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

Some Favourite books on Gay History

The following four books about gay history have given me great pleasure primarily because they all emphasise the lived experience of gay men within a culture or "subculture" of their own making.

Photograph of Fanny and Stella

Neil McKenna's Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England is a joy to read. Without straying too far from the trial transcripts, depositions, newspaper reports, and letters from the archives, McKenna has produced an extraordinary Victorian narrative and recreated the wholly believable personalities of two young drag queens – Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, aka Fanny and Stella. Their trial in 1871 was a sensation, and although most historians of the period will know the outcome, McKenna manages to construct a Dickensian story with cliff-hangers that keep us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of how it will all play out. The flamboyance of their frocks is matched by the extravagance of McKenna's style – sometimes over the top, but always expressive and generous and perfectly shaped. McKenna enters fully into the spirit of camp, and the other effeminate young men that made up the drag subculture are brought to life as personalities rather than oddities. Every character in the story is lovingly conjured up, from the dragon landlady shocked by her boarders to Stella's "husband" Lord Arthur Clinton and her hapless lovers and admirers in Edinburgh, from Stella's sympathetic mother staunchly defending her son to the wily prosecutor and physician conspiring the downfall of these outrages to Victorian decency. All previous historians have said that Fanny and Stella "disappeared from history" at the end of the trial, which is shorthand for saying that historians have not bothered to pursue them further. But McKenna shows that Fanny and Stella (and Fanny's gay brother Harry) went on to modest theatrical careers in provincial England and even the United States, Stella even managing to outlive that other Queen, Victoria.

Morris B. Kaplan's Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times is an engaging study of gay lives in late nineteenth-century England. Though documented by original archival research, it focuses on historical narrative, or "storytelling", told with humane good humour. The cross-dressers Fanny and Stella make a major appearance, as do the schoolboys and masters at Eton, and the telegraph boys and male prostitutes of late nineteenth-century scandals, and many others besides. Kaplan's retellings of trials are especially compelling and dramatic, and his character sketches are perceptive and acute. Especially interesting is Kaplan's discovery of the letters between Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher, and Lord Arthur Somerset, Equerry to the Prince of Wales, who exiled himself to France after a raid on a male brothel in Cleveland Street in order to protect the reputation of Prince Eddy. Kaplan doesn't throw weak bridges across the gaps between the theatrical demimonde of female impersonators, the underworld of telegraph boys and rough trade, and the romantic entanglements of schoolboys and their sentimental masters, but allows each group of self-identities to remain distinct, testifying to the range of self-understandings available to Victorian men whose desires were misaligned with conventional sexual or gender identities. 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 – with relish.

Graham Robb's Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century is an outstandingly good book. It is written with wonderful wit and intelligence, even wisdom. This is not to say that it contains great discoveries. Much of the material will be known to specialists in the field of gay history. Robb makes it plain that this is a work of synthesis, and one of his ambitions is "to make ‘Europe' mean something more than Britain and a variety of continental holiday destinations", i.e. to present evidence for a unified European homosexual culture in the 19th century (and, to some extent, also a unified European-American 19th cent. homosexual culture). I think he is right to suggest that "most books on the subject were confined to one country or one language and were vulnerable to local distortions", that is, researchers sometimes fail to appreciate the Europe-wide context for some of the material discovered about a specific country. Robb is fluent in several European languages, and he is familiar with the important primary sources for Europe. He does a commendable job in establishing the Europe-wide nature of Victorian homosexuality, bringing together an abundance of information in a way that provides refreshingly new perceptions.

Robb graciously acknowledges that "This book would not have existed without the work of Martin Duberman, Lillian Faderman, Evelyn Hooker, Jonathan Katz, Rictor Norton and most of the writers whose names appear in the bibliography." He scrupulously cites all his sources, which cover the most recent and comprehensive research into gay and lesbian history, especially relating to the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries (documented with 26 pages of endnotes). Robb, as the author of highly- praised biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, does nevertheless make his own original contributions to the field based upon his mastery of French sources, and he quotes letters from French authors, and some others relative to French colonial history, which I don't think have been quoted before.

Robb's book is not merely a work of synthesis, however, for he does not hesitate to challenge some of the blinkered views of gay historians, especially the queer theorists of the Foucauldian school, whose work has systematically impoverished gay and lesbian history. He is also critical about claims about "gay genocide", and he has a very interesting chapter demonstrating that no patterns of systematic persecution can be deduced from statistics about criminal prosecutions, and demonstrating the inconsequentiality of legal changes directly affecting homosexual men. For instance, despite the alleged importance of the Labouchere Amendment of 1885, conviction rates for the ten years before and after the Amendment were nearly identical (55 per cent and 56 per cent), and he shows that there were no significant rises in prosecutions for homosexual offences until the 20th century, most dramatically during the mid-1950s. For homosexuals, hell-upon-earth occurred in the 1950s, not the 1800s.

Robb acknowledges that legal records are a rich source of information about the gay past, but he thinks this is unfortunate in placing gay history within the context of crime. The view from the courtroom suggests that the lives of homosexuals was uniformly bleak and persecuted, when in fact the law was seldom a vital element of gay culture (though of course it was destructive of individual lives) until quite modern times. This single chapter alone is an important contribution to the field of gay studies, and I think the issues he raises will have to be addressed by historians who over-emphasise the importance of homophobia in the making of gay history. It is only one of the many riches in this very enjoyable and thought-provoking history.

Matt Houlbrook's Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957 demonstrates that queer urban lives from the end of the First World War to the publication of the Wolfenden Report were conducted in a surprisingly public manner, making them unsafe yet full of vitality. Cruising the streets in the West End of London was commonplace from the 1930s. Especially visible were the "queans" (particularly the "screamers" and "pansies" who wore make-up), but hundreds of masculine working-class lads (or "trade") passed unnoticed as they loitered at street corners, waiting to be picked up by middle-class gentlemen who came to think of themselves as "respectable homosexuals." Far from being a "twilight world," this was "a vibrant queer world" where social as well as sexual interactions contributed to the construction of queer culture. Houlbrook brilliantly maps the four key spheres of queer social geography, devoting a chapter each to the public world of cruising; the commercial world of bars and nightclubs; the bath houses; and the residential world of furnished rooms for bachelors, and queer lodging houses. Houlbrook has delved deeply into primary sources not exploited before, ranging from Metropolitan Magistrates' Courts to private diaries and letters. An exuberant queer scene comes alive with richly detailed descriptions, and Houlbrook keeps us aware of the fact that we are analysing the lives of real people, not simply sets of behaviour patterns and legal statistics.

Copyright © 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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