And my, did they live. They loved, lusted and laughed, all without the hypocrisy and the manipulation of guilt that the Victorians were so good at. I fell in love with this era when I was nine years old and it’s the longest love affair of my life.
I’ve read the books, and my husband says I read more eighteenth-century magazines and newspapers than I do modern ones! I get some of my plots from them, so outlandish though they might seem, most are based on real-life cases.
But in one respect, the eighteenth century was as moralistic as the Victorians. Gay love, or, as it was called then, sodomy. It was punishable by death.
The crime was “sodomy,” or the act of anal sex. Strictly, this was between males and females, or males and males, but in practice, only males were prosecuted, and women weren’t, except as pimps or madams. It is based on Church law, but the offence was a criminal one, not a civil one, and subject to the direst penalties.
Gays were prosecuted throughout the century, from the spate of prosecutions in the 1720’s, possibly a cover for Jacobite activities, to the “Mother Clapp” prosecutions later in the century. And they were hanged for it (game is hung, men are hanged).
Although obvious gays, or rather bisexual in Lord Hervey’s case, existed, most were tolerated. Hervey had lovers, male and female, and he was an important member of the government in the 1740’s, an immensely clever man and a friend of Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Alexander Pope (who may himself have been gay). But that wasn’t a crime – sodomy was. Lady Mary said of him, “There are three sexes – men, women and Herveys.” So gays existed and were tolerated, even exalted in this era when men wore pink but carried a sword by their side.
I’ve created three gay characters so far, one an honourable, intelligent man who has suffered for his sexual orientation, one a coward, who made another person suffer. This last character was the first husband of Isobel, the heroine of “Seductive Secrets.” Isobel hasn’t been told the facts of life, she discovered them for herself. Her mother never encouraged her to talk, when it became obvious her marriage was going wrong, and she never told Isobel anything about sex when she went into marriage. So Isobel associates sex with pain and misery. Harry’s sin isn’t that he’s gay, it’s that he hasn’t the courage to face up to his responsibilities, and when he can’t ‘perform’ with Isobel, he blames her for the failure, not himself. In short, Harry is a coward.
My latest gay character is in the Emperors of London series, and like Gervase, he's a twin. But Val and Darius are very different to Richard and Gervase. Their troubles won't be the same, either. I haven't written their book yet, but I've sent in the proposal, and we shall see what happens!
I didn’t see why gay characters should be caricatures – either saints or the tooth-gratingly irritating “gay best friend” character, someone who has natural taste in interior design and making women laugh. Yes, I’ve known several gays. We all have. Some played up to the stereotype, others didn’t. So I wanted to make all my characters real. People, not archetypes, stereotypes or ciphers. I wanted to give the gay characters in my books permission to be bad as well as good. Just as long as they didn’t slot into a preformed character slot.
The collector of automata, Ken Rubin, has machines that perform in a variety of ways, all from the same penny. He has a huge collection of early bubblegum machines, all of which do ‘something’ before you get your gum. You can watch your penny chase down convoluted pipes, get your fortune read or try to hit a target. But you get your gum in the end. You can (and I did) spend hours studying them and marvelling at the ingenuity of the creators. I hope my characters are as diverse and unexpected as Ken’s machines, if not a bit more.
You don’t know what you’re getting when you put in your penny, but you always get your gum in the end.