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English Literature: Twentieth-Century  
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The Effect of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Writers

The cultural self-contradiction instanced by Waugh's narrative, long calling for correction, finds an answer, in the years following World War II, in the constitution by the Church of England's Moral Welfare Council of the Wolfenden Committee on homosexual offenses and prostitution.

The Committee was to come to recommend de-criminalization of consensual homosexual relations in private, and to succeed with its recommendation--albeit not until 1967, when Parliament passed the reforming legislation.

During the long debate over the Committee's work and report, with the privacies of homosexual desire under aggressive public scrutiny, the temptation for homosexual writers to turn back in self-defense to heroic gay narratives was resisted--in spite of the occasion to do so presented by wearisome reiterations, in conservative quarters, of the need still to punish homosexual pleasure, and in spite of the tendency of even the Wolfenden Report's liberal supporters to express prejudice against the Report's subjects.

Angus Wilson

As if presciently abreast of the self-deceptions and limitations of the Wolfenden committee's liberalism, the stories and novels of Angus Wilson (1913-1991) quizzically assess the shaky alliance between homosexuality and left-liberal ideologies. Tony, the wrinkled "pansy" of "Such Darling Dodos" (1950), and the bisexual novelist-hero of Hemlock and After (1952) both participate in protests against the managerial blindsidedness of liberal rational social planners.

In later novels, Wilson depicts the failure of well-meaning left-liberal homosexuals themselves to make an impact on social and economic global conditions characterized by post-colonialism. In No Laughing Matter (1967) and As If By Magic (1973), homosexuality is one among many interests in a world governed by power struggles that transcend eros. In both novels, post-colonial natives derive some benefits from Wilson's gay figures, but they are not, as Carpenter might have hoped, redeemed by the latter.

Terence Rattigan

Wilson's matter-of-fact refusal to give homosexuals a mythological political aura, even in spite of the need to promote reform, is echoed on the stage in the matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality in the later plays of Terence Rattigan (1911-1977): Variations on a Theme (1958); Ross (1960), a new study of T. E. Lawrence and the multiplicity of identity; and Man and Boy (1963).

J. R. Ackerley and Quentin Crisp

Perhaps the most moving realism in the literary representation of homosexuality in this period is to be found outside fiction, in two memoirs: My Father and Myself (1968) by J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) and The Naked Civil Servant (1968) by Quentin Crisp (1908-2000).

Ackerley's book compares the author's homosexual life with his father's heterosexual life. Instead of merely justifying the former in terms of its erotic or political virtue, Ackerley shows how remarkably alike in instability, secrecy, pleasure, and frustration both the father's straight life and the son's gay life are.

The father turns out, the son discovers, to have been a bigamist--and perhaps to have had in his youth a male lover. Just as the father deviates from his presumed sexual licitness, so the son, devoted to homosexuality, deviates from his deviation: Ackerley's greatest love is his female dog.

Unlike both Carpenter and Bentham, Ackerley does not see erotic desire as particularly redemptive or as particularly satisfying. This concluding vision is liberating in itself, by virtue of its honesty, and of its Isherwood-influenced exactness and simplicity of style.

Crisp's memoir, although written in the contrasting style of Wildean and Firbankian aphorisms, derives from convictions similar to Ackerley's. Known for flaunting an "outrageous" effeminacy in the 1920s and 1930s, Crisp mixes proud avowals of his life's erotic style with criticism of homosexual conventions: He finds camp undignified; he thinks intercourse a poor substitute for autoeroticism; he attacks gay bigotry against effeminate men.

Above all, Crisp is struck by the irony of cultural history. In spite of decade-long parliamentary debates about them, "those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt"--homosexuals--"find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis." And Crisp notes that, again in spite of censorious debates, by 1968 "the symbols which I had adopted forty years earlier to express my sexual type had become the uniform of all young people."

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