Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

American history X


Ribald tales of indentured servants

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Virginia Bedfellows by Gavin Morris; Harrington Park Press, $16.95

When Queen Elizabeth II came to the United States last May to visit Jamestown on the 400th anniversary of its founding, writer/activist Larry Kramer quipped that historic records prove that Jamestown was the first gay male village in America. Kramer asserted that there were "widespread coupling[s] of men with each other, indeed even with personal commitment ceremonies."

So it shouldn't be too farfetched that Gavin Morris' erotic history novel Virginia Bedfellows, set in 1740s colonial Virginia, includes a romantic white male couple, a few (eventually) coupled friends, and a gay-tolerant slave owner. The tone is a bit fanciful, and written in a retro style reminiscent of straight romance novels, with much less pent-up frustration and much more frequent sex scenes.

Indentured servants brought from England in shackles, contented African slaves in Virginia, and longterm gay romantic relationships make up the elements of Gavin Morris' novel.

After being jailed for fighting a London policeman who had insulted his sister, working-class Lance Morley, a hardy 17, ends up chained with other, mostly African prisoners on a cross-oceanic journey. Set to be delivered to a cordwainer (shoemaker) by the kindness of the otherwise cruel ship captain Henry, who takes a liking to him, Lance is locked up in the captain's cabin for occasional romps after they meet.

Meanwhile, Adam Bradley, having been handed off by exhausted parents with a dozen other children, is apprenticed in horse-tending and gay sexuality by amorous stable-hands while a servant at a Kent estate. Adam gets into trouble by refusing the rapacious advances of Lord Cromley, topping the older gent, and toppling the class order. Shipped off to America as an alternative to prison, Adam becomes a servant under Mr. Ashley, the same plantation owner who eventually employs/buys Lance. The two gradually reveal their desires, and a pants-bursting romance commences.

What appears to be a good deal of historically accurate detail is countered with the conceit that several men were able to maintain indiscreet relationships on a par with contemporary couples, including the occasional friendly three-way with a visiting Indian. The suffering of African slaves is mentioned, but the book focuses more on the imagined lives of its white protagonists, and their passionate romance.

The earnest tone of the book occasionally veers toward the Saturday Night Live sketch "Tales of Ribaldry." But this is historotica, after all. Much is made of the size and uncircumsized condition of men's genitalia; and the kindly and pseudo-Libertarian slave-owner seems yet another fiction, countered by a few malicious troublemakers who provide some plot drama, but eventually meet tragic ends.

While they weren't called "gay" in their day, there is no doubt that male sexuality existed in the early days of our nation. Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History provides bountiful facts. And Morris' Virginia Bedfellows provides the fanciful romance.

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