Is He Earnest? Homosexuality in the 19th Century

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

Even though I have two novellas to write before I get there, I’m already deep into the research phase of the last book in my Montana Romance series, Somebody To Love. Why all the research? Because Somebody To Love is Phin’s love story, and as anyone who has read the other books in the series knows, Phineas Bell is gay. He’s also wonderful, as far as I’m concerned, and deserves to be in love. But love for a gay man at the close of the 19th century was a complex and dangerous business.

And so … research.

It’s interesting to look back on the history of homosexuality as a woman of liberal leanings in the early 21st century. Homosexuality is such a hot-button issue, both politically and socially. We’ve come a long way. At least that’s what we tell ourselves these days. But have we come a long way? And if so, since when?

The answer is as complex as the issue itself. Yes, we have come a long way in the western world from the views that were held in the 19th century and the centuries right before. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by death in a lot of places in the western world as late as the 19th century. In fact, the last men to be put to death for homosexuality in England were John Smith and James Pratt in 1836. The most tragic part of Smith and Pratt’s case is that the magistrate, Hesney Wedgewood, argued for clemency for the two, saying that the only reason the two were condemned for practicing what so many others engaged in was because they were poor and couldn’t afford privacy for their act or defense of it. It was widely known that much was going on behind closed doors elsewhere.

The other famous court case that defines views towards homosexuality in the 19th century is, of course, the trial of Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde was a celebrity. He was a vocal supporter of aestheticism, the idea that the arts should be for pleasure—art for art’s sake. He was also well-known for being flamboyant and enamored of men. Of course, people didn’t necessarily make a big deal of what they clearly knew … until someone did. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, threw down the gauntlet. Wilde was found guilty after a sensational and very public trial. He was not sentenced to death, but he might as well have been. He was sent to prison for two years of hard labor in 1895. Two years that broke him and destroyed his health. He died in 1900 at age 46 as a result of his time in prison.

While Oscar Wilde’s plays and other writing were celebrated as some of the brightest and wittiest offerings of the English language in the 1890s, Wilde himself was reviled and died destitute. He left his mark in more ways than one though. Because of the supposed subtext of the play The Importance of Being Earnest, the word “earnest”, as in “Is he earnest?” became code for homosexual at the time. The fact that there was code to begin with is a commentary on what was going on and how carefully it needed to be concealed.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

On the other side of that coin, it’s almost impossible to gauge and define the truth of how people really viewed relationships—sexual and non-sexual—between people in the 19th century. As this interesting article in The Atlantic  points out, the 19th century was a time of more passionate relationships to begin with and we shouldn’t impose our 21st century definitions on what we see through history’s goggles.

So what do we make of Walt Whitman, then? Whitman’s sexuality is still debated today, even though a big old chunk of his poetry is homoerotic and he lived with a series of men throughout his life. But, as some argue, that’s just because things were more intimate back then. … Is that true? Oscar Wilde actually met Walt Whitman once and there was no doubt in his mind, as he wrote to George Cecil, a prominent supporter of homosexual rights in the 19th century, that Whitman was one of them.

Whitman was criticized and called a Sodomite now and then by the people in his 19th century world, but he was never put on trial the way Wilde was. Interestingly enough, his work that included intense imagery and description of heterosexual intimacy was more censored and railed against than his homoerotic Calamus poems. The 19th century had a problem with sexuality in general, it seems.

But what was life like for you average, every day LGBT in the 19th century? What would my dear Phineas Bell’s live have looked like? Honestly, the more I research, the harder it is to know. No, seriously. Because the 19th century was a quirky and contradictory century. It has its own built-in excuses and concealment where all brands of sexuality are concerned. The motto for the 19th century could easily be “What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors”.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

As far as men goes, all manner of practices could easily be concealed by the intense concept of the Male Ideal. The Male Ideal was male-bonding on steroids. Brothers-in-arms and comrades of learning and intellectual life were the ideal. A lot of authors and philosophers, like Theodore Winthrop, viewed male-male friendships as more pure and more important than any male-female bonding. On the one hand, this highly socially acceptable view of things could easily have hidden homosexual relationships and probably did. On the other, friendships that were utterly non-sexual but still intense probably existed to. How can you tell which was which when everything happened behind closed doors and everyone that was involved is long dead?

For women, lesbian relationship could have been even easier in the 19th century for the simple fact that women were not publically acknowledged to be sexual creatures at all. Sure, there were “Boston Marriages” of educated, independent women who lived and traveled together because they didn’t need a man to financially support themselves. These kinds of relationships were absolutely socially acceptable … because no one dared ask what could be going on behind closed doors. Just like the men, I’m sure some of these relationships were sexual and some were not. How do you determine which was which?

The article from The Atlantic suggests that the view of these 19th century same-sex relationships has been colored by the post-Freudian sexualizing of absolutely everything. Eh, I don’t know. Freud didn’t make everyone think about sex, he just pointed out what people were already thinking. I mean, look at the Regency, for gosh sakes! I doubt Prinny thought that cigar was just a cigar, if you know what I mean.

Anyhow, I’ve rambled long enough about the things I’ve been researched and the thoughts I’ve been having about it all. My point is this: something was up. Ways of thinking about things go in and out of fashion the same way waistlines and pant-leg width do. Right now it seems to be fashionable to think that everyone who so much as smiled at the same sex was homosexual. In the height of the 19th century it was fashionable to believe that everyone’s thoughts were pure as the driven snow. The truth has to lie somewhere in between. I do think Walt Whitman was bisexual. I also think that life for my poor Phin would have been heartbreakingly rough in the romance department. And I think that everyone—male female, homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual—had to be extremely careful about the public image they presented in the 19th century. But I also believe there were sexy times galore behind closed doors.

One way or another, more research is definitely needed.  Stay tuned!

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12 thoughts on “Is He Earnest? Homosexuality in the 19th Century

  1. I have a very nice character in my second manuscript who’s gay. I struggled with even keeping him gay because I honestly didn’t want the flack. But then he’s a good character and so I kept him. My gut says most people didn’t even think about people being gay (except for the people who were gay). Even in the 1950’s my mother and father hardly knew what that meant! maybe they were super naive. 🙂

    • It’s funny that you say that about people being naïve. Apparently my Granddad had a “strange single uncle” who the family didn’t quite know what to do with who never married. I think he would have been in his prime in the first part of the 20th century. No one has said outright one way or another, but he could very well have been gay but no one quite knew what to do about it. Or he just could have been weird. Who knows.

  2. What a thought provoking post, and so many wonderful points you’ve made. After watching the movie “Kinsey,” it made me consider that rather than thinking of sexuality as kind of “either or” (homosexual, heterosexual, or bi), there were other possibilities, like his “scale.” If we take that into consideration, and that his research starting in the 1930s (forgive me if I’m wrong), and how ill-educated most of his students (male and female) were about sexuality in general, it’s little wonder we don’t understand definitively much of what was going on in the 19th century.

    And yes, totally agree that Freud didn’t make us sexualize everything, but just voiced what everyone was thinking already. 😉 Again, great post. All the best with Phin.

    • Kinsey was a really fascinating movie, wasn’t it! That whole Kinsey scale has always intrigued me. But it just goes to show how ingrained certain thought patterns are in our culture…. I definitely identify as straight, and though I think there’s something to the scale, I don’t want to say that too loud because of the stigma that might get attached, me being single and of a certain age and all. My own reactions in 2013 definitely make me curious about people’s personal reactions to things in Kinsey’s time and in the 19th century.

  3. Very interesting! It seems to me that there are a lot of parallels between the way that men interacted in the Victorian era and in the Classical Greek age. Perhaps looking at some Classical Greek sources would have some clues as to when two men are just in a mentoring/close friend relationship vs. when two men are more-than-friends.

    • A lot of the material I’ve been reading lately actually makes reference to the Ancient Greeks. I believe it’s pretty well documented by contemporary Greek writers that homosexuality was no big deal in Ancient Greece, and a lot of the pro-homosexuality (or anti-anti-homosexuality, if you will) arguments in the late 19th century hearkened back to several Classical authors.

      I definitely need to do more research!

  4. No, the Classical Greeks were strongly against homosexuality, though with the strongly encouraged mentoring relationships between older men and much younger boys, it is likely that sexual relationships of that nature were prevalent. Check out Plato’s works – a few of his philosophical discussions occur at large dinner parties of men. I believe the Phaedrus is about love.

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