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social sciences

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Cambridge Apostles  
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Platonic Love

Plato held a commanding presence in the Brotherhood, especially in the Apostles' terminology. An undergraduate considered for election was an "embryo" and his sponsor his "father," and the induction ceremony for a new member was called "birth," similar to the notion of spiritual begetting in the Symposium. Moreover, a member who no longer attended a meeting took "wings," a metaphor taken from the allegory of the charioteer in the Phaedrus. In addition, the Apostles spoke of the cult of a Higher Sodomy, and considered male members "real," while women were just "phenomenal."

The world of ancient Greece in general and of the Platonic Eros in particular represented a counterdiscourse to the compulsory heterosexuality of Victorian sexual ideology. Taddeo sums up: "[The] Apostles transformed the definition of 'sodomy' from an illegal and sinful act to an alternative creed of manliness and transcendental love [and] hoped to spread the gospel of the Higher Sodomy among other enlightened contemporaries."

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Bloomsbury, the name given to a group of friends who lived in or near the London district of Bloomsbury from about 1905 to 1939, included several Apostles: Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton and James Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Desmond McCarthy, Henry Norton, and Roger Fry. (Other Cambridge alumni who became members of Bloomsbury, such as Thoby Stephen, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell, never joined the Society.) Though prevented from studying at Cambridge, Virginia Woolf took a keen interest in the Apostles as well.

Bloomsbury--to some an "Intellectual Aristocracy," to its detractors, merely a community of "Bloomsbuggers"--was a modern symposium. Sex and sexuality were frequent topics of conversation and became the basis of many of the ties that bound the members. For example, when Lytton Strachey discovered during a visit to 46 Gordon Square a stain on Vanessa Bell's dress, he asked whether it was "semen." In Moments of Being (1976), her posthumously published autobiographical writings, Virginia Woolf remembers the group's reaction: "With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of the good."

W. C. Lubenow has studied the connection in detail: "Like the Apostles, Bloomsbury had no common ideas about art, literature, or politics. Like the Apostles, Bloomsbury was united by friendship. Like the Apostles, nothing mattered to Bloomsbury so long as one was honest. Like the Apostles, Bloomsbury was engaged in a moral adventure. Like the Apostles, Bloomsbury saw through the humbug of family. Like the Apostles, Bloomsbury was marked by candid discussion in which high seriousness, gossip, gaiety, and argument were all mixed together."

Nikolai Endres

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literature >> Overview:  Bloomsbury

The Bloomsbury circle's open acceptance of erotic license and hostility toward social convention are important elements in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes in the first half of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

arts >> Blunt, Anthony

The distinguished career of art historian Anthony Blunt came to an end upon the revelation that he had been the unnamed "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy scandal of the 1950s.

literature >> Brooke, Rupert

The English poet Rupert Brooke was bisexual, reflecting his sexuality in both his letters and his poetry.

literature >> Dickinson, Goldsworthy Lowes

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge classicist and friend of E. M. Forster, is significant for the glbtq legacy as the author of an immensely popular book on ancient Greece and a posthumously published, surprisingly frank autobiography.

social sciences >> Edward II, King of England

Edward II, an early fourteenth-century king of England, formed intense relationships with his favorites, which ultimately cost him his throne and his life.

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.

arts >> Grant, Duncan

One of the major British artists of the twentieth century, Duncan Grant was also the sexual catalyst of the Bloomsbury Circle.

social sciences >> Keynes, John Maynard

The thought of John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the twentieth century, was influenced by his experience as a homosexual.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Strachey, Lytton

The English biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey spoke openly of his homosexuality to his Bloomsbury friends, but his openly gay works were published only after his death.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

social sciences >> Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is considered one of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century, was uncomfortable with his homosexuality.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

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


Allen, Peter. The Cambridge Apostles: The Early Years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

_____. "A Victorian Intellectual Elite: Records of the Cambridge Apostles, 1820-77." Victorian Studies 33 (1989): 99-123.

Beer, John. "Tennyson, Coleridge and the Cambridge Apostles." Tennyson: Seven Essays. Philip Collins, ed. New York: Macmillan St. Martin's Press, 1992. 1-35.

Bristow, Joseph. "Fratrum Societati: Forster's Apostolic Dedications." Queer Forster. Robert K. Martin and George Piggford, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 113-36.

Deacon, Richard. The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University's Élite Intellectual Secret Society. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1986.

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

Hale, Keith, ed. Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Heine, Elizabeth. "Rickie Elliot and the Cow: The Cambridge Apostles and The Longest Journey." English Literature in Transition 15 (1972): 116-34.

Levy, Paul. Moore: G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.

Lubenow, W. C. The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship in British Intellectual and Professional Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Taddeo, Julie Anne. "Brotherly Love: The Cambridge Apostles in the Pursuit of the Higher Sodomy." Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last Eminent Victorian. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002. 15-49.


    Citation Information
    Author: Endres, Nikolai  
    Entry Title: Cambridge Apostles  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated April 4, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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