Those were the words heard by many a family on a 1960’s Sunday afternoon as we huddled around the radio to hear ‘Round the Horne’. Not only was the show hilarious, it introduced the nation to some of the first, if not the first, gay characters to feature in family entertainment. This was at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal, Round the Horne running from 1965 to 1968 and decriminalisation happening in 1967. As Julian aptly said in the episode in which he and Sandy were lawyers, “We have a criminal practice that takes up much of our time”. To listen to this weekly sketch within the show was to immerse yourself in three or four minutes of references to gay culture, much of it really filthy if you knew what the words meant. As an eight year old I didn’t, and the references shot over my head as they must have done for most of the listeners. It’s only now I understand that “a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright” didn’t necessarily refer to Julian’s piano playing.
However, much as I still love Jules and Sand, that love comes with a degree of disquiet at the stereotypes they portray; gay men obsessed with clothes, manicures, and The Marine Commando Club, Paddington. That stereotyping persists today, perhaps not in mainstream British TV/novels where there are, and have been, homosexual male characters who resemble their peers in everything except who they hold hands with. But watch any re-run of “Will and Grace” where Jack and his pals are holding centre stage and we’re back to the 1960’s vision of what it means to be gay. Now, we need to be very careful here. If the argument is to take issue with “Gay men always (favourite stereotype here)” then we need to be careful not to be getting into the equally subjective “Gay men never…” This is something over which you can’t be simplistic whether in the modern setting or the historical. I rather like John Barrowman’s definition of a gay man as someone who finds other men attractive. All the rest (including whether they find women attractive, too) depends on their personality and lifestyle.
Of course there are gay guys who like dressing as women and flouncing about, but there are others who dress like your bank manager (may well be your bank manager) and like to spend their weekends packing down in the second row of the scrum. Somehow (and no doubt ‘helped’ by the media) the general feeling is that things like cross dressing must be an indication of homosexuality and vice versa, despite the fact the plenty of straight guys indulge in it. But we like to have things neatly tagged and labelled, and the crux of the thing can be hard for people to get their minds around, i.e. that gay men are as varied in their tastes, interests, and way of life as any other people. There are gay men who are scene, non-scene or who totally hate the scene. There are ones who do drugs and go cruising, others who go to church, referee rugby internationals or fly out to Cambodia to design orphanages.
So what’s the implication for the writer of m/m historical romance? On the one hand there’s complete freedom; your characters can be what you want them to be, do what you want them to do, as long as they keep within the spirit and legal/social rules of their times. If you have your two Victorian era leading men walking hand in hand down Whitehall, snogging in broad daylight outside the Houses of Parliament and then going into Westminster Abbey to have their union blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury then you’re not doing anyone any justice, least of all you and your credibility. On the other hand, there’s the temptation to say “Ah, but it has to be like this” then giving your viewpoint on things, whether within a story or in discussion of the genre, as if your view must be the only truth. Just because a story has one of the characters getting married because of social pressure, that doesn’t have to be the pattern for all gay men to follow.
Let’s look at the novel ‘Maurice’, which might just sneak under the wire of being historical fiction because, even though it was written contemporarily, it wasn’t published until years later. There are three characters that fall within the definition of “finding another man attractive” and each plays out that feeling in a different way. Maurice seeks both physical and spiritual love with Clive and when the latter eschews bodily pleasure and obeys the expectations on him to marry, Maurice’s life becomes a turmoil of seeking help to be rid of his desires, making a disastrous pass at a woman and indulging in a night of bliss with Alec. Alec himself makes all the initial running with Maurice and, when it seems like he has been simply used and discarded, resorts to a half hearted attempt at blackmail, before he and Maurice realise that they really do love each other. Three different responses to the way the men feel, all realistic within the mores of the time, not one of the protagonists portrayed as a stereotypical gay man.
One of our greatest contemporary historical novelists, Patrick O’Brian, was equally adept at weaving men who found other men attractive into the fabric of his stories without any labels attached to them. Indeed, Jack Aubrey can’t believe the tales that circulate about his sailing master William Marshall because the officer is manly, handsome and exceedingly competent. O’Brian does have at least one pair of officers being court-martialled for breaking the articles (Jack, as one of the presiding officers employing the wonderful phrase from Stephen Maturin, “No penetration, no sodomy”) but he has others who are sufficiently discreet, such as Admiral William Pellew, to have their inclinations tolerated. And O’Brian is also realistic enough to realise than an indiscreet, indiscriminate captain who takes lovers from among his forecastlemen (as does Duff in The Commodore) is a danger both to himself and the rest of the fleet. O’Brian first and foremost understands people and presents us with consistent believable characters, whatever their inclinations.
So our challenge, in writing m/m historical fiction, is to emulate O’Brian and make our heroes fully rounded people, not ciphers or stereotypes. By all means have an aesthete swanning around Victorian London wearing his green carnation, but remember that there’ll be plenty of other gay men in the same environment who’ll be indistinguishable from the other men around them. If you want to have a Georgian frigate captain choosing all the most handsome foremast jacks to crew his cutter, so be it, but don’t forget the other similarly inclined officers who won’t be drawing such attention to themselves. Have your Edwardian hero marry because his family expect it of him, but don’t assume that every gay man of the time was either under the same pressure or felt disposed to respond to it.
And please remember that we’re still not immune, in these so called enlightened times, of falling into the Julian and Sandy trap. If John Barrowman really was rejected, as the story goes, for the part of Will in “Will and Grace” because he was too straight acting, then we’re still stuck with preconceptions that are loathe to go away.