Sexuality and the novel

Sexuality and the novel

Before I started my WordPress site, I used to blog on a free site called ‘Blogger’. Google are revamping the site and I (mistakenly, it turns out) thought my posts might be archived and quite possibly lost. It’s made me look through my old posts to see if any of them deserve the rather wider audience that they could now get on WordPress. This one originally appeared as a guest post on Adrian Smith’s blog and I later posted it on Blogger back in 2014. This was when I had only one book to my name, The White Rajah. The White Rajah is still available from Lume Books. You can buy it on Amazon HERE, though I haven’t been talking about it a lot because I’m busy promoting the Burke series. It’s still a good book: rather more thoughtful than the Burke books, though there’s still lots of fighting and excitement. I always knew, though, that it was never going to be a big commercial success. This essay looks at what may have been one of the reasons for it struggling.

The love that dare not write its name

It has always worried me that The White Rajah is often judged as a ‘gay book’ because the main character is gay. This issue keeps on coming up, so I’d like to reprint my blog post here so that I can share my thoughts with people who may not have seen it on Adrian Smith’s site.

When I was growing up, homosexuality was illegal. Most of the books discussed on this blog would have been considered obscene and publishing or owning them might well have exposed people to criminal action. Interestingly, some commentators consider that it is a passing reference to (heterosexual) sodomy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was one of the reasons for its prosecution.

Now, of course, we live in a more liberal and enlightened age. Anybody who wants to read about homosexual relationships will have no problems in finding books that cater for their interests. But I do wonder if we have, perhaps, not taken advantage of the hard-won freedoms of the gay community to make a more liberal publishing environment, but, rather, built a gay ghetto which is, in its way, as restrictive as anything that may have preceded it.When I set out to write my first novel, The White Rajah, I was not planning to write a “gay book”. I was writing about real historical character, James Brooke, the eponymous White Rajah. I think there is little doubt that he was inclined toward his own sex, though it’s not clear, in those days, whether he had an active sex life. I wanted the reader to be able to see Brooke through the eyes of someone who travels with him and shares his adventures. I therefore invented a lover for him, and it is John Williamson who tells his story.

As I wrote, the relationship between John Williamson and James Brooke became more important to the novel than I had expected, and I ended up with what I thought of as quite a powerful love story at the heart of what is, in the end, an otherwise straightforward historical novel.

Against all the odds, The White Rajah was represented by a very reputable agent who pitched it to four leading publishers. All of them rejected it. The consensus seemed to be that it was “too difficult” for a first novel by an unknown writer. Now that could be that, being a first novel, it just wasn’t that well-written. As it’s a first person account by a mid-19th century writer, it certainly uses longer sentences and a more challenging vocabulary than a lot of modern novels. But I couldn’t help feeling that part of the problem was that there is a distinct absence of female characters but there’s still sex.

I decided that I would like to see the book published before my dotage, so I sent it to JMS Books, who specialised in LGBT titles. They took it straight away, for which I remain very grateful. The trouble was that it was then seen as an LGBT book. Unfortunately it fails to satisfy a lot of LGBT readers, who complain that it does not have enough explicit sex scenes in it. Straight readers, on the other hand, seem much more interested in the sexual orientation of James Brooke than in any of his quite significant historical achievements.

What nobody seems happy with is the idea that you can write about somebody who has adventures, achieves quite remarkable things in his life, and has a satisfying romantic relationship, but who just happens to be gay. For both straight and gay readers, the sexual orientation of the main character becomes the point of the book.

I find this quite remarkable. Living in 21st-century London, I accept that I will have friends and colleagues with a diversity of sexual orientations. My favourite comedy club (now sadly closed) was a gay comedy club, but that didn’t mean that the audience was exclusively homosexual or that the jokes all related to gender issues. I liked drinking in a gay bar (also of late-lamented memory), because the ambience was more civilised than a lot of other bars and they sold the drinks I enjoy. When I first went in there, I was worried that I might not be welcome, but they were as happy to serve straights as gays and it was simply a very successful town-centre watering hole. If I’m out dancing, some couples embracing on the dance floor will not be the conventional male-female pairing. I was talking to a gay friend about this and he said that a few years ago straight men would be uncomfortable dancing with other men, but this has become so normal that it is no longer an issue for most people.
It goes without saying that, particularly as I used to work in a “creative” industry, many of my colleagues were gay, although the business was a very mainstream publisher.

So when I work, drink, or socialise the sexual orientation of the people I am working, drinking, laughing or dancing with does not define what I am doing. Yet when I am reading, it seems that it does. I am either reading a “gay book” for gay people, which has to emphasise gay sexual behaviour or I am reading a “straight book” (or “book”) where everyone seems much happier if nobody is gay at all. (Often there’s a minor character who’s gay, so everyone else can demonstrate how liberal they are.) The distinction is particularly ironic as many of the writers of M/M fiction are heterosexual women, as are many of its readers.

It’s not just my personal paranoia. I was delighted when Foyles (one of London’s most prestigious bookshops) stocked my titles, but I was surprised to see that they were shelved in a department dedicated to GLBT literature.

Obviously, it’s a good thing that, after centuries of repression, gay people can write and read books that cater for them. A gay press was an essential part of the battle for equality. But is it still the best way forward? Or have gay readers and writers created a ghetto that is itself discriminatory and a sort of repression, all the more damaging for being self-inflicted?

James Brooke – the first White Rajah of Sarawak

James Brooke – the first White Rajah of Sarawak

Last week I came across a Reddit post about James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. There were a couple of follow-up comments and I thought I’d point people towards a blog post about him and I realised I haven’t posted one, which is just mad. He is the hero of my first book, The White Rajah, after all, but although I’ve often mentioned him in blog posts, I’ve never devoted a whole post to writing about his life. Time to put that right.

James Brooke was born in Benares, India in 1803. His father was the chief of the East India Company’s provincial court. Until he was 12 he lived with his parents in India, a pampered child in a country where an Englishman could live like a Lord. When he was sent to school in England, it was a rude surprise. He ended up in boarding school at Norwich but ran away after two or three years and moved in with a friend of his family, who was living in Bath.

Eventually his father retired from India and he, too, returned to Bath.

James Brooke’s home in Bath

Brooke, though, was not a young man who was going to be happy living in Bath with his father. As soon as he was sixteen he was off back to the Far East at the beginning of a search for adventure that was to go on for decades. With his family’s connections in India it seemed natural to him to join the East India Company’s army. He was posted to the 6th Native Infantry where, with the genius for hammering square pegs firmly into round holes that marks the Army to this day, he was made a Sub-Assistant, Commissary-General. That’s essentially a logistician – an administrative post for which Brooke’s personality was almost entirely unsuited. He really wanted to be a cavalry officer.

Fortunately for him by 1825 the East India Company was at war with Burma and Brooke heard the general in command complaining that they had no light cavalry to act as scouts. Lieutenant Brooke immediately offered to raise a troop and he was allowed to call for volunteers from among the infantry. He formed them into a reasonably efficient irregular cavalry which scouted ahead of the main column. It was very much the sort of military role that Brooke would have relished, leading from the front with all the excitement of warfare. Unfortunately, war can never be without its casualties and early in 1825 he was wounded and invalided home.

His recovery was slow and when he finally started back to India his life continued to read like an adventure story because his ship was wrecked off the Isle of Wight and, though he survived, his health was again affected. He had to apply for more leave and then bad weather meant a slow journey back to Madras on the East Indiaman, Castle Huntly.

The Castle Huntly

By now, he had been away from India for five years, the longest leave that his contract allowed him to take. Unable to rejoin his regiment in time, he resigned from the Company’s service, deciding instead to stay on with the Castle Huntly and explore the waters of the Eastern Archipelago calling at the British possessions of Penang, Malacca and Singapore before sailing on to Canton. The voyage was essentially a holiday and he spent most of his time simply having fun and getting into scrapes with the local Chinese. His experiences there, though, were to change the direction of his life.

By the time he got back to England he had decided that what he wanted to do was to buy a ship and sail in search of adventure in the Far East. Eventually he managed to persuade his father to put up money and let him buy the Findlay “a rakish slaver-brig, 290 tons burden”. In May 1834, just under three years from his return to England, he set off to sail to the East and a new life as a merchant-adventurer.

It’s at this point that we first meet Brooke in The White Rajah. Obviously you could write a whole book just on his life up to the Findlay voyage, but for me that was just background. It doesn’t feature in the novel at all. For the really exciting stuff, you’ll have to wait till next week.

The White Rajah

Of course, if you want to get ahead of the story, you can download The White Rajah for Kindle for a frankly embarrassingly low 99p. (A paperback is also available but delivery is likely to be slow at the moment.)

Beting Marau

Beting Marau

This week’s blog marks the anniversary of another massacre. Sorry about that. This one was on 31 July 1849 and, yet again, was a result of the clash of cultures when Europeans began to rule countries in the Far East. In this case, it wasn’t technically colonialism because this happened in Sarawak where James Brooke ruled in his own right, having been gifted control of the territory by the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke was far from your regular colonialist. He seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to improve the lot of “his” people. Far from making money by exploiting the country, he lost money hand over fist and had to be bailed out by Angela Burdett-Coutts of the famous banking family. His motives were of the very highest. So how did he come to be associated with a massacre so bloody that, even in a time when the deaths of quite a few “natives” in distant parts of the world were regarded as just one of those things, the massacre at Beting Marau resulted in questions in the British Parliament?

The native population of Sarawak was Dyaks. The Dyaks of Sarawak were preyed upon by pirates. (That’s a pirate boat at the top of the page.) The pirates were not individual pirate captains attacking the odd coastal village, but organised tribes who penetrated far upriver and systematically looted Brooke’s subjects. (Think Vikings.) Brooke decided that he had to take firm action against the pirates and involved the British Navy. The local Naval commander was a man called Henry Keppel, who thought that a successful expedition extirpating piracy in the region would do his career no harm. (He was right – it didn’t.) It’s not at all clear that Keppel had the authority to engage in actions on behalf of Sarawak, which was not even technically British, but he pointed out that the pirates had been known to attack other shipping and that he was therefore acting within his mandate to police the South China Seas, where British trade was increasingly important.

Keppel visited Sarawak several times, destroying rebel villages and sinking their boats, but piracy continued to be a problem. In the end it was decided to mount a major attack on the main pirate base at Beting Marau. Remember that these pirates were not Long John Silver and a few renegades but entire tribes for whom piracy was a way of life. Their base was a village where the whole tribe lived – women and children as well as men of fighting age.

By now Keppel was elsewhere but the new naval commander, Sir Francis Collier, agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to go ahead with an attack on Beting Marau. The campaign that was to culminate in the destruction of the pirate stronghold was a significant effort involving British naval forces, including a steamer, and Brooke’s own Dyaks who had scores to settle with the pirates. Here is an illustration of the assembled fleet:

The fleet had to fight their way up the River, passing several smaller forts on their way to the pirates main village. Once at Beting Marau they started their attack with rocket fire and pursued the enemy with overwhelming force.

Before the attack from the water, Brooks own Dyaks had landed downstream and circled round into the jungle behind Beting Marau. As the pirates and their families fled from the naval assault they ran straight into the enemy hidden in the jungle.

The British claimed that several thousand Dyaks had engaged in battle. The British lost 29 killed and 56 wounded. Nobody knows how many Dyaks died – probably over 1000, including many non-combatants, or what we would now call collateral damage. When you fire rockets into buildings made of wood and thatched with leaves you tend to get a lot of that. When news of the massacre reached England there were protests in Parliament.

There was eventually an enquiry, which established that large-scale piracy was a real danger to both British and native shipping in the area and the Royal Navy therefore acted properly in moving against the pirates to prevent this danger. The Dyaks at Beting Marau were armed and resisting the Navy, so the massacre was, by the standards of the day, a justified military action. Even so, there will have been many who agreed with Richard Cobden, the Radical leader, that this was “a slaughter unparalleled in its character since the massacre of the feeble Mexicans by the Spaniards in the 16th century”.

The White Rajah

How did somebody with such good intentions, who had brought peace and a measure of prosperity to Sarawak, end up responsible (because he really was responsible) for a massacre which, if not on the genocidal scale of the Conquistadores, was certainly quite shocking? That’s the question I set out to answer in The White Rajah. In my book, Brooke’s is clear about the moral justifiability of the attack. The Dyaks of Sarawak are able to live in peace with the systematic looting of the pirates finally put an end to. His lover, though, is appalled by the massacre and leaves Brooke, unable to live with what they have seen. Neither of them is clearly right, or clearly wrong. Real life (even as reflected in novels) turns out to have no right answers.

The White Rajah is available on Amazon in paperback or as an e-book.