Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Worst kept Secret of the Victorian Era

The Worst kept secret of the Victorian Era

In society today, I’m sure we’d all like to think that we’ve moved to a better understanding and acknowledgement of equality between sexuality and gender identity, and the differences between the two. But what if we haven’t moved on as far as we thought? The turn of the nineteenth century was when the big secret of homosexuality broke through. The history and public image of the Victorians were what can only be described as very conservative and extremely prudish. This is shown through their actions against homosexuality of the era, sexual relationships between men in particular, meant that they were locked away for life, treated for mental illness or given a straight death-sentence.
Although, what if it wasn’t as dramatic as we thought? What if, surprisingly, Homosexuality – what would have been thought to be an absolute ‘no-no’ of this time - was actually considerably liberal to an extent? After reading Emma McFarnon’s article ‘The Victorians’ surprisingly liberal attitude towards gay men’ it presents the argument that Victorians were far more lenient when it came to sexual relationships; as these statistics may suggest:

“280,000 individual cases brought before the senior criminal courts of Assize and Quarter Session […] Fewer than 313 such trials have been uncovered for the period from 1850 up to the outbreak of the First World War, which […] would appear to suggest a rate of fewer than five such prosecutions per year.”

Even though there is this argument between what the Victorians thought and what the Victorians actually ‘did’ when it came to sexuality - whether prudish or not – the Victorians didn’t have the knowledge or understanding that we have gained in our society today. Therefore, even though police rallied together and formed witch hunts and mass hangings all over the country in an attempt to cure this ‘epidemic of homosexuality’, the actual executions that came from the convictions were a matter of how selectively the law was applied.

I spy, with my little eye: The story of James Pratt and John Smith

“Generic gallows image from this Smith and Pratt hanging-day broadside”

"Outside The Debtor’S Door Of Newgate Prison In London, Opposite The Old Bailey, The Hangman Plies His Trade With Another Client”

As long as you were discreet with your ‘business’ and ‘rendezvous’, it would have been quite easy to avoid such a scandal. At least… You would’ve thought that would have been the case, but not at all.  This brings me to the unfortunate and wrongful conviction of James Pratt and John Smith. August, 1835 saw the last UK hanging of these two men, all because they were spied on through the keyhole of a front door in Mr Bonvill’s apartment in Southwark, London. 

They were then arrested and went on to be executed on the 27th November, even though the supposed arresting police officer had no material evidence whatsoever to support the conviction charge, nor did the witness, Jane Berkshire, have a solid account of the event claiming to have “witnessed the alleged sex acts, from the men undressing to laying on the floor and the “appearance” of anal penetration.” This case in particular highlights the fact that you weren’t even safe in your own personal living space, let alone being openly gay and committing such acts in public.

The Scandal of Oscar Wilde 

(Oscar Wilde, Three-Quarter Length Portrait, taken by photographer and artist Napoleon Sarony)

Oscar Wilde was an iconic writer of the 19th Century; also fell victim to the selective laws that were tied to this century as well for being homosexual. Similarly to the unjust execution of James Pratt and John Smith, in regards to Oscar Wilde’s case there was still something unjust but ended just like the previous case, with no exception for homosexuality. In discussion with, Ari Adut, he mentions in his Journal written on “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde” the Victorians knew far well of Wilde’s sexuality and he fed into every Victorian stereotype of what a homosexual would be/or look like.  “From the late 1870s to the mid‐1880s, Wilde sported a flamboyant look with flowing locks, colossal flopping collars encircled by colorful scarves, velvet frock coats, and knee‐length stockings.” (Adut, 2005)

This goes to show that Wilde being in the successful position that he was in, was left to get on with his life, almost mocking the puritanism of the Victorians in his flamboyant style of dress. Even though he was temporarily dismissed for his obvious and apparent homosexuality, similarly to the case of Pratt and Smith, Wilde still went on to be prosecuted and condemned to death, receiving the full punishment even thought, once again “the evidence against him was circumstantial, uncorroborated, and tainted.”  (Adut, 2005)

Moreover, as much as Wilde’s case was a scandal, his high status acted as a shield and barrier for a while, now that his secret was out so were the societal reactions and consequences. As a result, his books were pulled from bookshelves and his plays were banished from English theatre, although from being an ‘emblem’ as such, for the art community, it was from his influence of events that it was now regarded as a “corrupt influence” on Britain whilst also bringing forward the chance for some people in Victorian England to truly voice their class bitterness and anger. 

So… where were the lesbians?

In the Victorian era, it’s no surprise that homosexuality was kept away from the limelight, for no one knew much about it, only that it was ‘death punishably’ wrong as that’s what they gathered from biblical texts anyway.  It’s very apparent there were gay men, but where were the lesbians? And what were their punishments? Were they punished at all?

‘Lesbianism’ and even the term ‘Lesbian’ were not referred to at all when the talk of female sexuality came to the forefront of conversation – not that it ever did. ‘Sapphist’ meaning: “Homosexual relations between women” or ‘Sexual Invert’ was far more common in referral. Although, awareness of homosexual relations between men was increasing, there was still a silence and incredible lack of acknowledgement for lesbians in the era. Continuing this idea of ‘selective law’ that was inevitably apparent during this time, there has been much debate on the fact or possible ‘myth’ that, it was indeed, Queen Victoria’s self-input that resulted in Lesbian activity being legalised in Britain. There have been claims that "ladies would never engage in such despicable acts." and that “women were not viewed as having carnal desires as men did” resulting in intimate friendships with romantic overtones which was acceptable, the norm. No suspicion, no hostility, no death penalty. It was even discussed that with the rising publicity and acknowledgment of homosexuality throughout the Victorian Britain, young and female audiences would be tempted or corrupted if they were to hear anything about homosexuality; they were worried that these young minds would be tempted by the homosexual relations that were very much creeping up on everyone. The secret was becoming harder to contain.

From different points of discussion, it seems we have come a very long way since the prudish reputation of the Victorians and their understanding of what it is to be homosexual. However, I also think it’s worth raising the question on have we come far enough in today’s society? Have we achieved the desired equality? In regards to not killing off people for their sexual orientation and identity then yes, of course we have. But we also need to recognise the fact that we have still a long way to go to gain full acceptance of our own identities as they increasingly become more intricate.

Works Cited:
Adut, Ari.  “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde” Published: The University of Chicago Press. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 111, No. 1 (July 2005), pp. 213-248
Edwards, Owen Dudley. “Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills (1854–1900).” Owen Dudley Edwards. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Sept. 2012. 7 Dec. 2015 <>.
"Sapphism, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. December 2015.
"puritanism, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. December 2015.
Yue, Isaac. Review of Marcus, Sharon, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. August, 2007.

Images Used:

Unknown,. Generic Gallows Image From This Smith And Pratt Hanging-Day Broadside. 2015. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
Unknown,. "Outside The Debtor’S Door Of Newgate Prison In London, Opposite The Old Bailey, The Hangman Plies His Trade With Another Client". 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
Sarony, Napoleon. Oscar Wilde, Three-Quarter Length Portrait, Facing Front, Seated, Leaning Forward, Left Elbow Resting On Knee, Hand To Chin, Holding Walking Stick In Right Hand, Wearing Coat. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.


  1. Hi Hannah!
    It was very interesting to read about how ones status in Victorian society changed or prevented your punishment, at least temporarily, for being homosexual or engaged in sexual activities with someone of the same sex. It is quite surprising that to think that people - and the government! - would almost turn a blind eye on something that was then illegal. But, as you write, it was not ignored forever. I also liked your section on women and their sexuality, as well as how their relationship were viewed in the Victorian era.

  2. Hi Hannah,
    Your blog is very intuitive, well-written, and well-researched. I had read about the history of homosexuality within the Victorian era before, but your blog offers a much greater wealth of information (including the section about "Lesbians" as I had never read anything about their treatment within Victorian society before). I enjoyed reading your blog very much!

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