19th February 2014 - Charlotte Pope
To mark LGBT History Month, Charlotte Pope, from our Bristol Cabot Circus branch, looks back at how, prior to their decriminalisation in Britain in 1967, gay and lesbian relationships in fiction rarely offered happy endings for their taboo-confounding protagonists.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that LGBT literature is a relatively new thing, perhaps only a real fixture in literary circles for the past twenty or thirty years or so. Apart from Oscar Wilde, it's easy to believe books about being gay simply didn't really exist in the past.
But this is far from the case. As it's February and LGBT History month, I'd like to highlight some forgotten gems of the past that bravely and often controversially depicted gay relationships in a time when it was very much frowned upon, and in some cases illegal.
EM Forster wrote his novel Maurice in 1913. In a world that was pre-World War One, homosexuality was not discussed. Forster was fully aware the book would not be published. A note found on the original manuscript read 'Punishable - but worth it?' It was finally published in 1971, a year after Forster's death. The novel tells the story of young Maurice Hall (pronounced 'Morris') who as he grows up realises he does not feel what young men are supposed to feel for young ladies: in fact, he is much more fascinated in other young men. At university, he enters into a secret relationship with a fellow student, Clive. Though Maurice wants more from the relationship, it is clear Clive eventually intends to break off their affair and marry. Maurice is broken hearted, going so far as attempting to 'cure' himself by visiting a hypnotist. Eventually, Maurice finds love and learns to embrace who he is.
Maurice is remarkable for the time it was written. Though it was not published, Forster had dared to put his own feelings down onto paper, conveying a same-sex relationship to be part of human nature and just as loving and affectionate as a heterosexual relationship. Not only that, the novel has a happy ending, with Maurice and his lover under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder planning a future together.
Forster was right to believe such a book being printed in the early 20th century would not be well-received. When The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was published in 1928, there was outcry. It was the first novel written in the English language to be recognised as having lesbian themes.
Named for the son her parents desperately wanted, Stephen Gordon knows she is different from other girls. Her 'sexual inversion' (Hall's own phrase for describing homosexuality) is clear from an early age. She finds love with a young woman called Mary who she meets whilst they are serving as ambulance drivers at the front in World War I. Though the novel does not have what you might call a 'happy-ever-after' ending, it was frank in its discussion of lesbian relationships and gay subculture. The novel ends with Stephen's plea to God: 'Give us also the right to our existence!'
The novel was viciously attacked upon publication, becoming the target of a campaign by the editor of the Sunday Express newspaper who said: 'I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.' After catching the attention of the Home Secretary, the book was put on trial for obscenity. Though many people stepped forward to defend the book, such as Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and Vera Brittain, the book was found to be obscene and was banned. The judge demanded that all copies be seized and destroyed. The book eventually found wider publication in France, where copies were sometimes smuggled to England. The Well of Loneliness finally became available in the United Kingdom in 1949, six years after Radclyffe Hall's death.
After The Well of Loneliness, apart from the poetry of Sappho, the only real literature you could find that discussed lesbian relationships was pulp novels. The books were cheaply printed, usually with lurid, titillating cover art designed to shock and interest the reader. The books usually ended with one of the main characters dying tragically... except for The Price of Salt (sometimes published under the title of 'Carol'). The Price of Salt was published in 1952, and like Maurice, was unusual for it's time because it gave the characters a happy ending. It's a rather forgotten book that's worth having a look at; it has been recently announced that a film adaptation is in the works.
Of course nowadays there are plenty of wonderful examples of modern LGBT fiction that feature plots with gay characters in happy relationships; thankfully, having homosexual characters in your book is not considered controversial anymore. There are great new reads such as Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, the author of the widely renowned The Slap, as well as neglected authors who have gained a new lease of life with reprints of their work, such as Christopher Isherwood.
Don't be put off by LGBT literature. It's got a rich and fine history and it's high time it got the attention it deserves. So this February, celebrate LGBT History Month by picking up something by Armistead Maupin, Jeanette Winterson or WH Auden. You might be surprised by what you discover.