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literature

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English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century  
 
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Homosexuality and the Developing Novel

The developing novel was less monolithically pejorative than these didactic tracts. It was usually preoccupied with providing readers--as in Tobias Smollett's novels--with realistic descriptions of the new social type, first to elicit recognition and then to instill revulsion.

In Daniel Defoe's novels of the 1720s, piracy is a trope for sodomy, the violence of pirates a metonymy for all-male ravishment, as in the transgressive milieu of Captain Singleton and Wilmot. Passing for "brothers" they link up, and in the History of the Pirates (1724), Defoe makes plain how nebulous are the borders between homoerotic and homosexual affinity.

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Even in his mythic version of contemporary economic reality, Defoe had imagined two men--Robinson Crusoe and Friday--stranded alone on a deserted south Pacific island. They engage in no genital contact, but the absence of women itself requires symbolic interpretation as a sign that something fundamental in human sexual relations has altered.

Women also explored these new representations. In transgressive narratives, for example in the works of Aphra Behn, sodomitical relations loom large, as in her Dutch Lovers (1673), and the satirist and political writer Mrs. Delariviere Manley regularly displays women dressed as male pirates who venture out to sea.

In Samuel Richardson's fiction, women are portrayed in such intimate homoerotic relationships (Clarissa Harlowe and Anna Howe, for example) as to prompt modern readers to wonder whether the origins of lesbianism as a psychological state of mind do not lie here rather than in the world of Havelock Ellis.

But it was in the rough and tough homophobic milieu of satire--in black comedies such as Smollett's Advice and Reproof (1746), Roderick Random (1747), and Peregrine Pickle (1751)--that all-male friendships were decried in their darkest silhouettes. Humphry Clinker (1771), for example, makes no bones about desecrating a certain "Captain C-----, tall and raw-boned, hook-nosed," whose "arch-leer" reveals his homosexual identity.

And in Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1768), the crowd's homophobia lies on the verge of erupting into fury when faced with Yorick's ambiguous sexuality.

In general, the oversensitive sentimental man's sexuality was a thing to be denounced as "sodomitical." And the diaries, memoirs, and letters of the era offer a wider range of responses and representations, but here too ingrained homophobia threatens all human interaction.

Charlotte Charke, the daughter of the poet laureate Colley Cibber, was perceived to be such a menace to society, that she had to cross-dress and live in disguise from her real self, as a man, to get anywhere--her Memoirs (1755) read like an eighteenth-century version of life imitating art.

Life in English Schools

Life in British schools and colleges thrust same-sex relations into the public spotlight. The English school was, after all, an institution based on male bonding, where emotional attachments were formed that lasted a lifetime. Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, produced figures like the "Quadruple Alliance"--Horace Walpole, Thomas Gray, Richard West, Thomas Mason--whose lives cannot be understood apart from their erotic schoolboy infatuations.

In this system, social pressure rewarded immaturity by impeding emotional development in an atmosphere of pranks and jokes, so well captured in Smollett's Peregrine Pickle (1751). Flogging and sadomasochism flourished, as satires and novels depict; nocturnal revels, cross-dressing, and play-acting thrived despite denunciation. A Winchester schoolboy placed a huge phallic obelisk in his rooms that was worshipped by the other boys. The all-male colleges of Oxbridge carried these traditions forward, denying that they did so.

Idealization of the Soldier

All through the persecutions and gender transformations of the period, the soldier was idealized as the embodiment of beautiful form within a shapely body. From youth, Englishmen had abundant opportunity to see each other nude: in school, on playing fields, at sea and in battle.

As Richard Steele noted in The Ephebe (1721), a periodical, nude male bodies captured the male imagination. Others asked questions about the ancient Greeks: how they viewed male bodies and whether it was lawful to see them unclothed. It is hard to know when the military type--the clean-cut male with symmetrical body in uniform--was first idealized, but by the 1740s, it had been established, giving rise to a war literature not so different from our own.

Street urchins represented the antithesis: ragged, tattered, unkempt, undernourished, poverty stricken, marked with the pox or clap, they were ridiculed rather than idealized--asymmetrical creatures of a day, victims of a society riddled with internal contradiction.

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