August 2008

Just to get your juices flowing, we’ve decided to let you know what’s going to come up in the week.

On Tuesday: Charlie Cochrane delves into old newspapers and the treasures therein

On Wednesday Mark R Probst discusses the use of modern language and its place (if any) within historical fiction.

On Thursday: Erastes shares some of her favourite gay historical art

On Saturday: Lee Rowan introduces herself with excerpts of her work.

Do you know your ogles from your luppers? Could you tell a naff from a dish? If you were a gay man in England from the 1930s to the ’70s, using the gay slang Polari (also known as Palari, Palare, Parlaree) was often the only way, in public, that you could communicate the things you thought about other men without being overheard – and running the risk of blackmail or arrest.

Many words have filtered into English from this language, like cottaging (seeking sex in a public toilet) and mince (to walk affectedly). Polari began to decline in use as gay men became more accepted. Most famously with two very camp (from KAMP = Known as a Male Prostitute) characters in a radio show Round the Horne called Julian and Sandy (mentioned here by Charlie Cochrane) who slipped Polari words into their dialogue. With that, however, the secret was “out,” excuse the pun, and the language began to wane in popularity – leaving only a few remnants of itself here and there in our everyday speech.

1. ajax – near, nearby (from adjacent)
2. bona -Good
3. basket – the bulge of male genitals through clothes
4. charper – search; charpering omi – policeman
5. ecaf – face (backslang) eek – face (abbreviation of ecaf)
6. fantabulosa – wonderful
7. gelt – money
8. jarry – food, also mangarie
9. khazi – toilet, also spelt carsey
10. naff – not desirable, bad, drab (not available for f***ing)
11. omi-polone – effeminate man, or homosexual
12 palare pipe – telephone
13 troll – to walk about (esp. looking for trade)

Further information:
Lexicon of Polari
Bringing It Back

The past. From my (admittedly not very extensive) experience of reading historicals and watching historical movies, I get the impression that for many people the past is conveniently grouped into four or five basic blobs which serve as settings for the majority of historical fiction:

You’ve got ‘prehistoric’, inhabited by cavemen who may or may not hunt dinosaurs, live in caves, wear furs and go ‘ug’.

Then – passing over most of the Bronze Age – you have ‘the Romans’. The Romans generally have an Emperor, wear togas and/or armour and wear red-crested helmets. Often they fall in love with slaves/native princes from far flung corners of the empire such as Britannia.

‘Arthurian times’ come somewhere between the Romans and the Medievals. But where exactly – whether it’s one extreme or the other or somewhere in the middle – is up to the writer. This movable era also tends to house most of the ‘Celtic’ period and – passing over the Saxons and early Normans – segues gently into ‘medieval times’.

We can tell when something is set in medieval times because it has downtrodden peasants, evil barons in castles, maidens forced into marriage despite their chastity belts, trailing sleeves, pointy shoes and possibly noble outlaws based on Robin Hood. If a ‘medieval’ story deals with ‘Highlanders’ they will naturally wear kilts and possibly woad too. (‘Braveheart’, I’m looking at you.)

After medieval times comes ‘the Regency’ or possibly ‘the 18th Century’ – these terms are often taken to be synonymous. During the Regency everyone was aristocratic, lived in big houses, dressed like Mr.Darcy, were obsessed with manners and the marriage market and had no visible means of support. Politics were unimportant and the rest of the world (outside Britain) did not exist.

There are also specialized little space/time bubbles for things like ‘the Caribbean pirates’, ‘the Arabian nights’ etc, each of which comes with its variety of things which are ‘known’ to happen in that setting.

To a certain extent this is all a convenient shorthand, and in a reader it does no harm if you have no idea which year the Pope banned shoes with extravagant toes, or which half of the century Catholics were burning Protestants rather than the other way around. But I can’t help feeling that writers should be held to a higher standard.

Why do I feel that? Am I just an anal killjoy who can’t get into the spirit of things? Well… maybe. Maybe it doesn’t matter if your Scotsmen have stolen the Picts’ woad and are wearing kilts that won’t be invented for another two hundred years. Maybe it doesn’t matter that your heroes are blithely saying and thinking things that their society would suppose to be unthinkable. Maybe it doesn’t even matter if their society itself is unaccountably modern in its attitudes. But where does it stop? When the account of the fall of Rome features Visigoths in tanks and Napoleonic horsemen with rocket launchers? When they’re all thwarted because the Romans send out a cute little puppy and they realize that they can’t bear the cruelty of war any more and they want to go grow Afalfa in the Pyrenees?

Actually I might quite like that, particularly when the Saxons turn up in their helicopters, only to be thwarted when the platoon of highly trained attack dinosaurs rally to the defence of the Parthenon. At least it wouldn’t be fooling anyone that it was supposed to be true, like the majority of pseudo-historicals out there.

What we tend to find when we look into the past is that our original picture of, say ‘the 18th Century’ proves to be sometimes accurate in part, for certain circumstances, for certain years and for characters of certain backgrounds. But within this big picture there are innumerable exceptions, changes and details which you didn’t see at first, but which tie you down to a specific date.

Are you before the French revolution – in which case the clothing fashions will be x and not y, your characters will probably believe in the divine right of kings, society will be certain about what can be expected from different classes of men – and therefore relatively relaxed about it? Are you just after the French revolution – in which case fashions will be y and not x, all the young folk and the workers will be filled with a feeling that liberty and a brave new world are just round the corner – and the government will be clamping down hard to stop the same thing happening in Britain? Are you pre or post American Independence – with all the psychological and cultural changes that that entails? Are you early in the century, when boozing, fighting and whoring were seen as normal, healthy activities for gentlemen, or late in the century when people were looking back on their parents’ unrestrained behaviour with moral horror?

Attitudes, clothes and technology can change from year to year, whatever time period you’re writing. Some Romans for example didn’t have an emperor at all – some had the Senate, some had a military dictator, some had a triumvirate and some had an Emperor, and all that change occurred within one lifetime!

So it’s worthwhile for a writer to pick the year first and then research the society in that year rather than saying ‘oh it’s Georgian’ and throwing in facts from the reigns of all three Georges. Not only does it narrow down your research, but it also has the benefit of making your ‘Regency’ (or whatever) that much more real, authentic and therefore unique.

And you can still bring out the Saxons in helicopters for that Fantasy novel you were planning!

If any readers happen to be in the Toronto area this Sunday near Church & Wellesley Streets, you’ll see the Macaronis’ first public appearance.  Well, one Macaroni, anyway, hopefully without cheese.  I’ll be at a booth at the Writing Outside the Margins Queer Literary Arts festival, selling my books and passing out The Macaronis Sampler CD.  Look for our gorgeous Macaronis mini-poster (designed by Alex Beecroft) and an assortment of bookmarks, postcards, and a few goodies like fridge magnets. More info here:

This is a significant event–the guest artists will be John Cameron Mitchell, creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Lambda Award winner Michelle Tea, and Canadian musical artist Kinnie Starr.   Last year’s festival was covered in both print and tv news… frankly, it’s a much bigger event than I expected to start with, and I really wish there were some fellow Macaronis planning to attend.   But I have to say that if it hadn’t been for Alex’s mad graphics skilz, Erastes’ assist with the CDs and Charlie’s general all-round moral support, I would be dithering at this point.  As it is… well, I’m still crossing my fingers that the (local, gay-friendly) printer will have the bookmarks ready tomorrow – the proofs were gorgeous.  I’ll be taking pictures … News at 11, but not til Monday…  

I’m hoping for good weather!

Writing Outside the Margins

Queer Literary Arts Festival 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Underwear in the 18th Century.

As The Costumer’s Manifesto say:

Many authors of modern historical Romances have a way of meticulously costuming their 18th Century heroines for their activities in the ballroom and drawing rooms, but conveniently forgetting the awkwardness of such attire in the bedroom. In order to live up their racy titles and covers, Romantic fiction portrays 18th Century passion as occurring as rapidly as if every dress seam was merely closed with Velcro, and corsets were fastened with zippers.

This is obviously not a good thing, so here is a short run down of what 18th Century ladies and gentlemen would be wearing underneath their gorgeous outer clothes, and what that means in terms of bedroom activity.

Ladies first, naturally:

The basic undergarment is a shift (aka a ‘chemise’ if you’re French, or a ‘sark’ if you’re Scottish.) A woman in her shift is ‘undressed’ for the purposes of the 18th Century. Though covered, she would no more walk about in it than a modern woman would walk to town in bra and pants.

The shift comes to somewhere just below the knee – short enough so that it does not show under any of the petticoats. Nothing is worn underneath except for stockings. Knickers did begin to come in towards the end of the century, but were regarded as being for prostitutes and women of loose morals only.

Stockings are not the sheer, lacy-topped things we are accustomed to in the 21st Century. They are knitted like hiker’s socks. In the best cases, however, when they are knitted of fine silk, they can be fine as a thick pair of modern tights. They are put on like modern stockings, but there is no suspender belt to keep them up. Instead, garters are tied around the leg just below the knee, and the top of the stockings can be folded down to sit comfortably on top of it. This means that in practice ladies’ stockings look like knee-socks.

Once she’s got her stockings on, the next thing a lady would put on would be her shoes. It’s much easier to do it at this point, while she can still bend in the middle!

Next comes the first of her petticoats (pleated skirts)

Then on top of the first petticoat comes the stays (corset)

(These stays by

These are laced up the back, ideally by someone else. If the laces are long enough, you can put the stays over your head while loosely laced and then tighten them up yourself, but it’s much harder to make sure the lacing is evenly tight throughout. An upper class woman will have a lady’s maid to do this for her, a lower class woman will either have to do it herself or have a mother/sister/daughter do it for her.

A woman wearing a single petticoat and stays over her shift is regarded as being dressed. That is, a working class woman who had no outer garments would not be chastised for being indecently dressed if that was all she wore. It would be a mark of extreme poverty, though, not to have at least one outer layer.

If the lady is upper class, she may now put on hoops or panniers, to give her that fashionable galleon in full sail look:

If she wears panniers, she’ll tie her pockets underneath them. If not, the pockets tie on directly over the stays. The pockets are little bags tied onto a ribbon which ties around the waist. The lady will be able to reach them through slits made in the sides of her upper petticoat.

They are very capacious. She could easily carry a little dagger in one of them without disturbing the line of her dress at all.

On top of that goes a second petticoat, with the slits lined up above the slits in the pockets.

On top of that goes a fichu – a large square neckerchief folded into a triangle with the point down the back, which protects the gown above it from the unwashed skin beneath. It also conceals the cleavage, for modesty, and protects the lady’s assets from the vulgar tanning effect of the sun.

On top of that goes either a gown or a short jacket

In this case the gown is being worn on top of a petticoat made of the same material as the gown. The ruffles are sewn onto the sleeves of the gown and are not part of the underclothes.

The gown will be pinned shut, possibly over an embroidered stomacher

The whole dressing process takes at least three quarters of an hour – more, if the lady is wearing higher status clothes. So it goes without saying that she will not be willing to undress lightly.

The Gentlemen

The gentlemen get off fairly easily. Their basic undergarment is the shirt

This – like the woman’s shift – comes down to roughly knee-height.

Unlike women, a man may wear drawers under his breeches – cut and shaped like the breeches, but made of thin linen. (Still trying to find a picture of these. I know I’ve seen one somewhere!) Gentleman’s stockings are rolled as far up the leg as they will go (mid thigh) and secured with a garter around the knee, just as women’s are, but their breeches will stop the top part of the stockings from rolling down.

The gentleman then tucks his shirt between his legs and puts on a pair of breeches:

Breeches can be fly fronted (as these are) or drop fronted. In both cases the front of the breeches can be undone without undoing the waistband. In addition to being buttoned at the waistband and fly, they are also buttoned or buckled at the knee, often tight enough to pinch and restrict movement.

A gentleman wearing shirt and breeches is considered to be undressed. Though modestly covered by modern standards, by 18th Century standards he is considered to be in his ‘small clothes’ – his underwear. If he wants to take off his tight, movement-restricting coat anywhere where he might be seen, even in his own house, he will replace it with some other piece of outerwear such as a banyan (kimono-style dressing gown).

With his breeches and shirt on, he then ties a neck-cloth such as a cravat around the neck. On top of his breeches goes a waistcoat (with numerous buttons, all done up) and then a frock coat. The frock coat is cut in such a way as to pull the shoulders back and give an upright posture.

This young man has rolled his stockings over the cuffs of his breeches rather than wearing them underneath – that’s a fashion from early in the century.

But though restrictive, the gentlemen’s clothes are easier to get on and off than the ladies’. They probably could strip off with relative ease if they wanted to. Evidence suggests, however, that generally they didn’t care to:

Pornographic prints from the 18th Century almost always depict the people who are having sex as at least partially clothed. But 18th Century porn is a whole new post. I can recommend

if you want to delve into that a bit deeper. If not, there is an interesting sample, very much not safe for work, here:

Naval Naughtiness

I haven’t gone onto wigs and powder, cosmetics, or hats, because that seems like a subject for another post too, but here is a gorgeous snippet from ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ which demonstrates the process of getting dressed in such a way as to show that the clothes themselves have a slightly pornographic appeal.

This seems to be a perennial question. Answer it once and it dies down like a dandelion only to spring up in three new places in a week’s time. People seem terribly concerned that women should do anything so strange, and they offer explanations which to me seem stranger than the fact itself.

The latest of these concerned commentators surfaced recently on the ERWA ‘Smutters’ column here:

If I’m reading this correctly it seems to conclude (it’s hard to say, because the reasoning is not exactly coherent throughout) that in this author’s opinion women write m/m because they dislike women. If they did not dislike women, she seems to think, then they would naturally want to write about women. They would not want to write a genre which by its very nature excludes the possibility of a woman being one of the two main characters.

This explanation sounds quite convincing until you start asking actual m/m writers why they write what they write. Once you do that, it rapidly becomes clear that the picture is more complicated and that one size very much does not fit all.

So, here is a quick summary of the reasons I personally write m/m, and the reasons I have heard other people give for why they write it.

First of all – why shouldn’t we write m/m?

Why do some people decide to write crime when others decide to write romance? Why do some desperately want to write science fiction, and some can’t imagine doing anything other than horror? What is it that draws some authors to chick lit and some to historicals? I venture to suggest that the same mechanism is in play with the m/m genre. This is simply what some people are wired up to write.

For my part, the stories which have come into my head have been m/m stories from the moment I started writing at age 11. I didn’t choose it – it’s just been the way my mind has always worked.

Surely the question ‘but why do you write m/m of all things?’ indicates more about the questioner’s attitude than the writer’s. Is there something wrong with m/m? Something more peculiar about it than other genres? Something that needs more justification than other genres? I don’t think so.

No one asks a crime writer to become a murderer in order to write about psychopaths, or insists that science fiction writers ought to be alien lifeforms before they can write about other species. Why should a woman not be perfectly capable of, and entitled to write about men?

But still, some reasons:

There are several different reasons I’m aware of for women to want to write m/m, and I’m sure there are other reasons I’m not aware of. This is a short list off the top of my head:

1. One man is sexy, two men doubly so.

Just as many men enjoy the thought of two women together, many women enjoy the thought of two men together. Why not? Men are sexy. If you’re reading a story in which they are both viewpoint characters you have the treat of being able to identify with whichever hero you find it easiest to empathise with and still be able to admire the other one through his eyes.

Rationalizing the appeal of two men together can probably be done, but why should we have to? Too many people have tried to tell women in the past what their sexuality should be. To them I say ‘tough’. I find this sexy. Whatever guilt trip you try to impose on me to try and ‘correct’ this kink, I’m not buying it. Why shouldn’t I write stories celebrating and enjoying something that I find very lovely?

2. M/M relationships are not plagued by the same gender stereotypes as m/f.

If we want to examine what a truly equal relationship feels like – a relationship without any of the inbuilt prejudices and assumptions which have dogged us as women for millennia – m/m is a good place to do that. We don’t have to struggle with or against the reader’s expectations. We don’t have the baggage of centuries to deal with. We can just put that all down and start off at a position of equality that in real life we still haven’t necessarily reached. It’s a refreshing imaginative break from a society that still at times treats us as second class citizens.

3. M/M fiction is edgy and transgressive and it makes the writer feel as though they’re doing something cool.

4. M/M fiction is an attempt to correct an overwhelming preponderance of heterosexual messages in the rest of the media, whether that’s movies, books or TV, and make sure that another segment of the population has romance novels which are relevant to them. The desire to examine and celebrate love is the same whether the love is m/m, f/f or m/f.

5. M/M fiction is a way to write about GBLT relationships without having to fit the story into the more constrained, domestic sphere which history has traditionally allotted to women. In other words, particularly if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s easier to believably add a mixture of action/adventure to m/m fiction than f/f fiction, simply because society made it all but impossible for women to be involved with the ‘outer’ world of politics, war, the professions etc.

6. M/M fiction is selling well, and to market-savvy writers it looks like the up and coming place to be.

I’m sure there are more reasons than this. If you have a different one, why not add it in the comments? J

To the question ‘can m/m fiction ever be motivated by misogyny?’ I’m sure the answer is ‘yes, at times it can’. I would be surprised if there was any genre of fiction where none of the writers were tainted by misogyny, if only because it’s such a staple of our culture that – like other sins – if we say we are without it, we deceive ourselves. But to tar the whole genre with the same brush is both unhelpful and unscholarly. It smacks of having come to the conclusion beforehand and bent the data to fit it.

In my experience, most people write not because they have an agenda but because they have stories to tell. If you have an explanation for why some stories turn up in your head and others don’t – why some are impossible to write and some can’t be stopped – you’re doing a great deal better than I can. Do comment! I’d love to hear it.