Monsieur and Me: A Reflection on the Historical Novels of Sarah Waters

Many moons ago I worked voluntarily at an excellent (sadly now closed) lesbian lifestyle magazine called Velvet. I did marketing and PR, and one of my more beloved roles was to do book and film reviews. It was through this that I first became aware of the novelist, Sarah Waters, whose titles Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity have all been adapted for television or film. Tipping the Velvet, her first novel, blew my mind, because it was both a very well researched historical novel and a narrative that spoke powerfully and eloquently about the love between two women. The deep, all-encompassing and life-changing passion that Nan feels for Kitty echoed my own feelings, experiences and desires, and perhaps it was that familiarity which endeared it to so many other readers.

Historical fiction is a very popular genre and yet it was not one I usually read. But Waters had me hooked from almost the first line. Her detailed, seamless literary style combined with such a wealth of contextual, historical detail that it seemed to me that she brought the Victorian world to life. And for the first time, it made me think about the LGBT* people who lived and loved and worked, and struggled and starved, and succeeded, in some cases, at that time. It made it seem entirely normal, and reasonable, that there were women dressing as men and loving each other. That Waters published her book as a mainstream book, not as lesbian genre fiction, was another significant dimension of my reading experience and her ongoing success.

And then there was Monsieur. The novels I had read outside of the lesbian fiction genre did not deal with lesbian sex in any real way. It was alluded to, it was cleverly circumvented so that there was a sex-shaped hole in many stories (even those mainstream thrillers written by the wonderful Val McDermid), but it seemed that Sarah Waters transgressed the final taboo. Monsieur, made of leather, not only featured uncompromisingly in her book, but also in the Andrew Davies/BBC three part adaptation. Yet another aspect of lesbian identity and behaviour made manifest in the ‘normal’ world. How wonderful. How disturbing. How strange.

Although the subsequent novels take a darker turn, exploring more psychological, supernatural and psychic dimensions of the lives of women, and are less sexually explicit, there is an ongoing allusion to the nature of lesbian sexuality which, for the queer reader, evokes a sense of familiarity. Here at last are the books that speak to us on an intimate level. They whisper “you see, I know you!”

What struck me, and still does, when reading these three different, and so cleverly crafted books, is not only her representation of the times and culture in which they took place, but Waters’ willingness to explore the ambiguities of lesbian identity and sexuality alongside a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that women are not always very nice to each other. I had read other Victorian fiction and yet here was an insight from a different perspective. A woman’s perspective but not just any woman. These women were different. They challenged me. And I love to be challenged.

Researching further, I found a link to her PhD Thesis: Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present. Reading this opened my eyes to the nature of queer fiction throughout history, more so than my rudimentary understanding of Sappho, Wilde, Hall and others. What she has done, in this thesis and in her published fiction, is to open up a window into historical life viewed differently from the ‘malestream’ disciplines of both history and fiction, whilst adhering brilliantly to the conventional forms of the novel (and of the thesis, I might add). To see an academic, and a novelist, creating a niche for her work and achieving wide acclaim (just check her Widipedia entry to see how many awards she has won) whilst celebrating the history of queer people is both reassuring and pleasurable. As a novelist myself, I am in awe of her skill and craft, and as an avid and avowed bibliophile, I can only hope she continues to thrill us with more books in the future.

As for monsieur… if you don’t already know, then read the book! I could never describe him in any way that would come close to Sarah Waters.

Check out her work at http://www.sarahwaters.com/

By Dr Alys Einion,

Co-Chair, Swansea University Staff Network.

This blog series is coordinated by Dr Alys Einion of Swansea University and celebrates LGBT History Month 2017.

 

 

February 3rd, 2017

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