Review: Virginia Bedfellows by Gavin Morris

VA Bedfellows cover

From the publisher’s description:

Banished from England and forced to work as indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, Lance Morley and Adam Bradley share a secret that could cost them their lives. As Virginia Bedfellows, they find love, passion, and pleasure on the Ashley Landing plantation, building a life together that’s immoral in the eyes of society and criminal in the eyes of the law. Their unbreakable bond—and the friendships they form with kindred spirits in nearby Williamsburg and far away Philadelphia—help them face down fear, prejudice, and the constant threat that their secret will be exposed. Virginia Bedfellows is based on the author’s research on indentured servants, plantation life, and homosexuality in Colonial Williamsburg.

Review by Lee Benoit:

This is one of those books that, in failing to live up to it jacket hype, surpasses it. The gushy pull-quotes on the front and back covers and flyleaf give us to expect a lighthearted, pulpy romp through colonial landscapes. I was far from disappointed when the promise turned out to have feet of clay, for what we get in Virginia Bedfellows is a strongly plotted, astutely researched story of those folks whose position near the bottom of colonial America’s social hierarchy has rendered them all but invisible in fiction set in the period. Oh, we get our fair share of earthiness, and speaking as an erotica aficionado I must say there’s enough here to satisfy. The only things that get in the way of pure enjoyment of this unusual juxtaposition of careful research and relatively abandoned sensuality are certain stiltedness of exposition and dialogue and an uncomfortably politically correct feel to the character motivations.

The book begins like iconic Victorian literature, but lacks the grittiness of Stevenson or the satire of Dickens. Both protagonists are strangers in a strange land, faced with exotic settings and uphill battles, charged with becoming the men English society would never have allowed them to be. Lance (no comment on the name) is an journeyman cordwainer convicted of the manslaughter of a constable who insulted his master’s daughter and transported to the American colony of Virginia. Aboard ship he catches the eye of the captain (conveniently widowed) who resolves simultaneously to fuck the boy silly and indenture him to a Williamsburg acquaintance.

Unlike Lance, whose habitual anger landed him in his predicament, Adam is a milder sort, reared gently by an aunt in service in a manor house. His education gives him ideas above his station and when he demands turnabout in their lopsided affair from the lord of the manor he’s punished with a choice between transportation and execution. Naturally both youths end up on the same Tidewater plantation, their indentures bought by a compassionate and enlightened slaveholder. Their tentative approaches to each other yield some of the most affecting passages in the book, and make up for the psychological anachronisms that abound. Furthermore, the sex life Adam and Lance forge with each other is charmingly earnest (in an early-pulps sort of way) and suffused with earthiness and humor (the description of the origins of “cornholing” is worth the price of the book, and there’s a running riff on “navel gazing” that had me in stitches). The addition of a sympathetic friend or two brings variety and depth to what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary love story.

The psychological anachronisms are harder to stomach because the research is so solid and the settings, material culture, and behaviors so convincing. The animosities Adam and Lance suffer come across as the thinnest veneer, rendering the richness of the historical setting almost superfluous at times. For example, the main antagonist is another indentured man, a closet case named Matt whose threats to out Adam and Lance are toothless in the face of the plantation owner’s general tolerance (forget for a moment that he owns slaves). We know he won’t turn the lads out, nor turn them in to the law. When the situation reaches its inevitable conclusion, the dénouement lacks the excitement that would have existed if the dangers had been more real. Matt is an unpalatable figure, to be sure, but as with other aspects of the novel, there’s a lot of author-driven exposition and not enough character-driven story. We’re told of the lack of tolerance and need for discretion, and Lance especially spends a lot of time fretting about discovery and its consequences, but the author never shows us enough (the passages with the jealous Matt notwithstanding) for us to feel the danger in our guts.

Without spoiling the plot (and I’m not even tempted to do so, because this is a novel well worth reading despite the flaws I’ve mentioned, especially if you like colonial settings), I will say there is real tragedy here, and the historical setting (and Morris’s treatment of it) makes the outcome more poignant. By the time the novel itself draws to a close, the reader is much more fully invested in the characters and the plot, because for all the homo-tolerance and plantation-labor solidarity, the protagonists have been through the wringer and come out quite different men.

One of the more successful plot points involves a two-spirit man with whom Adam and Lance form a liaison. This character, Martin, is well drawn and the way his brief story resolves is deeply satisfying on an historical level, eschewing sentiment for plausibility. I appreciated that, because Martin was also the engine of some of the more modern-tinged psychological gentrification we encounter (can’t say more without giving too much away, but Martin sounds too much like Adam’s therapist).

I hope I’ve given enough reasons to read Virginia Bedfellows even with my criticisms. Perhaps the most valuable contribution the book makes is to show us a relationship of equals at the bottom of a social hierarchy. So many historicals with European 18th and 19th century settings give us relationships between well-aspected equals, or impossible relationships between deeply unequal protagonists (of course, any heterosexual romance set in these places and times does the same as a matter of course). But if one of the satisfactions of reading homoerotic historical fiction is to read about men loving men in distant times and circumstances, then Gavin Morris has given us the gift of something new.

Buy this book (USA) (UK)

5 Responses

  1. Interesting review! I’ll add this one to my Amazon wish list. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any novels set in Colonial times.

  2. Thanks, Lee – I’ve got this one on its way from Amazon, so I’ll certainly enjoy it more for the little warnings as to the flaws!

    Great review

  3. Yes, thanks for the interesting review from me, too. To Amazon to-buy list it goes.

    By the way, I’ve understood that you have several people writing here now? Could it be possible to add the reviewer’s name in the review?

  4. Thanks Lee, I’d never heard of this title (or the author) before so you’ve opened my eyes. Sounds as though the positives firmly outweigh the negatives and I’ll be looking out for it too.

  5. See, now I’m fretting you’ll all hate it (my dilemma whenever I recommend something)! As a novel it’s far from perfect, but the flaws are forgivable for the sake of the good research and the affable plot. I hope you all enjoy!
    Lee

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