Sarah Ross works as a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, researching instances of deliberate destructive fire across Victorian fiction and culture. Her essay “Brave Hermeneutics, the Eastern Question, and Kingsley’s Hypatia” is in Victorian Studies (60.3), and “Wuthering Heights and the Work of Loving One Dead” is just out in VICTORIANS journal for the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth. She tweets @PaxVictoriana
[Spoilers follow for the 2018 film The Favourite.]
Two stories took place across different media for me this week. The first blazed across screens in cinemas in the UK and US alike: Yorgos Lanthimos’s highly anticipated historical period piece, The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as her competing lovers and intimate advisors. The second unspooled across Twitter, only to be debunked on the same platform within hours, prompting various (and, in intensity at least, short-lived) conversations about betrayal and fictionalization: it begins with an image of a double-gravestone, commemorating two male-named people who died in 1916 and 1917, buried (or were they?) in present-day Romania. Neither of these stories has much to do with the nineteenth century, nor does either one have to do with the dissertation I’m writing on burning papers.
Well, that’s not quite true. In the second half of The Favourite (probably Act IV of V, though I didn’t track it precisely), Rachel Weisz’s character, Lady Sarah Marlborough and the queen’s longtime-dominant half, conspires to regain favor with Anne by blackmailing her. Lady Marlborough endangers her relationship to do this, but evidently she sees no other route: she brings a handful—dozens, it seems—of illicit, explicit letters from the queen to her and threatens that, unless Anne meets both Sarah’s intimate and state agendas, she will go to Jonathan Swift and his Examiner press with the evidence of the affair. Anne agrees, and Sarah obligingly burns the letters. Except, as the audience has learned to expect, Emma Stone’s Abigail—the new favo(u)rite—has whispered in Anne’s ear, and even as the letters are crackling on the fire, Anne appears giving the order for Sarah to be evicted from the palace. Sometime later, just before the film’s close, Abigail has taken up these privileged rooms and sits sipping and lounging decadently, going through the queen’s post. Discovering a new letter—one strategically devised by other fallen members of the sovereign’s inner circle—from Sarah, pleading her case, Abigail moves to the mantle (the same mantle as previously) and throws the letter in. For a long moment, her eyes searching the curling edges of the paper as they blacken to ash, Abigail appears to be horrified at what she has become, has stooped to. But then again, she’s done far worse, and she will do worse, and in any event, the something-expensive in her glass remains to be drunk, and the moment passes.
Historians, and the friend who advised me to see the movie ASAP, have recently decided that the “lesbian Queen Anne” schtick is most likely a scurrilous rumor perpetuated by the real Lady Marlborough and her set after her exile in the later years of Anne’s reign (roughly 1711-1714). We don’t, in other words, have the letters to prove it one way or another. Did the letters exist, as the film depicts, and fall to burning as part of some personal-political scheme that blended lovers’ tiff and national crisis? Or were there no letters to begin with, and the desire to paint the specter of (gasp!) a queer queen persists only because supporters and decriers of monarchy alike enjoy a saucy, scandalous story? The archive is—as ever—silent.
So, too, the archive for Emil Müler and Xaver Sumer/Suñyer, listed as infantry soldiers whose death-dates mark them among the fallen of the First World War. This, you may already know, was the briefly viral mystery tale involving (according to the English-translation thread of Guillem Clua, posted by translator @brendonsexual) two schoolboy lovers whose families, the war, and illness tore asunder but whose descendants, likenesses, and carefully preserved letters rejoined—at least for us in the present. Here, too, queer history rested on the serendipitous survival of paper documents: a love letter purportedly from Xaver to Emil on the night before the latter’s death. Proper Historians™ (which is to say in this case, Twitter skeptics) spotted the too-good-to-be-true narrative linchpin of this letter by the very fact that The Favourite works to explain: namely, the letter’s non-existence. Here, despite photographs embedded along the thread with each tweet-installment of the journey, there was no screenshot of the revealing culmination of this tragic romance, not even a blurry, smudged, or partial scrap of the message that supposedly forged the final link in Clua’s restoration of the boys’ star-crossed, war-ravaged history. If “bring the receipts” is the unofficial motto of capital-H History, burned letters and never-were letters amount to the same thing.
Then again, nineteenth-century fiction does have something to say here. Few eras and places—as Georg Lukács made clear in 1937—were so interested in fictionalizing history as the nineteenth century in Britain. And indeed, Lukács is helpful here, given that The Historical Novel deals primarily with, well, the set of books whose plots spring from extra-diegetic events, as does Sir Walter Scott’s genre-defining Waverley (1814), set in the Jacobite uprising/rebellion of 1745. In such cases, Lukács writes, access to precise historical evidence only takes us so far:
The deeper and more genuinely historical a writer’s knowledge of a period, the more freely will he be able to move about inside his subject and the less tied will he feel to individual historical data. Scott’s extraordinary genius lay in the fact that he gave the historical novel just such themes as would allow for this ‘free movement’, and so cleared the way for its development. (Lukács 167-168)
The historical novel is, he goes on, not “a really independent genre” unto itself; rather, it is a key to unlocking the connections between past and present as a form of continuity (169-170). In other words, period pieces—good ones, ones that really reveal facts of life to us—do so not by being hamstrung to exact archival proof and facticity/falsifiability, but by entering into “the spirit of an age” (168), the zeitgeist, the structure of feeling—Raymond Williams would say—that dominated a certain moment and whose resonances can be heard and felt even in the sparsely occupied corridors of the archive. So, too, the historical film?
It does matter, and matter hugely, that queer histories are neither erased nor discredited as wishful thinking by bad-presentist fabulists or stereotypical fanfiction groupies. For what it’s worth, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I do not believe that anyone who takes queer lives and experience seriously would ever see the Romanian soldiers’ story and suddenly treat all subsequent queer histories as—in the words of one critic of Clua—“gay propaganda” (Jonah Coman). Historical evidence dilates and contracts based on our linguistic and conceptual criteria, as much as on what letters, wills, (self-)portraits, and newspapers endure. Hence why we could debate, and not necessarily pointlessly, the appropriateness of placing Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo, or Sappho on a “queer” or “gay”/“lesbian” shelf, given that these words meant different things in those times and continue to mean different things to modern users. The politics of finding queer evidence does not go away if we impose putatively empirical or scientific historiographic constraints upon the past. We have some letters; we don’t have others. But we also have ourselves, and the imaginative and critical power of using the archive (as Jacques Rancière puts it) individual histories of “lived experience” out of l’Histoire connoting “its faithful narrative” and “its knowledgeable explanation”, and vice versa (Names of History 3). Thus, it is no surprise that some of the most vital and extraordinary scholarship of recent years has come, not from re-treading the halls of monarchy, but from scholars like and including Marisa J. Fuentes, whose Dispossessed Lives (2016) remarks on decades of ingenuity by especially Black and Indigenous feminist historians to account for “archival fragmentation”:
[M]y work follows the path-breaking scholarship of Deborah Gray White, Jennifer Morgan, Camilla Townsend, and Natalie Zemon Davis, who found ingenious ways to use known biases within particular archives to ask seemingly impossible questions of subjects whose presence, when noted, is systematically distorted. Scholars in the fields of colonial slavery and women’s history more broadly understand and contend with scant sources from the enslaved perspective, and this is particularly true in the colonial British Caribbean. (Fuentes 4)
Not only, that is, do some letters happen to survive while others do not, but it is important that we remember whose records were ever kept in the first place, and how they were made. Telling these histories requires (as Fuentes demonstrates, and her predecessors have long shown) rigorous historical research, but also the sympathy and speculative resourcefulness to put the pieces together.
But as even the most Casual Historian™ (which is to say in this case, the viewer of Who Do You Think You Are?) can attest, queer histories, in particular, have certainly been burned, by those who lived them and by those who came after to bleach the record of supposed blemishes. Though some of us may be suspicious or merely tired of a hermeneutics of suspicion, the rest of us—literary critics, historians, historical fiction and history enthusiasts, queer people, simply people of the present, or all of the above—can perhaps appreciate the desire for a continuity of queer stories dominating screens large and small. Feeling into history, both The Favourite and the Emil-Xaver romance suggest, opens up the chance to feel more queerly, even as we feel the burn of what the archives do—and do not—provide.
@brendonsexual. “a gay love story of the 1st world war’s year. [thread by @guillemclua im just a translator]” [thread]. Twitter, 7-9 December 2018. https://twitter.com/brendonsexual/status/1071151411436666880.
Coman, Jonah. “Emil and Xaver; or, LGBTQ history as fiction.” Medium, 12 December 2018. https://medium.com/@MxComan/emil-and-xaver-or-lgbtq-history-as-fiction-ea93caf85eab?fbclid=IwAR1lkmhRz9KyUclaNyhVkGm_VW4FtibNItlMs95wxSlDFqBmqflkQg4Cc2A.
The Favourite. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Element Pictures, Film4, Waypoint Entertainment, 2018.
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963.
Rancière, Jacques. The Names of History. Translated by Hassan Melehy. Minneapolis, MN: University of MN Press, 1994.