Jay Carmichael’s gay love story is set in conservative 1950s Australian intrigue, but fails to convince

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marlo, a gay love story set in conservative 1950s Australia, is based on research in libraries and archives. We know this because at the end of his book, author Jay Carmichael – a gay man himself – cites the work of Denis Altman and myself (in my role as a gay historian), among others. The novel is illustrated with photographs from the collections of the State Library of Victoria and the Australian Queer Archives.

Marlo concerns the sexual coming of age of central character Christopher, having moved to Melbourne as a young adult from the small country town of Marlo in East Gippsland. The novel explores how same-sex attracted men lived their lives during the repressive period following the end of World War II.

Christopher moves in the 1950s to Melbourne, where he finds a job as a mechanic and shares a house with Marlo’s friend Kings and his girlfriend. At a picnic in the Botanical Gardens, Christopher comes across another young man wearing a suit, Morgan, who later in the novel we discover is an Australian Aborigine, living in white society with a certificate exemption from the Council for the Protection of Aborigines (New South Wales).

Christopher and Morgan struggle with what appears to be Christopher’s self-hatred and desire to be accepted.

Camp men in 1950s Melbourne

Men who are attracted to the same sex were known as “camp” before gay liberation popularized the term “gay” for homosexual men. Their lives were made more difficult by the association between sexual nonconformity and the political threat of communism.

Marlo is most compelling when it comes to the social life that was available to camp men in 1950s Melbourne, and the discretion men like Christopher needed to get by, until they felt safe about who they were talking to and who they were socializing with.

Women in tailored suits. A singer on stage […] Men in ball gowns. Everyone different. In this cafe, together, they made a whole. Distinct and complete. They were the same in that they were outcasts, outlaws, underground.

Christopher’s relationships with his sister Iris and her boyfriend Morgan, and the tensions they created for him, are intriguing:

While we were dancing, I could have told Iris that the connection I felt with Morgan was similar to the connection I felt with her. […] But it was her wedding night; this could all wait for better weather. Then again, I couldn’t be sure there would ever be a better time.”

Before Christopher met Morgan, Iris had been his emotional anchor, but she was unaware of his sexuality. Despite Morgan’s reservations, Christopher insists that he join him at Iris’ wedding.

Morgan is jogging when they arrive at Christopher’s family home, is shunned by Iris, and wisely refuses to attend the wedding celebrations. The novel settles in but doesn’t fully deal with Christopher replacing his addiction to Iris with his love for Morgan.

image of a small town landscape

The novel’s protagonist, Christopher, moves to Melbourne from the small town of Marlo, Victoria. State Library Victoria/Rose Stereograph Co, Author provided

Repressive society, repressed me

In places, Jay Carmichael’s prose is inspired and elegiac:

And in the morning, before the world was clear-eyed, we went, quietly, to our days.

On one occasion, as the physical relationship develops between Christopher and Morgan, he investigates Morgan’s body for any evidence of self-harm:

In the shower, I checked her arms for scars or self-inflicted marks […] He had no flaws, but I determined he was wearing them inside.

But he shows less interest in Morgan’s arms, thighs, genitals — or anything approaching erotica.

It also seems somewhat odd that as a man in his twenties, ruminating on his budding physical relationship with Morgan, Christopher continued to use the term “things” to describe his genitals. (Which readers were first introduced to when, as a child, his friend, Kings, showed Christopher his “things.”)

The link the author might have wanted here – between a repressive external society and an internalized and repressed view of the self – was not something my research revealed in men born in the 1920s and 1930s who were sexually active in the 1950s in Australia. Many admitted to conducting their social/sexual relationships with caution to avoid attracting the attention of homophobicothers to positively welcome police raids on their parties – for the “mystique” it brought them.

Occasional jarring notes occurred when other present-day features intruded on this novel set in the 1950s – when, for example, picnickers in the Botanic Gardens got “bubbly” with lunch. (I’m no cultural historian, but I suspect that, if drunk in Melbourne in the 1950s, champagne was the preserve of a small elite.) The scene looks more like a current invention than to a reflection of the past.

And, when Christopher had a “comforter” on his legs and later opened a bottle of “merlot” after finishing his job in a mechanics garage, my credulity as a reader was tested.

While these factual anomalies may seem slight, they may cause readers to question the author’s other historical portrayals.

two policemen in uniform

Homosexuality was illegal in Australia at the time Marlo is set. State Library of New South Wales Collection: “Home and Away”, author provided

In my opinion, a weakness of the novel is that it focuses on what I suspect are current concerns of the author and his peers (such as self-harm). Forcing these and other unlikely material features onto the past suggests an insufficiently solid understanding of history.

There is an important difference between using our current interests to investigate the past, which Carmichael suggests he does, but hasn’t done well in my opinion (the author’s note explaining his sources is eight pages long) and impose our current concerns on the past. I suspect he did the latter.

Some historical novel writers are notorious for spending months verifying everyday facts from the past: clothing, patterns of social interaction, food, drink, and diet (for example).

Examples of those who excelled in this field include Mary Renault (The Persian Boy and other books in his Alexander the Great trilogy), Marguerite Yourcenar, first woman elected to the French Academy (Memoirs of Hadrian, coup de grace), and more recently, Hilary Mantel (hall of wolves).

When done well, the historical novel shows how good writing and a solid understanding of history can enhance a richer understanding of the past.

The conversation

Pierre Robinsonhonorary lecturer, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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