It was while doing the research for his biographies of the great nineteenth century French writers Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Arthur Rimbaud that Graham Robb was struck by the intriguing material he kept turning up about homosexuality during that period. Not only was there a staggering amount of it, but it also seemed to contradict traditional notions of what life was like for Victorian gay men and women. The more Robb looked, the more his excavations revealed “curious fragments of what seemed a vanished civilization.” It is this lost and largely unexplored gay culture that he has attempted to reconstruct in Strangers. By examining “homosexual love, the obstacles it faced and the societies it created,” his hope was to “provide some credible reason to take a more cheerful view of the past.”
Robb lays out his three-part plan with an equally crisp clarity: He will first show how homosexuals were treated by the legal and medical professions and by society at large; he will then look at the beginnings of gay solidarity (how gay and lesbian people found their way to one another) and the early movement for gay rights; and he will finally address the various ways this vital gay presence made itself felt. It should be said that Strangers only fitfully follows this neat linear scheme, making instead excursions into rich literary, social, or statistical minutiae that regularly threaten to derail the main line of the argument. In the end, however, it is precisely the massing of all these concrete particulars that makes the book so valuable. What could have been an arid historical exercise becomes a colorful and moving mosaic of letters and journals, novels and poems, police and doctors’ reports: a choir of nineteenth century voices which largely substantiate Robb's thesis of a thriving gay culture existing at a moment in history when some dispute not only the idea of such a culture but of such an identity category.
In making this claim, Robb consciously challenges the hegemony of Michel Foucault's theory about the history of sexuality. Foucault's social constructionist view holds that as identity is shaped by discourse and social practices (particularly the capitalist instruments of technological and bureaucratic control), there could not possibly be a real sense of homosexual identity until the discursive practices of the medical profession “invented” homosexuals as a new species (the word “homosexual” was coined only in 1868 by the Hungarian writer Karl Maria Kertbeny). Before such a distinct homosexual personality existed, there could be only a repertoire of sexual behaviors, acts judged sinful and criminal or noble and visionary, depending on the culture and the time. Arguing against innate sexuality, this theory finds problematic the existence of a transhistorical, cross-cultural homosexuality.
Robb's evidence suggests that, contrary to the Foucauldian view, there have always been people who were primarily or exclusively attracted to people of their own sex and who were able to identify themselves as such, often from a very early age. These people were perceived to be different by others as well and were treated by them with various degrees of tolerance. Whether able to call themselves homosexuals or not, these “mollies,” “poufs,” “pederasts,” “chestnut gatherers,” “lavender aunts,” these women said to “eat garlic” or men said to “be musical” understood that they constituted an identity category different from most of their neighbors. Some were destroyed by this knowledge; others were persecuted when it was revealed. Still others, Robb suggests, were able to live reasonably happy, productive lives and to make connections with other gays and lesbians within an evolving international gay culture.
The first move Robb makes in Strangers, however, seems to subvert rather than advance this claim. He brings in a dense documentary record (an apparatus of charts and graphs and interpretive glosses showing the connection between antisodomy laws and prosecutions) which makes clear the criminal cast to Victorian homosexuality. This would appear to support the traditional view of the nineteenth century as a fiercely inhospitable epoch for sexual minorities, one in which they were bound by a set of inhumane laws and hounded from society by its enforcement. Robb, however, quickly dismantles this impressive statistical history, arguing that in most important ways such legal statistics are misrepresentative, focusing as they do on prohibited acts instead of on how desire played out in individual lives—something much harder to document.
It is true that in England sodomy was a crime punishable by death from 1533 until 1861, and indeed between 1810 and 1835,...
(The entire section is 1941 words.)