Bromance, Victorian Style

1857_Mens_FashionsI’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.

White's, one of the most influential clubs of the 19th century.  Courtesy of Wikicommons, Elisa.rolle

White’s, one of the most influential clubs of the 19th century. Courtesy of Wikicommons, Elisa.rolle

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.

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4 thoughts on “Bromance, Victorian Style

  1. Love, love, love this. I can’t tell you how often I get into arguments with people who can’t see past the zippers of their pants. Most of my friends are male … and no, I don’t want to sleep with them. But the current thought is anything of very close friendship (except female/female) MUST have a sexual connotation. Heck, I have an amusing story because my husband’s best friend was a female. (Rumors are still running around the casino – five years later). Hubby and I are the best of friends, and our beginnings had nothing to do with sex.

    Hopefully people will get their heads out of the pants, and men can have those close relationships again without fear. Soon.

    • If history teaches us anything, it’s that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction someday. I just hope it doesn’t over-swing and land us in a whole other world of mess. But it probably will, because that’s history. 😛

  2. I enjoyed both your posts on this matter. Very intriguing. I do think that because homosexuality was illegal, it meant that many people would have seen male friendships as the norm. Even if they did think there was a homosexual undertone, they wouldn’t have been able to express it freely.
    I think the sexual revolution has something to do with it, but I think it has something to do with the freedom of looking at a text, etc in the way you want to. And because people can look at it from a certain view point, they will. Sometimes excessively.
    I remember watching an interview with Richard Burton where he said early on in his career he wasn’t given a part because they thought homosexual connotations would be made, if they did. This was before the sexual revolution. I think because of the censorship in the past, people look for clues to things where there aren’ t any to be found. Sometimes there is, other times there isn’t.
    Once people get ‘used’ to homosexuality, I don’t think they’ll be this obsession with male relationships as there seems to be now.
    I think there are loads of other reasons why this happens. Expectations of men to be a certain way is one of them. For example, too much emotion will make some question his sexuality, etc.

    • Thanks, Cassandra! One of the most interesting and surprising things that I learned while reading Graham Robb’s book is that, actually, homosexuality was only illegal in name only. Like those silly old laws on the books that no one really pays attention to anymore. Robb presents a huge amount of evidence about court cases and actual prosecutions, and it seems like the homosexual charge in court was more of a joke than anything. In fact, that’s why Oscar Wilde’s trial was so sensational: because it was unheard of for a man to actually be prosecuted for his sexuality. Robb also makes the case that attitudes in the 19th century were much more indifferent, and that it was only in the mid-20th century that the whole hoopla of shock and horror arose around the subject. So here in the 21st century, when we look back at how bad things were, we’re actually looking back to the 1940s-70s and not, in fact to the 19th century. All very, very fascinating stuff. As soon as I have time to finish the book, I will definitely be doing a book report on it!

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