Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Sodom on the Thames

A review of Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times, by Morris B. Kaplan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005)

The sensational title trivializes what is in fact an in-depth study of homosexual lives in late nineteenth-century England, thoroughly documented by original archival research and engagingly told with humane good humour. Kaplan’s traditional employment of historical narrative, or ‘storytelling,’ focuses on three main stories: the trials of the cross-dressers Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton (aka Fanny and Stella) in 1870–1871; the hothouse of pedagogic eros at Eton in the 1870s through the 1890s, featuring William Johnson Cory and Regy Brett (later 2nd Viscount Esher); and the West End scandals of 1889–1890 featuring Lord Arthur Somerset, Equerry to the Prince of Wales, and the clients and staff of a male brothel on Cleveland Street.

Kaplan’s retellings of trials are especially compelling and dramatic, and his character sketches are perceptive and acute. These central stories are supplemented by the stories of two men with full homosexual self-knowledge, the cultural historian John Addington Symonds at the high end of the spectrum, and, at the lower end, the male prostitute Jack Saul, whose fictionalized autobiography fleshes out the action that newspapers could only hint at. Last comes the Oscar Wilde debacle, a story perhaps too familiar to need retelling, but Kaplan’s account is nevertheless an accomplished précis, based on secondary sources. Though revealing no surprises, Kaplan's account does make plain the importance of the homosexual underworld of cruising and male brothels.

The separate stories do not quite combine into a whole, despite some connections: the artist Simeon Solomon (some years before he would be arrested in a urinal) joined Boulton and Park for lunch during an interval of their trial; and Viscount Esher the old Etonian was a close friend of Lord Arthur Somerset, who exiled himself to France after the Cleveland Street affair in order to protect the reputation of Prince Eddy. The one solid link between all the stories is class conflict: Victorian society was heavily inflected with class antagonisms, and homosexuals were most severely reviled when they engaged in cross-class relations, which they regularly did. The journalist Ernest Parke was convicted of libelling the Earl of Euston because the society and the court refused to believe the professional sodomite Jack Saul’s testimony about picking up Euston and taking him to Cleveland Street. The prosecution were reluctant to label the telegraph boys who worked out of the brothel at Cleveland Street as proto-sodomites, even though they had regularly practised such indecencies with young men of their own class well before they were recruited to work at Cleveland Street. The equal-age and equal-class relations made them exempt from the label that would be applied in cross-age and cross-class relations. Kaplan creats a sympathetic portrait of Jack Saul, an aging and effeminate male prostitute, still walking the streets, and reduced to cleaning the rooms of female prostitutes to earn a little money. He was a ‘flamboyant queer’ even in the courtroom, who ‘refused to be ashamed’. As a ‘professional sodomite,” homosexuality was clearly part of hjis identity, and he is recognisably a ‘modern homosexual’.

Kaplan rightly refrains from throwing weak bridges across the gaps between the hermaphroditic demimonde of female impersonators, the underworld of telegraph boys and rough trade, and the romantic entanglements of schoolboys and their sentimental masters. Each group of self-identities remains distinct, testifying to the range of self-understandings available to Victorian men whose desires were misaligned with conventional sexual or gender identities. The social concerns were about public morality, and no medical or psychiatric discourse was used at the time.

Kaplan’s greatest virtue is to portray his subjects with affection and sympathy. He even succeeds in recreating the wistful nostalgia of boy-love by concentrating on diaries and letters without letting analysis intervene, allowing the language of love to speak for itself (however cloying we may find it) rather than reducing it to the language of lust or the discourse of theory. For his three central stories, Kaplan has carefully mined several archives of trial records and personal correspondence, supplemented with contemporary newspaper reports. The Esher Archives have never been tapped so deeply and effectively. However, Kaplan does not venture far from the narrow vein of his archives, not fully appreciating that his subjects continued to lead their lives beyond the archives. Boulton and Park simply disappear from his book when their trial ends, but a more determined historian would have pursued them to America, where they continued to appear on the vaudeville stage as female impersonators. Kaplan makes the occasional error when he ventures outside the Victorian period: for instance, in 1631 Lord Castlehaven was convicted not ‘for buggering . . . his wife’ as well as his household servants, but for assisting one of his servants to rape his wife (as he liked watching his menservants in action), and for buggery with two of his menservants; Castlehaven was not a polymorphous libertine ‘willing to use anyone at his disposal to obtain sexual satisfaction’, but he clearly preferred men. Several photographs of Boulton and Park in drag are very welcome and illuminating; illustrations of homoerotic statues by Hamo Thornycroft and Lord Leighton are also welcome, but the reader will be bemused by their presence, since neither man is ever mentioned in the text. In the introduction and epilogue, Kaplan pays an obligatory nod towards queer theory, but his historical narrative easily eclipses queer theory. Kaplan recognizes that narrative challenges theory, and is far more nuanced and faithful to the historical evidence than theoretical discourse.

(A shorter version of this review originally appeared in The English Historical Review, Volume CXXII, Issue 498, 1 September 2007, Pages 1104–1105. Copyright 2007, 2018 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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