L.P. Hartley’s famous opening line for The Go-Between “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” encapsulates rather perfectly the fascination I’ve had with stories of the past since I was a little girl, asking my grandma to tell me about the war.
A Leap of Faith began with two things: an episode of Call the Midwife, and Peter Wildeblood. After watching the 2016 Christmas special of the former, which features a mission hospital in 1950s South Africa, the idea for the book lodged itself firmly in my head. I’d long wanted to explore LGBTQ+ history in my writing.
When I read Wildeblood’s Against the Law, I realised something crucial: as much as things were different “in the past”, we can’t help but view those events and people through the lens of hindsight, and interpret them in light of what came after. I love historical TV dramas, but the short time available for on-screen character deep dives means that some facts about bygone times will receive short shrift.
So I wondered – could stories set in the past be truer to the hard, cold facts of history? Maybe the answer is both yes and no. There’s never an excuse for being sloppy with the research and making avoidable mistakes about facts, like the correct production year of a certain car model. But as storytellers we have to make choices, even if they are as basic as deciding whose point of view to tell a story from.
In romance novels, the main characters must be at least likeable because the readers need to root for them sufficiently to want them to end up together. This begs the question, how can we like someone who, in their time, would’ve held certain beliefs we find repugnant today, such as homophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry? When I read Against the Law, I was surprised and dismayed by the homophobic attitudes Wildeblood held towards men who, in his view, were acting effeminate. I soon learned that this was a common perception at the time. I don’t think it makes him a bad person. We’re all creatures of our time. Just think back to how recently blackface was an accepted form of playing dress-up. And regarding Peter Wildeblood, once his first book became famous, he went on to interview a much more diverse group of men for his second book, A Way of Life. Attitudes change, people change. This is why charting these trajectories is so fascinating.
That led me to something else: how do we write about identity? As a concept – academic, political or otherwise – identity didn’t appear in the discussion until quite late in the 20th century, and many of the terms that have become the acronym used by the LGBTQ+ community are similarly recent in their current meaning.
I came across an article [https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a28984957/downton-abbey-thomas-barrow-gay-sexuality-1920s-history-accuracy/] in Town & Country. It asks the question: How well did Downton Abbey portray Thomas Barrow’s love story? And it makes, I think, a few really good points.
The definition of the word ‘gay’, as people will undoubtedly know, was not initially associated with homosexuality. Its original meanings are ‘carefree, cheerful’, which is how the characters in Downton Abbey and in A Leap of Faith would’ve used it. “Homosexual” was a clinical term and being gay was considered a disorder, and “queer” was still an insult in the 1950s.
Those were just terms used to describe certain behaviours. Today, the way we think about queerness is utterly changed. The Town & Country article touches on how gay men of the early 20th century thought of their sexual identity. Men who had sex with other men in many cases still got married to women. Some held homophobic views themselves, because they were socialised in an exclusively heteronormative society. This isn’t to say that people didn’t conceptualise these identities. E.M. Forster wrote Maurice in 1913/14 (though it wasn’t published until 1971) and he had discussed his homosexuality with friends since his university days.
By the middle of the century, the intensity of the discourse was picking up. The ‘purple scare’ and some particularly regressive lawmakers prompted a number of high-profile criminal trials against gay men. But the public sentiment was changing. The Wolfenden Commission was set up in 1957 partly as a response to the discomfort felt with the law’s interference in the bedroom. Wildeblood published Against the Law in 1955, and was the only openly gay man to testify to the commission. It still took until 1967 for homosexuality to become decriminalised.
I set A Leap of Faith at the cusp of that development because to me, it’s a fascinating moment in history. Yet, like all creators of historical fiction, I had to make choices. My characters are likeable, and free of homophobia, internalised or otherwise. I gave them the agency they needed to get their happy end, something that might seem overly optimistic for the time period if I’d stuck closely to reality. All of my writing is dedicated to the people from my community who fought the good fight. I do my best to research their history and strive to write the stories they deserve.