Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1206
Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Homosexual content in nineteenth-century literature manages to be at once rare and pervasive: while it makes virtually no explicit appearance in mainstream fiction, it nonetheless maintains a persistent implicit presence. That obscurity reflects nineteenth-century culture. The sexual morés of Victorian England, for example, allowed for little overt discussion of homosexuality outside of the legal and medical fields. Early in the century, when homosexual activity was perceived almost exclusively as a crime, a sin, or both, men who engaged sexually with one another were most often labelled "sodomites." Other terms gained currency as the century proceeded, including "inverts" and "Uranians"; each term reflected a different conception of same-sex desire. This array of labels and meanings consolidated into the pervasive "homosexuality" only after the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for his liaisons with other men. At its inception, the word "homosexual" expressed a largely medical notion of sexual desire, reflecting its first use by the Swiss doctor Karoly Bankert in 1869. Through the efforts of Bankert and other sexologists, the public gradually became familiar with an idea of homosexuality as inherent to an individual, a quality that encompassed but also outstripped sexual acts. In the twentieth century, this trend would develop into the image of gay and lesbian identity we find most familiar today.
The general silence about sexuality in Victorian culture fostered a corresponding muteness in literature. Rather than being completely absent, however, homosexual desire and activity emerged in literature and in culture through socially acceptable and heavily disguised forms, such as the romantic friendship. Emily Dickinson and George Eliot, for example, enjoyed significant emotional relationships with other women. Romantic friendships between women were integral to Victorian culture since they were entirely compatible with Victorian notions of female sexuality, which was considered almost nonexistent. Historians have disagreed about the extent to which such friendships were actually platonic, some arguing that chaste Victorian women would have maintained asexual attachments. Others insist that at least some of these relationships—which often lasted a lifetime and involved not only a shared home but also a shared bed—must have included a sexual component.
Such bonds between men were also accepted in a way unfamiliar to twentieth-century culture. Walt Whitman celebrated male-male attachments in Leaves of Grass and did not shy from investing them with physicality. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam has long been recognized as a tribute to the author's profound emotional connection with another man. Thus experienced and valorized by many of the century's writers, these intimate same-sex relationships filled Victorian literature without ever prompting the charge of homosexuality. Where these descriptions masked physical desire, the disguise was necessary to avoid social and legal condemnation.
British law—and American law in its shadow—maintained a vehement condemnation of homosexual activity throughout the century, even as reforms relaxed measures that had oppressed other minorities for centuries. Slavery, for example, was abolished throughout the United Kingdom in 1833, and laws punishing English Catholics were eased considerably. The death penalty was revoked for many crimes—including rape—in the 1836 law reform. For the "nameless offense of great enormity," however, the death penalty remained intact and was regularly enforced: through the first third of the century, men went to the gallows for sexual activity with other men almost every year. When the death penalty was abolished in 1861, it was replaced by life imprisonment. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, aimed primarily at reducing heterosexual prostitution, once again redefined measures against sodomy, heterosexual and homosexual: an offender convicted of sodomy would receive a minimum of ten years; for "attempted sodomy" an offender could receive ten years maximum; for specifically homosexual "gross indecency," public or private, the sentence was two years with hard labor. It was on this last charge that Oscar Wilde went to prison. No such laws addressed lesbianism, however, since authorities appeared to consider it too unimaginable or unmentionable even to condemn. Occasionally, women were prosecuted for "masquerading" in male attire and thereby usurping male social and economic prerogatives.
Despite the heavy persecution of male-male sexual activity, homosexual subcultures thrived as they had for centuries. Underground institutions provided space and an economic basis for this subculture, much the way pubs and clubs might service a man's platonic social activities. The most visible subcultural activity occurred among middle- and lower-class men, many of whom were exclusively homosexual, usually passive in sex, occasionally transvestite, and whose social life consisted of participation in this subculture. Some historians contend that these men did not represent the majority of the male population who engaged in homosexual sex, but simply the most visible. Court documents suggest that most male homosexuals were married men who maintained conventionally masculine manners and families, like Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, a war veteran and member of a respectable family who was executed for sodomy in 1833.
In general, homosexual men of the upper-middle class and the aristocracy belonged to this less visible milieu, insulated to some degree by wealth and social status. When an explicit subculture emerged later in the century among these men, it contributed to the development of homosexual identity and social rights. Historians attribute this to the influence of two phenomena: the development of a medical definition of homosexuality and the intellectual reevaluation of classical literature. The first, a medical discourse that classified individuals according to their sexual desires, owed its development to the work of sexologists throughout Europe, including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Havelock Ellis. The latter owed its development largely to the efforts of Benjamin Jowett, who reintroduced the teaching of Plato and other classical authors at Oxford University as part of the Oxford Great Works Curriculum. This training allowed homosexual undergraduates—including such influential intellectuals as Wilde, Walter Pater, and J. A. Symonds—to validate their desires as the resurrected spirit of Hellenism: noble, aesthetic, intellectually rigorous, even martial and athletic. Symonds and Edward Carpenter, in particular, dedicated themselves to defining a positive and coherent image of homosexual identity. Their efforts began to have some effect in the 1880s and 1890s, coexisting with a long-standing conviction that "effeminacy" and "corruption" characterized male-male desire. The traditional condemnation re-emerged in 1895 in response to Wilde's trial. While the trial brought the discussion of homosexual desire into the open, it also catalyzed the kind of active persecution that had been for some time dormant. Many homosexual men, particularly those of high social status, resettled at least temporarily on the continent, seeking to avoid scandal and prosecution. Even the ambiguous forms of same-sex love that had so far been integral to Victorian culture became suspect, and homoaffectional literature became both more explicit in its sexuality and much less common.
The tentative changes that began in the nineteenth century would not blossom until the twentieth century, and until then homosexual desire remained a largely unacknowledged phenomenon. Aside from sexually explicit texts that were a part of a thriving underground Victorian taste for pornography, homosexuality in books, as in real life, was "closeted"—or hidden beneath the trappings of heterosexuality and acceptable same-sex affection. Consequently, it has been the work of recent literature criticism—which put forth a branch of gay and lesbian studies in the mid-1980s—to point out the same-sex desire evident in much of Victorian literature.