A London Subculture by Edie Cay

Today’s post shares fascinating information and is well-sourced, but its subject may not be suitable for all readers. The topic is the rich and diverse history of gay subculture in 18th & 19th century London. Readers should decide for themselves whether to proceed further.

From Edie Cay

            The rich and diverse history of gay subculture in London is pure gold. Documents are everywhere of men loving men, men dressing as women, women dressing as men, and marriages of same-sex couples taking place under the ministrations of a minister (though not in a church).  

            I am by FAR not the first to write about such histories, nor the historical fiction in this setting. What I want to share is the interesting cases of historical Drag Queens. My historical romantic comedy, A LADY’S FINDER, features a lesbian cis-woman and a non-binary person who lives in a gay club, and has a supporting cast that anyone who has ever frequented a modern gay club might find. These are not figments of my imagination, but based in historical fact, which makes it all the more fabulous.

            One such character in my novel is Miss Persephone, a supporting character and drag queen who lives at the club where she works. Prior to her Miss Persephone persona, she was an apprentice butcher who came to London, and found Mrs. Bettleton—the owner of the Cock and Prance Inn.

            Mrs. Bettleton is based on the real-life woman referred to as Mother Clap, who ran a gay club that was raided in 1726 in Field Lane, Holborn. The club itself was a private home, and she kept beds in every room, so there was suspicion of sexual activity and prostitution on premises, though this was never “proven.” But the reason the club was popular—when raided, forty men were arrested, and some ran away before being apprehended—was because it was just a nice place to be. She kept a fire going, kept the liquor pouring, and had a fiddler for musical entertainment.

            Mother Clap’s house had no specific name, as it was private, but she did have boarders who lived there for years at a time. Some speculate that these men were prostitutes, or perhaps grifters. But maybe they were just gay men who enjoyed living close to a place where they didn’t have to hide a part of themselves. Mother Clap reportedly enjoyed her clientele, sitting with them during entertaining hours.

This is not much different from how I portray the daily life at the Cock and Prance Inn. Like many clubs, balls, and Vauxhall parties, I do include a masquerade ball in my book. Marie-Antoinette themed costume parties were not uncommon, which begs the question of why the bizarre English fascination with recently beheaded monarchs would be recreated in entertainment form when the division between the rich and the poor was so stark. Flirting with disaster, I suppose.

One of those masquerade regulars was Princess Seraphina, a person who dressed in fabulous fashion, and purportedly acted as the analog Grinder app in the 1720s. Princess Seraphina stepped out in her fabulous clothes, and while her birth name was John Cooper, many knew her only as Princess Seraphina.

From a modern standpoint, we may wonder whether Princess Seraphina was a drag queen or a transwoman. To look at the facts, Princess Seraphina rarely went in public dressed as a man, preferring the fine women’s clothes she had. However, this is a time where clothing was a precious commodity, and indeed, we know much of Princess Seraphina because of her 1732 suit against Thomas Gordon. She accused Thomas Gordon of stealing her clothing, and Gordon counter-sued, stating that Princess Seraphina was a sodomite.

Princess Seraphina procured several witnesses to Thomas Gordon’s plot, and thus discredited his accusations against Princess Seraphina. More witnesses were procured, and it was found that Princess Seraphina was well-liked by her neighbors, and lived with a married couple whom she had nursed through illness. In the end, Gordon was acquitted, and Princess Seraphina was not charged.

A drag queen uses the trappings of femininity to create something completely other. It is play, a game, a satire. As perhaps the most famous drag queen, RuPaul, has said: “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?”

It’s hard to say with the distance of almost three hundred years, two culture, and different life expectations whether or not Princess Seraphina was assigned female at birth (AFAB), or was a drag queen. What I love most about Princess Seraphina is that she WAS Princess Seraphina, and was addressed as such in open court by Mary Poplet, keeper of the Two Sugar Loaves public house: “I have known her Highness a pretty while…”

            And in my head, I’m going to just think of Two Sugar Loaves public house as a lesbian bar, even though it decidedly was not, for many reasons. The largest reason is that women were not allowed out in those places. Women dressed as men could have this freedom if they passed, and as long as nothing untoward happened, we would never be the wiser. This is why many people mourn the lack of documentation of a lesbian subculture, as the strictures surrounding women made living their lives both easier (they would not be executed), and harder (lack of autonomy).

But to return to the gay subculture that historians know continued to thrive: yes, occasionally there were still homosexual men hanged for sodomy, but there were many others that lived together, loved each other, had fun with each other.

Any public house, inn, coffeehouse, or private home could be a “molly-house,” if they had the proper clientele. And common to these places were feminine names given to a guest as soon as they entered. This isn’t the same as a drag name, though many of them sound oddly modern: Black-eyed Lenora, a drummer; Pretty Harriet, a butcher; Lady Godiva, a waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Fanny Murray, a bargeman; and Miss Sweet Lips, a country grocer. We know these from a raid at the White Swan public house in 1810. But that doesn’t make all of them drag queens—rather, it gives each man a modicum of privacy, as blackmailers could be found amongst their ranks. If the man didn’t pay, the blackmailer would turn the magistrates against them, and the man could be prosecuted and hung for sodomy.

Interestingly enough, there is more local history on men dressing as women that has nothing to do with homosexuality, drag queens, or having the wrong assignation at birth. There is a history of transgressive politics, wherein the protesting men would dress as women, create havoc, and call each other by women’s names. There had long been festivals of “misrule,” where men would dress as women, lords would dress as peasants, and for an evening things might seem marvelously strange.

These social protests occurred far back into the Medieval period, where there is a mix of men and women not just in the protest itself, but also in its leadership. Sometimes they were led by a woman, and sometimes led by a “virago”—a man dressed as a woman. Indeed, even in 1839 Wales, Rebecca and Her Daughters were a group of coal miners who protested turnpike tolls. Not only did these protestors dress as women, they gave each other feminine names, and called themselves daughters. They also smashed the toll barriers and harassed the turnpike gatekeepers.

This makes for fascinating brain candy, to delve into a peasant history where genders matter less, and the biological is less of a determinant than one’s class.

Sources:

http://vauxhallhistory.org/princess-seraphina-at-vauxhall-gardens/

http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/mother.htm

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Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg

Edie Cay writes Feminist Regency Romance. Her debut, A LADY’S REVENGE won the Golden Leaf Best First Book and the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Romance in 2020. The next in her series, THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH won the Best Indie Book Award for 2021, and is currently short-listed for the Chatelaine Romance Award. Her next book, A LADY’S FINDER is due out in March 2022. As a speaker, she has presented at Jolabokaflod PDX, Historical Novel Society North America, Sunrise Rotary, Regency Fiction Writers, and the History Quill. You can find her at the upcoming Chicago-North Spring Fling, and the Historical Romance Retreat in 2022. She obtained dual BAs in Creative Writing and in Music, and her MFA in Creative Writing from University of Alaska Anchorage. She is a member of The Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Follow her on social media for pictures of the latest baking project with her kiddo @authorEdieCay.

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