BP Note: Welcome to the last of the Queer Romance Month guest posts written by Alexis Hall. If you haven’t already please check out the first three posts but be prepared to spend some money or add to your wish list – Queer is Intimate, Queer is Real, Queer is Fun. Enjoy!
Love is Queer
You know what I like about the word queer? It’s been around since about the 16th century, meaning a bunch of things, but nobody really knows where we got it. Best guess seems to be the German quer meaning oblique or sideways (or, of a person, peculiar- although I believe this meaning is now obsolete) but, let’s face it, the semantic correspondence is pretty darn hazy.
So queer is queer even unto itself. A word of absolute particularity.
This week – for my final article – I’m going to be talking about Laura Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter. But wait I hear you cry, well, maybe not cry but muse idly to your computer screen, The Dream Hunter isn’t a queer romance. To which I answer: yes it is. It’s probably one of the queerest romances I’ve ever read. And the fact that the protagonists are straight doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.
Before I get into it, I should probably say straight off: I am a fan of problematic Victorians.
Mary Kingsley, Hester Stanhope, Edward Backhouse, David Livingston, Pitt Rivers, and let’s not even get into my deeply unfortunate dudecrush on Sir Richard Burton. These mad, passionate, fascinating people who rampaged across the world like it belonged to them, their actions and reactions always suspended in that impossible twilight zone between genuine respect and appalling appropriation. I’m not trying to set myself up as an imperialism apologist but they also achieved remarkable things. Backhouse’s memoirs are wildly fantastical, and probably mostly nonsense (seriously, there is no famous figure extant at the time he doesn’t claim he’s bonked) but at the same time he was a gifted linguist and – whatever his credibility as a historian – it’s a fascinating insight into late Imperial China as filtered through the perceptions of a displaced English fellow.
Richard Burton snuck into Mecca – which was totally wrong of him, and he was sort of only doing it to show off to his mates at the Royal Geographical Society, but at the same time there’s a terrible part of me that interprets this as a thrilling adventure instead of a grotesque act of cultural violation. But, honestly, ‘A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah’ is one of my favourite pieces of travel writing. There’s no denying it’s skeevily Orientalist (and Burton was this strange mixture of progressively open-minded and horrendously racist) but it’s also marvellous: a chaotic jumble of history, geography, anthropology, archaeology, observation, speculation, personal recollection, and complete bullshit, with more footnotes than the golden age of Pratchett. There’s an extent to which Burton is pretty self-consciously presenting himself as the hero of a thrilling adventure story which is, in and of itself, a massive problem but, although he’s basically an imperialistic fuckhead who largely sees the world as something for him to poke at or take, his relationship with England and Empire was actually quite troubled. This doesn’t make his appropriation of other cultures any more okay but, well, it adds complexities to his experiences and his writings.
What I’m trying to express with this tortured confession of stuff I know I shouldn’t be into is actually something pretty simple and it’s this: Like Life After Joe, albeit in a completely different way, The Dream Hunter feels like one book a total stranger basically wrote for me. It’s all about this awful stuff I like, but presented and explored with – to my mind, mileage may, of course, vary – enough awareness that I could, you know, really enjoy myself. It’s also a story about alienation. Its protagonists are two of the most helplessly individual people I’ve ever (fictionally) met: they are, frankly, as queer as hell. Their love – when they finally get there (and, ye gods, does it take a while) is the awkward fitting-together of unlikely pieces. But fit they somehow do. Nowhere else, to no-one else, but with each other.
And, honestly, I wouldn’t touch either of them with a ten foot pole. They are so mercilessly individualised they are practically deranged. But that’s why The Dream Hunter works for me. It’s not a pretty story, or sweet one. It’s savage and messy and almost incomprehensible at times, but its portrayal of love in all its absolute particularity is incomparable.
The hero, Lord Arden Winter, is a lost Victorian, a restless, cold-hearted wanderer in hostile lands. When his equally cold and controlling father quashes his expedition to the Arctic, lest he die leaving the family without an heir to continue the bloodline, he runs away to, I guess, Lebanon in pursuit of a lost Arabian mare known as The String of Pearls. In Sidon, at Joun, the desert palace of Lady Hester Stanhope (yes, the Lady Hester Stanhope!) who has just died, he encounters a ragged Bedouin boy weeping in the ruins. The ragged Bedouin boy is, of course, a girl – Zenobia (Zenia) Stanhope, the illegitimate daughter of Lady Hester. Her sole desire is to escape the harsh desert sands for the green fields of England, and find her father Michael Bruce.
Eventually, Zenia agrees to act as Winter’s guide and, in return – still not knowing her true identity – he promises to take her to England with him. Anyway, it all goes horribly wrong and, not long after Winter discovers the truth about who Zenia is, including that she has girlbits and he wants to enter them, he ends up captured, possibly dead, and Zenia flees to England on his passport, pregnant with his child and pretending to be his wife. In England, she is soon taken in by Winter’s family, largely in the hope that her unborn child will turn out to be a boy. And, then, of course Winter returns very much alive, only to discover that he has a daughter and a wife, and in that woman there are no traces left of the daring boy/girl who inflamed his cold heart deep in the crucible of the desert.
The Dream Hunter is very much a book of two halves, the first half is all desert adventures, and the second half is, well, to call it English tedium would be a little harsh but, for me, with my preoccupations and obsessions, the first half was simply more engaging. But however much some crazy part of me wanted to read Arden & Zenia’s Exciting Desert Adventures, and however much I could have done with slightly less of the legalistic intricacies of marriage in the 19th century, the two apparently mismatched pieces of The Dream Hunter (like Zenia and Arden) are absolutely necessary to each other. It is a book of broken symmetries, near misses, disguises and evasions but is also a united book, full of unexpected correspondences that make sense only when you accept that it is a text that reflects its protagonists. In other words, kind of a hot mess, but it works on its own terms. And once you see that, once you see past Zenia’s power-gaming and Arden’s cluelessness, their crippling collection of fears and incapabilities, the profound loneliness that saturates every damn thing they do … it’s full of this weird joy. The queerest love between the queerest people.
[Arden] had been born too late. Hester Stanhope was dead. He would never in his own lifetime find a woman to match her, and tonight, the indefinable restless loneliness that drove him— always drove him to the empty, brutal places of the earth , as if he could find there whatever piece of his soul he had been born missing— seemed sharper than it had seemed in a long while.
Zenia and Arden meet in the desert: he’s running away from England, she’s trying to get to England, he spends most of his time dressed as an Arab (shades of Sir RB there), she spends most of hers dressed as a boy. They’re both dream hunting: Zenia wants the security of a life in England, where she will at last be free to be a lady instead of the feral creature her mother raised her to be, and Arden is looking for this fabled horse, The String of Pearls. Both of them do, in fact, catch their dreams. Zenia makes it to England and, after months of imprisonment, Arden finds his horse. Of course, by the time he gets it back, the people who paid him to find it don’t care anymore. As for Zenia, England isn’t what she expected it either. While she finds family who love her and welcome her, it’s no more home to her than the desert was.
As much as I adore the scenes set in the desert – Kinsale paints those wild landscapes with a conviction that leaves me breathless on their beauty – the moment that perfectly typifies The Dream Hunter for me occurs on Arden’s return to England. Attempting to find his ‘Selim’ in the woman Zenia has become, he remembers that s/he always spoke longingly of plum pudding (plum pudding and green trees) so he brings her one from the kitchen. He doesn’t know, of course, that Zenia tried plum pudding on her first Christmas in England and hated it. And, regardless, on finding her already tucked comfortably with a tray, he takes his plum pudding away again, feeling foolish and irrelevant. There’s such a deep well of human uncertainty in this relatively banal incident: a deeply personal gesture that should be so full of meaning rendered completely inappropriate by circumstance and experience.
The second half of the book is full of misses and misunderstandings, just like this one, and they edge onto infuriating until you realise what’s going on. They’re just lost. Hopelessly and completely lost. They’re both horribly aware they’re doing everything wrong, but they’re so deeply unaccustomed to having anything they want, they don’t know how to take it when it’s there. They’re hunters. Life has never taught them how to rest. They don’t know how to act, or to be together, they don’t know what love means for them or how to fit it into the world they know. This … speaks to me. This is a queer thing, certainly, but it’s also fundamentally human one. The difficult thing, The Dream Hunter reminds us, is not so much chasing dreams, as knowing when we’ve found them.
Towards the end – several legalities and plum puddings later – Arden makes one final effort to woo his wife: she is trying to be a lady, so he tries to be a gentleman. It’s painful, genuinely painful, to watch them playact at conventionality. Costumes that reflect them no more truly than the guises they wore in the desert. Their HEA comes in an explosion of drama – an abduction, a flight, a claiming, a declaration – but primarily through recognition and acceptance:
He gripped her closer, his arm about her neck. “I tried to be a civilized creature. I tried to live your safe little life, and you ran to Mr. Jocelyn when I couldn’t be what you want. Now I’m what I am, and I’ll make you what you are. I don’t plan to be merciful.”
As ever, it’s kind of nuts the way they figure it out, and entirely particular to who they are. It’s romantic not because it reflects any kind of social construction of what we’re love should be, or look like, but because all comes down to understanding. To letting someone see you, and know you, so thoroughly that you no longer have to fear being strange or savage or wrong or queer, and all the ways you don’t fit, or don’t want what you’re supposed to want, or act like you’re supposed act, don’t matter.
Because all that matters is know how to invoke the superstitious magic of ‘I love you’ in a way that means something to the person you love.
BP Note – Thank you Alexis for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and book recommendations with us this month! Your posts and everything about this month has certainly made us think.