Thursday, 5 December 2013

Reframing the Victorians: Aesthetics and Homosexuality in the Victorian era.

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

During the Victorian era, there was a strange hypocrisy about sexuality and activities.  Many heterosexual relationships were looked upon as not only normal, but often also a public front for the more superior members of society.  And, somewhat unsurprisingly, this was how things actually were.  However, it was mainly the men who were romanticised for this; you don't often read about female homosexual relationships during this era.  Perhaps this is because, for much of the time, women were presumed to gain no gratification from sex whatsoever.  Obviously this was quite untrue, but few people seemed to be in the position to stand up and argue this point.  However, this is not what I want to discuss.
Historically, Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet, and one-time novelist.  Going slightly deeper, he was a flamboyant dandy, a rebel in society - particularly involved in the movement of Aestheticism, and a well-known wit.  I have chosen to base my blog topics around Wilde, because he was the first Victorian writer I came across who was openly gay.

The movement of Aestheticism began mainly as an opposition to the middle class socialites, who appeared to have good taste in art, music and culture when, in comparison to those genuinely interested in the area, they were ignorant and unrefined.  These philistines only wanted to look good in front of their peers, which obviously provoked many people.  Wilde associated himself with the movement with more flamboyance than most, and went on to popularise the phrase "art for art's sake."  He was determined to lead a life of materialistic beauty, and desired nothing more than to make his life an ideal work of art.  This, in turn, led to the writing and publishing of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

On my first reading of the book, I saw no homosexual hints or elements; instead, I read it as a horror story.  The plot follows Dorian Gray as he sells his soul to the devil, in exchange for eternal youth, and goes on to live a life on decadence and debauchery.  The novel ends, despite the fast-paced life of luxury, with the debatable death or suicide of Dorian, in which his own peers finally see him for the fraud he is.  It took a modern day retelling of the novel - Dorian: an imitation - by author Will Self, for me to actually notice what I thought was natural behaviour of the times.

Many Victorian novels hint towards homosexual relationships; indeed, the men seem very affectionate towards one another, and are not ostracised for it.  On the contrary, it seems very commonplace to the narrators.  However, it goes deeper than that.  We all know that the Victorians could sometimes be very shallow, looking to base not only their architecture on that of previous eras, but also their appearances and attitudes.  In ancient Greece, relationships were mostly homosexual, with Plato and various other philosophers writing about same sex relationships.  In fact, the word 'homosexual' originated in Greece.  The Greeks defined sexuality not by gender, but by the roles each person played in sex.  For the Victorians, sex and sexuality was defined by passions and desires, the freedom to want rather than to do what was legally proper.  The concept of romantic friendship was the name given to homosexual relationships; insinuating the 'couple' did nothing more than act as normal, close friends in public - and whatever they did in their own homes was between them.  They would indeed often have wives and children of their own, yet there seemed no doubt towards their gender preference.  However, many people still saw homosexuality as a sin, and a crime.  It wasn't until the 1880's that people - specifically, people who had studied homosexuality enough to call themselves 'sexologists' - began to understand it as an illness rather than a criminal offence.  Same sex education was encouraged as a time for adolescent boys to experiment with their sexuality, in the hopes that they would have grown out of it by the time they reached adulthood.  Nonetheless, this didn't deter men who wanted to form relationships with other men.

Fashion has always been a big part of the gay lifestyle; this dates back to the Victorian era - and also quite possibly before.  Fashion in these times incorporated beautiful accessories and trinkets into outfits, and home decor.  Peacock feathers were a very big thing for Victorians, as well as strong colour contrasts and combinations.  Classical and Japanese influences were also quite common.  However, aestheticism wasn't only appreciated in materialism.  A love of music, or philosophy was often seen.  Victorians would proudly display philosophical books on their shelves at home; later these would give way to more scientific works.  There was a great deal of ersatz decor around in this era; again, it was all about wanting to impress peers.  In the earlier years, the rich would pose in front of beautiful buildings - houses; churches, etc.  Then, the scenes would be photographed, or painted, to give the impression of a perfect life.  This wasn't an accurate representation of life in the Victorian era, particularly the early years, but it was how society wanted to see things.

Another author whose work contained homosexual themes was Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Tennyson's poem, 'In Memoriam,' is - amongst other themes - a love poem, written both to and about his friend Arthur Hallam.  The poem is not as explicit as Wilde's Dorian Gray, and did not have the same effect upon publication.  In fact, it was - and still is - regarded as one of the great poems of the 1800's.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, on the other hand, was first partially censored, and then edited many times to remove the most controversial parts.

Tennyson was not as flamboyant about his sexuality as Wilde, and there has been some speculation on whether or not he was even bisexual.  He certainly had many female lovers, although it was never made clear if he ever acted on his feelings for Hallam.  Tennyson wrote a fair amount about homosexuality, and homoerotic scenes, but the material was so widespread that, again, there is not enough consistency to argue his sexuality.  There is no possibility that Tennyson's wife was just kept around for a cover-up; the two were married for over forty years, which, all things considered, was quite impressive for the times.
Victorian homosexuality and aesthetics almost go hand in hand.  Nevertheless, sexuality was a far bigger part, because of the implications.  Although the last hangings for sodomy in Britain were in 1945, and the death sentence for sodomy continued until 1961, there was still the fact that the authorities had a law to obey, and homosexuality remained a punishable offence for many years afterwards.

Works cited:

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Classics: 2003.


  1. I really loved reading your blog post and learning about homosexuality and how it was understood by people back then. Your mention of The Picture of Dorian Gray makes me what to pick up the book and read it - I also like the detail you include about Tennyson in relation to Wilde.

  2. Your blog post was very interesting. I agree with Amra. I liked how you looked at a variety of texts and compared their representations of sexuality. Also, your linking of homosexuality to other themes such as fashion was very good and detailed and produced a better understanding. Nevertheless, your use of contextual factors, such as sexuality moving from a crime to a mental disease made your study more in-depth. Well done !