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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Morris B Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love and Scandal in Wilde Times (2005)

There is no complete overlap between the several studies of nineteenth century homosexuality that have appeared over c. last 10 years. While usual suspects occur from one to another, they all have something specific and valuable to offer (other works I'm thinking of here are the ones by Harry Cocks, Matt Cook and Sean Brady, and also Charles Upchurch's recent book, though it deals with a slightly earlier period).

Kaplan's book is a good read: a very detailed account of the Boulton and Park case and the Cleveland Street affair as well as the Wilde trials. What may be considered something of a USP, is its depiction of the complex homosocial/erotic/romantic and somewhat indefinable relationships around 'Regy' Brett, later Lord Esher, his circle, William Johnson/Cory the Eton master, etc, etc as recorded and memorialised archivally by Esher. This is full of intriguing insights, and Kaplan makes a good point that there was little or nothing subversive of the established order in these ties between elite men.

I was also intrigued and given to think by the suggestions of the degree of toleration towards the young Post Office  messenger boys who were being paid to sleep with gentlemen in Cleveland Street - seen as to a great extent motivated by mercenary considerations, even though there was evidence of preceding sexual interaction between the 'boys' themselves. I found this thought-provoking given the representation of women of around the same age-group and similar class as dangerous harpies offering temptation to the sons of the upper classes and probably resorting to blackmail as well, during the debates over the raising of the age of consent in the 1880s.

It's very much a view from the upper classes, including their working class partners, and the occasional voice of the professional male prostitute. Boulton and Park, Kaplan suggests, were able to draw on a significant degree of social privilege in their own defence.

I'm not entirely sure about the contention on p 219 about 'a Victorian tendency to see flagrant sexuality as its a feminine characteristic' - maybe flagrant sexuality itself was disruptive of gender norms, e.g. a case could possibly be made about certain forms of sexual excess in women being associated with a masculine tendency (but this would need more work).

I like the analysis of the letters to Reynolds Newspaper giving a certain amount of vox pop on 'West End Scandals'.

No Ives, Carpenter only as recipient of a letter from J A Symonds, and no Bolton Whitmanites. However, what it does, it does very well.

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