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Plomer, William (1903-1973)  

Although overt homosexuality is absent from William Plomer's novels and poems, the relevance of his sexuality to his work is evident.

Plomer was born in South Africa, in Pietersburg, Transvaal, where his father was a civil servant, on December 10, 1903. Plomer entered an Anglican school, St. John's College in Johannesburg, in 1912. Both parents were English. His mother, with no love for South Africa, took him to England, where he spent three miserable years at a small private school in Kent and one happier year at Rugby.

Back in South Africa, he chose not to continue his education. Instead, he used experience garnered during a farm apprenticeship and a period assisting his parents at a native trading station in his first novel, Turbott Wolfe, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1925.

As the book was going to press, Plomer got to know Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post, two rebel white South Africans, and together they worked on a radical periodical, Voorslag ("whiplash"). All three withdrew after publication of the second issue, angered by attempts to muzzle their writing.

This was the turning point in Plomer's career; he knew that the Woolfs would provide him entrance to London literary circles so, following three happy years teaching in Japan, he went to England to make his permanent home.

Although discreet about his homosexuality, Plomer accepted it. He enjoyed his first affair when he was eleven years old, with a steward on board ship. He always felt himself to be an outsider, and thereafter most of his short-term affairs were with other outsiders. He was attracted to black South African men, to students he taught in Japan from 1926 to 1929, and in England, to working-class boys and men in uniform.

Overt homosexuality is absent from his novels and poems, but he confided to the editor of his revised, posthumously published autobiography that he expected his biographer to take his sexual orientation seriously because it was important to his work.

The relevance of Plomer's sexuality to his work is evident in Turbott Wolfe, for example, which was ahead of its time in telling a story of miscegenation in South Africa. A reader who knows something about Plomer can see how specific homosexual impulses are transferred to the story of a love affair between a white woman and a black man; additionally, the white woman clearly stands in for a male figure. This kind of transference occurs throughout Plomer's writing.

In England, where he settled in 1929, Plomer moved in interconnected and influential literary circles energized by homosexual bonds. He mixed with Auden and Isherwood, E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicholson, John Lehmann, and J. R. Ackerley, among others.

Here he could count on warm support for his chosen lifestyle, as when he came close to public disgrace during World War II: A serviceman whom he solicited for sex turned him over to the police, but friends successfully intervened.

On the other hand, his friend Roy Campbell (with Plomer, the most distinguished white South African writer of his generation) broke with him in 1933 and issued veiled attacks motivated by deep-rooted in his satirical verse.

After Turbott Wolfe, Plomer developed as a modernist novelist and poet. He invented a comic-macabre form of ballad, which W. H. Auden used as a model. He collaborated with composer Benjamin Britten as librettist for several operas, and for the last thirty years of his life, as a respected "person of letters," had an unassuming and devoted companion in Charles Erdmann.

Patrick Holland


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   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  South Africa

The diverse South African glbtq community both thrives and struggles amid the contradictions between a conservative traditional culture and some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world.

literature >> Ackerley, J. R.

A twentieth-century British editor who fostered the careers of a number of important gay writers, J. R. Ackerley also wrote a small but significant body of gay literature that includes memoirs and drama.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

arts >> Britten, Benjamin

The most acclaimed British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten created many works that were inspired by his long-time personal and professional relationship with his lover, Peter Pears.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Isherwood, Christopher

A major Anglo-American novelist and a pioneer in the gay liberation movement, Christopher Isherwood created gay characters whose homosexuality is a simple given, an integral part of the wholeness of personality and an emblem of their common humanity.

literature >> Lehmann, John

One of the most distinguished and discerning British men of letters of the mid-twentieth century, John Lehmann is best known as an editor and publisher.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Alexander, Peter F. William Plomer: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Doyle, J. R. William Plomer. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969.

Van der Post, Laurens. A Walk with a White Bushman. London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.


    Citation Information
    Author: Holland, Patrick  
    Entry Title: Plomer, William  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 22, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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