The Arundel Tomb is a stone monument featuring effigies of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and his second wife Eleanor of Lancaster. It dates back to 1376 and is currently housed in Chichester Cathedral, for those curious enough to want to see it. Although an interesting artifact in its own right, today it’s most famous for the Larkin poem it inspired.
I was reminded of the tomb recently while thinking about historical queer romance, and the realities of writing historical queer lives.
Larkin’s poem about the tomb ends on an ironic note, made poignant and sentimental by the fact the last line is usually presented alone:
The stone fidelityThey hardly meant has come to beTheir final blazon, and to proveOur almost-instinct almost true:What will survive of us is love.
Could they have imagined their tomb would have survived over 600 years? Did they know they would be portrayed holding hands? Was it conceivable that would be the thing they were one day remembered for? Unlikely.
Larkin knew this, that’s the crux of his poem. “What will survive of us is love” is an almost-instinct, rendered almost true. Yet what we take from the poem—and the tomb—isn’t his cynicism, but his parting words. Maybe it’s not an almost truth, maybe it’s just a very human wish.
Love, we are told, is a great leveller. It’s timeless, ageless, and unites us all. It’s why romances are told across every culture and civilisation throughout history. Romances are written about cavemen and set millennia in the future.
Personally, I love historical romances. Give me England 150 years ago and I’m happy. The Victorians have always been a pet subject. It’s why I’m writing a series (epic and wide reaching and currently being shared with Patreons while it’s a work in progress) in that period.
Historical romances are research-heavy, even given I’ve studied the period of my book pretty intensively for years. All the details need to be checked and double-checked, from the clothes a character is wearing to the words they say and the street they live on. And you can do all of that and still get it wrong. If your Regency or Victorian world is all white, or all lords and ladies; if you have four earls and six viscounts in your novel; if everyone is neuotypical, able-bodied, and has perfect white teeth, you’re doing historical wrong.
Some research, however, can’t be done. If you followed my blog series about queers in history you’ll know there was plenty of evidence that history has never been exclusively straight any more than it’s been exclusively white. However there are gaping holes in the history of queer England.
What we know today comes almost exclusively from the law, and the people who fell foul of it. I can tell you about plenty of men hanged for having sex, but what I don’t know is how many didn’t get caught, or how they didn’t get caught. Did couples ever live together? Did they ever grow old in plain sight without evoking the ire of their neighbours, or did they marry for show and only meet their true loves in secret? Did some people discover their lifelong partners had died from reading it in the newspaper?
Maybe I’m an old romantic, but I like to believe some couples did manage to stay together exclusively without censure. There are even some clues how they did it. Class would obviously play a huge role. It’s not hard to imagine a lord or gentleman and his servant being together for years without anyone being any the wiser. What, however, of two men of the same class?
Consider Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Today we might view them with a knowingly raised eyebrow, but those books were written and published in the time they were set, and were hugely popular. Clearly the Victorian reading public at large didn’t read anything scandalous into two bachelor gentlemen living together in the heart of London.
There are ads I found in newspapers from the 1850s to 1950s, for rooms to let “for one or two single gentlemen.” That’s a phrase that got repeated more often than I could count. Pairs of “single” gentlemen were welcome tenants, which would never have been the case were the neighbours likely to think it shocking.
There’s the friendship between Wellington and Charles Arbuthnot, who lived together for about 15 years at Apsley House until Arbuthnot’s death. An intriguing note in Queen Victoria’s hand of her visit to a house in Scotland “where Lord Bristol and Mr. Bateson live.” And it wasn’t all men. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby became celebrated as “the Ladies of Llangollen” when they defied their families and ran away together.
We can do all the speculating we like, but we have very little proof of couples living a real-life happily ever after. Queer people throughout most of history wanted (understandably) to remain under the radar, and if any of them did leave evidence behind, their families certainly destroyed or suppressed it.
But when it comes to opposite-sex couples, do we really have anything more? Their relationships were documented, recorded on paper and engraved in stone, but how many were truly love stories, and how many the fictions of those they left behind?
When it comes to writing romances, historical and otherwise, I think it’s important to remember that in the long run, truth isn’t what matters. What survives of us is love, and that’s why romances are the most timeless stories of all.