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STRANGERS by Graham Robb


Homosexual Love in the 19th Century

by Graham Robb

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-02038-X
Publisher: Norton

Literary biographer Robb (Rimbaud, 2000, etc.) gives resonance and shape to homosexual life and love in 19th-century Europe and North America, “the obstacles it encountered and the societies it created.”

It certainly wasn’t the worst time to be gay, he writes. “Pliant attitudes to homosexuality in almost all its forms were prevalent throughout the Victorian age,” though pliancy generally consisted of a miserly acceptance that “seasoned, as it usually was, with distaste, pity or amusement . . . could be worse than open hostility.” Sexuality was not the dominant question, he contends; “the neighbors were more concerned about an influx of socialists and vegetarians.” Robb is not being flip but endeavoring to unearth the long continuity of gay culture. Nineteenth-century homosexuals, he remarks, “lived under a cloud, but it seldom rained.” (Oscar Wilde's travails were not the norm; his case went to court as the Dark Ages of the 20th century approached.) The gay community possessed “a highly politicized sense of its sexual rights, a calendar of events and anniversaries, its own villains and living legends, social clubs with international links, cafes and brothels, and well-established cruising grounds with organized patrols.” Robb does not paint a sexual utopia; he acknowledges the legal and medical establishments’ anti-homosexual ways, but points out that legal-medical persecution was casual and spasmodic. Much more vital and lasting was the gay presence in literature, religion, and “the art of living in the modern world,” from symbolism and allegory—Rimbaud to Hans Christian Andersen to Sherlock Holmes—to the tradition of sexually ambiguous messiahs. And though there was no gay-rights movement as such, sexual coteries and milieux “could turn shame into self-respect and fear into defiance.”

An invigorating tour of gay cultural influence during the 1800s and the place occupied by homosexual society within national and international settings. (16 pp. illustrations, not seen)