Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Homosexuality in The Victorian Era

Nineteenth century literature with explicit homosexual content proves almost non-existent; a possible consequence of the laws of the time regarding same-sex relationships. Many texts however, have evidence of an underlying homosexual presence persistent through mainstream fiction. The early Victorian period labelled homosexual activity as a crime and a sin. The Victoria and Albert Museum explain in their ‘Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century’ collection that ‘private male homosexual acts were not explicitly and severely legislated against until 1885, when gay sex behind closed doors was made a criminal offence’. This piece of legislation led, famously and scandalously, to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1896.

During Oscar Wilde’s trial it is reported that a Mr. C. F. Gill questioned Wilde about a poem Lord Alfred Douglas (the man which Wilde was being prosecuted for having a homosexual relationship with) had written named ‘Two Loves’:

"'Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, dost thou rove
These pleasant realms?  I pray thee tell me sooth,
What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love,'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me,
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame.
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name'."
What is the "Love that dare not speak its name"?

After Gill questioned Wilde about the meaning of the poem, asking whether it refers to natural or unnatural love Wilde replied ‘The “Love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, and it is the noblest form of affection.  There is nothing unnatural about it. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it’. This idea of affection of an elder man for a younger man that Wilde discusses can be interpreted as a parallel of the artist Basil Hallward’s affections for the younger Dorian; Basil claiming Dorian to be “all [his] art” now.

Oscar Wilde was sentenced for two years hard labour under homosexual gross indecency whereas an offender convicted of ‘attempted sodomy’ could receive up to ten years. These enforced punishments were a main reason for the silence concerning same-sex relationships within literature from the period. Writers would instead turn to motifs and metaphors as a form of expressing sexuality within texts; it is from this notion that one will begin looking closer and reading deeper into an author’s writing – searching for any homosexual connotations. With Regards to Oscar Wilde’s writing, many scholars have since pointed to The Picture of Dorian Gray as a gateway into Wilde’s sexuality due to the suggestive statements of homoeroticism.

The novella was originally criticised at the time as 'a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction’. This caused Wilde’s editor, JM Stoddart, to delete passages depicting the artist Basil Hallward’s admiration for Dorian Gray.

Secrecy and shame are prominent issues throughout A Picture of Dorian Gray, reflective of the homosexual scene during the Victorian Period – everything was hidden and everything thing that was said had a subtext. Wilde describes how ‘every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.’ Although Wilde doesn’t come forward and out rightly state it, there is an obvious ‘forbidden’ desire one can assume he is referring to. This desire was not only made to be ‘monstrous and unlawful’ by one’s soul however, as Wilde describes, but by the actual nineteenth century government.

Just like the tragic protagonist, Oscar Wilde was concealing a dark secret about himself. This poses the question, whether or not Wilde had intended for the parallel of Gray keeping his portrait covered up and hidden from public view to how homosexuality was kept quiet at the time. Dorian Gray appears entranced by his portrait at first, until the realisation dawn on him that the current state of beauty he possesses will soon be taken away from him. He then prays that the picture will bear the corruption instead of himself. Being a homosexual was seen as a corruption to society at the time that Oscar Wilde was writing, therefore using it as a metaphor to describe what homosexual men wished to keep hidden during the nineteenth century.

Wilde left prison in 1897, physically and mentally exhausted with no money. He chose to find exile in France where he reunited with Lord Alfred Douglas before passing away in 1900 – aged 46. His infamous imprisonment and documented exuberant personality has led to his literary works being praised as revolutionary centuries after being written. 


"The Criminal Trials of Oscar Wilde: Trial Transcripts." The Criminal Trials of Oscar Wilde: Trial Transcripts. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

"Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century." Victoria and Albert Museum, Online Museum, Web Team, N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Closing Scene. Digital image. Police News, n.d. Web 

"Oscar Wilde." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this Lizzie, I now know a lot more about the life of Wilde, and I found the parallels you made with Wilde and Gray really insightful. Thanks!

  2. This was really interesting, Lizzie. I loved reading about Oscar Wilde in depth, thank you.