Class is a peculiarly English phenomenon. Which isn’t to say other countries don’t have class systems, because of course they do, but whenever one thinks of “class” one can’t help conjuring up images of English lords and ladies juxtaposed against ruddy-faced farmers, sooty coal miners, and Dickensian street urchins.
Class plays an important part in the queer narrative. Many of the men we’ve looked at over this blog series have been upper class, or at least upper middle class: titled or white-collar men with Oxbridge backgrounds and a fair degree of social influence. They’ve moulded the popular image of queer masculinity both through their lives and, often, through their writing, because a significant proportion of them were literary or academic figures — the Renaissance gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe; the Romantics, Byron and Shelley; Oscar Wilde and Bosie during the Victorian era; the WWI poets; and the Edwardian set of Forster and Carpenter.
Surrounding these men grew up certain stereotypes of queerness which still exist today — queer men are fussy about their dress and appearance; effete or physically weak, incapable of doing manual labour; and overly interested in the arts. Of course it’s largely nonsense, because for every modern gay man who conforms to that stereotype, there are a dozen more who don’t. Moreover, those men didn’t exist in a vacuum, even in their own time. Shakespeare and Marlowe might have been admitted in court, but they earned their living and spent their days in the roughest streets in London. Marlowe was an infamous brawler, no matter how pretty his words may have been. Wilde was undone through his association with working class men and male prostitutes. By the Edwardian era, the pastoral romance which glorified working class country life had been appropriated by the queer literary set and mythologised the working man.
In America, Walt Whitman wrote extensively about the love of comrades, eulogising virile “manly love” even as he moved in with a bus conductor. Edward Carpenter, poet and philosopher, had a lifelong relationship with George Merrill, a man raised in the slums in Sheffield with no formal education. It was a grope from Merrill which was to inspire their friend EM Forster to write Maurice.
Working class men were often portrayed as embodying an ideal masculinity: honest, hardworking, strong, and capable. Cross-class relationships were common, and not only because it was easier to pass off a lover as a manservant than explain why two titled lords were living together. The romancing of the working man, however, bears the taint of indulgent paternalism: the men of letters may have lusted after farmers’ muscles, but intellectually they saw them as little better than children.
Queer working class men, particularly in urban centres, had their own subcultures, often far more visible than the upper classes dared engage with. Of course, it was never the likes of the molly house patrons that were eulogised in literature or philosophy, which suggests a far more calculated attempt to present the most desirable image of queerness for posterity. Nonetheless, it’s an enduring one: literary authors such as Hollinghurst even to this day often present cross-class queer relationships as a norm, and in so doing reiterate all the patronising paternalism of centuries ago.