glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Acton, Harold (1904-1994)  

Among the "Bright Young Things" of British society during the 1920s, few shone quite as brightly as Harold Acton. Known for his flamboyant dandyism and his extraordinary demeanor, he was the object of frequent mention in gossip columns. He may also have been the inspiration for the notorious Anthony Blanche, the outré homosexual undergraduate character in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), although Waugh himself claimed that Brian Howard inspired the character.

Although he was at various points in his long life a poet, novelist, historian, university lecturer, Royal Air Force officer, and philanthropist, Acton's true vocation was that of an aesthete with a mission, in his own words, to "excite rage in the hearts of the Philistines."

Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton was born at Villa la Pietra, his family's estate near Florence, Italy, on July 5, 1904. His father claimed to be the descendant of an aristocratic English Catholic family who had resided in Italy since the eighteenth century, and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy American family.

Given his background, Acton was inevitably an exotic outsider as a student at Eton and subsequently Christ Church, Oxford. With his penchant for shocking narrow minds, he strove to emphasize rather than repress his eccentricities and seeming decadence and based his values on fashion, art, fantasy, and extravagant decorum, all of which flew in the face of traditional Victorian mores and masculine ideals.

While still an undergraduate, Acton published two volumes of poetry, Aquarium (1923) and An Indian Ass (1925). He was editor of the journal Oxford Poetry for one year (1924), in which he declared himself an advocate of "post-[T. S.] Eliot" verse.

One of the best-known anecdotes of Acton's undergraduate years involved his reciting Eliot's poem The Waste Land through a megaphone at a garden party at Worcester College, an action replicated by Waugh's fictional character. Acton became acquainted with Waugh, who engaged in homosexual affairs at Oxford, while both were undergraduates. Waugh was obviously fascinated with Acton, as the latter probably served as a model not only for Blanche but also, in part, for the outrageously queeny Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags (1942).

Acton returned to Italy after receiving a baccalaureate degree in 1926, and published a historical work, The Last Medici (1932). Distressed with the expansion of fascism in his native country, he departed for China, and resided there from 1932 until the beginning of World War II. While there, he taught English literature at Peking National University, translated and published an edition of Chinese poetry, and cultivated a predilection for Chinese art and drama. With the outbreak of war, he returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force. He saw duty in India and Ceylon, and, by his own account, was "humbled yet exhilarated" in the company of heroic men.

In 1945, Acton resumed his residence in Italy and set about writing his autobiographical Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), the work for which he is primarily remembered. In this volume and its sequel, More Memoirs of an Aesthete (1970), Acton is, for the period in which he wrote, uncommonly open about his sexuality.

His most exacting effort, however, is a two-part study and vindication of the monarchy his paternal ancestors had allegedly long served, The Bourbons of Naples (1957) and The Last Bourbons of Naples (1961).

Acton was awarded the distinction of Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974.

Acton died at Villa la Pietra on February 27, 1994. Having no immediate heirs, he left his $500,000,000 estate, including his Italian Renaissance villa and extensive art collections, to New York University.

Following his death, however, DNA testing allegedly revealed the existence of a half-sister, whose heirs have challenged his will. Although Italian courts have rejected the claim, it continues to make its way through U.S. courts.

Patricia Juliana Smith


Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Literature
Popular Topics:

Social Sciences

Stonewall Riots
Stonewall Riots

Gay Liberation Front

The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980
The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980

Leather Culture

Anthony, Susan B.
Anthony, Susan B.

Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence



Computers, the Internet, and New Media



   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns]

Although Eliot tried to suppress the fact, The Waste Land is an elegy for a young Frenchman whom he met and loved in Paris and who died in the Great War in 1915.

literature >> Howard, Brian

Aesthete Brian Howard is notable for being a most extraordinary failure, remembered mostly as an interesting secondary figure among the "Brideshead Generation," the mostly homosexual "Bright Young Things" of Oxford in the 1920s.

literature >> Waugh, Evelyn

Evelyn Waugh, who had homosexual affairs while at Oxford but later led a heterosexual life, treated homosexuals both nostalgically and contemptuously in his novels.


Acton, Harold. Memoirs of an Aesthete. London: Methuen, 1948.

__________. More Memoirs of an Aesthete. London: Methuen, 1970.

Green, Martin. Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England after 1918. London: Constable, 1977.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Acton, Harold  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 5, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.