Saturday, August 9, 2014

LGBT Writers in London in the 1890s

This short descriptive list should serve as a catalogue of LGBT writers, who were active in fin-de-siècle London - that is the London of the 1890s. The term "fin de siècle" here refers to the cultural trends of the 1880s and 1890s, including cynicism, and a rebellion against materialism, bourgeois society, liberal politics, and decadence.

This list does not include writers who were too young to be active - even if they were deeply influenced by the era, like Radcliffe Hall. Also, history has made assumptions about the sexuality of some of these writers because homosexuality - especially male homosexuality - was very taboo, especially post-1895. If there's anyone you think I should add to this list, leave a comment, or send me an email.

E.F. Benson
Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) was known professionally as E.F. Benson, but his friends called him Fred. He was 23 at the beginning of the decade, and wrote his first book, Dodo: A Detail of the Day (1893), while still a student at King's College. Dodo featured a portrait of the famous suffragette, Ethel Smyth.

Benson was a prolific writer and quickly followed Dodo up with a book per year for the rest of that decade, including: The Rubicon (1894), The Judgement Books (1895), Limitations (1896), The Babe, B.A. (1897), The Money Market (1898), The Vintage (1898), The Capsina (1899), and Mammon and Co. (1899).

Biographers assume that Benson was homosexual because he never married and his work is, at times, homoerotic. In addition to writing, Benson was a star athlete, who represented England at figure skating.

Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler (1835-1902) has made important contributions to the literary canon, most notably (in my opinion), his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, which remain in use today. He was in his 50s and 60s, during the 1890s. In 1892, his first significant lover, Charles Pauli, died.

After profiting from the sale of a New Zealand farm in the 1860s, Butler began paying Pauli a regular pension, which he continued to do until Butler had spent all of his savings - even though their romance had ended. Shockingly, for Butler, when Pauli died, he learned that Pauli had similar arrangements with other men, and had died wealthy without leaving anything to Butler in his will.

Butler kept another lover on a salary as his literary assistant and travelling companion, but their relationship was not exclusive.

Butler's sentimental poem, "In Memoriam H.R.F," was written in 1895 for Hans Rudolf Faesch, a Swiss exchange student, who had stayed with him in London for two years. Butler had his aforementioned literary assistant, Henry Festing Jones, submit the poem for publication at several important English magazines, but withdrew the poem from publication when the Oscar Wilde trial began in the spring of that year, out of fear of similar persecution.

Butler believed the author of the Odyssey was a woman, and offered his evidence for this theory in The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897). His translation of the Iliad first appeared in 1898, and he published Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered in 1899, in which he proposes that, if Shakespeare's sonnets are rearranged properly, they tell the story of a homosexual affair.

Edward Carpenter (right)
& George Merrill (left).
Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was actually an early LGBT activist, as might be evidenced simply by reading a list of his 1890s writings.
From Adam's Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India (1892)
A Visit to Ghani: From Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892)
Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894)
Sex Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894)
Marriage in Free Society (1894)
Love's Coming of Age (1896)
Angels' Wings: A Series of Essays on Art and its Relation to Life (1898)
Carpenter was close friends with Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore. He was in his 40s and 50s during the 1890s, and travelled to Ceylon and India in 1890 to spend time with a Hindu teacher, Gnani, described in Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892). Carpenter felt transformed by the experience, and converted to the belief that Socialism could produce a profoundly good shift in human consciousness, in which mankind would rediscover a primordial state of joy.
The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon. - Edward Carpenter Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889) 
Through his brand of socialism, Carpenter was inspired to campaign against air pollution, while promoting vegetarianism and opposing vivisection.

Carpenter met his life partner when he returned to London from India in 1891. Carpenter's partner, George Merrill was a working class man from Sheffield. In 1898, they moved in together defying contemporary sexual mores, as well as the British class system. Their relationship reflected Carpenter's convictions about same-sex love and his belief that gay culture would radically change their society.

Carpenter's writing is anti-capitalist. He supported Fred Charles of the Walsall Anarchists in 1892, before becoming a founder member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

Marie Corelli
Marie Corelli (1855-1924) was famous, like Oprah; I've mentioned her before. She was the "Idol of Suburbia," and, like many writers from the 1890s, her biographers only guess at her sexuality based on the circumstances of her life, such as her companion, Bertha Vyver.

"Vyver and Corekki may be understood as devoted companions, sexual lovers, or romantic friends, sisters, mother and daughter, or even guardian angel and inspired genius. There are so many kinds of relationships, after all," writes biographer, Annette Fredrico, "Certainly Corelli's relationship with Vyver strengthened her faith in women's self-sufficiency and limitless capabilities for achievement."

Corelli favoured spiritual themes in her writing, such as astral projection, and her work is seen as groundbreaking for contemporary New Age religion. She had four novels under her belt by the 1890s, and kept on going with: Wormwood: A Drama of Paris (1890), The Soul of Lilith (1892), Barabbas, A Dream of the World's Tragedy (1893), The Sorrows of Satan (1895), The Mighty Atom (1896), The Murder of Delicia (1896), Ziska (1897), and two short story collections.

Nine film adaptations were made from her books between 1915 and 1926.

The Young Diana (1922)
A Marie Corelli inspired film.
The Sorrows of Satan (1926) Another Marie Corelli inspired film.
Lord Alfred Douglas
Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) a.k.a. "Bosie" or the bloke who ruined Oscar Wilde's life; I don't like him one little bit, but he was an active gay writer in the 1890s, so I feel I ought to mention him.

Douglas and Wilde met in 1891. Robert Hichens' novel, The Green Carnation (1894), was said to be based on Wilde and Douglas's relationship; it was one of the texts used against Wilde in court.

Douglas was editor of the Oxford magazine, The Spirit Lamp, which he used to covertly gain acceptance for homosexuality. Wilde wrote Salomé originally in French, and commissioned Douglas to translate it in 1893. Douglas's French was bad, so his translation was met with scrutiny. Douglas didn't take criticism well, and claimed the errors were in the original play, which lead to one of many temporary breakdowns in their ever turbulent romance.

One story goes, Douglas got sick with the flu and needed Wilde to nurse him. When he got better, Wilde had got the same flu. Instead of taking care of Wilde as Wilde took care of him, Dougas checked into a hotel and sent Wilde the bill.

Douglas also had a careless habit of leaving Wilde's incriminating letters in old clothes that he gave to male prostitutes, leading to blackmail. Of course, Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, soon discovered the relationship, leading to Wilde's infamous trials and eventual imprisonment.

Signed copy of Douglas's autobiography.
Still, Douglas managed to be the chief mourner at Wilde's funeral at the end of the decade. Soon after, he would meet and marry a rich poet, decide that homosexuality was evil, and persecute more gay men in court. I do not like him, not one little bit.

E.M. Forster
Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) is best known for his novel, A Passage to India (1924). I'm still not sure I should include him in this list because he was so young and still at school, but he was attending King's College. While at school, he joined a society called the Apostles (formally the Cambridge Conversazione Society). Its former members went on to establish the Bloomsbury Group, an influential group of associated writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, including Forster and Virginia Woolf (who is only three years younger than Forster, but I have to cut off who I'm including in this list somewhere).

Forster was open about his sexuality to his friends, and closed to the public. The love of his life was a married police officer.

A.E. Housman at age 35.
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was already one of the foremost classicists in the 1890s, and just in his 30s. He has also been ranked one of the greatest scholars who ever lived. He was a classicist and poet, best known for his cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

In the 1890s, Housman was recovering from unrequited love: his college roommate Moses jackson, who married without telling him in 1889, and died in 1892. By that time, Housman's professional reputation had grown such that he was offered professorship of Latin at University College, London, which he accepted.

He liked going to France to read books that were banned in Britain.

Mostly while living in Highgate, London, Housman worked on A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems. After being rejected by publishers, he self-published in 1896. After a slow start, it became a lasting success, and has been in print continuously since May 1896.

W. Somerset Maugham as a medical student.
William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was young in the 1890s (teens and twenties), playing doctor, until his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) sold out, and he decided to be a writer instead.

As a medical student, Maugham was very self-sufficient and productive, he kept his own place, loved decorating it, though it was cluttered with notebooks full of ideas, and wrote nightly while going to school. What he loved most about being in London was that he got to meet people of a different class that he wouldn't have got to meet otherwise. This was carried forward into his first novel, which is about the consequences of working-class adultery.

When Liza of Lambeth sold out in just a few weeks, he dropped medicine, and devoted his working life to writing.

Walter Pater (1890s)
Walter Horatio Pater (1839-1894) was already a literary celebrity in the 1890s, teaching at Oxford and living with his sisters in Kensington between terms. His 1893 piece on Mona Lisa is considered the most famous piece of writing about any picture in the world: "She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave..."

Pater was one of the founding thinkers of the Aesthetic Movement. Oscar paid tribute to him in The Critic as Artist (1891). Though, Pater wrote a negative review of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891):
A true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man's entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde's heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is ... to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.
To be fair, the character, Lord Henry Wonton, willfully and incessantly misquoted Pater throughout the book.

In 1893, he moved his sisters to Oxford, where he was in high demand as a lecturer. He died in that home of heart failure due to rheumatic fever at the age of 54.

Henry James (left), Edith Wharton (middle),
Howard Sturrgis (right).
Howard Overing Sturgis (1855-1920) was the kind of guy who waited until his mom died before moving in with his boyfriend, and it's safe to say that the 1890s were his glory days.

Sturgis was raised in an upper middle class family, attended Eton and Cambridge, and his brother, Julian, also became a novelist. When his mother died in 1888, he moved into a lovely country house with William Haynes-Smith, his lover. I get the sense that Sturgis finally felt free of his family's expectations of him, and he wrote his first novel, Time: A Story of School Life (1891), dedicated to "love that surpasses the love of women." Of course, it's set at a boys boarding school.

Sturgis was friends with Henry James and Edith Wharton. His first two novels sold successfully, but his third petered off. Although Wharton praised it, James called it "unsatisfactory," leading Sturgis's enthusiasm for writing to wane at the beginning of the next century.

Algernon Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was a poet, playwright, novelist, and critic; he even contributed to the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909. According to Oscar Wilde, Swinburne was "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer."

By the 1890s, Swinburne was a mature writer, who spent very little time in London, unlike Wilde. Swinburne had already faced an early death by alcoholism, and overcame it with the help of his mother, sister, and close friend, Theodore Watts-Dunton.

It's said that his poetry suffered after he settled down, but that has also been attributed to his age.

Renée Vivien & Natalie
Clifford Barney
Renée Vivien was born Pauline Mary Tarn (1877-1909), and although she was British, she wrote in French, adopting the mannerisms of Symbolism, as one of the last poets to claim allegiance to the school.

Pauline's father died when she was 9, leaving her everything. Consequently, he mother tried to have her declared insane, so that she could claim the money for herself, but the courts saw through her mother's scheme, and place Vivien in protective care until she reached the age of 21.

In 1898, she inherited her father's fortune, and emigrated to Paris, where it was much easier for women to be involved in the Bohemian arts movement.

It would seem that any time Vivien spent in London before inheriting her independence, was about biding her time until she could become who she truly was. In Paris, Vivien lived lavishly, as an open lesbian, and had a public affair with American heiress and writer Natalie Clifford Barney. She travelled extensively, wintering in Egypt, and exploring China and the Middle East, as well as Europe and America. Contemporaries called her beautiful and elegant, with blonde hair, brown eyes flecked with gold, and a soft-spoken androgynous presence. She wore expensive clothes and particularly loved Lalique jewelry.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) appears at the end of this list, not because I am saving the best for last, but because I've tried to write this list alphabetically. Wilde is certainly the most famous homosexual in London in the 1890s, a decade which would encompass the best and worst years of his life.

By the time the decade started, Wilde was living in "House Beautiful" on Tite Street with his wife and two young sons. The marriage had problems, most specifically that Wilde wasn't sexually attracted to his wife, after she bore his children, so he started seeing men.

Wilde published his first and only novel in 1890, then began his theatrical career, which produced some of the most witty and quotable plays of all time.

As I mentioned before, Wilde had an affair with the reckless and spoiled Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father found out about the affair, leading to Wilde's imprisonment. The affect of this trial on the gay community and the world cannot be understated. Not only did it drive some homosexuals into hiding,  like Samuel Butler, who withdrew a homoerotic poem that he had submitted for publication, but Wilde's association with homosexuality would code homosexual culture for many years to come.

Wilde had a very identifiable personality, which ever after became associated with homosexual behaviour. Wilde was flamboyant, witty, obsessed with the most minute detail of decorating "House Beautiful," obsessed with his own clothes, as well as the clothes of women. It might be said that the more a homosexual man assimilates his behaviour to Wilde's the more likely it is that he will be identified as "flaming," even today.

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  1. Thanks for this interesting list and for reminding me to read Renee Vivien. Do you know more lesbian fin de siecle writers?

    1. You may want to check out Rachel Mecsh's "The Hysteric's Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle."

  2. I just discovered your Blog. I am IN LOVE! I a costumer and your research during this period is phenomenal. Thank You for this!