Drag Shows and Illicit Love in a 1959 Novel

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IN ITS ONGOING, heroic effort to bring older gay titles back into print, Valancourt Books sometimes publishes acknowledged classics, like James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms, one of my top choices for the Great Gay Novel, or lesser-known works by significant writers, like The Fall of Valor (which I reviewed in the May-June 2017 issue of these pages), by Charles Jackson, the author of The Lost Weekend. And sometimes, fortunately, it publishes oddities like the 1959 British novel Chorus of Witches, by the otherwise unknown and probably pseudonymous Paul Buckland. By no means great, it is completely enjoyable to read and provides a glimpse into aspects of gay British life over sixty years ago.

            Chorus of Witches (a stupid, meaningless title) is set against the background of a traveling female impersonator show, the Merrie Belles, something like the Jewel Box Revue in the U.S., where the “girls” perform vaudeville-style acts and, at the finale, remove their wigs to the delight of the mostly heterosexual audience. Colin, a beautiful twenty-year-old man, joined the troupe to escape from a boring job. In drag, he performs as the target in a knife-throwing act with the butch Scotsman Jock, who’s tormented by unrequited love for Colin. Completing the triangle is Alan, who knew Colin as a boy when he was a soldier during the war and who now, quietly but unequivocally gay, is attracted to the grown-up Colin.

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Cover of the 1959 edition.

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Michael Schwartz is an associate editor of this magazine.

 

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