really a love story and the most romantic one I’ve ever done, but there is a main character who dies midway through. I tried rewriting it for many years to avoid having him die but in the end it was unavoidable. I would have saved myself a decade of frustration if I’d just listened to my Muse. (How’s that for sneaking in a reference to another thread?) I suppose if it’s ever published they’ll classify it as historical romance and then some romance reader will get mad at me because of the death.
I’ve been very much enjoying catching up on everyone’s comments!
Best to all.
author, The Phoenix
June 6, 2008
That’s quite a question and one I decided to have a go at answering because I’ve had short stories published in the Sci-fi and fantasy genre, and a couple of contemporaries. My latest submission was my first stab at a paranormal fantasy novel. I’ve given this question quite a bit of thought and I decided one of the first things I had to ask myself was: why do I like to write historical stories? I thought if I could answer that, maybe it would give at least half the answer to whether there is a difference. I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. It was just about the most enjoyable class for me in school and I used to ply the teacher with questions all the time. I’m one of those people who can remember dates, never know why but I was always very pleased that I could. It still bugs my husband now, he loves history too but he never seems to be able to remember dates:) Heck, I seem to be going off on a bit of a tangent here.
What I was trying to lead into was that because I like the subject it seemed the ideal jump off point when I wanted to write original characters – oh yes, like so many others have mentioned, I too started off writing fan fiction. However, in my case, my fandom wasn’t book based, it was TV and TV science fiction at that, yet when I wanted to write original fiction it never occurred to me to go that route.
The first two pieces I wrote were an historical novel and a novelette, and it was only while I was waiting for my first publication – chomping at the bit for it actually – that I decided to write another short story. However, this time, probably because of that impatient chomping, I wanted the immediacy of something I could produce with less effort and complication than writing an historical piece. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to get your basic facts right, I mean it would hardly do to have your spaceman open the airlock and not be in his spacesuit :)
However, what I really enjoy when writing science fiction, or fantasy, is that you can let your imagination run riot and you don’t have to worry if such a thing were possible during that era, or if a man might risk his life to make love to the man he desired above all else. I can paint a picture of a world where men can be together without risk, with acceptance, in fact without even a second thought and the only danger or risk in their lives comes from anything and everything but their sexuality. There is a freedom in that kind of writing that you don’t have when you need to research so much of what you want to put down on paper.
So, for me, it’s good to be able to have that freedom to write in easier worlds than the men of history faced. I suppose you could say that very freedom makes me appreciate the bravery and forbearance of those men from out of our past who were prepared to risk all for love. It makes me want to tell their story.
So, yes there is a difference but I’m not sure it really matters. There is a place in fiction for every genre out there, some people have more of a feel for one kind, others want to have a finger in every pie, and yet others simply want to experiment, to stretch themselves. Those authors who want to concentrate on writing historicals do so because they love the subject and the research necessary to write a good story is part of whole process and part of that love – and it shows through in the writing of a good historical novel.
June 5, 2008
Muse n.1 (Muse) Gk& Rom. Mythol.any of the goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. They were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, traditionally nine in number (Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Erato, Melpomene, Thalia, Polyhymnia, and Urania), though their functions and names vary considerably between different sources. 2 (usu. prec. by the) a a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman. b a poet’s genius or characteristic style.
I was – heh- musing on the subject of muses the other day. On a long drive down to the longhall my re-enactment society is building in Kent, I switched on the radio to discover a presenter interviewing a famous soprano.
My knowledge of opera is such that I had never heard of her and immediately forgot her name. However, the programme went on to explain that she had a composer whose music was written specifically for her to sing. This composer was invariably inspired by her voice – inspired to the extent that in a long career almost every piece of his work had been written specially with her voice in mind.
The presenter was evidently slightly awestruck and charmed by the idea that he was meeting a living muse. The soprano on the other hand did not like to think of herself that way, and preferred to think of it as a partnership in which the work of each of them inspired the other.
I come from a writing tradition where ‘the muses’ is used to mean the voices of the characters – usually the one character from whose POV the story is told. We speak of ‘our muses’ wanting us to tell one story or another, wanting us to illustrate their good points or their bad. Sometimes demanding that they be given more of a starring role, at other times stopping us in our tracks while they force us to write down a story it feels as though they’re dictating to us.
Although this doesn’t initially fit with either of the above dictionary definitions, I wonder if this is the modern interpretation of the voice of the goddess or the muse in sense 1.
We get to know our characters so much that they begin to lead a shadowy sort of independent life in our heads. I have, once or twice, had the experience of a character telling me ‘I am going to do this…’ and me going ‘no! No way! There’s no way you can get away with that!’ I have actually been shocked with what they come up with.
It’s a strange experience, to have characters you know you have created yourself suddenly start answering you back and refusing to obey you. When it happens, most writers rejoice. Like Dr. Frankenstein, watching the lightning crawl over his creation stitched together from a thousand corpses – watching it stir, begin to breathe, open its eyes – we cry ‘it’s alive!’ Possibly with the addition of a slightly manic laugh that makes the rest of the world sidle away, doubting our sanity.
In fact it’s an apt metaphor. We have stitched together this character from scraps – a model’s fine eyes, the nice things our husbands do on a good day, the annoying-but-funny habit from that woman we speak to on the train in the morning – and at some point the breath of life has mysteriously entered into this motley collection, fusing it into a real person.
Nowadays, post Freud and psychoanalysis, it is easy to accept that this almost miraculous coming to life is a product of our own subconscious. Having got enough dead details, our 90% unused hindbrain steps in, fits the pieces together, extrapolates what a person like this would behave like in other situations, and presents it – live and argumentative – to the surface of our minds. A wonderful feeling, but not in any way supernatural.
But now imagine what that would feel like if you had no concept of the subconscious. Pre-Freud. You’re a writer, an artist, a lyric poet, and you struggle with the words just as modern writers do. But every so often something – a breath of something mystical, unexplainable – brings your characters to life, whispers into your head thoughts higher and more complex than your own thoughts, presents fully made solutions to problems you had thought were insuperable.
No wonder they thought it was divine!
We are lucky – modern writers – when our words dry up and writer’s block comes on us, at least we have the comfort of knowing that everything we need for writing is within us and is unlikely to have suddenly left us. It must have been a thousand times worse for the writers of the past who believed they really were writers merely at the whim of a sometimes capricious goddess. We can do exercises to stimulate our minds, with the hope of dragging out our creativity from where it has gone to ground. They could not count on the goddess to stay, nor coax her back if she had decided to go. And every time she did abandon them, they must have felt ‘this could be the time she never returns.’
The thought of being at the mercy of genuinely supernatural forces for your creative inspiration reminds me of the debate I’ve been having with Ann Herendeen, over how much self-reflection/self knowledge the people of the past could have achieved without the apparatus of psychology. Imagine that you do not have a concept of the subconscious, and now picture those occasional berserker rages you can get when you feel lifted out of yourself or – if you’re not as violent as me – those moments where fear or joy seemed to come on you from the outside and overwhelm you.
Surely for the ancient pagan these must have been the voices of the gods – Woden, the god of rage and poetry, Hermes, the messenger, telling them something, acting through them. To a certain extent for them the more inspired they were, the less they themselves were acting. Something else worked through them, taking them up into the supernatural world, absolving them of personal responsibility. No wonder Homer’s battlefield was full of gods and goddesses. There too, in the exhaustion and stress of the battle, the warrior’s mental state would have been exalted, open to possession and inspiration.
As for the muse in sense 2: a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman, I will admit that it amuses me no end that yet again our language assumes that men are the only people in the world.
I say this because I have had several muses in sense two over the years, and they have been, without fail, men. Presumably the dictionary writer did not suspect that poets (or writers) could be women? Or that a woman could be inspired, by the mere existence of a particular man, to create art or literature.
Or perhaps it’s just that I’m weird?
Before I realized that my muse was in fact a muse, I would have had every sympathy with the soprano I was talking about earlier. I would have thought there was something slightly sordid about it. After all, so many of the great painters’ muses were also their mistresses, and there’s something so… incestuous about that.
And here I am, a straight woman, being inspired by young men? It doesn’t seem unlikely that there’s a sexual component in that. But what I can say is that that’s not what it feels like from the inside.
My current muse is an actor who is pleasant looking, but would never find his way onto the cover of a romance novel. What makes him a muse, for me, is the fact that he does not seem to be able to act a role that doesn’t light the ‘must tell a story!’ blue touch paper in my head. There are undoubtedly better looking men out there. There are possibly better actors. But I don’t know of anyone else who can act a minor role in a soap opera in such a way that I suddenly need to write a book.
I have no desire to get to know this bloke at all. On a personal level I would prefer him to remain a complete stranger, but something about him triggers my creativity. And this is – to me – much more of a mystery than the way the characters come alive, or the plots shake themselves and suddenly make sense. That’s all inside my head, but this, this free gift of inspiration, or dependency, depending on how you look at it, isn’t. I am as enthralled – literally in thrall – as Dante to his Beatrice, and I don’t know whether to accept it gratefully or resent the fact that I’m not complete unto myself. (Not that I’m comparing the quality of my output to Dante! If only!)
Of course, there is always the possibility that I am simply weird. This article in the New York Times certainly seems to proceed from the idea that muses are always female:
But although I write about a time when that might have been true, I’m also a modern, feminist, female writer of gay love stories. I believe in equality between the sexes. Surely it’s entirely appropriate in that case to stand the tradition on its head and to have a male muse? Can inspiration really only come in one gender? Am I honestly the only one?
June 2, 2008
Expectations riding on a generation of young Englishmen are immense; for those who’ve something to hide, those expectations could prove overwhelming.
When shy Edward Easterby first sees the popular Hugo Lamont, he’s both envious of the man’s social skills and ashamed of finding him so attractive. But two awful secrets weigh Lamont down. One is that he fancies Easterby, at a time when the expression of such desires is strictly illegal. The second is that an earlier, disastrous encounter with a young gigolo has left him unwilling to enter into a relationship with anyone. Hugo feels torn apart by the conflict between what he wants and what he feels is “right”. Will Edward find that time and patience are enough to change Hugo’s mind?
Lord Robert Scoville has lived in a reasonably comfortable Victorian closet, without hope of real love, or any notion that it’s right there in front of him if he would only open his eyes and take notice of his right-hand man, Jack Darling. Jack has done his best to be satisfied with the lesser intimacy of caring for the man he loves, but his feigned role as a below-stairs ladies’ man leaves his heart empty. When a simple diplomatic errand turns dangerous and a man from their past raises unanswerable questions, both men find themselves endangered by the secrets between them. Can they untangle the web of misunderstanding before an unknown attacker parts them forever?
Hard and Fast
Major Geoffrey Chaloner has returned, relatively unscathed, from the Napoleonic War, and England is at peace for the first time in years. Unable to set up his own establishment, he is forced to live with his irascible father who has very clear views on just about everything—including exactly whom Geoffrey will marry and why. The trouble is that Geoffrey isn’t particularly keen on the idea, and even less so when he meets Adam Heyward, the enigmatic cousin of the lady his father has picked out for him… As Geoffrey says himself: “I have never been taught what I should do if I fell in love with someone of a sex that was not, as I expected it would be, opposite to my own.”
From Josh Lanyon, author of Adrien English Mysteries
“Dashing spies, bold Regency bucks, and the flower of English manhood vie for readers’ attention in this smart, original and engaging trilogy.This is not your mother’s historical romance!”
Aftermath by Charlie Cochrane
Easterby laid his hand on Hugo’s shoulder, not knowing any words that he could share. He felt that he should be making some wise pronouncement either to offer comfort or to persuade Lamont that all his guilt and distaste was stupid, but he’d no idea what would work in either case. By accident he hit upon exactly what Hugo required; not gabbling words or advice, pious or otherwise, but a quiet companionship. All the comfort that Hugo needed, he found in that light touch upon his back; all the counsel that he sought was in the gentle breath playing upon his cheek. After a moment or two, he looked up at Edward and smiled wanly as if he was broken in heart and spirit. “I know it’s a simple choice, but it’s one I can’t make. Part of me says I should say farewell here and now, taking myself away from you and all the temptation you bring. And the other half says you’re the thing I treasure most in all the world and I should just stay with you and risk everything.” He shrugged and merely patted Easterby’s back. “I’m sorry. It’s me. I’m hopeless and that’s all there is to it.”
Edward remembered all the college stories about Lamont that he’d heard when he first come up to Cranmer—Lamont being held up as the shining example, the man that all other men should aspire to. Seeing him so distraught, so lacking in any confidence in his own powers, was untenable. “You’re not hopeless. Far from it.” He tried to catch Hugo’s eye. “It’ll be all right. It will.” The words sounded so vapid, so utterly useless, but somehow they sparked a slightly happier smile from Lamont.
Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan
Jack said nothing. He didn’t dare. The truth was stirring in him like a living thing, but he simply did not know what to say. No, he wasn’t mistaken. I would love to have you take advantage of me! That would hardly do. In fact, he was grateful for his lordship’s integrity. How wretched it would have been to serve under an officer who expected sexual favors, if the attraction were not mutual.
But was it mutual? Jack could not deny what he himself felt. And hope stirred again, a tenuous thread of possibility. A man who would not take advantage might be exercising self-restraint, not indifference. Did he dare speak?
Lord Robert was still fuming, oblivious to Jack’s dilemma. “He must have thought me absurdly naïve. I suppose I was. It had never occurred to me that anyone would stoop so low as to make such an assumption about me. Or about you!” He looked up, his eyes full of some unspoken emotion. Anger? Guilt? “My dear fellow, I am deeply sorry. You must believe I never intended to subject you to anything like that. I can’t do a damned thing about my own nature, and I’m grateful beyond words for your tolerance. I had no idea you would be offered such an insult.”
“Insult, my lord?” Jack’s chest felt tight, and his heart was suddenly pounding. Here it was, then—the chance of fulfillment or the destruction of all he had come to know.
“That you were my—that I would—” Lord Robert flung a hand into the air, helplessly.
“The only insult Captain McDonald offered,” Jack said carefully, “was the assumption that I would be willing to lie with him.”
It was Lord Robert’s turn to hesitate. “I’m not certain I understand.”
Their eyes met once more, and Jack could not look away. “He was not mistaken about my nature.” And, since at this point there could be no going back, he added, “Nor my feelings for you.”
Hard and Fast by Erastes
I stepped forward to him. “Your nature,” I said, between gritted teeth, “has been nothing but unnatural since the first moment we met.”
He didn’t move a muscle, didn’t take his eyes from mine; for all his apparent fragility, he certainly didn’t appear to be intimidated by me.
“Perhaps,” he said, almost idly, as if he weren’t being towered over by a furious and insulted major, “it takes one to know one.” It was as if our intimacy had not taken place and we were swapping insults in a card room.
I grabbed him then, with hands long schooled to denial; not to take what they wanted, not to fire at civilians, not to touch what it should not touch. I crushed him to me; I heard his cane fall to the floor and felt him waver in my arms as he struggled to support himself. All this in a moment, and all I had registered from him was the sudden intake of breath. No complaints, no barbed wit, no exultation—nothing that I had expected.
I felt nothing of the giddiness I had heard poets sing about. I felt like Hercules, his last task completed. I felt fierce and victorious, swept away with the madness of the moment. His hair was against my cheek, the scents that had haunted my dreams were more real and more delicious than I had remembered. He clung to me; his right arm around my neck for support, his left arm snaked around my waist. I shuddered in pleasure as he turned his face a little and his skin touched my face. Gooseflesh sprung around all over my body as he touched my cheek with his lips.
There was no thought in what happened next; I remember every second of it, but I remember most clearly of all that I made no decisions in my actions. Everything I did was ordained …