Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Horace Walpole and Homosexuality

Portrait of Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera

On the possibility that the eighteenth-century writer Horace Walpole might have been homosexual, a prominent scholar once wrote:

"Queer theorists have made much of Walpole's effeminacy, his never marrying, his mother fixation, his strong affection for Thomas Gray, Richard West, Conway, etc. I suppose Samuel Johnson was gay because he shed tears in public and walked hand in hand with James Boswell; it was a different time and culture."

I think that most of those who have examined this question (at least in print) are sophisticated enough to be sensitive to historical contexts, and this exaggerated reference to Johnson/Boswell is simply a straw man. The point is not so much that Walpole was effeminate, but that his effeminacy was sufficiently out-of-the ordinary to be commented on by his contemporaries and to give rise to pointed remarks that Conway was "his first love" etc. During Walpole's time and culture it was very widely believed that a bachelor status and effeminacy were significant diagnostic indicators that a man was a 'molly', i.e. an effeminate lover of men. If a man passed for a woman at a masquerade, as Walpole did in 1742, that was another diagnostic indicator that he might be a molly, for it was a well-known molly practice to attend Vauxhall as women and pick up men. Though it was indeed a different time and culture, nevertheless a whole series of diagnostic indicators of homosexuality were the same in the 1750s as they were in the 1950s (even including the suggestion that a molly was a mother's boy).

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, who had an excellent eye for mollies, identified Walpole's long-time friend Sir Horace Mann as a sodomite, using the diagnostic indicator of fluttering fingers (still a common mannerism among some gay men today): "Old Cardinal de York kept a Catamite publicly at Rome while I was there. . . . Mrs Greatheed & I call those Fellows Finger-twirlers; – meaning a decent word for Sodomites: old Sir Horace Mann & Mr James the Painter had such an odd way of twirling their Fingers in Discourse; – & I see Suetonius tells the same thing of one of the Roman Emperors, 'nec sine molli guadum digitorum gesticulatione'." (i.e. Tiberius) (Thraliana, 29 March 1794). I don't recall Walpole having this specific mannerism, but he had a variety of camp mannerisms, and my working hypothesis is that he was an old queen.

If one wants to emphasize historical context, and I quite agree that we should, then we should start with Walpole's immediate family. The fact that his father was called a sodomite by his political enemies can be ignored, but more to the point is the fact that his elder brother Edward was prosecuted for sodomy in the courts. He was acquitted, and he in turn prosecuted a number of men for conspiring to blackmail him. Netta Murray Goldsmith devotes much of her book The Worst of Crimes (1998) to an analysis of the records of this case, and she concludes that a "conspiracy" to blackmail Edward Walpole did not actually exist, but was falsely constructed by Edward Walpole and connived at by the court, and that Edward Walpole was probably guilty of the original charge (i.e. that he seduced and then attempted to sodomize an 18-year-old Irish boy who wanted to enter his service). This was in 1750, when Horace Walpole was 33 years old. Horace went to London to give his brother what assistance he could, and testified against one of the men involved.

Edward Walpole himself became something of a recluse after this traumatic event. Given this background, it is likely that Horace Walpole would be pretty circumspect about such matters in his diaries and letters, the great majority of which were written after this event.

I've always felt that Walpole was a celibate homosexual, a term which I do not think is an oxymoron. It is perfectly feasible to suggest that he had no or virtually no sexual experience, but that this lack of experience is very much within a homosexual context. This is the substance of a letter that Walpole wrote in March 1766 to a young man named John Crauford who wanted to form a closer friendship with him: "But don't love me, pray don't love! Old folks are but old women who love their last love as they did their first. . . . I think one had better be dead than love anybody. I can go no further. I have taken the veil and would not break my vow for the world." He is saying, by the use of the veil metaphor, that he has vowed not to have sexual intercourse: and this statement occurs within a male–male context, which is pretty extraordinary when you think about it. Walpole elsewhere compares himself to an old woman: again this is usually in a male–male context.

The evidence suggests to me that Walpole was not merely "asexual" or "latent" or unconsciously "repressed", but that he actively and deliberately suppressed his (homo)sexuality. Relevant to this is the question when did he "take the veil": was it in relationship to his break-up with Thomas Gray in 1745 (for whom, incidentally, there is more homosexual "evidence" than for Walpole [e.g. censored letters concerning his relationship with Henry Tuthill, who killed himself after a scandal]), or his perceived rebuff when Conway got married in 1747, or the prosecution of his brother for sodomy in 1750 – or a combination of these events in this crucial five-year period. If we can pin down the date when he took the veil, we may better understand why he did so. And one doesn't take the veil merely for lack of passion.

I do agree, however, that this is all a matter of interpretation or emphasis upon what is already known. I am not aware that any new historical evidence or data has come to light for many years. George Haggerty in his chapter on Walpole in his 1999 book Men in Love certainly doesn't cite any new data, which I think he would have done if there were any.

On the subject of "heteronormativity", I do find it curious that Edward Walpole's prosecution for sodomy is so seldom (or never) mentioned by Horace Walpole scholars. And I don't think that any Walpolian critic, when looking at the issue of Walpole's possible homosexuality, has ever mentioned all in one place this relatively short list of data that I have just mentioned above. It's not just a matter of evidence versus interpretation, but an apparent reluctance by mainstream scholars to gather the evidence to support what might be an unwelcome interpretation. I do think there is a general tendency in all scholarship, not just Walpolian scholarship, to avoid research into non-normative sexual issues. It is not a proposal that many people put forward in funding applications.

Mrs Piozzi's identification of Horace Mann as a sodomite would seem to me to be relevant to the question of Horace Walpole's possible homosexuality, that is, it constitutes "evidence" (i.e. a piece of data obtained by carefully sifting the historical record) whether or not Mrs Piozzi's perceptions are accurate. And yet mainstream Walpole scholars will invariably say that "Horace Mann was a life-time bachelor" and stop there, without going on to mention Mrs Piozzi's opinion that he was a sodomite. Heteronormative scholars are not unaware of Mrs Piozzi's opinion, so one must assume that they actively suppress it.

Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments were prompted by a discussion on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List many years ago, 29 January 2000.

Return to The Great Queers of History

Return to Essays by Rictor Norton