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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

A new look at Oscar Wilde

If, like me, you’re a life long Oscar Wilde fan and you think you already know everything about him – think again, and pick up a copy of Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn. It will completely change the way you think about Oscar.

The book takes us back to the start, right when Oscar was making the journey from Ireland to come and study in Oxford. It details his rather unimpressive academic career, and paints an entirely different picture than the one many (Oscar included) would have us believe of the impact he made during his time there. We then travel to America, to the real heart of the journey this book is taking us on, through Oscar’s now infamous tour of America. You may be aware of the highly quotable things he said on his lecture tour of America, but perhaps less aware of the anti-Irish, racist sentiment that followed him around. The book explores how Oscar stumbled through a less than successful tour, plagued by dubious promoters that were as keen to see him succeed as they were to make money from parodying him.

This book will show you an Oscar unlike any you’ve read about before. It primarily focuses on his American tour, and therefore the final few chapters exploring his return to England, and his eventual arrest, imprisonment and death, are quite rushed and lacking in the rich, vivid, detail the rest of the book has. Don’t let that put you off, this is a book worth every moment of your time.

If you want more Oscar to follow on from that, I’ve got a few more recommendations of excellent books detailing more about his life.

The Wilde Album by Merlin Holland is a veritable treasure trove of Oscar photographs, art, and artefacts, with the life of Oscar told by his grandson Merlin. It is a brilliant little book for any Wilde fan, which is why it’s totally devastating that it is no longer in print. Published in 1997 by Fourth Estate, you get still get hold of second-hand copies of this book online, and it’s definitely worth hitting up your local library to see if they have a copy.

 

 

 

Another excellent Merlin Holland edited work is The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. Reading the full transcript of what happened in Oscar’s own words is gripping and heartbreaking. This edition gives the full details of both cases that resulted in Oscar’s eventual imprisonment.

And finally, no list of Oscar Wilde recommendations would be complete without recommending some of his work. There are great editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray available now, I especially like this Penguin clothbound edition (you know I love a fancy hardback book!) If you haven’t yet read any of Oscar’s short stories, check out The Happy Prince and other stories from Macmillan.

But my top recommendation has to be the Penguin classics collection De Profundis and other prison writings. This is a brilliant selection of Oscar’s poetry and letters from his time in Reading Gaol and isn’t an easy read, but I can’t recommend it more highly.

 

Let me know if you’ve read Making Oscar Wilde, or your thoughts on anything else Oscar related. Leave a comment here or come find me on Twitter. I was going to finish off with the ultimate cliche and give you an Oscar Wilde quote but instead here’s a tiny part of one of my favourite Oscar poems:

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.
But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
Whilst they had killed the dead.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

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.

Tomboy by Liz Prince

Cover: Tomboy by Liz PrincePage from TomboyGrowing up, Liz Prince wasn’t a girly girl, dressing in pink tutus or
playing pretty princess like the other girls in her neighbourhood. But she wasn’t exactly one of the guys, either. She was somewhere in between. But with the forces of middle school, high school, parents, friendship, and romance pulling her this way and that, “the middle” wasn’t exactly an easy place to be.

I only heard about this book a few weeks ago and I bought a copy faster than I’ve bought anything recently. I haven’t read many memoirs, and never read a graphic memoir, so this was  first for me.

Tomboy by Liz Prince gives a humorous and at times moving account of what it’s like growing up when you don’t fit in, when you live in a society that tries to tell you there is only one way to be a girl. She takes us through her life and experiences trying to find a way to articulate who she is and the conclusion is a life (and gender) affirming moment.

You can buy this book now

Review: Borrowed Time by Paul Monette

Borrowed Time by Paul MonetteI can find no words within me to describe how achingly beautiful and heartbreaking this book is. At times an uplifting tribute filled with love, it also abounds with despair at the pointlessness of the ravages of AIDS, at a time when people little understood the illness, nor did they want to unless directly affected by it. I don’t believe I have ever read a more beautiful love story. While ultimately describing the end of a love as one partner dies, leaving the other faced with a future not only alone but also filled with the possibility of dying in a similar fashion; this exquisitely written book also manages to fill you with a feeling that, yes, there is such a thing as an ultimate love that exists in purity and simplicity, for no other reason than the joy of enjoying that love with another who loves you. This belief ultimately makes it heartbreaking when the inevitable death of Paul’s lover, who he refers to as his best friend, Roger, happens in the last chapter.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to you as a good read that you should experience just for being well written. I would implore everyone to read this for the vital lessons it will impart on you, about passionate love, decline and death. An amazing work!

Genres: LGBTQ+, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Published:  June 1st 1998
Available to buy now