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social sciences

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Cambridge Apostles  
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Homoeroticism flourished in the Conversazione Society for several reasons. First of all, both the university and the Brotherhood provided a environment (women were not admitted to the Apostles until 1970).

G. E. Moore, for example, felt a revelation upon entering college. His biographer, Paul Levy, quotes Moore's epiphany: "When I came up to Cambridge, I did not know that there would be a single man in Cambridge who fornicated; and, till a year ago, I had no idea that was ever practised in modern times. My discoveries on these points have naturally brought the subject very much before my mind, and perhaps made me attach an undue importance to it; though I had been long familiar with the extent of the vice in Greece and Rome, and had often read of it merely to indulge my lust."

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Second, quite a large number of Apostles felt attracted to other men and formed enduring friendships that may have included physical manifestations. Hallam and Tennyson were perhaps the most celebrated couple.

Richard Dellamora observes that "Tennyson's circle at Cambridge fostered intimacy in ways that might lead to sexual experimentation, even to sexual involvement between members of the same sex. One factor was the group's closeness. Another was a sense of shared superiority that might prompt the view, as it did in a later generation, that members of the Apostles possessed a higher or different morality from that binding ordinary men."

In later days, several Apostles were--openly or secretly--gay: William Cory (who supposedly had an affair with the future Prime Minister Earl of Rosebery), Oscar Browning, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Eddie Marsh, Roden Noel, Nathaniel Wedd, J. M. E. McTaggart, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name only the best known ones.

Things came to a climax with the election of Lytton Strachey, who, according to Levy, "altered the character of the Society almost immediately, transmuting its naughty verbal mannerisms and Walt Whitmanesque feelings of comradeship into overt full-blooded--almost aggressive--homosexuality."

Third, secrecy provided a marketplace for the exchange of ideas, and protected candor and confidentiality. In 1831, Hallam presented a paper, "On Cicero," which won the Trinity College prize for the best English essay of the year. At one point, Hallam (unfavorably) compares Cicero to Plato, for the former did not understand "the sublime principle of love" or "this highest and purest manly love" that Plato advocated. Although Hallam's piece focused on the friendship between Cicero and Atticus, the homoerotic undertones are quite striking.

McTaggart, shortly after his election in 1885, read a defense of homosexual love entitled "Violets or Orange Blossom?" (One of the most notorious papers, it disappeared from the Ark, the Apostles' chest where all the records were kept, under mysterious circumstances.) In 1894, Moore read "Achilles or Patroclus," an elaboration on the friendship of one of the most famous homoerotic couples in antiquity. Moore asks "how far in friendship it is necessary that one party should be active (erastés) and the other passive (erómenos), and what effects on the happiness of each follow from this activity or passivity--in sodomy or otherwise." Moore followed up a month later with an essay entitled "Shall We Delight in Crushing Our Roses?" In this paper, he contrasts conventional morality and same-sex love.

Other treatises touching on the love that dare not speak its name include A. E. A. W. Smyth's "Are Men More Amiable Than Women?" (1899); Forster's proposal on abstinence, "The Bedroom, Brother?" (1904); Lytton Strachey's Apostolic story "The Fruit of the Tree" (1901) and his response to Forster, "Does Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?" (1904), in which he elaborated on the "marriage of true minds" between men or women; Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), which quickly became the bible of romantic same-sex friendships; Rupert Brooke's "Why Not Try The Other Leg?" (1909); and even a consideration of same-sex marriage.

Brooke also founded the Marlowe Society, an undergraduate's dramatic club, named after the author of the Renaissance play about King Edward II and his lover Piers Gaveston. However, in his war sonnet "Peace" (1914), written after he had left Cambridge, Brooke denounced his comrades as "half-men" with "sick hearts" and "dirty songs."

To sum up, homoeroticism never lost its appeal to the Apostles--in good times and bad times. Julie Anne Taddeo contends: "Despite the criminalization of homosexuality and the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde, the Brothers at Cambridge continued to invoke Dorianism, read Walt Whitman's poetry, and engage in a cult of boy worship."

In preparation for his book-length study of the Society, Deacon interviewed an Apostle, who facetiously recalled the 1930s and in doing so turned the accusation that the Apostles were a hotbed of Communist spies on its head: "entry to the Society was much more likely to be through the Homintern than the Comintern. Most preferred Sodom to Moscow and Gomorrah to Leningrad."

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