Tag Archives: history

Queer Victorian London

In preparation for working on a short story collection set post-The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, I’ve picked up some books to give me insights into late-Victorian queer culture and society’s attitudes towards it.

Victorian attitudes to sex and sexuality (and to a whole bunch of things) is usually deeper and more textured than a cursory glance would indicate. And while it’s true that terms like ‘gay’ and queerness as it’s currently lived and experienced were not how Victorians understood them, that doesn’t negate the fact people who would probably now identify on that spectrum were managing their lives, one way or another.

Which all brings me to this reading matter, designed to help me understand more about how queerness was experienced and lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so that I can translate those experiences for Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in a world where they have declared their love and physical desire for each other.

I tend to read books on these topics with a block of sticky notes at hand, so I can mark ideas I want to get back to.

The book pictured in the header, Catharine Arnold’s City of Sin: London and its Vices, is already festooned with notes for me to return to when I do the next round of research, which will be to go over marked passages and decide what to use and how.

One note in City of Sin refers to the pornography people could obtain in Holywell Street, including homosexual and lesbian representations. William Dugdale is noted as a “prolific publisher of filthy books” and further on, Arnold refers to the practice of pornographers having to smuggle their books into the UK, risking fines and imprisonment.

I have made a note that the unexpurgated copy of Richard Burton’s The Arabian Nights is very probably in John Watson’s private book collection. He’s an earthy man, after all, with a penchant for gambling and whisky. Why not a little saucy literature?

Further on I’ve marked the pages about the ‘telegraph boys’ who made extra money by having sex with men. The role of the Turkish baths (which Holmes and Watson frequent in canon) in homosexual liaisons is discussed 25 pages on from that.

I expect to read more queer-specific details of London life in the three other books pictured above, and will doubtless leave those pages bristling like a paper-based porcupine in due course.

I’ve already started with Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb, and even the introduction has provided some valuable insights.

How will these snippets and suggestions be used? Will they become significant plot points or background detail?

At this point, who knows? But by filling up my brain with some of that colour, texture and depth, I hope to introduce just enough research to make the stories feel authentic and engaging without presenting them as a series of lectures of What I Learned About Queer Victorians This Summer.

NB: A version of this post originally appeared in my Patreon on 2 February 2018.

Five Questions for Charlie Raven

Today,  Charlie Raven answers five questions about her new book:

Charlie Raven

1. What’s the name of your latest book – and how did you choose the title?

It’s called The Compact. The title just popped into my mind about halfway through the process of writing it. It came about because one of the themes of the story is the fear of old age. That fear is universal, of course, particularly for anyone who depends on their looks in their work, but back in the 1890s there were hardly any viable careers open to women, so the fear of ageing must have been even more acute.

A ‘compact’ refers first to those pretty little tins of pressed face powder that used to be carried in every woman’s handbag. Another older, perhaps more sinister meaning of ‘compact’ becomes apparent as the story progresses: a contract or covenant. There’s an occult covenant which one of the characters is affected by; and there’s also Alexandra’s contract with Minerva, which persuades her to agree to terrible things.

2. If you could choose anyone from any time period, who would you cast as the leads in your latest book?

Wow! What a great question. Well, let me think.

Sherlock Holmes does make a couple of brief appearances, but in this story, Dr Watson is the main character from that duo. Somehow, my mind wants him to look like David Burke’s portrayal in the 1984 ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ series.

Holmes is more difficult, as I have my own inner Sherlock and no actor has yet portrayed him perfectly.

Minerva, with her melodramatic manner, should be played by a glamorous, smouldering 1940s actress, such as Hedy Lamarr. Alexandra: h’mm, maybe a middle-aged Katherine Hepburn? Emma Thompson, as she looks now, with her capable personality, would be perfect for Harriet.

Lastly, I have no idea who I can possible cast as the 22 year old Aleister Crowley and his lover, Jerome Pollitt. Crowley was nothing like the later pictures you see of him, where he resembles Uncle Fester from the Addams Family – in 1898, he had a full head of hair, strangely piercing eyes and, being a mountaineer, was very fit. Pollitt was a gorgeous amateur female impersonator. I could see them played by a young Johnny Depp and a young version of the very camp British comedian, Julian Clary. That’s hilarious to think of. Will that do?

3. What five words best describe your story?

Subtle. Sinister. Crepuscular. Labyrinthine. Surprising.

4. Who is your favourite fictional team/couple?

In the whole history of literature? That’s difficult, isn’t it? If I said Holmes and Watson, that might be true. But from childhood, I have loved Frodo and Sam, so I think I must loyally name them.

5. What song reflects a theme, character, relationship or scene in your book?

I love David Bowie. He layers unsettling lyrics with multiple meanings on top of singable tunes. One of my characters, Albert Burroughs, is really rather weird. I don’t want to give any of the plot away but he makes me think of this track from Bowie’s 2013 album, The Next Day: ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’

The walls have got you cornered, you’ve got the blues, my friend …

Shivery stuff.

About The Compact

It is 1898, the London of Sherlock Holmes. Harriet Day is increasingly worried about the strange influence of a powerful, unpredictable woman, Minerva Atwell, over her dearest friend, Alexandra Roberts. By chance, Harriet befriends Alexandra’s lodger, the gentle actor, George Arden; and when he is wrongly accused of murder, Harriet turns to a lonely, ailing Dr Watson to investigate.

To Watson’s chagrin, his enquiries are aided and occasionally hampered by a strange young man by the name of Aleister Crowley and his flamboyant lover, Jerome Pollitt.

The Compact is an LGBTQ mystery with a touch of Magick.

About Charlie Raven

I was born, studied and live in England. I have three children – the youngest is 13 – and two grandchildren. My life has taken some odd twists and turns and occasionally led me down the rabbit hole. Fortunately, even the worst choices turned out for the best (filed under: children). I inherited a fascination with weird history, ghost stories and liminal places from my mother (and I’m so glad my children are the same).

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