Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century Paperback – 17 Feb 2005
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"A work of enormous value.... Robb makes some startling and bold findings."
About the Author
Graham Robb is the award-winning biographer of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Rimbaud. His other books include The Discovery of France, Parisians, and Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. He lives in Oxford, England.
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The book is full of great characters: Anne Lister, Magnus Hirshfeld, Karl Ulrichs, and the anonymous man who wrote to the author of an early gay menace-type study to thank him for letting him know he was not alone, even if he did use the word "repulsive" a few too many times. This is a witty book, whether it's dealing with the medical claim that gay men have corkscrew-shaped penises ("for reasons easy to imagine") or John Maynard Keynes's personal list of sex partners from 1906 ("the chemist's boy of Paris; the clergyman; David Erskine, MP") or offering Sherlock Holmes as a gay hero.
Robb does a terrific job of establishing continuities with our age as well as identifying differences. He never condescends to the past, and he doesn't trivialize the present. The book clears away the half-baked theories that have gathered around the subject like cobwebs in recent years, but, more important, it's a joy to read.
Robb maps territory that has been kept locked away too long in the special archives of prudish university libraries. Touching on all facets of the 19th century homosexual's life, Robb has successfully uncovered a world thought not to exist. The book's central thesis attempts to refute the Foucaltian claim that 'homosexuality' as an identity, is a modern construction dating from the turn of the 20th century. Robb claims that 'inverts'and 'uranians' not only had a pretty strong idea about being different from the majority but lived out that difference in a vigorous, if underground, community. Not only did public parks and toilets provide necessary meeting places, but bars, clubs and even theaters catered to this undergound community. Not that homosexual life was all that hidden either. Robb gives the example of French aristocrat, Astolphe Custine, who after a traumatic outing, lived quite openly with his friend and lover. Even in the mid-nineteeth century, homosexual partnerships were not only known about but also tolerated to some extent as well.
Robb makes the claim that the 19th century was not the dismal age of despair for the 'uranian' as we might suspect. Rather, Robb states that the 20th century was far darker for those who professed the love that dare not speaketh its name. With the fin de siecle advances made in psychology and psychiatry, Robb argues that science strove either to 'treat' and/or eradicate this deviation from the Victorian world. As a result, ghastly and inhumane attempts to 'cure' the homosexual---electroshock, hormone therapy---increased as did prison sentences for 'indecent behavior between men.'
Thought provoking though it is, I had trouble accepting Robb's nostalgia for the gay 1800's. His first chapter is all about the sad and horrible oppression--i.e. death penalty--that homosexuals in England suffered during the first half of the 19th century. Being sent to the gallows for the 'crime' of anal intercourse with another man should be seen as barbaric by any sensitive human irregardless of century, and should especially be seen as incomprehensible to those who've passed the threshold of the 21st. How therefore the 19th century homosexual can be seen as 'better off' than his 20th century brothers and sisters would seem rather difficult to prove. In defending his thesis, Robb downplays the importance of Wilde and his trial. According to the author, it was not an historical act of publically embracing homosexual identity, but rather an exaggerated show. An Irishman publically shamed for taking pot shots at Albion. Referring to the trial, Robb writes, 'The melodramatic approach fashions a weapon of sexual oppression out of a jumble of laws that were often casually enacted, sporadically applied and aimed primarily at acts of violence.' Were not such laws themselves, 'acts of violence' par excellence?
If one can suspend their initial disbelief as to Robb's central thesis, 'Strangers' can be an enjoyable read. And a tiring one at that. From public and private outings, to Hirschfeld's and Ulrich's pioneering attempts to create a gay community, 'Strangers' provides an almost encyclopedic plethora of facts and anecdotes about the 19th homosexual. The problem is that you get too much stuff and too little satisfying analysis. The author jumps from fact to example to anecdote to exegesis and then adroitly moves on. Not only did my head spin a lot while reading 'Strangers,' but I started to question the validity of many of its claims. Nowhere is this weakness more noticeable than in the chapter dealing with the Victorian homosexual's attempt to find a place within Christianity. A rich and fascinating topic, it alone could and should warrant a book unto itself. Some tantalizing hot potatoes like Matthew 19 and analysis of the real sin of the 'Sodomites' are raised only to be dropped two sentences later. A pity.
Furthermore, despite its all-inclusive subtitle, 'Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century,' 'Strangers' makes some rather egregious exclusions. Coverage of 19th century America is less than thorough and Europe for Robb seems to end abruptly at Vienna, only to continue with Moscow and St. Petersburg. For those of us gay denizens in Central and Eastern Europe, our forefathers appear to be such strangers that they fail to warrant even the slightest mention. Sad and hurtful when you think that the Hungarian polymath, Kertbény Károly, was the first to actually pen the term 'homosexual.' His appearance in 'Strangers' is sadly minimal and underscored.
Despite its shortcomings, grievous though they are, 'Strangers' deserves our respect. Considering the overwhelming quantity of material he had to deal with and the still-existent taboos that surround anything remotely related to 'gay studies,' Graham Robb has given us a truly pioneering work. A work that not only enriches our collective past, but strengthens our present as well. Kudos!
Robb focuses heavily on elite writing and art for his evidence --these apparently being the most readily available sources -- and because of that, the reader looks in vain for a clear picture of how an average homosexual person in the 19th century might have experienced life. I was hoping the book would help me build the mentality of a character who lives in 1876 Galveston, but in vain. Perhaps it is not possible to get such a clear picture from the available evidence.
It may also be worth pointing out that the sources used by Robb are heavily weighted toward the end of the 19th century, the turn of the century and the early 20th century, and tend to focus on Europe.
Having said that the book didn't give me what I was hoping for, I still found it interesting and worth reading. Robb adequately proves his main thesis, which is that a significant body of thought portraying same-sex relations as healthy, normal and praiseworthy was available to at least some individuals in the late 19th century.
However: this book is fun. The author takes what could be an unendurably dry subject and infuses it with warm, fond wit. Too often, queer writing gets a pass from the GLBTQ community--I call it the Lesbian Movie Syndrome, where objectively terrible films like Better Than Chocolate get wildly inflated ratings despite having nothing recognizably plot-like or any realistic character development. In this case, the sheer frequency of laugh-out-loud sentences (often couched in pleasantly Byzantine terms, so it takes a moment to realize you've just read something hysterically funny) made this book a new favorite. The direct quotes from source material are brilliantly chosen. There's a sense of freshness, a new take that's eminently intuitive and yet rarely gets put forth.
It's true that this isn't writing for everyone. It takes a slightly higher than average level of comfort with reading to really appreciate the construction of the sentences. But if you're comfortable reading at, say, a college level, this is well worth the time. (If you're used to academic research papers, the lack of in-text citations may drive you crazy. Take heart. There are appendices with the references, even if not everything you'd like to see a reference for has one.) My only regret is that this wasn't about a hundred pages longer, with more detail about certain topics the author takes for granted I'm familiar with (green carnations, etc.).
Before I even finished this book, I ordered two more copies for my friends who are also interested in queer identity. Having finished it, I would happily order them again.