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Jowett, Benjamin (1817-1893)  
page: 1  2  

Similarly, Jowett planned to expound the view that homosexual love in Plato was merely a "matter of metaphor" and "figure of speech." Only when John Addington Symonds severely reprimanded him for delving into something of which he knew so little (and which could be so "dangerous to certain characters in youth") did Jowett drop the project.

There is, of course, a long tradition of mistranslating Plato and minimizing the physical element in Greek love. What makes Jowett's bowdlerization of Plato and deliberate mischaracterization of Greek homosexual activity so surprising is that Jowett himself was almost certainly attracted to men. He never married, felt riveted by male beauty, bonded with his (male) students, lived in a homosocial environment, and showed a revealing interest in Greek homoeroticism.

Jowett's biographer, Geoffrey Faber, collects interesting details about Jowett's emotional life. His physical appearance was not conventionally masculine: "As a boy he looked like a girl; as an old man he looked and spoke something like a eunuch"; his classmates teasingly referred to him as "Miss Jowett." His relationship with the most important woman in his life, Florence Nightingale, who was herself probably a lesbian, was merely "Platonic": "He never desired her as a woman, nor did she ever desire him as a man."

In response to an "outbreak of abnormal immorality" among young men at Oxford, Jowett was, in the words of a close friend, "the wisest, most prudent and gentlest of counsellors" and "a help and blessing to many beyond what it is possible to publish." Apparently, certain events remained unspeakable, but Jowett showed courage for dealing with the problem responsibly.

Later, Algernon Swinburne tried to clear Jowett's name of allegations of improper conduct, pointedly disassociating him from Walt Whitman, Symonds, and other "Uranians": "The cult of the calamus [a reference to Whitman's Leaves of Grass], as expounded by Mr. Addington Symonds to his fellow-calamites, would have found no acceptance or tolerance with the translator of Plato." But is not the irascible Swinburne protesting too much? As a matter of fact, when Symonds was falsely accused of "corrupting" Magdalen College choirboys, Jowett, fully aware of Symonds' sexual proclivities, stood by his side and helped clear Symonds' name.

Other incidents complete the picture. When Hallam Tennyson was compiling a biography of his father, Lord Tennyson, he asked Jowett for a critique of In Memoriam, the poem in which Tennyson eulogizes his friend Arthur Hallam. Jowett's reply is quoted by Richard Dellamora: "[Tennyson] found [Shakespeare's] sonnets a deeper expression of the never to be forgotten love which he felt more than any of the many moods of many minds which appear among the dramas. The love of the sonnets which he so strikingly expressed was a sort of sympathy with Hellenism."

Jowett was probably homosexually inclined, but he also had a strong aversion to sexual intercourse: "There is not the slightest indication that Jowett ever knew by direct or deliberate experience the quality of sexual enjoyment," his biographer concludes. Maybe his sexual orientation is best termed "homosocial."

The reticence of Jowett's publications about Greek homoeroticism points up the price Victorian prudery, cant, and intolerance exacted of men who desired other men. As one of the leading classicists of his age, Jowett certainly knew that his translations were less than honest. But that was the price of respectability and of the comfortable life he led as an Oxford don. Surely, the knowledge of his misrepresentation of Hellenism must have also cost Jowett a considerable decrease in self-esteem.

Finally, Jowett has been the inspiration for a number of literary characters. Not only did Forster find in him the prototype of the self-denying schoolmaster Mr. Cornwallis in Maurice, but W. H. Mallock modeled Dr. Jenkinson in The New Republic (1877) on him. More recently, Jowett makes an appearance in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love (1997).

Jowett's translations have been reissued in cheap paperback editions by Dover and by major publishing houses such as Penguin and Modern Library; his texts are reproduced in standard anthologies, such as Norton, and in the collection (with the singularly misleading and anachronistic title) Plato on Homosexuality: Lysis, Phaedrus and Symposium by Prometheus Books, where fresh translations are highlighted in brackets besides Jowett's.

Nikolai Endres

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Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Dover, K. J. "Expurgation of Greek Literature." The Greeks and Their Legacy: Collected Papers. Vol. 2. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988. 270-91.

Dowling, Linda. Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Faber, Geoffrey. Jowett: A Portrait with Background. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Higgins, Leslie J. "Hopkins and 'The Jowler.'" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31 (Spring 1989): 143-67.

_______. "Jowett and Pater: Trafficking in Platonic Wares." Victorian Studies 37 (Autumn 1993): 43-72.

Inman, Billie Andrew. "Estrangement and Connection: Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett, and William M. Hardinge." Pater in the 1990s. Laurel Brake and Ian Small, eds. Greensboro, N. C.: ELT Press, 1991. 1-20.

Jenkyns, Richard. The Victorians and Ancient Greece. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Jowett, Benjamin, tr. The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899. 4 vols.

Turner, Frank M. The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Endres, Nikolai  
    Entry Title: Jowett, Benjamin  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2003  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2003, glbtq, inc.  


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