Although the city is typically linked with sexual liberation, a small but expanding canon that includes authors like EM Forster and Sarah Waters presents a different tale.
If the countryside is mentioned at all in LGBT+ fiction, it usually solely serves as a place of exile. This is a pattern that didn’t fit any of us, and even though we burst (or tiptoed) out of the closet in an urban way, the rural allure soon overpowered the anonymity of the city. It didn’t feel like a decision; rather, it felt like something innate that would have been risky to reject, like coming out itself.
So it was for George Walton and Reg Mickisch, a classy couple who met in the ruins of postwar London and left the city in 1972 to start a B&B in a little Welsh village. They developed into cherished neighbors and close friends in our thinly populated community.
My fiancé and I discovered that they had bequeathed us their old farmhouse when they passed away a few weeks apart in 2011, at ages 94 and 84. They recognized themselves in us, and we recognized them in them. But their legacy went well beyond that since it also contained a collection of books, journals, photographs, artwork, and letters that chronicled a fascinating life. That story, as well as many others, is in my book On the Red Hill.
I read extensively about the “queer rural” during my research. Not directly, at least, there wasn’t much.
That meant learning to read the shadows, to find shattered links that had previously been denied or neglected, more so than is typically the case with LGBT+ history. We are not recent settlers of the area, that much was obvious. We’ve been around forever. In Wales, there is a long-standing custom known as “the old lad,” or the single uncle who might live next door to or with his single friend. Every town has a male and female version of the hen lanc.
In my investigation, these are some of the novels that chimed the loudest. I’m honored to be a member of the modest but expanding canon of gay rural literature.
EM Forster’s: Maurice
Forster’s beautiful love story, the gay grandfather of them all, was written in 1913 but, out of fear of controversy, stayed unpublished until his passing 60 years later. In the soft folds of a rural English landscape, a place of both beauty and peril, Maurice and gamekeeper Scudder’s romance is sparked.
The 1987 movie adaption, which surprised everyone by being shockingly sensual for a Merchant Ivory piece, was a major motivator for coming out for gay guys like me who were in our middle years. The titular hero murmurs, “Men of my sort could take to the greenwood;”
Jan Morris’s: Conundrum
The ground-breaking autobiography of her transgender journey from 1974 is a masterpiece by the best writer of our time. There is a literal voyage, with its pinnacle on an operating table in Casablanca, but there is also an existential and spiritual journey that brings her back to “the highly civilized culture of Caernarfonshire,” in Wales’ craggy north-west corner, the only place that may potentially heal her. She is still there, far into her tenth decade.
Sheila Rowbotham’s: Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love
The numerous writings of the pioneering socialist Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) haven’t really held up over time. This outstanding history of the man, which focuses in particular on the decades he spent living openly with his boyfriend George Merrill in the community of Millthorpe, south of Sheffield, is more inspiring.
Pilgrims came from all around, including EM Forster, who attributed his inspiration for writing Maurice to Merrill’s bottom-squeeze, which “struck a creative spring.”
Michael Carson’s: Stripping Penguins Bare
In Stripping Penguins Bare Our honorable hero departs Merseyside for Aberystwyth University in the second volume of the Benson trilogy, which is set in the middle of the 1960s. He battles discrimination there on behalf of the Overseas Students’ Society while secretly yearning for one of its members. He has better luck in the wild west with reticent Welsh farmers who gladly deflower him.
Sarah Waters’s: Fingersmith
This arch lesbian mystery story takes place in the tight environment of Briar House in the Victorian English countryside. Briar is a place where time moves differently, darkness dominates, and silence reigns. Briar, despite its clamminess, worms its way into the hearts of the two ladies whose passion it stokes. The only place they can be themselves and be together is in this secret-filled countryside.
Bruce Chatwin’s: On the Black Hill
The wild Welsh-English borderland serves as both the story’s setting and main character in this epic tale of farming twins Lewis and Benjamin Jones. Lewis gives up his own dreams of a happy marriage to live with Benjamin in their shared bedroom, which is “usually dark and smelled of lavender and mothballs,” because Benjamin isn’t the marrying kind. The twins and the border-separated farm serve as metaphors for Chatwin’s personal bisexuality and sense of belonging, respectively.
Also read: 7 Great Must-Read Books By Amish Tripathi
Derek Jarman’s: Modern Nature
Dungeness, that unearthly outcropping from England’s south coast and Jarman’s residence during his later years, is a place of pilgrimage for all homosexual ruralists. He created a weird and prickly landscape at Prospect Cottage, and the presence of a nuclear power plant added to the garden’s desolate appeal.
The absence of fences in Dungeness is one of its distinctive features; Jarman’s enthusiastic description of discovering the wonder of nature states, “My garden’s bounds are the horizon.”
Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter
A powerful story about leaving Edwardian England’s shame and demons behind and moving to Canada’s prairies. God’s Own Country, a joyful Francis Lee film, wasn’t a British version of Brokeback Mountain, despite what many lazy reviews claimed.
What is? Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller, which tells the story of two women who take over a farm in upstate New York at the beginning of the 19th century, is the lesbian equivalent and has enchanted readers for 50 years. Everybody needs a cowboy or cowgirl story.
Fiona Cooper’s: Blossom at the Mention of Your Name
A book that, when I read it for the first time 25 years ago, shone a piercing light in front of me. I yearned to be Callum, an elfin queer witch, the story’s protagonist, or even to be with him. His link to the green flame of nature, which was so thoroughly investigated and flamboyantly expressed, excited me and just fueled my desire to leave the city.
Rosetremain’s: Sacred Country
The 1950s in rural Suffolk were not the best era or setting for transgender people. When Mary realizes that she is a guy for the first time at age six, he is driven to seek refuge in London and later in Nashville, where he may live as Martin.
Even though this book could seem like the typical LGBT “escape from the country” story, Martin never quite manages to leave the Suffolk village life behind—and he doesn’t really want to. The bus driver in Tennessee asks him where he wants to go as he boards the Greyhound. Fields, he answers.