by Jess Lea
Keeper of the Bed Chamber had its roots in two topics I’m particularly passionate about: recognizing and celebrating the lives of people of diverse genders and sexualities in different societies around the world, and writing historical fiction.
Both of these topics have their challenges and pitfalls. The lives of people whose genders and sexualities set them apart from the majority of their peers have not always been well recorded or understood – not at the time when they were alive, and not by scholars and the wider community since. Indeed, there is a long and shameful history of the erasure of the lives of queer and trans people – from obituaries which left out the deceased’s same-sex partners, to history books which attempted to ‘straighten out’ the lives of famous people (while ignoring altogether the varied sexualities and genders of ordinary folks). In attempting to trace the experiences of people of diverse genders and sexualities, we must grapple with evidence which is often incomplete, unclear or filtered through the perspectives of disapproving outsiders. We must also grapple with our own assumptions – for example the urge to define a person who lived two thousand years ago on the other side of the world as ‘gay’, without paying serious attention to how they may have really understood their own lives.
Many of the same problems confront us when writing historical fiction in general. Once again, we must struggle with the loss of evidence, conflicting accounts of events, and cultural traditions which can be vastly different to our own. Historical fiction can be criticized for presenting a view of the past which looks too clear, too neat, and which encourages only one version of historical scenarios which are, in fact, deeply contested. And every writer of historical fiction inevitably brings something of their own background, culture, and preoccupations to how they represent the past. And yet historical fiction remains irresistible – it speaks to our need for story-telling, our wish to empathize with people different to ourselves – and in the case of women and oppressed minority groups, it can be the only way of attempting to fill in the gaps in our understanding.
When writing Keeper of the Bed Chamber, two things were especially important to me. One was that Ariston, the protagonist, should be a smart and resilient character who survives hardship, starts a new life successfully (several times), and has a whole lot of fun in between! While there is certainly a space in fiction for tragic tales about gender/sexually diverse people, it’s extremely important to balance that out with narratives of optimism and survival.
The other thing I wanted to do was present an alternative reading of the much-written-about figure of Cleopatra VII, a woman alternately hated and revered for her power, ambitions, and unconventional life. While Ariston is consciously designing and reinventing a life and identity to feel proud of, Cleopatra is doing the same thing at a political and global level. They are two characters who are very aware of their own image, and their own isolation, and it seemed only right to bring them together.