The Best Gay Novels Before Gay Novels Were a Thing

recommended by Simon Edge

In the last third of the 20th century, openly gay authors writing explicitly about the experience of being gay gave many readers an important sense of their own selves. They didn’t completely invent the genre, though. Here are five great novels which, with varying degrees of boldness, broached a taboo subject in earlier decades.

  • 1


    In Search of Lost Time
    by Marcel Proust

    It’s most famous for memories triggered by a madeleine and a cup of tea but, to anyone who has actually got to the end, a far more striking feature of this enormous, six-volume novel is the amount of gay sex it depicts (and not just in Book 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, which I’ve linked to here). Virtually everyone turns out to be at it, save for first-person narrator Marcel. André Gide was disgusted that the novel set out to titillate readers with scandalous details of a demi-monde of which Proust himself was a keen habitué. I guess I’d take Gide’s side in the political argument but, as a literary creation, it’s mesmerising.

  • 2


    Of Human Bondage
    by W Somerset Maugham

    Maugham hid the fact that he was gay from his public, and the subject is never mentioned in his great coming-of-age novel. However, if you want to imagine the appalling femme fatale Mildred as a heart-breaking young man, it’s not much of a stretch. Of Human Bondage blew me away when I was sixteen and I wasn’t disappointed when I came back to it as an adult.

  • 3


    Love in a Cold Climate
    by Nancy Mitford

    Nancy Mitford made camp into an art form in her glorious trilogy based on her own family, but the middle novel, Love in a Cold Climate, is gay too. It features the openly, outrageously gay Cedric Hampton who is central to the plot and ends up living happily ever after. That really wasn't meant to happen to gay characters in those days, if they were mentioned at all.

  • 4


    Mr Norris Changes Trains
    by Christopher Isherwood

    Berlin in the 1930s was the centre of a homosexual movement which would be smashed by Hitler. In this beautifully crafted short novel, as in Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood observed its decadent misfits and eccentrics – including the wonderfully bizarre Arthur Norris – with utter generosity. He did not quite dare make his first-person narrator gay, but he drew the line at making him straight.

  • 5


    The City And The Pillar
    by Gore Vidal

    I’m bending my own rules here, because this is a proper gay novel – the first of its kind. At 23, the impeccably connected Gore Vidal had caused a literary sensation with his WW2 novel Williwaw. This, his follow-up, created a sensation of a different kind. The archetypal coming-out story long before that term had been coined, it features athletic, handsome Jim Willard, who knows he is different and eventually finds a way of coming to terms with it. Vidal was ostracised by literary America for several years because of this novel, but it marked the dawn of a new era.

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