Kirkus Star


Email this review


An instant classic, for lovers of Victorian literature at least, and a fascinating human document, if not a great autobiography. Symonds (1840-93) never intended to publish these memoirs, which frankly describe his agonized homosexuality, during his lifetime;and his literary executor, when he died in 1926, condemned them to another 50 years' enforced obscurity in the archives of the London Library. Now, thanks to Grosskurth, Professor of English at the U. of Toronto and author of the standard biography (1964) of Symonds, we can follow the intimate evolution of a writer, critic, and cultural historian whose troubles were doubtless shared by a myriad of his less articulate compatriots. Symonds' childhood was shot through with trauma (beginning with his mother's death from scarlet fever when he was four), nightmares, and phobias. Still he enjoyed a fairly warm family life till he was sent at age 13 to Harrow, where he nearly drowned in depression. The brutal directness of Harrovian sodomy horrified him, and so all during his school days and later at Balliol he steadily repressed his physical desires while cultivating various sentimental homoerotic friendships. By the time he was 24, sexual tension had practically destroyed his health; and in desperation he took his father's bad advice to get married--she was frigid, he was repelled by women's bodies (they nonetheless had four children), and his misery continued. Eventually (1870) he came out of the closet, and spent the rest of his days indulging, analyzing, and worrying over his ""abnormality."" Only toward the end--and never, alas, in these pages--did he accept his condition as natural. So we get too much rhetorical rapture-and-despair, and not enough narrative. There is some fine storytelling, however, notably in Symonds' lyrical early chapters about his childhood in Bristol, as well as the painful episodes with C. J. Vaughan (the headmaster of Harrow, whom Symonds père piously ruined for his pederasty) and C. G. H. Shorting (who effectively ended Symonds' academic career by accusing him--falsely!--of homosexual behavior). Symonds, as he himself admits, wrote too facilely, and he was never a first-rate intellect. But the passion (humorless, of course), the Rousseauian earnestness, and the rich, overripe prose of Symonds' confessions make them, at this late date, an unusual, invaluable find. (One caveat: the publisher, told of many serious errors in the Greek quotations, indicated that an effort would be made to correct them, but offered no assurances.)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Random House