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English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
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Homosexual Writing in the Earlier Nineteenth Century

Notwithstanding this homophobic climate, homosexual writing persisted during these years. The earliest authors in the nineteenth-century English homosexual literary tradition were carryovers from the late eighteenth century, where they had already done important homosexual work.

William Beckford

For example, one of the most revealing homosexual documents early in the period is by William Beckford (1759-1844), who had included homosexual implications in his famous oriental tales of the 1780s, Vathek and Episodes of Vathek, and who was the subject of a well-known homosexual scandal in 1784. This is Beckford's correspondence with Gregorio Franchi, a former employee who was also homosexual.

Numbering over 1,100 items, only a small fraction of which have been published, Beckford's letters to Franchi show him with a clear sense of membership in a persecuted group. On July 11, 1810, he describes the Vere Street victims as "Poor sods! . . . What a pity not to have a balcony in Bow Street to see them pass, and worse still not to have a magic wand to transform into a triumph the sorry sequence of events."

And commenting on a newspaper report about the hanging of "a poor honest sodomite" in letters of September and October 1816, he declares, "I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices. . . . The stupid, hypocritical, bloodthirsty vermin! The day will come when their . . . stinking hypocrisies will be revealed to the eyes of all Europe."

Jeremy Bentham

Another earlier figure, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), also addressed homosexual topics in work that could not then be published (and still has not been). Advancing on his 1785 "Paederasty" essay, between 1814 and 1818 Bentham drafted almost 500 manuscript pages defending same-sex sexuality against the prejudice of religion and the law.

Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby

Similarly, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829), who together with Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) made up the lesbian couple known as the Ladies of Llangollen, continued her journal into the nineteenth century (only partly published to this day). Sections sprinkled with references to "my Better half" and "My Beloved" survive for 1807 and 1819.

Lord Byron

The first exclusively nineteenth-century British author of homosexual writing was Byron (1788-1824), whose correspondence with Cambridge friends like Charles Skinner Matthews is suffused with homosexual awareness and whose homosexual writings cluster near the beginning and end of his overwhelmingly heterosexual public literary career.

Byron employs and expands on two conventions from earlier homosexual writing that will also figure prominently later in the century--the language of "friendship" to describe homosexual attachment, which provided convenient protection while accurately expressing the greater potential for equality in same-sex romantic bonds; and a combination of the elegiac and military frameworks, where passionate same-sex statements can be made under the cover of a battle situation and can be further blunted for outsider readers by the fact that the beloved may die.

Byron's early homosexual poems chiefly concern the Cambridge chorister John Edlestone, whose gift of a ring he commemorates in the 1806 poem "The Cornelian" and whom he memorializes after his death from consumption in the heterosexualized "Thyrza" series of 1811-1812, where he turns Edlestone into a woman.

During the same years, Byron also published a revealing prose poem called "The Death of Calmar and Orla" (1807), about the exclusive attachment of two warriors, one of whom lives out his life alone after the other dies in battle.

Byron's last poems also have a strong homosexual component, with their focus on his frustrated attraction to Loukas Chalandritsanos, who served as his page during the Greek campaign in which he died.

Anne Lister

Some of the century's frankest and most extensive homosexual writing also appears in these early years and is also one of the few examples we now have of candid nineteenth-century English lesbian literature. These are the recently discovered journals of Anne Lister (1791-1840), a Yorkshire estate owner who from 1817 to 1840 kept a detailed coded account of her romantic and sexual relationships with other women locally and abroad, especially with her chief lover, Marianna Lawton, who eventually married.

The two volumes of selections that have been published so far, from 1817 to 1826, are a gold mine of earlier modern lesbian language, communication, and consciousness. Here women talk of "Sapphic love," and Lister is emphatically aware of her same-sex orientation.

She burns courtship verses sent to her by a man, she declares, so "that no trace of any man's admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs."

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