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Historical Fiction  
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Alma Routsong, writing under her pen name, Isabel Miller, self-published A Place for Us in 1969; two years later, the American Library Association honored the novel by granting it the first Gay Book Award. It was republished in 1972 as Patience & Sarah. This lesbian romance set in early-nineteenth-century Connecticut and New York quickly gained an extensive readership, becoming an important landmark of lesbian literature.

Recent Glbtq Historical Fiction

Today, one of the most widely read glbtq historical fiction writers is Sarah Waters: her novels about cross-dressing and lesbian romances in Victorian England--Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), and Fingersmith (2002)--are so popular that two of them have been made into television mini-series. Similarly, Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein (1995), about the famous director James Whale became a highly acclaimed film: Gods and Monsters (1998), directed by William Condon and starring Ian McKellen.

Some recent glbtq historical fiction novels explore the lives of major literary figures. Colm Tóibín's The Master (2004) focuses on Henry James; Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2003), on Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their Vietnamese cook; Nancy Freedman's Sappho: The Tenth Muse (1998), on the ancient Greek poet, Sappho. Mark Merlis's American Studies (1994) offers a fictionalized composite of literary critics Newton Arvin and F. O. Matthiessen. Merlis later published An Arrow's Flight (1998), which draws on Homer, Sophocles, and Virgil to re-tell the story of the Trojan War from an archly campy perspective.

In addition to Waters, many other novelists also explore glbtq history in England. David Leavitt's While England Sleeps (1995) presents a window on gay life in 1930s London. Emma Donoghue's Life Mask (2004) goes further back, to eighteenth-century London; Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt (2001) goes further still, to the seventeenth century.

Historical fiction novels treat a diverse array of glbtq subjects and settings. David Ebershoff's The Danish Girl: A Novel (2001) tells the story of Einar Weigener (Lili Elbe), the first man to undergo sex-change surgery. Judith Katz's The Escape Artist (1997) chronicles lesbian romances among Jewish immigrants in early twentieth-century Buenos Aires. John Williams's Clifford's Blues (1998) recounts the survival of a gay African-American jazz musician in a Nazi concentration camp.

Lisa See's Snow Flower and The Secret Fan (2005) tells of a nineteenth-century lesbian romance in China. Jamie O'Neill garnered critical acclaim for At Swim, Two Boys (2001), a gay romance set during the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. Earl Ganz's The Taos Truth Game (2006) recreates the relationship of novelist Myron Brinig and artist Cady Wells in the Taos, New Mexico artist colony dominated by Mabel Dodge Luhan in the 1930s.

These works of glbtq historical fiction represent just a fraction of the genre as a whole. While most of the works mentioned above are serious works of literature that have received critical as well as popular acclaim, one could also create an even more extensive list of popular glbtq historical romance novels. These typically range from subtly erotic to explicitly pornographic. While such novels can be just as formulaic as their heterosexual counterparts, many of them evince creativity and originality, and they continue to enjoy significant popularity among readers.


While certain glbtq historical fiction novels have been lauded by scholars, the genre as a whole remains underrepresented and underappreciated in glbtq scholarship. Nevertheless, the genre is popular and vibrant.

Whereas critics tend to focus unnecessarily on the bugbear of possible anachronisms, fans of these stories rightly find much to enjoy and appreciate in the genre. Glbtq historical fictions offer imaginative explorations of the past that are useful as well as enjoyable. They offer insights about the mysteries of sex and gender both in the past and in the present, illuminating these wonderfully murky and fascinating aspects of human experience.

Norman W. Jones

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literature >> Overview:  Romance Novels

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social sciences >> Alexander the Great

One of the most fascinating men of all times, Alexander the Great was not only a great soldier and conqueror, he was also renowned for his love of Hephaestion.

literature >> Arvin, Newton

One of the most gifted critics of American literature of the mid-twentieth century, Newton Arvin is today most remembered as a lover and mentor of Truman Capote and as the central figure in a 1960 scandal at Smith College.

social sciences >> Berdache

Both male and female berdaches (or two-spirit persons), common among Native American tribal cultures, were characterized by gender variation sanctioned by supernatural dreams and visions.

literature >> Bram, Christopher

Christopher Bram's novels address homosexual issues in a variety of periods and locales.

literature >> Brinig, Myron

One of the first Jewish-American writers of his generation to write in English rather than Yiddish, Myron Brinig was also one of the first to create homosexual characters, though he remained publicly closeted all of his life.

arts >> Condon, William "Bill"

Having earned critical acclaim for his work on Gods and Monsters (1998), Chicago (2002), and Kinsey (2004), screenwriter and film director William "Bill" Condon has become a leading American filmmaker.

literature >> Donoghue, Emma

A prolific writer of novels, plays, scholarly studies, and short stories, the lesbian author Emma Donoghue has emerged in recent years as a major contemporary literary figure.

arts >> Elbe, Lili

Einar Wegener, a male Danish painter of some renown, became Lili Elbe, one of the world's first male-to-female transsexuals to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

social sciences >> Hadrian

The love of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian for the beautiful youth Antinous was exceptional not because the lovers were male, but because of its intensity.

literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

literature >> Leavitt, David

Novelist and short story writer David Leavitt is one of the brightest stars of the gay literary world today.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Matthiessen, F.O.

Critic F. O. Matthiessen was instrumental in the inclusion of gay writers in American literary history, and the exchange of letters between him and his lover Russell Cheney are among the most revealing gay male documents of the 1920s.

arts >> McKellen, Sir Ian

Arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, Ian McKellen was the first British subject to be knighted after publicly revealing his homosexuality, an event that proved more controversial within the gay community than in the mainstream.

literature >> Merlis, Mark

Mark Merlis is a novelist of unusual imaginative and linguistic power who examines contemporary gay concerns through the filter of historical parallels.

literature >> Miller, Isabel

The fiction of Isabel Miller explores and celebrates relationships between women, often across class lines.

literature >> Renault, Mary

After five novels which included suggested lesbianism, Mary Renault turned to open male homosexuality in the last nine, which included The Charioteer and eight celebrated historical novels set in ancient Greece.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Spanbauer, Tom

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literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Tóibín, Colm

The recent novels of acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tóibín are astutely observed, unsentimental explorations of gay men trying to fit into an unwelcoming, and often openly hostile, world.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Walker, Alice

In her explorations of the damage done to the individual self by racism and sexism, Alice Walker views lesbianism as natural and freeing, an aid to self-knowledge and self-love.

literature >> Waters, Sarah

Sarah Waters is the author of three lesbian novels as well as articles on lesbian and gay literature.

arts >> Whale, James

Director James Whale is best remembered for his stylish horror films and for being one of the few openly gay Hollywood figures of the 1930s.

literature >> Yourcenar, Marguerite

The prize-winning novelist Marguerite Yourcenar reflected her own homosexuality in her works almost exclusively through male characters, most notably in Memoirs of Hadrian.


Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Donoghue, Emma. "Introduction" to Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005. 9-19.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Random House, 1978.

Jones, Norman W. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Rigney, Ann. Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Waters, Sarah. "Wolfskins and Togas: Maude Meagher's The Green Scamander and the Lesbian Historical Fiction Novel." Women: A Cultural Review 7.2 (1996): 176-88.


    Citation Information
    Author: Jones, Norman W.  
    Entry Title: Historical Fiction  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2008  
    Date Last Updated April 21, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2008 glbtq, Inc.  


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