Review by Alex Beecroft
First published in 1992 by GMP Books. A Second, Revised and Enlarged edition published in October 2006 by Chalfont Press (Tempus Publishing, UK).
Available through Amazon, or via Rictor Norton’s site HERE which is a great place to go for a more detailed run down of the contents. It’s also a fascinating site in itself, where you can find essays on all sorts of queer issues from the homosexual pastoral tradition to bawdy limericks.
Table of Contents
1. The Renaissance Background
2. The Birth of the Subculture
3. Mother Clap’s Molly House
4. The Sodomites’ Walk in Moorfields
5. Maiden Names and Little Sports
7. Popular Rage
9. The Third Sex
10. The Warden of Wadham
11. The Case of Captain Jones
12. The Macaroni Club
13. The Vere Street Coterie
14. A Child of Peculiar Providence
15. Men of Rank and Fortune
16. Tommies and the Game of Flats
Basically, for anyone interested in what it was like to be gay during the 18th and early 19th Century, this book is a must. By combing through records of criminal prosecutions for buggery, and the documents kept by the Societies which persecuted gay men, Rictor Norton has amassed an enormous wealth of evidence about a heretofore unknown subculture. He’s able to prove that our own century was not the first to have cruising grounds, gay bars and even a sense of gay pride. On the contrary, our own views on homosexuality and our own modern gay culture have their roots in the culture which came to light in the 18th Century.
I say ‘came to light’ because as the book shows, it’s entirely possible that this gay subculture had already evolved by the 16th Century. The first chapter of the book describes King James Ist’s court, in which the King’s love for George Villiers made the court a relatively tolerant place for gay relationships to flourish.
Norton holds that the specific subculture we see in the 18th Century did not spring to life in that century, but was merely revealed as a result of the purges organized by the newly formed Societies for the Reformation of Manners. These societies organized ordinary people to shop their neighbours for immoral behaviour, and as a result an awful lot of gay men were prosecuted for buggery. With the result that there were a lot of executions, but also that for the first time we have documented existence not just of one or two isolated individuals but of a whole culture of homosexuality.
In successive chapters, Norton explores some of the plays that show the playwright’s knowledge of this culture; the locations of the cruising grounds; the most famous gay bars (or Molly Houses). Incidentally, I was amused and a little relieved to find out that Mother Clap’s molly house was so called because it was run by a gay-friendly lady called Margaret Clap, and not because that was what you could expect to acquire there!
Norton also covers the molly’s slang, some of their stranger rituals – like the practice of having pretend marriages, and sometimes even pretend childbirth. We’re introduced to an enormous variety of characters, from blackmailers to Dukes. I have to admit my heart was warmed to read of the butcher ‘Princess Seraphina’, who borrowed the clothes of his female neighbours and was obviously treated as one of the girls by the neighbourhood. It was also good to read of Reverend John Church, the ‘child of peculiar Providence’, who as a gay priest had worked out a theology of God’s love long before our own time, and officiated at some of the marriages at The Swan molly house.
Less happy, however, are Norton’s accounts of so many trials and executions, and the enormous hatred of the general public for the mollies. Such hatred that even those who were only sentenced to the pillory often barely made it out alive.
There is also a very interesting final chapter on Tommies or Lesbians – Norton is able to show that the word ‘lesbian’ was already in use in its modern sense at this time.
The strength of this book is its reliance on primary sources, so that the reader almost feels she is meeting the people described and participating in their tumultuous, dangerous, but ultimately surprisingly positive lives. They seem to have been, despite the level of hatred and persecution surrounding them, confident, unashamed and well able to justify themselves to themselves. The sense of positive, courageous joy in life is a welcome antidote to the statistics of trials and persecution. I came away impressed by their resilience and convinced that it was not necessarily all doom and gloom, after all, being a gay man in the 18th Century.
The weakness of the book, I think, also comes from its reliance on primary sources. There is a sense that although we’re meeting a number of fascinating individuals, the writer hasn’t managed to synthesize this information into very much of a larger picture. There was a feeling of listening to repeated anecdotes, and by the end I yearned for some sort of pulling together of the evidence into a summary.
That didn’t happen. I didn’t get any sense that an argument was being made, or a logical plan was being followed through the sequence of chapters. There’s a sense in which this is simply a disorganized dumping of information on the reader. But really, it’s such interesting information, and so lightly and amusingly told, that asking for more would be grasping.
A must have book for anyone writing m/m historical fiction from the late 17th Century to the early 19th.