Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,206 words.)