May. 4th, 2010

damned_colonial: Sherlock Holmes holding a small, ineffectual hammer. (holmes)
[personal profile] damned_colonial
So, I know a handful of people here have been reading this book, and I figured at least one of us had probably better write a review, so here's mine :)

Graham Robb, "Strangers: Homosexual love in the nineteenth century", W. W. Norton & Co, 2004.

Amazon, Book Depository, Abebooks, Google Books (partial), Worldcat (public libraries)

"Strangers" is one of the best books I've read about gay history. It's more international in flavour, has more to say about lesbians (which is admittedly still not a whole lot), and is more optimistic than anything else of it's kind that I've read. Its tone is extremely readable, but there are extensive end-notes and what looks like a pretty comprehensive bibliography of works cited.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part talks about the legal and medical background and about the scandal of "outings". The second part talks about homosexual lives and homosexual subcultures in various places. The third part talks about gay literature and how homosexual people in the 19th century found reflections themselves in various texts.

In the chapter on the legal/judicial side of things, Robb looks at arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for buggery/indecency/etc... and then asks us to throw all that away, because there weren't all that many really, and it was far less important than you might think. He points out that we place undue emphasis on it because legal reports are such an easy source of information, but that the actual incidence of court cases was pretty minor relative to the population. Charts (in the appendix) show the number of convictions in the UK per 100k of population, from 1800 to 2000. The figures run around 1 conviction per 100k of population per year through the 19th century, then steadily grow through the 20th, peak around 16/100k/year in the mid 1950s, and are still hovering around 10/100k/year in 2000. That is, you were approximately 10 times as likely to be convicted of buggery or a related homosexual offense a decade ago as you were in the Victorian era. He points out that the Wilde trials belong more properly (culturally speaking) to the 20th century than the 19th.

Having more or less set aside the "easy" (but negative) sources of information in part 1, part 2 is a much more pleasant read. Lots of cute anecdotes, accounts of people's lives and relationships, excerpts from letters, etc. I found it kind of fluffily interesting but it didn't make me think much.

Part 3, talking about gay literature, will be of particular interest to Sherlock Holmes fans as it talks about how homosexual people, in the absence of explicit depictions of their type, will read for subtext. The first chapter of this section describes the more overt depictions of homosexuality (from moral tales to trashy porn) and then moves on to more subtle ones like the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The second chapter deals with Christianity and gay-friendly interpretations of the Bible. The third and final chapter is all about homosexual detectives. Starting with Poe's Auguste Dupin, moving on to Holmes (about whom there are several pages of subtextual analysis, ranging from the "worth a wound" scene to comments on the use of terms like "queer", "languid", and of course "earnest" in the Holmes canon) and then to early 20th century sleuths of a similar nature, he talks about how homosexuality -- dual nature, disguises, outsider-dom, the ability to discern other people's secrets -- is actually an integral part of the detective's character and role, and how similar themes emerge repeatedly even among authors who couldn't have read each other's work.

Also included among the plates in the book is Paget's engraving from SCAN, with the caption, "Sherlock Holmes disguised as 'a Nonconformist clergyman' and Irene Adler as 'a slim youth in an ulster'" -- elsewhere in the book Robb cites "nonconformist" as a Victorian euphemism for homosexual.

So, in summary: very readable, and what's more, pleasant to read (not just in style but in content). Plus, a fair bit of Holmes-specific material. Highly recommended.


Queering Holmes

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