history


HHAPHOBIAUMBRELLA2016.pngi, I’m JL Merrow, and today, 17th May, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia

I’m delighted to be blogging here at the Macaronis today as part of the Hop For Visibility, Awareness and Equality.

 

Among the many fascinating exhibits in the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition is the story of lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman from Boston, Massachusetts, who has been described as the first native-born star upon the American stage.

In 1846 she crossed the Atlantic to appear on the London stage in Romeo and Juliet—but not in a female role.

folger-lithograph-of-the-029506.jpgLondon theatre audiences of the time were notoriously conservative—after all, it was only 40 years since Sarah Siddons, playing Lady Macbeth, had caused a sensation by putting down a candlestick when tradition dictated it should be held throughout a scene. Playwright Richard Sheridan was apparently so horrified by the prospect he actually visited her in her dressing room to try to get her to abandon such a dangerously avant-garde idea, although he changed his mind when he saw the performance.

So how might an accomplished actress, tired of—and in some ways ill-suited to—playing the limited female roles available at the time circumvent all tradition and convention to take on a male role?

How, in particular, might she persuade an audience to accept cross-dressed casting of one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters, the eponymous lover, Romeo?

In an inspired move, Miss Cushman—known for her strong features and deep (for a woman) voice, not to mention her independence of spirit—gave out the story that she took on the role of Romeo to protect her Juliet from the unwanted attentions of male actors. The role of Juliet was taken by Charlotte’s younger sister Susan, who had been abandoned by her husband and lately involved in a romantic scandal. How could anyone object to the preservation of female virtue?

p03gmwg3And in fact the casting brought a whole new dimension to the role. Charlotte Cushman’s masculine femininity was well suited to playing a young man whose masculinity was perceived as having something effeminate about it. Romeo’s immaturity, and in particular his emotional immaturity, led the role to be seen as one not easily portrayed by a mature male actor of the era—or at least, not without embarrassment. Women, however, were popularly supposed to be naturally over-emotional and impetuous, and so a woman’s portrayal of the young lover was, in some ways, actually more credible to nineteenth-century audiences.

Precedent established, Charlotte Cushman went on to play Romeo to at least two other Juliets—with both of whom she was romantically linked. And she didn’t just stick with the “effeminate” heroes: in her career she played over 30 male roles, including that of Hamlet, often seen as the loftiest endeavour of an actor’s career.

That she was able to do so is a tribute not only to her ability as an actor, but also to her tenacity, business savvy and, not least, her skill and pragmatism at working a system that was stacked against women.

See also: the British Library’s excellent Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts (on until 6th September 2016).

***

PRIZE: I’m offering an ebook of the winner’s choice from my historical backlist to a randomly chosen commenter on this post, and I’ll make the draw after the hop ends on May 24th. There will be lots of other prizes up for grabs on the hop, so make sure you check out the other participating blogs

ToLoveATraitor72smPoachersFall_postcard_front_DSPKeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSPJack_in_the_Green_400x600Brass_Rags_400x600.jpg

Waterhouse_a_mermaid hires.jpgJL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com, on Twitter as @jlmerrow, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jl.merrow

I came across a book in a second hand shop and picked it up simply because I rather liked the title and the plain cover. It proved to be a collection of chapters from the longer work “A Student in Arms” – combining observations on a soldier’s life during WWI with reflections upon faith and religion.  Hankey’s an interesting person, whose words are very much of his time. And some of his musings are distinctly slashy.

The first chapter describes an officer, Ronald Hardy, in glowing terms that verge on hero worship. The bit about Hardy’s smile, “It was something worth living for and worth working for”, reminds me of The Charioteer, where Laurie remembers Ralph Lanyon at school, and how boys competed fiercely and tacitly to earn one of his smiles.

Then there’s the chapter “Some who were lost and found”, which is full of stuff reflecting a wonderfully open heart towards some of the soldiers he met. “If they did fly in the face of the conventions, well, we sometimes felt that the conventions deserved it.” One line intrigues me. He’s talking about the men and their relationships with women. “They had their code, and though God forbid that it should ever be ours, it did somehow seem to be a natural set off to the somewhat sordidly prudent morality of the marriage market.”

I really can’t work out what Hankey means by that little dig at marriage, apart from the obvious implication that he didn’t himself want to be married. For whatever reason. You see, it’s really hard at times to understand the words of the past when the only filter we have is our modern ears and eyes.

I read a lot of literature written either side of 1900, and while people haven’t changed, society and conventions have. In the days of “Three Men in a Boat”, men staying in a hotel would have shared a bed if need be with no implications other than necessity. And lines like, “I never saw two men do more with one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did.” could be written in complete innocence of any double entendre. (They accidentally smeared it all over the stuff they were packing, in case you’re wondering.)

Writers would use the word “love” in a wider context, too. Ronnie Poulton Palmer was a stunning pre-WWI rugby player, the sort of three-quarter who could slice through defences like a knife through butter. His last words are said to be, “I shall never play at Twickenham again” although that’s likely to be apocryphal as it seems he was shot and died instantaneously. I can, however, imagine a player saying just that sort of thing ironically.

Poulton seems to have inspired a great deal of affection from his friends and extracts from letters such as this from Keith Rae to Poulton are very evocative: “I believe very firmly that there will be a Bright beyond after this war…My Love to you and God bless you, always your affectionate friend, Keith Rae.” Army Chaplain Dick Dugdale wrote home after Poulton’s death to say “You know I loved him {Poulton} more than anyone else,” and “Each passing year means one year less to wait for Ronald”. *

Deep friendships? The sort of love that dare not speak its name? The sort of love which couldn’t speak its name because it didn’t understand that it was more than friendship?

Wilfred Owen, in one of the few surviving bits of correspondence between himself and Siegfried Sassoon certainly seems to have gone beyond friendship.

“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What’s that mathematically? In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.” **

Poor Wilfred, so much in awe of Sassoon and unlikely ever to have that love requited in the way he seemed to want. At least with some of Owen’s extant poetry the homo-erotic elements are obvious. No slash goggles needed when reading “Page Eglantine”, “Who is the God of Canongate”, the unfinished “Lines to a Beauty seen in Limehouse” or “I am the Ghost of Shadwell stair”. (The last one apparently is a play on words between ghost and infantryman, with a suggestion that Owen himself is the ghost who visits a male prostitute.)

Of course, you could probably get away with more in the veiled language of poetry or the private language of letters than you could in plain prose.

* The Greater Game – Sporting icons who fell in the Great War

**Wilfred Owen a new biography

war graves

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here comfortably sitting on our well padded seats in 2016 – probably looking at stuff online on a slim piece of glass and plastic, or maybe a hinged something that purrs a little and is warm to the touch – we are all so used to the ‘new’ the ‘exciting’ the ‘dynamic’ that we accept it without quibble, merely making a mental note of its shortcomings to add to our review later. The new is no longer a novelty, in fact we expect and demand it.

In some ways this is sad. I think we miss out on a lot of excitement by being so blasé about innovation. I remember my grandmother – born 1890 – and her delighted wonder at the first men in space. Just in her lifetime the world had gone from the fastest form of transport being a train, to men orbiting the earth. “It’s just like Jules Verne!” she said.

But technology isn’t the only thing that changes. There are works of beauty that are so much a part of our list of artistic icons that they are immediately recognisable. In fact it can be hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. If you want to reference them in a story it’s always a good idea to check on their dates, just in case. Your modern day protagonist may admire his love interest’s smile, likening its mysterious quality to that of the 16th century Mona Lisa but in the 17th or 18th century he is unlikely to have been able to see the original, or a copy or engraving or parody, to make the comparison.

Mona Ogg by Paul Kidby

However he might have read Vasari’s description of the painting which is approving to say the least:

Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art could imitate nature could readily perceive this from the head; since therein are counterfeited all those minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted: seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse: and indeed it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every brave artificer, be he who he may, tremble and lose courage. 

 

Bigging it up a bit there, and no mention of the very real possibility that the famous close lipped smile may have been to conceal bad teeth.

Critics weren’t always favourable when it came to innovation. The School of Impressionism  bombed on its first major showing:

This school does away with two things: line, without which it is impossible to reproduce any form, animate or inanimate, and colour, which gives the form the appearance of reality.

Dirty three-quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, dot it with red and blue blobs at random, and you will have an impression of spring before which the initiates will swoon in ecstasy.

Smear a panel with grey, plonk some black and yellow lines across it, and the enlightened few, the visionaries, exclaim: Isn’t that a perfect impression of the bois de Meudon?

Dance Class by Dega was one of the despised paintings

When the human figure is involved, it is another matter entirely: the aim is not to render its form, its relief, its expression – it is enough to give an impression with no definite line, no colour, light or shadow; in the implementation of so extravagant a theory, artists fall into hopeless, grotesque confusion, happily without precedent in art, for it is quite simply the negation of the most elementary rules of drawing and painting. The scribblings of a child have a naivety, a sincerity which make one smile, but the excesses of this school sicken or disgust.

EMILE CARDON
LA PRESSE
“The exhibition of the Revoltes”
April 29, 1874

So a late Victorian gent with an eye for art might have seen some of this work but there’s no guarantee that he’d approve of it.

In music too, standard works that are ubiquitous, in fact officially sanctioned, were considered shocking. Here’s Guiseppe Verdi’s comment on the first performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:

“marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever surpass the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement.”

Another critic was even less enthusiastic:

Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.

And now it’s the official theme tune of the EU, whose policies do indeed sometimes smack of those strange and eldritch things, beyond the wot of mankind.

Times change, and so do attitudes, but on the whole critics don’t. Even though we are used to new and wonderful things there are still always people happy and delighted to point out their shortcomings. In a hundred years I’m sure there will be things we adore now that have fallen into obscurity, unpopular things that are considered the pinnacle of our current civilisation and novelists writing stories set in 2016 whose heroes whole heartedly approve of them.

Just for a change of pace, here’s the Ode to Joy given a very modern al fresco treatment.

 

It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
Is “The Red House Mystery” a good book? I’d say it’s fair enough, and very much in the style of its time, which is fine if you appreciate the Golden Age of crime. It certainly has many of the classic elements – the country house, the house party, the locked room, the wastrel brother who reappears from abroad and, of course, the amateur sleuth, with his slightly dim sidekick. If the denouement draws on a plot line which is peppered throughout those Golden Age mysteries, it’s none the worse for that.
Of course, it’s a whole other discussion about whether the detective’s sidekick only really exists to fulfil the main purpose of allowing the sleuth to show off his or her genius and give fulsome explanations regarding his or her thought processes. In the case of Red House’s Bill, he appears to be at the dimmer end of the bell curve of intelligence and certainly hero worships his friend Tony, the man who solves the case.
Tony’s a really interesting character, a man of independent means, who takes on various jobs just for fun. He’d have been well served by further crimes to solve with his sidekick. I could envisage a whole series of cases in which our two heroes pop up at house parties and the like, solving crimes, causing chaos and generally having a whale of a time. Alas, those books were never written.
Somebody even suggested that Bill reminded him of Piglet, but Tony and Bill makes me think of Raffles and Bunny, not least because of the “slash”. I usually say if you’re not sure what slash is, get your mother to explain when you get home. This time I’ll give a definition, straight from Wikipedia. “Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.”
Milne himself objected to love stories getting in the way of the detection, so he takes Bill’s love interest “offscreen” pretty rapidly, then – ironically – proceeds to give us an almost love story between his two leading men. If you picked up this book without knowing the author or context, you might think you were reading a romantic mystery, with a gay bloke (Tony) who pursues, and then is all over, another man.
From the moment Tony serves Bill, first in a shop and then in a restaurant, “Something about [him], his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Tony”. He arranges a proper introduction to Bill and they quickly become “intimate”. Yes, that word clearly didn’t mean quite the same in 1922! As the story proper gets going, Bill is flattered, delighted and proud to be liked (and needed in the cause of investigation) by Tony, who soon after tells Bill he’s wonderful for describing someone so well, at which Bill is happily embarrassed.
Should I mention how often Anthony takes Bill’s arm when they’re walking? I know that this practice was not uncommon between men in the early twentieth century, and nobody batted an eyelid, but they seem to be at it all the time. Then there’s the hand holding; Tony tells Bill he’s the most perfect “Watson” before taking Bill’s hand in both of his to say, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together…” (That’s the sort of thing he says a lot.) Bill responds by calling him a silly old ass, and Anthony replies with “That’s what you always say when I’m being serious” which is very similar to a tense, flirtatious interchange between Laurie and Andrew in Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer”.
They even end up sharing a bed, although strictly in the way the characters share a bed in “Three Men in a Boat”. That’s another element which is hard to interpret innocently with modern eyes, although those of us who were brought up on “Morecambe and Wise” know that Eric and Ernie weren’t “at it” when the lights went off.
So what the heck was going on in “The Red House Mystery”? It’s terribly easy for us to look back at books written so long ago with our “slash goggles” firmly in place and see things which the author didn’t intend. Perhaps we see things which aren’t there at all. You only have to look at the volume of Holmes and Watson romances that have sprung up to find people interpreting old stories in a very present-day fashion. But gay men did exist in the 1920s (or at any point in history) and gay or lesbian characters can be found, thinly veiled, in classic books such as “A Murder is Announced”.
Maybe Milne was just being observational in his writing, basing Tony on somebody he had known, weaving in elements of conversations he had heard, as so many of us do. I have little doubt that he had no intention of giving us that romantic storyline, but he did so, nonetheless.

ReluctantBerserker-The300

Can we talk about that cover for a moment? It’s probably my favourite cover out of all my books and is by the inestimable Kanaxa

We worked hard on getting this cover right – by which I mean that Kanaxa worked hard, and I kept saying things like “can you make that helmet look more like a spangenhelm,” and “can we make it a round shield please?” But as a result of that unflinching back and forth we ended up with a cover that is not only beautiful but is also a kind of microcosm of the book itself.

Say “Early Medieval England” or “Viking Age England” and most people will think “Dark Ages.” It conjures up visions of grim horsemen, battleaxes, snake-prowed Viking ships running up the beaches, disgorging angry armoured men. Burning villages, looting, rapine, war. A bit like the Vikings TV series where everything that isn’t bloody is brown.

That would naturally make you think of dark colours, maybe some battlements, flames against a lowering sky and an atmosphere of oppression and threat.

And that was exactly what I didn’t want for the cover of this book.

I understand why so many people who write books set in this period focus on the battles between Saxon and Viking, the war and terror that that implies. After all, they tell you as a writer to focus on conflict and what more obvious conflict is there than two bunches of people trying to kill each other with swords?

But I wanted to do something that was a bit less obvious.

You see I love the Anglo-Saxons. I have done ever since I discovered that they were the closest thing to the Rohirrim you could get in the real world. I studied Anglo-Saxon art and archaeology at university and did a Masters degree focussing on the Saxons’ pre-Christian beliefs in magic, medicine and the gods. As a result of which I read most of their extant literature (in translation.) I even learned to read Old English, although I have thoroughly forgotten it by now, so that I could begin to appreciate the way they used their beautiful language.

For the last twenty years, I’ve been a member of the Saxon, Viking and Norman reenactment society Regia Anglorum, which has certainly helped me when it came to getting the small details of this book right. For example, here I am by the fire playing the same kind of bone whistle that Leofgar carries up his sleeve in the book:

And yes, I know exactly what it’s like to sit in a longhall on a cold winter’s night with your eyes streaming from the smoke, smelling like you’ve been kippered, and hearing the wolves howl outside. Even the wolf part is true – Regia has a longhall in Kent, just outside a nature reserve on which there are wolves. Close enough to hear it when they sing.

I love the Saxons’ art, the amazing colours and brightness of their illuminated manuscripts, the gold and glitter and garnet of their jewellery. I wanted some of that sense of light and colour in my cover and by Jove I think I got it.

I love the thoughtfulness and romantic melancholy of their poetry. They felt that they lived in a diminished age, that great things had happened in the past and nothing now lived up to it. They built their wooden halls in the shadows of Roman walls and made songs about “the ancient works of giants.”

They had a cooperative and really quite egalitarian society – much better for women’s rights, social mobility and the treatment of peasants and slaves than the Norman culture that replaced them.

So what I wanted in this book was to show that society working, in the last years before the Viking raids began to turn into a Viking invasion. I wanted to show that society at peace, so that I could look a bit closer at the kinds of things that war doesn’t leave time for: music, magic, gender and the social construction of masculinity.

We know very little about how the Anglo-Saxons treated gay men, so I’ve had to borrow from what we know of the Vikings’ attitude. I feel OK about this, as the Angles were essentially the same stock as the Vikings, they shared the same gods and many of the same words. They shared a past. It’s not a stretch to think that their beliefs about sex were similar.

It’s both good news and bad news. On the one hand no one is thinking same sex relationships are unnatural, illegal or damned. On the other, it’s a proof of your masculinity to be the top, but woe betide the bottom. He is the object of ridicule and the same kind of contempt that Victorian society dealt out to fallen women.

So there’s a conflict. How the hell do you negotiate a relationship of equals in a culture that’s preoccupied with the assumption that one of you must be the bitch? If you’re a well respected, high born, dangerous warrior, can you ever dare to be some man’s boy? And if you’re poor and beautiful and dependant on charity from your local warlord – like an itinerant bard – how do you get him to accept that you will never submit to him because you’re just as much of a man as he is?

These questions and many more are answered in the story, which does in fact contain numerous sword-fights, fist-fights and other types of conflict both magical and mundane. War, after all, isn’t the be all and end all of everything. Even a society at peace is not necessarily free of bandits, backstabbers, supernatural horrors and men with lethal levels of entitlement.

~

Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.

Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel, Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in the Charleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper.

She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency

You can find her at her website, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Ah, mothers. Every hero has one—or does he? It’s a sad fact that for most of the time in which historical fiction is set, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to say a final farewell to their sons rather sooner than we’d hope in today’s world of antibiotics and modern hygiene.

And as if childbearing itself weren’t perilous enough in less enlightened times, there’s the further danger of narrative demands—after all, where would Harry Potter have been, if his parents had lived? Not, one suspects, the star of seven ever-more-bricklike tomes. In fact the number of fictional orphans is so suspiciously high, one might be tempted to suspect some sort of juvenile murder ring going on.

But never fear. The fictional historical mother isn’t extinct, merely somewhat endangered. And often, due to the smaller circles in which people moved in former times, rather more closely involved in her son’s life than might be the case nowadays, both in happy times:

PoachersFall_postcard_front_DSP

Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be. – Keeper’s Pledge

And also in times of worry:

“Mam, you know me and him have been, well, close?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. It wasn’t something they ever spoke of.

“I think it’s over, Mam. I can’t risk my job, not when like as not he’ll be looking for a reason to fire me. What’d we do then?” He tried to keep his voice steady, Lord knew, but the pain was too great not to let it show a little.

“Oh, Danny.” Mam put down her sewing and rose to lay a gentle hand on his arm, then gathered him to her. “Oh, love. Hush now. Don’t you worry. I’ll not say another word about it. You just do what you think is best.” – Keeper’s Pledge.

And maybe this close involvement, with children staying in the area their parents had grown up in, helped sons see a fuller picture of their mothers. Including the astonishing fact that mothers were once young themselves. Here’s Danny from Poacher’s Fall and Keeper’s Pledge talking to Philip about his mother:KeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSP

“[Mam’s] always loved having a bit of mistletoe in the house come Christmas. Says it reminds her of how she met my da.”

“Oh? That was at Christmas? At a dance, I suppose?”

“There, sir, you’d be supposing wrong. See, she was the second chambermaid here, back when old Mr. Luccombe was alive, God rest him. Maybe you’d remember her? Right pretty she was, by all accounts. Helen Braithwaite, as was.”

Philip shook his head absently. He’d never really paid much attention to the chambermaids.

“Any road, she’d been sent to ask the men to cut some mistletoe for the hall, here. And it happened it was my da sent to get it for her. Now, Da being Da, he tells her she’s to come with him to get it. So he takes her out into the woodland, out to that very oak tree I came a cropper on. ’Course, I reckon it’s grown a bit since then,” he added, grinning.

It seemed to be infectious. “So I suppose he shinned up the tree and fetched the mistletoe, whereupon she was duly impressed and agreed to let him court her?”

Costessey’s grin had turned wicked. “Well, she never did go into detail, mind. But they were wed the following Easter, and I was born in time for harvest that year.” – Poacher’s Fall.

Which leads us on to another aspect of mothers. One of the perks of having grown-up (or nearly grown-up) children is, of course, being able to embarrass them and/or anyone they bring home to meet the parents. Here’s the reserved George meeting his friend Matthew’s mother for the first time in Dulce et Decorum Est:

DulceetDecorumLG

Matthew’s mother was an unusually tall woman, thin as a beanpole and as energetic as a whippet. She greeted her son with a kiss that left him with powder on his shoulder and a faint lipstick mark on his cheek. She then proceeded to bestow the same honor upon George, rather to his discomfort. “Welcome to our home, dear. So glad that Matthew’s found such a good friend in London—a mother does worry so, particularly when—”

“Mother!”Dulce et Decorum Est

***

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

In False Colors John Cavendish’s relationship with his mum, although off screen, is a big factor in the way he approaches life. It’s one of the many things he has to work through in the process of allowing himself to fall in love.

~*~*~*~

As everything paused on a high note, clear and perfect, John’s delight escaped in a gasp of breath, and at the sound Donwell’s eyes snapped open.  With a convulsive heave backwards, he drew the flute to his chest as if to protect it, slamming his heels into the sea-chest and scrabbling to rise.  “Oh!  Oh, I’m….  I’m sorry sir, I didn’t know you were there!”

 “No need to apologize, Mr. Donwell.”  John smiled, not only the music making him radiant.  It was pleasing to have the upper hand for a change; to wrong-foot his over-bold lieutenant.  “Rather I should ask your pardon for disturbing you in the middle of a performance.  I have a most untutored reaction to music.  What was it, may I ask?”

“Surely you know Telemann, sir?” Donwell’s dark brows arched with surprise as he straightened up, freeing space enough for John to walk in.  In his new mood of confidence, John did so, and found it pleasant to revert to the comradely visiting he had done on board the Admiral’s first rate.  There, they had been in and out of one another’s cabins all the time, borrowing books and stockings, taking a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with each other.  It had been, indeed, a little too sociable for John’s tastes, but now, after a fortnight of solitude, he thirsted for company. 

“It is not possible to underestimate what I know about music.”  The canvas partition wall creaked beneath John’s weight as he cautiously leaned against it.  A small part of him quailed at opening the details of his family life to such a stranger, but Alfie’s honest, good-humored amusement encouraged him.  Whatever else he felt—this itch of over-awareness which made every conversation a little too intense—distrust was not part of it. 

Indeed, the desire to put Donwell on the next ship to China weighed equally against the desire to tell him all and keep him close.  If it puzzled John which instinct to trust, he thought he should probably choose the more humane.  “My mother did not approve of it.  ‘Snare of the devil,’ she said.  It was not played in our house.”

“Your mother did not approve of music?”  Donwell had clearly been very startled indeed; his face only now began to change from boyish openness to the urbanity of an adult.  In all the layers thus revealed, John was startled to see pity. 

His temper flared instinctively. “Why should she?  Is it not used to set the scene for debaucheries?  Balls, where young people may lose their innocence.  Theatre and opera and dancing that dazzle the senses and make the heart forget true morality?  It would be a more steadfast, sober world without music.”

In his zeal, John stepped forward.  Donwell did not retreat, but stood there, apparently relaxed, his thumb moving gently over the curve of the flute.  “And a poorer one.”

Fists tightening almost against his will, physical fury swept through John, clear and glorious as the music.  Breathing hard, he could almost feel the smack of his knuckles into Donwell’s mouth, where a small, startled smirk turned in the end of the man’s lips.  Infuriating!  How dare he?  How dare he laugh at me?  They stood so close he could feel the warmth of Donwell’s shin on his own calf.

Watching that little knowing smile light up Donwell’s smoky amber eyes, John breathed in sharply and turned away, fighting down the urge to wrap his hands around the other man’s neck and choke some reason into him. 

What the…?  Where had that violence come from?  Shame flooding him, he stepped back, head bowed, appalled at himself.  It wasn’t even as though he didn’t agree.

“Forgive me.  ‘And a poorer one, sir.’”  Donwell too retreated, hopping up to sit on his cot, ceding John the two paces of floor and the sea-chest seat. 

For a man who has given in, he looks altogether too triumphant, John thought, sitting down on the chest with trembling legs and a tender conscience.  “You might be right.”  As his racing heart slowed, he attempted a reassuring smile.  God alone knew what Donwell must think of him!  He himself had no idea.  “Though it shows a filial impiety in me to allow it.”

John’s mother disapproved of many things in which he himself could not see the harm.  Had the music not – only a moment ago – made him feel closer to God?  Prompted him to worship?  How then could anyone say it was a snare?  It disturbed and grieved him that she made her life more unhappy than it needed to be, but at times it was hard to avoid the thought.  “I do sometimes fancy it is ungrateful—in our quest for purity—to disallow ourselves the things which were created to give us joy.”

« Previous PageNext Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 869 other followers