David Leavitt’s 1993 novel, While England Sleeps, is an ambitious inter-generational, cross-class, multi-national story about love and loss.
Set in England in the 1930s, it is narrated by Brian Botsford, a young man from a privileged background who wants to be a writer. Brian meets a young working-class man, Edward, who is employed on the Underground, itself the subject of a play Brian is writing. The two strike up a passionate relationship, living together in Brian’s small, one-bed flat.
Edward is a likable character, self-educated and deeply committed to the Communist Party ideas (it was at a CP meeting Brian and Edward first met). He carries the Manifesto with him everywhere, reading it often, determined to understand every word. He possesses an innocence which is wholly appealing in his belief that the world can become a better place, and he accepts his sexuality and his desire for Brian with an easy enthusiasm which Brian cannot reciprocate. Continue reading →
Evelyn Waugh. Wikimedia Commons
Subtitled The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
, Brideshead Revisited
was written in a three month period in early 1943 while Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was on leave from the army.
On the surface, Brideshead is a simple story of friendship gone awry. Charles Ryder, while an undergraduate at Oxford, meets and becomes friends with Lord Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord Marchmain. Brideshead is Sebastian’s family seat, inhabited by his mother, elder brother, and sister. Lord Marchmain, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry Sebastian’s mother, has renounced both his church and his marriage, and moved to Venice to be with his mistress. So abandoned, Lady Marchmain finds ever deeper solace in her faith. Continue reading →
Mary Renault. Wikimedia Commons
First published in 1953, Mary Renault’s lyrical novel The Charioteer is the story of Laurie “Spud” Odell’s coming-of-age, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. That Renault was informed by the works of Freud is apparent from the very first chapter, when five-year-old Laurie’s father walks out.
Laurie is in bed, but not asleep. Ten o’clock has come and gone — “Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of elephants: white on the map.” Understanding that he only remained awake past bedtime when he was sick, Laurie decides that he must be going to die. Continue reading →
E.M. Forster. Wikimedia Commons
Following his death in 1970, a manuscript was discovered in E.M. Forster’s house with a brief note scrawled on the cover: “Publishable, but worth it?” Somebody evidently believed it was, because the following year Maurice
Written in 1913 and dedicated “to a happier year”, Maurice is the tale of the protagonist’s coming of age as a queer man at a time when England criminalised same-sex relationships. Much like Laurie in the later Charioteer by Renault (written after Maurice, but published earlier), Maurice is torn between the spiritual affections of his university love, and the carnal nature of his love’s gamekeeper. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Forster showed the manuscript to his close friend D.H. Lawrence, who suggested that as Maurice could never be published for the scandal it would cause, he could reinterpret the story with a heterosexual couple, and thus Lady Chatterley’s Lover was born. (That Forster didn’t object is evident in his appearance as a defence witness for the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial.) Continue reading →
Oscar Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray was published first by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and then as a revised and lengthened book in 1891.
The tale is a unique blend of comedy of manners, love story, acerbic social commentary, supernatural suspense, and artists’ manifesto. The premise is simple: the dandyish Lord Henry Wotton sits in on his friend, Basil Hallward, painting the beautiful young Dorian Gray. Dorian, a little vain and spoilt, sees the finished picture and curses it because it will always remain young and beautiful while he must age. He wishes he could change places and have the portrait age in his stead, which is, of course, what happens.
Wilde said of his three protagonists, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be.” Through the course of the novel, Lord Henry fills the role of mentor to Dorian, living vicariously through Dorian’s increasingly depraved actions as he attempts to fulfill Henry’s philosophy of hedonism and sensuality. Dorian “experiments with every vice known to man,” inspired by a “yellow book” which is clearly Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against Nature”), although the title is never mentioned. Continue reading →
“Bathers at San Niccolò” Wikimedia Commons
The last page of The Gentleman’s Magazine comprised a “Register of Books” published the previous month. The April 1749 issue listed the text “Pederasty investigated and exemplified, 1s.” No author or publisher was listed.
Three other references to the text — full title, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d — were discovered by eighteenth century scholars in the following years: a letter from John Cleland (of Fanny Hill fame) written to the Duke of Newcastle’s law clerk, accusing the “son of a Dean and grandson of a Bishop” of being the author of “a pamphlet evidently in defence of sodomy.” A letter from Newcastle to the attorney general calls on the state to prosecute one Thomas Cannon (son of the Dean of Lincoln; grandson of the Bishop of Norwich and Ely; and one-time close friend/maybe lover of Cleland) as the author of said pamphlet. The third letter was written by Cannon’s mother to Newcastle, begging that the charges against him be dropped.
The pamphlet remains lost to this day. Continue reading →
“Ganymede carried off by the eagle.” Marble, Roman copy after bronze original, ~325BC. Wikimedia Commons
One of the most enduring of the Greek myths concerns Ganymede, the son of Tros, a great king for whom Troy and the Trojans are named. Tros had three sons, all perfect, but Ganymede was said to be the most beautiful boy who had ever lived. One day, while still a youth, Ganymede was resting in a meadow on Mount Ida when Zeus, king of the gods, saw him and fell instantly in love.
Summoning a great storm, Zeus transformed into an eagle and swept from the skies, seized the boy, and carried him off to the heavens. There, he made Ganymede immortal and gave him a position as cupbearer to the gods, supplanting his daughter Hebe, who had previously held the title.
Tros was so grief-stricken with the loss of his son that even Zeus was moved to pity, sending the messenger god Hermes to inform the man of Ganymede’s fate, and compensated him with a pair of the god’s own horses, said to be able to run on thunder and race over water. Continue reading →
We’re going back a little in time from the Labouchere Amendment, to 1748 and the perhaps surprising choice of an erotic novel told through the eyes of a female prostitute.
Female prostitution and homosexuality have long been linked in British law (Labouchere’s Amendment was to an Act concerned with the former, after all, and the Wolfenden Committee was convened in the 1950s to look at both issues).
Written by John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, is the first-person account of the eponymous character’s journey from her arrival in London as an orphaned innocent, through her employment at a brothel, her introduction to sex at the hands of another female prostitute, her first experience with a man, her subsequent life as a prostitute, and her eventual reunion with the young nobleman who took her virginity, whom she marries and saves from financial ruin and disgrace with the money she’s earned. She ends the novel a respectable lady, her wanton past behind her (although her marriage all the happier for her experience!). Not, one would think, a novel particularly relevant to queer history. Continue reading →