“Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life” by James Lovejoy— a Different Orphan

Lovejoy, James. “Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life”, Independently Published, 2019.

A Different Orphan

Amos Lassen

Joseph Chapman is a young man living in  late 18th century London. He is an orphan and has been consigned to a terrible charity school. He knows that  he is different from other boys. At the Little Eastcheap Free School for Unfortunate Boys, the predatory headmaster, Mr. Peevers runs the place and Chowder, another pupil,  becomes the one person he can trust. For their apprenticeships, Joe does well. He is assigned to a prominent progressive bookseller while Chowder must contend with an alcoholic greengrocer, Tobias Cudworth and his wife, Dulcibella. With help from his bookseller, Joe reconnects with Chowder with the intention of resume their relationship. Chowder wants to do the same, but because of treachery, Joe and Chowder land in Newgate Prison and face trial for sodomy.

The novel is a portrait of lower-class strife and the story of how gay men might have lived centuries before homosexuality was decriminalized.

Joseph shares his story, and he gets begins with his sad and sordid childhood that sounds as sordid. His father was a “waterman,” ferrying passengers on the Thames and he and his family of five plus a grandmother live in a two-room flat in a crowded building. His father died as a result a fever made worsened by misguided medical treatment. His mother boxes to make ends meet. (Women’s boxing existed in 18th century England and no was as brutal as the men’s sport). She holds her own for a while, but when driven by a big prize. She boxes with an overmatched opponent and suffers a head injury that leaves her bedridden.

When she dies, the siblings are separated, the older brother sent to apprenticeship and Joseph and his sister to gender-segregated orphanages. Joseph meets Chowder, and they share a tender love affair. They’re thwarted first by a bitter and exploitative schoolmaster and then by geography and Chowder’s cruel caretakers. Their attachment is considered criminal and sinful, yet we see their love as very special and beautiful.

Joseph and Chowder are sworn to one another yet face the tremendous problems for gay men to declare themselves at the time. Joseph’s world becomes larger as he meets several kinds of gay men and there’s a suggestion of a nascent protest movement against the troubles these men face.

It is a heart-gripping human story and writer James Lovejoy gives life to the struggles and triumphs of his characters who are, in effect, representative of gay men and boys of the time.