Horatio Hornblower stood naked before me within moments of our meeting. In the opening pages of Beat to Quarters, C.S. Forester writes that, “Hornblower stripped off his wet shirt and trousers and shaved naked before the mirror.” We hear about his “melancholy brown eyes” and “tousled curly brown hair” and a body “slender and well muscled.” If that’s not enough, we’re treated to his morning shower on deck, where his steward, “pumped up seawater from overside while his captain solemnly rotated under the stream.”
The idea of a 19th Century naval captain dripping naked in the sun, surrounded by working sailors and officers, was too much for my hormone-wracked body. I followed him through Forester’s 11 volumes, working back to his beginnings as a strapping midshipman and forward to his accession to the House of Lords, but I always imagined him as he was in those first moments of our relationship, standing on deck under a spray of salt water.
A teenager growing up in the 70s, confused even about the basic choreography of sex between men, I trawled the fiction aisles for the rare homosexual character. By instinct I found Patricia Nell Warren’s romantic The Front Runner and Gordon Merrick’s soap-porn The Lord Won’t Mind. I dripped with sweat at each purchase, and hid the books under my jacket as I hurried through the house to my bedroom. None of the characters, though, lived up to their classical competitors.
Homosexual men in the literary canon seldom take center stage, but there’s no doubting their presence. Mercutio is a classic gay adolescent, desperate to hide his essence by playing the clown. The more stalwart Horatio sees Hamlet to his death on “flights of angels.” One wonders about Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities but has no doubts about Moby Dick’s Queequeg, who smothers Ishmael in his “bridegroom clasp.”
The first openly gay men I found in serious literature were created by E.M. Forster, in work published posthumously. Like my youthful self, Forster lived his life in the closet, ashamed of his desires. But those longings poured forth in short stories collected in the poignantly titled The Life to Come, and in the novel Maurice.
Maurice falls first for his Cambridge pal Clive, who has neither the courage nor the imagination for an actual act of sex. Later, our hero meets gameskeeper Scudder, a better and braver man. At the center of the story is the moment when Maurice stands at his open window, calls into the night, “Come,” and is answered by Scudder’s brusque, eager appearance. In addition to suggesting that such things might occur in my own future, Forster seemed to be assuring me that I wasn’t alone in wanting them.
But even gay characters like Scudder couldn’t compete with the carelessly sexy Hornblower. He didn’t represent escape or completion or the lost wilds of the English woodland; he was simply a man—a really hot man. It wasn’t until I was in college that I found his rival.
No doubt Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy will be happy at Pemberley. They argue well and share alliterative shortcomings, but when Darcy comes to London, he’ll stop at his favorite Georgian coffee house to find his usual table occupied. Happy to accommodate, I’ll make room at mine, and ask his opinion of the recent troubles in France. We’ll find that we share a worldview that recognizes shadows and sunlight—and we’ll move through both as we roll around my lumpy bed back at the inn.
Happily, by the time I met Mr. Darcy, I was also meeting real men with real bodies. I’d uncovered some of the facts that Forester and Austen omit: a man’s musty smell, the sound of rumbling, wheezing sleep—and the fact that none of them grow up. As a student drawn to fat volumes with a high page-to-dollar ratio, I soon happened on an author who understood this central fact. Indeed, I can chart my adult development by charting my repeated readings of War & Peace.
The moment I made Prince Andrei’s acquaintance, I stopped wasting time on sea captains. I empathized immediately with Andrei’s annoyance at his wife’s seeming shallowness and shared his delight in the sprightly Natasha. I suffered sleepless nights at his betrayal and wept at his death. As I made my own glacial move toward maturity, I returned bi-annually to the lives of the Bolkonskys and Bezukovs, reveling in Andrei’s melancholic yearnings and encouraging Natasha to lighten his burden.
It took a decade to realize that Andrei’s illegitimate cousin Pierre is the story’s hero. Like Natasha, I had dreamt of the sleek, brooding prince but ended longing for the bearish pilgrim with more questions than answers. Pierre retains the best of boyhood: a longing for knowledge, a respect for mystery, and a sense of confusion that sometimes stumbles upon epiphany.
Of all of them, Pierre would be the best in bed. Hornblower would have a salty tang from those morning showers but would make love with an ear attune to the wind. Darcy, with a spray of dark hair across his chest, would be attentive and gentle, never snore, and never surprise. Andrei would come to our silk sheets with delicate passion, arching his lean, pale body. But Pierre… Pierre would be all over the place, with his big hands and hairy shoulders, and that foolish grin. And I’d learn to live with the snoring.
As it turns out, Hornblowers and Darcys don’t exist in real life. It speaks to Tolstoy’s genius that you can actually find Prince Andreis out there, with all their charm and self-involvement. And if there’s an Andrei, somewhere, surely, there must be a Pierre.
Norman Allen is a award-winning playwright whose work has been commissioned by the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and by the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague, with subsequent productions across the United States, South Africa, Europe and Asia. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post, on WAMU-FM (NPR), and the On Being blog. He last wrote for Tin House on the work of Edward Carpenter, in “Just Above the Buttocks.”