Or, why I like queer Victorian fiction
There is a lot of queer SF/F set in what is at least nominally the Victorian/Edwardian period (three very different novels in the current LGBT Storybundle alone), and of course that raises the question of what makes this period so appealing. For me, at least, the period from the mid-19th century through the start of the First World War is attractive because it’s both familiar and deeply alien, and the ways in which it is different from the modern world offer some excellent opportunities for comment on our contemporary lives.
In terms of perceived familiarity — well, most of us were forced to read something by Charles Dickens once in our lives, or at least have seen some version of “A Christmas Carol.” (My grandfather gave me Oliver Twist when I had an ear infection — I must have been 6 or 7? — and I devoured it, though I foundered on Great Expectations immediately afterward. Possibly the fever had helped.) We think we understand the world pretty well: this is a conservative, colonialist monarchy ruled by a plump widow in black who Is Not Amused, a society that has inviolable rules of behavior — segregated strictly by gender — and that is so opposed to sex that it was considered appropriate cover the legs of pianos so that the mere appearance of a limb would not engender lustful thoughts. For a queer reader/writer, this is also the beginning of what looks like familiar queer culture, of gay clubs and secret networks, Oscar Wilde and Radcliffe Hall and the Ladies of Llangollen.
And, to a certain extent, all of this is true. But when you dig deeper into the period, you find that each of these apparently inviolable rules and regulations responds to a profound instability in what seems to be a monolithic society. The politics are far more complicated, and far from uniformly conservative or even colonialist; class and ethnicity affect how each social rule is perceived and obeyed — or, quite often, ignored. Many of the books on household management, for example, are written for women one rung lower on the social ladder than the purported subjects; they are instruction manuals for would-be social climbers and helpful hints for women thrust by marriage or money into a higher class than their own — and, perhaps most of all, they are a description of what women should want. Because, of course, this is also a period in which women are entering the workforce, not just in factories, but in shops and even in offices. This is the period when the “typewriter” first appears — the word refers not just to the machine, but the woman who uses it, and she becomes the subject of much worried discussion, as well as of an entire subgenre of erotica. The rules say that men should be unemotional, logical, always in charge of themselves and others — but also acknowledges and validates the idea of passionate friendships among schoolboys, and of profound and lasting emotional connections between adult men. And between women, whose lifelong and deeply felt friendships are seen as perfectly acceptable as long as they don’t interfere with their proper duties, wifely or professional.
The same thing is true as you look at the period’s queer culture: some things seem terribly familiar, like the uses of camp and drag and the brittle wit of Oscar Wilde (though the last may be because we’ve all been imitating him ever since). As you dig deeper, however, some things that were familiar begin to take on new meanings. Once again, class and ethnicity are as strongly defining characteristics as sexual behavior — the differences between the Ladies of Llangollen, who were literally ladies of good family, and the working class girls who cheered male impersonator Vesta Tilley are so profound that they might have come from different planets. And, on the most basic level, most of the sex objects in 1881’s gay porn classic Sins of the Cities of the Plains are pretty familiar — except for the section with the handsome, burly dairymen.
For me, the contrast between the extremely prescriptive social rules and the ease with which certain groups, at certain times, under certain circumstances could ignore or escape those rules is a perfect spur for fiction. And the many ways that people could and did manipulate a repressive system is a perfect way to explore the dances of persona, of mask and mirror, that is such an important part of my queer experience. The Victorians and Edwardians lived by discoverable rules; they’re not our rules, and some of them seem, even with the most generous hindsight, to be extremely odd. That certainly makes for an excellent story, and one that whispers another question — what, then, will the next century’s readers think of ours?