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English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature. Like earlier and later homosexual writing, it was fettered by oppression, particularly by the long-standing cultural claim that same-sex desire was "unspeakable."

As it did in previous eras, this ban on any public and positive expression of a homosexual orientation imposed two general patterns on nineteenth-century homosexual writing. It remained unpublished or was printed only for private circulation; or, when published publicly, its homosexual content was substantially camouflaged or buffered.

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Nineteenth-Century Departures from Earlier Homosexual Writing

Yet nineteenth-century English homosexual literature also departs from earlier homosexual writing in several significant ways.

Most immediately, it is more abundant and persistent. The homosexual literature of the 140-year period that makes up the long eighteenth century in England was limited to the work of about fifteen men and women, whereas in the next hundred years at least sixty authors produced homosexual writing if we count minor as well as major figures.

In addition, earlier English homosexual writing occurred mainly in separate episodes or clusters, whereas nineteenth-century English homosexual writing proceeds uninterruptedly throughout the whole period.

Furthermore, though the theme is not new to the nineteenth century, the age's homosexual writing seems better able to express the differing existential textures of homosexuality and heterosexuality--that is, the contrasts between homosexuality as a nonbiologically procreative love between "sames" and heterosexuality as a love between "differents" that is traditionally thought to be validated only by offspring.

Significant differences and changes also occur within nineteenth-century English homosexual literature. Based on current knowledge, there is considerably more male than female homosexual writing in the century, though the age's lesbian writing contains one of the era's frankest and most detailed homosexual documents.

Furthermore, this literature as a whole does not have the steadily progressive development we usually associate with a tradition. Some of the century's homosexual writers recognized and were influenced by others, but, as mentioned, authors usually had to write indirectly and sometimes withheld their work from publication altogether.

As a result, nineteenth-century English homosexual literature is a mixture of an incremental, linear tradition, in which authors build on others' examples, and a body of recurring assays, in which authors working independently restate the same motifs and concerns.

Moreover, there are marked increases in both the amount and relative openness of English homosexual writing in the course of the century, with a relatively stable stream of writing for the first half of the century followed by significant, if not totally uniform, "bursts" occurring every decade from 1850 on.

Despite these variations, nineteenth-century English homosexual literature conveys the overall impression of continuity and unity rather than of rupture and discrepancies.

For example, from the very start of the century authors express a definite homosexual orientation and awareness, together with senses of homosexual oppression and of the more profound existential differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality. What changes during the century is not the existence of those awarenesses in themselves, but the relatively greater opportunities authors have to refine and voice them with a limited degree of frankness.

Continuing Homophobia and Persecution

The early nineteenth century in England saw statements by cultural figures that echoed eighteenth-century spokespersons like the historian Edward Gibbon and that also expressed official public attitudes that remained static throughout the century.

In 1803, Samuel Taylor Coleridge described male-male love as "that very worst of all possible vices" in defending Shakespeare's Sonnets against a homosexual interpretation.

Even Shelley, in his relatively more progressive "Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love" (1818), referred to male-male "passion" as a subject "inconceivable to the imagination of a modern European" and one that "the laws of modern composition scarcely permit a modest writer to investigate." (Fittingly, the complete "Discourse" was not published until 1931, in a limited private edition, and not available to a general readership until 1949.)

The most notorious homosexual scandal at this time was the 1810 Vere Street affair, in which several men were arrested at a London gay tavern and later savagely pilloried. As the work of H. Montgomery Hyde and Louis Crompton has shown, this was no isolated incident, but part of a pattern of blatant homosexual persecutions that continued for several decades.

There were on average two hangings a year for male-male between 1806 and 1836, in contrast to one or two per decade during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Other notorious homosexual scandals of these years were the 1822 arrest of the Bishop of Clogher and the 1833 and 1841 arrests of William Bankes, a Cambridge friend of Byron and former member of Parliament.

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