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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 140-142

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Book Review

Homosexuality and The State: Recent Perspectives

Andrew Elfenbein
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Eric O. Clarke. Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000). Pp. xii + 233. $17.95 paper.

Netta Murray Goldsmith. The Worst of Crimes: Homosexuality and the Law in Eighteenth-Century London (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998). Pp. xiv + 217. $84.95 cloth.

Goldsmith's Worst of Crimes is a useful, narrowly focused book. Her topic is public trials for sodomy in eighteenth-century London that took place between 1730 and 1751, which is when trial records are most prevalent during this period. As a critic, she often does little more than paraphrase the content of the trials, with fairly cursory gestures to larger theoretical issues. Other critics, including Ed Cohen and Christopher Craft, have dissected the complexities of the eighteenth century legal language surrounding sodomy; almost all critics who have discussed the period, including Cameron McFarlane, George Haggerty, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Alan Sinfield, and others, have engaged the arguments of Michel Foucault about the construction of sexuality as a discourse. Goldsmith is untroubled by this body of work. She has a flatly essentialist view of sexuality in which homosexuals and heterosexuals are fixed in their identities.

Yet it would be a pity if Goldsmith's book were dismissed out of hand because it avoids theory. It has compensating virtues, most notably a willingness to let the material speak for itself. Goldsmith presents a remarkable array of characters convicted for sodomitical offenses, such as the "Princess Seraphina," the pseudonym of the cross-dressing John Cooper, to whom local women gladly lent their clothes; Michael Levi, one of the few men sentenced to death for sodomy in the period, at whose trials eight Jewish tradesmen and merchants appeared as character witnesses, to no avail; and Richard Manning, who, after being caught with his hand in another man's breeches, looked "like an old Rat in an iron Cage" (78), as a witness noted at his trial. In describing the trials, Goldsmith emphasizes the highly arbitrary nature of the outcomes, which varied widely depending on the judge, the age of the defendants, the availability of legal counsel, and the public mood in relation to crime. Her most interesting generalization may be that "casual sodomy committed by young single men was probably commonplace and tacitly accepted, if it took place with young effeminate adolescents. The older homosexual was viewed more sternly, even if few people wished to see him put to death" (93). Age, in other words, turns out to have been an unexpectedly potent criterion in eighteenth-century attitudes towards sex between men.

Almost the entire second half of Goldsmith's book concerns John Cather's bill of indictment against Edward Walpole for intent to commit sodomy. This case was an extraordinarily complicated series of events, involving a tangled web of accusations, counter-accusations, and variously shady characters. Yet the overall outlines are clear: Cather accused Walpole of intent to commit sodomy; Walpole's trial ended as a non-trial since Cather did not appear (he claimed he had been prevented by Walpole's thugs); and Walpole and his friends systematically destroyed the lives of everyone associated with Cather's side of the story. [End Page 140]

This last section was the most gripping. Anyone who studies eighteenth- century England knows its spectacular imbalances of power between the rich and the poor, but Walpole enacted his revenge with unnerving efficiency. He was not an especially interesting or prominent man: he lived most of his life in semi-retirement. But when he needed to punish his accusers, he had no trouble drawing on an array of talent able to manipulate every aspect of the law. Even Adam Nixon, who did nothing more than agree to be Cather's lawyer, was sentenced to stand in the pillory and serve two years time in King's Bench prison, despite the lack of any credible evidence against him. Nothing in Goldsmith's book speaks more tellingly about eighteenth-century attitudes toward sodomy...


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