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  • Who’s Afraid Of John Saul? Urban Culture and the Politics of Desire in Late Victorian London
  • Morris B. Kaplan* (bio)

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...