Wednesday, 21 October 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 23) From France to Fern-atics

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 61) Hélène van Zuylen (1863-1947) was a pioneering female motor racer in a male dominated sport, and 62) Roberta Cowell (1918-2011) was a pioneering transgender motor racer, and she was also an lgbt pilot, as was 63) David Charlebois (1962-2001), a victim of the 9/11 terror attacks, who was born in a city that was once named after 64) Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934).

64) Hubert Lyautey was appointed Resident General of Morocco in 1907. The French were already well-established in Morocco, though they switched from being a foreign trading nation with a number of bases in the country to a colonial power at the beginning of the 20th century.

Local rebels and declining economy led Lyautey, in command of French troops in North Africa at the time, to move into Morocco to “protect” French interests in 1904. Morocco came under direct French military control in 1907 after rebels killed a prominent French doctor in Marrakesh, which led to Lyautey being appointed Resident General. In 1911 a power struggle between the Sultan and his brother led to further rebellions. France then declared Morocco to be a French Protectorate.

Unlike other French colonies Morocco was allowed to keep its distinctive character and laws. The Sultan of Morocco was allowed to remain as Head of State instead of the French President and the country remained a sovereign state.

Lyautey strengthened the infrastructure of Morocco, building railways, roads, bridges and ports. Kenitra was one such port. It was a small settlement before Lyautey turned it into a French military base in 1912. In 1933, after Lyautey had returned to France after being replaced in 1925, Kenitra was renamed Port Lyautey. It returned to its former name when France abolished the protectorate in 1956.

Although married to Inés de Bourgoing, a remarkable person in her own right, Lyautey was widely regarded as being gay. Gay men being married was not unusual for that period. There’s no actual proof Lyautey was gay. He never admitted being so, through it seems it was not a secret, and even the French Prime Minister was aware of it.

Lyautey’s may have provided inspiration for a literary character who brings us back to someone I mentioned several “80 More Gays” ago. Today he joins the chain in his own right – 65) Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

Although we’ll never know for sure, Proust based the character of the Baron de Charlus in his 7-volume novel series “À la Recherche du temps perdu” (Remembrance of Things Past) on Lyautey. It’s also likely that the Baron was based on another gay Frenchman, Count Robert Montesquiou (1855-1921). Marcel Proust had met them both – Lyautey in 1887 and Montesquiou in 1893. Both could easily been the inspiration, Proust selecting specific characteristics from each.

Baron de Charlus makes his first appearance in Proust’s novel series in volume one, “Swann’s Way”, which was turned into the film “Swann in Love” by 60) Nicole Stéphane. The main character, Charles Swann, falls in love with Odette. The first physical realisation of their attraction occurs in a scene inside a carriage. After a sudden jolt a flower, a cattleya, a type of orchid, becomes loosened from Odette’s dress. Swann leans over and pins it back in place and as they lean towards each other they kiss. From then on they adopt a private saying, “Do a cattleya” to mean any sexual contact between them.

It’s very apt that the cattleya (pronounced cattley-a rather than cattle-ya) plays such a large part in their relationship. It was Odette’s favourite flower. It was also Marcel Proust’s favourite flower. Every day he would buy a fresh cattleya for his buttonhole.

Detail of “Portrait of Marcel Proust” by Jacques Emile Blanche, 1892,
showing Proust wearing a cattleya orchid.

Orchids were very fashionable during Proust’s lifetime, even a craze. It even had a name, orchidelerium. This was one of several floral manias. There was also a craze for ferns, which was also given a name, pteridophilia. Although the height of the orchid and fern manias was over a century ago there’s still an appeal for them, as can be seen in the success of a fern nurseries, including one in southern England called Fernatix (pronounced like “fanatics”) created by 66) Steven Fletcher (b.1959) and 67) Kerry Robinson (b.1965).

Steven Fletcher’s horticultural career began with growing orchids in the 1980s. For a while he was Chair of the Cambridge Orchid Society. At the regular orchid shows Steven would use ferns to place around the pots to disguise them. He noticed people began to take as much interest in the ferns as they did in the orchids. This got him thinking about growing ferns and led to his decision to open Fernatix with his partner Kerry.

Steven and Kerry met on a blind date arranged by a friend and they connected instantly. When they first began displaying their ferns they attracted attention – they looked like bikers in leathers and piercings, not like gardeners at all. Nonetheless, they were accepted into the horticultural world and Fernatix soon became a successful business.

The first Fernatix display at the premier flower show in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, earned them a gold medal, and many more have followed over the years, right up to this year.

Ferns may seem underwhelming to most people but their popularity and the success of Fernatix and other fern nurseries prove they are still popular. The fern fever of the 19th century originally centred on their aesthetic value, but it led to them being studied to improve cultivation. Eventually, the study of ferns became a science in its own right called pteridology.

There may be many lgbt pteridophilists besides Steven Fletcher and Kerry Robinson, but there’s one who became a significant figure outside botany. His main area of study was in phytocytology - plant structure. If these scientific terms are a bit too technical we can be grateful to this particular pteridological phytocytologist for coming up with a short name for a new disease. This man’s name was 68) Bruce Voeller (1834-1994).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: A new disease acquires a new name, and names come together to raise awareness with a glass of wine.

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