Monday, May 02, 2011

BELOVED PILGRIM Author Nan Hawthorne on "Gay People in Historical Novels"

"Unwilling to settle for the passive life of a noblewoman, Elisabeth dons her late twin brother's armor and sets out for the Holy Land. On the journey she learns many things, not the least of which is that she can pass for a young man because, as she says, "People see what they expect to see." Her lessons also include that honor is not always where you expect to find it, and that true love can come in the form... of another woman". 

Please welcome the lovely author Nan Hawthorne to Historically Obsessed! Thank you Nan for coming and sharing with us some of the realities of gay releationships in historical fiction novels today. I am proud to have Nan here today to discuss this very relevant topic in historical fiction.With out further delay take it away Nan.

Gay People in Historical Novels 
With a widely accepted estimate that ten percent of men and women prefer their own sex for love and lovemaking and most likely always have, it can be difficult to find gay and lesbian characters in historical novels. This issue is important to me as the author of Beloved Pilgrim whose protagonist is a lesbian. Besides caring that a group of people who have almost no written history should at least be represented in historical fiction, I also worried whether there would be some barrier to my own novel’s acceptance by readers. I wondered about the instances of other gay characters and did some canvassing to find them in well-known novels.

Both my own novels have gay characters. Besides several, both women and men, in my just released Crusades-era novel, Beloved Pilgrim, there is both a villain and a heroic characters in An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England(2008). I like to write about and read about gay people in history, plus with the prevalence of gay people in my extended family, I feel it is important to include that population in any effort to be inclusive. Some people may think that there were no practicing homosexuals in the past, such as the woman who was critical in her review of Brandy Purdy’s The Boleyn Wife who said that if there were so many gay people in the Tudor court they would all be executed. I don’t accept this for several reasons, not the least of which is common sense. But more on that another time. It is simply both important to me and to my liking to have gay people in my books.

I thought over some of the books I have read and also considered the portrayals of these gay characters. Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series starts with THE APOTHECARY ROSE with its predatory Summoner who murders his former lover, and I have wondered if a negative response to the characterization led to her development of the spy Martin Werther and his lover, the musician Ambrose, who are both complex and appealing and gain more support from Owen and Lucy than I even would have expected. Other historical mysteries include gay characters, such as Priscilla Royal’s Prioress Eleanor mysteries with the gay Brother Thomas, and I understand Jeri Westerson has a new gay character coming up in her Medieval Noirs.

Priscilla Royal, by the way, told me that she thinks the prevalence of romances in historical fiction may be the reason there are not so many gay characters in our novels. She points to Diane Galbadom’s novels and says, “For non-romance readers, however, gay characters are often welcome because they add a dimension to life in the era which isn't discussed much.”

There are of course historical figures who are believed to have been gay, perhaps most prominently Edward II of England and his lover, Piers Gaveston, about whom several novels have been written, including Purdy’s The Confession of Piers Gaveston , Susan Higginbotham’s The Traitor's Wife, and others. Richard the Lionhearted is portrayed as gay in novels like Norah Loft’s The Lute Player: A Novel of Richard the Lionhearted and Shield of Three Lions: A Novel by Pamela Kaufman, though Sharon Kay Penman has her well-reasoned doubts, but at least two novels about William Rufus, Valerie Anand’s King of the Wood and Parke Godwin’s Robin and the King portray that earlier king of England as gay. Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys has the horticulturalist John Tradescant in love with George Villiers who was himself generally believed to be in sexual relationships with James I and Charles I. Historical figures portrayed as gay also include Christopher Marlow, William Shakespeare, Byron and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

There are some societies that we know had a greater acceptance of sexual diversity, in particular the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great is only one of the novels that tell a gay love story. This is also where you will find lesbian characters, most notably the original Lesbian, Sappho, in Sappho Sings by Peggy Jay Ullman and others. There seem to be many fewer lesbians in other historical novels. Gregory’s The Wise Woman has the title character courted by the mistress of the house in which she lives. The web site Bosom Friends, which I edit, has a list of lesbian historical novels.

The average reader is probably not aware of the whole industry of gay male or “M/M” novels, mostly romances. You can find more on this at Speak Its name and The Macaronis There are several such novels that take place in the Age of Sail, most prominent of which are books by Alex Beecraft, M. Kei and one by Mel Keegan. What might surprise you is that many of the male-named authors, like Alex, are actually women. There are lots of women readers of them as well. I plan my own M/M Civil War era novel for the near future. But there does not appear to be as much in the way of what one could call F/F historical fiction, though it is on the rise. I am currently reading The Warrior’s Path by Catherine M. Wilson and long ago read Isabel Miller’s Patience & Sarah about a couple who travel into the wilderness in America to carve out lives for themselves.

There are so many topics we could explore with this subject, such as why there is so little documentation of gays and lesbians in history, what life would have been like for people who sought their own gender for love, and, in another vein, why readers might or might not want to see gay characters in novels. If this last is a possibility, then I worry that the readers, like the woman who said “I’m not a lesbian, so I don’t read lesbian romance", will avoid a book like mine. Gay people don’t generally take that tack with straight novels but read for the story, and I would hope that straight readers would do so as well. As I said to the woman who doesn’t read lesbian romance, I’m not a lesbian and I wrote one! There is also the strong possibility that mainstream publishers would be chary of novels with strong gay themes. I hope to have the opportunity to explore these in other essays.

Stereotypes do come out in literature, including historical novels. I have found that people with disabilities and people who are fat are more likely to be negatively represented, and I would tend to assume the same might be true for gay and lesbian characters. One I have run into is tied to another, that gay characters were the victims of child sexual abuse or that gay men in particular seek out underage boys for sex.

I am making no pronouncements here but hoping to engender discussion. What gay and lesbian historical novels have you read? And what did you think of the portrayals both of the characters and their societies?

Nan Hawthorne is the author of Beloved Pilgrim, a novel about a woman who chooses to live and fight as a man in the doomed Crusade of 1101. It is available at Amazon and Smashwords, and should be on Kindle and shortly.

Bio on Nan Hawthorn

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 ANGLE 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 catalog and also Internet radio station, Radio Dé Danann.

Beloved Pilgrim An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England


  1. A new subject for me. Thank you for the post and the links.

  2. It only makes sense. You cannot tell me that gay people sprang up in these last centuries...

  3. Mystica, I am glad you enjoyed the post!

    Patty, so true right if there were people around then there has to be gay people too.

  4. Very interesting topic. I, for one, do not have a problem with it and I agree that there had to be many more gays and lesbians in history than we know about. I, for one, am a firm believer that Edward II was gay. After seeing him portrayed in Braveheart, my favorite film, and discussed in The King's Mistress by Emma Campion, I cannot help but believe that he was.

  5. Fascinating to read this blog. Food for thought for my also.

  6. Hey..I know this is kind of random, but I've been following you on here for awhile, and I love you blog and how it's set up.
    How in the world are you able to get the different tabs at the top and make it look so professional? Is there a site you could recommend to me? I am starting to get more followers, and I really want to make my blog look better! I'd appreciate it so much if you could help me out!!


  7. Michelle, I second that Edward II was for sure gay in my mind there is no way that he was not. I saw a thing on the history channel on famous places and Edward came up because they were in the place where he was last held and more than likely murdered in that special flat out stated he was gay. "Follies of the King" by Jean Plaidy was a really spot on portrayal of him, the end was pretty nasty though. I really wanted to cover this topic on my blog because I know that some readers do have an issue with gay relationships in HF. I have to admit that if others do not want to read about it that is fine with me but the truth is gay people were in history and gay relationships did exist. I actually enjoy changing things up I read "The Boleyn Wife" by Brandy Purdy and it was WILD but I still really enjoyed it because it gave logic to Catherine Howard.

    Paula Lofting, cool I am glad you enjoyed it this post is a new favorite of mine.

    Hey Kimberly, I will have to check out your page but I promise I will get back to you and help ya out.

  8. Hey Kimberly,

    You may not expect this particular response from me, but I know how to do all that stuff and will happily answer questions.. hawthorne at nanhawthorne dot com .

    Howard, you should read Purdy's The Confession of Piers Gaveston.

    Also, I will be sorry if there are people who will let their bias against people who are gay influence their reading. The fact is that gay people are part of the human landscape ... always have been, always will be, and if you will read about other people in groups you don't approve of, why not gays and lesbians? Try "judge not that ye be not judged".

    Thanks for your comments everyone.. Beloved Pilgrim has a lesbian protagonist, but it's central theme is being who you really are and seeing how your culture's values act in the real world.

    Nan Hawthorne

  9. Re: heterosexual readers of glbt fiction

    A heterosexual friend of mine recently started reading through my collection of lesbian fiction, mostly romance, but other stuff too. Her most telling remark about it was:
    How come you can't find strong women like these in straight fiction?!?!

    Catherine M Wilson

  10. Thanks for the mention, Nan :) I think you're right - there have always been gay people as well as straight throughout history. That being so, why should all the heroes have to be straight? Let's see some equal representation for everyone.

  11. Two great places to start including gay people in your historical fiction reading is Alex Beecroft's and Catherine M. Wilson's books!!

    Someone pointed out a glaring omission in my article.. Ruth Sims downright gorgeously written The Phoenix and Counterpoint: Dylan's Story... two of the most beautifully written romances you will ever find. And as someone said , Ruth can put more eroticism into a scene of a man dropping a hat on a bed than most people can put into explicit sex scenes of any persuasion.

  12. Nan you are so sweet to help out. I too want to read Brandy's Confessions of Piers Gaveston just because I feel I must satisfy my curiosity. Eloquently stated Anne and a very very true motto to live life by.

    Catherine, so true I am always in search of strong women in HF gay or straight it is actually what drew me into it in the first place. Thank you for the visit too it is much appreciated and a pleasure.

    Alex, true very true, thank you for paying a visit and enlightening some of us here.

    Nan, thank you for the lovely guest post and luring in Catherine and Alex. I see it that love sees no bounds might it be sex, race, or what ever. We love who we love and their is no denying that. I am more than happy to support HF that is diverse because with out diversity every novel would be the same and that would kill me with boredom. Congrats Nan on the release.

  13. I am so far behind on many of the posts I follow. Blame the TN tornadoes.
    I have always had a hard time understanding why a part of society is so continuously marginalized. The feeling I get from many who cannot accept the homosexual segment of society is they feel threatened and not secure in their own sexual identity. Wake up, it isn't something you can catch. We live in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt, and it isn't even something you can have an intelligent and rational discussion about. The interesting thing is, the percentage of the population that is "gay" is larger than in many other areas of the country. Why shouldn't gay characters be included in mainstream fiction? They are and always have been part of society, playing as an important a role as everyone else. Their personal relationships and stories have as much validity as anyone else's.

  14. Librarypat, eekk I hope everything is well on the home front now though. How scarey I am such a wuss I would have a heart attack. I agree all the way with you Pat that is it not something you catch and that some people are very insecure even in their reading material. I am pretty lucky that Oregon is very liberal it is part of the reason I never moved away. I am just glad that Nan and some of the authors she listed are voicing themselves because there is a want for more.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...