Monday, October 14, 2013

Historical Fiction Novels with Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Characters

Back in the 1990s, when I first read Alice's Walker's The Color Purple and later saw the highly moving film adaptation, I remember how it spoke to me emotionally on several levels. This African-American historical novel became my favorite for several years. I still love it. While the story contains several touching highlights, I remember that nothing was more significant for me than Celie and Shug's relationship. I completely identified with Celie and her adoration for the sultry blues singer. Celie's lack of self-esteem and her need for a hero, a female at that, one who could inspire and comfort her, all of it was immediately accessible. I don't think I found the same emotional depth in any other heterosexual romance on screen. To this day, this faithful portrayal of love between two women remains with me.

Before the turn of the century, I discovered other depictions of what we would today call GLBT relationships in fiction. The first that stood out were those portrayed by Anne Rice. I read them all, from The Vampire Lestat to The Vampire Armand. Anne Rice's vampires are immensely appealing. Their sexual conquests enviable. Lestat, Armand, even David Talbot who headed the Talamasca, all men with bisexual tendencies. Men with appetites. Exactly what one would expect from those who experience the supernatural realm on a daily basis.

I admired Anne Rice's characters but from a GLBT social perspective, they were not as groundbreaking. I think this is because supernatural characters, as per their definition, are more easily given liberties to enact out of the ordinary behaviors. Even readers who oppose certain behaviors in real life will wave these behaviors in a supernatural character. For me, the sexual orientation in Anne Rice's characters soon became relegated to the extraordinary and this was dangerous because it perpetuated the freakish aspect of GLBT sexualities. We see the same effect in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. A sexuality that led to the author's harsh imprisonment and his eventual death, is nevertheless permitted in his characterisation of the sinful Dorian because this one is, after all, an evil freak who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his youthful looks.

These depictions remain nevertheless highly entertaining and fascinating in their rich sensuality and in the taboo they explored at the time. 

I want to veer away from the freaks and the superhumans, no matter how attractive, and instead examine those ordinary GLBT characters. Characters who, because they do not feature explicitly in self-professed Gay and Lesbian literature and also because they are brought alive in recreated historical periods, serve to anchor GLBT relationships into social normalcy, both in the present and throughout history. 

I want to look at historical novels that accurately highlight behaviors that were always present in history, whether or not these were socially and culturally condoned at the time. These novels hint, provide glimpses or else matter-of-factly point to their historical characters' sexual orientation. They do not make a huge deal out if it, which would defeat the created 'sense of ordinariness'.

These books say something quite powerful about such relationships, "Love it or leave it, but you cannot change the past". The ordinariness and mere presence of GLBT sexuality within a historical setting, supported as it is by historical research, has the effect of rendering any modern "coming out" as absurd. That is not to say that modern GLBT expressions are not authentic, but rather, that they are late to the party, since their authenticity has already been grounded and verified for thousands of years throughout humanity's history. 

The historical setting of such books provides a comforting mirror image of the present, leaving one with the sentiment that humanity has well and truly "been there and done that". That is the true power of GLBT characters in works of historical fiction; its other power is to reverse years of social and cultural silencing which have normalised heterosexual relationships both in writing and in history.

A historical novelist who features a bisexual, gay or lesbian character is not playing with sensationalism; they also do more than reach out to a broader audience; perhaps they also fulfill their own desires and personal imaginings. But what is more significant, is that they are depicting the full gamut of human sexuality, and therefore, the full gamut of the human experience within history. And this is important, because one cannot purport to truly recreate a historical setting while shunning certain aspects of the human experience.

A few of these historical novels are listed here. If you can think of recent others, please let me know and I will add them. 

Bryn Hammond's Amgalant series:
13th century Gay Mongol character

Elisabeth Storr's The Wedding Shroud:
Bisexuality in the Etruscan world

Lisa J. Yarde's Sultana - Two Sisters:
Bisexuality in Moorish Spain 

Laura Rahme's The Ming Storytellers:
Sapphism and Transexuality in Ming China

John Caviglia's Arauco:
Homosexuality in native 16th Century Chile

Non-fiction readers may also be interested in, 
Anne Somerset's Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion
A biography of England's lesbian queen


  1. Laura, you describe perfectly what I want to see in historical fiction: simply the inclusion of other sexualities. And not just the villains! I'm honoured to be here with my 'Amgalant', and I'd like to suggest 'Arauco' by John Caviglia, with a homosexual shaman of the Mapuche people of Chile. It looks at indigenous sexuality and spirituality -- I loved it. Can't wait to explore these on your list.

  2. Thank you, Bryn. :)

    I've added Arauco to the list. Even beyond this post's context, Amgalant and Arauco sound fascinating.