molly n. A Miss Molly; an effeminate fellow, a sodomite. —Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd ed., 1788)
In Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life, James Lovejoy has given us an entertaining and often sobering tale of gay life in eighteenth-century London—a queer Dickens, though set in the reign of George III (1760–1820) rather than that of Victoria (1837–1901).
Born to a waterman and his prize-fighting wife, Joe is orphaned at the age of 16 after his father and then mother die. He is sent to a miserable school for “unfortunate boys,” where he falls in love with another student, nicknamed Chowder. After leaving school, Joe finds an excellent apprenticeship with a kindly bookseller, Thomas Jackson; Chowder is sent to work for an inebriated grocer, Tobias Cudworth. Observed in an act of passion by Cudworth’s vindictive wife, Joe and Chowder are hauled before a magistrate and wind up in Newgate Prison, charged with what was then a capital offense.
It is always affirming to read a well-written story of youthful gay romance, and Lovejoy’s prose is fluid and elegant: “I felt…his lips on my cheek, and finding in that tentative instant all that I had dared dream, I dispensed with caution. With tremulous hope, I kissed him fully on the lips, as I had imagined doing so many times. He returned my kiss with full vigor.”
Joseph Chapman does, however, suffer from predictability. Each customary trope appears just when you expect it to: Joe is abused by his elders; he escapes from his abuse; he finds a savior in Jackson; Joe and Chowder are ruined; they escape their ruin; they find happiness. And given that the story is told as Joe’s memoir, some of the language and mannerisms are remarkably modern—hugs all around at the “molly ball,” for example.
That said, Lovejoy has done his homework: Jackson is based on the “progressive bookseller and publisher” Joseph Johnson, while another important character was inspired by the wealthy William Beckford, probably gay or bisexual, who is known for having written the gothic novel Vathek.
Despite the book’s small flaws, however, any lover of historical fiction who is searching for a gay representative of the genre will find Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life a very worthwhile read.
James Lovejoy: Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life (2019) · Illustration: William Hogarth, “The Industrious ‘Prentice a Favourite and entrusted by his Master” (1747); public domain image from National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.