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  • British Aestheticism, Sexology, and Erotica:Negotiating Sexual Discourses in Teleny
  • Frederick D. King (bio)

Privately published in two volumes by Leonard Smithers for the Erotika Biblion Society (1888–96) and sold for four guineas per copy, the erotic novel Teleny; or, The Reverse of the Medal: A Physiological Romance of To-Day (1893) is situated, by the conditions of its clandestine publication, within a diverse collection of works that range from the seemingly scientific to blatantly “obscene” works of erotica to the poetry and prose of British Aestheticism and Decadence. Distribution practices by publishers and booksellers such as Smithers that placed erotica side by side with medical and literary texts make Teleny an important document in debates about the role of sex in late-Victorian society for readers who purchased and collected these rare and discreetly circulated texts. The novel directly addresses interpretations of same-sex desire and pleasure from legal, moral, medical, and aesthetic perspectives. The result is a work of fiction that critiques the marginalization of same-sex desire, using Decadent interpretations of British Aestheticism to question the taxonomical methods of sexology, the obscenity labels imposed on works that evoke erotic pleasure, and the consequences of the legal and moral alienation of same-sex desire. Countering ideas that acts of sodomy and the homosexual “species” (Foucault 43) were somehow repulsive, Teleny integrates Aesthetic philosophies of beauty and sensation into its interpretation of same-sex desire and pleasure.

Teleny follows Camille Des Grieux, a young man successfully managing his family business, who attends a charity concert at which Hungarian pianist René Teleny performs. During Teleny’s performance, he and Des Grieux share a telekinetic experience of synesthesia that results in the best performance of Teleny’s career and the sexual arousal of Des Grieux. Overwhelmed by his desire, Des Grieux attempts to avoid contact with Teleny and begins to tell his listener—an unnamed character who speaks at the novel’s beginning and end—how he has struggled with his desire for men throughout his life and how his attempts to have sex with women have resulted in scenes of shame, violence, and death. Des Grieux contemplates suicide but is stopped by Teleny, who takes him back to his rooms, where they have sex and declare their love for one another. Thereafter, however, the lovers’ lives begin to unravel: Des Grieux narrates the death of the Spahi during a homoerotic orgy, a threat of blackmail by the jealous Briancourt, and Teleny’s decision to [End Page 163] trade sex for money from Des Grieux’s mother. When Des Grieux discovers his betrayal, Teleny commits suicide, and a public spectacle exposes their relationship in the press. Des Grieux is socially ruined; nevertheless, he survives the ordeal and years later tells his story, passing on his experiences to another man and thus implying an established community of men who are interested in Des Grieux’s presentation of love between men.

Teleny incorporates Aestheticism’s pursuit of sensation, sexology’s medical terminology, and erotica’s exploration of graphic sex and violence, indicating that its writers,1 and perhaps its readers, were familiar with these various discourses of sexuality. Sarah Bull argues that in the late-nineteenth century, sexology and pornography were interrelated sexual discourses because publishers such as Charles Carrington sold both kinds of texts and did not necessarily differentiate between these genres, encouraging the integration of “scholarly conventions” and the “new scientific language” of sexology into works of erotica (55). By incorporating sexology’s scientific language, Carrington and other publishers such as Smithers could claim works of pornography as educational works of sexual science designed to promote public health. Bull argues that because the audience for both works “ranged from sexual scientists to prurient masturbators” (56), the publication of erotica “made visible sexual science’s indeterminate place in the literary field, simultaneously dramatizing Victorian Britain’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with the necessity of empirical sexual description to scientific enquiry and challenging the logic of efforts to differentiate science from pornography” (56). I argue that the interrelationship of science and erotica is further complicated by Aesthetic writers, who incorporated erotic and medical discourses of same-sex desire into...


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pp. 163-179
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