Friday, 4 November 2011

Victorian homosexuality series: John Addington Symonds

Sexuality in nineteenth-century British society was heavily policed and strictly regulated. People's private lives were regulated by means of the public sphere, through legislation as well as discourse in newspapers, sermons, pamphlets and other ways of public address.

For a society steeped in moral panic about a vice supposedly so abominable it cannot be uttered, 'the love that dare not speak its name', as Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas was to describe it in his poem Two Loves, the Victorians had a knack at finding ways to keep discussing it.

For example, in a medical text from 1873, 'unnatural offences' are dealt with, among them sodomy. It is interesting to note that although it was written by a medical doctor, The Principals and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence does not go any further to explain what sodomy actually is, other than the fact that it was an 'unnatural connection of a man with mankind'. (The full volume can be read at the Internet Archive here.) This kind of repressive, restrictive discourse birthed late nineteenth-century sexologists and homosexual apologists, who sought to prove that homosexuality and acts related to it (such as sodomy), was not 'unnatural' or an 'offence', but rather a valid sexual identity.

John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) in 1889
The first writer who spoke out in favour of homosexuality was John Addington Symonds in his work A Problem in Greek Ethics (written in 1873 but first published ten years later, in 1883). Symonds himself was openly homosexual, and for a greater part of his life lived in Switzerland, practising an open marriage with his wife Catherine (with whom he had several children), who did not seem to have objections to Symonds having sexual relationships with a number of young men. It is the first work to discuss the history of homosexuality, or as Symonds defined it, 'sexual inversion'. Later, Havelock Ellis would define sexual inversion as 'sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality toward persons of the same sex'. It is important to remember that 'abnormality' here did not mean something repugnant or abhorrent, but simply something different from the norm: the norm in this case being heterosexuality.

In A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds writes of 'undiseased psychological complexity and noble emotionality in male love', showing examples of various cases of homosexuality and same-sex friendship in order to illustrate how the Greeks, 'a great and highly-developed race', were much more permissive of those kinds of relations than his Victorian contemporaries. It is significant that one of the first texts of homosexual apology treads the safe line of dealing with the distant rather than the immediate past, or, even riskier, the present. The Victorians considered Ancient Greece an ideal in many ways, so it was very clever of Symonds to use it as a backdrop for his attempt to destigmatize love between men.

It was only in 1891 that Symonds was ready to address contemporary problems, when he wrote A Problem in Modern Ethics. Before this, men who identified as 'inverts' in Britain had to rely solely on continental works of sexology by theorists such as Richard Von Krafft-Ebing and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and it is the continental tradition that inspired Symonds – and others after him – to write about this topic. Although Krafft-Ebing and Ulrichs were what we could call pioneers of LGBT rights, their works were not readily available in Britain, and no English translations existed. By writing A Problem in Modern Ethics, Symonds tried to remove negative prejudices attached to homosexuality:

It is the common belief that a male who loves his own sex must be despicable, degraded, depraved, vicious, and incapable of humane or generous sentiments. If Greek history did not contradict this supposition, a little patient enquiry into contemporary manners would suffice to remove it. But people will not take this trouble about a matter, which (...) they "touch with reluctance and despatch with impatience." Those who are obliged to do so find to their surprise that "among the men who are subject to this deplorable vice there are even quite intelligent, talented, and highly-placed persons, of excellent and even noble character."

The vulgar expect to discover the objects of their outraged animosity in the scum of humanity. But these may be met with every day in drawing-rooms, law-courts, banks, universities, mess-rooms; on the bench, the throne, the chair of the professor; under the blouse of the workman, the cassock of the priest, the epaulettes of the officer, the smock-frock of the ploughman, the wig of the barrister, the mantle of the peer, the costume of the actor, the tights of the athlete, the gown of the academician. (J.A. Symonds, A Problem in Modern Ethics, 1891)

What is important to note is the final chapter of the book, entitled Suggestions on the subject of sexual inversion in relation to law and education, where Symonds talks about 'the vulgar error that antiphysical desires are invariably voluntary, and the result either of inordinate lust or of satiated appetites'. He speaks out against this belief, and here is the true historical value of this text – in the hypothesis that homosexuality, as a sexual identity expressed through sexual practice or sentiment, is something one is born with, rather than anything one inherits, or adopts as result of a pernicious environment. This kind of hypothesis would pave the way for future works discussing with homosexuality and queer issues, and Symonds himself would with Havelock Ellis co-author one of the most important books on the subject, Sexual Inversion, published after his death in 1897.

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