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literature

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English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century  
 
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Homosocial arrangements, as distinct from homosexual attachments, had always been a staple of upper-class life in England and continued to be, but not without the menace of exposure threatened by the new molly subculture.

For example, the Scriblerians--the group of political writers and poets that included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, John Arbuthnot, and Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford--was homosocial in the extreme. But they wanted no filiation with "mollies," who were uniformly viewed as social pariahs.

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When the Earl of Stanhope, a powerful Whig politician who was also a publicly acknowledged sodomite, died in 1721, the opposition lost no opportunity to desecrate his name by linking it to lewd sodomitical preferment. He, rather than Sunderland, the Whig statesman despised by the new Prime Minister Robert Walpole, may be the mysterious "noble man" of the anonymous Love Letters.

The New Homosexuality of the 1730s

By the 1730s, the old bisexuality, tolerated and cultivated, had clearly come under strain, if not disappeared altogether from public view. The new homosexuality was monolithically male: to be attracted to women was proof of outsider status and extremely dangerous. Secrecy flourished, caution heightened, and homosexual attachments formed at school endured for life, as Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray found.

Eventually, one lived in the daily chill of threats of exposure and blackmail, as Henry Fielding demonstrated in his novels and as any number of English homosexual aristocrats discovered, comforted only when in the guaranteed safety of one's own homosexual group.

Assaults on Homosexuality

Designation as a "sodomite" was now inexorably pejorative; what was clear by mid-century was that it now also inevitably led to radical public disgrace and the pillory. The public, rallied by new fundamentalist religions and developing fanatical sects, equated the slightest hint of sodomitical behavior with Satan, the Beast, the old Leviathan.

The tolerant world of Charles II, and Rochester's Restoration stage, was now a nostalgic will-of-the-wisp: the pastoral memory of a bisexual Golden Age, incapable of being reified in Georgian London or ancien-régime Paris. When Lemuel Gulliver exhorts the Court of Brobdingnag about "this horrible Vice" at home--the sin of sodomy--he speaks for Everyman.

But despite its disrepute, at home the "vice" abounded, as the new literature demonstrated. Blending allegory, political satire, and social commentary, it often amounted to a sustained prose of attack, as in Thomas Gordon's Conspirators (1721).

This stunning tract was composed as a "history of Cataline" and a commentary on the corruption of his age, but was in fact an exposé of the present, Walpolian administration. Dedicated "To the Right Honourable the Earl of S-------d" (Lord Sunderland) because the author "cast his Eyes about for a Patriot and a Statesman, of your Lordship's shining Character," it was merely signed "Britannicus."

The writer's invective is patent: "We live, my Lord, in an Age of Degeneracy and Corruption"; his call to action urgent, challenging "S----, like a second Cato, [to] persecute Corruption where-ever you find it."

Homosexuality in all its newfangled forms is the target of the writer's debunking, especially the "effeminate Luxury" of Cataline's era for having "sunk into all the contrary Extremes of Vice, and Luxury, and every sort of Debauchery." But the author thinks modern sodomy worse than Roman because

the Entertainment, of which I am now speaking, was of a kind unknown before to the Romans: A Midnight Revel, where both Sexes met in strange Disguises; such as Centaurs, Satyrs, Sylvans, and the like; and convers'd with the utmost Freedom; without being suppos'd to know each other's Sex or Quality.

New forms of nocturnal revelry, especially masquerades and operas, are encouraging the new effeminate vice. As the author writes retrospectively, "the whole Stream of the People fell into this tempting [sodomitical] Debauchery."

This is the sin of all-male sex: "the Men forgetting the Dignity of their Sex, and sunk into a Womanish Softness, like that Sex, were dress'd and adorn'd at the Looking-glass, and went out glittering with a Weight of Gold and Jewels."

The Georgians who now practice sodomy are as debauched as the Romans: boys then and boys now remain the source. "Ganymedes were pamper'd and supported at a high Rate at his [Cataline's] Expence; and this propensity for Boys . . . gave them in this a Touch of his own Taste, but very slily avoiding to declare what his own particular views were."

From the 1720s forward, works like Satan's Harvest Home: Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England (1729) alerted the public to the allegedly new social menace.

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