Who’s Afraid Of John Saul? Urban Culture and the Politics of Desire in Late Victorian London
London in the nineteenth century is a crucial site for the emergence of an ethos of individuality and of a milieu hospitable to male same-sex desire. Historians debate when modern homosexual “identities” and subcultures may be said to have appeared. Some follow Michel Foucault in emphasizing the shift from sodomy as a discourse of acts to homosexuality as defining a kind of person in the discourses of sexology. Materialist historians underline the increased mobility and urbanization of capitalist industrial societies in Western Europe and North America, leading to the development of urban settings in which anonymous men could satisfy desires unrecognized by conventional social forms. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has demonstrated a developing schism in norms of masculinity that required the construction of boundaries between a dominant male homosociality and a threatening homosexuality policed by increased displays of homophobia. This period in England was also marked by agitation for reform associated with radical politics and a rigorous morality linked to a rising middle class. 1
In this essay I offer a “thick description,” drawn from personal memoirs and correspondence, records of court proceedings, press accounts of notorious sex scandals, and a pornographic novel, of distinctively urban forms of life shared by men who desired sex with other men. This effort at social phenomenology is meant to explore connections among same-sex desires, fantasies, and practices; personal identities and forms of association; and public and legal responses to minority sexualities. I focus on the three decades prior to the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 to map an urban landscape of erotic life in which diverse human types interacted in a shared sexual underworld. 2 Some of these types manifest personal characteristics long familiar in the ethical discourses of early modern Europe, whereas others may mark the emergence of a distinctively modern homosexuality. 3 Same-sex [End Page 267] desire was subject to extensive social and legal regulation, which raises questions as to what threats it may have posed. As Foucault emphasizes in regard to modern sexual science, dominant discourses generate counterdiscourses. Ascribed identities were taken up and transvalued by those they sought to stigmatize. I explore the interplay between ascribed roles and modes of self-understanding that arose from practices associated with the desire for other men. Political in the broadest sense, these processes are characterized by struggles for power and recognition. Such social conflict in modernity is profoundly reflected by the vicissitudes of an emergent “sexual subject.”
This essay begins with John Addington Symonds (1840–93), whose work exemplifies the sustained reflection and self-fashioning of one for whom negotiating same-sex desire was a paramount concern. His account of London experiences leads to a broader investigation of a sexual underworld where social reality and personal fantasy intersect. I examine press coverage of the Boulton and Park case of 1870–71 and the text of The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or, Confessions of a Mary-Ann, a pornographic novel published in 1881, to illuminate this urban landscape and the characters who dwell there. Finally, I turn to John Saul, the “Mary-Ann” of the novel but also a historical personage who testified in the Cleveland Street affair of 1889–90. The essay is organized around four scenes of male cruising in Victorian London. They display practices of sexual commerce on the streets of Soho, in the park and alleys at Leicester Square, and in established brothels. This glimpse of “darkest London” reveals privileged men “slumming” in a demimonde inhabited by sexual “professionals” and apparently exempt from the dominant moral and gender norms of the day. Sexuality here was imbricated with gender, social class, economic status, and nationality. The variety and complexity of forms of life on display in these materials complicate conceptions of identity grounded in sexual practices and social roles by emphasizing the centrality of patterns of moral sentiment, erotic fantasy, and intimate association in shaping a self. Rather than exhibit fixed identities maintained by well-policed social boundaries, they display a queer landscape of permeable and shifting borders, ongoing personal transformation, and cultural contestation. 4
The Subject of Desire
A wonderful man is Addington Symonds—someways the most indicative and penetrating and significant man of our times. Symonds is a curious fellow. I love him dearly. He is of college breed and education—horribly literary and suspicious and enjoys things. A [End Page 268] great fellow for delving into persons and into the concrete, and even into the physiological, the gastric—and wonderfully cute.—Walt Whitman
In the spring of 1865 twenty-five-year-old John Addington Symonds, who had moved to London with his bride of some months, was living in Albion Street near Hyde Park. 5 Walking home from an evening out with friends, Symonds passed through an alley that joined Trafalgar with Leicester Square and took him past some barracks. In evening dress, Symonds was approached by a “young grenadier” who spoke to him:
I was too innocent, strange as this may seem, to guess what he meant. But I liked the man’s looks, felt drawn toward him, and did not refuse his company. So there I was, the slight nervous man of fashion in my dress clothes, walking side by side with a strapping fellow in scarlet uniform, strongly attracted by his physical magnetism. . . . he broke abruptly into proposals, mentioned a house we could go to, and made it quite plain for what purpose. I quickened my pace, and hurrying through the passage broke away from him with a passionate mixture of repulsion and fascination. 6
This episode was by no means Symonds’s first encounter with his desire for other men. 7 Indeed, the memoirs in which this tale appears reveal that he was conscious of intense erotic fantasies about men from early in his childhood. These desires coexisted with a relentlessly moralizing consciousness. During his schooldays at Harrow he keenly disapproved of the sexual antics of other boys while recognizing the direction of his own yearning. He later played an active role in securing the dismissal of the headmaster, C. J. Vaughan, for his involvement with one of the students. At the urging of an Oxford don in whom he had confided, Symonds informed his father, a distinguished physician; the elder Symonds used persistent threats of public exposure to drive Vaughan from a promising career in education and the church. The boy who had told young Symonds of his affair with Vaughan never spoke to him again. 8
As he approached adulthood, “Johnny” repeatedly found himself in love with younger men. He courted a chorister from Bristol Cathedral with whom he exchanged caresses and love letters, even a kiss. Confiding in his father, he was warned off on the grounds that such a friendship across class boundaries could only result in unhappiness for both. 9 At Oxford, with no social distance to separate them, Symonds continued to develop crushes on other men, courting them in pursuit of romantic friendship. He was well aware of the sexual component of his interest. [End Page 269] Symonds’s writings reveal that some of his friends routinely indulged such appetites and that his own urges were strong. 10 His election as a fellow of Magdalen College was compromised by the campaign of an acquaintance, who circulated excerpts from Symonds’s private letters and poems that appeared to express his sexual interests in other men. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, Symonds had to defend himself at a meeting of the college where two of his letters were “strongly condemned.” 11 The personal crisis provoked by this scandal contributed to the ruin of his health. At his father’s direction, Symonds sought medical advice and excruciating “treatment” to overcome his desires. He threw himself into the project of marriage “on Doctor’s order’s” (Papa’s as well) in the hope of escaping their powerful grip. 12 Still, Symonds could write of his meeting the grenadier : “The thrill of contact with the man taught me something new about myself. I can well recall the lingering regret, and the quick sense of deliverance from danger, with which I saw him fall back. . . . The longing left was partly a fresh seeking after comradeship and partly an animal desire the like of which I had not before experienced” (187).
If Symonds were already aware of his desire for other men and of its intensely sexual nature, what did he discover in this brief encounter? What precisely was “the lingering regret”; from what “danger” had he been delivered? Symonds illuminated the matter with another London scene. Walking through “the sordid streets,” gripped by an ill-defined depression, Symonds met not a man but an image: “At a certain corner, which I well remember, my eyes were caught by a rude graffito scrawled with slate-pencil upon slate. It was of so concentrated, so stimulative, so penetrative a character—so thoroughly the voice of vice and passion in the proletariat—that it pierced the very marrow of my soul.” In the margin of his manuscript Symonds was explicit: “‘Prick to prick, so sweet’; with an emphatic diagram of phallic meeting, glued together, gushing” (187n). He interpreted his response as follows: “The wolf leaped out: my malaise of the moment was converted into a clairvoyant and tyrannical appetite for the thing which I rejected five months earlier in the alley by the barracks.” Symonds had hoped that his marriage and hard work would banish such longings. But they had returned even more strongly: “The vague and morbid craving of the previous years defined itself as a precise hunger after sensual pleasure, whereof I had not dreamed before save in repulsive visions of the night” (187–88). Such “visions” had haunted him from his earliest years. Now his desires were reflected back to him by other men abroad in the city and inscribed on its very walls; his yearnings seemed to walk the streets beside him. Later Symonds read this moment as a revelation of relentless needs with which he must “constitute a working compromise”: “I know that [End Page 270] obscene graffito was the sign and symbol of a paramount and permanent craving of my physical and psychical nature”(188). 13 His effort to make sense of his desire for other men lasted a lifetime, producing a body of work that stands as the first sustained defense of male same-sex desire in English. 14
Symonds imagined his Memoirs as a case study for a future, less prejudiced generation. Rather than simply adumbrate “modern homosexuality” or contemporary gay identity, this work makes itself available for queer appropriation. Given the open texture of the writing, and the broad range of material it encompasses, we may read it as a palimpsest displaying diverse forms of human desire and erotic relation. Symonds’s accounts are pervaded by ambiguity and division. They resist modernist conceptions of the unified text and liberal dichotomies between private and public; they require more supple interpretation. Symonds published important books anonymously but corresponded freely and widely about their subject matter; he quoted from his diaries in letters to friends and from these letters in his diaries. The text of the Memoirs, left for his literary executor finally to shape, includes excerpts from his own diaries and letters and from his wife’s diary, letters to himself from his friends, and poems published and unpublished. His output was prodigious, amounting to over thirty books, voluminous diaries and poetry, and more than four thousand letters. 15 He articulated multiple shifting perspectives animated by urgent moral questioning. Symonds persistently situated desire in processes of individual self-making and cultural interpretation, charting recurrent dynamics of restraint, expression, and sublimation.
What light do the urban scenes above shed on Symonds’s efforts to forge an ethic of desire? What happens if we read them as exemplary tales? Divisions proliferate in his account of meeting the young grenadier. The encounter develops through contrasting images of the “strapping fellow in scarlet uniform” and the “slight nervous man of fashion in . . . dress clothes”; they are bound together by the commercial interest of the one and the attraction felt by the other. Symonds cannot close the deal: torn by a “passionate mixture of repulsion and fascination,” he rushes away. His departure settles nothing: he continues to feel both relief at his “deliverance from danger” and “lingering regret.” What does he want? He is split between “seeking after comradeship” and “animal desire.” What about the grenadier? This icon of masculinity and object of desire sharply interrupts the erotic fantasy by speaking for himself, making Symonds an offer he cannot afford to accept. Not yet. Symonds offers his reading of the graffito as a gloss on his encounter with the man. The social distance between them becomes explicit: the drawing on the wall is “the voice of vice and passion in the proletariat.” The virility of the object could not be more evident: “‘Prick to prick, so sweet’; with an [End Page 271] emphatic diagram of phallic meeting, glued together, gushing.” But the mutuality of satisfaction is undercut by imagery embedded in Symonds’s description: the drawing has “so penetrative a character . . . that it pierced the very marrow of my soul.” The compromise to masculinity and social status in imagining oneself the object of a proletarian penetration generates anxiety. Symonds’s desires overwhelm him: “The wolf leaped out . . . a clairvoyant and tyrannical appetite.” He seeks to clarify his vague malaise as a “precise hunger after sensual pleasure,” but it is not so easily contained. In a previous letter deflecting a friend’s expression of feeling that Symonds does not return, he links his inner conflict with a dilemma inherent in reciprocal male love:
If you yearn after the grace etc wh you seem to see in me, I admire the generosity, unselfishness, purity of imagination, & sympathy with good wh I know you to possess. Externally grateful, I am inwardly at war—the sport of a hundred wild desires wh you probably have never felt. This will explain why I love to have you near me. You do me good by giving me what I have not got. If I have at times felt your society irksome it is because my nature is at root male & passionate—I do not want to have strong affection given me wh I cannot return in kisses & all else that belongs to love—& great kindness suggests to the beast within me ineffable desires.(1:444) 16
Earlier in the letter he states baldly, “I am not a woman.” He does not appear able to imagine reciprocal love without an asymmetrical division of roles. Symonds had already experienced the difficulty of negotiating boundaries not only between acceptable and unacceptable desires but also between himself and other men. Where did romantic friendship end and shameful vice begin?
The streets of London proclaimed “the sign and symbol” of his own deepest desires and offered opportunities to meet others who shared them. Symonds’s evocation of the “wolf” within suggests a classic version of Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis”: one might read these urban scenes as forcing Symonds to confront an inner truth denied by the society in which he lives. 17 But it is not that simple. What about the “seeking after comradeship”? Is it no more than a disguise assumed by prohibited homosexual appetites? The year before his London experiences, Symonds confessed to feeling locked in “a continual battle, in wh the one thought ever present was ‘Oh that I cd get Love, that I cd cease to be alone, or die!’ in wh the outer world at last came rudely like a great blast of wind to make my strife more arduous and painful, opening my secret parts to daylight & imposing on me scornfully the burden under wh already secretly and by myself I was staggering.” [End Page 272] “Inwardly,” his desires were at war: they collided not only with social barriers but with each other. Commenting on a painting by Simeon Solomon, Symonds wrote, “[He] might make a better picture of Amor and Libido: Lust dying of the breath of Love.” 18 The “outer world” of the city opened his “secret parts to daylight” only to expose an inner chaos.
These episodes dissolve the simple opposition between subjective desire and external repression. The world invites and solicits, shapes and directs, as well as denies desire. Not simply an array of objects, it is a place where one meets others with desires of their own. The dynamic at work here could be profoundly unsettling. It was one thing for Symonds to acknowledge inner wishes to be suppressed, quite another for a virile fantasy to invite him to a house of assignation. Scenes of casual but reciprocal attraction transformed Symonds’s erotic universe and him along with it. The world became an arena of exciting possibilities where men could acknowledge and pursue their interests in each other under the most unlikely circumstances: “I remember, for example, today, as though it had been yesterday, how several years ago a young man in a shirt and trousers, stretched upon a parapet below the Ponte di Paradiso at Venice, gazed into my eyes as I moved past him, lifted his head, then rose upon his elbows, and followed me till I was out of sight with a fixed look which I shall remember if we meet in the next world.” 19 In the same mood he declared: “I long to meet with a man, a comrade, the first face and hand responsive to my own. Why? I do not know.” 20 These passages come from letters written home during a trip on the Continent—to his wife. Something more complicated than closeted homosexual desire is at work here. Symonds did not know what he wanted; I am not convinced that “we” know better than he. Would everything have ended happily ever after if he had been able to settle down with the boy on the Ponte di Paradiso (!)? Is it so hard to imagine him writing the same letter home to a male partner that he wrote to his wife? Is there something inherently restless about erotic love that resists domestication? 21
Although Symonds is best known for his promotion in England of conceptions of “sexual inversion” articulated by Continental sexologists, he was a complex product of the elite education of his day. His apologies for same-sex desire drew on a variety of ethical and cultural discourses. At one level his work attempted to integrate a Hellenistic ethic of noble pederasty with conflicting paradigms of bourgeois morality, modern subjectivity, political democracy, and empirical science. 22 Even the diaries and letters incorporated into the Memoirs were shaped by literary tradition. In his youth Symonds kept his copy of Plato’s Phaedrus on the shelf by his bed, alongside the Confessions of Augustine. 23 The passage in which he admitted his inner turmoil concluded: “Out of this History I have [End Page 273] often thought that, if I lived to do nothing else, I should write confessions wh w. be better for the world to read than Rousseau’s and not less interesting. I sometimes think I am being trained for this.” 24 Symonds began that work in 1889 as the self-conscious consequence of translating the autobiographies of Benvenuto Cellini and Count Carlo Gozzi from the Italian. We cannot simply contrast these writings with his theoretical and historical work, as if they constituted the raw material of “experience.” Symonds’s ongoing self-examination manifests the turn to “subjectivity” that Foucault identifies as central to sexual science and modern power. Symonds’s comment on his own poetry might be applied to all his work: “I find it wholly impossible to say anything that is not grossly autobiographical.”
Learned and eclectic, driven by a relentless will to self-understanding and self-justification, Symonds ransacks the heritage of Western civilization for acceptable models of same-sex desire. Although he sometimes writes as if his desire for other men were the burdensome secret and abiding problem of his life, his work precedes and helps establish the firm divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality. His own problematic is more confused and more comprehensive than that dichotomy allows. 25 Same-sex desire may be noble or base, spiritual or carnal, intensely romantic or casually pleasurable, ethically inspiring or morally corrosive, love or lust. The desiring subject is divided among diverse and often conflicting impulses: toward romance, friendship, excellence, knowledge, service, pleasure, power. The aspirations that fuel the highest human accomplishments cannot be separated from the temptation to base indulgence. 26 Erotic love is an ambiguous phenomenon, with the potential to do great good or evil. 27 Symonds usually places himself squarely on the side of sublimation. 28
Symonds sometimes divides the world between those men who love men and those who do not. But he also divides “Arcadian” love between those for whom it is a vehicle of aspiration and those for whom it is an itch to scratch. Symonds’s attitudes reflect both his Protestant upbringing and the “moral purity” movements of his time: his judgments of ethical failings in erotic matters can be lacerating. 29 Despite his affiliations and advocacy, the moral impulses that dominate his work unsettle conventional divisions between “us” and “them” no matter how congenial they sometimes appeared to him. Symonds worked to produce alternative models of same-sex desire to those available in Victorian culture, such as the aristocratic, corrupt “sodomite” or the vulgar, cross-dressing “Molly.” 30 His own ideals vacillated uncertainly between a middle-class respectability that sought to domesticate same-sex desire within the moral norms of his class and a more radical vision of male comradeship that transcended social division toward democratic equality. Like other students at public schools and elite universities in Victorian England, [End Page 274] he was powerfully influenced by his study of Greek culture. 31 It was not enough for Symonds to show that forms of same-sex desire were accepted in classical Greece; he insisted that they were central to its highest ethical aspirations. 32 The risk of corruption was not restricted to same-sex desire; just as Platonic love was entangled with the risk of sodomitical vice, medieval courtly love was tied to adulterous attachments. 33 Sometimes Symonds sounded a note of terrible caution, as when he attempted to convince Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol College, that teaching Plato’s erotic dialogues to undergraduates was dangerous. 34 Contemporary readers may easily become impatient with his moralizing, but one Victorian gentleman urged a former boyfriend to read Symonds’s Life of Michelangelo because it “walk[ed]—oh, so nimbly—over the forbidden ground of the friendships with Thomas Cavalieri and others.” Reginald Brett described Symonds as “extraordinarily audacious” and worried about the effects of his behavior on his character. 35
Symonds sought to translate his Hellenism into a distinctively modern context. Like many contemporary thinkers, such as his friends Henry Sidgwick and T. H. Green, he took the absence of belief in a personal God as the condition of his time and was preoccupied with the question of what might replace it as the foundation of morality. 36 He was drawn to the transcendentalism of Plato’s Symposium but cited Phaedrus too, with its more tolerant view of sexual expression and its analysis of the soul divided against itself. Symonds’s understanding of desire was deeply implicated in his religious skepticism: the dynamics of erotic love became for him the locus of ethical aspiration. Desire was to fill the void left by the failure of faith. Self-division took on an erotic color. The beloved objects were not eternal forms but powerful images: “I am afraid of forming a permanently divided consciousness in my own mind, of being related to this world of phantoms, & moving meanwhile in the world of fact. But the phantoms are so beautiful to me and so real.” 37 The man who could not help writing autobiography tried to flee from such an imperial self in search of what might be greater. 38 Symonds could not accept the elitism of ancient ethics, arguing that male desire worked to unmask not only individual denial and social repression but also conventional forms of inequality. 39 The meeting of desiring gazes across a social distance might hold the promise of political transformation. Symonds celebrated the “Calamus” section of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for showing the way toward a democratic ethos of male comradeship. He wrote to Edward Carpenter, the socialist and feminist who lived openly with his male working-class partner: “The blending of Social Strata in masculine love seems to me one of its most pronounced, & socially hopeful, features. Where it appears, it abolishes class distinctions, & opens by a single operation the cataract-blinded eye to their futilities. In removing the film of prejudice & education, it [End Page 275] acts like the oculist & knife. If it could be acknowledged & extended, it would do very much to further the advent of the right sort of Socialism” (3:808). For Symonds, however, these utopian moments were always situated in an ongoing struggle to forge a self and share a common life. His code name for the love of men that he shared with so many of his friends was “Arcadian,” but he also called it “l’amour de l’impossible.” 40
Symonds’s Memoirs have been read as a tale of unnecessary suffering, as in Grosskurth’s Woeful Victorian, or of salutary progress toward sexual liberation, interrupted by an untimely death. He sought to chart a course that led beyond the anxiety and self-laceration epitomized in the two early incidents on the London streets. As he grew older, Symonds became more open with his friends, more adventurous in seeking sexual satisfaction, and more engaged in efforts at law reform. However, self-division and moral conflict ran as deep in him as his desires for other men. Another encounter in London more fully explicates Symonds’s policing of his own desires. Returning from Switzerland to give a lecture there in 1877, he went with a friend to a male brothel near the Regent’s Park Barracks. Once again the object of desire was in uniform: “Moved by something stronger than curiosity, I made an assignation with a brawny young soldier for an afternoon to be passed in a private room at the same house.” 41 Their meeting became another turning point in Symonds’s erotic education: “We came together at the time appointed; the strapping young soldier with his frank eyes and pleasant smile, and I, the victim of sophisticated passions. For the first time in my experience I shared a bed with one so different from myself, so ardently desired by me. . . . For him . . . it involved nothing unusual, nothing shameful; and his simple attitude . . . taught me something I had never before conceived about illicit sexual relations.” What lesson did he learn? “Instead of yielding to any brutal impulse, I thoroughly enjoyed the close vicinity of that splendid naked piece of manhood; then I made him clothe himself, sat and smoked and talked with him, and felt, at the end of the whole transaction, that some at least of the deepest moral problems might be solved by fraternity” (253–54).
The two men met again several times during the London visit, but, Symonds insists, “without a thought of vice.” He concludes, “The physical appetite of one man for another may be made the foundation of a solid friendship, when the man drawn by the friendship exhibits a proper respect for the man who draws” (254). Ambivalence and asymmetry mark Symonds’s account of his breakthrough. He emphasizes not only the social difference between himself and the prostitute but also the imbalance in their interests: Symonds is moved by passion, the other by economic need and sociability. For Symonds, sexual expression remains in tension [End Page 276] with fraternity. His respect for his partner restricts the range of permissible sexual practices. Although Symonds does not say, anal intercourse seems precluded regardless of their roles; it is somehow “brutal” and vicious. Furthermore, he maintains a notion of complementarity in love that mirrors a conventional gendered dichotomy between active and passive, top and bottom, lover and beloved. This division applies to intensities of feeling as well as to sex roles, posing a threat to the masculinity of partners who reciprocate same-sex love. Symonds seems never to have found an acceptable model of mutual male love.
Symonds’s ambivalence extends to the institutional context that enables the kind of cross-class intercourse that he celebrates. The male brothel provides an environment free of conventional barriers to social interaction and the expression of manly desire. He draws an astonishing comparison: “I also seemed to perceive that, within . . . that lawless godless place, permanent human relations—affections, reciprocal toleration, decencies of conduct, asking and yielding, concession and abstention—find their natural sphere: perhaps moreso than in the sexual relations consecrated by middle-class matrimony.” He finds no violation of “natural sentiments” here, only a collision with the constraints of law and convention. Symonds’s mood swings violently in a single paragraph: “Was this a delusion?” He acknowledges that he left the place with a sense of “disgust” but insists that, although he has had the same response to brothels that housed women, he has never found in them the satisfactions offered by that “strapping young soldier with his frank eyes and pleasant smile.” “From him,” Symonds declares, “I learned that natural male beings in the world were capable of responding to my appreciation of them. A dangerous lesson, perhaps” (255).
What about Symonds’s marriage? It is hard to miss the personal implications in the claim that the male brothel is a more fertile setting for natural feeling than middle-class marriage. The complexity of his relationship with Catherine North is the subject of another essay entirely, but they seem to have enjoyed a significant friendship for much of their lives. His letters to her appear candid and soul-searching; he includes several of hers to him as well as passages from her diaries among the texts assembled for his memoirs. 42 Her account of their courtship reveals that she was deeply and romantically in love with “Johnny,” who was three years her junior. Symonds’s description of the early nights of their marriage is a stinging rebuke to the inadequacies of sex education for the Victorian middle class. Soon after the incident in the London brothel, and after the birth of their four daughters, they ceased to have sexual relations altogether. I do not completely trust Symonds’s account, but it is possible that Catherine shared his difficulties in integrating love and lust: “I separated from my wife with her approval; [End Page 277] for the sexual side of marriage had never been for her more than a trouble. She disliked childbirth, and had, I think, no constitutional difficulties to overcome. In truth our married life had long been ill-arranged upon the ordinary basis of cohabitation. We had taken precautions against pregnancy; and our intercourse in this respect was by the need I felt for sexual outlet.” 43 Symonds acknowledged that the denial of this “outlet” caused him considerable anguish but claimed that it strengthened the marriage ties: “It placed me upon a sound and true relation to my wife—that of pure and faithful friendship.” The tension between comradeship and sexual intercourse applied to Symonds’s relations with other women as well as with men. He was capable of friendship with women and sometimes turned to female prostitutes for sexual satisfaction, but despite intense effort early in life, Symonds never felt the passion for women that even casual encounters with men could evoke. Shortly after his decision to stop having sex with his wife, he reported how powerfully the sight of a tipsy “Tyrolese pedlar” urinating by the road stirred his desire: it “shot through me with a sudden stab. . . . if only I could follow him, and catch him there, and pass this afternoon with him upon the sweet new hay” (260–61).
Symonds continued to insist that the sexual expression of his desires for other men be integrated in fuller personal and social relationships. His failing health led him and his family to move to Davos, Switzerland, where he devoted considerable energy to developing erotic relations with European men. He also traveled regularly to Italy, where he found the men especially attractive. These adventures “abroad” recall those of earlier aristocratic figures, like William Beckford and Lord Byron, who traveled to the Mediterranean to satisfy desires forbidden at home. 44 Conscious of the risks of exploitation in these relations, Symonds worked to establish ongoing friendships, often colored by financial patronage. He helped the family of a Swiss acquaintance, Christian Boul, through their business difficulties and later befriended and became the lover of Angelo Fusato, a Venetian gondolier whom he took on trips to London and whose presence embarrassed Symonds’s more timid friends. Eventually he persuaded Fusato to settle down and marry the mother of his children, after which Symonds supported the family for many years. These relations, however they flourished, were never free of anxiety. Explicitly contrasting him with the soldier in the London brothel, Symonds wrote of Boul: “I have never enjoyed a more sense-soothing and more elevated pleasure than I had with him—sex being nowhere. . . . A spy might have looked through cracks in the doors upon us; and the spy would have seen nothing reprehensible.” 45
Despite his insistence on forming long-term friendships and taking on [End Page 278] social obligations toward them, Symonds remained cognizant of the role that fantasy played in shaping these connections. He described a glimpse of Boul: “When he rode towards me, standing erect upon an empty wood-sledge and driving four stout horses at a brisk trot down a snow slope, I seemed to see an ancient Greek of the Homeric age, perfect in sophrosyne and unassuming power” (263). Of his first meeting with Fusato, to whom he devotes an entire chapter of his Memoirs: “This love at first sight . . . was an affair not merely of desire and instinct but also of imagination. He took hold of me by a hundred subtle threads of feeling, in which the powerful and radiant manhood of the splendid animal was intertwined with sentiments for Venice, a keen delight in the landscape of the lagoons, and something penetrative and pathetic in the man” (272). The ambiguous pairing of these final adjectives suggests that Symonds’s imagination transformed his sense of himself as well: “In these waking dreams I was at one time a woman whom he loved, at another a companion in his trade—always somebody and something utterly different from myself” (273). In the charting of his erotic odyssey, Symonds’s moralizing drive to domesticate desire coexisted with the persistent elaboration of fantasies, both romantic and transgressive. 46
Sodom on the Thames
In the last two years or so there have been some major changes in the West End, largely centred on Old Compton Street in Soho. . . . London has finally got something that other cities take for granted, it’s [sic] own gay village. . . . Every action has a reaction, and there is a certain trend nowadays to speak disparagingly of “Old Compton Street Queens”; meaning mindless fluff-bunnies who have nothing better to do than consume and cruise while the rest of us are paying the bills/fighting Aids/attempting to do something about the most ridiculous legal system in Europe. Like all stereotypes, there is a certain amount of truth in this one, but it cannot be denied that there is something very empowering about being able to walk down a street in broad daylight, knowing that not only every third person, but also every fifth and sixth, is probably gay.—Ron Eddy
The presence of sites where men might enjoy erotic encounters with other men was not new in London in the 1860s. However, the sexual underworld may have become more accessible then to men like Symonds who did not set out deliberately [End Page 279] in search of it. Its enhanced visibility reflected both the proliferation of urban forms of life and the emergence of a heightened consciousness of erotic possibility among middle-class men. Reading Symonds’s encounters in their full context unsettles any easy division between private and public domains, between personal desire and social practice. The urban landscape he charted was at once erotic fantasy and social reality. “Molly clubs,” venues in which men looking for other men gathered, date back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. 47 In them same-sex desire joined with gender inversion as men wore women’s clothes, took women’s names, and “married” other men, at least for an evening’s entertainment.
When these figures “came out” of protected enclaves and began walking the streets openly, both the social scene and the persons who inhabited it were transformed. Customary assumptions about gender and sexuality, domesticity and desire, commerce and pleasure, were called into question. The Yokel’s Preceptor, a London publication of the 1850s, warned visitors to the city of new dangers, whetting the appetites of those with unconventional tastes or restless desires: “The increase of these monsters in the shape of men, commonly designated margeries, poofs, etc., of late years, in the great Metropolis, renders it necessary for the safety of the public that they should be made known. . . . Will the reader credit it, but such is nevertheless the fact, that these monsters actually walk the streets the same as whores, looking out for a chance!” 48 The guide identified parts of the city that offered such sights and opportunities, including the Strand, the Quadrant, Holborn, Charing Cross, Fleet Street, and St. Martin’s Court, and mentioned individuals who plied their trade there; one of them, known by a woman’s name, kept a “fancy woman” of his own. The author painted a vivid portrait of gathering places, appearances, and distinctive gestures: “They generally congregate around the picture shops, and are to be known by their effeminate air, their fashionable dress. When they see what they imagine to be a chance, they place their fingers in a peculiar manner underneath the tails of their coats, and wag them about—their method of giving the office” (120–21). It is hard to imagine Symonds responding to such a sign as he did to the young grenadier or the phallic graffito. Nonetheless, the spectacle of Victorian London offered and inspired a variety of erotic possibilities.
The most notorious manifestation of the newly visible intersection of gender transgression and same-sex desire was the case of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park in 1870–71. 49 Known to their friends as “Stella” and “Fanny,” these young men, sons of a stockbroker and a judge, respectively, frequented theaters, restaurants, and shopping arcades in women’s clothes, often surrounded by other young men. Arrested, along with a male admirer, as they exited a theater in drag, they were made to submit to a police search of their rooms and the confiscation of a [End Page 280] large quantity of apparel, jewelry, photographs, and personal letters. The police surgeon subjected the two to an intrusive physical examination analogous to that authorized for suspected female prostitutes by the Contagious Diseases Acts. 50 After a hearing in the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, they were charged with and tried for “conspiracy to commit the felony” of sodomy.
Boulton’s and Park’s letters seemed to reveal the existence of a coterie that shared a coded language and played fast and loose with gender identities; they raised suspicions about deviant desires and sexual practices. Police tracked two of their correspondents to Edinburgh, where similar searches led to their indictments as well. Witnesses were produced who had seen Boulton and Park in drag at the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race on the Thames and at a fancy dress ball. They had been ejected from the Burlington Arcade, the Alhambra Theater, and other public places because of the attention they attracted. Witnesses in court claimed to have believed them women and to have responded to them as especially flagrant—and especially attractive—female prostitutes. 51 By the time of their arrest, the police had had them under surveillance for over a year.
This period witnessed increased agitation about the visibility of prostitution in England’s cities and anxiety about the scourge of venereal disease. 52 Explicitly sexual opportunities in public spaces were taken to threaten bourgeois domesticity and moral virtue, literally embodied in women whose “painted faces” disguised the contagion they carried. 53 To these threats Boulton and Park added subversion of the “natural” order of sex and gender. Indeed, the man arrested with them testified that when he had first met them, they were wearing men’s clothes, but he had taken them to be women in disguise and had refused to believe their protestations to the contrary. Whatever had gone on in the “Molly clubs” of an earlier day, Boulton and Park’s public drag performances were not yet clear signals of male-male desire. Of course, there is no reason to accept their admirers’ self-serving statements, given under the threat of prosecution. Their transgressing of norms or, at least, their ambiguous manifestations of gender may have been among their principal attractions.
This coterie’s way of life and intimate relations were subject to intense and protracted public scrutiny. The legal theory under which these scions of respectable upper-middle-class families were charged was so problematic that a detailed record was kept of their trial at Kings’ Bench before the lord chief justice. 54 The trial included not only eyewitness accounts of the public behavior of the transvestites but conflicting medical evidence as to their physical condition and the bodily effects of repeated acts of sodomy; the reading and contested interpretation of their private letters; reports from landladies and domestic servants about their living [End Page 281] and sleeping arrangements; and testimony from Boulton’s mother and Park’s father about their sons’ personal histories and financial standing. All of it was reported in detail in major newspapers, including the Times, the Daily Telegraph, and Reynolds’. The Times headlined its coverage “Men in Petticoats.” The illustrated papers included vivid portraits of the two men both in and out of drag. (By the time of their trial, they appeared as well-dressed young men about town; Park had even grown a moustache.) Quite a lot was made of the assertion that Boulton had lived as the wife of a young member of Parliament, carrying visiting cards that announced him as “Lady Arthur Clinton.” 55 Boulton and Park’s willingness to flout respectable conventions went far—so far that they defended themselves as high-spirited, theatrical swells carried away by a lark.
The public attention paid to Boulton and Park suggests that the appearance of men in women’s clothes out and about in London was a novelty. Cross-dressing was not yet established in the public mind—or in anybody’s professional opinion—as an indication of same-sex sexual desire. In charging the defendants with “conspiracy to commit the felony” of sodomy, rather than the less serious offense of cross-dressing, the prosecutor undertook to establish that link. The defendants offered evidence of their longtime interest in theatrical performances, in which both had taken women’s roles. The well-financed defense team called eminent professors of medicine to testify to the innocence of the men’s bodily condition and to challenge “expert” testimony on the effects of repeated acts of sodomy. The prosecution failed to make its case. After spending over a year in jail, Boulton and Park were acquitted of all but the least serious charges against them. Those in attendance cheered. Boulton fainted.
Why did the crowd roar its approval? Were they convinced of the defendants’ innocence? Or were they complicit in the successful subversion of legal authority? Readers of these materials today find it hard to accept that Boulton and Park were just ordinary young men with an extravagant sense of fun. The gay writer Neil Bartlett seems almost to regret their acquittal as a sign of society’s refusal to recognize the reality of their alternative way of life. 56 Their letters reveal a complicated nexus of relations among men with a shared sensibility and appreciation of sexual ambiguity. One admirer praises Park as “Lais and Antinous in one,” invoking both the classical courtesan and the beloved of the emperor Hadrian. Boulton apologizes to a friend for his “campish ways.” 57 We do have the response of one contemporary witness. The painter Simeon Solomon, soon to be arrested with another man for sexual offenses committed in a public toilet, wrote to Algernon Swinburne after a day at the trial: “There were some very funny things said but nothing improper except the disgusting and silly medical evidence of which I heard [End Page 282] but very little.” He reported that “I saw the writer of those highly effusive letters. He looks rather humdrum.” After the morning session Solomon “was ravenous and went to the nearest restaurant,” where he met the defendants and their lawyers: “Knowing the solicitor, I sat down with them, which as it was a public crowded room, I had no hesitation in doing. B——n is very remarkable. He is not quite beautiful but supremely pretty, a perfect figure, manner and voice altogether. I was agreeably surprised at him.” Despite the fear of opprobrium implicit in his explaining why he did not hesitate to join them for lunch, Solomon predicted: “Of course they will be acquitted.” 58
Clearly, the response to the trial was not unified. Much of its drama derived from the publicity given to the forms of life enjoyed by a distinct community at odds with dominant social mores. We cannot say how large or small the minority may have been; moreover, its members also participated in the amorphous “general public.” In fact, there were multiple audiences for the Boulton and Park trial, with their own perspectives and interests. 59 In addition to the widespread newspaper coverage, penny pamphlets retailed the story; their titles included “Men in Petticoats,” “The Lives of Boulton and Park: Extraordinary Revelations,” and (my favorite) “Stella, the Star of the Strand.” The ambiguous reception of Boulton and Park extended beyond contemporary representations. They were immortalized in a limerick:
There was an old person of Sark Who buggered a pig in the dark; The swine in surprise Murmured: “God blast your eyes, Do you take me for Boulton or Park?” 60
Further, they must be among the very few figures in social history to appear in a published work of pornography. Even without Symonds’s insight into the conjunction of imagination and opportunity on the streets of London, we find ourselves in a domain where social reality and erotic fantasy intertwine.
The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or, Confessions of a Mary-Ann was privately and anonymously printed in London in 1881. 61 It opens with the narrator’s account of his encounter with John Saul of Lisle Street, the eponymous “Mary-Ann,” whom he met in Leicester Square. The succeeding chapters purport to be based on Saul’s account of his life. John Saul is a central figure for my analysis. In the Cleveland Street affair of 1889–90 a man with that name came forward to give statements to police and to testify in court. On the witness stand he described himself as a “professional sodomite.” There is more than a passing resemblance [End Page 283] between the historical individual represented in the official papers and press accounts and the character in the novel. However, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain should not be taken as the story of anyone’s “real life.” 62 Rather, it maps a Victorian sexual underworld in a way that underlines the difficulty of separating the exaggerations and projections of fantasy from documentary representations of social reality. At the same time, the fact of its publication demonstrates the existence of an audience willing to pay well to share the fantasies it retailed. 63
A bit like the manuscript of Symonds’s Memoirs, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain does not conform to modernist canons of literary unity. It starts out, traditionally enough, with the narrator providing a frame that introduces the recollections of the male prostitute who is its central figure. The structure breaks down, however, as Saul interpolates the stories of others he meets along the way. By the end of the book, “essays” are tacked on with no connection to the picaresque narrative: “The Same Old Story: Arses Preferred to Cunts,” “A Short Essay on Sodomy Etc.,” and, perhaps surprisingly, “Tribadism.” 64 The introduction resonates with the urban encounter that so disrupted Symonds’s equilibrium in 1865. We may read it as showing what might have happened had a less timid Symonds acted on the impulses from which he fled. Further, the narrator’s pickup of the Mary-Ann mirrors the historical Saul’s account of meeting a noble lord in Piccadilly and taking him back to 19 Cleveland Street for sex. More generally, it is a plausible rendering of the practices and fantasies of gay cruising in a London setting, where similar, though less discreet, encounters may still be observed today:
The writer of these notes was walking through Leicester Square one sunny afternoon last November, when his attention was particularly taken by an effeminate, but very good-looking young fellow, who was walking in front of him, looking in shop-windows from time to time, and now and then looking around as if to attract my attention.
Dressed in tight-fitting clothes, which set off his Adonis-like figure to the best advantage, especially about what snobs call the fork of his trousers, where evidently he was favoured by nature by a very extraordinary development of the male appendage, he had small and elegant feet, set off by pretty patent leather boots, a fresh looking beardless face, with almost feminine features, auburn hair, and sparkling blue eyes, which spoke as plainly as possible to my senses, and told me that the handsome youth must indeed be one of the “Mary-Ann’s” of London, who I had heard were often to be seen sauntering in the neighbourhood of Regent Street, or Haymarket, on fine afternoons or evenings.(1:7–9 [7–8]) [End Page 284]
The erotics of the scene are unambiguously homosexual and phallic. The Mary-Ann is descended from the Molly of earlier decades, but the full feminine drag that marked her appearance—as well as that of Fanny and Stella—has been reduced to the more subdued “pretty patent leather boots” that show off “small and elegant feet.” Otherwise the attribution of effeminacy is linked to characteristics of youth. Saul might be the androgynous ephebe that is the object of pederastic fantasy but for the bulge in the “fork of his trousers.” Thus Saul combines features of femininity and hypermasculinity. In part he expresses a Victorian tendency to see flagrant sexuality as itself a feminine characteristic. 65 A later comment by Freud on Greek love suggests another interpretation of this configuration: “The sexual object is not someone of the same sex, but someone who combines the character of both sexes; there is, as it were, a compromise between an impulse that seeks for a man and one that seeks for a woman, while it remains a paramount condition that the object’s body (i.e., genitals) shall be masculine.” 66 The account in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain augments this ambivalence. First announced as a natural endowment, the lump in Saul’s trousers by its very prominence leads the narrator to wonder if it is “natural or made up by some artificial means.” 67
The perspective shifts unsteadily between Saul’s attributes and their effect on the cruising gaze. The ambiguous bulge especially mobilizes the narrator’s interest: “All this ran through my mind, and determined me to make his acquaintance, in order to unravel the real and naked truth” (1:9 ). He follows his quarry into a shop that displays photographs of scantily clad females (recalling the “picture shops” mentioned in the Yokel’s Preceptor) and makes his move: “I asked him if he would take a glass of wine. He appeared to comprehend that there was business in my proposal, but seemed very diffident about drinking in any public place” (1:10). Saul knows the game: “Why do you seem so afraid to say what you want?” (1:11 ). Like Symonds’s grenadier, he prefers a direct approach. Soon they are off in a cab to the narrator’s chambers. 68
Their meeting is free from the constraints of social class and economic status; it occurs in a largely male world, where each is free to gaze openly on the other and to act on agreements negotiated between them. The narrator conflates his sexual interest with the pursuit of truth, which slides from getting a look at and a feel of his partner’s endowment toward discovering what makes the Mary-Ann tick. Eventually he will pay Saul to write the story of his life. This move resonates with Foucault’s contention that “modern sexuality” is held to provide the key to the “inner truth” of an individual life. We might also read the foregoing passage as a parody of Symonds’s insistence on later meetings with the soldier from the brothel for fraternal conversation rather than for sex. Such sublimation is quite alien to the [End Page 285] pornographic vision of The Sins of the Cities of the Plain. In the privacy of his rooms, the narrator (named “Mr. Cambon,” according to the “little plate” on his door) can witness the truth of the matter at first hand:
“You seem a fine figure, and so evidently well hung that I had quite a fancy to satisfy my curiousity about it. Is it real or made up for show?” I asked.
“As real as my face, sir, and a great deal prettier. Did you ever see a finer tosser in your life?” he replied, opening his trousers and exposing a tremendous prick, which was already in a half-standing state. “It’s my only fortune, sir; but it really provides for all I want, and often introduces me to the best of society, ladies as well as gentlemen. There isn’t a girl about Leicester Square but what would like to have me for her man, but I did find it more to my interest not to waste my strength on women; the pederastic game pays so well, and is quite as enjoyable. I wouldn’t have a woman unless I was well paid for it.”(1:12–13 )
As a sexual “professional,” Saul is available to both men and women, constrained only by considerations of spermatic and monetary economy. The fictional Mary-Ann clearly takes pleasure in his work. Further, it introduces him into “the best of society.” He appears proud of his contacts with “ladies as well as gentlemen.” In response to Cambon’s interest, Saul agrees to relate the story of his life over several weeks at “a fiver a week” for “thirty or forty pages . . . tolerably well written” (1:19 ). The two conclude with an evening of sexual gymnastics described in detail, including masturbation and fellatio, Saul’s beating of Cambon with a birch, and the narrator’s anal penetration of the Mary-Ann. Although the latter act maintains the positioning suggested by the client’s greater age and his social superiority, the flagellation is more ambiguous. The other practices are mutual, with Cambon taking considerable interest in Saul’s phallic satisfaction. The feminization at work in the original encounter is undercut by the reciprocity and versatility of their sexual engagement.
Cambon’s account of the genesis of his text ends on a note that should give pause to the historian in search of verisimilitude: “At each visit we had a delicious turn at bottom-fucking, but as the recital of the same kind of thing over and over again is likely to pall upon my readers, I shall omit a repetition of our numerous orgies of lust, all very similar to the foregoing, and content myself by a simple recital of his [Saul’s] adventures” (1:25–26 ). Like a campy latter-day Scheherazade, Saul must entertain his patron (and his readers) with tales of erotic [End Page 286] adventure and “orgies of lust” so diverse and imaginative that their prurient interest will not “pall.” Saul’s narrative moves from the country and suburbs to London and presents its hero in ever more complex and transgressive situations. However phantasmatic the elaboration, the scene is recognizably the London of the 1870s. Among its distinctively urban settings are a private-membership club where wealthy patrons and cross-dressed male prostitutes with feminine names have orgies with multiple partners; a dress ball at a private hotel where Boulton and Park make a guest appearance and fancy gowns are raised to reveal the male organs of the belles; and streets and squares where “rough lads” and soldiers sell sexual services for money and occasionally rob or blackmail their clients.
The novel’s portrayal of both soldiers and transvestites as prostitutes illuminates the phantasmatic potential of Symonds’s meeting with the grenadier and the promenades of Boulton and Park with their admirers. Throughout The Sins of the Cities of the Plain sexual desires and practices confound conventional expectations linked to gender and social class. The historical reality of these transvestites is invoked by reference to an event widely reported in accounts of their trial: “You remember the Boulton and Park scandal court case? Well; I was present at the ball given at Haxell’s Hotel in the Strand” (1:96 ). 69 Saul reports that Boulton “was superbly got up as a beautiful lady and Lord Arthur was very spooney upon her” (1:97 ). At the trial Lord Arthur Clinton was said to share a household with Boulton, who styled himself as his lady. In the novel Saul follows the couple to one of the dressing rooms, where he spies through the keyhole. One detail should delight the student of intertextuality. The fictional Saul recounts that he had “a famous view of all that was going on in the next room. It put me in mind of the two youths which Fanny Hill relates to have seen through a peephole at a roadside inn” (1:98 ).
Anxiety about being observed in the commission of sexual acts seems to be an aspect of the pervasive concern for maintaining appearances. One may recall Symonds’s assurance that anyone spying on him and Boul would have seen “nothing reprehensible.” Of course, in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain the point is precisely to expose these hidden things. Boulton is “Laura,” not “Stella,” but the drag name and costume are conjoined with a male organ that commands the attention of both her lover and the randy spy: “His lordship quickly opened Laura’s thighs, and putting his hand into her drawers, soon brought to light as manly a weapon as any lady could desire to see” (1:100 ). Lord Arthur then performs fellatio on his partner with great enthusiasm prior to anally penetrating her. Saul, who leaves before the encounter reaches its climax, is later introduced to the couple and to Park, here “Selina,” not “Fanny.” At this point in his narrative Saul [End Page 287] reveals that he too was in drag and was introduced by the proprietor as “Miss Eveline” (1:105 ). At the end of the evening, Eveline goes with Laura and Selina to their flat, where “I believe the people of the house thought that we were gay ladies,” that is, female prostitutes (2:8 ). Of course, a threesome is in the offing.
First Laura regales her friends with a tale of seduction in which the inversions of sex, gender, and desire multiply at a dizzying rate. The object of desire was a “Miss Bruce,” a female “milliner” whom Laura enticed to her place by promising to buy a new dress from her. Laura also promised her guest pleasure without the risks that accompanied sex with men. “Blushingly” explaining that she suffered from “a malformation, something like the male instrument” (2:14 ), the transvestite managed, after mutual oral sex, to engage in vaginal intercourse with the milliner, who had been gulled with the assurance that she would not be penetrated by a penis. Laura concludes, “She will be very lucky if she does not get a big belly” (2:19–20 ). Excited by the tale, Selina and Eveline join her in an orgy of mutual masturbation, birching, and anal sex, during which Eveline penetrates Selina while being herself penetrated by Laura.
If the transvestite prostitutes and Mary-Anns mimic and confound expectations concerning feminine behavior and desire, the soldiers perform similarly in relation to masculinity. Fred Jones, whom Saul meets as a fellow prostitute at “Mr. Inslip’s” establishment in the novel, emphasizes the links between prostitution and the military that are displayed in Symonds’s Memoirs: “‘We all do it. . . . It’s the commonest thing possible in the Army. As soon as or (before) I had learned to goose-step, I had learned to be goosed, and enjoy it, my dear, don’t you, Jack?’ he said, slapping his thigh and passing his hand over my most interesting member. ‘Now, I’ll tell you all about it. We’ll keep ourselves fresh for tonight, but another day I mean to both fuck you and have you fuck me’” (1:83–84 ). Jones’s sexual interests in other men are not simply mercenary, as his proposition to Saul reveals. Symonds reaches similar conclusions about the soldiers he has enjoyed. Writing to Carpenter in 1893, he reports: “I made the acquaintance last autumn in Venice of a Corporal of the 2d Life Guards who was traveling with a man I knew. He gave me a great deal of information. But it all pointed to the mercantile aspect of the matter. However, he said that some men ‘listed on purpose to indulge their propensities. An Italian Colonel told me . . . that young men of the best families, after serving as volunteers or in the natural course of conscription, would sometimes remain on in the ranks with a view to the opportunities afforded by barracks.” 70 The role switching in anal intercourse that Jones, a former guardsman, proposes to Saul does not comport with standard accounts of “butch” guardsmen anally penetrating their clients or permitting themselves to be fellated: it reminds [End Page 288] us that we can only speculate about what went on between them. Jones, proving as adept at the erotics of narrative as Saul himself, continues his seduction of our hero with the tale of his own initiation into male sex by his colonel. He claims that his experience was representative:
When a young fellow joins, someone of us breaks him in and teaches him the trick; but there is very little need of that, for it seems to come naturally to almost every young man, so few have escaped the demoralization of schools or crowded homes. . . . Although we all do it for money, we also do so because we really like it, and if gentlemen gave us no money, I think we should do it all the same. Many of us are married but that makes no difference. . . . all the best gentlemen in London like running after soldiers, and I have letters from some of the very highest in the land. 71
It is taken for granted that members of the armed forces are devoted to prodigious sexual activity among themselves and for pay and that their schools and slums have prepared them well for it. Special venues facilitate the exchange: “There are lots of houses in London where only soldiers are received, and where gentlemen can sleep with them” (1:89 ). Jones’s gender presentation is complex: “I have had lots of women, but do not care so much for them, for they do not make half so much of us as gentlemen do, although of course they always pay us. You can easily imagine it is not so agreeable to spend half-an-hour with a housemaid when one has been caressed all night by a gentleman.” Partly the difference is in the capacity to pay, the men being better off, but the social distance is eroticized as well. Is there also inversion in the suggestion that macho guardsmen really want to be “caressed all night by a gentleman”? The text underlines the gender bending: after proposing mutual anal intercourse to Saul and regaling him with tales of social climbing, Jones takes on the role of lady’s maid and helps him get dolled up for Mr. Inslip’s party before donning drag himself. The soldiers display the same versatility as the transvestites; Jones is both.
The Sins of the Cities of the Plain moves through scenes of increasingly exotic and transgressive activity, including incest, miscegenation, pedophilia, and bestiality. Many of these scenes feature both men and women, even a cow. They emphasize the mixing of apparently respectable aristocratic and middle-class clients with male prostitutes who may be in full feminine drag or military uniform or who, like Jones, do both. The extent to which the text reflects social practices is questionable, but it does illuminate the phantasmatic urban landscape of Victorian gentlemen seeking alternatives to a more domestic sexual regime. 72 This [End Page 289] erotic imaginary cannot be simply assimilated to today’s highly visible gay culture. In 1992 Masquerade Books brought out The Sins of the Cities of the Plain. Although it nowhere identifies an editor or acknowledges its source, the book is for the most part an adaptation of the 1881 text. It retains the original structure and most of the language, adds scenes here and there, and changes details in some others. One revision, consistently pursued, stands out: all of the women are changed into men. Maids become handymen; secretaries, clerks; stepsisters, brothers. Even the milliner who thinks that she is having a lesbian encounter with Laura is transformed into a man. This version of the scene includes some very puzzling details, given the gender switch, and the prospect of a “big belly” is omitted entirely. The publishers seem to find the Victorian novel just too queer for today’s market in gay pornography. The original is an epic of polymorphous pansexuality and gender fuck.
A Matter of Class
Mr. Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten; and while “The Picture of Dorian Gray” . . . is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art—for its interest is medico-legal. . . . The story—which deals with matters only fitted for the Criminal Investigation Department or a hearing in camera—is discredible alike to author and editor. Mr. Wilde has brains, and art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals.—Scots Observer, 1890
In the Cleveland Street affair of 1889–90 several telegraph boys from the postal service were found to be moonlighting at a male brothel patronized by well-connected gentlemen. 73 The scandal, which implicated noble clients of the establishment, led to speculation that the royal family itself might be involved. Delays in prosecution by the Conservative government enabled Charles Hammond, the brothel’s proprietor, and Lord Arthur Somerset, the younger son of the duke of Beaufort and an equerry to the Prince of Wales, to abscond to Europe before they were indicted. Criticism in the radical press and in Parliament led to widespread controversy about moral standards, law enforcement, and equal justice.
The Cleveland Street affair was the first public scandal to touch on male-male [End Page 290] sexuality after the passage of the Labouchere amendment to the Criminal Law Reform Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent for women from thirteen to sixteen and increased the penalties for brothel keepers and others who profited from prostitution. 74 Sponsored by Henry Labouchere, a radical editor and Liberal member of Parliament from Northampton, the amendment altered the legal treatment of same-sex conduct between men by stipulating that “any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.” (Oscar Wilde was tried in 1895 for violating these provisions.)
But the legal consequences of the scandal were not quite what one might expect. G. D. Veck and Henry Newlove, who recruited and enjoyed the favors of young male prostitutes while helping Hammond run the brothel, pled guilty to violating the amendment and received light sentences. The attorney Arthur Newton, who represented Somerset’s interests, was charged with obstructing justice by offering to finance the emigration of the telegraph boys before they could testify in court. Newton also pled guilty; an angry judge sentenced him to six weeks in jail. The only case to go to trial was the libel suit brought by Lord Euston, heir to the duke of Grafton, against Ernest Parke, editor of the North London Press. Parke had editorialized against the special treatment of prominent persons and had accused the government of complicity in their escape from justice. His headline declared that Somerset had fled to France and Euston to Peru. Although he had been named to the police, Euston had in fact remained at home in London. At Parke’s trial John Saul came forward as a witness for the defense to support the allegations of Euston’s sexual misconduct. Nevertheless, Parke was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. The most severe punishment was suffered by a journalist who had worked to expose the scandal.
This outcome is not entirely surprising, however, when the highest legal officials had argued that it might be better to allow the guilty to go free than to publicize the commission of such “unspeakable” acts. The lord chancellor, Lord Halsbury, had written to the official in charge of the case that “if . . . the social position of some of the parties will make a great sensation this will give very wide publicity and consequently will spread very extensively written matter of the most revolting and mischievous kind, the spread of which I am satisfied will produce enormous evil.” 75
In an 1890 speech questioning the government’s handling of the “West End Scandals,” as the Cleveland Street affair came to be known, Labouchere provided a [End Page 291] retrospective account of his objectives in the amendment. He combined urgency in the face of social decline with the discursive indeterminacy that marked official Victorian discussions of sexual issues: “There is no doubt that of late years a certain offence—I will not give it a name—has become more rife than it ever was before.” 76 Labouchere claimed that “the case was pretty well proved”: “Therefore, in 1885, Parliament armed the guardians of public morality with full powers to deal with this offence. . . . they expressed their desire that it should be stamped out; and, presumably, it was intended that the law should be used equally against high and low” (1535). Labouchere expressed concern for the national reputation while recognizing the urban context of the offense: “In no other city in the world are such abominations openly carried on. Parliament has done its best to put down houses of ill-fame, but compared with this place [19 Cleveland Street] a house of ill-fame is respectable” (1541). The only details he mentioned, from police observations in 1889, referred to two soldiers—a Life Guardsman and a Royal Artilleryman—seen meeting and going off with “gentlemen.” The offense alleged to be on the increase might have been the sexual exploitation of the young; or prostitution more generally, whether with girls or boys; or even the corruption of those who wore Her Majesty’s uniforms. Labouchere never said. 77
The press coverage also emphasized the heinous character of unspecified sexual offenses while linking radical hostility toward the aristocracy with public suspicion of deviant desires and practices. In the North London Press Parke had stressed the impact on national honor: “A minister at Hackney had been condemned to penal servitude for life; with . . . no hope of a mitigation of his dreadful doom. Yet there was no trace in his case, as there is in this, of a foul and widespread plot to poison the morals of the community, and make the name of England a hissing and a reproach in Europe.” The editorial concluded on an almost apocalyptic note: “If half of what we know, and are learning from day to day, comes out in a court of law, there has been accumulating under our feet a store of moral dynamite sufficient to wreck the good name of the nation.” 78 The sexual peccadilloes of the clients at 19 Cleveland Street were enlarged to the moral equivalent of the Gunpowder Plot.
The drive for moral reform had played an increasingly important role in radical politics throughout the 1880s, opening rifts in the Liberal Party. 79 Labouchere’s amendment was part of the Criminal Law Reform Act of 1885, passed in response to W. T. Stead’s exposure of child prostution. What Frank Harris labeled “forces of religious prudishness and nonconformity” held public figures to puritanical standards in their private lives. In 1886 Stead led a campaign [End Page 292] against Sir Charles Dilke, an up-and-coming Liberal leader, declaring that “anyone who was unfaithful to his wife was not fit to sit in the House of Commons.” 80 Before 1890 had ended, revelations of his affair with another man’s wife would bring down the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell where forged evidence linking him to terrorist activities had failed. 81 The West End Scandals became vehicles for the continuation of the aggressive middle-class morality that sought to define the national character. As in Stead’s earlier campaign, an ethos of respectability condemned both upper-class decadence and lower-class brutishness.
“Gross indecency” between men perpetuated the legacy of sodomy, “the crime not fit to be named among Christians,” in its indeterminacy and inclusiveness. However, the laws against sodomy, prohibited in England since 1533, applied to acts between men and women, as well as with animals. Sodomy had been a capital offense under the “Buggery Act” of Henry VIII and remained so until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to life imprisonment. The more frequent charges were “attempted sodomy” and “indecent assault.” Until the 1830s men convicted of these crimes were often subjected to the pillory, where angry crowds would hurl garbage and offal at them. Some were permanently injured or mutilated by these expressions of community morality. 82 These instances of mob violence and the fate of Somerset, exiled until his death in 1926, caution us not to measure the impact of such laws simply in terms of court actions but to take into account the chilling effect of informal sanctions beyond their legal enforcement. 83 The ban on gross indecency lowered the penalties but apparently increased the range of prohibited activities, effectively defining all erotic conduct between men as criminal. 84 The Criminal Law Reform Act in principle intensified social control over female prostitutes and men who had sex with other men. 85
In the Cleveland Street affair, gross indecency was inflected differently in the lives of the telegraph boys, their aristocratic clients, and John Saul. The legal proceedings, press coverage, and political debate about the West End Scandals include few signs of Foucault’s “new species” of homosexual as defined in Continental sexology. Nowhere in the newspaper accounts or official documents are there references to medicine or psychiatry. 86 Traditional moral condemnations of sodomy gained political force from their conjunction with a republican discourse that emphasized aristocratic corruption and contested the alliance between governmental power and social status. 87 Stead editorialized: “The wretched agents are run in and sent to penal servitude: the lords and gentlemen who employ them swagger at large and are even welcomed as valuable allies of the administration of the day.” 88 Labouchere sounded a revolutionary note: “Our Government of the [End Page 293] classes is of the opinion that the revelations which would ensue were the criminals put on trial, would deal a blow to the reign of the classes, and to the social influence of the aristocracy” (123). The radical press stressed the exploitation by influential clients of working-class youths eager to improve their lot. The fact that the boys were government employees reinforced the national alarm: the police asked each whether he wore his uniform when performing indecent acts for pay, while Parliament focused on the presence of soldiers in Cleveland Street.
The age and class of these youths exempted them from the attribution of invidious sexuality. One trade union spokesman suggested that gross indecency was congenital among the upper classes but could be acquired only by sons of the workers: “Bringing up our boys as we have to do, we should not submit to a state of things which might end in their temptation, for their tempters are men of position and wealth. Working men are free from the taint, and for gold laid down our boys might be tempted to this fall” (131). The telegraph boys were cast as victims, although they were in their late teens and were pictured as respectable young men. Two of them had admitted to the police that they had “behaved indecently” with Newlove before he recruited them for the brothel, but no one suggested that they should have been prosecuted. 89 To mark them as deviants would have been risky in a society that segregated young men in same-sex settings like boarding schools, army barracks, navy ships, and universities. Yet as Symonds’s encounters and scenes in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain reveal, men in uniform were fascinating to some other men. 90
If the telegraph boys were unlikely representatives of an emergent homosexual “species,” what about their clients? Given the opprobrium visited on them, despite their insulation from legal punishment, they were stigmatized for their sexual activities. However, the stigma reflected their abuse of power and exploitation of lower-class youth as much as their choice of members of their own sex as partners. The press never precisely defined their viciousness. They had forced their proclivities on the public, and to provide a bill of particulars would only have compounded the damage they had caused. Saul told the police details of his contact with Euston that the newspapers refused to print: “He is not an actual sodomite. He likes to play with you and then ‘spend’ on your belly.” The telegraph boys similarly revealed the reluctance of some clients to engage in anal penetration, but their specific practices do appear to have made some of them “actual sodomites.” 91 However, the discourse of sodomy was linked to a conception of character, if not of identity. 92 The sodomite was a figure of excess, who posed the danger of corruption to all with whom he came into contact.
Sodomy was defined in social contexts not limited to theological proscriptions [End Page 294] on nonprocreative sex. 93 In the Middle Ages the church accused unorthodox sects of “unnatural” sexual practices. Later, Catholics accused Protestants, and Protestants, Catholic priests. As national feelings grew early in the modern period, deviant sexualities were attributed to foreign vices: Germans accused Florentines; the English accused the French. Acts of sodomy evidenced a spirit of revolt and a tendency toward heresy and treason. 94 But excesses of desire could lead to abuses of power. The notorious seventeenth-century sodomite Lord Castlehaven, executed for buggering both his pages and his wife, exemplified the sodomite’s willingness to use anyone at his disposal to satisfy himself. 95 Although Stead’s lurid exposé of child prostitution detailed the mistreatment of girls, the target of campaigners for moral purity was unbridled male lust. The existence of such figures helps explain Symonds’s relentless efforts to establish an ethical defense of same-sex desire.
Nevertheless, by 1891 Symonds had become worldly enough to condone the Cleveland Street establishment, although his defense took a peculiarly democratic turn. He reported a conversation about the affair with a British steamship officer in Venice: “[He] . . . volunteered the opinion that it was absurd to disqualify by law passions which seemed so harmless & instinctive, although he added that his own (I suspect very free) self-indulgences were in the opposite direction. The way of thinking among the proletariate, honest artizans, peasants, etc, in Italy and Switzerland—where alone I have fraternized with the people—is all in favour of free trade.” 96 What Symonds saw as “free trade” looked like exploitation to the English radical press. Libertarian arguments did not appear in the public discussion. In a letter to Labouchere’s journal Truth George Bernard Shaw drew a distinction between consensual acts among adults and the corruption of the young, but the editor refused to print it. 97 The clients at 19 Cleveland Street were represented not as defined primarily by desire for their own sex but as sodomites. If they did not embody Foucault’s “modern homosexuality,” that curious mix of same-sex object choice and gender inversion, the animus against them cannot be identified simply with “homophobia.” 98 Initially, Somerset and Euston were paired in the press, joined as much by social status as by the charges of sexual irregularity leveled at them. Each was juxtaposed to a specific victim. Somerset was portrayed as the corrupter of the telegraph boys and was caricatured as “my Lord Gomorrah.” In fact, the most telling evidence against him had come not from them but reluctantly from a youth with whom he had formed a relationship similar to those cultivated by Symonds. 99 Euston was more fortunate; his accuser was Saul.
Saul described himself in court as a “professional sodomite.” He represented a social status and a personal identity quite different from those of the telegraph boys or their clients. He was the only witness sexually involved in the affair [End Page 295] to appear in court, testify against a noble, and be scrutinized by jury, judge, press, and public. Saul admitted to working as a male prostitute, like the delivery boys, but his contacts with men amounted to more than an opportunistic aberration in a life of working-class normalcy. Indeed, Saul seems to have fallen outside the structure of class relations in Victorian England. He exemplified the emergence of an urban underclass tied to crime, vice, and especially sex. He had come to London from Dublin, but we hear little of his home or family, just one reference to sending money to his mother. 100 He moved in a London ambience that still offers male and female prostitutes, pornography and paraphernalia, and casual cruising among men. To the police Saul recited a great many addresses, mostly between Soho and Leicester Squares, not far from the location of Symonds’s meeting with the grenadier. He and Hammond “earned our livelihood as sodomites”; Hammond had presided over a succession of households including Saul, whose earnings he shared; a number of female prostitutes, one of whom he married; and at least one “spooney boy,” who also procured for him. This world resembled the one depicted in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, although I doubt that its inhabitants performed so prodigiously.
Saul’s prostitution enacted an ambiguous relation to class structure: he belonged to an underclass but bragged of his intimacy with nobility: “We always called him the Duke.” 101 His contact with the upper crust had not materially changed his life: “I am still a professional ‘Mary-ann.’ I have lost my character and cannot get on otherwise. I occasionally do odd jobs for different gay people.” The Criminal Law Reform Act had targeted “gay women”—prostitutes—and gross indecency, the defining activity of those who were to become “gay men.” Saul’s history provides a site where the two converge. He named a number of fellow Mary-Anns; at least one used a woman’s name, “lively Poll.” Saul described another who offered sex to set up robberies: “Clifton takes gentlemen home to his room where by arrangement two or three men are secreted under his bed, and just as they are performing, the men suddenly come out and bounce money out of them by threats.” Not just legal prohibition but social circumstance, gender nonconformity, and predatory action might place professional sodomites outside the law, increasing the distance between them and their clients. When the Labouchere amendment was passed, one commentator called it “the Blackmailer’s Charter.”
Saul became an object of fascination and repulsion in the reports of Parke’s libel trial. Although doubly contained—by the formal constraints of acting as a witness in a criminal trial and by the press’s rendering of him—he displayed a theatrical flair, making the most of his day in court; a gentle and generous responsiveness; [End Page 296] and touches of irony, anger, and self-pity. The Star emphasized the effect he produced: “Dramatic indeed was the situation when this young man, asked whether he recognized anyone in court as having been to Hammond’s house, pointed to Lord Euston, and in his effeminate voice, said distinctly ‘Yes, that one. I took him there myself.’ It seemed minutes before another question was asked. So intense was the thrill which this declaration excited.” 102 The description of Saul’s coup de théâtre betrays some ambivalence; not even his “effeminate voice” undermined the power of his pointing and articulation. Saul’s account of life in Cleveland Street approached the genteel when he told of his visit with Euston: “Letting him in with my latchkey, I was not long in there, in the back parlor or reception room, before Hammond came and knocked, and asked if we wanted any champagne or drinks of any sort, which he was in the habit of doing.” When this comment provoked laughter in the courtroom, the judge uttered an admonishment: “Such levity was brutal and disgusting.” There are multiple displacements at work here. Was the laughter “brutal and disgusting”? Was it the acts that took place between Saul and Euston? Or was it Saul’s effrontery in coming forward to testify about them?
Saul refused to play the role assigned to him. He remembered Euston’s return to Cleveland Street because it coincided with his lodging a grievance against Hammond: “I complained . . . of his allowing boys in good position in the Post Office to be in the house while I had to go and walk the streets for what is in my face and that is my shame.” The Star remarked: “Saying which the witness turned away from the court, with a somewhat theatrical gesture.” 103 Saul’s resentment of the telegraph boys underlines the difference between men who occasionally prostituted themselves to supplement their income (like the soldiers) and the professional sodomite, who occupied a more precarious social and economic position. 104 His theatrical anger may mask an underlying sadness. I have not been able to find Saul’s age. Each of the telegraph boys recited his—from fifteen to nineteen—in the police reports. Saul did not, nor is it mentioned elsewhere. But his connection with Hammond had begun in 1879, and he admitted to having been arrested in Dublin in 1875. No longer young, at least for a Mary-Ann, he supported himself by walking the streets for “what is in my face,” cleaning the quarters of female prostitutes, and occasionally working at a theater. 105
The heart of Saul’s testimony was his account of his first meeting with Euston. This moment was noted by both judge and press: “The brutal callousness with which this witness told his story both shocked and revolted the court.” What was so “brutal”; what story so “shocked” and “revolted”? “I picked him up,” he said, “just as I might have picked any other gentleman up.” And how was that? [End Page 297]
Where did you meet this person?—In Piccadilly, between Albany-courtyard and Sackville-street, near the Yorkshire Grey. He laughed at me, and I winked at him. He turned sharply into Sackville-street.
The Judge: Who did?—The Duke, as we used to call him.
Mr. Lockwood: Go on and tell what happened?—The Duke, as we called him, came after me, and asked where I was going. I said, “Home,” and he said, “What sort is your place?” “Very comfortable,” I replied. He said, “Is it very quiet there?” I said, “Yes, it was,” and then we had a hansom cab there. We got out at Middlesex Hospital, and I took the gentleman to Cleveland-street.
Saul’s testimony inverted the subject position from which the urban pickup was narrated. As the fictional Saul and Cambon do in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, they traveled by “hansom cab.” However, it was not the respectable flaneur—Cambon or Symonds—but the object of his gaze who got to tell the story. Saul provided the only glimpse of Euston as more than an icon of the aristocracy. The initial encounter is irresistible: “He laughed at me, and I winked at him.” Euston’s exculpatory account of his one admitted visit to Cleveland Street is less charming, but no less urban. He claimed that an unknown man in Leicester Square had handed him a card advertising poses plastiques—a female strip show with artistic pretensions. Euston insisted that when he had realized what went on there, he had departed immediately, threatening violence to an employee who got in his way.
The judge was not charmed by Saul on the stand: “A more melancholy spectacle he could not imagine. Was Saul’s story true? Lord Euston said it was as foul a perjury as a man could commit. . . . directly they could have only the oath of Lord Euston against the oath of that man. . . . they would have to ask themselves which oath they preferred—the oath of the man who, according to his own account, if he spoke the truth, was liable to be prosecuted, or the oath of the Prosecutor [Euston].” 106 It is not surprising that the judge should have sided with the heir to a duke rather than a professional sodomite. But his vehemence was excessive: he referred to Saul repeatedly as “that creature.” His discussion of the oath was tendentious: the law usually regards testimony against one’s own interests as enhancing one’s credibility and regards self-interest as a powerful motive to lie. But then, Euston was a noble lord. The jury believed him. They found Parke “guilty of libel without justification.” The judge sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment, asserting that “a more atrocious libel than that of which you have been guilty has never been published by any man.” 107 [End Page 298]
The judge urged the public prosecutor to take action against Saul. Labouchere took up the cry in Truth, arguing that to show him leniency would violate standards of equality. He compared Saul’s situation with that of a woman serving twenty-two years for stealing provisions worth ten shillings: “To say that a poor woman was justly punished in this cruel fashion for the pettiest of larceny, and that a wretch like Saul is to be allowed to swear away the honour and good name of a person with impunity . . . is an insult to law and justice” (58–59). When he learned that Saul would not be prosecuted, Labouchere wrote: “A more scandalous decision never was taken. A jury has declared that the ‘creature’ committed one of the most horrible perjuries on record—a perjury for which the longest sentence permitted by law could not be sufficient. . . . And the Public Prosecutor takes no action!” (158). 108 The radical’s zeal for equal justice had reduced him to seeking the imprisonment of a Mary-Ann who had dared to accuse a noble. In general, the press welcomed the Parke verdict and celebrated the punishment of their fellow journalist. Among the few dissenters, Reynolds’ doubted Euston’s “cock-and-bull story” and concluded that “as the judge and jury have exculpated and whitewashed the future Duke, it is to be hoped his ardour for witnessing exhibitions of nude females will be somewhat cooled by recent circumstances” (160). In the Fortnightly Review Harris later wrote, “If Lord Euston had been Mr. Euston of Clerkenwell, his libeller would have been given a small fine.” 109
The prevalent response displaced the animus originally directed at privileged malefactors onto the bearers of bad news. The rhetoric of condemnation was charged with violence. In the London periodical People we read, “Lord Euston has earned the gratitude of society for enabling the law to stamp upon a miscreant who, if he had his deserts, would be whipped at the cart’s tail from one end of London to another.” 110 Such displays of public anger had once characterized the treatment of those convicted of sexual offenses. 111 The outrage generated by the male brothel was now turned against those who accused pillars of Victorian society of patronizing such an institution. Was the whitewash of Euston the result of a hatred of sexual deviance so strong that it overrode resentment of privilege? Many preferred to believe that radical journalists had fabricated the charges to sell papers rather than that the sons of dukes paid for sex with young men from the lower classes. Something very like homophobia was at work when the fury aroused by accusations of aristocratic license was so easily redirected at the whistle-blowers, especially at the outrageous but impecunious Saul. His performance on the witness stand had mobilized deep-seated fears and hostility.
Who’s afraid of John Saul, and why? He may represent something new on the social scene: an abject figure who refuses his status; a flamboyant queer. The [End Page 299] responses to Saul reveal how much he discomfited his respectable audience. 112 Faced with all the majesty of law and society, he insisted on remaining himself:
And were you hunted out by the police?—No, they have never interfered. They have always been kind to me.
Do you mean they have deliberately shut their eyes to your infamous practices?—They have had to shut their eyes to more than me.
Saul refused to be shamed into silence; he took refuge in campy defiance, undaunted by judge, lawyers, jury, press, and public. Does he represent the emergence of the modern homosexual, who accepts himself as defined by his sexual activities with other men but rejects the negative valence attached to same-sex desire? Or does his offensiveness result from his flaunting of sexuality? 113 Saul’s personal identity and sexual activities as a professional sodomite were closely linked. He may have had more in common with the “gay ladies,” full-time female prostitutes, than with the clients with whom he had sex or with part-time male prostitutes like the telegraph boys. The complex and conflicting responses to prostitution suggest that to proclaim any form of sexualized identity would have provoked an intense reaction. Even the scandal-peddling press tiptoed around the details of Saul’s testimony; the public discussions of sexual offenses remained vague. Saul’s offense was to insist on the subject at all.
Saul’s social status and sense of himself cannot be extricated from the London demimonde through which he made his way. The cruising scenes discussed in this essay reflect the emergence of a distinctively modern and urban sexuality. This form of desire crossed lines of hetero and homo definition, masculine and feminine, although it was open to men more than to women. What I have in mind is a sense of perpetual possibility, of freedom to pursue whatever takes one’s fancy—with the chance that one’s interest will be reciprocated. The cruising gaze may invest any object with erotic interest and imagine its availability. Of course, this fantasy is accompanied by its own anxieties. After all, the other may not be interested; or his endowment may be an artifice that does not measure up to closer scrutiny; or there may be men hidden beneath the bed who will “bounce” you for your money. Finally, not only the object of desire but the subject himself is constructed through the cruising imagination. One may come to see oneself phantasmatically as well as the other. I feel free to become whatever I want, transforming myself into a desirable object, by the right choice of costume or exercise regime or line of conversation. The anonymity and publicness of modern urban space enable a sphere of erotic interaction in which any man may reinvent [End Page 300] himself and seek others with whom to exchange desires and services. The major difficulty is that this space also obscures the political, economic, and social relations that make it possible and that continue to shape us even in our fantasies of self-making.
Morris B. Kaplan teaches philosophy and lesbian and gay studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. He is author of Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire (1997). He served as a trial attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York for several years and was the inaugural Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in Legal Humanities at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1993–94. Currently, he spends as much time as possible in London, completing the research for his next book, Sodom on the Thames: Love, Lust, and Scandal in Wilde Times.
* The research for this essay began in 1995 during the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar “The Culture of London, 1850–1920,” directed by Michael Levenson. I am grateful to him and to my fellow participants for introducing me to a new world of intellectual endeavor. William A. Cohen, Geoffrey Field, and Michael O’Loughlin were also very helpful. Subsequent work has been assisted by grants from Purchase College, State University of New York, and an NEH summer stipend in 1998. Thanks to Gari LaGuardia, Michael Levenson, Alan Ryan, and Gary Waller. I have presented aspects of this work under various auspices at Columbia University; Goldsmith’s College, London; King’s College, Cambridge; South Bank University; Stanford University; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Oregon; the University of Washington; and Yale University, as well as on panels at the American Political Science Association; the Conference on Gender, Sexuality, and the Law at Keele University; the Middle Atlantic British Studies Association; and the Western Political Science Association. I learned from the questions and comments of the participants in these events and thank those who invited me: Antoinette Burton, Elizabeth Emens, Estelle Freedman, Harry Hirsch, Jason Mayerfeld, Shane Phelan, Oliver Philips, Eugene Rice, Ed Stein, Carl Stychin, Nancy Tuana, and Jeffrey Weeks. In addition, I wish to thank the following people for constructive conversations about these theoretical and historical issues: Deborah Amory, Eric O. Clarke, Harry Cocks, Carolyn Dinshaw, Christine DiStefano, Carolin Emcke, Frank Farrell, Ross Forman, Lauren Goodlad, David Greenberg, Susan Kahn, Seth Koven, Regina Kunzel, Pericles Lewis, Esther Newton, George Robb, Paul Robinson, Joseph Sartorelli, Elaine Scarry, Alison Shonkweiler, Tracy Strong, Matthew Waites, Chris Waters, Garrath Williams, and Terry Williams. Special thanks to David M. Halperin for responding in detail to an earlier version and to Matthew Stone for interrupting his own research to provide a careful critique of the penultimate draft of this essay. I could not pursue this work without the community of committed scholars engaged in the history of sexuality and in lesbian, gay, and queer studies.
1. See, among many others, Henning Bech, When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity, trans. Teresa Mesquit and Tim Davies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic, 1994); John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London: Quartet, 1977).
2. Wilde’s trials signaled an upheaval in perceptions of the social control of sexuality and of the emergence of gay identities. This study attempts to look around him and reconstruct the constellation of cultural conflicts at work in the society that celebrated and vilified him.
3. I use “types” deliberately to suggest a range of human kinds not necessarily encompassed by the conceptions of “identity” that have played such an important role in recent literature. In this essay I develop more fully the ways in which such types include forms of personal desire, self-conception, intimate association, and social ascription that exist in unstable relation to each other. I am convinced by David M. Halperin that this emphasis is not so much a rejection as a refinement of Foucault. For his argument that distinguishes “sexual morphology” and “sexual subjectivity” from “sexual identity” see Halperin, “Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” Representations 63 (1998): 107–8.
4. See Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ 1 (1993): 17–32; more generally, Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993). See also Morris B. Kaplan, Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire (New York: Routledge, 1997), intro., chaps. 2 and 5.
5. The epigraph is quoted from Havelock Ellis, preface to Sexual Inversion, by Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds (London: Wilson and Macmillan, 1897), xiii. Symonds conducted a correspondence with Whitman over many years. A major theme in it was Symonds’s persistent questioning about the physical component of male comradeship and the poet’s equally tenacious evasiveness. When Whitman finally denied any such sexual dimension and invoked the existence of his own illegitimate children as evidence, Symonds was not convinced. Many of their letters are included in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA (New York: Crowell, 1976). Henry James offered a different picture: “I don’t wonder that some of his [Symonds’s] friends and relations are haunted with a vague malaise. I think one ought to wish him more humour; it is really the savoury salt. But the great reformers never have it, and he is the Gladstone of the affair” (quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, Henry James at Home [London, 1969], 150).
6. John Addington Symonds, Memoirs, ed. Phyllis Grosskurth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 186.
7. See ibid.; and Phyllis Grosskurth, The Woeful Victorian: A Biography of John Addington Symonds (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964). I am grateful to Paul Robinson for sharing with me the material on Symonds from Gay Lives, his forthcoming study of gay autobiographies.
8. Symonds, Memoirs, 96–98, 112–16; Grosskurth, Woeful Victorian, 30–41; Oliver S. Buckton, Secret Selves: Confession and Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 72–83. Symonds’s later reflection on this episode provides important material for a psychoanalytic reading of his moralization of desire: “The chief good which emerged from so much evil for me was I grew to be an intimate friend of my father. No veil remained between us. He understood my character; I felt his in sympathy and relied upon his wisdom. We joined hearts, not only as son and parent, but also as men of diverse temperaments and ages aspiring to the higher life in common” (Memoirs, 116). On p. 185 of the manuscript memoirs at the London Library, Symonds had written a different version of the paragraph, which was then crossed out, with “omit” indicated in the margin. It opens with the same sentence but goes on revealingly: “We became friends in the truest sense of the word, and he obtained an insight into my emotional and moral difficulties—too late indeed to give me any permanent direction, if that had at any time been possible—but yet of value in impressing me with a strong sense of danger.” The link between Symonds’s father’s wisdom and his own sense of danger was suppressed in the final version. I examine the manuscript and typescript of the memoirs in fuller detail in Sodom on the Thames: Love, Lust, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, forthcoming). Quoted by permission of Alan Bell, librarian of the London Library.
9. “My father made me see that, under the existing conditions of English manners, an ardent friendship between me (a young man, gently born, bred at Harrow, advancing to the highest academical honours at Balliol) and Willie (a Bristol chorister, the son of a Dissenting tailor), would injure not my prospects only but his reputation.... the ties which bound me to the class of gentlefolk brought me to look upon myself as an aberrant being, who was being tutored by my father’s highest sense of what is right in conduct. Furthermore, I recognized that in my own affection for Willie there was something similar to the passion which had ruined Vaughan” (Symonds, Memoirs, 116).
10. The pervasiveness of Symonds’s moral conflict about expressing his desires for other men distances him from the “Sporus-like” tradition that Sedgwick correctly identifies as having been available to “aristocratic Englishmen and their personal dependents” for centuries before the nineteenth. She tends to assimilate Symonds to that model, whereas I see him as profoundly engaged in the project of shaping a new style that comports with ethical imperatives so crucial to “gentlemen.” Sedgwick is certainly right to emphasize the way in which the attraction of Whitman must be read against the differences between class structures in Britain and the United States (Between Men, 201–6). Her analysis of the problematic relation between Symonds’s turn to a “new chivalry” and his understanding of the status of women is right on the mark (209–12).
11. Symonds, Memoirs, 129–33; Grosskurth, Woeful Victorian, 65–68; Buckton, Secret Selves, 91–96. This affair, along with a similar controversy regarding Walter Pater, is also treated in Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 86–89.
12. The entanglement of Symonds’s desire for other men with a highly moralized but powerful connection with his father is worth further exploration. His mother died when he was four, and he claimed to have little memory of her. Referring explicitly to the burst of literary activity following his father’s death in 1871, Symonds wrote: “So strangely are we mortals made that God forgive me if I do not believe my father’s watchful supervision would have hampered my energy.... I doubt whether I could have written as freely and published as spontaneously as I have done, had I been conscious of his criticism” (Memoirs, 235).
13. For a fascinating discussion of Symonds’s response to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” see Buckton, Secret Selves, 74–76.
14. Louis Crompton calls attention to an earlier anonymous poem, “Don Leon,” that includes a defense of same-sex desire as part of a long parody of Lord Byron (Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985], 343–62). He also offers a detailed analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s previously unknown writings critical of the sodomy laws. The first substantial treatment of Symonds’s role, and still among the best, is in Weeks, Coming Out, 47–56.
15. John Addington Symonds, Letters, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 1:12, 35–38.
16. Throughout I refrain from using sic to call attention to the idiosyncratic punctuation and spelling in Symonds’s letters and memoirs.
17. Passages like this one are found throughout the literature on Symonds. Wayne Koestenbaum, for instance, writes that “Symonds continually slighted what burned most deeply within him; in his own works, as in the shared Sexual Inversion, he leaves homosexuality a pale matter of longing, rather than a set of specific sex acts” (Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration [New York: Routledge, 1989], 46). The anachronism and reductionism at work here serve a triumphal presentism: “To characterize Symonds as a failure would be gratuitous and uncharitable if I did not also intend to salvage his failure by treating it as representative” (44).
18. Symonds, Letters, 1:446, 2:43.
19. Symonds, typescript from the original manuscript of the Memoirs, London Library, 1:218. Grosskurth does not include this passage in her valuable edition, from which she omits about “one-fifth” of the material (Symonds, Memoirs, 11). Symonds recalled this moment in a letter written to his wife from France on 3 June 1867. While she was confined in England with her second pregnancy, he went abroad with his sister Charlotte on account of his health. The memory of the boy on the bridge was occasioned by their meeting with two older ladies accompanied by a young man. I discuss this episode in some detail in Sodom on the Thames. A severely truncated version of the letter appears in Symonds, Letters, 1:718–20.
20. Symonds, Letters, 1:722. He added, “All this has nothing to do with the ties, inviolably sacred, which bind me to my home, and make me feel my centre there in you [his wife].”
21. Symonds often adapted the language of religious conversion in describing such moments, but they did not mark a final resolution of his sexual confusions. Subsequent accounts of his personal development include a number of such turning points: his reading of Plato, his first kiss with another man, his encounter with the poetry of Whitman.
22. These efforts included historical studies of the cultures of ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance, the celebration of male comradeship in Whitman and other “Arcadian” writers, and collaboration with Ellis in promoting a “psychological” understanding of sexuality.
23. Symonds, Memoirs, 106.
24. Symonds, Letters, 1:446.
25. Similarly, Symonds’s feelings exist uneasily on both sides of a border between the homosocial and homosexual that was yet to be drawn. His self-analysis exposes difficulties that may continue on both sides of the later divide.
26. Earlier in the century in the United States, Henry David Thoreau articulated a similar perspective in his own struggle to achieve an ethic of self-making in the face of dangerous desires. He also shared Symonds’s difficulty in defining the terms of mutuality in relations between men (Kaplan, Sexual Justice, chap. 6).
27. This insistence goes back to Pausanias’s distinction between Uranian or heavenly love and its pandemic or vulgar variety in Plato’s Symposium. A subsequent generation of men who loved boys celebrated their feelings in “Uranian” poetry. Timothy d’Arch Smith treats Symonds as one of their precursors (Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English “Uranian” Poets from 1889 to 1930 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970]).
28. Symonds often invokes Diotima’s speech as an authority for this view. For a queer reading of Plato’s Symposium see Kaplan, Sexual Justice, chap. 3.
29. Although Symonds was later critical of aspects of the campaign for moral reform, he had regularly attended meetings of the nonconforming Plymouth Brethren sect to which his maternal grandmother belonged. In addition, he had a complicated friendship with Josephine Butler, the early feminist and moral reformer (Memoirs, 44–46, 135–36).
30. These types and others are discussed in the next two sections. Although Symonds does not directly address such figures, they appear as the social horizon of his moralizing concerns.
31. See Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality.
32. Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets of 1873 was already replete with homoerotic implications for those who chose to see them. In 1883 he privately printed ten copies of A Problem in Greek Ethics, a study that emphasized the centrality of pederasty as an ethical institution among the ancient Greeks. For a fuller discussion of Symonds’s relation to Hellenism see Kaplan, Sexual Justice, chap. 2.
33. John Addington Symonds, “The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love,” in The Key of Blue and Other Essays (1892; rpt. New York: Arno, 1970).
34. Symonds, Memoirs, 100–102. See also the response of Norman Moor, a former boyfriend, to Symonds’s caution (Symonds, Memoirs, 295–97).
35. Brett to Charles Williamson, 17 November 1892 and 1 February 1893, vol. 1, ESHR 8/3, Esher Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge. At Eton in the 1860s Williamson, known as “Chat,” had struck up a romantic friendship with Brett that lasted, in one form or another, for the rest of their lives. In the second letter Brett continued in a tone that echoes Symonds’s own concerns: “I am told that his character has suffered a little of late years by the audacity of his behaviour. Have you heard anything about him?” Quoted by permission of Lord Esher. See James Lees-Milne, The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2d Viscount Esher (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988), 12–26. I discuss Brett and his circle in detail in Sodom on the Thames.
36. Symonds often distinguished himself from these friends by noting that, whereas they were academic philosophers, he was a poet at heart. His attitude toward philosophy was deeply ambivalent. In this regard he had more in common with Nietzsche, who likewise turned to the ancient Greeks for inspiration, than with his English colleagues.
37. Symonds, Letters, 1:828.
38. “The idea of self, well reflected on, pushed to its utmost limits, conceived in all its gloomy despotism and oppressive omnipresence, is one wh goes nigh to drive one mad. Men have made religions to escape from it; to contemplate Self, not in Itself, not cheek by jowl within the limits of their own circumference, but outside itself, far off in dim reflections and impersonalities”(ibid.). Symonds’s friend and literary executor Horatio F. Brown certainly distorted his subject’s life by eliminating all reference to sexuality and treating his conflicts as religious (John Addington Symonds: A Biography Compiled from His Papers and Correspondence [London: Smith, Elder, 1903]). However, Symonds was caught up in both and saw them as interconnected.
39. In 1865 Symonds wrote: “I have read & reread those [Shakespeare’s] Sonnets & I have never been able to find any of the gross and shameful passion in them.... That they express humiliation & consciousness of some sort of guilt on Shakspere’s part & overmastering affection cannot be denied. It seems also clear that he knew his friend to be unworthy of him and a man of loose life. Yet I find nothing shameful in the poems themselves, nothing that indicates a disgraceful connection between Shakspere & Mr W.H.” (Letters, 1:604).
40. Symonds was less seriously discomfited by the sexism of Greek culture. Although he was sympathetic to some feminist causes, he attempted seriously to moralize only male same-sex desire, largely to refute charges of effeminacy. He was also subject to the prejudices of his race and nation regarding the superiority of white European, especially British, culture. These attitudes were at odds with his own democratic aspirations, and he struggled to find an appropriate practice. For a critique of Symonds’s “orientalism” see Scott Bravmann, Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 47–67; and Eric O. Clarke, “Inseminating the Orient, Disseminating Identity,” in Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism in the Public Sphere (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, forthcoming). Ruth Vanita adds a feminist note: “He seeks [i.e., looks] to male homoeroticism for the manly imperialist ideal” (Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], 71).
41. Symonds, Memoirs, 253.
42. It is puzzling that while Grosskurth includes some short extracts from this material, she omits Catherine’s account of their courtship and first year of marriage, which Symonds included in full. See the manuscript of the Memoirs, London Library.
43. Symonds, Memoirs, 260–61. Symonds does not quote Catherine’s words on this matter as he so frequently does elsewhere in his memoirs.
44. Symonds’s experiences oddly anticipate those of today’s “global gay” and raise questions concerning the relation between liberated cosmopolitanism and sex tourism.
45. Symonds, Memoirs, 266.
46. For a systematic examination of the role of fantasy in constructing sexual subjects and the objects of their desire see Kaplan, Sexual Justice, chap. 4.
47. See, generally, Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700–1830 (London: GMP, 1992). Although Norton’s assimilation of these phenomena to a perennial “gay subculture” is not persuasive and his writing is often over the top, he has gathered a great deal of useful material. For theoretically sophisticated reflections on these phenomena see Randolph Trumbach, “The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Europe, 1660–1750,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey (New York: New American Library, 1989), 129–40.
48. Quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain (London: Heinemann, 1970), 120.
49. See William Roughead, Bad Companions (Edinburgh: Green and Sons, 1930); Jeffrey Weeks, Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality, and Identity (London: Rivers Oram Press; Concord, Mass.: Paul, 1991), 49–51; Neil Bartlett, Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1988), 129–43; and William A. Cohen, Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press; 1996), 73–129. Bartlett, a novelist, actor, and director, has written a personal, learned, and engaging book that brings the gay London of the 1980s into dialogue with the earlier period. Cohen’s brilliant chapter on Boulton and Park is simply the best analysis of the pair and their trial in print.
50. Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 69–89. At the trial of Boulton and Park, however, the lord chief justice made clear his disapproval of the police surgeon’s initiative.
51. The Boulton and Park case was the first in a series of conjunctions of male same-sex desire and prostitution during the nineteenth century that included the Labouchere amendment to the Criminal Law Reform Act of 1885 and the Cleveland Street affair. See Jeffrey Weeks, “Inverts, Perverts, and Mary-Annes: Male Prostitution and the Regulations of Homosexuality in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey, Hidden from History, 195–211. This link could be found up through the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report in 1957. Weeks’s remarkably suggestive essay is in large part the inspiration for my own research.
52. See Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society; Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), 69–86; and Edward J. Bristow, Vice and Vigilance: Purity Movements in Britain since 1700 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977).
53. See Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995).
54. The handwritten verbatim trial transcript is available as DPP 4/6, pt. 1, Public Records Office, London. I treat the trial of Boulton and Park at greater length in Sodom on the Thames.
55. Clinton died before the case went to trial, under circumstances that led to suspicions of suicide.
56. “The verdict seems unbelievable. The evidence of Fanny and Stella’s visibility was converted into proof that they didn’t exist” (Bartlett, Who Was That Man? 142).
57. Quoted in Cohen, Sex Scandal, 112–13.
58. Algernon Swinburne, Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959–62), 3:143–44. After his arrest Solomon was dropped by the bohemian circle of pre-Raphaelite painters and poets with which he had been associated, even though the absence of publicity about his subsequent conviction resulted in his release from jail under supervision six weeks later. Swinburne’s comments were especially pusillanimous. I treat this episode in more detail in Sodom on the Thames.
59. See Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 109–42. Fraser’s conception of “subaltern publics” captures the social reality better than any notion of homogeneous popular opinion.
60. Quoted in Colin Simpson, Lewis Chester, and David Leitch, The Cleveland Street Affair (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), 59.
61. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, with Short Essays on Sodomy and Tribadism, 2 vols. (London, 1881). The contemporary version of the novel (New York: Masquerade, 1992) is based on this text but revises it in major respects. The text is an important document in the history of sexuality; I develop a full reading of it in Sodom on the Thames. Apart from Cohen’s reading of John Saul’s spying on Boulton and Lord Arthur Clinton (Sex Scandal, 123–29), it has not received much scholarly attention. In his landmark study The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Basic, 1966), for example, Steven Marcus misses it completely and consequently argues that homosexual conduct between men was largely absent from that material and displaced onto flagellation scenes.
62. I cannot agree with the assessment of H. Montgomery Hyde, the assiduous but rather old-fashioned and not completely reliable historian of English homosexuality (as he regards it): “Although some of the details of the incidents described in The Sins of the Cities of the Plains [sic] may be exaggerated, the work is based upon fact and no doubt gives a faithful enough picture of a seamy side of contemporary London life” (Other Love, 123). Hyde seems to me even farther off the mark when he writes, regarding the historical Saul, who testified at Ernest Parke’s libel trial in the Cleveland Street affair: “He had given a detailed account of his homosexual activities to the author of The Sins” (Their Good Names: Twelve Cases of Libel and Slander, with Some Introductory Reflections on the Law [London: Hamilton, 1970], 107).
63. A French bookseller named Charles Hirsch claimed to have sold Wilde “certain licentious works of a special genre which he [Hirsch] euphemistically called ‘socratic.’ Most of these were in French, but at least one, he recalled, was in English. This was The Sins of the Cities of the Plain” (H. Montgomery Hyde, A History of Pornography [London: Heinemann, 1964], 149–50).
64. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, 2:100–107, 107–17, 118–22. All quotations are from the 1881 edition, a copy of which I examined at the British Library and use here with permission. Parenthetically I provide page references to comparable passages when they occur in Masquerade Books’ 1992 Badboy version, which is more easily accessible but not reliable.
65. The discourses on prostitution tended to divide women into those who were totally asexual and in need of protection, “angels in the house,” and loose or fallen women who carried the contagion of sexual excess as well as venereal disease.
66. Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (New York: Harpers, 1975), 10.
67. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, 1:9 (8).
68. The historical Saul testified at Parke’s libel trial that he had gone with Lord Euston in a cab to 19 Cleveland Street after meeting him in Piccadilly.
69. Interestingly, the fictional account supports claims that the hotel’s management made in a letter published in the Times during the trial: “No doubt the proprietor was quite innocent of any idea of what our fun really was; but there were two or three dressing rooms into which the company could retire at pleasure.”
70. Symonds, Letters, 3:813.
71. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, 1:86–87 (82).
72. A number of the locales and social milieus in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain are familiar from the Yokel’s Preceptor, Symonds’s Memoirs, and the trial of Boulton and Park.
73. The major source for this discussion is the public prosecutor’s file DPP 1/95/1–7, Public Records Office, London. This file includes statements by witnesses to the police, extensive memorandums exchanged among various officials, records of court proceedings, and clippings from contemporary newspapers. This material was not open for examination until 1976, when two books were published: Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair; and H. Montgomery Hyde, The Cleveland Street Scandal (London: Allen, 1976). Where possible I identify the location of quotations in already published material. Writing in the era of Watergate, Simpson and his colleagues concentrate on the cover-up, while Hyde is interested more broadly in the social regulation of “homosexuality.” For a sensationalistic rehearsal of allegations that Queen Victoria’s grandson was involved in the affair, as well as in the crimes attributed to Jack the Ripper, see Theo Aronson, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld (London: Murray, 1994).
74. These reforms were in part a response to the furor generated by W. T. Stead’s revelations of the traffic in female child prostitutes in the series “The Maiden Tribute to Babylon” in the Pall Mall Gazette. See the fascinating analysis in Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 81–134.
75. Quoted in Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair, 105.
76. Hansard Parliamentary Debates, 3d ser., 341 (1890): 1534.
77. Labouchere’s characterization of the legal context is problematic. He argued that “this offence” had previously been hard to prove and that similar offenses had not been prohibited, which implies that he had made an effort to expand the coverage of the sodomy laws beyond anal intercourse. But he also claimed that the model for his amendment was the French statute that had decriminalized sodomy under the Napoleonic Code in 1815. The only same-sex conduct that remained subject to criminal penalty in France when Labouchere spoke in 1890 involved force, the abuse of minors, or public exhibitionism. Furthermore, Labouchere asserted that he had proposed harsher penalties, which Parliament had reduced, whereas the opposite was true.
78. Quoted in Hyde, Cleveland Street Scandal, 112.
79. See Bristow, Vice and Vigilance.
80. Frank Harris, My Life and Loves (New York: Weidenfeld, 1991), 640.
81. See H. Montgomery Hyde, A Tangled Web: Sex Scandals in British Politics and Society (London: Futura, 1986), 111–45.
82. See Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700–1830 (London: GMP, 1992), 130–33, 191–94; and Crompton, Greek Love, 21–22, 158–71.
83. See Crompton, Greek Love, 12–62.
84. The legal history of the Labouchere amendment forces one to conclude that a much-repeated episode is apocryphal: the law originally proscribed gross indecency between women as well, but this provision was withdrawn when Queen Victoria herself insisted that such a thing was impossible.
85. Recent empirical work has shown that police and judicial enforcement of the laws concerning same-sex conduct did not substantially alter after the passage of the Labouchere amendment in 1885 (see Harry Cocks, “Abominable Crimes: Sodomy Trials in English Law and Culture, 1830–1889” [Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1998]). Nevertheless, it is frequently urged that the ban on gross indecency between men marked a sea change in the social response to male homoeroticism. Some claim that the amendment amounted to a prohibition on homosexuality as such: Koestenbaum, among many others, emphasizes “the possibilities that opened up with the Labouchere Amendment: the ‘invention’ of a world divided into two sexual preferences made possible a vocal, emancipatory gay culture” (Double Talk, 50). This claim gives far too much weight to the legislative arena while ignoring enforcement practices. At the same time, the publicity surrounding the Cleveland Street affair and, even more so, Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency engendered major cultural conflict and set in motion unpredictable social effects. Already in Sexual Inversion Ellis had observed that Wilde’s trials, paradoxically, had encouraged individuals to recognize themselves as “sexual inverts.”
86. In the trial of Boulton and Park, by contrast, medical evidence had figured importantly, if controversially. Contemporary efforts to elucidate the Cleveland Street affair in terms of pathology appear only in private correspondence that did not see the light of day until 1976. In a letter to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, that confirms public suspicions of a cover-up, Sir Dighton Probyn, a high official in the Prince of Wales’s household, expressed concern about the impact of prosecution on Somerset’s family and then wrote, “For the man, in his defense, I can only trust that he is mad.” Similarly, after hearing from Probyn the facts of the case against his equerry, the Prince of Wales wrote the prime minister and referred to “the ‘unfortunate Lunatic’ (I can call him nothing else)” (Hyde, Cleveland Street Scandal, 96). However, these judgments are not specific and make no reference to medical opinion.
87. For a discussion of the linkages between sexual conduct and ethical discourse in the nineteenth century and earlier see Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality, 5–12; and Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 25–42.
88. Quoted in Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair, 68.
89. In fact, George Wright admitted having participated in acts that amounted to Newlove’s attempt to sodomize him. Although initially he denied that he had tried to do such a thing to Newlove in return, toward the end of his statement, in response to Newlove’s assertion, he confessed that he had.
90. D’Arch Smith, arguing that telegraph boys were particularly favored by men who sought sex with youth, quotes a turn-of-the-century writer who described them as “the aristocracy of the messenger world” (Love in Earnest, 29).
91. An aversion to anal penetration, whatever one’s role, appears in Symonds’s Memoirs as well.
92. During the nineteenth century “character” played an increasingly important role in moral and political discourse, which gave an evangelical Christian cast to notions of moral virtue as old as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. See Stefan Collini, “The Idea of Character in Victorian Political Thought,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985): 29–55. Cocks shows that at trials for sexual offenses, character was conflated with reputation and linked to norms of masculinity and middle-class morality (“Abominable Crimes,” 132–86).
93. See Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s, 1982); and Trumbach, “Birth of the Queen.”
94. Indeed, Foucault himself, in his later work explicating the sexual ethos of ancient Greece and Rome, portrays a conceptual frame similar to the one at work in Europe during and after the Renaissance. As David M. Halperin points out, it was a common trope in ancient Greek moralizing to warn responsible fathers to protect both their sons and their daughters from men known to pursue either (“Is There a History of Sexuality?” in Abelove, Barale, and Halperin, Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 416–31).
95. The sodomite is virtually indistinguishable from the rake, a close relative, and the rake is godfather at least to the nineteenth-century dandy. See Trumbach, “Birth of the Queen.”
96. Symonds, Letters, 3:554.
97. See Morris B. Kaplan, “Did My Lord Gomorrah Smile? Social Class, Prostitution, and Sexuality in the Cleveland Street Affair,” in Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century, ed. Nancy Erber and George Robb (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).
98. Richard Dellamora discusses the Cleveland Street affair in relation to the use of homophobia to enforce “compulsory heterosexuality.” Although he recognizes the pervasiveness of social class as an issue, he seems anachronistically to dismiss its importance: “The main point about the legal charges growing out of the scandal is not that aristocrats should be subject to the same penalties as young men involved in the sex trade, but rather that neither group should have been liable to prosecution” (Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990], 12). Dellamora’s comments about the criminalization of the sex trade are suggestive, but he puts too much weight on gross indecency and overlooks the more general interdictions on prostitution. His analysis is further skewed by his focusing on the telegraph boys, none of whom was prosecuted, and neglecting the distinctive figure of John Saul (see esp. 193–212). Dellamora’s discussion of sex scandals is part of a larger argument that the flourishing of discourses of same-sex desire during and after the 1860s was checked by increasingly powerful expressions of homophobia toward the end of the century, culminating in the prosecution of Wilde. His account of the former period is illuminating, but the latter period requires a more nuanced analysis.
99. For a detailed discussion of Somerset see Kaplan, “Did My Lord Gomorrah Smile?”
100. Interestingly, in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain Saul comes from the English countryside. It is tempting to believe that the treatment of the historical Saul was affected by his Irish origins. The only suggestion of it that I have found is one reference to his speaking with a “foreign” accent. Most of the newspapers described his speech as “effeminate.”
101. One name mentioned by Saul surfaces nowhere else in the police reports, court proceedings, or popular press: that of George Cavendish Bentinck, “who frequently visited the home and had to do with boys.” D’Arch Smith describes Bentinck as an “ultra-Tory” member of Parliament who had been a “hard-line opponent” of the Criminal Law Reform Act (Love in Earnest, 169).
102. Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair, 152.
103. Ibid., 154.
104. Walkowitz stresses in Prostitution and Victorian Society that one of the effects of the Contagious Diseases Acts was to transform prostitution from an occasional activity of hard-pressed working-class women into a full-time profession and a stigmatized social status.
105. Saul referred to a recent stint at the Drury Lane Theatre in connection with a performance of The Royal Oak but did not say what his work had been.
106. Standard, 17 January 1890.
107. Quoted in Hyde, Cleveland Street Scandal, 156.
108. Hyde writes that these passages came from the same editorial (Cleveland Street Scandal, 158). In fact, the first appeared in Truth on 23 January 1890, 156–57; the second, on 30 January 1890, 204.
109. Harris had a theory about how the system worked: “The judges almost all come from the upper middle class and invariably, in my experience, toady to aristocratic sentiment. Every Judge’s wife wants to be a Lady (with a capital, please, printer!), and her husband as a rule gets ennobled the quicker the more he contrives to please his superiors in the hierarchy” (My Life and Loves, 337).
110. Quoted in Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair, 164.
111. The violent approval of Parke’s imprisonment crossed class and party lines. The Labour Elector, published by the dockers’ union, whose strike in the previous year Parke had supported, treated Euston as a victim of injustice with a right to defend his injured honor: if he “had gone to the office and there and then twisted the little wretch’s neck nobody would have blamed him. We are not, as a rule, in favour of Lynch Law, but there are undoubtedly cases in which it is permissible, and this was one. Penal servitude for life or for a lengthened period of years might have met the justice of the case; but twelve months’ imprisonment, without hard labour, is little better than mockery” (quoted in Simpson, Chester, and Leitch, Cleveland Street Affair, 164–65).
112. Michael S. Foldy situates the hostility to Wilde in relation to the challenges he posed to the regime of middle-class respectability asserted through moral purity campaigns and radical politics more generally (The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late Victorian Society [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997]). Foldy is especially good at tracing the scandal to divisions in the Liberal Party. But I find his identification of Wilde with the self-consciously rebellious stance of a Sadean sodomite unpersuasive. Wilde’s work and career were far too deeply entangled in the society whose norms he subverted. Saul strikes me as a more plausible candidate to pose such a threat, although without any such evident intentions. Wilde’s famous speech in defense of “the love that dare not speak its name,” which resulted in a hung jury at his first criminal trial, reiterated ethical arguments familiar from Symonds. Part of the difficulty was the juxtaposition of Wilde’s high rhetoric with the stories of the male prostitutes and blackmailers who emerged from the sexual underworld to testify against him. It is an interesting question why these men were believed when Saul was vilified. The difference turns in part on the social distance between Euston, heir to a duke, and Wilde, middle-class aesthete, playwright, and Irishman. The complex configuration of class, radical politics, moral conflict, and consumer culture in the Wilde affair is well analyzed in Regenia A. Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986).
113. I owe this point to Tracy Strong.