Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Before Wilde

A review of Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, by Charles Upchurch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, pp. xii + 276. $45.00/Ł30.95).

The period 1820–1870 has been overlooked (except for two or three notorious incidents) by historians of homosexuality in England, who have been more interested in the striking behaviour of the mollies in the eighteenth century, or in the scandals and sexual reform movements of the late nineteenth century. Charles Upchurch’s study admirably fills this gap and is a welcome demonstration that there is much of interest in the two generations between the discovery of the Bishop of Clogher with a soldier in 1822 and the arrest of Boulton and Park (‘Stella’ and ‘Fanny’) in 1870. This is an excellent overview of the main issues and patterns that emerged during this period, illustrated with a host of interesting stories.

Upchurch’s central argument is that ‘the geography of sex between men in this period’ consisted ‘not of separate and segregated spaces’ but was rather ‘part of the everyday life of the city’ (p. 76) and concerned ‘men who seem for the most part to have been unconnected to any subculture but were well connected to family and community networks’ (p. 85). This is strictly true in so far as these men made their pick-ups in ordinary West End streets and other public spaces in the metropolis. But any implication that these men’s lives were socially well integrated will not stand up to scrutiny: furtive sexual encounters in public urinals simply were not part of a man’s regular outing with his wife and children on a Sunday afternoon. Upchurch’s first statement of his argument betrays its weakness with a revealing self-contradiction: ‘the vast majority of the evidence . . . [relates] to a much broader group of men whose sexual acts with other men, rather than being separated from the rest of their lives, were relegated to the “twilight moments” within them’ (p. 21). What Upchurch’s evidence amply illustrates is the classic case of ‘compartmentalisation’. An inability to reconcile respectability with the stigma on same-sex desire for men led many men to keep their ordinary social lives firmly separate from their (homosexual) sexual lives. It was not until the end of the century that a theory of ‘congenital inversion’ allowed men of respectable status to form a positive understanding of their same-sex desires free from moral guilt.

Upchurch usefully reminds us that men charged with unnatural offences had families who continued to love and support them despite their sexual wrongdoings, as shown by petitions for clemency submitted to the Home Office. Fathers protested their sons’ innocence, often by exploiting the good standing of the family. Many wives stood by their disgraced husbands, and some even confronted their husbands’ blackmailers. Mothers pleaded that the removal of their sons from the home destroyed the economic survival of the family. Families of all classes rose to protect their sons from the severity of the state. Few families seem to have believed that sodomy was ‘the worst of crimes’ – on the contrary, evidence of their forgiveness is overwhelming. Upchurch presents this as a new finding, though eighteenth-century criminal accounts are also full of examples of families rallying round their wayward sons, be they highway robbers or pickpockets, and grieving when their offspring were hanged.

Several of Upchurch’s other findings are similarly not altogether surprising. His very detailed class analysis of the press coverage of unnatural assault concludes that the middle-class Times covered twice as many cases as other papers, in an objective manner, self-consciously cultivating its civic responsibility; the upper-class Morning Post concentrated mostly on cases involving extortion of gentlemen; and the working-class Weekly Dispatch looked more closely at the prosecutions of working men (and had the most colourful headlines, e.g. ‘Shocking Depravity’). But such distinctions or patterns as there are, become perceptible only over multiple decades. Year-on-year, the papers reported more or less the same stories in more or less the same fashion, without skewing their reports according to the class of their intended readership. An interesting finding is that none of the papers attempted to make political hay out of cases of sex between men. However, Upchurch does not discuss satiric broadside prints, such as those attacking the Bishop of Clogher, which were employed in political attacks on the Establishment. (In this respect especially, it is to be regretted that the book lacks illustrations.)

Upchurch’s survey of the legal system and law reform, though very thorough, is relevant more to the general subject of crime and society, than to the specific subject of sex between men. Law reform consisted mainly of consolidating Acts such as the Offences Against the Person Act 1828, and Upchurch acknowledges that significant, even ‘profound’, changes in statute law ‘do not seem to have greatly affected the common-law practice of prosecuting cases of attempted sodomy and unnatural assault’ (p. 92) – which followed eighteenth-century patterns. The penalty for ‘attempted sodomy’ was standardised at two years’ imprisonment, which had been the most common sentence in the eighteenth century. Labouchere’s amendment adding the phrase ‘in private’ in 1885 was irrelevant, since neither privacy nor consent had ever been allowable defences in English courts. Because of various reforms, it became easier to successfully prosecute someone for extorting money by threatening to swear sodomy, and extortion cases became prominent after mid-century – but more than a third of homosexually-relevant cases at the Old Bailey during the eighteenth century also involved extortion, so I would hesitate to regard this as a significant change. The conviction rate for unnatural assault steadily declined from 60 per cent in 1819 to 37 per cent in the 1840s. Sodomites were no longer exhibited in the pillory from 1817 nor hanged from the gallows after about 1835. The main change from the previous era is that various reforms made it easier to successfully prosecute someone for extorting money by threatening to swear sodomy, and extortion cases became prominent after mid-century.

Class differences influenced perceptions of homosexuality and patterns of regulation. Both the upper class and the working class were more tolerant of sex between men; it was the middle class – who placed greater value on marital fidelity, were more religious, and distrusted pleasure for its own sake – who were most vulnerable to having their masculine identity and reputation undermined by the whisper of sodomy. Social inequality was a major factor in same-sex sexual relations. Most of the cases that came to light were cross-class encounters between a man of higher rank making an advance to (or responding to the apparent willingness of) a working-class youth, often a soldier. Or even a police constable – typically a poorly paid working-class young man walking the streets alone at night. If a gentleman’s advances were unwanted, and a subsequent court appearance involved one man’s word against another, defendants invariably offered better proof of ‘character’ than the constables who testified against them. Despite this, ‘a high percentage of unnatural-assault cases involved men of modest means, including soldiers, laborers, apprentices, and tradesmen, prosecuting those higher on the social scale’ (p. 94) – a unique reversal of the pattern of non-sexual prosecutions.

Juries, made up of higher-class men, did not trust the police, who were all lower-class. Magistrates and the public were outraged when the Metropolitan Police in 1830, acting as agents provocateurs, began entrapping middle- and upper-class men in Hyde Park. Juries indignantly acquitted all the gentlemen rounded up and newspapers vilified the constables for their degrading behaviour. Henceforth, the police adopted a less proactive approach to regulating the sexual misconduct of their superiors.

Despite two or three half-hearted nods to the theories of Foucault, Upchurch takes an eminently sensible approach to speculating about the reasons for patterns in prosecution. For example, the high frequency of ‘infamous crime’ arrests in the West End probably reflects the simple fact that this is where constables did most of their patrolling, protecting the property of its wealthy residents.

Interestingly, Upchurch suggests that news reports probably had an impact ‘on men who strongly identified with the feelings of same-sex desire’ (p. 150; Upchurch is reticent about using the word ‘homosexual’ as a noun. Once past the Introduction, Upchurch rarely uses the term ‘homosexual’, preferring more precise but long phrases such as ‘a man who . . . identifies’. I think Upchurch is being too fastidious, and I am uneasy about the lack of an abstract shorthand label to apply to men such as confirmed bachelors or repeat offenders.) One example of such identification is the anonymous author of the pornographic Don Leon, who collected news clippings for his notes on scandals, and who clearly ‘recognized himself in the men described in the newspaper clippings’ (p. 151), and who was able to subvert the moralistic intentions of newspaper editors and construct a positive view of same-sex love.

Considering that this is a sexual history, it ought to have been more colourful than it is. The newspapers could have yielded many human interest stories, but Upchurch does not stop to relate them. For example, we do not hear of ‘Eliza Edwards’, discovered at her death in 1833 to be a cross-dressing man who was kept by several gentlemen over the years, who paid her rent at Linden Cottage, Regent’s Park. We are told that the Bull public house was raided by the Metropolitan Police in 1830, the first year they were constituted, but we are not told that a mob of 500 persons pelted the captured men as they were being hauled to the police station. Upchurch seems over-careful to avoid allowing evidence of a subculture to emerge.

(A shorter version of this review was originally published in the English Historical Review, cxxv. 512 (February 2010), pp. 208–210. Copyright 2010, 2018 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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