LGBT History Month

In the UK LGBT History month is every February, and I thought I would look at individuals throughout history and some fascinating books exploring their lives.

If you haven’t already, check out my previous post on Oscar Wilde, and some great books that will give you a new understanding on his life.

Fanny and Stella

Photograph of Fanny and Stella

Fanny and Stella were also known as Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, and in 1870 they made front page headlines after their trial at Bow Street Magistrates for “the abominable crime of buggery”. The two were put on trial to make an example of them, but dressing up as a woman in public wouldn’t give them much more than a warning, which is why the trial attempted to prove a physical relationship between the two, something for which the prosecutors lacked evidence or anyone willing to stand up in court to speak against them. They were eventually found not guilty.

A good place to start to get a feel for Victorian England and the world they lived in, is in The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing, which tells their story through the eyes of their landlady. This novel should give you an appetite to delve deeper into their lives, and you should pick up Neil McKenna‘s book Fanny & Stella. He reconstructs the lives the two, to tell a compelling story of how Fanny and Stella came into existence. He also provides rich and vivid detail of the lives of their friends in Victorian England.

 

George Villiers

Portrait of George Villiers
First Duke of Buckingham, patron of the arts, courtier, and lover of King James I/VI. Often times George is referred to as the “favourite of King James” or as the “alleged lover”, but James once said of George “You may be sure that I love Buckingham more than anyone else”, and in a letter to the King, George wrote “I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had”. So I will, as many great historians have said, call Gay on this relationship.

George rose to power within James’ court and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. You can read a fascinating biography of George in The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I by Benjamin Woolley, and explore the theory that the death of James was possibly at the hands of his lover.

 

Anne Lister

Throughout her life Anne Lister, a Yorkshire landowner and traveller, kept diaries written in a secret code that was only uncovered after her death. The diaries include details of her finances, industrial activities on her land, and her lesbian relationships. The diaries are a fascinating insight into the daily life of a wealthy, independent, woman in the early 19th Century, but they also offer a glimpse into the love lives of women, and Anne’s fascinating seduction techniques.

You can read her de-coded diaries, and understand this fascinating woman in her own words, in The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister. It was this edition of her diaries that the 2010 BBC drama, starring Maxine Peake as Anne, was based on. A new biography of Anne was published last year: Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele and a new TV production also called Gentleman Jack is set to air sometime in 2019.


If you want to purchase any of these titles you can do so using the affiliate on the book covers below, which helps keep this site up and running:

 

 

 

 

 

 

*


You can also enquire at these UK LGBTQ bookshops and ask them to order in copies:
Gay’s The Word; Category Is Books.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

The Wicked Cometh

I remember the first time I heard about The Wicked Cometh on Twitter: “lesbian victorian detectives” someone said, and I was sold!  It’s not a very thorough or entirely accurate description of this novel by Laura Carlin, but it’s not far wrong.

In London, 1831, Hester White is desperate to escape the slums by any means available to her. She is thrown into the world of the Brock family, and is drawn to the mysterious Rebekah Brock.

This is a dark and atmospheric thriller that takes the reader on a journey through the unravelling of secrets in a plot twist heavy narrative. I loved the descriptions of London and how brilliantly Laura Carlin is at establishing a strong sense of place and its impact on the characters. It is a slow-paced start and speeds through quickly to its conclusion, but the journey there is lusciously written and will definitely be loved by fans of gothic mysteries.

The paperback has just been released and you can buy it now.

 

 

Where to start with: Sarah Waters

If I’m going to keep this post in line with other Where to start with posts then I shouldn’t be recommending the book everyone has probably heard of, Tipping the Velvet. But love affairs in music halls is not a bad place to start.

Sarah Waters is sometimes summarised as writing “historical lesbian fiction” but whilst that is true, her books are so much more then that sweeping generalisation would have you believe.


The Paying Guests
brings us to 1922, when the aftermath of the war is starting to change people’s lives. Frances and her mother can no longer afford their house without taking in lodgers and when Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances is captivated by the modern style and attitude Lilian introduces. The effect the paying guests have on Frances and her mother is told with Sarah Waters’ typical sensuous and rich language, deftly creating drama and suspense through her portrayal of flawed but utterly real characters.

 

When I first read Fingersmith I was describing it to everyone as “Dickensian lesbians”. This flippant remark wasn’t only because of the setting of the novel, but the themes of poverty and desperation. The manipulation of women by men is a current that runs throughout the many twists and turns of this brilliant novel. Sarah Waters chooses each word so carefully that you can’t help but feel the tension and barely disguised sensuality present in most chapters.

 

 

Check out all Sarah Waters’ books on her website

How to talk about a plague

It was 1987 and my mum told me a story about her day at work. She’s a nurse and that day she was working in A&E, attending to patients waiting to go up to a ward. She tells me how she started her shift being told by another nurse “that patient has been asking for water, I’m not taking it to him, you do it.” Baffled, she asked why that nurse, and others, were refusing to take water to a patient. “He’s got AIDS”, my mum was told, as if this was answer enough for why a nurse would refuse to go near a patient. Mum thought, ‘well, I have no idea what that is, but I’m a nurse, so I’m going to help a patient’. She spent all night trying to get hold of the patients partner, a married man who was unaware his partner was possibly hours away from death.

I was 7 years old when my mum told me this story. It’s hard to imagine, for anyone who was born after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, what it was like at the start. The lack of information on what this new disease was, the lies and rumours about how it was spread (even after it was known how, the denials that it was anything other than a gay disease).

There are some great novels and works of non-fiction that can educate and enrich your understanding of what life was like when this disease began to destroy lives, so I’m going to recommend a few you may want to start with.

If you want to learn more about just how horrific a time it was for those infected and their family and friends, you should start with How to Survive a Plague by David France. This book (and there is a documentary of the same name available) tells the story of a group of activists whose tireless campaigning changed forever the availability of drugs to combat HIV.

 

 

Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time (which I reviewed a few years ago) is a devastating first-hand account of AIDS. Published in 1998 it is an intimate account of love and loss which has haunted me since the day I first read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in a novel which brings HIV into the lives of young people through the eyes of a 14 year old who loses her beloved uncle to the disease. She has to confront prejudice and secrets caused by both HIV and homophobia within her family and her community.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín is a novel which doesn’t focus on AIDS as a central theme, but where the disease seeps its way into every aspect of the character’s life. Set in Argentina in the 1980s it tells the story of Richard, his family struggles, and relationship difficulties, set against a backdrop of political turmoil.

I’ve recommended the books above because these are the ones that I’ve read, but there are many more that explore the early days of AIDS and its effect on individuals, communities, and the world. Let me know your recommendations of any you’ve read. I really want to read some contemporary novels that deal with HIV so any recommendations are welcome.