When people ask me what I write, I usually say: “Penny dreadfuls. But they cost more than a penny and aren’t dreadful.”

A historian might point out that this statement is not really correct (and some may argue that, indeed, my writing is quite dreadful), because penny dreadfuls firmly belong in the 19th century, while I aim for an 18th century feeling. Amandine de Villeneuve’s woodcut-like illustrations for my books are in the style of the 18th century, too. And in the 18th century, it was the chapbook that ruled the readership.

Penny dreadfuls were stories published in parts over a course of several weeks, costing one penny each. And for that, the 19th century teenager got Adventure! Drama! Swordfighting! Highwaymen! Pirates! Vampires! A damsel in distress! Spring-heeled Jack and Knights of the Road!

The Victorians did a pretty thorough job at cleaning up the act of the “Penny Merriments”. There was also a shift in the readership. While chapbooks had been read by all ages and classes, penny dreadfuls were mostly aimed at male teenagers with a working class background.

The origins of the chapbook can be tracked back as early as the 1600s, and it could be just about anything from religious pamphlet to printed gallows speech to folk tale to coverage of the Great Fire of London. The natural lifespan of a chapbook was short; due to its very poor paper- and print-quality, it usually ended as toilet paper. It was intended for quick consumption and disposal. As a consequence, much of our knowledge is guesswork. Luckily, Samuel Pepys was an avid collector, so at least a few copies survived the centuries. His collection is held at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

Given the nature of many chapbooks, it’s not surprising that Samuel Pepys, naval administrator, diarist and Lothario was so fond of them.  To quote Steve from “Coupling”:  “When man invented fire, he didn’t say, “Hey, let’s cook.”  He said, “Great, now we can see naked bottoms in the dark!” As soon as Caxton invented the printing press, we were using it to make pictures of, hey, naked bottoms!”

Some months ago, the national press reported of a rare and exciting find:

STASH OF ‘SAUCY’ LITERATURE UNCOVERED AT HISTORIC LAKE DISTRICT HOUSE

“They often contained rather saucy and even rude tales, which were found to be very amusing by their 18th century readers.”

Here’s an excerpt from “The Crafty Chambermaid”, dating back to 1770; the tale of a chambermaid who tricks a young man into marrying her/of a London merchant who tries to romantically pursue a chambermaid (it depends on one’s point of view, I suppose…)

The Merchant he softly crept into the room,
And on the bedside he then sat himself down,
Her knees through the Counterpane he did embrace,
Did Bess in the pillow did hide her sweet face.

He stript of his cloaths and leaped into bed
Saying now lovely creature for thy maidenhead,
She strug led and strove and seemed to be shy
He said divine beauty I pray now comply.

Love and lust, presented in a raunchy, saucy and rude manner – what sells today also sold back in the 18th century. From erotic to pornographic: the chapbook catered to a great variety of needs and interests. And as this is the Macaronis-blog, the question begs to be asked: were there chapbooks with gay, lesbian or bisexual content as well?

Answer: as with so many details in history, we can only guess. There are some indications that such content was published, but one has to read between the lines, and there’s a significant difference in the way same-sex experiences were portrayed: what might have been acceptable for women was absolutely taboo for men.

Sexuality between women often featured in heterosexual erotica and pornography. However, this wasn’t a portrayal of sexual orientation, it wasn’t about lesbian or bisexual women: the ladies would always end up with the dashing hero in the end. The stories left no doubt that they were 100% heterosexual, and any same-sex experience only served the purpose of preparing a woman for “the real thing”, as an introduction to sexuality and preparation for her future (male) lover, often with the help of a more experienced woman.

In her book “Lascivious Bodies – A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century”***, Julie Peakman writes:

“Thus, in erotica, the reader is guided through the rules of sexual initiation in a three-stage process: masturbation, lesbian sex and, finally, heterosexual intercourse.”

Women were expected to be loving and affectionate, so being loving and affectionate in public was normal. Correspondence between women that we’d think to be “love letters” today were not unusual. Society would often turn a blind eye when it came to very close friendships which may or may not have been of a sexual nature as well, especially if the ladies were discrete. The case was different for women who tried to wear the breeches (especially if those were equipped with artificial “yards”!) and threatened the superior status of men in society, though. But that’s for another day and article.

Now, even if scenes of lesbian sex were written with the erotic imagination of male readers in mind, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they were consumed and enjoyed by female readers as well. In any case it was much easier for a woman to get her hands on such content than for a man to find erotica involving male-male sex.

Homosexual men – “sodomites” – were almost universally despised. In the hierarchy of society, they were at the very bottom. Sodomy was a crime punishable by death, so it would have been very risky to publish erotic material which portrayed male-male love in a positive light.  “The most detestably sin of buggery” was sometimes brought up in a satirical way, but the connotation was always negative.

However – where there are customers, there are suppliers. Morals are good, but so is money. If a business could be made, it was very likely made, though not in public. An underground press for homosexual erotica – why not? After all, there was a potential audience. No matter how harsh the punishments and how determined the guardians of public virtue were in the prosecution of gay men: they still met, they still loved, they still had sex.

And if one looks at the professions of those “sodomites” who were brought to court, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if we’d learn one day that, among the butchers and blacksmiths and clerks and furniture makers, there also were a typesetter and printer who weren’t caught…

*** Review to follow.

We have to acknowledge that in this day and age – as it has forever been – beauty matters. Our definition of beauty is based on the media saturation which we are bombarded with on a daily basis. For instance, the idea of tanned = gorgeous has only appeared recently — it would stand to reason that with all the lead-based paints and powder that was used, pale was beautiful as it indicated that you had no need to stand about in the sun all day. As a society, we perceive people who have traits which we consider admirable: self restraint, indefatigable dedication to an idea, sacrifice to epitomise the current standards of beauty – mirrored so closely in the way we view the working world. So we end up with the size zero models and body-builders with ripped stomachs and veined arms as a societal idea.

Personally, all that leaves me completely cold. I find the rabid insistence in gay stories – but most especially gay historical – that people should conform to the current societal archetype of beauty slightly mad. Let’s be honest, it is not ALL that likely we see the majority of people conform to this ideal – if we did, it would be damn unlikely to be an aspiration! I like to see real people in books – be they consumptive clerks with weak arms and eyes from peering over the books all day, be they well-upholstered married aristocrats whose only exercise is taken between the front door and the handsome cab. While a cavalry solider would have a fantastic rear-end and muscled thighs, and depending on his weapons a certain amount of muscular development in the shoulders and back (Medieval knights looked like Props in rugby – muscle upon muscle with a massive amount of shoulder and neck development to support all the armour and thick solid waists to enable them both to shift and move and to take the impact of a swords’-blow).

black-knight

why yes, that is a plastic knigget on a my little pony

Of course, lacking a tardis, I can’t go back in time and drag examples of said bodies to parade before you. And – as any artist knows – when one is being painted, one likes to be flattered – so I can’t really tell you that the painted historical record holds true of anything other than the upper-class archetypical view (think of today, you’d think we’re all size 0 if you believed Cosmo), but what it can do, with a bit of extrapolation, is provide a basis for what was revered, and the obvious counterpoint of what was the norm.

For the time periods, I’m shamelessly nicking the structure of “The List” from Speak Its Name. If perchance you’re a new Macaroni (fresh-mac? mini-mac?) you may want to go and check out this fantastic and pretty exhaustive list of MM fiction here: http://speakitsname.com/the-list/

By virtue of available and accessible historical documentation, a lot of this going to be western-centric. Note that this is a VERY ROUGH OVERVIEW and is taking the overarching concept rather than the nitty details.

CAVEAT: This deals with beauty in the ideal form, and what was admired as can be extrapolated through art. This therefore, while based in fact, does have a certain amount of interpretation, so feel free to discuss. However (as always) discussion should pertain to the point of this, which is a holistic overview of beauty rather than the detailed nuances. If people find this interesting, I may do a post on how jobs/circumstances affected musculature which would have changed how people were actually built and how they would have looked — as Alex Beecroft pointed out — sailors for instance would have had amazing upper body strength but relatively undeveloped lower bodies from all their wandering up and down the rigging (I am sure there is a technical term for that).

ANCIENT WORLD

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A youth - Roman Statue from Tripoli

Statue of Hermes with Dionysus -- Greek

In the ancient world, transport and war were both pursuits carried out predominantly on foot and with an emphasis on speed. Between this and the idealisation of young men, it is therefore relatively obvious that the idealised young man would be one who was lightly muscled, had low body fat, and was developed in an equal fashion across his body. He had only light armour — if any — and so did not require a heavy shoulder musculature to keep weighty armour up. The advent of the Olympics as a trial for men (as well as the ‘unspeakable vice of the Greeks’) fed into this perception of male beauty. Note that while these statues are both lightly defined, there are no striations or veins that would be the hallmark of a body builder. Instead the physique is of someone who improves themselves through normal pursuits.

DARK AGES

rugby-player-cameron-6-742x1024Shoulder musculature – really.

Plate Armour

Now, besides this being a post for me to wave about half-dressed rugby players (YAY!) and write the word “Knigget”, there is a serious point on the musculature of people who wore plate or chain mail armour, as did the Knights in the Dark Ages. The weight of the armour hung about the neck, as illustrated above. Now, while they were on a horse, this was probably not so much of a problem, but just think about moving around in that weight, in that heat, swinging a clunking great sword with all that pulling down on your shoulders. No bloody wonder a knight needed pages — they were built like – if you pardon my French – a brick shithouse, and had the same ability to move!

MIDDLE AGES

carvaggio1

A youth by Caravaggio

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Detail of Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio

This was a time when there was little to eat, the peasants were being pushed on all sides –by their Lords and their Churches, who needed their tithes, and to support the great peregrinations such as those of Henry VIII (such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold) and with the massed court that travelled with them. Between this and the incessant feudal and national wars meant that the average person was unlikely to be very well nourished. One therefore finds that the style of masculine beauty tends to an almost angelically clear and smooth skin, with a slight fleshiness that belies poverty.

RENAISSANCE

Hand of Michaelangelo's David, Florence4

Detail of David's Hand - Michaelanglo

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David - Michaelangelo

The renaissance was — as the name suggests — an obvious return to classical ideals. Great founts of knowledge were springing up, and the old Greco-Roman notions of patronage and taking someone under your wing (with all that entailed) reared up again. There was a near-worship for creation, for genesis. This ideal of young, male beauty was pulled to the fore, both because it suited classical ideals, and because some of the easiest models for a master artist to get their hands on were their young male apprentices. We can see from the statue to the side, though, that while there is greater definition than in the Middle Ages, it is nothing that someone who was able to do a great deal of physical labour would not have. Note the lack of striae on David’s stomach, and then contrast that with the detail of his hand — it is not that there was an accepted fluidity in the portrayal that allowed details to be glossed over. Rather, the six-pack did not exist in the idea of fundamental male beauty.

17th CENTURY

17th century dress a

17th Century Dress

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Louis XIV

We now move onto the 17th century where it became one’s duty is to look prosperous and well fleshed in clothing. Observe the way the coats on the 17th Century dress patterns are strained. It is quite difficult to find 17th century statues without clothing — this was the era of empire building , and the idea of nudity became associated not with the cleanliness of the Renaissance, but with the savages of the new world. There was a duty in the western world — promoted both by church and state — to show one’s superiority, which was greatly fetishized in the ridiculous accoutrements which denoted statues (see sumptuary laws). One’s body appears to have become wither a tool, or something shameful. This is one of those periods in history where you’d be more likely to consider the fact that someone is well fleshed as a positive thing.

18th CENTURY

macaroni_uwm_edu

Macaroni!

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Regency Family

The eighteenth century was very much a continuation of the same morals and ideas promulgated in the 17th, as the scope and vastness of the empires grew, but the essential avariciousness behind them didn’t. A Highly formalised pragmatism came to be seen in male dress, while women were very much idealised as ethereal virgins. In response to the growing middle class being able to ape the fashions of the elite, the dress of some members of society who were able do the Grand Tour took to aping the more outlandish continental fashions of the day. Contemporary sources cite the macaronis as being those completely jaded by life — it sounds like Pratchett got it right when he parodied it as The Grand Sneer. From a physical point of view, as the paintings show, there was still an appreciation of people being well fleshed to indicate prosperity.

19th CENTURY

brummel

Beau Brummel

dandy

Another Dandy

The 19th century was dominated by the rise of the middle class. A differentiation both in dress and in physical characteristics was therefore required. Enter the concept of the dandy — a much more subdued offshoot of the macaronis. With the idea of being beautiful for beauty’s sake, the ideals of the dandy went back to those of the renaissance. But *grin* with a little bit of help, it was in this century that the Cumberland corset etc. became common wear for men to create that pinched-waisted look that was so prized and the mark of a man who had to do nothing for his money but exist. The men shown epitomise this physical aspect, it is almost effete and feminine, which would mean they’d have little time to build muscle — that was the preserve of those who had to work for a living.

‘I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood



That ladette of the Royal Navy (movie “Carry On Jack”)

It usually starts with the question “… and what are you writing about?”

I’ll reply “historical gay romance” to keep it short. Actually, I write historical adventure with supernatural elements and gay romance. However, “romance” is all people hear, and they immediately wrinkle their noses. They think of the novelettes about handsome rich doctors and beautiful poor nurses you can buy at the newsagents. Or of a 800 page novel with a cover showing a half-naked damsel in distress, kneeling in front of Fabio with a torn shirt. To them, romance is icky. It’s not intellectual. It’s written by women wearing fedoras and read by women with no career or too much time at hand. Romance is the equivalent to stepping barefoot on a slug.

Once they learn that my stories are set in the 18th century and the main characters are serving in the Royal Navy, things get pear shaped. Accusations of “supporting imperialism and war crimes” are thrown around. The 18th century, so I’ve been told, can’t be used as background for any romance because it was a brutish age full of injustice, and placing a loving couple right in the middle of it would be far too frivolous.

Darn it, there go Aimée and Jaguar.

(more…)

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