Gillian Freeman, whose novel ‘Leather Boys’ was gay landmark, dies at 89

WASHINGTON — Gillian Freeman, a British writer whose precise, richly detailed historical novels chronicled free spirits in Edwardian England and Nazi Germany, and who ventured outside the mainstream to write a pioneering study of pornography and a landmark work of gay literature, died Feb. 23 at a hospital in London. She was 89.

Ms. Freeman was working as a secretary for novelist Louis Golding when she began writing her first book, ‘‘The Liberty Man’’ (1955), about a middle-class schoolteacher and a cockney sailor whose love affair is stifled by the British class system.

She went on to write scripts for television, radio and an early Robert Altman film; scenarios for the Royal Ballet; and about a dozen more novels, often featuring undercurrents of romance and mystery, with protagonists who are outcasts.


Raised in a liberal, middle-class London family, Ms. Freeman was no outsider. But she had a strong sympathy for those who were and an imagination that enabled her to craft fully realized characters such as Dick and Reggie, the gay, motorcycle-riding protagonists of ‘‘The Leather Boys’’ (1961).

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The novel was commissioned by her literary agent turned publisher, Anthony Blond, who was bisexual. ‘‘Anthony said to her, ‘I would like a Romeo and Romeo story about simple young men, working-class young men,’’’ said her husband, Edward Thorpe, in a phone interview. ‘‘It was rather like the two guys in ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ which she preceded by about 40 years.’’

‘‘The Leather Boys’’ was published six years before homosexuality was decriminalized in England and was part of a wave of boundary-breaking gay novels that included works by Mary Renault and (posthumously) E.M. Forster.

It ‘‘played a vital part in liberalizing British attitudes to homosexuality,’’ novelist Michael Arditti wrote in the foreword to the 2014 reissue of ‘‘The Leather Boys.’’

Ms. Freeman released the book under a pseudonym, Eliot George, inverting the nom de plum that Mary Ann Evans used to publish ‘‘Middlemarch.’’


Ms. Freeman also wrote two major novels set in Nazi Germany: ‘‘The Alabaster Egg’’ (1970), about a Jewish woman’s tragic romance, and ‘‘Nazi Lady: The Diaries of Elisabeth von Stahlenberg, 1933-1948’’ (1978).