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*”A fair breeze and 38 guns, who could ask for more?”*

*INTERVIEW WITH LIEUTENANT DANIEL LEIGH (RN)*

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*You are an only son, Daniel. Highly unusual that you’re pursuing a
career in the Royal Navy. Shouldn’t you be looking after the family
estate?*

I should, yes. And you may believe me that my parents have tried every
trick in the book to dissuade me from my plans to go to sea. Oddly
enough, my mother more than my father! She would read to me all news
about our losses at sea, adding gruesome details she made up in the
process. My dear mother has developed a rather morbid affection for
sharks.

*Interesting strategy, though highly questionable from a modern point of view. Weren’t you afraid?*

Not at all! When I was eight years old, I ran away from home and
chartered as a ship’s boy aboard the “Sweet Louise”, a merchantman. It
wasn’t before Sicily that my father caught up with me.

*I suppose Admiral Leigh wasn’t too pleased.*

Mildly put! I received a truly good hiding, I couldn’t sit for days!
Just because he liked to call me “powdermonkey” he obviously didn’t
want me to be one! But in the end he accepted that I couldn’t envision
a career in politics or spend my days looking after our estate. I leave
poachers and grumpy tenants to my cousin, Francis. He’s a pedantic
bean-counter; can you imagine that he’s writing all his business
letters ink-over-pencil? The man is thirty-five years old, for crying
out loud! And still not married, if I may add. Not that this surprises
me.

*You are not married, either. Not that this fact would surprise /me/.*

I have John and serve on a fine ship. A fair breeze and 38 guns, who could ask for more?

*Captain John Meadows is a very quiet man, withdrawn into himself. You are the opposite; how comes you’re so captivated by him?*

Do you desire me to sort the list in alphabetical order? There is his
sarcasm and dry wit. John is a man of honour, always putting his duty
first. I wish there were more men in the Royal Navy like him. All
through his suffering, he has never complaint, and was willing to
sacrifice his own life for me. It is good to see him freed now from
this creature which has haunted and almost murdered him. All that
aside, I really enjoy kissing him. Not that I’d admit to that in
public, of course.

*Aren’t you worried about the consequences of this love? If you and
Captain Meadows were found out, you’d face a court martial and possible
death.*

That is very true. But we would have to be caught in the act first,
with two eyewitnesses present. As we’re careful, that’s not very likely
to happen. No coupling in the captain’s cabin, that’s Article of War #
99.

*Don’t you find it difficult to adhere to that rule? Being at sea for
weeks, if not months, with no privacy but your lover right in front of
your nose?*

Pardon me if I should be too forward in answering this question, Miss
Collingwood, but that’s one of the reasons why the front flaps on our
breeches are so convenient. In the cable tier-

*-it is very dark, I’m aware of that, and now it’s time for a /very/
quick change of subject: how would you describe “Lieutenant Samuel
Blackwood (deceased)” to our readers?*

It’s a Georgian ghost story, featuring a cursed ship, a vengeful ghost,
a haunted captain and a very daring lieutenant. Extraordinary events! I
thought I was doomed to spend the rest of my days in that stuffy office
at the Admiralty, and before I could think twice, I was right in the
middle of an adventure I’d have never dreamt of! A ghost! A ship with a
mind of her own! And Captain John Meadows. I would also like to add
that I find cover and illustrations by Mlle Amandine de Villeneuve most
charming.

*What is the next mission of HMS /Privet/?*

We will return to Spithead next month. John will then take the waters
in Bath, and we both hope that you will write us into a less dangerous
adventure next time.

~*~*~*~

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Mother Clap’s Molly House

Textbook: Mother Clap’s Molly House, (The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830) by Rictor Norton

First published in 1992 by GMP Books. A Second, Revised and Enlarged edition published in October 2006 by Chalfont Press (Tempus Publishing, UK).

Available through Amazon, or via Rictor Norton’s site here: http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/molly.htm

which is a great place to go for a more detailed run down of the contents. It’s also a fascinating site in itself, where you can find essays on all sorts of queer issues from the homosexual pastoral tradition to bawdy limericks.

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. The Renaissance Background

2. The Birth of the Subculture

3. Mother Clap’s Molly House

4. The Sodomites’ Walk in Moorfields

5. Maiden Names and Little Sports

6. Caterwauling

7. Popular Rage

8. Blackmail

9. The Third Sex

10. The Warden of Wadham

11. The Case of Captain Jones
12. The Macaroni Club

13. The Vere Street Coterie

14. A Child of Peculiar Providence

15. Men of Rank and Fortune

16. Tommies and the Game of Flats

Review:

Basically, for anyone interested in what it was like to be gay during the 18th and early 19th Century, this book is a must. By combing through records of criminal prosecutions for buggery, and the documents kept by the Societies which persecuted gay men, Rictor Norton has amassed an enormous wealth of evidence about a heretofore unknown subculture. He’s able to prove that our own century was not the first to have cruising grounds, gay bars and even a sense of gay pride. On the contrary, our own views on homosexuality and our own modern gay culture have their roots in the culture which came to light in the 18th Century.

I say ‘came to light’ because as the book shows, it’s entirely possible that this gay subculture had already evolved by the 17th Century. The first chapter of the book describes King James Ist’s court, in which the King’s love for George Villiers made the court a relatively tolerant place for gay relationships to flourish.

Norton holds that the specific subculture we see in the 18th Century did not spring to life in that century, but was merely revealed as a result of the purges organized by the newly formed Societies for the Reformation of Manners. These societies organized ordinary people to shop their neighbours for immoral behaviour, and as a result an awful lot of gay men were prosecuted for buggery. With the result that there were a lot of executions, but also that for the first time we have documented existence not just of one or two isolated individuals but of a whole culture of homosexuality.

In successive chapters, Norton explores some of the plays that show the playwright’s knowledge of this culture; the locations of the cruising grounds; the most famous gay bars (or Molly Houses). Incidentally, I was amused and a little relieved to find out that Mother Clap’s molly house was so called because it was run by a gay-friendly lady called Margaret Clap, and not because that was what you could expect to acquire there!

Norton also covers the molly’s slang, some of their stranger rituals – like the practice of having pretend marriages, and sometimes even pretend childbirth. We’re introduced to an enormous variety of characters, from blackmailers to Dukes. I have to admit my heart was warmed to read of the butcher ‘princess Seraphina’, who borrowed the clothes of his female neighbours and was obviously treated as one of the girls by the neighbourhood. It was also good to read of Reverend John Church, the ‘child of peculiar Providence’, who as a gay priest had worked out a theology of God’s love long before our own time, and officiated at some of the marriages at The Swan molly house.

Less happy, however, are Norton’s accounts of so many trials and executions, and the enormous hatred of the general public for the mollies. Such hatred that even those who were only sentenced to the pillory often barely made it out alive.

There is also a very interesting final chapter on Tommies or Lesbians – Norton is able to show that the word ‘lesbian’ was already in use in its modern sense at this time.

The strength of this book is its reliance on primary sources, so that the reader almost feels she is meeting the people described and participating in their tumultuous, dangerous, but ultimately surprisingly positive lives. They seem to have been, despite the level of hatred and persecution surrounding them, confident, unashamed and well able to justify themselves to themselves. The sense of positive, courageous joy in life is a welcome antidote to the statistics of trials and persecution. I came away impressed by their resilience and convinced that it was not necessarily all doom and gloom, after all, being a gay man in the 18th Century.

The weakness of the book, I think, also comes from its reliance on primary sources. There is a sense that although we’re meeting a number of fascinating individuals, the writer hasn’t managed to synthesize this information into very much of a larger picture. There was a feeling of listening to repeated anecdotes, and by the end I yearned for some sort of pulling together of the evidence into a summary.

That didn’t happen. I didn’t get any sense that an argument was being made, or a logical plan was being followed through the sequence of chapters. There’s a sense in which this is simply a disorganized dumping of information on the reader. But really, it’s such interesting information, and so lightly and amusingly told, that asking for more would be grasping. A must have book for anyone writing m/m historical fiction from the late 17th Century to the early 19th.

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Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: (Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century), by John Boswell.

Available at Amazon.com for $17.25

Author bio: John Boswell (1947-94) was the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University and the author of The Royal Treasure, The Kindness of Strangers, and Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe.

Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Definitions

3. Rome: The Foundation

4. The Scriptures

5. Christians and Social Change

6. Theological Traditions

7. The Early Middle Ages

8. The Urban Revival

9. The Triumph of Ganymede: Gay Literature of the High Middle Ages

10. Social Change: Making Enemies

11. Intellectual Change: Men, Beasts, and “Nature”

12. Conclusions

Review:

This is rightly called ‘a truly ground-breaking work’. For the first time in the debate over homosexuality, John Boswell has gone back to the sources and combed through an immense amount of writings by Latin, Greek and Early Medieval authors to find out what they really had to say. And it turns out that the picture is nothing like what we expected. As is often the case when human beings are involved, everything is much more complicated than it initially seemed.

Even in the society where we think we have the gay relationship pinned down to a socially acceptable model – the ‘classic’ Greek relationship of older lover with younger beloved – Boswell unearths numerous exceptions which disprove the rule.

That complication persists and increases when Christianity enters the picture. At this early date, in the process of formation, Christianity is being influenced by many different, conflicting, strands of thought, and – of course – is reflecting a society in Rome quite unlike our own. But Boswell picks these influences apart and shows that though Christianity took on board a Stoic distain for earthly pleasures, a Manichean distrust of the flesh and various other philosophies which valued chastity over sexuality, none of these sources are particularly homophobic. They are against sexual pleasure in any form. In contrast, at the same time, abbots, bishops and saints were writing love poetry to their same sex ‘friends’ which would later go on to form the seed of the medieval courtly love tradition.

Boswell acknowledges that there is no way of knowing whether sex featured in these passionate friendships, but he points out that the society of the time made no distinction between passionate friendships which did include sex, and those which did not. And he casually drops into the text the mention that gay marriage was legal and well known in Western society up until 342ad, while there were forms of Church liturgy for uniting a same sex couple in a forerunner of civil partnership. He follows the ups and downs of society’s tolerance through the fall of Rome to the rise of Medieval Europe, and draws interesting parallels between the fate of homosexuals and the fate of the Jews.

But it is hopeless to try and write a summary of what is a densely researched book, covering over a thousand years of social flux, and explaining the attitudes of ages which did not have the same conceptual framework as our own, let alone the same words. Better to read the book itself, taking it slowly to let it all sink in. Boswell’s style is pleasant, and the astonishing material makes for a compelling read, but it is heavy going, particularly while wading through footnotes in Latin and Greek. It could not be more worth it, however. Suffice it to say that this is an eye-opening book, a must read for anyone thinking of setting their work in antiquity, and a recommended read for everyone who did not know that our own age’s tolerance is part of a long tradition.  It’s a warning too that it’s possible to have such tolerance and then to lose it so thoroughly that even the memory of it is wiped out.  Something we should bear in mind if we’re ever inclined to grow complacent.

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