This week I reached up to a high shelf and pulled down my copy of Make Way for Lucia, the weighty compendium of all of E.F. Benson’s Riseholme and Tilling novels. (That photo is the inscription inside the front cover.) This is light stuff, but it’s not Wodehouse; it’s more deftly observed, much more archly written, and much, much, much gayer—although words like that are not only not used, they’re barely hinted at. It was a different time.
Benson, a minor writer but beloved by generations (reportedly the late Queen Mother’s favorite author!), is an author you don’t trip over by yourself, and probably even less now than 25 years ago; someone has to tell you about him. For me, it was an older gay man I’ll call “Ray” whom I used to work with and who took me under his wing (and when I say “older,” well, he was probably about 34 at the time), whom I lost touch with decades ago. The pseudonym is simply so that other people who knew him don’t recognize him; I don’t mind if he recognizes himself, but I’m guessing he’ll never find this, and given his very common name, I’m unlikely to be able to find him.
I was a terrible gay back then; I’d gone straight from the suburbs to a very heterosexual college campus at a very conformist historical moment. So the gaps in my subcultural knowledge were stunningly wide. I thought Ray was amazing. He seemed so amazingly well-read and knowledgeable about art and culture and history, and in retrospect I think he may have been self-taught, which makes all this even more impressive; almost certainly he came from a modest cultural background. He had an intellectually informed, allusive cultural manner, and a set of exaggerated physical mannerisms (which he code-switched in and out of) that you don’t see nearly as much anymore.
In those days, before Jack McBride or Ellen, there was no “gay” on TV, unless you count Jack Tripper; and being comfortably gay and out was seen by everyone as an aggressive act. Writing about this reminds me that I came of age as one gay world was passing away and another was taking its place, which of course every gay person does, but I think that inflection point—1985, let’s call it, the year I turned twenty—was a particularly sharp one. Certainly it looks it in retrospect. As one marker of the change, people my age and younger as a general rule are totally comfortable with their smartphones, for everything from ordering groceries to requisitioning bed partners. And people Ray’s age and older don’t do any of those things with their mobile devices.
Ray was the first adult gay person who treated me like an adult gay person. (When I first started that job where I met him, I was 21, and uptight as the dickens.) He was the first adult gay person who invited me to a dinner party at his house along with other grownups (some of whom were gay, and some of whom weren’t, and everyone was fine with that! and if you’re under 30, it’s probably impossible for you to understand how transgressive that sort of matter-of-factness seemed then). He was the first adult gay person who drove me somewhere in his car. He wasn’t the first adult gay person I knew who had a gay wedding, but he knew that person and was a guest at that wedding along with me.
Along with various other snippets of popular and unpopular culture, Ray used to quote Benson’s novels all the time, and refer to the characters in conversation as though I knew them. I liked Ray and wanted to be like him, so I sought out the books; and once I started reading (in the summer of 1988) I don’t think I stopped until the end of the series. (The other thing I read that summer was War and Peace. I was a pill.)
Given how evocative the memory of reading these novels is for me, and how much I loved them on first reading, 27 years ago (!), I was terrified that they wouldn’t hold up. (Lots of things don’t.) But I’m halfway through Queen Lucia, the first of the series, and I’m pleased to report they are as delicious as ever. So I’ll see you in a few months, when I’ve gotten through 900 pages.