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.

There are the facts in the history books, and then there’s the fiction in my books. That’s the basic problem I have as an author – establishing a balance between the two. I’m a bit of a perfectionist; if I write a story set aboard a ship of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, I want the setting, the language and the characterisations to be as historically correct as possible. But there’s a group of people I’m not allowed to forget in my navy-induced euphoria: my readers! Some of them would appreciate a book written in the language of the 18th century, or lengthy descriptions of uniforms; they’d greatly enjoy tons of naval terms and information regarding a purser’s handling of payments and book-keeping.

But the majority wouldn’t. I write to entertain (myself and my readers), and I can’t expect the audience to buy three lexica, four guides and a special edition of The Young Officer’s Sheet Anchor just to understand what the hell I’m talking about. My work must be understandable. It’s a difficult balance act to find the right words and terms to keep the characters and their actions in the correct timeframe but not bore the readers out of their skulls. And don’t say that couldn’t happen – it happens faster than you think! Yesterday I went through a chapter I’ve been very proud of, only to realise that, from a reader’s point of view, it was about as exciting as an article about the mating rites of dung beetles. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t folks out there who would find great pleasure in the love-life of bugs, but – you know what I mean. The chapter had to go.

Too much realism or historical accuracy can ruin my work. I write historical naval adventure with supernatural elements and male/male romance, not a history book or a naval manual. Reading about a supper the heroes enjoy is probably more enjoyable than the details of the food’s contents. Of course, no Age of Sail story without mentioning weevils at least once, but personally, I draw the line at whipworms, hookworms and pinworms. It’s great if a reader thinks at the end of the story “Mmmm, now wouldn’t it be nice if Captain Denningham walked right through that door and stayed for dinner?” I don’t want said reader to add “…but I’ll have him deflea’d, dewormed, thoroughly bathed and sent to the dentist first before we move on to the dessert.” It might be true and historically accurate, but – no. Just no.

If I wrote gritty, realistic drama, things would be different. There couldn’t be enough dirt and stench and whips and whipworms, I guess. But I’m a 21st century person. I have to create a scenario in my head that allows me to throw some romance into the adventure, and that scenario does not allow too much dirt and parasites. Well, not of the animal-kind.

Looking at the final draft of “The Purser, The Surgeon, The Captain And His Lieutenant” now, I can say that all the characters are fitting into the time-period and behave accordingly. But the only character who’s really “authentic” to the core is the purser, Sebastian Quinn. And while many of his actions are ruthless from our modern point of view, they make perfect sense for the man he is and the time he lives in.

Actually – and that’s really a weird thing I noticed – I had more problems writing the chapters set in modern London than those in the 18th century! It was more difficult to describe something I actually know! Switching from one time period to the other really wasn’t easy, especially as the language of the characters differs greatly between the two centuries.

Denningham is not a problem, nor is his sister, but Quinn and Barnett? Somebody pointed out to me that these two are really bad role models, and that it might not be such a good idea to describe the “good guys” as drinking, smoking and swearing. But what can I do? They are swearing. They are drinking. They are smoking. It’s part of their lives and personalities.

I’m all for “cleaning up” the 18th century setting (far thee well, beloved ringworms!), but I refuse to clean up the characters for reasons of political correctness. This is non-negotiable. But maybe I’ll put a special warning label on the front cover: “Being the purser is hazardous for your health! Especially when the lieutenant is close by!” It might increase sales…

(c) Emma Collingwood

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