The concept of romantic friendships has been around since before the days when Plato gave his name to loving somebody without involving sex. To the Greeks (or at least the Athenian Greeks), it was a model of virtue and purity to which many aspired, and classically-educated Europeans for centuries after strove to emulate.
Today, the England of the past has a reputation for stuffiness and repression which the men and women living at the time would struggle to recognise. Partly because homosexuality as a concept and identity didn’t exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century, men in particular were much more tactile and affectionate with each other than, well, today.
Part of the reason for this is simple: until very recently, people lived in much more homosocial societies (that is, they mainly spent their time in the company of their own sex). You don’t have to search too many locker rooms to find a group of guys of any age horse-playing, roughhousing, and doing an awful lot of innocent stuff which to an outsider looks damn queer. A recent study showed that 93% of an (admittedly small) sample of straight British men had spooned with a male friend. In single-sex environments, free from judgment, gay and straight men alike are all over each other, and always have been. The only difference today is that, despite living in a more permissive society, we’re so quick to label what we see that it’s had the effect of restricting such behaviour to private spaces.
A plethora of old photographs survive today showing men in poses which too often have them labelled as gay. While lovely to look at and wonder about, the vast majority — although clearly not all — demonstrate what would have been viewed, at the time, as healthy, masculine, platonic friendships. Had there been anything untoward about them, nowhere near as many would have survived (or been taken to begin with).
Historically, romantic friendships between men were often exalted, held to be purer and truer even than that between man and wife. Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, wrote glowingly of male romantic friendships, taking pains to distinguish such relationships from “that other Greek licence” (i.e. homosexuality).
The Renaissance was the period in which romantic friendships came into their own: informed by Classical writing, and combined with a contemporary contempt for women. (Although women, of course, were conducting their own romantic friendships just as passionately as the men.) Scholars looked for examples everywhere, pointing to David and Jonathan in the Bible.
…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself… Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.
— 1 Sam 18:1-3
Later, during the Enlightenment, informed by both a Classical education and admiration for the Renaissance artists, more examples were found in the annals of history. The Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the vows exchanged by Iago and Othello in his eponymous play are just two of many. The relationship between Richard I of England and Philip II of France, who were officially documented as having shared a bed, was taken into consideration, as were the merry band of men being led by Robin Hood in Richard’s forests.
The male-male romantic friendship became a social standard bearer, preserved in countless paintings, poems, novels, and literary essays, and in Victorian England it wouldn’t have been a remarkable sight to see young men strolling arm-in-arm, reclining against one another when they were seated, or in a hundred other ways sharing simple, unconscious acts of physical affection. It was taken as read that was how men (particularly younger men of the upper classes) behaved, and was indulged or even encouraged.
All that changed with the advent of sexology, the creation of a queer identity, and the change in the law. During the age in which the shadowy crime of “gross indecency” could see one pilloried and ruined, romantic friendships began to take on a veneer of suspicion. By the time we reach the First World War, and the poetry which was to be romantic friendship’s death-knell, its practitioners and patrons were decidedly queer themselves.
The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
(Note there the use of the Whitmanesque “comrades,” which was an early euphemism for a lover.)
The last great work featuring a romantic friendship was arguably Brideshead Revisited, although even that has about it the nature of a lament, looking back as it does over the ruins of such a relationship. The demise of Charles and Sebastian’s friendship and their individual falls from grace are a metaphor not only for the crumbling of the upper classes in the mid-twentieth century, but of romantic friendships in general. The world had changed, and as England crept closer to the so-called “gay pogrom” of the 1950s, men had to be much more careful about how they showed their affection towards each other.
That doesn’t, however, mean romantic friendships died out completely. As the study I linked to above shows, straight men are once again embracing physically affectionate relationships. Celebrity “bromances” are celebrated, and there are any number of fans only too ready and willing to interpret them as outright queer: quite the reverse of the situation a hundred years ago. Today we are also freer to discuss diverse sexuality and state for the record that sometimes a hug is just a hug, no matter how many people might wish otherwise.
Born on this day: Richard Fairbrass (62, English), lead singer of Right Said Fred; Ole Henrik Grønn (31, Norwegian), politician; Tim Miller (57, American), performance artist; Sue Perkins (46, English), comedian and TV presenter; and Maurice Richard (69, Canadian), politician.
Died on this day: Axel Axgil (1922-1995, Danish), gay rights activist; Anne Lister (1791-1840, English), diarist; Tyler Clementi (1991-2010, American), committed suicide after his sexual encounters with another man were broadcast online by his college roommate; and Danny Overstreet (1957-2000, American), murdered during the Roanoke gay bar shooting.