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No one was “gay” in the 18th century: why we must not rewrite history with today’s terms

The danger of using current terminology and identities when discussing the past, especially marginalised and oppressed pasts, is that it results in bad history.

The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth (1735; retouched 1763)

What should we do when we’re talking about the past, and the words we use begin to obscure how we view history? Should we opt for the current acceptable word when discussing events in past? The danger of using current terminology and identities when discussing the past, especially marginalised and oppressed pasts, is that it can over-simplify and de-contextualise the past (and indeed present). It’s bad history.

Recently it was announced that the Wellcome Collection had acquired a copy of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a handbook released annually in the late eighteenth century that detailed the names, addresses and particular skills of prostitutes in London. Articles in the Guardian and the Independent referred to the publication as a list of “sex workers”. While this is the phrase now used to (self) describe and define those who sell sex, it fits on the eighteenth century definition and understanding of commercial sex like a round lid on a square box.

The same anachronism is evident in reports of other histories of sexuality: particularly that of the LGBT community. Both sex workers and the LGBT community are contemporary terms: a self-identity and an acknowledged group who identify together on an aspect of their lives. The terms “sex worker” and “LGBT” (and indeed “queer”) are politically loaded, and for good reason.

But trying to find an LGBT community in the past won't work. Type LGBT into our National Archives catalogue and you are returned with only a handful of documents, all dating from the 1970s. That is not to say that there is no history of same-sex love or gender variance before the invention of the words “gay”, “lesbian”, “homosexual”, “transgender”, and so on. Understandings of sexuality have changed over time, just as the words we use to define them have too – the first time the word “homosexual” was used was in 1869, and the word “gay” only came to describe a man who has relationships with men in the mid-twentieth century.

Equally, the history of sex work did not begin with the adoption of “sex worker”, but has flowed and evolved throughout history, taking on different meaning in different times. Women who sold sex were often called “fallen angels” in the mid-eighteenth century, but this equally politically charged phrase is a wholly different meaning to the phrase “sex work” that gives women (and men) who are engaged in sex work, agency and ownership over their own identities. That's a powerful and important thing, but when we talk about historic commercial sex by using the phrase “sex workers”, we risk mislabelling and misconstruing the past, and the context in which we understand sex work today.

In my own work, I use the phrase “same-sex love” to describe same-sex relationships, love and sex in the past, but refer to the LGBT community today. Historian Judith Bennett used the term “lesbian-like” to describe sexual and romantic encounters between women in the past. Both “lesbian-like” and my use of “same-sex love” have the same aim: to make clear that while sex between people of the same-sex has taken place throughout history, it has done so in social and cultural contexts very different from our own.

Similarly, in Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens, Julia Laite rejects the term “sex worker” for her historical analysis. The term is anachronistic and inappropriate as it is “tied to identity politics in the present day”. Matt Houlbrook has also noted the inappropriateness of judging and naming the past by present standards, arguing that the pardoning of Alan Turing in 2013 was “bad history”, because it “collapses the differences between then and now”. Using “sex workers” to describe the women included in Harris’s List is equally bad history.

I’m not suggesting that coverage of marginalised groups, historically or otherwise, should use language that is offensive, homophobic, misogynistic or racist. Instead, more care should be taken over what the use of contemporary words today mean about the past. In the same way that offensive and outdated terminology should not be used to describe or label groups or individuals today, contemporary words, with contemporary meanings, should not be used to discuss the past without context. These are conversations that academics, journalists and the groups being discussed should be having together – especially when their voices have been marginalised in the past, and continue to be so today.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism