I’m in the line of impossible dreams. Sometimes, on my wildest days, I imagine I’ll make a living from writing. These last few months, for research, I’ve had my head stuck in a series of early 20th century novels, immersing myself in the world of bright young people. Even when I was a kid, watching cross-dressing, monocle wearing Sissy in the BBC’s comedy You Rang My Lord, I knew there was something a bit queer about the 1920s. People, some people, probably mostly rich people with not much to lose, pushed boundaries around identity and sexuality and dress. The idea of the gay 1920s aristocrat is extremely iconic for me. It offers the possibility of a particular kind of maleness which, as a not especially macho trans man, is very attractive to me. It’s exemplified in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
I write a lot of gay characters, so I tend to have possibly more than the average quantity of male characters in my books. And I think a lot about the way I want to represent those male characters. I feel that sometimes modern conceptions of what maleness means are pretty narrow. Marketing profiling and no doubt all manner of other social factors have redefined male gender in narrow terms. It feels like some of the flexibility bought in the 70s and early 80s, with movements like glam, new romantic and goth, has been lost. Even though the labels for gender are proliferating, the actual conceptions of what maleness means don’t feel more flexible to me.
When I read books from the early 20th century, maleness feels more flexible. A wider variety of male characters are allowed. Maybe there’s a slightly different approach to storytelling too. There’s not an aggressive push for main characters to seize the day, take the bull by the horns, have piles of agency. Because that’s only one kind of story that can be told.
There’s a lot of boundary pushing going on in the 20s. A kickback against the Edwardians and Victorians that went before. A reaction to the war as well, of course. In Vile Bodies, the characters struggle to find a place to eat on a journey because one of the women is wearing trousers, and one of the men stops to apply make-up to his eyelashes in a restaurant and is thrown out. The wilful pushing of boundaries of dress and gender, of pushing against the Victorian and Edwardian strictures, is a lot of fun to watch. Waugh’s characters are based on the real bright young people. People like Stephen Tennant and Brian Howard, who were notorious for pushing things as far as they could.
One thing I noticed was, at least in some circles, physical affection between men wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was expected much more so, perhaps, than in the present day. Even in Maurice, (E.M. Forster’s story of male love, which he didn’t publish in his lifetime) with all of Forster’s fears, it’s clear that very close friendships between men are normal, that touching your friend, wrestling with them, or even sitting at your friend’s feet, was not considered out of the ordinary, or an indication of anything other than close friendship. There’s a beauty in that easy display of affection that’s lost to us now. There are also plenty of male characters of a type that is perhaps less common now. Men that aren’t especially macho or heroic or action-oriented. For those of us looking for a more flexible model of masculinity, it’s a welcome relief.
And that’s why I want to be a gay 1920s aristocrat when I grow up. I can dream.