Anyone who knows me, knows I love books. I was the child reading by torchlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep, I was the kid who took a personal library on camping trips and car journeys. I did two degrees in literature and listen to audiobooks in the car. I have been known to sit outside my destination with the engine running for many many minutes, until my friends send out search parties to find me, because “I’m just finishing this chapter.” I’m also a history geek, a data-sponge. I have the sort of mind which remembers that the fastest human ever recorded lived in Australia 17,000 years ago and could sprint through wet mud quicker than Usain Bolt can run the 100m, but can’t remember whether or not I turned the oven off.
If I could only read one type of book ever again, it would either be historical or non-fiction. Whether we’re talking Bronte and Renault, or Ellmann and Wildeblood, I don’t care. I’m as happy reading Wuthering Heights as I am Richard Ellmann’s lyrical biography of Oscar Wilde. One of my all-time favourite books is Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law. Wildeblood is a name largely lost today, although if I ruled the world, there would be statues of him in every town square. He was the first man in modern history to stand up and state before a court and before the press that he was gay (actually, he used the word “invert”). This was in 1954, and it cost him eighteen months of his life.
Against the Law is the story of his life, trial, and imprisonment, written in his own words and published in 1955. It is utterly compelling reading. It does, however, make me squirm. Certain words and phrases raise my twenty-first century hackles, for instance when he compares “normal men” and homosexuals; when he refers to being gay as a “perversion”. It’s not the sort of language I’m used to seeing, because sixty years on, civilised people don’t consider homosexuality to be abnormal or perverse. I certainly wouldn’t expect a proud gay man to refer to himself in such terms.
Does that mean Against the Law should be pushed to the back of the shelf, buried under the wealth of modern literature — fiction and non-fiction — which doesn’t evoke such a visceral reaction in the reader? Perhaps we should rewrite his story, take the words out of his mouth and give him the newer, more politically correct versions. It would certainly make his story much more palatable to a modern audience.
Yet I can’t help thinking taking those words away would detract from his incredible actions. He came out to a world which considered same-sex attraction to be perverse, those who experienced it to abnormal. Wildeblood used those words because they were the only ones he had, they frame the context of his life and make him all the more remarkable for having embraced them. To erase them now is to whitewash history and, in so doing, do Wildeblood and his contemporaries a terrible disservice.
Whenever we read anything based in a context that is not our own — an earlier time, or a different place — we need to filter it through that context. Nobody reads Austen and thinks all those heroines should have told their interfering families to fuck off, girded their loins and gone got their men. We understand life then didn’t work like that, that the sins which rotted Dorian Gray’s soul are probably indulged by every university student on a random Friday night. Times change, people evolve. That doesn’t mean how we got to where we are today should be forgotten; swept under the carpet of history because it causes us embarrassment to look back.
My biggest — and I mean colossal — peeve is anachronisms in historical fiction. That’s why I rarely read any modern historical stories, preferring instead those which were contemporary at the time of writing. I can’t tell you how many ok-homo historical gay romances I’ve read; how many times I’ve seen female characters and POC given a staggering breadth of agency and power.
Let me be clear: I understand the context of the stories I choose to read probably better than most. One cannot analyse historical literature without being familiar with the world in which (and for which) it was written, and most of my university days were spent reading, not the set novels themselves, but anything and everything I could find about the culture and society in which they were set. When Reg warns Laurie about being “seduced” by Alec in The Charioteer, the reader needs to understand he’s using double-speak and masking a very different concern with talk of desertion from the army, not that he’s “a randy old bugger,” to quote one student from my lit class, to the slow beat of our professor’s head against the wall.
So when I read, for example, a Regency romance where every character knows or discovers the MCs’ sexuality, and is absolutely fine with it, I start getting growly. Not because there weren’t people in the 1820s who were queer, or who knew friends and relatives who were and didn’t march them straight to the church or court, but because it wasn’t typical. Making it appear so does nothing to change history, only encourages modern ignorance and satisfies this strange need people have never to feel challenged by anything they read.
All the isms, all the phobias that today are named and shamed — racism, classisim, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on and so on — seem to be largely absent in modern fiction. Now there’s a definite argument that, dur, it’s fiction and why does it need to be all doom and gloom? Why can’t two men meet and fall in love within the pages of a book and live happily for ever and ever without being chased out of town by pitchfork-wielding yokels? And I’ll admit, they have a point. The romanticising of our history can be a pleasant thing to read.
When Forster wrote Maurice, the happily ever after he envisioned for his characters was the crux upon which he hung the entire story. As he said in the Terminal Note:
A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in Love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows…
The difference being that Maurice was both set and written in 1913. If it were written in 2013, one suspects that imperative would be somewhat different. Forster was giving two men the happy ending he couldn’t envision ever happening in life. Today, we rewrite the past to erase that uncomfortable fact: we give our historical heroes their happy endings and pretend that was how they would have really lived.
(FWIW, other authors did this, too. It is a truth generally forgotten that the works of Austen, the Brontes, and their ilk, were equally subversive for depicting a world in which women had agency and couples could marry for love.)
None of this is to say that same-sex couples of the past didn’t navigate the minefields of their time and find their way to a happily ever after; that men and women of quality didn’t fall passionately in love and win their families’ blessing, or else run away and wed regardless. Those stories are, however, outliers. They were not the norm. That’s why they were romanticised to begin with.
Modern romances seem to have lost sight of that fact. We are so constrained by our sense of correctness, by fearing bruising someone’s delicate sensibilities, we have rewritten our collective history into something more akin to fantasy than reality. When an historical author tries to accurately represent the smallest element of uncomfortable truth — casual racism or sexism, perhaps — there seems a burning need to see judgment cast upon that character within the context of the story. It isn’t enough for the reader to disagree with that character, all the others must also disagree with him, too — no matter how unlikely that may be within the setting of the narrative.
Why is that? Why do we need to see our values mirrored back to us in order for us to feel secure in them? Why do we pick and choose which parts of history we wish to remember? As the old proverb goes, He who forgets history is destined to repeat it. The fact Queen Victoria adored her black goddaughter is not sufficient to erase racism from British society in the 1800s. The fact a Queen was on the throne is not enough to deny that women were second-class citizens. Yet we cling to those precious few examples of extraordinary people bucking the trend in order to reinvent the society in which they lived. In a few penstrokes we negate their accomplishments and achievements, we render them ordinary, just so we don’t have to look back and feel uncomfortable.
Indeed, we have reached such an absurd point in our desperate desire to be accepting that even discussing the isms and the phobias now requires trigger warnings out the wazoo before we start, lest some fragile flower feel injured. As an author, this climate feels stifling. As a student of queer history, and a modern gay woman, it feels oppressive.
Why can’t I write accurately about a historical context without worrying I’ll be slammed in reviews? Why can’t I explore the lives of those who came before me, the giants upon whose shoulders I stand, without fearing that someone who only wants to look on the bright side of life will shoot me down? Why is it always the privileged who object first, last, and loudest? Why is it always white people who tell blacks what words they can use; in what ways they can represent their own culture? Why is it straight people who do the same with queerfolk? (And how many are right now bristling at my use of the word “queer”? To clarify, I’m using it in a postmodern academic context, as an all-encompassing umbrella term because frankly, no string of letters fails to leave people feeling left out.)
There seems an element of threat behind such censorship, a certain “Do as we say or we’ll go back to not liking you” undercurrent which I find distasteful. More than that, I think there’s an element of shame, too. Being white, I’m conscious of the role my race has played as a global oppressor, and I take pains not to cause offence by speaking for people who are not like me. I’d also hope I don’t engage in the modern sort of passive-aggressive censorship which judges others when they speak for themselves. But then these things are so ingrained I’m certain that to an extent, my silence is complicit. All any of us can do in that regard is strive always to be better, to learn a little more each day.
And it’s important for those who are Other to be supportive. Without allies, oppressed peoples of every ilk would still be oppressed. Women would still be denied the vote, same-sex relationships would still be illegal, segregation would still be in effect. I have said it before, will say it again, but can never say it enough: for every person who gives a damn about the rights of those different to them, Thank you. Sincerely. When I speak of standing on the shoulders of giants, yes I’m grateful to the Emmeline Pankhusts and the Peter Wildebloods of the world, but I’m also thankful to the Lord Wolfendens and the Frederick Pethick-Lawrences, the people who used their positions of power to bring about change for the better, however unpopular that made them at the time.
No amount of support, however, gives anyone the right to start dictating the terms of a minority’s newfound freedom, and nor does it give anyone the right to reinvent history to whitewash any references to a time when their forebears weren’t as enlightened as they are themselves. When I read queer historical romances, I want to see queer history. I want to see the world as it was then, and I want to see the characters triumph despite the odds, not because an author waved a magic wand and made all the odds disappear. If I wanted that, I’d read a contemporary romance instead (which isn’t to say there aren’t modern hurdles in any queer individual’s path, but at least our relationships — in the west, anyway — are legal now, better understood, and more widely accepted).
Ultimately, isms and phobias are more than a convenient plot device. Navigating a world which thought your desires were disordered and your relationships criminal was a fact of life for all western queerfolk until very, very recently (and still is a fact of life elsewhere). We all carry that burden, the long memory of what our society used to be and how it has changed. It may be ugly, but it’s the truth, our collective truth, and I want to see it represented. Plato described love as the desire for that which is lacking, and romance has always been a cry of longing from those yearning for a freedom denied. Today in the west we have more freedom than ever before. I for one don’t want to forget how bitterly we fought, and how hard-won it truly is.
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