icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

Author's Note from Phyllida

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander began life as a Regency romance novel. The first regencies, written by Georgette Heyer in the 1930s and 40s, are comedies of manners that take place in Great Britain between 1811 and 1820, when the future King George IV acted as Prince Regent because his father, George III, had become incapacitated. Heyer’s prototypes established a popular subgenre of the historical romance: witty, lighthearted love stories among members of the wealthy and leisured upper classes, while the darkness of world conflict occurs mostly offstage in the final years and aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

Traditional regencies are courtship novels that end with a kiss and a marriage proposal. New generations of writers have updated the form with edgier plots and spicy sex, as most modern readers, myself included, prefer. But the mood of any Regency romance should be the same: blithe comedy with sparkling dialogue, set in a time when the titled aristocracy of England was the ultimate in glamorous sophistication and the dashing British forces, led by Lord (soon to be Duke of) Wellington, pushed the French out of Portugal and Spain in the Peninsular Wars of 1808-1814.

The Regency is a comic writer’s dream, a delightfully awkward transition period between the Enlightenment and Victorian worlds. Coming near the end of the Georgian era—the long century (1714-1830) spanning the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings, all conveniently named George—the Regency shared much of the coarse matter-of-fact outlook of the previous century, but tempered with a new Romantic esthetic. The poets Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, soon to be joined by Coleridge and Keats, shocked readers and nonreaders alike with their wild verses and wilder lives. Perhaps Jane Austen’s sharp satire might have completed its metamorphosis into sentimental realism if Austen hadn’t died at 41 in 1817. Even the clothing pushed the limits, favoring a slim silhouette for both sexes that left little to the imagination. Proper young debutantes wore figure-hugging gowns of sheer muslin, with sandals and hairstyles inspired by recently discovered Greek antiquities, while men showed off everything below the waist in cutaway coats, tight pantaloons, and Hessian boots.

Having found the perfect genre for my voice, I naturally wanted to put my unique spin on it. Like a growing number of women today, I enjoy a relatively new form of romance novel: the gay male story. It occurred to me that the only thing hotter than two sexy heroes falling in love with each other was an alpha male who finds that one special man to live with happily ever after and that special woman, too. My next question was, as my “authoress” heroine, Phyllida, wondered about her own Gothic tale: “Could she possibly get away with writing that?” That is, could I tell it as a love story? This is how I came up with the idea of the “bisexual romance.”

Many people have wondered if there really were “gay people” in 1812, and if a club like the Brotherhood of Philander could have existed. While people in the past may have defined themselves and their sexual behavior differently than we do today, often by avoiding categories altogether, most of us understand that sex wasn’t literally “invented in 1963,” as the poet Philip Larkin playfully declared. Human sexuality in its many permutations has existed for as long as there have been human beings to engage in it.

But the extent to which people could be open about their sexuality was far more limited in the past. During most of Western European history, various sexual acts, even between consenting adults, were considered immoral and sometimes made illegal. In the Regency, the sodomy law established in the sixteenth century was still in effect. Sodomy, defined as anal sex between men, was a capital crime punished by hanging. Because credible eyewitness testimony was required for all convictions, executions were relatively rare, and men were more often found guilty of “attempted sodomy,” although even this brought a fine, a stint in the pillory and a jail sentence.

The pillory was not the innocuous little shame ritual some of us may imagine. Convicted offenders, men and women, were subjected to the abuse of the mob, pelted with rubble, dung and entrails from butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops nonstop for the length of their sentence, with the full encouragement of the authorities. In London, the pillory was set up like a turnstile with four projecting arms; the offenders were forced to walk around, giving the crowd equal access on all sides. Victims occasionally died from the stress, and could be blinded or disfigured by well-aimed rocks. Surviving jail was not easy, either. Filth and lack of adequate food almost ensured disease. Who knows how many “attempted sodomites” merely exchanged the slow strangulation of hanging, as it was then, for a slower death?

One of the reasons I chose to write a historical romance was familiarity. If I were to “write what I know,” as we’re supposed to, what, besides my own uneventful life, did I know better than the sort of thing I had read so much of? The best training for any writer of fiction is reading, and my lighter choices had often led me to seek out more instructive works, such as history and biography. But once I decided to write about “men who prefer the company of men,” I knew some specific reading was required. The most useful source I discovered was Rictor Norton’s Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (London: GMP Publishers, 1992), now out of print. An updated edition has just been published (Nonsuch, 2007).

As the subtitle of Norton’s book implies, by the late seventeenth century there was the beginning of a subculture of men who identified as what we would recognize as gay—the “mollies” or, in Regency times, “madges.” The “molly house” of the eighteenth century was like a combination of a modern gay bar and bathhouse. Men drank, danced, and flirted with each other, sometimes going upstairs to have sex in rooms with multiple beds and no doors, so as to provide vicarious pleasure to the audience. There were even “molly weddings,” whether genuine commitment ceremonies or simply a way of ridiculing heterosexual marriage, impossible to know. My opinion is that men are men, in all cultures and times: a mixture of hilarity, raunchy sex, and a brief ritual is often the most meaningful observance.

The molly subculture was urban and primarily working-class. We know about it because, much like today, there were periodic attempts by religious and political leaders to “clean up” London society. Informers posing as mollies infiltrated molly houses and viewed as much salacious activity as they dared, then reported back to a magistrate, leading to a raid and prosecutions of those unfortunate enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the entertaining if often heartbreaking transcripts of these trials that Norton used to reconstruct the molly culture. In 1810, less than two years before the start of Phyllida, a club called the White Swan was raided, and six men served a horrific sentence in the pillory. This incident was covered extensively in the newspapers, and the attorney for one of the club’s owners wrote a lurid account of the trial and punishment of his client, sparing none of the stomach-turning details.

Norton points out what is obvious to most of us today, and was acknowledged by some people from the beginning: that such harsh penalties created a vicious circle. The laws have been called a “blackmailers’ charter,” as extortionists found a steady source of income in men who would pay anything to escape ruin or death. Men perceived as gay or suspected of having sex with other men were considered untrustworthy, their patriotism and loyalty questionable, because they were vulnerable to blackmail. In order to avoid the pillory, jail or hanging, many gay men gave in to blackmail. Full circle. It is this fatal weakness caused by the law of the land that the fictional characters Philip Turner/Philippe Tournière and Geoffrey Amberson exploit, Tournière in the service of his private demons, Amberson preying on his own kind, for pleasure and to further his work in British counterintelligence.

I had begun writing Phyllida by the time I discovered Norton’s book, and had already decided that my gay and bisexual characters would belong to some sort of club. My original plan was modeled on other clubs I knew about: gambling clubs like White’s and Brooks’, where men diced, played cards and famously (at White’s) kept a betting book in which they entered all wagers agreed on by members; groups formed around the members’ mutual (and legal) inclinations, such as coffee houses or the various incarnations of the Beefsteak Club; and the later nineteenth-century tradition of the gentlemen’s club in which crusty old aristocrats drank whiskey or brandy, nodded off in wing chairs while reading the newspaper, and grumbled about the immorality of the younger generation.

With the new information, I was able to incorporate features of the molly houses into my concept of the Brotherhood. The biggest problem was security. By charging expensive dues that paid for trustworthy bouncers, preferably former heavyweight boxers, and by limiting membership to a select few, unlike the molly houses open to anyone, the gentlemen of the Brotherhood could feel reasonably secure. What I most wanted, as a writer whose voice is inevitably humorous, was that perfect contrast between upper-class hauteur and gay exuberance, leading to the innuendo and sexual situations that could be expected to arise in any group of high-spirited young men.

Readers wondering if there could have been such a club are reminded that, despite Tournière’s best efforts, the Brotherhood was never betrayed or raided, and no members were ever put on trial. There is no mention of it in the public record, and its existence can neither be proved nor disproved. I like to think of it as adapting to the changing tastes of society while remaining true to its origins as an upscale molly house, still the best-kept secret of twenty-first century gay London.

For the writer of historical fiction, language is the ultimate challenge. Too much anachronism is obviously impossible, destroying a believable sense of time and place. But over-faithfulness can be a snare, confusing readers and turning what should be an effortless diversion into a scholarly slog requiring a dictionary and a stiff drink. Regency novels are often heavy with the thieves’ cant and other slang that those rackety young gents loved, just as suburban kids today exhibit their high degree of cool by fluency in “gangsta” speech. I tried not to overdo it, seasoning the dialog with just a pinch of period terms (bosom bow = confidante; loose fish = a sloppy, indiscriminate libertine; tommy = a lesbian, or any “mannish” woman) to prevent blandness, and trusting that context would resolve any minor obscurities. I also used one old device: the casual, jaunty, “incorrect” upper-class speech favored especially by the country huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ set. “He don’t” and “ain’t” were customary among this none-too-intellectual class, from a time before the adoption of the pedantic rules of the nineteenth century, such as demonizing a perfectly fine contraction of “am not.”

When it came to the question of how “gay” men of 1812 would speak, I knew only that the words “homosexual” and “bisexual,” like the concepts behind them, were coinages of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and had no place in Regency narrative or dialog. (I have sometimes used the word “bisexual” in writing about the story as a convenient way to describe it for modern readers.) In fact, it was by Googling “gay slang 18th century” that I discovered Mother Clap’s and was delighted to learn, as Diana Gabaldon observed in the note to her book Lord John and the Private Matter (New York: Delacorte Press, 2003), that some expressions still in use today date back more than two hundred years, including “rough trade,” “Miss Thing,” and “Mary” as a generic term for a gay man, from which both “molly” and “madge” are derived.

As the language endured, so did the culture. The gay world I encountered in Norton’s description sounded surprisingly contemporary, reminding me of the glorious, freewheeling late 1970s, the days of disco and pre-AIDS sex. Men signaled each other with handkerchiefs and gestures, and cruised for “bargains” in the known pickup spots like parks, specific streets, and, yes, public toilets. The accounts of the raided molly houses are anything but sad, despite the consequences. Those mollies and madges were having fun, in the timeless way that any modern reader can appreciate: drinking and dancing, flirting and having sex, and “marrying” each other in ceremonies that, real or mock, allowed men to swear their love to each other and consummate it in front of witnesses.

When I imagined my “gay” and “bisexual” characters, I knew that they could not be any less in language and behavior than their confident, swaggering, virile counterparts in other Regency romances. The idea of same-sex attraction as a mental illness, along with the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, was developed only in the later nineteenth century. Until then, gay men were considered to be merely lawbreakers. Is it perhaps less damaging to the psyche to see oneself as an outlaw, punished for a crime, than as sick, needing treatment for a disease?

And so I created my “Philanderers,” free of the soul-destroying taints of self-disgust and a sense of inferiority. Above all else, they defined themselves as gentlemen—aristocrats, sons of peers or heirs to titles, men of leisure, the height of aspiration. They were masters of the universe at a time when, as the humorous—and truest—history of Great Britain, 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, first published in 1930 (London: Methuen), explains, Great Britain was about to become “top nation” with Wellington’s victory at Waterloo (1815). These were the sort of people I wanted to write about: red-blooded, two-fisted gentlemen, who enjoy hot sex and witty conversation and are fun to be with—romantic heroes all.

As for the other facts in a work of fiction: The two owners of the White Swan were a Mr. James Cook and a Mr. Yardley (no first name listed). Since Yardley disappeared when the house was raided, I felt free to use his character as an offstage presence, and to give Andrew Carrington his (fictional) elderly uncle as a butler.

The story of Major George Scovell, who cracked the grand chiffre, the French military cipher that makes a brief appearance in Phyllida, is told in The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, by Mark Urban (Harper Perennial, 2003; I used an earlier edition from Faber and Faber [London], 2001). My appropriation of the cipher for use in scenes of romantic comedy and sexual farce is in no way intended as denigration of the heroic and, until recently, unappreciated and unrecognized, efforts of Major Scovell. Urban’s book mentions a “little office … off Abchurch Street where the foreign secretary and the prime minister retained a few fellows skilled in the black arts of secret writing” (page 174 of the 2001 edition). Nothing more is said of it, since the focus of the action is the Peninsula, and it seemed an ideal location for my fictional cipherers, Amberson and Agatha Gatling, to practice their own black arts.

It is only to be expected that the most improbable character in the story, the Rev. John Church, really existed. Norton calls him the “molly chaplain.” The clerical duty I had him perform is similar in substance to actual ceremonies he was reported to have carried out, admittedly in a rather different setting. The words I have given him to speak, while my own, are, I hope, true to his beliefs and his personality.

Finally, the event involving Spencer Perceval and John Bellingham did occur on May 11, 1812.

For readers who wish to learn about the beginnings of the gay subculture in England, including the full account of John Church and the “molly weddings,” I recommend Rictor Norton’s Web site of essays, which contains all of the information in Mother Clap’s, as well as essays, trial excerpts and transcripts, quotations, and much more, covering centuries of gay history: http://rictornorton.co.uk/

Be the first to comment