Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Gay Historical HEA

Whatever the era with historical heterosexual fiction, once the hero and heroine have been through the required conflict, warred with their parents, or their countries, found each other, lost each other, found each other again, blah blah blah, they can finally fall into each other's arms, get married, shack up and it is assumed that never a cross word will pass their lips and the happiness will begin.

But--what about two men in love? Writers of gay historicals have to somehow convince their readers that--despite most eras pre Stonewall/pre-Wolfenden being downright dangerous times to be gay--the characters in our books have chosen to take the risk, and wish to stay together come what may. Or that they've managed some way to be together which flies a little under the radar

But how best to do it?

Obviously, we know that there have been homosexual men since men were invented. I'm sure that Ug looked out of his cave one day and saw Ig waving quietly at him and he either lost all interest in dragging any females back to his cave, or realised why he didn't want to. It might not have been too worrisome for Ug and Ig to set up cave together, far away from everyone else, but when you move forwards in history a bit and the Church gets all "burn the unnaturals" it becomes a little harder for a writer of the genre to finish off a story in a neat and believable manner.

Despite the very real dangers for gay men (particularly from the Renaissance to the early 1970s, and depending on where you live, even up to today) there have always been men who have risked all, and there are a few well documented cases of men who have "got away with it."

Two couples who spring to mind are George Merrill and poet Edward Carpenter - and Ralph Hall & Montague Glover who were together for close to thirty years and fifty years respectively. If these four men managed the "Yours until death" endings, then we know that there must have been many others.

But it's still a knotty problem for a writer who wants to base his or her story in the past. Up until the beginning of the 19th century one could still be hanged for homosexual activity, and in fact in the first quarter of the 19th century, more men were hanged for homosexuality than for murder.

How have I dealt with it in my books? (look away if you don't want to be spoiled, but Happy Ever after/Happy for Now endings aren't really secret, are they?)

1. Standish. I dealt with it by simply not dealing with it. I got some criticism for this, as I used a Gone with the Wind kind of ending - and I left it squarely for the reader to decide whether or not the couple would have got back together. As to the practicalities of this, it wouldn't have been too difficult. Rafe was super rich, and it was this that had prevented him from being prosecuted in the first place--so he had that protection, and this, hopefully would have prevented any further problems for Ambrose. They intended to live in Rafe's estate in Wiltshire, far away from prying eyes and the madding crowd. And if things did get hot - they could have retreated back to the continent.

2. Transgressions. The couple are together at the end of the book. Again, I leave it to the reader to decide how they would progress in the five minutes after the book ended. David is a deserter from the King's Army--and Jonathan is a trusted interrogator in Cromwell's army. Not an easy future for them, to be sure.

3. Frost Fair. This was managed by having (similar to Standish) the two men enter into an employer/employee relationship--whereby Gideon becomes the valet to Joshua. This is a device used by many gay regencies and Victorians as the "gentleman's gentleman" had almost unrestricted access to his employer and it would have been easier to be alone together, particularly for men of different classes. Lee Rowan does this admirably in the book which is coincidentally called "Gentleman's Gentleman."

Other methods used: Many of Alex Beecroft's men are officers and gentlemen in the English Navy and thereby are even more under threat, for it is a hanging offence on ship as well as on land. Her (and Lee Rowan's sailors too) snatch what time they can when it's safe to do so, and are pretty much resigned to doing their duty and hoping that they stay on the same ship as each other. Joanne Soper-Cook's homosexual detective Raft "shares rooms" with Freddie, his paramour, and this--in more innocent times--was something that could be disguised as "two friends sharing the bills." No one remarks (and why should they?) when Mr Pip and Mr Pocket share rooms in Great Expectations, or Holmes and Watson do the same in the Holmes series. (although it gives the slash writers a field day!)

Charlie Cochrane uses this device in her Cambridge Fellows series. To all intents and purposes they (at the beginning of the series) share adjoining rooms, and later they move into a house together. Quite normal in those days. No one batted an eyelid!

The important thing is...you can use any method at all, but I feel it has to be believable. Sadly, I’ve read more than one story where the author just threw all realism to the winds and had their homosexual regency couple marry in church. It is true that in around 1810 -1813 there was a vicar --the Reverend John Church—who famously performed homosexual weddings, but of course they were anything but legitimate!

I have to say that I’m often envious of writers of heterosexual historical romance, because they can simply end a book by having the couple throw themselves at each other and promise to marry the other – and it is a challenge to find realistic solutions to the love that dared not stick its head above the parapet, but it can be done, with care!


Erastes writes gay historicals, and her first book for Carina is "The Muffled Drum" (set during the Austro Prussian War) and will be out in July 2011. It's full of soldiers, horses, angsty love, drawers and many many buttons.


Anonymous said...

In Maurice, E. M. Forster had Maurice and Alec go off to live in the woods, IIRC. As for Maurice and Clive (the little s**t), no one seemed to question their friendship, although they spent a good deal of time together.

So many of the young Regency men seemed to have good friends whether from their school days or before. They shared digs and escapades. I used that premise in my historical. While the MC cared for his estate during the week, the man he loved would come visit at week's end.

I hope I gave them as realistic an ending for the time as they could get.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that it was far more common for friends of the same gender to live together without remark in the past than it is today - I don't mean younger people flatting together, but as one ages there is still (Why?) an expectation from friends, family and society that people pair up as the "grow up". So a couple of men in their 40's living together, where they had not stated they were a couple, would raise eyebrows even here and now (where civil unions and gay marriage are legal), let alone in other places where homosexuality is still a criminal offense.

Economic need, housing pressures, job requirements - these were all acceptable reasons for long-term (and life-long) co-habitation, but I'm not sure they would be considered anything less than a banner hung over the door now for anything than as a stop-gap measure - so unless the pair were actually out, I think that it would be assumed that they were a couple anyway.
Sorry, got off track a bit there! What I meant to say was that unless the couple move to Gaylandia or one of them is powerful to the point of being "untouchable" (and remains so for the rest of his life - a dodgy assumption, as politics, religion and royal succession make for changeable times), the only ways I can see it working is in the assumption of partners-in-work or of master and servant/employee - at least for men, I think that it may have been easier for unmarried women to have lived out their lives together (assuming a certain level of means and probably good reasons why others felt they should not be "proper women" and marry - perhaps widows or relatively wealthy eccentrics with no family pressure to marry).
Regardless of how it is set up, it would have been a tricky balance of being in society enough to satisfy family and community demands and being private enough to live a circle (perhaps of only themselves) sure to be discreet. The couple would be, I think, quite isolated, in that very few (possibly no-one) people would be able to be aware of the nature of the relationship, so in public (and perhaps even to a degree at home), they would be friends or working partners, never a romantic couple.
How sad (that it was necessary then and in many ways it is the same today) and yet there is great fodder for the writer.

p.s. I think that Ug and Ig probably found it easier than many have since *g*

Erastes said...

Hi Tinnean,

I'm looking forward to reading your book! and yes, you are right, Regency bucks had a lot more freedom to be affectionate with each other - a man and a woman couldn't go riding together or in a carriage, whereas men certainly could.

Forster was inspired by Carpenter and Merrill - and that's why he dared to write a HEA in Maurice - I should have included that in the article - thank you!

Wendy Soliman said...

You've made me glad that I don't write gay fiction, Erastes, since you've got a harder nut to crack, (no pun intended!), than those of us that write about hetro relationships. I don't know the answer but am fascinated by the responses you've received so far. I guess you know that lesbian relationships have never been illegal because Queen Victoria couldn't believe that such things went on! Such a sheltered life she led, in spite of all those children she gave birth to and a husband who had, shall we say, exotic tastes!

Cathy in AK said...

I give a lot of credit to writers who can pull of the balance of historical accuracy and HFN/HEA in LGBT stories. Well done and keep them coming!

As a side note, regarding Wendy's comment on Queen Victoria and Albert. I'm reading an account of their lives now ("We Two" by Gillian Gill) that more than implies Victoria was the more passionate of the two and the time period *should* have been referred to as Albertian because of his stogy attitude : ) Not a lot on either of their takes on homosexuality at this point in my reading. And Victoria was not thrilled with having kids, either : P Granted, this is just one source.

Susanna Fraser said...

How do you deal with family expectations that your characters marry? Or do you just avoid situations where your heroes are expected to produce heirs?

(I've got a situation like that in one of my WIPs. It's not a romance and the gay character is a secondary character rather than the protagonist, but I still haven't figured out how he's going to reconcile the expectation to produce heirs with the assorted issues having a wife might raise--when does he tell her? is it fair to ask a woman to commit more to him WRT fidelity etc. than he has any intention of returning? Etc.?)

Erastes said...

Wendy and Cathy - I'm afraid that that is an urban myth about Victoria and lesbians. She may indeed have been in denial about it, but the monarch has absolutely no input into law--we chopped a king's head off to ensure this was the case!

Erastes said...

Yes - Cathy, Victoria was quite a little firecracker when it comes to sex, I understand - I havent read the letters and diaries, but she was certainly not the "lie back and think of England" type!

Erastes said...

Susanna - yes that's a real consideration. I think many writers in the genre write about third and fourth sons andthe like so the expectation is lessened. I know that many men who had homosexual tendancies had to marry, and it was often the best way to hide the "problem" and to allay suspicion.

I think with your problem, it really depends on the couple involved--he might just go ahead and seek out gay contact without his wife knowing--if she doesn't know then many men would think that it's not hurting her. If he loves and respects her then he might tell her - but depending on how she's been raised it would be a bit of a risk!

Have you read about Lord Hervey? He was married and very very bisexual - his life is fascinating--and after his death, his lover and his wife became very good friends.

Anonymous said...

It sure makes for a challenge. But how much more meaningful the HEA is, if it can happen under difficult circumstances...and how much more talented the writer who can make it both happy and historically accurate.

Erastes said...

Hello Mistry and how nice to hear from you!

Completely - yes - even the agatha christie books are full of that kind of thing, and I never noticed that many of the characters were gay until I re-read them recently.

I have no idea how Ralph and Montague stayed under the radar, Montague took some very shocking pictures which have recently been published, and his letters to Ralph when he (Montague) was away at war were amazingly loving - full of "my darling" and hints of how he was managing without Ralph's attentions. Somehow these letters got past the censors!

as for George and Edward - they lived very quietly near chesterfield, and although Edward did write and they both were very early gay activists, it was probably the fact that they kept away from the limelight. Oscar himself probably would have got away with his outrageous behaviour had he not been so arrogant as to sue Queensberry for libel...

Erastes said...

Hi Jess - and thank you for commenting. it is tough, but you are right, it's more satisfying when I read a book and think "yes, that could actually have happened" rather than "gah! that's impossible!"


Alex Beecroft said...

Great post, Erastes, and thanks for the mention :) Though I have to say that I'm not sure if I believe in or even want the HEA for m/f couples either. It's such a final ending - it seems to imply that nothing dangerous or exciting could ever happen to them again, and that's rather sad.

I like the HFN ending which we're forced to adopt in m/m romance, because it comes with the expectation of further adventures built in. I'm not sure that real life ever has a completely happy ending before death.

Becky Black said...

I think it's so hard for us now to appreciate the huge problems and consequences of falling in love with the "wrong" person back in the past. Wether that's somene of the same sex or the wrong class or whatver. Now anyone can get together and most of society and the law doesn't really care it's so easy to forget how different it used to be. Maybe that's why I like historicals more than contemporaries. An author doesn't have to contrive some difficulty for the couple of to get over in a historical, those difficulties are already there, and often huge and possibly insourmountable.

Susanna Fraser said...

I haven't read about Lord Hervey--thanks for the tip!

Erastes said...

Oh yes, I agree, alex and I should have gone further with the post. There is no such thing as a hea, as even - as my parents have had - with sixty years of utter love and devotion, the ending is sad after all. I would never fall for that as a kid, mainly because my mother would add a comment at the end of books and films and say "of course, in two years, the Prince ran off with Cinderella's sister" or some such comment. Heh. No wonder I grew up cynical and wanted to write my own stories!

Erastes said...

Nod - that's why I like historicals too, there's instant conflict built in-- look at BBM - nowadays they'd have got in their car and driven off to LA.

Claire Robyns said...

Hmmm, this got me thinking of the concept of a story where two men of equal ranking would be forced into a master/servant relationship for the sake of covering their love arrangements and the fun and trials that would ensue... has this been written? sounds just up Shakespeare's street

Also, enjoying the Victoria/Albert sideline as I'm currently doing some research in that era...so far, was under the assumption that the one was as bad and stuck up as the other...apparently I've a lot more reading up to do. Although, considering Vicky's supposed affair with Brown, it's all starting to make sense.

As for the actual question on hea, lol, I've nothing more to add but I agree that those already mentioned would work well for me. I live in a fantasy world and am quite happy when a book ends with HFN, because that means it can really end any which way my pretend mind wants it to

Elyse Mady said...

Great post. I'm dealing with these very issues right now in my current WIP. Writing an outcome that is both historically accurate and emotionally satisfying is a real balancing act.

I really like Rictor Norton's books for their fascinating insights into early gay subcultures. "Mother Claps Molly House" is a fascinating look into Georgian experiences.

Lee Rowan said...

I'm not sure anyone really has a genuine "Happy EVER AFTER," outside of fairy tales. Happy-for-now is about the best anyone can do, really.

Thanks for the kind words about Gent's Gent. I did posh Jack up a bit by making him nobility on the wrong side of the blanket, but I expect a couple of "confirmed bachelors" would've managed.

The 'make an heir or else' situation has come up in the Royal Navy series, and I haven't really decided how I'm going to resolve that. But leaving a little uncertainty kind of makes things interesting.

I almost wish someone would write a post-Transgressions fanfic and give your longsuffering heroes a HEA in spite of their situation. Though it would probably take a TARDIS...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I learned a great deal; from you as well as from the comments. Thanks.

Erastes said...

Hi Clare - I don't recall that arrangement, because most stories seem to deal with people meeting and getting together by the end--what you suggest is an interesting idea--you should write it!

and i agree with you about a HFN--I don't think anyone has anything but a HFN, whatever Disney might think! I'd like to think that ambrose and rafe lived happily without another cross word in Standish, but I think I know better, knowing their characters.

Erastes said...

Hi Elyse, thank you for commenting!

I agree hugely. I acknowledged Norton's books and site for Standish, it wouldn't have got written without his help. and he's a really nice guy too!

Erastes said...

Thank you, anonymous!

Erastes said...

Oh in real life, no, I agree--there is no HEa and neither is there in fiction, because you never know what's going to happen he very next day after the book closes. I've just played a computer game where the previous game had ended with the hero sinking into bed with the woman he loves, and the new game starts the very next morning with Cesare Borgia attacking the villa--so their HEA didn't last very long, and that's why I object to people objecting to my endings, because that's how life IS. The industry needs to rejig their submission details but that's going to happen any time soon because millions of readers want the myth of ever after.

I like to think that David and Jonathan made it out of London alive and headed for somewhere obscure, checking up on Jacob on the way who suviived but is a little frail and they all set up home in a quiet place and look after Jacob until he dies.

Susanna Ives said...

I'm a regency writer. For me, the best true love story in the Regency times is between two women called the Ladies of Llangollen (see: http://susannaives.com/wordpress/2010/03/the-great-love-story-of-llangollen/)

I also admire EM Forster who wrote, "A happy ending was imperative.”

Clare London said...

Fascinating blog post and feedback in the comments. Of course the desire and love was always there, I argue quite regularly with people who think it's a modern "invention" :). It's just that we "speak its name" now (groan, sorry).

For me, I like to see the fiction has paid attention to the extra challenge of writing historical gay romance and making it plausible i.e. as well as any internal conflict or whatever the torturous path of true love, the characters have to deal with not just society's attiitude, but also their own, depending on their background.

Stevie Carroll said...

I've got a situation similar to the one Susanna's asking about in my mid C20th novel. I'm mainly focussing on the women, but the one man who does feature is in a situation where he really ought to marry. HIs best friend proposed to him when they were teenagers (February 29th 1948), but he already knew that wouldn't work so he turned her down and went overseas. She married his brother and proceeded to have affairs, so looking back, the gay brother probably could have given her a better time of things by being more understanding of her needs than his straight big brother turned out to be.

Erastes said...

Hi Susanna, and thank you for commenting - it certainly seemed more likely that women were able to get away with it (despite the legality) as they were thought as two ladies sharing accomodation! Thanks for the link!

Erastes said...

Hi Clare and thank you for popping along! I'm so happy with the amount of commenters!

and yes, you make a very good point. many men simply cope with the being unnatural, perverted etc etc - they had been raised to see it as immoral, disgusting etc - and then they knew what society would think, so it often easier to pretend otherwise. a terrible choice.

Erastes said...

Oh that's a very interesting story, Stevie, I look forward to reading this!

octobercountry said...

Coming into this more than a little late, but wasn't there a couple in "The God in Flight" that lived together as master and servant? The living situation as presented to the public was galling for them upon occasion, but they were resigned to it because it did allow them to spend their lives together.