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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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Historical Fiction  
 
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Take, for example, Alicia Gaspar de Alba's fictional account of the famous seventeenth-century Mexican writer, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sor Juana's Second Dream (1991) reminds readers that (as Michel Foucault warns in the first volume of The History of Sexuality) the psychoanalytic case history, which some take to be definitive of modern understandings of sexuality, has deep roots in the history of Christian confession.

Similarly, one of the most famous glbtq historical novels--Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982; there is also a film version directed by Steven Spielberg), which tells the story of a romance between two women in the early twentieth-century southern U.S.--pointedly interweaves a coming-out story with a conversion story, emphasizing the parallels between the two.

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Another example is Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991), which tells a coming-of-age story about a bisexual boy in early-twentieth-century Idaho who identifies with the American Indian berdache or two-spirit tradition.

By the end of the novel, the protagonist embraces a transgender role as a storyteller who tells his own life story. He insists that any terms or categorical definitions for sex or gender identities can serve only as incomplete references to far more complicated stories. Indeed, the novel portrays identification itself as a story that, above all else, is about creating kinship bonds with other people--a kind of kinship that does not necessarily have anything to do with biological bloodlines. The novel reminds its readers that this narrative understanding of identification-as-kinship draws on ancient Christian narrative traditions.

In addition to these three examples, there are many other glbtq historical fictions that echo ancient Christian narrative conventions often in less explicit but nevertheless significant ways. These echoes suggest that the kinds of narrative understandings of sex and gender characteristic of glbtq historical fictions cannot simply be dismissed as anachronistic. While such fictions do reflect the cultures in which they are written, this is true of all writing.

Historical fictions are therefore best viewed as exploring the relationship between past and present--much like nonfiction histories do, except that historical fictions undertake a far more extensive and artistic engagement with the borders of what we know about history. Indeed, their emphasis on narrative understandings of sex and gender can allow them to articulate these unknowns--the mysteries of sex and gender in both the past and the present--more accurately than historical accounts that rely heavily on categorical terms to define sex and gender experiences.

History of the Genre

Many scholars cite the success of Sir Walter Scott's early nineteenth-century novels (especially Waverly) as marking the advent of the historical fiction novel as a popular mainstay for English-speaking readers. One could argue for expanding the genre to include earlier texts--for instance, Christopher Marlowe's late sixteenth-century play, Edward II, might be considered a work of glbtq historical fiction.

If one adheres to the conventional definitions and history of the genre, however, historical fiction novels with clearly expressed glbtq themes began appearing in English by the 1930s. Maude Meagher's The Green Scamander (1933), set in the ancient Mediterranean during the Trojan War, centers on the legendary Amazon Queen Penthesilia.

In 1936, Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show appeared, exploring a bisexual romance set in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. That same year brought William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, which recounts a Civil-War-era romance between two young men in Mississippi. Another gay romance set in nineteenth-century Mississippi came out in 1950: Thomas Hal Phillips's The Bitterweed Path.

In 1951, Marguerite Yourcenar, one of the most sophisticated practitioners of historical fiction who described her historical novels as "passionate reconstructions," published The Memoirs of Hadrian. Recounting the second-century Roman Emperor Hadrian's intense love for the Greek teenager Antinous, the acclaimed novel is a long meditation on the idea of empire and conquest, whether military or erotic.

In 1956, one of the most enduringly popular glbtq historical fiction writers published her first glbtq-themed historical fiction novel, The Last of the Wine: Mary Renault (the pen name of Eileen Mary Challans) created a romance between two young men in Athens during the fifth-century B.C.E. Peloponnesian War.

Renault is best known for her subsequent novels about the fourth-century B.C.E. Greek emperor, Alexander the Great. In The Mask of Apollo (1966), a novel centering on the Greek theater, the boy Alexander is introduced as a person of unusual beauty and presence. Fire from Heaven (1969) chronicles Alexander's romance with his lifelong friend, Hephaistion; The Persian Boy (1972), his romance with Bagoas, a Persian eunuch. Carefully researched and engagingly written, these novels continue to attract general readers as well as glbtq readers.

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