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literature

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English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century  
 
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Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray, the famous poet who lived as a recluse in a Cambridge college, met Victor de Bonstetten in London in 1767. Then twenty-one, the Swiss minor count was traveling north on the Grand Tour. (Gray was more than old enough to be his father.) Bonstetten was stunningly handsome, a military type, of smooth frame, clean-cut with cropped hair, ostentatiously military.

Gray fell in love with him almost at first sight and whisked him up to Cambridge, where the two spent the better part of three months together. During this period, they exchanged no letters owing to their proximity. They saw each other every day and perhaps at night as well. A few months later, Bonstetten tired of Cambridge and perhaps tired of Gray as well.

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Within months, Gray was dead, perhaps of a broken heart. Thomas West, a gifted English lyric poet, had been the erotic flame of Gray's life, but Bonstetten did not linger far behind despite the discrepancy in age.

Other Idealized Types

Others, like William Beckford, idealized exotic, Eastern youths found further down the Adriatic: brown-skinned, brawny-armed, dark-lashed, speaking in non-Western tongues. Not the alpine soldier or Mediterranean sailor, but the sons of sultans and pashas were the idealized young Ganymedes here.

These idealizations can be interpreted along the lines of national stereotypes and opposite attractions (north-south, east-west), but considerations of religion and the bourgeois family also played a part. The wealthy Beckford could afford to have anything he craved, including the sons of Eastern princes; he had less free will in his disgust for things domestic and familiar.

Edward Gibbon

But for every Beckford, there was a Gibbon. When Edward Gibbon, the historian and author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), left England, more or less permanently for Lausanne, he "set up house" with Dyverden, a Vaudois, Calvinist, landed gentry man.

Gibbon's letters home describing their first few weeks together are conceptualized along the lines of marriage and the family. Everything domestic and comfortable is shared in their Vaudois dwelling. Although Gibbon is not known to have been homosexual, his language of homosocial domesticity in this correspondence is extraordinary. It verges on the romantic when Gibbon professes that "Marriage to a woman" could not be better managed.

The New Sensitive Male

These aggressive, almost conquering, homosexual types had counterparts in the effete, delicate, nervous male. The Georgians themselves constituted a culture obsessed by all things "neurasthenic": nervous human anatomies, nervous societies, nervous governments. It was predictable they should construe the new, sensitive, often effeminate and aesthetic male in the light of his nervous anatomy and physiognomy.

This is exactly what Mrs. Hester Thrale, the shrewd observer of English society, did when analyzing playwright Richard Cumberland's character. Passages of her Diary (1786) verge on modern psychoanalysis when she "reads" Cumberland's sexuality by "interpreting" his face, nerves, body. Thrale's conclusion was that he was representative of the new "neurasthenic type," in her view an , narcissistic, possibly hysterical male.

Medical theory of hysteria had undergone centuries of transformation by the time Thrale pronounced on Cumberland in the 1780s, including the view, adumbrated in the eighteenth century, that males could also be hysterical. Mrs. Thrale extended this posture, suggesting that clinically narcissistic neurasthenics like Cumberland also possessed different sexualities.

Anti-Sodomitical Reaction

By the 1760s, a number of developments converged to sustain the view that sodomites were overrunning London, a view with parallels in our urban life. But the shrillest voices were not those demanding reforms in politics, education, and the arts, but in the lifestyles of the upper classes, whose dissipation, they claimed, filtered down.

The year 1764 was particularly ominous: More than the usual number of arrests were made, and there was abundant gay bashing. It was also an election year in which candidates were smeared by the acerbic slogan that sodomy was a necessary precondition for election.

For example, Charles Churchill, the poetic satirist, claimed in The Times (1764), while in a Swiftian mood of reductio ad absurdum, that homosexuals now controlled London; as proof, he offered the proliferation of all-male clubs. In fact, they had existed for some time, but Churchill's rhetoric attempted its point by absurd exaggeration.

Sir Francis Dashwood's "Medmenham Monks" gathered clandestinely in deserted castles, decked out in medieval costume, performing satanic rites that included cross-dressed young males. The Hellfires and Beefstakes were less exotic but no less masculine.

The Dilettanti, a private society of upper-crust connoisseurs, assembled to exhibit their collections of paintings and neoclassical "marbles"; their subtext exalted all things "Greek," presumably including Greek man-boy love.

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