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13 August 2006 @ 07:39 pm
"Jarring modern elements" in my Regency romance  
There’s a terrific review of my book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander: A Bisexual Regency Romance, on the witty, snarky web site, Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels, which begins by describing Phyllida as “a very clever, highly articulate, historically sharp and delightfully entertaining romance.”
Read the whole thing at:

I’m writing a longer version here of an already long comment that I left on the site, because the reviewer described certain parts of the story, including what I hoped would be a delightful and heartwarming final scene, as “jarringly modern” and decided I had included them, and justified them in my Author’s Note, as “fantasy.”

Please note: This discussion will eventually refer to some specific plot details, so if you haven’t yet read Phyllida but would like to, and would prefer not to have the story spoiled, then please be careful about reading beyond the LJ cut, here.

Now, as I claim at the beginning of that note, I strongly believe that all romance, contemporary and historical, is a form of fantasy fiction. I think a great part of its appeal is that readers go in knowing that the story isn’t going to be exactly like real life. I discuss this concept more fully in a “Note about romance novels and gay characters” on the “About the author” page of my Web site.

Even a romance set in modern times smoothes things over, and rightly so, because readers want a story in which, unlike most of real life, things are going to work out. Readers of historical romance have the additional requirement of not wanting to have to think that the happily-ever-after ending will be cut short by sexually-transmitted disease, death in childbirth, infant mortality, or any of the myriad disasters and disappointments that afflicted most people in the past. In the specific case of Phyllida, in which a bisexual man ends up with two partners, one of each sex, I didn’t want to even discuss such tiresome questions as would arise in a real-life situation of this kind, such as personal hygiene and syphilis. That’s what I meant by “fantasy.”

Balancing this fantasy, and a big part of the hard work in imagining a historical romance, is getting enough of the historical details right so that readers are able to suspend their disbelief to the point of becoming engrossed in the story and settling comfortably into what seems like a faithful and accurate depiction of Regency London or wherever. Add the fact that what’s being presented is a “bisexual romance,” and things can get pretty hairy (or not, if the hero, like Andrew Carrington, the hero of Phyllida, shaves his chest—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here). Many people I spoke to while writing Phyllida and afterwards didn’t really know that gay and bisexual people existed back then. Of course, whatever they called themselves—or didn’t—labels are jarringly modern, even if the behavior is as old as time—gay and bisexual behavior most certainly existed, along with the people who engaged in it, but presenting it believably to a doubting modern audience is a challenge.

The Smart Bitches reviewer found two apparently “jarringly modern” elements in my story that were extremely “off-putting” to her: first, my hero’s supposed “position on abortion;” and second, “the final scene that creates a happy ending for [the three protagonists of the romance] Andrew, Phyllida and Matthew.” Here’s where to REALLY stop reading if you haven’t read the book.

On the first problem, Andrew’s “position on abortion:” This mysterious phrase, I realized after puzzling over it for a few minutes, came from Andrew’s remarks in one of the later chapters during his glorious sexual and emotional reconciliation with Phyllida, beginning with, “I promise you, I’ll help you dispose of it,” followed by, “We can keep it if you really want it,” and finally, “It’s your child, your choice.”

Yes, I admit the language sounds too much like the modern rhetoric of the pro-choice movement (with which I am in complete agreement). But Andrew wasn’t recommending an abortion. He was talking about the much more common means of getting rid of unwanted pregnancies in those days, namely, carrying them full term, then farming the newborn out to a wet nurse or caretaker with a reputation for neglect.

Back in 1812, there were no safe abortions. Surgical knowledge of women’s reproductive systems was nonexistent and even the “morality” of easing women’s labor pains with anesthetics (not yet discovered) was being “debated” well into the 19th century. (After all, the Bible had said, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” so who were we to go against Scripture?) If a woman were desperate, she might try ingesting something so poisonous that with luck it would kill the fetus before it killed her. Most of these women were not lucky. Unlike today’s world (the developed world, at any rate, in which an abortion in an accredited hospital or clinic is safer than giving birth, even in a hospital or clinic), in the world of 1812, it was actually safer for the woman to carry the unwanted child to term. So if Andrew did have a position on abortion it would be: “Don’t.”

Despite all the dangers of death in childbirth and of puerperal fever shortly afterwards, in a world with almost no effective birth control, there were a surprising number of unwanted pregnancies and newborns, Any woman with the resources to do so simply carried the child to term and “disposed” of it at that point. Since almost all middle- and upper-class women did not breastfeed their children—even their most wanted and cherished heirs—but sent them out to a wet nurse, this kind of “disposal” would be easy to manage.

In the scene in question, Andrew and Phyllida are discussing her pregnancy, which Andrew has just learned about and which he at first believes is the result of her being raped. His reaction, because he loves Phyllida and doesn’t think the child is his, is to want to help her by “disposing” of it after its birth. His suggestion was not unusual for his time, and was made only because he thought the “it” that was being “disposed” of was not his child. I can assure the reviewer and all readers that when it comes to his own children, Andrew is most definitely opposed to “disposing,” and is as possessive as any alpha male, then or now.

Of course, the reviewer’s objection to this scene was that it makes Andrew appear far too 21st-century and evolved as a champion of women’s reproductive rights for a typical domineering, upper-class hero of a Regency romance novel. Regardless of the method of “disposal,” a man in 1812, or so the modern reader might think, would not be in favor of a woman’s having the “right to choose.”

However, in many ways the whole “conservative = anti-abortion” hot-button issue is a product of the modern era, when it first became possible for substantial numbers of women to survive a surgical abortion performed under sterile condition. That is, being anti abortion only begins to make sense when it means being against something other than a desperate woman killing herself by poison. It’s not that people were for abortion back then—there just wasn’t much for them to be for or against.

Back then, most of this debate was not about “when life begins” and “protecting the unborn,” but about punishing sex outside of wedlock and sex that can’t lead to procreation. Unmarried, poor pregnant women were harassed (dismissed from employment, turned out of doors with nothing to live on) until ingesting poison probably began to seem preferable. In my Author’s Note at the end of my book I describe how men who committed “sodomy” were punished by hanging or the pillory. Like now, women with more financial resources had other options, such as relocating to the country under an assumed (married) name, giving birth, and then “disposing.” Wealthy sodomites could flee and live abroad. For the others, there was much gloating by a vengeful public over the proof, in the form of dead babies and mothers, and in hanged sodomites, that the wages of sin is death.

So the point of the criticism can still be valid, that Andrew would share (some of) these prejudices of his sex and his class. But I’m not so sure. Andrew has spent most of his adult life enjoying the kinds of sexual relations that can’t lead to procreation (at least, not until men can get pregnant). Like many “sodomites” then and now, he is friendly with a number of sexually active unmarried women, the “High Impures” of the Regency demimonde, who might frequently face the problem of out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the course of their working lives. I don’t think he would necessarily endorse this punitive outlook, certainly not to the extent that his heterosexual contemporaries did. He’d be unlikely to be especially sympathetic to women—he just wouldn’t care much one way or the other—until that is, his beloved wife is the woman is question and—and this is the big and—he thinks the child isn’t his. Once his paternity is established, he will no longer be suggesting that Phyllida dispose of it.

My aim in this part of Andrew and Phyllida’s “discussion” was to show how far Andrew’s character has grown, from the brusque, finger-snapping authoritarian at the beginning of the story, to the sympathetic, loving husband at the end. Yes, I think he is atypical of most of the misogynist, punitive members of his sex and class. But isn’t that one of the reasons to write and read romances? We want our hero to be of his place and time, but not so much so that we find him repulsive. As was pointed out recently on the listserv RomanceScholar, most readers would not accept a romantic hero who was a (guilt-free) slave-owner in antebellum America, no matter how typical that was of his place and time, and regardless of how many other sterling qualities he possessed.

OK, now to the second “jarringly modern element:”

What we’re talking about here is same-sex marriage, the major scene of the Epilogue, in which two same-sex couples, Andrew and his lover, Matthew, along with Lord David Pierce and his lover, George Witherspoon, are “married” by the “dissenting minister,” John Church, using the old form of the Anglican marriage ceremony found in the Book of Common Prayer.

As a question of historical accuracy, I have to stand my ground on this one. This is just one of many examples of the ways in which the gay subculture two hundred years ago and more was similar to ours, to the point that unprepared readers coming across some of the same words and phrases still in use today in a story set in 1812, may be infuriated at falling into what seems like a cesspool of anachronisms.

I did not discuss this in detail in my Author’s Note, but there were many precedents for this seemingly trendy, too-much-of–the-moment, politically motivated scene. Not wanting to ruin the plot for perverse readers who read the last pages first, I referred interested readers to the research I did, and my source for all this yummy info, Rictor Norton’s Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830.

As I said in my Author’s Note, the character of John Church is a real historical figure and was, as I described him, a foundling, discovered on the steps of a church (thus the name) who became a dissenting minister (an independent Protestant, free-thinking, outside of the strict Anglican denomination). He was also bisexual, married with six children, notorious for “taking liberties” with his handsome young (male) parishioners and, more to the point, known to have conducted “molly weddings” in the molly houses (gay clubs) of his day, specifically the White Swan, the object of the horrific raid in 1810 that is referred to by Andrew and his friends at the start of the novel.

The only inaccuracies in my portrayal of this scene are: 1. I had Church use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Reason: Andrew is, of course, high church, and would demand it; and 2. The weddings take place in a private home instead of a molly house or at least the Brotherhood of Philander (a very high-class molly house). Reasons: Andrew and Matthew are wealthy and can pay for Church to travel and stay at their house. There’s no danger of spying, the staff is vetted and loyal, and there’s even an old chapel on the estate. Who knows how many other weird ceremonies took place in gentlemen’s private houses over the centuries? Think of the Hell-Fire Club…

I don’t believe these departures from the known facts are enough to discredit the scene. One objection could be that the “molly house” weddings may well have been jokes, spoofs of the rituals of straight society. Accounts of these ceremonies sound like mockeries, with “bridesmaids” and attendants as well as the married couple all “consummating” the marriage by indulging in lots of modern-sounding bathhouse- and backroom-sex in rooms with multiple beds, no doors, etc. (Ohmygodyessss!)

All I can say is, having known a number of gay men who enjoyed the freewheeling pre-AIDS days of the late 1970’s, the wild sex and silliness don’t prove that the men involved didn’t take the ceremonies seriously—in fact, from what I know of men in general, gay and bi and everything else—it’s just as likely that the sex and hilarity made it more significant and meaningful for them. I stand by the authenticity, or at least the plausibility, of this scene.

For the final objection, Phyllida’s easy acceptance of her bisexual husband, with any luck, everything I had to say about that fit into my long “comment” on the Smart Bitches Web site.

Again, thanks to the Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels for such an honest and generally glowing review of my book.
Current Mood: stressedstressed
Charmioncharmion on September 15th, 2006 08:00 pm (UTC)
Sorry to barge in on an old entry - I ended up here through the Smart Bitches' review on Phyllida, which I haven't read yet (but I certainly plan to! It sounds wonderful). Perversely ignoring the spoiler warning as I had a hunch of what it was about, I read your post with interest. When you talked about possible inaccuracies and anachronisms, I wondered if you knew about Alan Bray's The Friend? (extensive review) Because Mr Bray's main point is that same-sex unions took place in England, even be church blessed, until at least the early Victorian era. So that would support your point as well, I think.

And now I've discovered Rictor Norton's website! Thank you for that. I'm looking forward to reading your novel.
ann_amalie: Phyllidaann_amalie on September 16th, 2006 05:58 am (UTC)
Thank you for great reference
"Sorry" to barge in? Honestly, I can't thank you enough for telling me about Alan Bray's work and sending me the link to the long but informative review. I'm one of those annoying people who reads tons of stuff in papers and online all day and then whenever somebody asks "Have you read such-and-such," or "Have you heard of this or that?" my answer is always, "Yes, I read something about it somewhere but I can't remember where."

So, yes, I had heard of Bray's work, notably his other book, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, but I haven't read either one. I have read (I own it) John Boswell's Christianity, Homosexuality and Tolerance. I also have the classic Kenneth J. Dover work referred to in the review, Greek Homosexuality.

What pleases me most in all this, from the perspective of having written my bisexual Regency romance, is that the description on Amazon.com of Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England mentions how a specifically "homosexual" persona seems to have emerged at the end of the 17th century, which agrees precisely with Rictor Norton's thesis, that a recognizable "gay subculture" began in England around 1700. So there's clear evidence that something was happening around that time.

I think I'll have to get Bray's books.

But beyond all this, I'm just glad that my long "comment" produced such a pleasant result. Thanks again for commenting, and I certainly hope you enjoy Phyllida.
ginmarginmar on November 27th, 2011 03:13 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you for great reference
I, too, have to apologize because apparently there's somebody with a grudge against you and they showed up on Amazon. However, after being put straight, I was so intrigued---I love the hidden history of any time period---I've put your book on my Must Buy list. And have these people criticizing this stuff never heard of Lord Byron?
ann_amalie: HarperCollins Coverann_amalie on November 27th, 2011 07:13 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you for great reference
Only one person with a grudge? ;)

My fiction definitely offends some people, some of whom write reviews or comments on Amazon. Apparently a woman who likes bisexual men and finds the idea of being married to one appealing is too shocking for the straitlaced 21st century.

I'm glad to hear that you were "put straight" (how?--just curious) and hope you enjoy Phyllida when or if you read it.

I'm also delighted to get a comment on a five-year-old blog post. All this "social networking" is a pain in the ass sometimes, but something like this makes up for a lot.

BTW, by now I've now read the two Alan Bray books mentioned in the discussion. Bray's prose style is pretty hard going, but what he has to say is so interesting it's worth staying with it.