- Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform
Charles Upchurch’s new book, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, provides some important correctives to traditional assumptions about the history of male same-sex desire and intimacy during the formative years of the nineteenth century. He challenges the idea that public discussions of sex between men were minimal between 1820 and 1870 by showcasing hundreds of newspaper accounts and court cases where proscribed behaviors between men figured very prominently. With this intervention, Upchurch adds nuance and chronological breadth to recently published studies on nineteenth-century, British queer history by Sean Brady, H. G. Cocks, Matt Cook, and Morris Kaplan. As he positions himself in relation to these other works (and especially to Cocks’s Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century), Upchurch asserts that the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, when grappled with at all, have principally been treated as preludes to familiar fin de siècle scandals.1
Upchurch brings the insights of legal, media, and political historians to bear on a subject that is most frequently explored through a cultural lens. In preliminary chapters that deal, respectively, with family reactions, spaces of sexual opportunity, legal reform, policing, and press coverage, Upchurch ably documents the world that same-sex-desiring men inhabited in the late Georgian and mid-Victorian periods. In his final two chapters, he provides readers with an overarching assessment of these years by highlighting, for example, how legal reforms after 1820 led to greater consistency in the application of penalties and the more systematic policing of public sex, [End Page 576] long before the landmark Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885). In so doing, Upchurch refutes Foucauldian-inspired analyses that privilege the late nineteenth century as a critical breaking point by showing how early Victorian ideas about sexual character and respectability persisted in the writings of late Victorian sexologists.
Upchurch is careful to point out that understandings of same-sex desire between men in the early to mid-nineteenth century were not unitary, a fact reflected in the occasionally disparate newspaper reports that appeared in the working-class Weekly Dispatch, the middle-class and politically liberal Times, and the aristocratic Morning Post. While families of means frequently ostracized or disinherited men who committed sexual transgressions, Upchurch shows that they also provided incomes to exiled sons or petitioned the Home Office for the early release of their sons from prison. Reactions within other segments of British society were equally varied. In addition to facing legal sanctions and punishments, men who had sex with men in working-class communities could be publicly ridiculed by crowds who burned effigies of perpetrators or subjected their families to loud forms of what was called “rough music.”
This diversity of experiences was also reflected in the social interactions and sexual activities that British men engaged in between 1820 and 1870. Most of the subjects examined in Upchurch’s book were not active members of an easily discernible gay subculture but, rather, men who participated in same-sex activities in the “twilight moments” of their lives (182). In London, these men met in public and coffee houses, in Hyde Park, or while window shopping. Class structured their sexual interactions in profound and enduring ways. Aristocratic and middle-class men, for example, utilized their social power and financial clout to solicit soldiers or errand boys, while those from the working classes occasionally extorted money from elite men who feared public exposure and the loss of reputation that revelations about their sexuality might precipitate.
Upchurch is at his most ambitious when he attempts to link the history of same-sex desire and behavior to Britain’s so-called Age of Reform. His chapter on legal changes effectively illustrates how reforms like the 1828 Offences against the Person Act altered definitions of sodomy by eliminating a requirement that proof of ejaculation be presented in such cases. Other legislative changes in the 1820s and 1830s addressed the problem of...