I’m pretty sure that we’re way too quick to read into personal relationships in the 21st century. I am all for the push toward marriage equality and sexual liberation, but I’m also increasingly of the opinion that we’ve gone a bit too far when it comes to defining friendships. I talked a little bit about this on Friday in my post In Defense of Bromance.
Things weren’t always as wink, wink, nudge, nudge as they are now though. In fact, during the 19th century the entire concept of friendship, especially masculine friendship, was entirely different. Believe it or not, this whole idea was pointed out to me most clearly in a book that I’m reading right now as research for the last book in my Montana Romance series, Somebody to Love, which is an m/m romance set in 1900. The book is Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb. One of the points it makes is that in many, many cases it’s hard to distinguish whether two men (or women) actually had a homosexual relationship (based on outside evidence) because friendships had an entirely different character in the 19th century to begin with.
The Victorian era was a big one for strongly definitions. The definitions of rich and poor, of upper class and working class, were rigorously defended. There wasn’t a huge amount of social climbing in this era, not like we might see today. The same went for definitions of femininity and masculinity. There were certain standards and expectations of behavior for both men and women. But that’s not to say that the roles were stifling or stiff, like we tend to assume when we use the word “Victorian” in certain contexts.
A lot of press is given to the traditional role for women in the 19th century as that of wife and mother, helpmate to her husband and silent outside of the home. Less attention is given to the expectations set on men. They were supposed to be strong providers, protectors of the weak and innocent, and defenders of the nation. (I’m thinking England here, but a lot of this applies to America or other European countries too) If you weren’t influential or respected by your peers, you had reason to hang your head in shame. Respect was won on the battlefield, the sporting field, in government, law, or plenty of other aggressive pursuits.
But there was another shade to these standards of masculinity as well. The 19th century saw a boom in the formation and expansion of gentlemen’s clubs and secret societies, like the Masons. What was the point of a club if not to go hang out for some serious male bonding time with your bros? Chances are that some or most of these men had been your schoolmates, and if you were part of the upper classes, you had probably shared living arrangements with them in dormitory situations from the time you were about eight years old. If you had confided in these men and shared some of the most pivotal moments of growing up with them, you would be more like family than friends as we define it in the 21st century.
It only stands to reason that because society in the 19th century was so sex-segregated, of course tight bonds of solidarity would develop between people of the same sex. We tend to be more forgiving of it in women here in the 21st century. “Girlfriend” can still have a completely nonsexual connotation between women. But if a guy were to refer to his buddy now as his “boyfriend” what would people think?
In all this research and reading, I’ve come across a term that is fairly new to me: homosociality. All it means is a preference for spending social time with members of your own sex. And guess what? It appears to be a natural human instinct that begins to develop around age three. What took a team of 20th century scientists to puzzle out in the 1970s (when the term was popularized) was par for the course at any 19th century gentleman’s club. Deep friendships formed on the battlefield—even if it was the battlefield of school—were a natural, unquestioned part of adult life.
So when people start reading into the fact that, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shared living arrangements in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and write reams about what that implies, or when they assume that Abraham Lincoln was gay because he shared a bed with the friend who helped him pay the rent on the room they shared, or when they interpret the flowery prose of undying loyalty written to separated friends who had fought and nearly died together in foreign wars, there’s a chance that they’re way off-base. The 19th century, by its nature, allowed for a deeper intimacy between male friends.
Like I said on Friday, it kind of makes me sad that our 21st century sexual morals seem to have inadvertently brought a wall down between men in the friendship department. I think men of the 19th century had a good thing going, one that probably helped them to maintain a decent amount of emotional health. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, after all.