In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Urban Desires
  • Matt Cook
Harry Cocks , Nameless offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century, I. B. Tauris, London, 2003; x+258 pp.; £39.50, ISBN 1 86064 890 8.
Matt Houlbrook , Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2005; xii+384 pp.; $19.00, ISBN 0 226 35460.
Seth Koven , Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004; xvii+399 pp.; ISBN 0 691 115923. £18.95.

These are three very different works in terms of theme and period. In Nameless Offences Harry Cocks explores homosexuality chiefly in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century; Seth Koven's Slumming examines the sexual and social politics of East End philanthropy in the later decades of that century; in Queer London (winner of the Longman-History Today Book Award for 2006) Matt Houlbrook moves on to the twentieth century [End Page 292] and the ‘perils and pleasures’ of the capital in the interwar period. Yet taken together these books reinvigorate the history of sexuality. Through an extraordinary attention to detail, and by moving beyond well-worked cases, texts and narratives, they challenge sweeping assumptions about sexual identities and the operation of power in modern Britain.

Histories of sexuality too often deal in abstractions. These books show that grounding historical accounts in precise, perhaps even at first glance banal detail, implies no loss of analytical sophistication. The examination of minor court cases, idle gossip, camp back-chat, urinal interactions, interior décor and much more, exposes the limitations of some of the grander theoretical claims. In the process of fleshing out Michel Foucault's famous argument that the late nineteenth century saw the ‘invention’ of the homosexual, for example, there has been a tendency to overlook the fact that this figure represents only one of a number of ways in which men at that time understood their desires, their masculinity, and the sex they were having. Koven finds that for some of the men working in Toynbee Hall and Oxford House (two London University Settlements) at the end of the nineteenth century the opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality ‘is simply too crude, both descriptively and theoretically’. ‘We are much better served’, he claims, by viewing ‘the emergence of the homosexual … as one of the many fin de siècle personae constructed at the interstices of new ideas about sexuality and gender and religious and social reform impulses’ (p. 276).

Similarly, in his examination of the Whitman Fellowship, a group of male friends in Bolton, Cocks describes the development of a philosophy and language of male intimacy and love much richer and more varied than the typology of sexologists writing at around the same time. These men gained real latitude to explore male-male bonding by not naming their ‘undeniable homoerotic feelings’. We miss the sincerity and seriousness of these men if we insist that their denials of homoerotic intent are only a sign of repression or hypocrisy. Notions of spiritual comradeship and transcendence, Koven and Cocks both suggest, might provide a more fruitful way into some of these relationships than thinking in terms of a homosexual ‘type’. Cocks further challenges the idea of a major paradigm shift in sexual identity at the Victorian fin de siecle by proposing a more gradual change in understandings over the first half of the nineteenth century. He does not deny the significance of late century scandals, sexology, literature and newspapers in enlarging awareness. Crucially, though, he sees these events and texts emerging from longer term shifts in urban cultures, legal and police practice, and understandings of privacy, secrecy and disguise.

Cocks pinpoints changes in the operation of the law and the press very precisely, but he also shows that these changes do not translate directly into notions of identity. He and the other authors acknowledge the power of circulating ideas, ideologies and languages, but they each insist that an individual's behaviour, self conceptualization and choices cannot be [End Page 293] neatly reduced to these forces. They resist pat characterizations and attempt instead to work with the Settlement activists, queens (or queans), homosexuals and sodomites on their own terms. In so doing they...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 292-300
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.