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literature

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English Literature: Romanticism  
 
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In this climate, it is worth remarking the bravery of William Beckford, who returned from Cintra and set himself up in palatial grandeur at Fonthill Abbey, where he lived with a retinue of fellow spirits and seems not to have worried too greatly about being systematically refused the notice of his respectable neighbors.

Our knowledge of sexual norms and their transgression during this epoch is considerably indebted to his obsessive keeping of scrapbooks chronicling every prosecution for or scandalous insinuation of homosexual behavior, now part of the Beckford Papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

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Lesbianism

Lesbianism in this period is harder to verify but was probably easier to live. Even while the legend of Sappho was wholly heterosexualized in England as in France, the romantic attachment of the Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, was celebrated over a half century.

Although sufficiently protective of their reputations that they threatened to sue over insinuations of a sexual liaison and although their cover was likewise sustained by their immediately dismissing an unmarried servant who became pregnant, their penchant for wearing male evening dress, the touching endearments of Lady Eleanor's journals, and the smallness of the bed they shared (still shown, even if in later reproduction, with straight faces by guides to their home Plas Newydd), allow one to surmise that behind a carefully preserved, necessarily impervious facade of good books, good works, and good behavior, the Ladies managed to live the inner romance of their legend.

Anna Seward, one of the poetic celebrants of that legend in the later eighteenth century ("Llangollen Vale," 1796) also left a distinguished body of love poetry in her poems of the 1770s to Honora Sneyd, a great beauty who became the wife of Richard Edgeworth (and mother-in-law of Maria), then died in 1780 of consumption.

The conventions of female friendship allowed for an intensity of emotional attachment that was just as conventionally repressed among men: In the case of such women, though one cannot always be certain of an erotic extension, dynamics may strongly reveal themselves.

An example is in Mary Wollstonecraft's Mary, A Fiction (1788), whose heroine as passionately envelops her consumptive friend Ann as she spurns her detested husband.

Inasmuch as the conventional plot of novels about young women during this period ends with the transference of the commodified female from father's to young husband's arms, wherever the formulas are transgressed may be a site for staking a different claim for female identity.

It is interesting, for instance, to rethink the centrality of Bath for the female novel from the perspective of the gossipy Hester Thrale, who in 1795 called it "a Cage of these unclean Birds," meaning, a center of lesbian activity.

The one female circle of the late eighteenth century that was the subject of actual scandal was that surrounding Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. Anne Damer, Walpole's heir and famous in her day as a sculptor, and his literary executor Mary Berry, who was her lover, were the luminaries of the Twickenham set of independent women. There was anonymous snickering in the press, but of course there were neither means for nor attempts at prosecution for female homosexuality. This is a circle whose achievements and activities merit much greater attention than they have received.

Homosexuality in the Theater

In respect to significant literary ramifications of homosexuality, much greater attention ought also to be paid to the theater of this time, writing for which, from the late 1760s into the Regency, seems to have been dominated by women and homosexual men. (Perhaps this is why it is all but totally ignored in literary history.)

Isaac Bickerstaffe, who is credited with founding the English comic operetta, was publicly incriminated in 1772 and fled to Paris, where he lived for another thirty-five years. Samuel Foote, who dominated the comedy of the period, was broken professionally by a continuing insinuation of such intensity that it brought on a stroke from which he died in 1777. Although Richard Cumberland's very public conversion to ardent Methodism in the 1790s would seem to remove him from suspicion, the ever-attentive Hester Thrale snidely remarked on his effeminacy.

In the Regency, the proclivities of George Colman the Younger were the subject of gossip, so much so that G. Wilson Knight, in inaugurating the modern concern with homosexual elements in Byron, mistakenly attributed the notorious gay satire, Don Leon, to Colman.

In one sense, Knight's intuition was telling: Byron's service in 1815 on the Committee for Drury Lane, vetting plays and overseeing the theater's long-term development, would have brought him back into contact with an alternative sexual life that his respectable marriage was designed to prohibit.

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