Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Gallery of Gay Worthies

A review of Homosexuals in History: A Study of Ambivalence in Society, Literature and the Arts by A.L. Rowse (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977)

There is a certain class of homosexuals who believe that homosexual tastes per se – without any other marks of distinction – are sufficient proof of greatness: cast out by Society as pariahs, they exactly reverse the vaues of society, sometimes by means of Wildean paradox but more often by means of banal reversals of humbug, and reserve for themselves the status of arbiters of excellence. If any such gays are still possessed of such views, this is the book for them. I had thought that such 'pedestalism' (the term is that of the historian Jeffrey Weeks) had suffered its demise long ago. But no. The aristocracy of deviance lives.

Rowse's theme is the natural superiority of homosexual aristocrats; the only variation on this theme is the natural superiority of aristocrtically-aspiring working-class homosexuals, for the rest, all is repetition. It is impossible to adequately convey the fervour with which Rowse expresses his hatred of the herd; he must speak for himself:

"Early in their friendship Horace [Walpole] wrote to [John Chute] from Houghton. 'Don't you find that nine parts in ten of the world are of no use but to make you wish yourself with that tenth part?' How true! Of the mass of mankind, the people understand nothing; the middle-classes not much; only an aristocracy is awake and self-aware, and of that only a minority are cultivated. We are left with only a few with whom we need bother, as Horace thouight."


"Those early years of the [20th] centuryl, before mass-civilization set in, were a golden age for the arts. Most of what has borne any good fruit since had its seed in the ideas that proliferated in that last age of European aristocratic society (served, naturally, by bourgeois)."

Again, of Count August von Platen:

"he had a good sense of his own superiority, sufficiently justified. It chimed too with his detestation of the mediocre and ugly. This fortified his contempt for critics, who naturally had no understanding of him; while Platen had an aristocratic disdain for the public in general, which hadn't a clue – certainy not the clue to him."

Any homosexual not fortunate enough to have been born an aristocrat is "a natural aristocrat" as were: Charles Ricketts; Proust, a middle-class man, is saved by being "a snob." Rowse: "We may then redefine a snob as one who finds interesting poeople more interesting than uninteresting ones. What, logically, could be wrong with that?"

All of this is most contentious, but Rowse, unlike Wilde, whose similar views he cites in abundance, has neither the wit nor the style to carry it off; the reader is not left laughing at an epigram which contains a grain of truth, but squirming at an idée fixe that has slipped over the edge. As Rowse rushes in to attack democracy and Presbyterianism we realise that he is merely using this book as a vehicle for promulgating his right-wing philosophy, that his subject is a tool rather than an end in itself. His rapid-fire pot-shots at Solzhenitsyn, for example – completely miss his proper subject and lapse into pure irrelevance. Which is not to say that the book thereby suffers on all fronts; what it loses in objective exposition it gains in readability – digressions are necessary to relieve the boredom of the roll-call of the magnificent. Unfortunately A.L. Rowse – whom the dustjacket claims is "a leading historian, . . . a Cornishman of working-class stock" – is as much the subject of the book as anyone else, and one could only wish that his own character, as it comes across through these pages, were less boorish, less vulgar.

But back to the argument, that homosexuals are naturally superior: Somerset Maugham's "final comment on that, after a lifetime's experience, was: 'You can't change your essential nature. All you can do is to try to make the best of your limitations,' This is a modest view: this book has done nothing if it has not given evidence that we owe our qualities to our deficiencies, our gifts to our difference." (Readers must determine for themselves exactly what Rowse intends by the reference to "our" qualities.) I suggest that this view is patently absurd. If we need evidence, all the boyfriends of these great gays are in the shadowy background, and fairly commonplace at that (even though working-class!), distinguished only by the fact that great men have loved them; for the most part their "gift" is not that they were born homosexual, but that they were born good-looking. It is really a shame that this red herring of a theory has to get in the way of appreciating the facts of gay history. If there is a valid argument here, surely it must be supported by a statistical comparison, Arno Karlen begins one in his book Sexuality and Homosexuality, and concludes that the number of great gay Renaissance geniuses is actually fewer than one would expect in the population at large – that is, fewer than ten per cent of them were gay.

Rowse's motivation in writing this book is transparent. As he says of Winkelmann: "He had, however, one little weakness: he had pulled himself up to such heights from such low beginnings that he couldn't help boasting of it. . . . What an achievement for a poor boy, son of a cobbler (like Marlowe), who started with nothing! It is clear that he owed it all to his difference of nature."

No one will deny that A.L. Rowse is an opinionated man. His opinions are stated with the arrogance of an autocrat who need not back them up: by eschewing the rhetoric of persuasion he is bound to alienate most readers – but of course he couldn't care less. He mounts his hobby-horse and beats it to death. You either take it or leave it; he really isn't very interested in your ideas, unless you're in the elite coterie of his minority of minorities.

This lack of respect for his readers is reflected in the striking paucity of scholarship in the book. There are no footnotes, no documentation, no bibliography.

Quotations appear without any authorship being ascribed to them; the sources are mostly unidentified (one might almost say concealed), or identified in an offhand, careless manner, perhaps with a reference only to a surname, or to a book's title (and that but rarely), or to an unnamed "parliamentary diarist" etc. The study is distinctly unhelpful to any who may wish to pursue similar investigation – deliberately so, so Rowse can reserve the glory (what little there is) all to himself. He evidently despises his colleagues, and will not deign to contribute to the central fund of shared knowledge which is the hallmark of the scholar. But his pretentions to a wide range of knowledge are dubious. Virtually all of his sources are secondary, rather than primary research. Robert Halsband's Lord Hervey (Oxford University Press) is obviously his (unacknowledged) source for the section on Lord Hervey; Nancy Mitford is the (acknowledged) source for the section on Frederick the Great. Thus does definitive research (Halsband) mingle with less-than-definitive studies (Mitford); popoular myths (e.g. the one about Mozard instructing Beckford at the piano) are retailed along with established facts; no means are supplied for measuring one against the other to arrive at a sound judgement for oneself; Rowse's 'take it or leave it' arrogance relegates his work to the status of a 'hidden source' in the future: by all means read him to seek out lines for research, but never, to your peril, cite him. You may commit a grievous error. For example, even in the section on the English Renaissance – a subject about which Rowse knows more than any one living – he is not above deliberate misqotation; King James is said to have said "Christ had his John, and I have my Steenie" (p.63); he actually said "Christ had his son John, and I have my George." A minor point, perhaps ('Steenie' was James's private nickname for George Villiers), but it illuminates Rowse's technqiue and calls into question the more substantial claims. For example, I really don't know why Erasmus is a figure in this book.

All this said – and despite its serious flaws – I enjoyed this book immensely. It is the finest of its genre, packed-full of information (whether trustworthy or not), and narrated with enough variety and forcefulness to retain the reader's attention through a catalogue of perhaps several hundred potted biographies. Its very unevenness adds to its entertainment, its lack of comprehensiveness keeps one's interest from palling; along with a host of Gay Worthies one finds a train of people whom I call minor (Rowse says they have been 'unappreciated'): Emperor Rudolf as well as Henri III and his mignons; Richard Heber ("the greatest book-collector of the age") as well as Viscount Courtenay; G.V. Chicherin as well as Tchaikovsky; Friedrich Alfred Krupp as well as August von Platen; and in modern times: Sir Hector Macdonald, Norman Douglas, Hugh Walpole, Ivor Novello, as well as the fmailiar E.M. Forster, T.E. Lawrence, A.E. Housman, Walt Whitman (a good working-class bloke) et al.

Rowse's sociological understanding is archaic (his comments on 'mother-fixation' and 'ambivalence' are laughable), but his enthusiastic appreciation for the genuine achievements of many of these men – he particularly admires the connoisseurs – is highly infectious and often even appealing, even when he debunks men like Thomas Mann, and it contains many enjoyable passages. What a pity that it is fundamentaly unsound.

(This review was originally published in Gay News, Issue No. 117, 1977, p. 21. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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