May 26, 2008
Yes, this is going to be an opinionated post. That is: it’s my opinion. You may have your opinion, and I look forward to hearing it.
However, just because you have your opinion it doesn’t make mine any less valid. In 1794 if I had said that I considered the French Monarchy was a waste of space and you were of the opposite view, who was right? Was your opinion right? Was mine?
I like the Happy Ever After. Don’t get me wrong. I do. I WANT the Happy Ever After. I longed for Jack and Ennis to have ridden off to California and set up home. I want Romeo to get the note to say she’s NOT dead. Every. Single Time. I weep BUCKETS when I don’t get what I want. Everyone deserves to be happy.
I’m not here to overturn the barricades and to change the world, chopping at the pearl-adorned necks of those ladies who say that the HEA must exist. The HEA is a Good Thing.
With me so far? Good.
What I do object to is a label on my book saying “Romance.” Because this label tells me that I WILL get a happy ever after. Whether I’m ready for one or not.
It’s a safety net.
It’s someone standing in the theatre queue and saying loudly “The Butler did it.”
It spoils me. It’s just as much a spoiler as “Harry Potter doesn’t die.”
As someone recently said to me, a book is about the journey – and I totally agree about that. I buy a book that I don’t know with a sense of huge and tingling anticipation. It’s a virgin steppe, it’s an adventure. It could hold anything. It’s a treasure chest that only needs to be opened. It’s a river that will take me on a journey I can’t imagine.
I plunge into the current. I learn the world, I meet the characters. I fall in love and I’m swept away in the UST, the angst and the conflict. I hope and pray that the characters – who are so clearly mad for each other – will get together.
I DON’T want to know that they will. I don’t want a little label on my book which tells me – even before I’ve opened the bloody book – that all will be well and that I don’t even HAVE to worry. Why give yourself high blood pressure? Why get invested in the story? Why fret? Look! There’s a label that tells you how the book is going to end. Hurrah!
Why then should I stress at your conflict? You might as well just tell me the end before I start. Oh, but you don’t have to. That little label “Romance” already has. Not hurrah.
Romance isn’t safe. It’s a leap of faith, a leap into the dark current of love and you risk all to hope you come out unscathed. When it ends well, it’s wonderful. When you risk all and lose? That can be wonderful too.
And what stories are remembered? Which ones live in the memory? Which ones live through time?
People don’t remember Caesar and Cleopatra, despite at least two of the best playwrights ever attempting to immortalise them. Despite them having their Happy for Now. Despite being “married”, and having at least one child. Or if they do, it is only because it is the pre-cursor to the greater and hugely destructive and doomed passion of Anthony and Cleopatra. That’s what people remember.
A lot of people don’t really care about what happens to Heathcliff after Cathy dies. The book ended there, for many many readers.
So who is going to remember the HEA’s of what is now marketed as Romance? In 100 years will we be still be reading and extolling “Tender Rebel” or “Captive of her Desires”? I doubt it.
But who is going to forget Tess, Juliet, Cathy, Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, Scarlett, Jack and Ennis? Just because their stories ended badly, just because some American publisher or Board of some Romance Writers’ Association wants to slap a “Tragedy”, “love story” or “literature” label on them – does that make their romance any less valid?
I’ve had responses to my views before. “I couldn’t read those stories they upset me” – and that’s fine. But then if you haven’t read them, then you don’t get the right to criticise or deny the fact that they are romances. Great sweeping overpowering destructive violent romances, yes. But ROMANCES, over and above everything else.
I read a book a while back – written by one of the Macaronis, actually, but I won’t say who because if you are like me, it would spoil it for you. Right up until the last few pages I had no clue what was going to happen. In fact the author had convinced me that one of the protagonists was dead and I was weeping buckets. Brava!
If the book had been labelled Romance – I’d never have had that response. I would never have allowed myself to become so involved, to have invested such a huge amount of my emotion into it, because there would have been the safety net sitting there smiling and being SAFE. “It’s Ok,” it would have said, ” of course he’s not dead. See the label?” It would have ruined a great read for me, and would have been much less of a journey, an experience.
I’d like to see the categorisation changed; wishful thinking I know: it’s never going to happen, but in an ideal world I’d like people who want to be safe with their endings to have a sub-genre of their own such as “Romance – HEA” which guarantees the happy for the reader who doesn’t dare to dare. For the reader who wants to know where they are going when they get on the boat. For those who don’t want the current to sweep them away.
But just give me the genre of Romance, and I’ll take the risk with the protagonists. I’ll live every moment with them, I’ll cry, I’ll fear, I’ll laugh. And I won’t know what will happen until the protagonists do.
But I’ll HOPE. I’ll hope like hell.
And THAT’S what the journey is all about.
May 21, 2008
“To our wives and sweethearts—may they never meet!”
–Captain Jack Aubrey (Traditional toast in His Majesty’s Navy)
“The society of well-educated ladies is sure to add dignity and refinement to the character of a young man. Without such society his manners can never acquire the true polish of a gentleman, nor his mind and heart the noblest and truest sentiments of a man.”
–The Young Man’s Own Book, A Manual of Politeness, Intellectual Development, and Moral Deportment, Calculated to Form the Character on a Solid Basis and to Assure Respectability and Success in Life. Key, Mielke, and Biddle, 1832.
The book’s title is only ten words shorter than the advice, but this excellent resource for writers of fiction set in the 19th-century spends a chapter extolling the virtues of the fair sex and the importance of treating them with the proper respect, always bearing in mind the desirability of holy wedlock.
So where does that leave a writer whose protagonists are men – and gay men, at that – who see wedlock as a consummation devoutly to be avoided?
The Young Man’s Own Book says, “The influence of the female sex on a young man must be something, may be much….” and I think that goes for gentlemen of either persuasion. The stereotype of a homosexual male as a man who hates women does, like all stereotypes, probably hold true for a few individuals. On the other hand, men whose emotional character is defined by hatred are not the most sympathetic candidates for the starring role in a romance.
But love of one gender doesn’t require hatred of the other. As people operating in human society, gay characters would at least have to interact with mothers, sisters, and other female relatives. Given social expectations, they might also have wives… in many cases, women they may have married before they were even aware of their same-sex inclinations. Oscar Wilde is probably the most well-known example, but others can be found in abundance in the headlines even today, often claiming that they’re not gay at all.
Of course, in a gay love story, women may be peripheral characters, if they appear at all. But writing about men who love other men doesn’t mean that women can or should be ignored or treated badly. So many of us who write m/m romance are women ourselves, it would require an odd sort of self-loathing to bash female characters, and it would be weak craftsmanship in any case.
So what’s different about writing a female character? Or, at least, what do I find different?
Apart from the plumbing… not all that much. And the best way I can think of to illustrate how the process works for me is to use a couple of examples from my stories.
One caveat: I must admit I write from the perspective of a born tomboy. I think of myself as a human being first and a woman second, and I expect any character I write to behave in a humanly reasonable way (except, as Mark Twain might say, in the case of lunatics.) In many historical settings, a woman has fewer options than a man, but that’s no reason to assume she has less intelligence or less nerve. Anybody willing to say “I do” and risk the horrors of septic childbirth is not, in my opinion, lacking in courage.
I haven’t yet written a story where one of my characters finds himself with both a male lover and a wife, and the shipboard romance of the Ransom universe seldom allowed much room for the ladies. But their influence does appear – in David Archer’s first ill-chosen romance with a girl below his social station that precipitated his entry into the Navy, in his correspondence with his mother and sisters, even in the Christmas gift he gives his lover—warm woolens knitted by those ladies and sent in quantities that far exceed his own needs. What we see, reflected in his attitude, is a general liking and respect for women and concern for their welfare. The odd son out, bookish, intelligent, and considerably more sensitive than his father, Davy’s affectionate nature was shaped by his mother and elder sisters. We don’t actually meet the ladies in Ransom or Winds of Change, but a few of them will appear eventually.
David’s cousin Christopher is more conventionally appreciative of female charms; his love story is told in my novella “See Paris and Live,” in the trilogy Sail Away, which also features Will and David some time before they’ve become lovers. Writing the heroine, Zoe Colbert, was a bit of a challenge. She was a French girl, gently reared; to make her a strong character in her own right, able to take the huge step of making herself known to a strange gentleman, took some consideration and a little more deliberate construction of background and motivation.
Christopher—Kit—needed a wife who was respectable enough to marry a Baron and be able to execute the responsibilities required of that position. And she had to be resourceful, intelligent, and capable—as well as willing to take chances—because his life would depend on her intervention at a critical point. So I put her in the position of being mistress of her father’s house, her mother having died when Zoe was younger; this allowed her to be comfortable with making decisions, at least routine ones. Since her father was a doctor (again, to save Kit’s life) she was not unfamiliar with life-and-death crises. She was also a girl living through the convulsions of a society tearing itself apart and attempting to re-form, in the literal sense. I felt that the extraordinary times could provide enough of a push to make her take chances she never would have ordinarily. With death a possibility at any time, and the young men she’d known dead or vanished, she had motivation enough for her to reach out to Kit when he crossed her path. A girl—or boy!—who doesn’t expect to live long enough to grow up is more likely to take a risk for even brief happiness. And a hero(ine) has to have the courage to make a leap of faith.
Kit himself turned out to be the kind of young man who really needed a strong partner—he’s young, only 18, so he had time to grow up during the course of the story. He was not, at its beginning, his own master. His ill-fated trip to France was on his mother’s orders, and she’s a forceful character within her own domain.
Constructing the dowager Baroness was interesting. I didn’t want to make her just a caricature of the clueless upper-class lady, but for the sake of the plot she had to nag Kit into a trip to France that he really should not have attempted. Why did she do that, if not on a silly feminine whim? Well, she was concerned about maintaining her hospitality. War with France would cut off supplies of wine and spirits, and she did not want to patronize smugglers if she could avoid it. I thought this could be a legitimate concern for someone whose occupation in large part consisted of organizing social affairs. Sheltered from politics as many women were, she could very well be ignorant of the danger she was sending her son into. Her more irritating feature—her insistence that Kit marry and produce an heir as soon as possible—was also understandable given the social structure. Protecting the succession, through her son, was also part of her job—and the only thing preventing her eviction from the place that had been her home since she married Kit’s (deceased) father.
For a minor character, the Dowager required a lot of underpinning. And with all those annoying traits, she had to have a redeeming one, so I made her marriage to her late husband a real love match—something that Kit was influenced by, something he wanted for himself. That worked out well in the overall story arc, too—when Kit has found love with Zoe, it gives him the insight to recognize a similar connection between his cousin David and Will Marshall, and motivates him to give them a precious space of time together at his estate in the West Indies, in Winds. This may be an unusual attitude for the era… but no individual can be totally defined by his (or her) society. If a clergyman could bless gay couples—and there was one such known at the time—then why couldn’t Kit recognize that his favorite cousin had found love with an unconventional partner?
In my new novella “Gentleman’s Gentleman,” I’ve given my hero Lord Robert Scoville another managing mother—but though he loves her, he’s a younger son, he has no obligation to secure the succession, and he knows what a disaster it would be for him to marry. “I can’t bear the idea of marrying a woman I dislike just to satisfy my family. And tying myself to an unsuspecting woman that I did like—like, not love—would make two people miserable.” (His soon-to-be lover, Jack, is enormously relieved to hear this!) But Robert does recognize that his mother is acting out of concern for his well-being, so he and Jack come up with a creative way to discourage her matchmaking.
In today’s terms, I suppose Lord Robert would be at the far end of the Kinsey scale—absolutely uninterested in women—whereas David Archer would probably be near the middle (his first attraction was to a woman) but slightly more attracted to men. As for Will Marshall… he’s smack in the middle. Will, I think, fell in love with Davy because no one had ever loved him before and he’d been in the company of men all his life. He’d had a brief attachment to a girl, in his teens, but he never got up the nerve to do anything about it. I’m not sure whether Will would’ve wound up as happily married as Captain Smith if things had not gone pear-shaped when he and Davy were kidnapped. I think both the Ransom boys are functionally bisexual but basically monogamous—content with a single relationship. (Again, that’s my own perspective seeping into my characters—if my wife had been male, we’d have kids in college by now.) Of course, Will’s going to have his ideas of monogamy challenged in the next couple of books… with both sexes. Poor baby. He never met a woman as sweet and smart and interesting as Davy is – not yet. But that’s another story.
So to get back on topic and finish up, the most significant thing I’ve found about writing women in a m/m universe is that it just takes a little more time and attention. I think any woman can identify with that—any woman who’s ever tried to get a degree in a “man’s” field, land a job in an occupation that is generally considered a man’s domain—in fact, to accomplish anything and be taken seriously in a world, past or present, where men are expected to look for action and adventure and the ladies are expected to be the trophy for the alpha male. Writing complete, believable women in gay romance is more or less dancing like Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards – and in high heels. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
May 14, 2008
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:
May 7, 2008
The perils of a historical novelist, part two: Romance versus Research
This struck me as a necessary follow on to my post about research (The perils of a historical novelist, part one). I’d like to think that we’re agreed that research is good; that it’s always preferable that an author pays attention to real history and doesn’t just make things up, and that real history is more interesting than fake history any time.
As writers of historical fiction, we don’t want our characters to be modern people playing dress up, let alone modern people playing dress up in badly made polyester capes and sneakers. No doubt there are readers with such powerful imaginations that they can conjure up a dazzling scene of elegance and glory from a selection of cliché characters wearing bad live-role-playing costumes but, alas, for the rest of us something more is needed. And that leads right back to the importance of researching both the big trends and the small details of your setting.
However, after you’ve done your research and accumulated these details, that, unfortunately, is not the end of it. Once your head is stuffed with facts and your computer is bristling with bookmarked sites about the correct boning of a corset and the height of that season’s shoes, and your bookshelves are groaning with scholarly tomes on social mores and miscellanea, that’s only where you start.
Can you ever have too much research?
The short answer to this is ‘yes and no.’ I’m not sure that you as an author can ever do too much research, but not all of your research needs to find its way into your book.
And he who strives the tempest to disarm
Will never first embrail the lee yardarm.
For example, you may have spent hours pouring over sailing instructions, figuring out exactly how your ailing, scurvy-wrecked crew would take in the sails in a storm. But now that you know, you also need to consider the enjoyment of your readers.
How many readers are likely to be engrossed in a storm scene—to feel the howling of the wind, the surging of the seas that sweep across the deck in unbroken sheets of freezing water, while the men cling with all their strength to the rigging and the sails whip-crack through the air—if your characters are spending pages and pages of dialogue in an argument over whether to take in the lee or weather clew first, or let go the tack and risk the sails blowing through the buntlines?*
You may want to get this information into the book because dammit, you did all this work! You can’t help feeling that it would be nice if everyone knew the kind of lengths to which you had gone to get your facts right. In the same vein you may be tempted to stop the action every so often to explain the history behind the Boxer Revolution, Harold Godwinson’s trouble with his brothers, the careful fashioning of the staves in the barrels used for the Gunpowder plot etc etc. But this is a temptation you have to rein in hard.
Heavy handedly shoehorning in your research, where it isn’t necessary for the story, is almost as bad as not doing the research in the first place. Firstly because you will bore the socks off your poor readers, and secondly because—paradoxically enough—drawing attention to your historical facts will actually make your book seem less authentic.
What? It’s sort of like homeopathy – the research isn’t there any more but you can still reap the benefits?
Well, in a way, yes. I know I’ve said ‘study everything; nothing is too small to be just the right detail to establish the background’, and that’s true. The art here is to introduce enough small details to convince your reader that you know loads, without randomly spraying around information which isn’t relevant to the story. We want enough history to firmly set the story and reader in a different time, without making the novel read like a textbook.
There are all kinds of tricks as to how to do this, but probably the easiest is to remember that none of these little details are unusual for your characters. Their surroundings are normal life to them. Explanations of things, drawing attention to things because they’re historically accurate, are actually going to give less of an impression of verisimilitude than merely treating them as unremarkable facts.
For example, rather than saying ‘when cut steel buckles were introduced in (whenever) they had proved very popular with officers who couldn’t afford silver,’ which is an awkward info-dump and tosses you straight out of your immersion in the story, just say ‘the cut steel buckle glittered as he hurled his shoe across the room.’ It doesn’t get in all the facts, but it adds just that tiny pinch of historical detail to keep the reader rooted in the era, and it does it without slowing up the action.
Weevils are a good example of this. I was watching both the Hornblower TV movies and the film of ‘Master and Commander’ over the past month, and their treatment of weevils (a kind of flour grub/beetle which regularly infested the bread aboard ship) seemed to me a very clear lesson in how to do it well, and how to do it very badly indeed.
The Hornblower series had Pellew sitting at his desk eating a piece of hard tack which was covered in white maggots. The camera zoomed in on the maggots and you saw him tapping them off onto the table while he and Hornblower grimaced in a sort of ‘ew, the things we have to put up with!’ way.
The equivalent scene in Master and Commander; everyone’s eating, chatting, Jack indicates a couple of weevils that have fallen out of the hard tack on Stephen’s plate and sets him up so that Jack can make a joke about ‘the lesser of two weevils.’ Stephen rolls his eyes at Jack’s attempt at witticism and everyone laughs.
The Hornblower one is bad because Pellew and Hornblower have grown up in the Navy. It’s out of character and out of period for either of them to even notice the weevils unless the biscuit is so infested that it’s fallen to dust. This ‘OMG! Disgusting creepy crawlies on the food! Ew! That’s horrible!’ scene is entirely set up for the modern viewer, not for the benefit of the characters themselves. It’s the movie equivalent of an author writing ‘because of the poor methods of preservation in the 18th Century, even the dried bread on board ship was attacked by a variety of pests such as weevils and bargemen. My hero, because he is really far more sensitive and advanced than anyone else in his century, thought that this was disgusting.’
(It’s also bad because those are obviously bargemen, not weevils – but that’s another story: http://www.hms.org.uk/nelsonsnavymaggot.htm )
The Master and Commander one is good because it achieves the same thing – informs the watcher that ships biscuit often came with added weevils – but it does so without fanfares. It does so without a neon sign going ‘oh, look, fascinating historical fact here!’ It gets the information across without making the characters act out of character. Not one of them, for example, is surprised or disgusted to find a weevil on the plate. That in itself is a glimpse into a different world, a different attitude than our own.
But it also combines this with a bit of deft characterization of Jack as a man who is overwhelmed with joy at his own cleverness in being able to make a rather simple joke. And it does this inside a scene which is also making a point about conviviality, the irrepressibility of the human spirit, the tendency of the navy to be drunk in charge of large warships and the fact that this would be a life it would be possible for a person to live and love not merely to endure.
One rather lengthy diversion later, and I try to sum up by saying that part of writing historicals is maintaining that balance whereby you can manage to tell the modern reader what they need to know without info-dumping or violating the characterization or historical integrity of your characters. If your research is visible, calling attention to itself, it’s probably doing more harm than good.
In this way we can also solve the perennial problem of ‘oh, but they must have had terrible hygiene/smelled/been infested with parasites etc. Do I say so, or do I pretend otherwise?’
In fact there is no need to talk about whether your characters smell or not, because everyone would have smelled. It would have been normal for them and they would not, therefore, have even noticed it. A man who washed every week, changed his shirt every day and wore pomade and cologne would have been, by the standards of his day, a paragon of cleanliness. It’s more authentic, then, to treat him as such.
Just as most people nowadays don’t notice their bed-mites until they cause a problem, why would your historical characters need to notice their parasites unless they caused a problem? By all means if you’re going to have an outbreak of the Black Death in chapter 9, mention the troublesomeness of the characters’ fleas in chapter 3, but otherwise, if they’re not pertinent to the plot, your characters are probably not going to be noticing them. You can put them in if you want, or leave them out if you want, depending on what you are trying to achieve.
I personally like to include a bit of filth where it’s appropriate – walk on parts for people with visible syphilis, people who have lost limbs, people who have lost teeth to scurvy or bad dentistry, etc – because it is part of the flavor of my setting. I like the great big, lively, unwashed, squalid sprawl of Hogarth’s gin lane, through which gentlemen in lace and peacock silk hurry with one hand on their sword hilt and the other on their purse. But if you really can’t bear the thought of a hero who doesn’t wash every day, you can always either make his mania for cleanliness a character trait, or set your story in a setting where they were big on bathing – like the Romans.
What if it’s not just washing, though? What if it’s something worse?
To me, the cleanliness problem seems quite a minor example of a more far reaching problem caused by trying to be realistic in your romance. It isn’t only in matters of washing that the past sometimes causes a modern reader to go ‘oh, that’s just wrong!’ Sometimes it’s a more moral issue.
Suppose we’re writing a book set in the Viking age, in which a Viking warrior falls in love with the Irish warrior he captured in a raid on the town that will at some point in the future become Dublin. It sounds great, until research indicates that the standard Viking tactic for dealing with defeated warriors was to rape them in order to humiliate them and break their spirit. Do we allow our hero to be authentic – and a rapist – which, in my opinion, and I believe that of many modern readers, is not a good start for a happy ever after? Or do we somehow fudge the issue?
And once we have fudged that issue, how do we deal with the problem that the Vikings (like the Ancient Greeks and Romans) considered it shameful to be the bottom in a m/m relationship? It’s probably not a problem if you’re writing yaoi or d/s, but if you’re attempting to show a reciprocal relationship of equals then I’m sorry, sir, but he really won’t respect you in the morning.
What about slavery? I’m sure that in the 18th Century there were people who honestly and sincerely believed that slavery was ordained by God, as a method of civilizing savages, saving them from damnation and introducing them to the possibility of education. Allowing them to better themselves. Why it was practically an act of generosity!
But will any modern reader be able to accept a hero who believes such a thing?
As a writer there is a big temptation to say ‘well, I’m going to go with what was historically realistic at the time.’ After all, you’ve done the research and you understand how all these attitudes looked to the people of the time. And you care about being authentic. It’s important to your professional pride.
However, I do personally think that this is another place where a balancing act is required. Ignoring the historical attitude and making everyone behave like moderns in frock coats results in plastic history and a story that is just not believable. But lobbing in the historical attitude wholesale results in a story where everyone hates your hero and wants him to die. Neither of these are good things😉
For example, in Captain’s Surrender, when Peter was finally forced into a position where he couldn’t avoid thinking about what he and Josh were up to, his reaction was to seriously consider turning his lover in to be hanged. He hadn’t had time to think through the implications – he went with the reaction society had instilled in him. And this example of him being a morally upstanding citizen (by the standards of his time) rightly made many people dislike him. Equally, Adam Robinson’s refusal to allow Emily to support them both with her money made him seem – to a modern reader – pig headed, chauvinistic, stupid, whereas at the time it would have been proof of his good character and honorable intentions.
This is where you have to perform a delicate high wire act of getting enough of the historical attitude in to make your characters realistic by the standard of the times, but not so much that your modern readers will hate them.
Fortunately there are at least two good workarounds for this problem.
1. Make your character peculiar by the standards of the time. Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin is a good example of this. He’s a natural philosopher, and he has the most outrageously liberal opinions about just about everything. He can get away with this without appearing to be blatantly anachronistic, because the other characters make it quite clear that they are merely humoring the Doctor’s peculiar little ways. They like him, and they consider him a harmless weirdo.
Without the support system of all the other characters making it plain that Maturin’s attitudes are odd, (not to mention the places where he really is odd by anyone’s standards) he would come across as anachronistic. As it is, he comes across as charmingly eccentric and believable.
The disadvantage of this method is that you can’t use it for more than one or (at a pinch) two characters without undermining the believability of your whole world.
2. Make your character think through the issue. You want your Viking warrior to decide against raping his captive? Give him a father who was killed in his sleep by a vengeful slave-girl, years after he thought all the resistance was kicked out of her. Help him to connect the dots. It may be that getting him to the point where he realizes that he can’t force his captive to love him takes up half of the plot. That’s great! It means you’ve got a plot that arises out of an authentic historic situation and character. And then you can tackle the whole ‘well I’m not going on the bottom’ thing for the second half!
Both 1 and 2 are very plot and characterization intensive. But that’s OK because the issue of the characters’ historical attitudes is not one you can sweep under the carpet without sweeping away much of your realism as well.
So there you go. In the Realism v Romance stakes, my position is that you need to thoroughly know what would be realistic. You need to have done the research and faced the occasional place where history is just plain nasty. And then you have to somehow take that history and make it entertaining and romantic. There are things you can fudge, things you can overlook because the characters themselves would not notice them, and things you have to work through to come to a compromise which will appeal to your historical purist and your romantic softie equally. But that’s half the fun of the thing!
*(Example frivolously borrowed from Falconer’s poem ‘The Shipwreck’ via ‘Seamanship in the Age of Sail’ by John Harland.)
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