by Jean Roberta
Please excuse me if I seem a little distracted. (For one thing, I’m posting this a day late. I hope I’m not intruding.) I’ve spent much of the last few weeks in the 1860s.
Historical fiction fascinates me, especially when it includes more explicit sex than the “serious” literary works of the time generally did. At about the same time I joined the Erotic Readers Association (as it was called) in 1998, I read The Mammoth Book of Historical Erotica, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. The table of contents (and authors) was like a who’s-who of noteworthy erotic writers of the time, and several of the characters were famous people from the past. Most of the stories seemed to answer questions about history and the game-changers in it that most readers had been afraid to ask (e.g. What did Personage X really do in bed? How Freudian was Freud?).
Like several recent Hollywood movies, historical erotica shows the past more clearly and apparently more accurately than it could have been shown at the time.
Among movies that show a kind of photoshopped version of the past is Goya in Bordeaux, a 1999 biopic about the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) which uses the same colour palette and chiaroscuro (dramatic contrast between light and shade) that Goya used in his paintings, suggesting that Goya might have made a film like this if the technology had existed in his time. There is also Schindler’s List, a heartbreaking 1993 movie about the Holocaust which was shot in black-and-white to give it the flavour of the 1940s. Although actual films from that era still exist, they don’t look nearly as good.
There seems to be a bottomless appetite for books, films, plays, musicals and even roleplay set in an interesting era in the past which is shown with attractive clarity, and often with some degree of historical accuracy, but without certain disappointing restrictions. (For example, the four-course “medieval feast” which was put on by the local Society for Creative Anachronism several years ago was delicious because all the food was fresh. How likely is it that even royalty in the centuries between 600 and 1600 ate that well?)
Quite a few works of historical fiction with explicit sex scenes have appeared since Maxim Jakubowski’s “mammoth” tome (part of a series of “mammoth” erotic anthologies). British author “James Lear” has written a series of “Mitch Mitchell mysteries” about a crime-solving American medical doctor living in Edinburgh in the 1920s. While investigating murders on the side, as it were, “Mitch” has an amazing number of sexual encounters with other men, even though male-on-male sex was strictly illegal in Britain at the time. These books, published by U.S.-based Cleis Press, have acquired a cult following. Several of these novels seem to be based on older books that are thought of as “classics” (Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson). The allusions to the “classics” are part of the author’s game (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
In 2011, Cleis Press published Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts by Mitzi Szereto, a good-natured romp through Jane Austen’s most popular romance novel. The frequent and varied sex scenes in Szereto’s version actually seem to suit the characters and the plot, and the sex exaggerates the social satire which is present in the original novel. Mitzi Szereto’s version was not the first rewriting of Pride and Prejudice since 2000.
Therefore I was not surprised to read that British publisher Total E-Bound has launched an erotic imprint, “Clandestine Classics.” Here is the publisher’s description:
“There is no doubting the fact that the classics remain an inspiration to writers, even today, with many complex and thought-provoking storylines. But if we are honest with ourselves haven’t we heard the same reserved tale told time and time again?
Our collection of Clandestine Classics is about to change that. This is a collection of classics as they have never been seen before.
The old fashioned pleasantries and timidity have all been stripped away, quite literally. You didn’t really think that these much loved characters only held hands and pecked cheeks did you? Come with us, as we embark on a breathtaking experience—behind the closed bedroom doors of our favourite, most-beloved British characters. Learn what Sherlock really thought of Watson, what Mr Darcy really wanted to do to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and unveil the sexy escapades of Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre. We’ll show you the scenes that you always wanted to see but were never allowed. Come on, you know you can’t resist...open the pages and delve inside.”
Of course, this imprint is controversial. Some readers are uncomfortable with fanfic (the rewriting of someone else’s work) even when it does not include vivid descriptions of sex or desire. However, I think there is some truth in the line “the scenes that you always wanted to see but were never allowed.” Explicitly sexual novels were written in English in past centuries (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as “Fanny Hill,” was first published in 1749), but these publications were so plagued by legal and social persecution that writers (especially “lady writers”) who wanted to avoid trouble generally avoided describing physical expressions of lust. I think it’s fair to speculate on what certain dead writers would have written if they could have been assured that they would get away with it.
Personally, I would feel uncomfortable writing a sexually-explicit version of an actual novel which is still popular in its original form, but so far, I’ve enjoyed reading such books.
So why have I spent several weeks in the 1860s? Because I’ve had two months away from my classroom job, and therefore I’ve been able to finish writing my raunchy pirate novella, The Flight of the Black Swan, in which a rag-tag crew of gay-male exiles from Her Majesty’s Navy (plus one lesbian and one transman) cross the Atlantic in a stolen sailing ship to intercept a blockade-runner carrying precious tobacco and bales of cotton during the American Civil War. Emily, the heroine, feels at first like a mermaid on the ship, a member of an alien species, but as things turn out, she finds the perfect woman to share her life with—along with the lives of her husband and his lover.
Even though I was inspired by the comic tone of Gilbert & Sullivan’s unbelievable Victorian operettas about sailors and pirates, I’ve tried to keep historical inaccuracies down to a minimum. Google is definitely my friend, and I’ve actually learned more than I needed to about the technology of the 1860s.
Would a journalist of the time have ink-stained fingers? Yes. Commercially-available typewriters were not available until E. Remington & Sons sold the first model in 1873. Could news of the Union victory in 1865 be sent to England by Morse telegraph? Yes, but not right away. The first transatlantic message went through in July 1866. Would the British Navy really be willing to retire a wooden sailing ship in the 1860s? Definitely. The ironclad HMS Warrior of 1861 marked the end of the Age of Sail. Luckily, sex itself (as distinct from culturally-specific words) is fairly timeless, and that includes the same-gender varieties.
My novella is currently in the hands of the publisher. Time will tell whether readers will find its version of realism to be magical enough.
Monday, August 27, 2012
by Jean Roberta
Posted by Jean Roberta at 6:32 PM