‘I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel‘
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood
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.
Yes, the “British Empire” was founded on imperialism, slavery, racism, nationalism and militarism. The same or most of it is true for Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the USA and many other nations. Actually, if The Golden Rules of Writing demanded that romance may only take place in countries without a history of violence, the only country left would be Liechtenstein. And Liechtenstein as we know it didn’t exist in the mid-18th century. Plus there’s the lamentable lack of a navy.
I certainly don’t glorify history or make excuses for the mistakes and crimes of the past, on the contrary! While I try to see and describe the world of the 18th century with the eyes of my characters, there’s always one character acting as my own moral voice. In my upcoming book “The Purser, The Surgeon, The Captain And His Lieutenant,” that moral voice is the otherwise rather immoral purser Sebastian Quinn, who has some very firm ideas concerning slavery:
“(…) It is indeed my belief that we should reconsider the idea of a ‘British Empire’ if we’re not able to build it ourselves but have to force other people to do the work for us. (…)”
Historical accuracy is very important to me. Characters don’t exist in a limbo; they have to deal and interact with the world around them. How could I write about events taking place in the 18th century West Indies without mentioning slavery? Or Ireland in the 19th century and ignoring the Great Irish Famine and the atrocities committed by the British government? That would be sugar coating or even falsifying history. And it would have nothing to do with romance, but everything with ignorance.
For my stories, the 18th century is a perfect setting. If one writes gay romance, any background that outlaws the “love that dare not speak its name” adds drama and conflict. There are myriads of problems for the lovers (and consequentially, the author!) to tackle, and the happy ending is all the sweeter for it or, in case of 18th century gay romance, bittersweet. The two gentlemen could never walk down the street holding hands. They would have to face the gallows if they were found out. So all they can hope for is a little bit of happiness with a thick layer of secrecy.
Then the second penny drops. “Gay romance? But – you’re a woman!” Well dammit, my tits gave me away, didn’t they? Yes, I’m a woman. And believe it or not, women have their own sexual preferences, and those aren’t necessarily the ones dictated by society. I like male/male romance. I don’t have to justify it.
“But why do you have to write about men in the first place? We need more strong female characters! You’re a feminist, you have an obligation there! Can’t you write about a kick-ass heroine?”
Please give me your definition of “kick-ass heroine”. Yes, there were women aboard some ships of the Royal Navy in the 18th/early 19th century. Not officially, of course, but we know from letters and reports dating back to those days that some officers travelled with their wives, and all those child births recorded in the logs prove that women were not as absent as Admiralty and contemporary morals would have wanted. Women were involved in battles; they served as powder monkeys and nurses, and of course there were those cases of young women disguised as young men who followed their sweethearts aboard their ships. No doubt the story of a woman disguised as Jack Tar aboard a ship would be interesting, but I’m not the one to write it. Male/male romance, remember?
However, women in the navy were exceptions. Officially, there were no women. There were no female captains, leading their men into battle.
“Well, then write about pirates! They had female captains!”
Friends of pirate stories will hopefully forgive me for asking, but why on earth would pillaging and murdering villagers be more glorious than rising twelve children? How comes that a woman is only then supposed to be a “strong character” if she behaves like a stereotypical man? That’s a dangerous concept. A woman can be strong no matter what job she has or what kind of life she chooses. It doesn’t matter if one is a stay-at-home mum or an astronaut. What counts is that we have the choice.
And as far as writing is concerned: pirate or washing woman, the character is as strong as we, the authors, write her. Hammering a female character into a male form isn’t my idea of writing, and it isn’t my idea of feminism, either. It’s my idea of stupid.
The moment I would allow anybody to dictate me what to write and how to shape my characters would be the moment when I’d give up my creative freedom. My definition of feminism is having the choice, having the liberty to do what I want to do and what I can do best, without restrictions based on my gender. Only if I gave up that choice I’d betray the feminist cause.
(c) Emma Collingwood