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In France they were known as “chestnut gatherers”; Brits called them “lavender aunts.” The names evoke an insouciant time, when the diluted champagne flowed and gay men and women could live relatively harassment-free lives. And yet the law tells a different story. Gays in the 19th century were living under threat of a death sentence. Sodomy was punishable by death in England until 1861. Forty-six people were executed in England alone between 1810 and 1835.
In his provocative new book, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century, Graham Robb argues that such persecution was in fact the exception, that homosexual life in Europe in the 19th century was, if not openly thriving, then at least vibrant. It is a strikingly counterintuitive argument; the era has, of course, long been regarded as a dark age of gay culture: a time of thorough repression and Draconian punishment. “[T]here is no evidence that sodomites were ever buried alive,” he writes in his lively opening salvo. “Nor did sodomitical women in the United States have half-inch holes cut through the cartilage of their noses (as recommended by Thomas Jefferson and others when revising the laws of Virginia in 1777).”
In fact, Robb argues that gays in the 19th century had it a hell of a lot better than those in the 20th. To build this case, Robb combs through criminal records, letters, diaries, newspapers, and literature to find a “vanished civilization,” Wildean before Wilde was a star. In doing so, he takes on French philosopher Michel Foucault, who famously theorized, in 1976’s The History of Sexuality, that until Victorian doctors came up with the category of homosexual, no one identified him- or herself as such. Since then, the idea has been a cornerstone of gay studies, as if gay culture effectively began with the 20th century; Strangers persuasively proves it simplistic at best.
The book builds its case slowly, meticulously. Robb credits doctors who were studying homosexuality as a medical phenomenon with providing gays a sense of community, a place to tell their stories. When their case studies were published, such doctors unwittingly became publicists for a way of life that had been largely practiced in isolation. In this way, “a society of strangers”—hence the book’s title—“was informed of its own existence by its prosecutors.”
Robb persistently tries to emphasize this silver lining of sorts, but the downside of physicians’ diagnoses hardly seems worth the trouble. Many doctors believed that men and women could masturbate themselves into “sexual inversion,” as it was then called. The criteria for identifying gays seem even more haphazard. For some reason, the ability to urinate in a straight line (for men) was considered a telltale sign. One doctor devised a rather ingenious test. “Throw an object at the lap of a sitting homosexual, said the Berlin doctor Magnus Hirschfeld in 1913, and he will automatically open his legs to catch it.” Gay women, of course, were believed able to whistle, spit, and throw with the best of them; they were also thought identifiable by their deep voices.
And as long as homosexuality was a condition, there could be a cure. In defense of homosexuality, doctors compared it to color-blindness and congenital deformities such as hare lips and club feet. Thus, the homosexual became “a walking laboratory.” There were mild treatments, such as a New York doctor’s prescription of “cold baths with outdoor exercise and the study of mathematics.” Others prescribed going to prostitutes; when Oscar Wilde left prison, a friend convinced him to visit one to develop “a more wholesome taste.” He emerged rather unconvinced. “‘It was like chewing cold mutton!’” he muttered.
And yet, Robb asserts, there were places where gay life was actively lived, and cruising gay men could meet each other: the docks in Barcelona, the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Broadway and Central Park in New York, almost anywhere in Naples. In big cities, encoding homosexual behavior was not just a necessity, but a sport as well. “Visiting cards with photo-portraits were exchanged like cigarette cards,” Robb writes, and the selectivity and secret quality of this life bred a closeness that made the world seem small. There was even a kind of Gay Grand Tour, which stretched from London to Amsterdam, Paris, and Berneval, anticipating the party circuits of the 21st century.
One obvious flaw to Strangers is that it focuses almost exclusively on the upper echelons, a problem Robb ascribes to the historical record. It is also unfortunate, if similarly attributable, that Strangers is tilted more toward gay male life than lesbian life. To read Strangers is to hear a lot about such people as Tchaikovsky, Andre Gide, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and John Maynard Keynes, men of elevated intellect or station, or both, who had access to a large network of similarly privileged people.
One could hardly pick a better literary sleuth to peek into these lives than Robb. His biographies of Rimbaud, Hugo, and Balzac are notable for their combination of research and page-turning readability. By comparison, Strangers is a starchier book, and it requires a scholarly sensibility to appreciate fully. Every page overflows with statistics and literary citations. To enjoy it fully, one must appreciate the thoroughness with which Robb is covering his bases, tracking the development of both medical and psychological arguments that were eventually
disproved—and deemed discriminatory—in the 20th century.
Often enough, though, Robb digs up some juicy tidbit that makes Strangers worth the trouble. In the later sections, where he delves into the lives of one figure after another, the author turns up a diary by Walt Whitman, in which the great bard recorded his nightly conquests. It’s an exciting record of gay life flourishing—in the flesh and, through Whitman’s pen, on the page—when such things typically weren’t recorded. “Saturday night Mike Ellis,” Whitman wrote, “wandering at the corner of Lexington av. & 32d st.—took him home to 150 37th street,—4th story back room—bitter cold night.”
Whereas many studies of gay culture begin with the trials of Oscar Wilde, Robb takes his observations further afield. He traces the gay-rights movement not to the treatises of de Sade or Volaire, who he believes were simply advocating for freedom, but to Jeremy Bentham, who wrote hundreds of pages on the topic between 1774 and 1824. And unlike so many other cultural histories about gay life, Strangers does not finish with the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, but ends with two different literary analyses, of Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Auguste Dupin.
With its graphs and appendixes, and its 20-some-page list of sources sited, Strangers will satisfy scholars. It is in details like Whitman’s nightly conquest, however, that the message born out by statistics comes clear to all of us: Gay life was alive and well in the 19th century. It almost makes one want to sound, as the poet himself might say, a barbaric yawp of belated celebration. CP