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literature

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English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  

Sodomitical arrangements based on real-life cross-dressing were equally diverse. For example, it is impossible to conceive of the historical "Beau Wilson"--Edward Wilson, an adolescent youth from Norfolk, who came to London in 1690 and was soon "kept" in sumptuous style by an admirer--as executing his dangerous amorous liaison with an anonymous nobleman, or noble woman, without the device of cross-dressing: The confusion enabled their nocturnal visitations.

In Love-Letters (1723) an anonymous author wrote about their torrid affair a generation after it had supposedly occurred and emphasizes why Wilson entered his lover's house each night dressed as a woman and emerged the next morning in the garb of a man.

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The Moral Backlash of the Early Eighteenth Century

But as the 1690s wore out, a backlash against these practices abetting gender ambiguity and sexual license gave way to severe moral rectitude and campaigns for change. Jeremy Collier spearheaded the reform of the stage, decrying its explicitly sexual material and claiming it was corrupting Britain's youth. New societies for the reform of manners and propagation of Christian values arose seeking to quash the sexual liberty of previous decades.

As a result, what had been above surface went below, and in just a decade or two, the attitude toward homosexuality in England assumed a meaner aspect: more stringent, less tolerant, legally severer than it had been for generations.

Few texts illuminate these transformations more clearly than the Love Letters. It is inconceivable that this small work of about forty pages could have been written a generation earlier--in the 1690s--when its historical plot is set.

By the 1720s, the English novel and the social needs it fulfilled had begun to develop, its cultivation of diverse epistolary forms a subtle means of coping with the new stresses brought by urbanization to relations between the genders.

Its "plot within the plot"--the story of Chloris and her amours--verges on pornography and narrates one of the earliest scenes of homosexual blackmail in literature.

It is also a path-breaker in the developing novel itself and significant for the way it encodes literature and politics within a homosexual matrix. It can be read as political allegory, its versions of deviant sexuality the camouflage for diverse interest groups. Its author represents sentimental attachment purely in erotic terms, as in the nobleman's idealization of young Willy and his "ruby lips," and the mysterious plot compels the reader to wonder about the necessity for secrecy in all homoerotic liaisons.

Some readers of 1723 must have pondered what all-male erotic attachments were if de rigeur they had to be represented through such extreme secrecy.

The Development of a Homosexual Subclass

Secrecy, indeed, was the emblem of the early eighteenth-century homosexual--even the new commercial consumption promoted it. With secrecy in urban settings, new possibilities arose for a clandestine but economically viable homosexual subclass. The new consumer wealth enabled pleasure to become legitimized in ways it had previously been for the ruling class only and paved the way for the birth of leisure time.

Leisure required amusement and mandated new forms of personal pleasure, as early Georgian homosexual men soon discovered. By the mid-eighteenth century, the homosexual male was no longer a social creature confined to courts, cities, or dramatic stages but roamed open spaces freely despite the need for secrecy, cruising and hunting, in pleasure grounds, parks, coffee and tea houses, at concerts and operas, masquerades and carnivals. Spas and watering holes attracted older, well-heeled homosexuals who had the cash to pay for younger men.

The discerning human eye began to view the homosexual in new visual arrangements, especially in the light of his attire, gait, and manners. At the opera, introduced to England by 1730, eunuchs and castrati focused the viewer's attention; in the parks and green squares, men cruising other men proved less furtive than they thought; at the masquerade, the possibilities for disguise-within-revelation were paramount.

The "London Spy"--a nom de plume Edward Ward took for himself as he surveyed the sights of "London Town"--claimed to see "sodomitical culture flourishing everywhere." Others penetrated the famed "molly houses," basements and crevices where men gathered for genital contact. But here secrecy was preserved at all costs in view of the severe legal consequences of detection.

Such proliferation of a homosexual type and its attendant repertoire of behavior was bound to elicit national opposition. Historically and culturally, repression has always resulted in subterfuge, and as England grew less tolerant of homosexuality than it had been in the Restoration, the "mollies" (one of the new names given to homosexual men) coped by developing an underground subculture providing economies, meeting places, living arrangements, covert signs of recognition, even rings to ensure professional preferment.

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