Image from the Library of Congress, "The U.S. sanitary fair, Logan Square, Phila. 1864 "/ Frank H. Taylor after Queen. Rights: No known restrictions.
There is one other person who might be getting involved with someone, and that is Chester Carson, Eli’s friend and chief reporter at The Register. Carson is gay. Why the character revealed himself as gay probably has a lot to do with how he looks and sounds to me as the author. He physically resembles a friend I had known some years ago but sounds like that friend’s partner. I don’t usually put two people together to get a character, but that’s what happened when I was creating Carson. And so it came as no surprise to me that he is gay.
We don’t hear much from Chester Carson in Saint Maggie. He’s clearly one of the secondary characters – a boarder in Maggie’s rooming house. But by the end of the novel, he is established as someone who writes for Eli’s penny-weekly newspaper and who is interested in a new art form called photography.
When we get into the second book, Walk by Faith, Carson takes on a much larger role. Carson reveals that he dislikes his given name, Chester, and prefers that Eli call him “Carson.” But he reveals something much more important to his friend. It happens when he and Eli become war correspondents and travel with the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers.
As the two men journey to meet up with the regiment, Eli chats about multiple topics to fill the long hours. At one point, he begins regaling his friend with stories about the years he spent living with the Sioux. Eli casually mentions that the Sioux have more than two gender roles. “…say a man prefers other men. For the Sioux, that’s all right because they have those other spheres. He doesn’t have to be a warrior, a husband or a father to be valuable to the village. Everyone is welcome to contribute regardless. They would never beat up a man just because he wasn’t like other men.”
And, to use a contemporary phrase, this is where Carson “comes out” to Eli. He heaves a wistful sigh and says, “Ah. Then perhaps I should have been born a Sioux.” As they converse further, Carson reveals that he does indeed like men, but adds that he has no interest in Eli other than being friends. In fact, he goes so far as to chuckle and say, “Have no fear, my friend. I do not find you at all appealing,” which leaves Eli “wondering whether he should be insulted or relieved.”
Throughout that book, the two develop a brotherly friendship. At times they bicker like a couple of little old ladies, other times they fight fiercely to protect the other, but they always care. That they hold each other in mutual respect, love, and loyalty is clear.
However, it bothers Eli that Carson does not have a loving relationship comparable to the one he has with Maggie. He pushes Carson on the subject in Seeing the Elephant and the following conversation ensues as Carson says:
"Homosexuality is illegal, and I no longer have the stomach for being found out, ridiculed, arrested, beaten, or killed.” Carson sighed. “Besides, the love of my life is long gone. Perhaps it is better this way.”
“How could his being dead be better?”
“My dear chap, he died before anyone found us out. I live now with wonderful memories rather than anger at a world that neither understands nor accepts us.”
Eli regarded his friend for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Carson. I really am.”
And yet… things just might be changing for Carson. In Walk by Faith, He makes the acquaintance of a man named Alfred Benning, who owns a photography gallery in Philadelphia. Benning sees the photographs Carson took while in the field and likes them so much that he offers to show the other man's work.
That seems to be the end of the story. We don’t hear much more about Carson showing his work until The Great Central Fair, when he takes Lydia, Frankie, and their beaus to visit the gallery – and Benning happens to be there. Toward the end of the novella, when the party of six visits the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, aka the Great Central Fair, Carson and Benning have a deep conversation as they visit the fair’s photography exhibit.
Notice that the conversation between them is a bit subtle. In the 1860s, and indeed until recently, two men cannot speak openly of a "more than friends" relationship in public. Everything must be done in subdued tones and, ideally, in private. The punishment for having a speaking of such a relationship publicly is too great. However, they do not have the luxury of privacy at this moment.
Despite Carson’s insistence that he does not want another relationship, he and Benning manage to leave the door open a crack for “something more.” One of my beta readers picked up on this. I had written it thinking they would remain friends, but no more. But she read possibility in their words. So, what we have is a proposal of sorts with a “maybe eventually” answer.
Frankly, I’d like Carson to have a happy, loving relationship again. At the moment, though, as Benning points out, Carson has found a family at long last with Maggie and the others – and that is important, too. Still, I’m curious as to where he will go next.
Until Wednesday, friends!
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder