Knights In White Undies
The rollicking world of gay historical fiction is lucrative new territory for publishers. Have lace cravats, thigh boots and a nostalgia for pre-Aids insouciance made gay romantics into just another big, happy marketing sub-group?
Sunday 24 August 1997
'Race me?' Channon saw the well, a quarter of a mile away. 'And the stakes?'
'A wager?' Robin's brows rose. 'I have nothing to gamble. I intended only a game.' He looked away, embarrassed.
'But every contest must have stakes,' Channon coaxed, 'else, where is the sport? The prize shall be ... a kiss. If I win.'
Colour leapt in Robin's cheeks but he smiled. 'You are bold, Spaniard! And if I win?'
'A sovereign,' Channon offered. 'I'd pay a sovereign to taste your mouth, so I'd make the wager.'
'A high price for one kiss,' Robin judged. His eyes glittered with mischief now.
Channon mirrored the expression. 'Not any kiss, Master Armagh. Yours.'
'Then you had better win,' Robin taunted as he spun the mare on her haunches and bounded away toward the well.
Afterwards, Channon would never be sure if the race was won fairly ...
(Fortunes of War by Mel Keegan)
IT'S A SCENE that could be taken from any of dozens of historical romances, except for the fact that the saucy Channon is a man, and he will take far more than a kiss from the blushing Robin before the day is out. It comes from Mel Keegan's Fortunes of War, one of a small but growing gay genre, a world in which men are men, women are - well, actually, there aren't very many of them, apart from the odd powdered doxy or whey-faced whore, and no one ever starts discussing soft furnishings and safer sex (next time, yeah?) over that morning-after latte.
Who needs the Edmund Whites and Andrew Hollerans doing their bleeding- heart numbers when you can stow away to the New World on a 16th-century pirate ship (and no SPF 15), hitch a ride with a highwayman and watch him stand and deliver, or follow the adventures of Danny Hill, foster- brother of a certain Fanny, as he struts his magnum lignum around an enraptured 18th-century England ("Your pockets may be empty but your breeches seem to be uncommonly full").
And there's the rub, of course. This isn't really a gay copy of the straight romantic equivalent - the modern gay reader has come to expect a certain amount of friction in his fiction, and the gay historicals are no exception. None of your Georgette Heyer "No sex please, we're in period costume", and a world away from the main precursor to the genre, those embarrassing Mary Renault Greeks in togas talking about Plato but never really getting down to it. The modern gay historicals are a fusion of romance, adventure and erotica.
The successful TV adaptation of Moll Flanders shows there is a general appetite for corsets to be cast aside, a yearning for a time when all the world was, apparently, a guilt-free sexual playground, and you only had to bat an eyelid for some comely wench or fresh-faced pageboy to repair with you to the nearest hayloft. One straight company, Virgin,has cottoned on to the quickening interest within the popular gay market for something more sophisticated than the usual American-imported one-hand jobs (titles such as Meat Rack and Musclebound) which have traditionally dominated the shelves of bookstores' gay sections. Two of the three initial titles in its "Idol" list - "Homoerotic Fiction by Men for Men", due to be launched next month - are historical romances, although Virgin's marketing plays up the erotic aspect of their content.
The Velvet Web, by Christopher Summerisle, is set in the 1890s at a mysterious college deep in the English countryside and follows the adventures of a hypersensitive new student, Daniel, as he explores "secret passages in the grounds and forbidden texts in the library". The King's Men, by Christian Fall, is set during the time of the English Civil War, a story of love across the battle lines. This is a potentially lucrative field, hence the interest of Virgin - straight romantic fiction remains the largest sector of the adult paperback fiction market.
Until now, the Gay Men's Press has carried the torch for gay historical fiction. Mel Keegan is very much from the racier end of its list. Based in Adelaide, he cut his writing teeth on modern-day thrillers and science fiction before falling under the spell of the historical. His stories are a gay version of the classic formula: boy meets girl, boy wins girl's heart, boy loses girl, boy spends rest of story trying to get girl back. In Fortunes of War (pounds 7.95), set in 16th-century England, Irish-born mercenary captain Dermot Channon is working for the Spanish ambassador at the court of Queen Elizabeth. On a trip to the country, he meets Robin, youngest son of an earl. Dermot overcomes - rather easily - Robin's religious qualms and is soon initiating him into that "dark rapture" which is love between men. But then war is declared between England and Spain and Dermot has to leave. The two despair of ever seeing each other again. Several years later, Robin has to travel to the New World to pay the ransom on his naturalist brother, captured by the Spanish. En route his ship is attacked and ransacked by pirates. Robin is taken prisoner. No prizes for guessing who is the captain of the pirate ship.
In Mel Keegan's forthcoming book, White Rose of Night, set in the 12th century, 15-year-old Paul becomes the squire of a Saxon knight, Edward of Athelstone. Again, after some religious shillyshallying, they become lovers. Edward, with Paul in tow, then embarks on a crusade to the Holy Land to please his Norman overlords. In an ensuing battle, however, Paul is captured and held in bondage by a swarthy Saracen captain, and again a long and painful separation ensues...
Gay romantic fiction is an idealised world, as you might gather from the cover illustrations (featuring characters who look like they've just stepped out of a Soho hairdresser - who would have thought a number one crop, or indeed highlights, would have been so popular in the 16th century?). This is a world in which hose are always freshly laundered, breath is always sweet-smelling, a place without scurvy, lice and venereal disease - although there is the occasional fever, from which the heroes always miraculously recover. Like many porn movies, they have in common all- male settings like the army or navy. Feast yourself on bucking golden limbs, six-pack abs (although no one ever seems to go to the gym), thrill to stifled cries of pain and pleasure, and of course everyone's hung like a donkey: a rather worrying "scarlet mist" fills Robin's head when he is first pierced by Dermot's "lance" in Fortunes of War, while Paul in the White Rose of Night is ridden "like Icarus" by Edward who is of course "big and fierce" where it counts, in fact reminding Paul of the "haft of a spear".
Characterisation often mimics the boy-girl set-up of their straight counterparts. In Keegan's Fortunes of War, Robin is cherubic and slender, as is the cute, dark Paul in White Rose of Night. Their lovers, by contrast, are older and bigger, more masculine, more sexually active. The protagonists' relationship is also, typically, one of man and boy, master and pupil (Mary Renault casts a long shadow). The older partner initiates the younger one: into the realities of life, the arts of war and the secrets of love- making. And, this being before the age of consent, the young ones do start quite young - lucky things. However, there often comes a point, usually in the latter half of the stories, when roles are temporarily reversed and the younger one becomes active sexually. This is an important rite of passage in their relationship and is reached when younger one has proved himself as a man and the older one has been fully cured / relieved of a deep sadness / dark secret by the younger one's love, and learnt to open up a bit.
The leading light of gay historical fiction is GMP's Chris Hunt. Like Keegan, his protagonists and their sex lives tend to be idealised, and the pace is Boy's Own, but Hunt is not as formulaic in his storylines and goes much further in other respects in pursuit of historical accuracy. Like that late, great doyenne of straight romantic fiction, Georgette Heyer, he obviously does a great deal of research; his books have masses of period detail, although it can sometimes make them seem set in an olde worlde theme park.
Also like Georgette Heyer, Chris Hunt proved retiring and difficult to get hold of, although he eventually agreed to interview by letter - which is perhaps more in keeping with the period world which he inhabits. Hunt began writing in the Eighties. His first published book was Street Lavender (pounds 7.95). Set in 1880s London, it follows the story of Willie Smith who uses his cherubic young charms - he turns his first trick when he's about 10 as far as one can gather, in return for two ripe peaches - to escape the grinding poverty of the East End slums for a life of rent- boy decadence in the salons of the West End. But he finally finds true love in the arms of a decent older man (a classic Hunt conclusion) back in the East End, helping others to escape poverty by less desperate means than his own.
"The greatest influences on my writing to begin with were the swashbuckling films which I saw as a child in the Fifties," he says. "Errol Flynn and Stewart Grainger were particular heroes. Also around that time, John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay says, 'I have always had a boy's weakness for a yarn.' Later I acquired an English degree, and was influenced by medieval and Elizabethan literature, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, various historical novelists, Mary Renault and Daphne du Maurier."
Hunt ranges across centuries, sometimes inventing whole stories, sometimes creating a fiction around famous gay figures in history. In each he tries to adopt a writing voice appropriate to the period: whether bodice-ripping, Victorian penny-dreadful or courtly. The book he is working on at the moment, The Honey and the Sting, is set at the court of the gay King James I. This will be his third British royal foray. He has previously re-created the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston ("the most beautiful creation on God's earth", with "eyes as green as emeralds, and a smile that dazzled like the sun") and, surprisingly - or not, given the genre - the ending isn't as tragic as more familiar versions of the story. He has also taken on Elizabeth I, but not an Elizabeth I we are familiar with: the thesis of The Bisley Boy (pounds 8.95) is that the real Elizabeth died in infancy, and panic-struck servants substituted her male playmate, "a pretty boy, with a dainty arse". The fictional Elizabeth manages to fool most of the people most of the time. Confronted with the evidence that she has never had a period, she claims that this is due to the constant anxiety of her life. Even her suitors are fooled, although inevitably they find out if and when "she" gets them into bed - not that they seem to mind once they do find out. The "silly old queen" of the latter part of the story will probably ring bells in some circles.
"I try to write affirmatively," Hunt admits, "and in celebratory fashion. I like happy endings and see no point in adding misery to the world with a gloomy book. I'd like to think I entertained and diverted the reader. I don't think I'm re-writing history from a gay perspective - I think the gay perspective is already there, and we are quite justified in assuming this: I'm just interpreting it."
And what about his portrayal of homosexuality? "There is no way we can tell whether I have authentically portrayed historical homosexuality. So much in the past is hidden - either by the protagonists or by the censors of the time, such as the monkish chroniclers or the family and friends of someone who was gay and whose reputation they are trying to 'protect'. Much of it is simply missed out of the history books. Given this, one uses all the historical studies available and tries to portray the situation with honesty."
Perhaps his greatest success is Duval's Gold (pounds 9.95), both because it is a cracking yarn and because of its historical insight. This is the story of Davy Gadd, who grows up at a coaching inn on the Great North Road in the early 1700s and becomes enthralled by the tales of the greatest of all highwaymen, Claude Duval. Gadd himself becomes a highwayman, an outlaw both literally and sexually, drawn into London's thriving gay underworld. Hunt admits his book draws heavily on the pioneering gay historical researches of Rictor Norton, author of Mother Clap's Molly House, which is about the gay subculture in England from 1700 to 1830. Norton reveals that there were actually more gay pubs and clubs - "molly houses" - in London in the 1720s than there were in the 1950s. There were also back rooms, cruising grounds, cottaging (and the use of "pretty policemen"), even gay weddings presided over by a renegade minister. There is a fascinating disquisition on what gay men did, sexually: "Anal intercourse was the preferred route, without refinements. One would infer that the mollies contented themselves with spit and persistence, for there are few references to the use of any lubricants other than saliva ..." And also: "All of the available evidence, however, suggests that oral intercourse, fellatio, was rarely practised by the mollies ... The English have always regarded oral intercourse as especially unclean, and even in very recent times the British gay subculture regarded such activity as an American import." These latter sexual insights have not, however, found their way into Duval's Gold: modern sexual sensibilities are respected.
"This is always the problem with historical fiction, faced by all authors including the most talented," says GMP co-founder David Fernbach, who edits both Mel Keegan and Chris Hunt. "It's the problem of how to strike the right balance between what is comprehensible to the reader in the 20th century and the way people would have spoken and behaved 200, 500, or even 1000 years ago. This is a question of artistic compromise. I think Chris Hunt manages it as well as anyone."
Fernbach is evangelical about his gay historical titles. GMP was founded 20 years ago in the wake of the Gay Liberation Movement and saw its work as pioneering. It has far fewer political and controversial books on its lists now, but Fernbach insists its fiction titles serve the same purpose of reaffirming gay identity and providing a cultural and historical context for gay people that isn't generally available. "It all helps build up this kind of tradition that isn't there," says Fernbach. "Historical fiction is one way of doing this - I think it's very important for people who grow up gay in the West today to realise that the way in which homosexuality is handled by our society in the 20th century is just one option and that around the world, both past and present, there have been dozens of other ways. It's good to give gay people wider horizons."
Interestingly, Norton insists that times really were better for gay people during the period of his researches and that the bawdy insouciance of the inhabitants of the world of gay historicals does have a basis in fact. Of course there was the risk of imprisonment or the pillories and there were religious injunctions, but Norton says that this was nothing compared with the experiences of gay men in the 19th and 20th centuries when to the idea of sin and crime was added the concept that homosexuality was a sickness, of the body and, post-Freud, of the mind.
"The theory of sin was superseded by the theory of insanity," he says, "and prejudice was enforced by the tools of science as well as those of religion. The oppression the Georgian molly faced was largely external: fear of capture, conviction and execution. But the oppression experienced by the Victorian margery and the modern poof and queer became internalised as shame and guilt - repression from which there is no escape. For many, especially the puritan middle classes, fear was replaced by self-loathing, and executions were replaced by suicides."
Perhaps this is becoming a little portentous: let's face it, we're not talking Proust here. We're talking genre, excellent though many of the books are. So who keeps this market going, and which readers are being targeted by Virgin? In response to the question, Chris Hunts says his readers are "Really nice people." One rather suspects that the readers of gay historical fiction until now have been provincial nellies who don't get out much, and Essex hairdressers who've managed to read Boyz - or any of the other gay weeklies - from cover to cover and are ready to advance to something a little more taxing.
Perhaps more and more gay men will want to escape to the past - either to connect with a pre-Aids bawdy insouciance, or in reaction against the commercialisation and dumbing-down of modern gay culture. The furore over the annual Pride celebrations is the most obvious example of this: what was once a statement of political defiance and cultural diversity has become a heavily sponsored pop concert, attracting on the one hand straight companies who want to tap into an influential market; on the other, a large, straight teenybopper audience with no interest in gay rights.
Gay is increasingly accepted and mainstream and soon, presumably, laws will be equalised, and we'll all be just another big, happy marketing sub-group. So maybe Virgin is on to something: maybe gay people will start yearning for a time when, all joking aside, we were sexual outlaws, when love really was something you had to fight for.
Let the last word go to Chris Hunt: "Historical fiction is a form of escapism, and I am all for escapism. It is curiously pleasing to be safe and warm and reading or writing about somebody else getting muddy / wet / lost / having adventures / taking risks. And the clothes were so much prettier then - why did men stop wearing lace cravats and thigh boots?"
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