Friday, February 03, 2012

Where are the REAL stories?

As you probably know (or may not!) I run a review blog called "Speak Its Name" which aims to list (and one day--hollow laugh) have reviewed all the gay historical fiction that there is out there.

It's a growing and healthy genre, from the handful of authors who were writing it when the blog started in 2007, there are now going on 100 authors who have tried it or are regular authors. There are books from just about every era now (if not every country) from (believe it or not) cavemen to the cut-off period which I cheekily upped from the Historical Novel Society's cut-off of "50 years ago" to "pre-Stonewall/Wolfenden report" which takes it all the way up to 1971.

But the interesting thing is, is that though there is a positive deluge of the stuff and most of it is good, nearly all of it concerns original characters having adventures in a past time.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that of course, but it surprises  me that--with the wealth of real-life gay men scattered throughout history, that there's not more stories regarding them. After all, much of the backbone of historical novels can set itself against the books of Jean Plaidy and the like when people wrote about the mildly fictionalised lives of kings and queens. I was raised on these books and I say: Where are gay equivalents? Why aren't people writing about all these fascinating people who managed to be gay--some notoriously so?

Of course, there are exceptions. If you persue "The Lists" (print/ebook, ebook only) you will find a smattering of "real life" characters. Some of course lean heavily on supposition. William Shakespeare is a popular subject. It seems that no original gay character can enter Tudor London without getting ambushed by either the Bard of Avon or the naughty Mr Kit Marlowe. Oscar Wilde is also a popular chappie, and there are quite a few books about him, although many (such as the series by Gyles Brandreth) are alternative history, where Wilde becomes a sleuth.

Philipa Gregory even dipped her toes in gay historical fiction. Her "Earthly Joys" is about the famous gardener John Tradescant the Elder who (in her book) ends up falling for the betwitching First Duke of Buckingham who was almost certainly bisexual and King James I's favourite. However attractive this book is--and I thoroughly enjoyed it, I had to stretch my imagination to breaking point to believe that the handsome Buckingham would have been even mildly attracted to Tradescant. But who knows? Perhaps he really was.
First Duke of Buckingham
George Villiers - First Duke of Buckingham
John Tradescant - not as handsome as Phillipa Gregory would have you think!

However - what I'd like to see is some damned good novels about real people going through times that we knew actually happened. The trouble is that there's so much been lost. Families who destroyed letters and diaries that would incriminate their sons as to their sexual preferences. People like Byron whose diaries were burned by order of his publisher. Oh! The loss of what they must have held! But there is a fair amount of information about gay characters--and more books are being written yearly (see the non-fiction section of The List) so if someone were to write something about Nijinsky and Diaghilev (why oh why hasn't someone done this already?) or Michelangelo - I'd certainly be standing in eager line waiting to snap them up. I do know an author who is working on a labour of love regarding Ivan the Terrible and his boy toy, but goodness knows when that will get done, (although it's going to be fabulous, I know!)

I mean, look at the Douglases. By that I mean Bosie and his brother. As far as I know (please please correct me if I'm wrong) but there's no book with an account of Bosie's experiences. And as for his brother? It's almost unknown that Francis Douglas who was older than Bosie, was somehow entangled with his boss, The Duke of Rosebery and a near-scandal ensued. Francis was granted a title by Rosebery and only 18 months afterwards (was it a pay off perhaps?) Francis was killed in a "hunting accident" although whether it was suicide, accident or something darker (seeing as how Rosebery was married into the Rothchild family...) Yes yes, supposition, but it's far less Wilde (excuse the pun) than Oscar as a detective!

Those devilishly handsome Douglas Boys (Bosie, left, Francis, Right.)
The Douglas Brothers, left-Bosie, Right, Francis

And when you think about it, one suddenly has a glimmer of sympathy (perhaps) for Lord Queensbury whose two sons were both involved with powerful older men. No wonder he went ballistic when Bosie went the same way.

Anyway - come on, authors! Where are the books about E M Forster? Wagner and Mad Ludwig? Siegfried Sasson? Clifton Webb? There are hundreds of subjects to choose from and only a handful of existing books. It's not right.

And if you don't, I may have to do it myself.

Further reading: Queers in History | Rictor Norton | Famous and Gay | List of Gay Men throughout History

Erastes is the penname of a female author living in Norfolk, England with 3 cats and a mad dog. She writes gay historical novels and short stories with gay themes from many genres. Her two books for Carina are: Muffled Drum (Austro-Prussian War) and A Brush with Darkness (coming out in March, which is set in 19th century Florence) Her website is and she can be found easily on Twitter and just about everywhere else.


Elliott Mackle said...

We have another Tudor-Era romance coming up next week on Speak Its Name, my review of Stevie Woods's Stone by Stone. Although the lovers are most likely fictional, they move among historical figures and events.

Erastes said...

Well, yes, but that's not what I meant - I want to see the equivalent of The Other Boleyn Girl and the like. There are a few - a couple of books dealing with Edward II and Gaveston but all in all they are rare as hen's teeth.

Nan Hawthorne said...

I was just going to say, go for it, Erastes!

I agree with you on the topic as it referes to GLBT historical romances.. as far as "mainstream" I am sick to tears of novels about royal women.. peasants and townspeople are so much more interesting, at least to me.

I suppose there are two problems for authors.. one is the dearth of definitive evidence and the fact that historians will freak if you suggest so and so was gay... I would like to do a short story about Pres. James Buchanan, for instance, and the one book I saw on the topic denies everything. The other is that it's enough work to research another era no less a particular person's life.

Not that that excuses anything.

How about Peter Tchaikovsky.. there is at least a movie about him.

Here's an idea.. how about an anthology of short stories about really gay men and women in history? That might get people's creative juices flowing. I'd contribute.

Nan Hawthorne

K.C.Warwick said...

The problem I found with writing about real people is that you have to keep checking where they were and what they were doing to make sure it fits in with your storyline. Marlowe, for instance, keeps getting arrested - and not always in London, curse him! I ended up making a diary of where he was known to be. Of course, this could be part of the fun!

Erastes said...

Hi KC!

Oh yes, I think that could be fun, as long as you know what they are doing. I had a brief taste of it with my first fanfiction novella - I wrote about Lucius Malfoy - and what he was doing when he wasn't on the page of Goblet of Fire. It was challenging to weave the story during the same time line, and have him absent or present depending on what the canon had him doing. I suppose the meticulous research is what puts a lot of people off, it's all very well to know what people wore and historical details, but then you have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of your subject, enough to write a detailed biography - and make it entertaining! You could do a lot of research and find that their life wasn't entertaining at all!

lareinenoire said...

I'd love to see more premodern M/M stories--not just Edward and Gaveston but Richard II and Robbie de Vere, James I and the Duke of Buckingham, possibly George Boleyn, though they'd have to make it convincing and please, for God's sake, get rid of the verdammt incest! Henri III in France, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo...the list goes on. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that people don't think there's an audience for it. Hopefully they're reading this post!

George Gardiner said...

I guess part of the problem is that so many recorded relationships among real historical personalities is that very few actually have HEA endings, while the preferred convention seems to be M/M novels must have a cheery outcome?

The truth is, most 'successful' gay historical relationships probably quietly dissolved into the background fabric of their eras. My own THE HADRIAN ENIGMA tries to overcome this with the protagonist's heroism, an outcome its forthcoming sequel aims to overcome.

In recorded history I guess James I and George Villiers are about the only HEA couple I can recall.

louise van hine said...

well I've written a number of them.You reviewed the one, but it hasn't garnered all that much attention. I wrote a much longer novel that is a little closer to 'home' as it were, based upon the most famous warrior who wasn't a traditional man at all, that was my first. And a long novel about Alexander and Hephaestion and a few lovers along the March Upcountry (Anabasis Alexandri) The only gay stories I write are about real people, but I disguise something of who they actually are. I've just never gotten a publisher to get beyond query stage. So the answer to your question, as far as my books go is - in the slush pile.

PD Singer said...

This is the sort of thing I'd tackle if there weren't a couple of huge barriers to entry; one is that I'm not expert in any one period, so the research for me would take forever, even if it's in one of the periods I have more background on. Another is that I thought somoene had already written Eponimandas.

But I"d love to read this kind of work too. (Adds to TBR list from notes.)

Donald Hardy said...

There's Renault's book on Alexander, but that's wildly fictional.

I think part of the issue is that the market is just starting up, like M/M five years or so ago. now that you've tossed it into the aether, it might start to manifest in more quantity.

For me, the research is daunting. I'm slogging through Elizabethan England and am having a difficult time just getting background about how a great house ran, etc. at the level of detail I want. And, as you point out, most families would have destroyed any evidence that remained, if any did. And we have so many centuries of historical denial (Oh, Edward and Gaveston were *just* *friends*) and accusations of political slander muddying the actual events and personalities.

And, of course, as George G. pointed out, a red hot poker up the bum does *not* make for a HEA.

Still, this is a good discussion to start.

Donald Hardy said...

Oh. Francis? WHAT a babe. Has it all over Bosie.

Stevie Carroll said...

Sadly the one famous (possible) bisexual I would love to write about is a little too high profile still.

Still I get to use the antics of his friends as basis for what my characters are up to, and hint at reasons why they are or aren't socialising with his circle.

Erastes said...

Good points all about the HEA and the incompatibility of real-life stories - and this is a romance blog - but still, you can't say that either Boleyn girl got a HEA and those books are hugely popular!

Eliza Knight said...

You are right! I wonder why not??? Perhaps you ought to try your hand at one? You are a wonderful m/m writer! Great pictures!