GAY PSYCHOLOGY, EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE
Alex Beecroft’s last post, on Romance vs. Research, leads neatly into this topic. From discussing historical factual research, such as shoe buckles and weevils in ships biscuit, she progresses to something intangible and hard to define: the question of people’s beliefs, outlooks and attitudes in the past—their psychology. Beecroft rightly points out that we don’t want to create fictional characters who are merely modern people in costume, that we need to give our historical characters appropriate ways of thinking for their time. But I wonder how much we can know of people’s inner lives in the past, or whether we can know at all.
During most of the recent past, few people wrote memoirs as we define the term, or were deeply introspective on paper. And chances were, if they did leave anything revealing behind, a relative or friend had the presence of mind to destroy it. Even if nothing scandalous was recorded, it was nobody’s business. Privacy was all-important; self-knowledge merely vanity.
As writers, we have to extrapolate from the facts, which often means choosing between two diverging paths of interpretation. We know that in most previous centuries the level of infant and child mortality was high. But what did this mean for people’s emotional lives? Did parents stoically accept the deaths of their children, perhaps even shrug off the losses as a common occurrence? Or did most parents live in a constant state of grief and mourning? An article in The New York Times comparing modern Americans’ health and vital statistics with those of their Civil War (1860s) ancestors, brought out a remarkable finding: not only did most 19th-century people die in their 50s and 60s, but many relatively young people lived with painful undiagnosed or untreatable ailments. Rheumatism, arthritis, heart and lung disease, hernias and a host of unknown complaints—the sort of misery we wouldn’t put up with for five minutes—was the chronic condition for the majority of adults only a hundred and fifty years ago. But how did this affect their outlook on life? Did they consider their lives wretched? Or could they not imagine a different way of existence?
No, it’s not the facts that are missing; it’s the insight. Anybody trying to get a sense of how people thought in the past comes up against the almost complete lack of reflection. People confessed their misbehavior in diaries (like Samuel Pepys’) in meticulous, often coded detail, and wrote encyclopedic volumes of letters dissecting every social event, stray remark and shortcoming of friends, relatives and acquaintances over a long, verbose life. But too much concern with oneself was just…wrong. It was like cheating at cards or spitting in front of ladies. A gentleman (or a lady) didn’t do that. Most people of every class didn’t do that. It wouldn’t have occurred to them.
One of the oddest innovations of the modern world, the byproduct of our exposure to the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, is our acceptance of constant, routine self-analysis. Not only do we ask probing questions of ourselves, but we discuss them endlessly with each other and keep journals and blogs for fear a waking moment should go by without our striving to understand ourselves better, and we keep dream diaries, searching for clues to what’s going on in our sleeping brains.
We are so accustomed to the idea of hashing over our every thought and emotion that we can’t imagine a time when people didn’t. People a mere two or three hundred years ago couldn’t be fundamentally different from us—could they? But it can be astonishing how “other” they can appear. When we read Samuel Pepys’ account, totally lacking in irony, of beating his boy servant—a child of perhaps ten—so hard and for so long that Pepys was only forced to stop because he hurt his own hand; when we see the 1742 portrait of the young Thomas, Baron Mansell, shotgun and dead partridge in one hand, his other hand holding his blind half sister’s, their fingers touching over the bird’s bloody wound, we know we’re dealing, on a psychological level, with some very different people, or at least people who haven’t spent hours on the analyst’s couch.
Once we get into the subject of gay historical fiction, the question becomes even more complicated. Sometimes it seems as if we can only speculate, and it’s not easy to know when we’re simply projecting out own outlook onto our characters. The facts are grim: capital crimes leading to threats of blackmail and arrests; suicides, emigration, hangings, the pillory and jail; lives ruined or led in fearful secrecy. Combine repressive laws with our instinctive feeling that people’s basic psychology hasn’t changed in the past two hundred years, and we can come up with some pretty depressing stories. Most of us, and certainly a comic novelist like me, can’t work with characters who are so severely demoralized as to be incapable of romantic feelings or heroic acts, or lack the self-confidence to be witty, sexy and brave on occasion. But can we justify any other way of being—and thinking—for our historical characters?
Many people I speak to about my work wonder aloud whether gay people existed in the past at all. The idea that there were not only self-identified “sodomites” or “mollies,” but that they had a vibrant, thriving subculture usually comes as a big surprise. If we set our story in 1700 or later, we can be true to the period while allowing our heroes, at least those who lived in a large city, to recognize their same-sex feelings for what they are and to identify, in a very modern sense, with a community, not just an individual relationship or sexual act. Once we establish that there was a gay identity similar to the modern one, many readers might logically assume that “gay” men of 1790 thought about their “sexual orientation” in the same way as gay men of 1990 did. But the world of 1790 was not much like the world of 1990—or 2008—and I’m not convinced the inhabitants of that world looked at it the same way we look at ours.
Alan Bray, in Homosexuality in Renaissance England, writes of a time, before the late seventeenth century, when the urge to have sex with one’s own kind was seen as natural to men. Men are superior to women; it is only to be expected a man will prefer another man. But “natural” didn’t equate with “right.” The urge was sinful, and must be suppressed. This attitude continued to find adherents well into the eighteenth century. Rictor Norton quotes a letter-writer to the newspaper who complains that if sodomy were not strongly punished, all men would choose it over marriage to women and the human species would go extinct. So, if we’re writing of a gay man in 1600 or even 1650, we might decide that he saw himself as having a strong natural, if sinful, urge that he must conceal, but was not really different from other men.
By 1700, Bray writes, “what had once been thought of as a potential in all sinful human nature had become the particular vice of a certain kind of people, with their own distinctive way of life.” This was the molly subculture so thoroughly documented by Norton. There’s a much more modern feel to this world, and it seems logical that our gay characters might have shared some of our own existential or at least psychological worries when faced with brutal, repressive laws that criminalized their natural sexual expression. Did they hate themselves? Deny their sexuality? Or did they swagger boldly through life defying the authorities, ending up on the gallows and shouting, “Kiss my arse,” before submitting to the hangman’s noose? Amusing as that last choice is, it’s highly improbable, difficult to justify for writers of realistic fiction. But it’s not immediately clear from what we see of the historical record that the first two are much better.
Reading of the men who committed suicide and those who felt the need to emigrate, it’s easy to conclude that they were the broken, demoralized people I rejected as desirable heroes for my writing. But is this the right way to see them? We know today that many suicides occur, not because a person wants to die or thinks he deserves to be dead: it’s simply that he can’t find another solution to his problem. Tragic as these stories are, they’re not proof that these men hated themselves. They were victims, but they defended themselves the only way they could.
And the emigrés—well, they were the ones with enough money to say “The law be damned” and live abroad on their own terms. William Beckford, who spent years in Portugal, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about homosexual scandals, making sympathetic notes in the margins on the “poor sods.” James Ogilvy, 7th Earl of Findlater, who spent most of his life in what are now Germany and Austria, was “outed” at his death in 1811 by his relatives, not for reasons of morality but for his estates worth 40,000 pounds a year, which he had left to his lover. These are the men saying, “Kiss my arse,” as they board the boat and watch the White Cliffs of Dover fade in the distance.
What about the majority of men, the ones not wealthy enough to live abroad? Surely these men were timid, cautious, even depressed or downright miserable a lot of the time. This is where I think we as writers have to make an imaginative leap of faith. Yes, the laws criminalized some sex acts between men. Yes, a man could be hanged if convicted of committing “sodomy” (anal sex) with another man. Yes, even if penetration couldn’t be proved, he could be pilloried, fined and imprisoned—almost a death sentence for anyone frail, old or just unlucky—for “attempted sodomy.” He could be arrested for being in a molly house during a raid, or for walking in a known cruising spot and being accosted by a mugger who could then accuse his victim of being a sodomite. And yes, he could be investigated, blackmailed, informed on, his life ruined, just for living in his own house with his boyfriend, bothering nobody.
But…here’s the interesting part: we know this because men did do all these things. They went to molly houses and danced and drank and had sex with other men. They visited the streets and parks and public toilets frequented by men looking for casual sex. They bought men drinks in taverns and went upstairs with them to private rooms; they hooked up with soldiers and sailors; and they lived with their boyfriends and didn’t get married (to women). We know this because some of them were arrested and put on trial and we can read the records.
And when we read the testimony, very little of it sounds like intimidated, miserable suicidal losers. Some of these men were ignorant of the law, but most were, like most of us, just hoping that they won’t get the speeding ticket this time, that the employer won’t check to see if I really have that Ph.D. from Harvard, and that a tube of mascara in my bag won’t set off the alarm, and besides, the checkout line is so damn long and so slow, I shouldn’t have to pay for this overpriced junk anyway. Yes, the stakes were much higher for the mollies, but when we look at all the drunk-driving fatalities today we can see that risk-taking hasn’t disappeared from our psychology; it’s just moved into other arenas.
In most of the past, as now, people did what they had to or what they could, or, occasionally, if they were very fortunate indeed, what they wanted to. If it was illegal or dangerous or sinful, they made some sort of mental adjustment. Many obvious dangers (to us) like drinking unfiltered water without boiling it first, or being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitoes, or going horseback riding without wearing a helmet were either unavoidable or not perceived as dangerous. Life was dangerous—and violent—in the past to a degree unimaginable to us. Even the concept of sin could be construed in various ways, like our modern, “It’s wrong in general but right for me.” Sex outside of marriage was a sin, but there were far more female brothels in any large city two and three hundred years ago than now.
Another factor to consider is how astonishingly (to us) naïve many people were about basic sexual acts. The eighteenth-century physician telling of his patient who contracted a sexually–transmitted disease from being fellated by another man—who did it by choice—has the same breathless, semi-apologetic tone as today’s gullible friend who passes on every e-mail urban legend and Internet scam. “Yes, I know it sounds incredible, but I heard it with my own ears.” The modern mind, sexually overexposed from early childhood, reels. But this was the emotional and sexual universe our characters inhabited. George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman books, put an excellent example of this dissonance in the first novel, when the antihero narrator relates his future wife’s pleasurable loss of her virginity. “Was that what the minister means when he talks of fornication?” she asks afterward. Told that it is, she wonders, “Why has he such a down on it?”
Norton makes a compelling argument that the increasing number of raids and arrests as the eighteenth century progressed and into the nineteenth was due, not to a growing population of “mollies,” or more molly houses, but to the public’s greater awareness that homosexuality existed. The sixteenth century and most of the seventeenth saw very few prosecutions. Of course gay men existed before 1700; they simply had not yet developed a visible culture. As Bray tells us, after the Buggery Act (1533) was established during the Protestant Reformation (part of Henry VIII’s campaign to give the secular court prominence over the ecclesiastical court), the crime of “sodomy” came to be associated by lawmakers, and in the popular imagination, with witchcraft, treason and heresy. But on the individual level, who in his right mind would connect his loving friendships or simple lusts of the body with such demonic offenses? Throughout the next 150 years, as the gay subculture developed, I doubt many gay men lost much sleep over where they belonged in the witchcraft-treason-heresy-sodomy continuum.
When I set out to write this post, I was convinced that gay men of the Georgian era were freer psychologically before the mid-nineteenth century’s “medicalization” of homosexuality, in Norton’s phrase. Being a criminal or outlaw sounds less emotionally damaging than suffering from mental illness. A pirate or a highwayman can be glamorous, a popular hero; someone who’s sick is a patient at best, more likely a lunatic, or a bedlamite—or just pathetic. But as I reread Bray and Norton’s work, I changed my mind. Sodomites were never admired like highwayman; they were despised by the mob and treated worse than other offenders. Each era characterized the “problem” of homosexuality appropriately for its own way of viewing the world. As the dark, religion-dominated seventeenth century gave way to the Enlightenment, so sodomy moved from being a sin to “just” a crime. By the later nineteenth century, with the recognition of how natural homosexuality was in a biological sense, it seemed more humane to call it a disease, a condition beyond the sufferer’s control, rather than a sin or a crime, behavior that a sinner or criminal could change.
And so it is with gay “psychology” in the past. There can’t be one answer that fits all; neither diverging path of interpretation is always Right or always Wrong. Some parents mourned their dead children and sank into despair; others conceived more babies, and hoped. Some of the young sick people took on the persona of the “invalid;” others soldiered on uncomplaining. Some gay men internalized society’s views; many others accepted their sexual orientation as innate, perhaps even reveled in it. Norton cites examples throughout the eighteenth century and on into the twentieth of men who knew themselves to be gay and ignored the attempts by religious leaders, lawyers, judges, doctors and psychologists to “explain” what was as natural as breathing. As William Brown, arrested in 1726 and facing ruin, said at his trial, “I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”
Creating gay historical characters and writing queer historical romance gives us the perfect opportunity to do what novelists do, what writing fiction is all about: make stuff up. When I first set out to discover what the gay world of 1800 was like, I never in a million years expected to find that precursor of the late 1970s disco age I encountered in Rictor Norton’s work. Maybe his interpretation is slanted by his agenda of gay empowerment. Or maybe not. But I believed it. I hope, in my writing, to do a good enough job that I can make my readers suspend their disbelief, disregard the prejudices of the modern world, whatever they are, and convince them, for the length of the book, that this is how it was.
Alan Bray’s work, He published “Homosexuality in Renaissance” England back in 1982.
Rictor Norton’s website:
I also used his out-of-print “Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830.”. There’s a new edition out last year.
Another source I like is the glbtq encyclopedia: