- Dandies, Acolytes and Teddy Boys:Ambiguous Treatment of Male Sexuality in Barbara Pym's Novels of the 1950s
Barbara Pym's novels of the 1950s realistically depict the lives of educated upper middle-class women at that time. Pym, however, seems largely uninterested in developing conventionally masculine and "eligible" male characters. Instead, her novels contain a wide array of men who do not seem to conform to contemporary ideas of masculinity. Almost all of them are part of the Anglo-Catholic Church —a form of High Anglicanism that places particular value on Catholic traditions within the Church of England. This paper will examine Pym's ambiguous treatment of male sexuality and her approach to the historical connection between Anglo-Catholicism and homosexuality.
In its ambiguous representation of masculinity Pym's fiction evokes cultural dispositions, stereotypes and clichés that were popular in the English upper-middle-class and around in the Anglo-Catholic environment. Many statements that might seem obscure to the modern reader were transparent to her original reader; they formed a subtext which Pym's target audience would have sensed. I shall demonstrate that Pym's literary use of these stereotypes neither compromises the individualization of her male characters nor implies moral judgment or religious condemnation on the author's part.
Pym's attempts to represent homosexual tendencies appear as early as Crampton Hodnet (1939, published posthumously in 1985) which is set in North Oxford before World War Two. The cast of characters in this novel includes two minor comic figures —the students Michael and Gabriel. Named after the two angels (no family names are given), they are inseparable and indistinguishable from one another: two elegantly dressed (8) upper-class "old Etonians" (7), interested only in their aesthetic pursuits and prone to an affected, stylized manner of [End Page 107] conversation.1 They "are really interested in Art" (9), "engrossed in dear Lord Tennyson" (10), fond of dancing and fascinated by ballet (71). "We feel we must express ourselves in movement," they say, "We've been playing Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps all day, and we're simply shattered by it" (81).2
Michael and Gabriel evoke the figure of the effeminate dandy associated with Oscar Wilde. For Pym's target audience, effeminacy was likely to mean homosexuality; tellingly, the two are referred to by another student as "two giggling pansies" (CH 9). According to Alan Sinfield, the equation of the Wildean stereotype with homosexuality was a relatively new development that had crystallized by Pym's time:
The idea that effeminacy in Wilde's comedies means "homosexuality" is incorrect. . . . It is a mistake to suppose that Wilde and his audiences "really" had a concept of gayness like our own. . . . The modern idea of the homosexual was in the process of getting constituted largely . . . through the figure of Wilde himself. For us, it is hard to regard Wilde as other than the apogee of gay experience and expression, because that is the position we have accorded him in our cultures; the principal mid-twentieth-century stereotype was made in his image. For us, he is always already queer. But that is after the event —after the trials helped to produce a major shift in perceptions of same-sex passion.(1994: 34-35) [End Page 108] 3
Michael and Gabriel of Crampton Hodnet seem to waltz their way through life, well liked by their milieu. However, the pre-war tolerance of homosexuality reflected in this early novel no longer exists in Pym's work of the 1950s. According to John Brannigan, prosecutions for male homosexual offences increased fivefold between 1939 and 1953 (2002: 133). Although homosexuality had yet to be legalized in Britain, there had been several decades of tolerance, after which homosexuals once again suffered from discrimination and criminal prosecution.4 In 1953-1954, when a number of prominent homosexual men were put on trial, the courtroom discourse emphasized the stereotype of male homosexuals as "decadent, corrupt, effete, and effeminate" (Weeks 162). These negative labels were reinforced by popular newspapers that presented male homosexuals as the corrupters of youth, poisoners of society, and traitors (163). Moreover the Kinsey Report, published in the United States in 1948, claimed...