Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1999

Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: a Sourcebook, edited by Chris White

reviewed by Ted McFadyen

“Smart looking lads are in my line,
The lad that gives my boots a shine,
The lad that works the lift below,
The lad that’s lettered GPO.”...

- and so on, for several more excruciating verses. It was perpetrated by John Gambril Nicholson, one of the Victorian pederast poets (many of whom, curiously, had triple-decker names) discussed by Chris White in her ‘Sourcebook’. Pederasty is by no means her main theme; in fact, the book consists of texts dealing with the whole spectrum of same-sex desire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It includes writings on trials and scandals, censorship and homophobia, love and friendship, lesbianism, aestheticism and decadence, and sexual tourism and colonialism.

Inevitably, Chris White covers much ground that is familiar – the Wilde case, the writings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and she could hardly have omitted such pivotal figures. By way of contrast, some of the material in the book was never published at all, while some appeared in small editions from private presses. It’s worth remembering that this was a period in which the whole book publishing landscape was radically different from the small number of mega-publishers which we have today. Publishing economics in the period Chris White is discussing permitted a much larger and more adventurous range of companies, some of them specialising in highly esoteric material.

The book’s strength is that it vividly demonstrates the strategies and devices which were used to talk about same-sex desire. With all the circumlocutions and defensiveness imposed by the taboos and prejudices of the time, these writers nevertheless succeeded in going public.

It has to be said, however, that some of them were more than a little eccentric. Marc-André Raffalovich was a Russian émigré who came to London in the 1880s and proceeded to write poetry. He formed a relationship with the poet John Gray, who is thought to be the original Dorian Gray of Wilde’s novel. (He also appears in the recent Stephen Fry film on Wilde.) Gray later became a Roman Catholic priest. They both moved to Edinburgh and, says Chris White somewhat cryptically, “Raffalovich built his friend a church and they had tea together every afternoon.” How sweet. John Gray was once described by another contemporary poet, Wratislaw, as “a young man with a promising career behind him”.

Another eccentric figure was Michael Field who, just to confuse you, was not a man but the pen-name of two women, Kathleen Bradley and Edith Cooper, who were aunt and niece, living and writing together. They too jointly converted to Roman Catholicism, and developed “a cultish worship of the Virgin Mary”.

There are one or two curious omissions in Chris White’s comprehensive survey: there appears to be no mention of Baron von Gloeden, who lived for many years in Taormina and who specialised in taking photographs of Sicilian youths. Though not himself a writer, he is as much an influence on the later 19th-century poets as was the painter Henry Scott Tuke, whose impact White acknowledges. Neither is there any mention in White’s bibliography of Timothy d’Arch Smith’s Love in Earnest (Routledge 1970), a seminal work on the Uranian poets which combines assiduous scholarship with an amused detachment.

Chris White has produced a comprehensive work of reference, even if it’s not exactly bedtime reading.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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