One of the best parts of writing historical fiction is the research. As the author, your job is not just to present historically accurate information, but also to be the interpreter for your modern audience.
In this case, there was very little to interpret, as the historical documents speak for themselves. Drag Queens seem to have always had sass. My historical romantic comedy, A LADY’S FINDER, which features a lesbian cis-woman and a non-binary person who lives in a gay club, has a supporting cast that anyone who has ever frequented a gay club might find. These are not figments of my imagination, but based in historical fact, which makes it all the more fabulous.
One such characters in my novel is Miss Persephone, a supporting character and drag queen who lives at the club where she works. Prior to her Miss Persephone persona, she was an apprentice butcher who came to London, found Mrs. Bettleton—the owner of the Cock and Prance Inn. Miss Persephone is very loosely based on drag queens who frequented other clubs, whose professions and drag names were recorded when the club was raided by the magistrates.
Mrs. Bettleton is based on the real-life woman referred to as Mother Clap, who ran a gay club that was raided in 1726 in Field Lane, Holborn. The club itself was a house, and she kept beds in every room, so there was the suspicion of sexual activity and prostitution on premises, though this was never “proven.” But the reason the club was popular—when raided, thirty to forty men were arrested, and some ran away before being apprehended—was because it was just a nice place to be. She kept a fire going, kept the liquor pouring, and had a fiddler for musical entertainment.
Mother Clap’s had no specific name, as it was a private house, but she did have boarders who lived there for years at a time. Some speculate that these men were prostitutes, or perhaps grifters. They could have also just been boarders who wanted to live close to their favorite bar.
This is not much different from how I portray the daily life at the Cock and Prance Inn. I do include a Marie-Antoinette themed costume party, which is also based on the bizarre English fascination with recently beheaded monarchs.
But in 1810, the White Swan affair gave us the names and professions of a number of regulars at the recently opened pub. These included some names that sound very modern to my ear, at any rate, like Black-eyed Lenora, a drummer; Pretty Harriet, a butcher; Lady Godiva, a waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Fanny Murray, a bargeman; and Miss Sweet Lips, a country grocer.
Sadly, in 1811, Black-eyed Lenora, likely Thomas White, who was a sixteen-year-old boy and listed as a drummer in the Guards, was hanged for being at the White Swan. He was not there on the night it was raided, but cracked easily under pressure. He was also known to be a favorite of the “exalted” visitors, and thus knew the secrets of powerful men. Amongst those who attended his execution were the Duke of Cumberland (one of the sons of the reigning king, younger brother of the Prince Regent, who was likely a patron of the White Swan), Lord Sefton (a friend of the Prince Regent), and Lord Yarmouth (the son of the Prince Regent’s mistress).
Despite this awful occasion, the gay subculture was thriving at this time. There were roughly thirty molly-houses over the course of the 1700s going at one time in London. If you think of the city having a population of roughly 600,000 people, and that they would only be visited by queer men, as women were not allowed in taverns or coffeehouses, that is quite a bustling scene.
The most famous drag queen of the Georgian era was Princess Seraphina, who lived her life exclusively as her persona. The question from a modern standpoint is whether or not Princess Seraphina was a drag queen or was she trans. The difference would be that drag queens use gender as satire, an exaggeration of femininity, as RuPaul once said, “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?”—whereas a transwoman would want to exist in Society as a woman. There were people in these eras who were decidedly trans—lived their lives quietly, marrying, living as their preferred gender. Princess Seraphina, however, declared herself royalty. There is something a little extra there that lends itself to the idea that perhaps Princess Seraphina was a full-time drag artist, not a transwoman.
While the Regency is definitely not an “accepting” time of gay culture, it was also not as repressive as some modern readers might perceive.
Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay.