The Flight of the Black Swan
By Jean Roberta
Lethe Press, 2013
In her acknowledgments at the commencement of The Flight of the Black Swan, Jean Roberta lists Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as one of the book’s influences. Given her plot that thrives on misdirection and complication, her characters who bear names like Sir Roger Tingly-Jones and Martin Bonnyshanks, and the tendency for her chorus of gay seafarers to burst into spontaneous song, I might have guessed this on my own. William Gilbert could well have penned the libretto for this romp, if not for his Victorian sensibilities. (Anyone who’d like to imagine a William Gilbert homoerotic leanings might enjoy my alternative history tale “Opening Night”, in Connie Wilkin’s collection Time Well Bent.)
Ms. Roberta’s book, aptly subtitled “A bawdy novella”, tells the story of unfortunate Emily, a young woman from a good British family who finds herself far more enthralled by females than males. When her passion for her lovely schoolmate Lucy is thwarted by Lucy’s surrender to destiny as an aristocrat’s wife, Emily desperately seeks opportunities to escape the same fate. Fortune intervenes in the persons of Roger (who happens to be Lucy’s elder brother) and his paramour Martin, who plan to steal a soon-to-be decommissioned British ship and set sail for America with a crew of similar sexual inclinations. Emily agrees to a marriage of convenience with Roger to placate her family, and, fitted out in man’s clothing, embarks upon a new life of freedom on the good ship Black Swan.
I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving any more details. I will warn you, though, to set aside any prejudice you might have about sexual exclusivity, either in terms of partners or genders. Emily, Roger, Martin, and the crew turn out to be far more flexible, sexually, then you might expect. As the voyage unfolds, the Black Swan offers sanctuary to a range of gender ambiguity. A jolly and indiscriminate carnality reigns on this ship of outlaws.
Although Ms. Roberta cites some contemporary sources, The Flight of the Black Swan is more fantasy than historical fiction—except in terms of language. Emily’s first person narrative captures the rhythm and vocabulary of Victorian English. Here are the initial sentences:
Almost the worst thing that can happen to a young lady is to be loved by her parents.Consider it: attentive mothers and fathers do all in their power to protect their daughters from risk and notoriety—in short, from every experience which gives savor to life.
One cannot help sympathizing with this hapless victim of Society, indeed with all the so-called Green Men who constitute the Swan’s crew, whose amorous inclinations are condemned as unnatural, and indeed, illegal.
I have to say a few words about the amazing production design of The Flight of the Black Swan. In this digital era, I’ve become accustomed to books as boring, utilitarian objects whose form is irrelevant to their content. In contrast, even in PDF format, The Flight of the Black Swan is a thing of beauty. With the ornamental fonts it employs for titles as well as for the instances of hand-written correspondence or verse scattered through the text, and its lively cover that suggests an oil painting, it provides visual as well as intellectual pleasure.
My one criticism of this tale is fairly minor. I would have liked to have heard more about Emily’s kidnapping by pirates during her formative years. She alludes to these events on several occasions, and it’s clear that experience shaped her tastes, but we never get any of the juicy details. Perhaps the author is planning a prequel?
All in all, The Flight of the Black Swan is a delightful volume, quite a departure from Ms. Roberta’s short fiction, which is often hyper-realistic and emotionally intense. Having read it, I have a new appreciation for her versatility—as well as for that of her characters.