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English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
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Wilde's De Profundis

Between January and March 1897, near the end of his prison term, Oscar Wilde wrote the long letter to Alfred Douglas that was later given the title De Profundis by Robert Ross and that was not published in its entirety until 1962.

One of the most important documents in the history of homosexual writing, De Profundis is in part a male-male love letter and arose from an experience--state imprisonment--that was simply the ultimate expression of the homosexual's outsider, pariah status in Wilde's society.

William Cory's Letters and Journals

Also in 1897, a group of friends and former students published Extracts from the Letters and Journals of William Cory, a work that of course had to be circumspect about Cory's homosexuality and his Eton scandal, but that seems to assume an audience conversant with them.

A.C. Benson

Among the subscribers listed in the front of the book is A. C. Benson (1862-1925), one of the three homosexual sons of the Archbishop of Canterbury and from 1915 Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Inspired by Cory's Extracts, Benson began his own diary in 1897 and continued it until his death.

Filling 180 manuscript volumes, the diaries have never been published in anything near their entirety though a discreet selection was made by Percy Lubbock in 1927, and they are the basis of a recent book by David Newsome. Benson's diaries may contain a wealth of information about English male homosexual writers and cultural figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Wilde's Last Letters

Wilde's letters after his release from prison are also important documents of nineteenth-century homosexual writing and parallel in several ways the Beckford letters to Fracchi discussed earlier.

For instance, Wilde's March 1898 letter to George Cecil Ives, a British homosexual liberation pioneer and later a dominant figure in the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, recalls Beckford's remark about the Vere Street scandal: "Yes: I have no doubt we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act would do any good."

Lytton Strachey

Also written around this time, and sparked by the Wilde scandal, is one of the earliest works of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), an unfinished piece called "Curious Manuscript" that purports to be the story of a married man hounded out of his country after losing a slander suit against a contemporary who had accused him of homosexual relations.

"Why, I wish to know," the protagonist asks, "is it perfectly moral for me to copulate with a personage whose sexual organs are different from my own, and perfectly immoral for me to copulate with a personage whose sexual organs are not different?"; "Curious Manuscript" remained unpublished until 1972.

Butler on Shakespeare's Sonnets

Finally, at the very end of the century, we find a homosexual author once again declaring Shakespeare's Sonnets a homosexual text. In his 1899 Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered and in Part Rearranged, Samuel Butler discusses the Sonnets as illustrative of "the love that passeth the love of women" and concludes that "the love of the English poet for Mr. W. H. was . . . more Greek than English."


Compared to homosexual writing in the immediately preceding eras, nineteenth-century English homosexual literature is more abundant, continuous, and, in its later years, relatively more frank. (For additional writers in the tradition I have not been able to mention here, see Brian Reade's 1970 anthology, Sexual Heretics.)

Beyond those qualities, the most remarkable aspect of this literature is its challenge to the currently popular academic argument that homosexuality is a late nineteenth-century "invention."

Its proponents arrive at this loosely defined notion by citing the large-scale social changes pertaining to same-sex sexuality that occurred in the late nineteenth century, particularly the first appearance of laws directed specifically against homosexuality rather than against a more generalized "sodomy" (though this in fact happened only in two countries, Germany in 1871 and England in 1885), and the rise of sexological science and the coining of our modern terminology of "homosexuality" (though in fact a differentiating language for same-sex attraction had existed for centuries, such as the terms "masculine love" and "sapphic love" and words like "sodomy" and "pederasty" that had different technical meanings but in practice often designated homosexuality only).

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