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From Phyllida's Desk

Words as Rough Sex

I recently watched an old television play, "I Remember Nelson," about the naval hero of the Napoleonic era. The story moved me so much I gave it five stars on Netflix, and was shocked to see how many viewers had given it only one or two. "Boooooring," was the common verdict; too talky.
It reminded me of a coworker's reaction to the very first Masterpiece Theater production, "The First Churchills," about that ancestor of Winston, the first, self-made, Duke of Marlborough, perhaps Britain's greatest general. Wasn't it wonderful? I had gushed when the coworker mentioned this long-ago television program that had thrilled me. "Boring," she said. "All talk."

Exactly. That's what I had loved about it, and what had excited me about the Nelson program: language, words, actors recreating other people's lives through conversations conceived by gifted writers.

Perhaps merely because of timing, this is all entangled in my thoughts with Mark Simpson's recent blog post on "The New Bromanticism," those friendships between men that may or may not be homoerotic.


Simpson sees similarities between today's bromance and the male friendships of the past. "Close male friendships cover the pre-gay past with a blanket of discretion," he says. Before the prevalence of companionate marriage, well into the nineteenth century, friendships between men could be more affectionate and intimate, including hand-holding, kissing, even the sharing of a bed, without any connotations of improper sexuality. To the outside world, "the difference between a sexual relationship and a nonsexual one was largely invisible."

What allowed this innocence? Words, perhaps--or the lack of them. At least that's my interpretation. In my Pride/Prejudice, I deliberately lift that blanket of discretion to reveal the sexuality of a famous and iconic fictional friendship, between Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Like Austen's novel, my slashed version is heavily conversational, even for Darcy and Elizabeth's wedding night scene, to the point that an annoyed commenter on Salon felt I "didn't get the memo" that men don't like to talk during sex. I couldn't imagine that famously articulate couple would be silenced by marriage into grunting, nonverbal coitus unaccompanied by the sparkling dialogue that Austen writes for them during their antagonistic but electrifying courtship.

When I read the brilliant conversations between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, I'm struck at how erotic they are in mood, as if the two of them are engaging in a kind of verbal flamenco, even if innocent on the surface. And when I wrote my slash version, with Mr. Darcy talking to Mr. Bingley and Elizabeth as he makes love to them, I felt I was continuing Austen's conversational style into the bedroom. If conversation of substance rarely takes place in most bedrooms, it also rarely exists on such an elevated level in the drawing room, as Austen undoubtedly understood.

Like all writers, Austen had only words to tell her story. But by sharing her characters' conversations with her readers, she is following that modern, revered cliché of "showing not telling." In the same way, in the TV dramas, we are "shown" Marlborough's life through his conversations with his wife and his friends, his officers and his political enemies; and "shown" the kind of man Nelson was by hearing four reminiscences by people whose lives he touched.

We tend to denigrate video entertainment that is merely "filmed stage plays." Old-fashioned shows like the ones about the Churchills and Nelson have minimal production values, no elaborate scenery or panoramic battle scenes. It's all conversation, in mostly indoor settings that rely on our imaginative powers to fill in the realistic details of the outside world, just as books do, depending on the breadth and depth of the author's descriptions, or lack of them.

It reminds me of what Shakespeare's audiences must have felt, their imaginations so stirred by his words that the plain costumes and scenery were effortlessly turned into palaces and wildernesses, battlefields and bedrooms, the men and boys of the troupe becoming kings and queens, princesses and soldiers, fairies and ghosts, every suspension of disbelief accomplished without conscious effort.

Simpson's blog post made me feel, as no outraged reader's "shocked, shocked" reaction could, that illuminating the sexual nature of Darcy and Bingley's friendship was in some way a betrayal, however kindly meant. As Simpson says, " 'Bromance" seems to be potentially acting as a solvent of gay/straight boundaries, giving men, whatever their sexuality, permission to express stuff that they otherwise might not. And we won't know which is which."

By explicitly showing readers "which was which" I stripped away that level of ambiguity or mystery that is at the heart of those pre- and post-gay male friendships. Might it be possible for men to be both lovers and friends? That, I think, is the tenuous, fragile condition I violated by showing the unequivocally sexual nature of the Darcy/Bingley relationship.

I love my harsh, arrogant sexual top, Mr. Darcy, and his generous, intuitive bottom, Mr. Bingley. Extending their conversations into the bedroom was for me an act, if not quite of worship, certainly of admiration and affection. I wanted to show all those readers who think it's shameful to imagine these men as lovers that it can be beautiful and sexy, "disgusting" in a good way, full of spunk and chest hair and buttocks, with the kind of camaraderie and teasing that men so often use to both camouflage and express their feelings of love for each other.

Readers and scholars of romance will tell you that it's not these physical acts that define a relationship, but the words. And many readers will note that my Fitz and Charles never say "I love you." They talk sometimes of love and whether men and women love differently, but they never, even in their most intimate moments, say those three little words. Which was, of course, part of my message: how love between men could be expressed—or not—at the time.

Of course, Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth never say those three words "on camera" either. In Austen's depiction of this most unusual courtship leading up to one of the most envied companionate marriages in fiction, such an utterance was too intimate to expose to an audience. But my Fitz and Elizabeth do say it, just as readers know that Austen's couple must have done in private. I wonder if, by having the two men only show their love for each other without speaking it, I perhaps reinforced ideas of same-sex love as not being romantic.

I hope that all of my readers, even those most disapproving, at least come away with a sense that these two friends do indeed love each other. Yet I worry that once we lift that blanket of discretion and reveal which friendships are sexual and which not, we are in some way preventing or destroying love rather than exposing it. Or to quote another of my works, the novella "Birth," fourth in my series of Lady Amalie's memoirs: "For men, words are always the roughest sex of all."

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