Mar 3, 2013

Spring 1983: The Other Victorians

When I was in high school, no teacher would ever Say the Word.  In college, my professors would Say the Word only to "prove" that no author in the history of the world had ever been gay.  But when I started grad school in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1982, one of my professors, Dr. Harcourt, a tall, thin, sprightly lady with a trilling voice, would Say the Word with zestful abandon.

It was in my seminar in Victorian Literature, roughly 1830 to 1900.  In her attempt to "epater la bourgeoisie," Dr. Harcourt would chirp about every scandal and debauchery of every writer we covered-- and she believed being gay to be the most scandalous and debauched, so she always put it at the end, with a little twitter.

A.E. Housman, who wrote lushly romantic descriptions of young athletes: "He liked going to brothels and getting spanked, and he was (twitter) a homosexual!"

Walter Pater, who wrote the scholarly study The Renaissance, as well as more lushly romantic descriptions of young athletes: "He was a pederast and (twitter) a homosexual!"

Richard Burton, who translated The Arabian Nights: "He was an opium-addict, and (twitter) a homosexual!"

Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote poems in praise of Sappho: "He was an alcoholic, an atheist, and "(twitter) a homosexual!"

And so on through James M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan), Saki, illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, Edward Fitzgerald, John Stuart Mill (author of On Liberty), Gerard Manley Hopkins, half of the famous operetta team Gilbert and Sullivan, and of course Oscar Wilde.

Strangely, she didn't mention the gay couple in Julia Horatia Ewing's Jackanapes, perhaps because the author was heterosexual. And poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson didn't rate a twitter and a "He was a homosexual!", even though he wrote the long eulogy In Memoriam A.H.H. to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died young.  It is famous today for the lines "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."  Maybe because Tennyson liked ladies, too?

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