I really need to stop buying books faster than I can read them.
*pause for mad laughter*
Yeah, we know that’s never going to happen. So while we’re recovering from our hysterical mirth, let’s have a look at three of my most recent acquisitions!
The Outcasts of Melbourne
ed. Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville
In February, I attended the “Marvellous Smellbourne: early Melbourne’s noxious trades” talk at Docklands Library, presented by John Lack of the Docklands History Group. He spoke about the tanneries, abattoirs and glue factories that gave Melbourne its unflattering epithet, and how the city cleaned up its filthy air and waterways. He also spoke about this book, for which he’d written about the noxious trades.
I’m reading as much as I can about 19th century Melbourne, particularly about the working classes and the era’s social history as well as contemporaneous attitudes towards queerness (rather than what we *think* went on from a 21st century perspective).
The Outcasts of Melbourne offers insights on Chinatown, crime, poverty, disease and “low life” so it should be a rich source of period detail and plot ideas!
Inventing the Victorians
I found out about this book during the recent broo-haha when author Naomi Wolf discovered she’d misinterpreted data about the death sentences for men convicted of homosexual sex in the 19th century. The radio host and author who highlighted the error live on air was Matthew Sweet, an expert in the era.
I’d been considering getting Wolf’s book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love , partly because its claims of the number of men executed for sodomy seemed at odds with some of my other reading (notably Graham Robb’s Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century).
I’ll still get Outrages in due course – a later edition with the corrections Wolf is said to be making, having found out that ‘Death recorded’ in the old records actually didn’t mean an execution took place. However, the whole thing introduced me to Matthew Sweet, so I’ve picked up his Inventing the Victorians to see what he has to say about what the Victorians were actually like instead of what we only *think* they were like. I’m looking forward to reading what the Literary Review says “overturns cliche after cliche”.
(One thing I keep discovering in my reading is that what people think the Victorians were like has a lot more to do with film and television and narrow interpretations through current social lenses than actual social history.)
Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914
ed. Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt
I don’t now recall where I read of this title, but it came up in relation to all the commentary on the Matthew Sweet/Naomi Wolf commentary.
Among the things that interest me (or agitates me) is how some people like to insist that if two men or two women in the historical past had an intense relationship that ‘they were just good friends and stop trying to make everything gay you’re spoiling it la la la la I can’t hear you!’. I mean. Maybe it was intense friendship and hello, maybe they were lovers negotiating their love in a difficult time when they couldn’t openly acknowledge it, and either is a reasonable view maybe, but statistically a good number of those relationships were in fact deeper bonds and all my reading suggests quite a lot of them were, in fact, and so shush now, and stop pretending gayness never existed before people started labelling it. Shush now.
Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is an anthology of stories published before E.M. Forster’s seminal Maurice that contains the rich coding by which queerness was explored, hinted at, subliminally supported or otherwise threaded into writing during periods where same-sex sexual practices (and by association, same-sex affections, desires and hopes for established relationships) were under the shadow of the law.
The anthology contains stories and extracts by Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, Kenneth Grahame and many others.
If nothing else, I’ll know which tomes to put subtly into the hands of my 19th century queer characters – from my interpretations of Holmes and Watson to other inhabitants of my historical fiction.