Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative is a work of scholarly literary analysis that considers the genre of historical fiction depicting gay and lesbian people and how it confronts the inability of traditional historical approaches to present an accurate, unbiased view of ignored populations. Dr. Jones uses several examples of GLBTQ themed historical fiction to illustrate three types of narrative to suppose such a history.
book offers a concept that will be familiar to any group that has
been left out of the story of humankind, that of erasure. We
have all heard the statement, "History is written by the
victors." It is also written by a dominant culture, the folks
who make the rules for the rest of us. Gays and lesbians are not the
only group to be "erased" from history simply by not being
included in its record keeping and objective consideration. So have
women, racial and religious minorities, the lower classes and others.
Even those sincere and diligent attempts by historians cannot
research what was never written down.
Further, Jones points out, the secular way of knowing, that is the empirical investigation and reporting of "facts", is no longer recognized as the only valid one by all scholars. There are other ways of knowing, accurate or not, such as the sacred, that is, divine inspiration or visitation, and also narrative ways of knowing, which is where historical fiction comes into the picture. "Narrative ways of knowing" has to do with the stories we hear and tell and what they say about us as a people. Historical fiction is, in fact, about the only attempt to tell the story of gay and lesbian history, to imagine what people with same-sex desires had to do to find love in a hostile environment. How these narratives speak to us in contemporary society says as much or more about what we want to know, what we ourselves experience by reaching into a trans-historical tradition.
As a reader and writer of gay and lesbian historical fiction, I have long noticed the tendency even among my own colleagues to accept the historian's limited view of life for gays and lesbians of the past. The only substantial records for, say, the Middle Ages are the messages contained in Church writings and records of arrests and punishment. Neither of these sources is likely to be objective. All they really record is the dominant society's disapproval of gay and lesbian and bisexual behavior. Accepting these as the actual record of same-sex desiring people can only be inaccurate. The most objective historian can still only report an incomplete story.
difference with historical fiction is that it comes right out and
says, "This is fiction. We are just trying to tell a plausible
story." While historians may or may not admit the shakiness of
their own accuracy, too often they and those who read their work jump
to conclusions based on lack of rather than the existence of facts.
Even historical novelists will say, "They would never do that
because the Church would frown on it." An investigation of
narrative ways of knowing would show that not every person in that
period toed the line where the Church was concerned. In spite of
religious teachings, people had sex outside of marriage, committed
crimes, acted as prostitutes, and even massacred whole populations,
ostensibly all disapproved of by "the Church". To exempt
acting on same-sex desire from the behavior of everyday people
ignores what we know, thanks to narrative ways of knowing, of human
nature. It is Jones' assertion in this book that historical fiction
is the medium in which the secular account and the narrative account
can be balanced and married for what may not be a perfectly accurate
history but at least one that rings true for those who have no other.
Literary analysis looks at what types of stories we tell and how we tell them. Jones has chosen to focus on three topoi, or rhetorical conventions, in gay and lesbian narrative. It is important to realize that these topoi are not limited to gay and lesbian storytelling, and Jones demonstrates this by showing parallels between it and the seemingly inimical stories of Christian narratives.
In this context identification is a way that people seek to choose how they live their lives based on examples from the past. We often hear hot denials that same-sex desiring people of the past self-identified as such, that they did not have an expression for "what I am" as a person who loves a member of his or her own gender. I question the absolute truth of this assertion. I cannot imagine that someone like Christopher Marlowe, for example, was not clear on how he was different, and aver that his writing of the play Edward II about the relationship between that king and his favorites reveals Marlowe's own desire to identify with same-sex desiring men of history. Jones however is willing to downplay such self-definition in favor of exploring how we now look to the past for "people like us". That is, after all, the point of this book, not the establishment of incontrovertible fact but to speak to how historical fiction satisfies our need for a place in history.
For a literary example of identification in historical fiction, Jones looks to Mary Renault who, although a lesbian, chose Ancient Greek men, such as Alexander the Great, as something like role models for gay men in the present. For those unfamiliar with literary analysis, the point is not to say this absolutely happened exactly as I portray it, but is rather an almost archetypal rendering of what may have been. Renault's very well regarded historical novels interpret Alexander as someone who might have self identified as "gay" now, but whose life and influence reach much farther than his affectional and sexual preference. He was a conqueror as well as a lover, and here you see a theme of how colonialism reads in the retelling of the story as well.
One parallel in Christian storytelling is the "lives of the saints", tales of extraordinary people with whom one takes guidance in how to be a good person, a good Christian. We all look for role models, not just known people in our lives, but people in history, fictional characters we admire in books and movies, and people we make up in our own minds as ideals. It is not surprising then that both Christian and gay and lesbian narratives serve that function.
Coming out stories bear a remarkable resemblance to conversion stories from Christian narrative. In each, a person who has had no interest in or awareness of a new way of being experiences a moment of revelation, whether through reading the scriptures or experiencing same-sex desire, to a powerful influence that changes his or her life. St. Augustine tells of how he went from a pleasure-loving but ultimately disenchanted sinner to, through revelation, an enlightened and holy life. Similarly, a same-sex desiring person in a story goes from ignorance of his or her essential affectional nature to someone who knows himself or herself to be different, to have another path to fulfillment.
Jones uses Alice Walker's The Color Purple to show how a historical novel illustrates this coming out story/conversion story for the character Celie. She is powerless until she meets her husband's mistress, Shug. When she falls in love with her and they make love, Celie has a new understanding of herself and who she is. This conversion from little more than a slave to an independent, creative woman whose own transformation helps transform others comes not from a divine revelation but from new knowledge of herself, her individuality and the strengths they bring.
There is an irony in the parallel of the third theme, chosen community, between Christian narrative and gays and lesbians, in that the emphasis on family especially in fundamentalist teaching is belied by actual practice. The Bible says that a woman must leave her family and "cleave unto her husband", forsaking her native family, and in practice calls followers to come together as members of often huge communities of worshippers in megachurches. The chosen community, chosen family is, in spite of the message, the desirable one. This is true of Christian narrative but also of gay and lesbian community. One leaves one's family to go out and find a community with others who share your desires, your needs, and your way of life. Finding this community is as much part of Christian narrative, such as the story of the Plymouth Pilgrims, as it is with countless historical novels about GLBTQ people seeking sympathetic and safe communities in which to live.
Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight illustrates the choice of community in the story where the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, chooses to be a "sissy" in contrast to his remarkable father, and contents himself with that chosen identity. When his father is killed, however, he is asked to take over leadership of the Myrmidons, his late father's soldiers, and he realizes that just being beautiful is not enough for his life to have meaning. He discovers he cannot achieve anything among his fellow wastrels but must look to his father's example as a man the soldiers can look to as physical perfection, a leader to whom they can turn their devotion, and as such he must be more than an object of physical admiration but must follow through with genuine skill as a general.
Jones, in providing these and many other revelatory examples of the three topoi in historical fiction has effected a secure place for the genre not only in literature but also in a different way of thinking about history. Certainly for people whose history has been subject to erasure this may be the only way we can have our own stories of those like us who came before. I myself challenge historical novelists to look to the very skill with which they are credited, developing narrative ways of knowing, to challenge themselves to reject inadequate history to create the stories we, as gays and lesbians, women, racial and religious minorities, the lower classes and other ignored peoples need. We can't be absolutely accurate when there is no record, so why not apply what we creative interpreters know from our knowledge of how real people tick to offer these populations something to be part of.
as a scholarly work this book has a high if variable price, several
used copies are available for as little as $20 on Amazon.com, and a
library should be able to interlibrary loan a copy for an interested
Nan Hawthorne is the editor for Our Story: GLBTQ Historical Fiction at GLBT Bookshelf: http://bookworld.editme.com .
to developing a GLBTQ history through narrative
Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative
Norman W. Jones, PhD, Associate Professor of English, Ohio State University
Palgrave Macmillan; First Edition (May 29, 2007)
Nan Hawthorne is a historical novelist who lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and doted-upon cats. She has been in love with history and historical fiction since, at four, she discovered the Richard Greene “The Adventures of Robin Hood” television series. She wrote her first short story at seven, then launched into the letters and stories with a teen friend that ultimately became her first novel, AN INVOLUNTARY KING: A TALE OF ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND (2008). The author of one nonfiction work on women and body image, she now concentrates primarily on historical novels set in the Middle Ages. Her latest novel, BELOVED PILGRIM, looks at gender identity and self-realization during the chaotic and doomed Crusade of 1101. She writes several blogs on historical themes, owns the medieval-novels.com catalog and also Internet radio station, Radio Dé Danann.
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The book offers a concept that will be familiar to any group that has been left out of the story of humankind, that of erasure. We have all heard the statement, "History is written by the victors." It is also written by a dominant culture, the folks who make the rules for the rest of us. Gays and lesbians are not the only group to be "erased" from history simply by not being included in its record keeping and objective consideration. So have women, racial and religious minorities, the lower classes and others. Even those sincere and diligent attempts by historians cannot research what was never written down.
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