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Dutch and Flemish Literature  
 
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Dutch is the language of twenty-one million people in The Netherlands and Flanders. Although the Dutch-speaking regions are small, the history of gay and lesbian literature in the Low Countries is rich and varied, reflecting the changing concepts of intimate relations between people of the same sex.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, accounts of and female transvestites appeared in newspapers, pamphlets, popular songs, stories, and plays. These accounts bear traces of distinct sexual and gender identities, but the sodomites and transvestites of this period were very different from modern gay men and lesbians. The same holds for the more or less "spiritual" male and female friendships of the day that were frequently celebrated in literature.

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Female Romantic Friendships

Betje Wolff (1738-1804) and Aagje Deken (1741-1804) were the most famous Dutch female romantic friends of the eighteenth century. Together, they wrote several successful epistolary novels, which gave moral and pedagogical advice to young women. In their letters and collections of "edifying poems" (Stichtelijke Gedichten), they praised the fruits of true, unselfish friendship, a relationship embedded in strong religious feelings.

"Kindred spirits" like Wolff and Deken were criticized and ridiculed by male contemporaries not because of their same-sex relationship, but because of the fact that as "savantes," or learned women, they entered the male territory of scholarship and intellectualism.

Male Romantic Friendships

In the nineteenth century, a comparable friendship cult developed among students, who formed an all-male community. Johannes Kneppelhout (1814-1885) called this romantic comradeship "the real, pithy passion of youth" and expressed it in several stories, poems, and, especially, letters to his friends.

In Kneppelhout's view, friendship meant more than fellowship between peers. His experiences as a teacher in a boarding school and his reading of Plato's Symposium led to the conviction that friendship and education should go hand in hand. In an essay written in French, L'éducation par l'amitié (1835), he argues that an older friend must discover and stimulate the talents of his younger companion.

The well-to-do, dandylike Kneppelhout applied his ideas in his patronage of young artists like the violinist Jan de Graan. In Een beroemde knaap (A Famous Boy [1875]). Kneppelhout painted a warm portrait of his capricious protégé, who died at the early age of twenty-one years.

His relationship with another yet unidentified boy, called Vischboer or perhaps of the profession of fish dealer (in Dutch "vischboer"), led to rumors of indecent practices. The gossip was never confirmed, but it inhibited Kneppelhout from initiating new intimate friendships with boys. He left the town of Leiden and retreated to a country estate in Oosterbeek.

The Flemish priest, teacher, and poet Guido Gezelle (1830-1899) also voiced strong feelings for some of his pupils. Gezelle expressed the "spiritual twofoldness" between master and student in some of his best poems.

Gezelle's feelings may have been platonic. Certainly, some of his admirers resist any suggestion that his feelings for his pupils were sexual.

Nevertheless, his relationship with Eugène van Oye, whom he admired for his "angelic innocence" and whom he tried to comfort in his loneliness in the seminary, was deep indeed. It struck him as a tragedy when van Oye left the seminary in Roeselare in 1859. In his lamentation "To an Absent Friend," published in 1862, he called his loss greater than that of a mother missing her child.

The Twentieth Century

It was not until 1892 that the word homosexuality was introduced in Dutch. In a period of some fifteen years, new concepts of same-sex relationships, like the biological idea of a "third sex," became widely known, existing alongside older theological and vernacular characterizations of individuals who engaged in same-sex behaviors.

By the turn of the twentieth century, intimate friendship between two people of the same sex, especially between men, became highly suspicious. The two most important novelists who depicted homosexuality at this time, Louis Couperus and Jacob Israël de Haan, handled the new concepts in very different ways.

Louis Couperus

Couperus (1863-1923) is one of Holland's most famous writers. In his work, homoeroticism is a common theme, but never a central one. Couperus, who married his cousin, was a dandylike aesthete, who evinced strong interest in other men. Alongside "stocky," "big" men, modeled on some of his friends, he also depicted in his novels types, with whom Couperus personally identified.

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