Over the next few months, I will be publishing (with permission of the book club in question) the odd question and answer regarding The Widow’s Fire. Here is a great question from Vicki Broach of the Riverside Book Club, California. To set the context it’s important to know that The Widow’s Fire starts where the action in Austen’s Persuasion leaves off and that Captain Wentworth finds himself being blackmailed over a prior relationship with a midshipman named Oliver Mason.
Vicki: I have a question having just finished The Widow’s Fire. I’ll begin by saying that although I resisted it at first I came to appreciate your elaboration on Persuasion and enjoyed it very much by the end. My question involves your choice to have Mrs. Smith blackmail Captain Wentworth over his relationship with Oliver. Was there any evidence you found of circumstantial same-sex relationships in the British navy? I’m not saying it was not plausible. I’m just curious if there is historical precedent.I might mention my husband is in the merchant marine and might object to the idea that he would seek other romance while at sea.
Answer: Thanks so much for the question which is a very good one with a somewhat complicated answer. The act (of “sodomy”) was a capital offense in this era and even after was much more harshly looked upon officially in the Navy than in civilian life. But this of course does not mean it was less common, and there is a great deal of anecdotal writings that suggest it was rather more common in the navy than out of it — it’s almost something of a cliché in the UK.
The punishment was so severe, there is a suggestion that the navy informally adopted the practice of turning a blind eye or punishing the crime euphemistically, calling it by some other, less damning, name. On the title below find the link to a widely read and influential piece by Arthur N. Gilbert called Buggery and the British Navy 1700-1861 from The Journal of Social History.
While the degree to which same sex relationships was institutionalized is the matter of some debate, the important point from a novelist’s perspective is to capture the sense of trepidation, that this was indeed a capital crime yet at the same time to give the (plausible) suggestion that no one would have ‘outed’ Captain Wentworth at the time, as a certain amount of discretion was the norm.
Most writings do seem to suggest this, and I think it comes down to common sense and an understanding of human psychology regarding people of the same sex with all their desires in tact who are in the company only with their own for months and even years on end. Boarding schools and prisons in Britain and elsewhere had the same calm acceptance of same sex couplings.