by Linda Dowling
Published by Cornell University Press
Review by Jim Kepner
Published May 1994 in HIC Newsletter #52.
Ms. Dowling, author previously of Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siécle, interestingly explains the growth of British attitudes which permitted the great ovation Oscar Wilde’s eloquent defense speech received during his first trial in the Old Bailey 100 years ago this April — and his tragic and overwhelming condemnation for homosexual acts a month later.
She shows that Wilde’s defense of the ideal of Hellenic love was so much a central theme of public discourse of the day that a court audience which included few friends could applaud enthusiastically — until the third trial brought in tawdry evidence of socially incorrect sex.
Dowling traces ground which had been covered less theoretically by Brian Reade’s 1970 anthology, Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 (he’d shown a line of succession of Uranian, i.e., pedophile or homophile, poets from William Johnson’s Ionica to the writings of Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds and Wilde) and the writings of H. Montgomery Hyde.
Starting somewhat earlier, Dowling agrees with gay history philosopher Michel Foucault’s rejection of the common view that sex, particularly “homosex,” was repressed by the state and public intolerance before those enlightened days. I remain unclear on the metaphysics by which Foucault denies yet seems to affirm the operation of repression and enlightenment.
Dowling interestingly traces the development at Oxford of a public discourse, which, borrowing from earlier German advocates of the pedophile and androphilic love ideal of ancient Greece, transformed thinking, not just about erotic feeling, but about the whole liberal concept of public morality and national virtue which many felt were threatened by the crudities of industry and mercantilism. The old fear of a decline of national virility which had associated homosexual activity with effeminacy and decadence led many intellectuals to turn to the example of ancient Greece, which had already swept German intellectuals (and had great currency in the U.S. after the 1820 introduction of The Greek Revival). The Greeks had demonstrated that idealized male love, both in pedagogy and in battle, could be the fountainhead of national and personal virility, morality and creativity.
Liberals John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Benjamin Jowett led this change in public attitude initially associated with the university reform movement, in rebellion against the cultural stagnation they saw resulting from bourgeois society, and were joined in such advocacy by Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister, William Gladstone, as well as Cecil Rhodes and Lord Curzon.
Focusing on the Oxford University reform movement of the 1850s, Ms. Dowling describes the rejection of the stultified Church of England curriculum and teaching style (and the opening of the universities to non-Anglicans), first through the homoerotic religiosity of the Tractarians around John Henry Newman and the feeling of betrayal of such of his lover-followers as J. A. Froude when Newman entered the Catholic Church and Froude rejected all religion. A series of inspirational teachers followed: Benjamin Jowett, Thomas and Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Walter Pater, et al., whose intimate (not necessarily sexual) relations with selected students were modeled on Socrates with the young men gathered around him.
But Jowett’s great translation of Plato’s dialogues were both blessing and curse for many gay-inclined youth trying to get beyond the rosy glow and translate their feelings into action. Jowett had reworked Plato, creating an idealization of male love intended to serve a new patriotism and replace the Christian world view of the heady Tractarian, as well as their dogmatic Anglican predecessors. That idealization still reverberates today, but Jowett laundered most specific sexual passages, causing students like John Addington Symonds to go through great agonies seeking “ideal” but non-sexual love, before they could manage to reject the-master and accept the explicitly sexual component of their love urges. (Cambridge was not free of similar Hellenistic-homoerotic elements, as the illustrious and largely gay history of the Apostles society there attests.)
Symonds, Carpenter, Ellis, and Wilde took the concept beyond pedagogy and made the sexuality in the Hellenic ideal specific, and Wilde was brutally punished for it, though as to his “offense against public morals,” Dowling seems to feel his punishment was incidental. Where she observes that some Uranians were shocked by the explicitness, I suspect they may have been less upset that the “ideal” had been besmirched, than that the closet (a recent term for conditions that are by no means new) had been exposed.
Wilde’s passionate defense of Hellenic love won applause from an apparently diverse audience, Dowling argues, because it tapped into “ideals” that were then common currency — but the piling on of evidence that he had “tarnished” the ideal by explicit sex across class lines destroyed him.
Dowling seems, like many “constructionist” historians, to take at face value literary denials that such feelings should be sexually expressed. Even today, many people who profess to keep their erotic urges on a “pure” plain express them quite otherwise in practice — often paying with acute guilt. Barring specific evidence, we can of course hardly know if Newman, Jowett, Pater and many of the Uranian poets had sex with the objects of their affections or if they pined away with longing, as many timid souls still do. Considering the mistaken notion that such matters were never mentioned in Victoria’s day, they made the object of their eroticism remarkably clear, even if they were reticent about overt sexual activity. Many of them tried hard to separate homophile feelings from sexual acts. Foucault notwithstanding, it was a time when many were trapped in the prison of repression.
Ms. Dowling’s work is highly informative, correcting many popular misconceptions about Victorian life, and is a valuable contribution to gay history, despite the overambitious theorizing — an overriding sin of many fine gay historians. Her theorizing is not excessive, and her writing is never pedantic. She ignores lesbian possibilities in her page-85 footnote about the 1879 founding of Lady Margaret and Somerville residence halls for women who were auditing oxford lectures. Undergraduates had long been expected to remain bachelors, so Dowling treats the arrival of women on the campus fringe as a hetero invasion of the homosexual sanctuary.
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