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English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
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In contrast, nineteenth-century English homosexual writing shows a clear sense of homosexual difference, and a related sense of a distinct homosexual oppression, existing among writers from the very start of the age, senses that, if we are meant to take the "new-inventionist" view of homosexuality strictly, could not have emerged in England until the years 1885 to 1892 (the dates of the Labouchere Amendment criminalizing "gross indecency between males" separately for the first time and of the first English translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, the book that started the new widespread sexology).

There is certainly more homosexual literature in the later 1800s in England, but, as evident here, there is significant earlier nineteenth-century homosexual writing as well, and the "bursts" in amount and relative frankness later in the age start well before 1885-1892.

The social changes cited by new-inventionists certainly affected the homosexual situation in many ways and may be crucial in the history of sexuality in other respects. But nineteenth-century English homosexual literature prompts us to look for the origins of modern homosexual consciousness and expressiveness less in the social-history factors currently favored by academics and more in a complex of both broader and more concrete elements.

First, the increase in English homosexual writing right at the start of the nineteenth century identifies the years around 1800 as one of the most pivotal periods in homosexual history and suggests that the ideological revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement were crucial spurs to a relatively greater homosexual self-acceptance and expressiveness at that time.

Among the key concepts of those movements that would have weakened the constraints on homosexuality and imparted a greater sense of possibility to homosexuals themselves were the new valuing of individual sensibility and of social and personal equality and the new "spiritualizing" or "de-materializing" of Nature, a "spiritualizing" that loosened the connection between Nature and the notion of physical production and instead legitimized as "natural" in themselves the exchange of passionate feelings and the forging of harmonious intimate bonds without any necessary material "result."

These concepts would have accentuated and given more positive meaning to homosexuality's minority status, to the anatomical and gender-role "sameness" inherent in its relationships, and to its innate nonbiological procreativeness.

For instance, without the new "spiritualizing" of Nature, the "Don Leon" poet could probably not have so aggressively proclaimed homosexuality's "no other blossoms than its own" nor Symonds defended its "immaterial breed."

The other point suggested by nineteenth-century English homosexual literature is that homosexual writing itself was pivotal in the acceleration of modern homosexual consciousness and expressiveness.

As mentioned, not all the writers in the era's homosexual literary tradition knew of one another's work. But, unconnected as they chiefly are to the large-scale social shifts emphasized by new-inventionists, the decade-by-decade "bursts" in homosexual literature in the second half of the century seem stimulated mainly by the breakthroughs in accessible homosexual writing in the years immediately preceding them--for example, by the models of Tennyson and Johnson/Cory in the 1850s, of Whitman and Swinburne in the 1860s, of Symonds and Pater in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, and of Wilde in the 1890s (before as well as after his scandal)--as if available homosexual speech itself spurred progressively more homosexual speech in the age.

The new-inventionist view of homosexual history assumes a "non- homosexuality," or, contradictorily, an "empty" homosexuality, until the phenomenon is created "top-down" by large-scale social changes.

In contrast, the example of nineteenth-century English homosexual literature suggests more of an "inward-out" pattern to homosexual history. Its persistence, unity, and later quickening implies that homosexual consciousness is always latent in the distinct texture of individual homosexual experience (though perhaps with a special pointedness under heterosexual cultural domination) and only needs enabling conditions like the ones I have just sketched to know and declare itself.

Joseph Cady

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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Romanticism

Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

social sciences >> Overview:  London

The capital of the United Kingdom and one of the world's largest and most interesting cities, London has recently become home to an active and diverse glbtq population.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

literature >> Beckford, William

Extremely wealthy and connected to the aristocracy, British author and connoisseur William Beckford was ostracized by English society for the last sixty years of his life because of his homosexuality.

literature >> Bentham, Jeremy

The most notable law reformer in the English-speaking world, English philosopher, jurist, economist, and political scientist Jeremy Bentham argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality in a series of papers first published in full in 1985.

social sciences >> Burton, Sir Richard F.

Although evidence of his own homosexual leanings is inconclusive, in his lifetime Sir Richard Burton was regarded with suspicion because of his knowledge and understanding of same-sex sexual activity.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

literature >> Butler, Samuel

The English novelist Samuel Butler had a predilection for intense male friendships, which is reflected in several of his works.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Carpenter, Edward

Edward Carpenter, a champion of both women's and homosexuals' liberation, was one of the great socialist visionaries of England at the turn of the twentieth century.

literature >> Corelli, Marie

The popular English novelist Marie Corelli is now known chiefly as a camp figure who inspired E. F. Benson's Lucia.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

literature >> Field, Michael [Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913)]

Lesbian lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, writing as Michael Field, collaborated on a number of plays and eight volumes of verse, many of which had lesbian contents.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Hopkins, Gerard Manley

In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian period, the sexually-repressed Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine.

literature >> Housman, A. E.

A. E. Housman's poetry is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history.

literature >> Kipling, Rudyard

Rudyard Kipling, England's "Laureate of Empire," fashioned himself as the conscience of the English-speaking world, but the great love of his life was a young man who spurned him and whose sister he married after his friend's sudden death.

social sciences >> The Labouchère Amendment

The Labouchère Amendment criminalized all sexual contact between men in Great Britain in 1885 and remained on the books until 1967.

literature >> Lee, Vernon

Although Vernon Lee does not explore lesbian themes directly in her literary or aesthetic works, she was committed both intellectually and emotionally to other women, and her creative writings reveal a fertile lesbian imagination.

literature >> Lister, Anne

Between 1817 and 1840, the diarist Anne Lister recorded in code her romantic and sexual relationships with several women.

literature >> Michelangelo Buonarroti

Best known for his genius in art and architecture, Michelangelo was also an accomplished author of homoerotic poetry.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

literature >> Rolfe, Frederick William

Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo) is important for the gay literary heritage because of his distinctive decadent prose style, his outrageous decadent lifestyle, and his unashamed celebration of eroticized male friendships in his works.

literature >> Rossetti, Christina

Her sexuality repressed by religion, Christina Rossetti wrote poetry that included highly-charged erotic female-to-female affection.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

arts >> Solomon, Simeon

Known for his association with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, British artist Simeon Solomon created homoerotic works and suffered as a victim of late nineteenth-century English homophobia.

literature >> Somerville, Edith (1858-1949) and Violet Martin (1862-1915)

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who published as Somerville and Ross, were both life and literary partners.

literature >> Strachey, Lytton

The English biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey spoke openly of his homosexuality to his Bloomsbury friends, but his openly gay works were published only after his death.

literature >> Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Algernon Charles Swinburne was interested in flagellation, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and lesbianism, not only for their erotics but also as gestures of social and cultural rebellion.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

social sciences >> Vere Street Coterie

The 1810 conviction of London's Vere Street Coterie led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Cady, Joseph. "John Addington Symonds's Memoirs and Official Mappings of Victorian Homosexuality." Victorian Newsletter 81 (Spring 1992): 47-51.

Collis, Maurice. Somerville and Ross. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.

Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Feasting with Panthers: A New Consideration of Some Late Victorian Writers. London: W. H. Allen, 1967.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Faber, Geoffrey. Oxford Apostles: A Character Study of the Oxford Movement. London: Faber and Faber, 1933.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. New York: Scribner's, 1980.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. The Woeful Victorian: A Biography of John Addington Symonds. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee. Violet Paget, 1856-1935. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Hilliard, David. "Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality." Victorian Studies 25 (1982): 181-210.

Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name: A Candid History of Homosexuality in Britain. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. New York: Putnam's, 1991.

_____. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

_____. With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward Fitzgerald. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

McKenzie, K. A. Edith Simcox and George Eliot. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Masters, Brian. Now Barabbas Was a Rotter: The Extraordinary Life of Marie Corelli. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978.

Mavor, Elizabeth. The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Newsome, David. On the Edge of Paradise: A. C. Benson, the Diarist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Noakes, Vivien. Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Reade, Brian, ed. Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900. New York: Coward-McCann, 1971.

Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Sedgwick, Eve K. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Sturgeon, Mary. Michael Field. London: George G. Harrap, 1922. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet Books, 1977.

Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Cady, Joseph  
    Entry Title: English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 19, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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