When Authors Hide Secrets Part 1
When I began writing ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, I quickly learned to decode newspaper articles about writers. There were men who were ‘intensely private’ and women who ‘never married’. The words ‘sapphic’ and ‘bachelor’ tended to crop up, used knowingly. These writers were devoted to their mothers and never gave personal interviews. They lived alone and survived scandals that weren’t detailed.
But you can’t always hide everything in your fiction. I could always tell a gay author from the writing. It was blazingly obvious that novelist Patrick Quentin was ‘intensely private’ when I read his thriller ‘Puzzle For Puppets’, in which two lines are spent describing the detective’s wife and half a page is reserved for descriptions of the muscular marines in a San Francisco bathhouse.
The actor-turned-writer Dirk Bogarde was famously ‘private’ in a time when the word was understood to be coded. For such an honest man – his many books are seamed with the frankest opinions – it is uncomfortable to be aware of his denials concerning his life-partner, Tony, but this has to be seen as an act of self-preservation. As a Rank star he made three films a year and became Britain’s most popular actor at a time when the government was conducting a series of high profile gay prosecutions. He was intelligent enough to be careful, so no letters of any frankness survive. That was what gay writers did.
They were also very good at denigrating themselves. Social pressure created shame and self-hatred that surfaced in writing. Quite a number of gay crime writers drafted effeminate men (or in 40’s parlance ‘swishes’) into their fiction to provide local colour. There’s more uncoded gayness in old books than there are in movies. John Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill’ is racier than Lady Chatterly and features voyeurism, brothels, drag, self-pleasure and gay sex (the shock of seeing this causes Fanny to knock herself out), but the acts themselves are explicit and expressed in awestruck delight.
But most gay writers kept a lid on it. Adam Martin de Hegedus had a secret; he came to London during the 1920s to write, but also because it allowed him the freedom to be gay. In Paris he befriended André Gide, but soon returned to London and settled for good. A melancholy, ‘private’ man, it’s hard to say what made him take the extraordinary step of writing a gay novel fourteen years before homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain.
The result was ‘The Heart In Exile’. It remains an important volume, and is the only book for which he’s remembered. Very little else is known about him. Five years after the book was published he committed suicide somewhere in the Marble Arch area. Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of the nation’s sexually hypocritical class system, or the gruesomely depressing times when socially stigmatised ‘inverts’ were forced to lead a double life or risk blackmail.
The first explicitly gay novel I read was Neville Jackson’s ‘No End To The Way’, mainly because of its sexy cover of a man in bright yellow swimming trunks. The book had to be written under a pseudonym because it positively depicted a gay love affair, and was lightly based on Jackson’s own life with his partner. ‘No End To The Way’ was published in the UK to critical acclaim, and is one of the few popular successes ever written in the second person. It was promptly banned in Australia, and couldn’t be shipped over due to censorship laws, so the publishers, Corgi, chartered planes and flew copies in.
It was harder to get to the truth about women writers because, to complicate matters, they were more fluid in their personal arrangements. But they often had a tougher time with critics who were quick to see lesbians as mannish man-haters. Joyce Porter penned some terrific murder mysteries using a male detective who was revolting and always ruined the investigation by picking the wrong murderer. Given the preponderance of her lesbian characters, Porter’s mystery-shrouded private life and another series of novels featuring the butch Constance Burke and her female companion, one might draw conclusions about the author that provide her with a refreshingly unrosy view of the male psyche. Funnily enough, male critics were not at all keen on her.
Similarly, the prolific and often hilarious Gladys Mitchell (whose Mrs Brady novels are better than Miss Marple’s) was a schoolteacher who believed in the ideal of the professional, progressive, blunt-spoken Sapphic woman. Her title character was controversial and emancipated, and even considered murder justifiable if the occasion demanded. With such an outspoken heroine, Mitchell naturally made enemies. The Spectator described her as ‘a tiresome old trout’ whose mannerisms were the most trying in detective fiction, but many (myself included) were delighted to discover her work.