damned_colonial: Austen-esque young lady reading a book with ships in background, saying "I read history a little as a duty." (reading history)
[personal profile] damned_colonial posting in [community profile] queering_holmes
[ This is a partial repost of this post in my own DW last week. If you're interested, you might want to click on over there to read comments or whatever. ]

The book in question:

Matt Cook, "London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914", Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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

My short rec:

If you are interested in Holmes slash, you need this book. It's a fairly short, very readable volume that is more or less the non-fiction companion to H/W. I dare you to read it and not go "oooh!" at some interesting fact every few pages.

[ excised a bunch of fannish rambling about the Sherlock Holmes movie, comparing it to the movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and why I liked both of them, which is at least partly to do with a "sense of place" ... ]

"London and the Culture of Homosexuality" is all about London-as-a-place and how one might navigate it if one were a homosexual man during Holmes's era. He talks a lot about physical/geographic places: Piccadilly, Cleveland Street, the East End, Covent Garden, the Embankment. He also talks about how, moving about those places, one might see signs and implications and choose to read them if one were interested in what they had to say.

Here's a passage which reached out and grabbed me (it's talking about the "unspeakable" crime of male/male sex, of course):

These spaces and bodies gained added importance in the newspapers since, as Cohen demonstrates, they stood in for mention of the sexual acts themselves. The newspaper reader often had to gather clues from details of place and appearance in order to discern the crime, which was often not made clear. Whilst the courts heard descriptions of sexual acts, the newspapers referred to "gross indecency" or "unnatural", "infamous" or "unnameable" offences. Sometimes references were even more oblique and the reader was left guessing what was at issue. In the 1912 case against John Hill and Robert Freeman it was unclear from press reports what they were saying to the men they approached in Charing Cross Road. Earlier in 1898 Robert Clibburn was convicted of blackmail and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, but the threats he issued to Charles Deck were only suggested by the fact that Deck was on the Embankment at night with an actor when he was approached, his fur coat stolen and money demanded for its return. Acute readers might have remembered Clibborn as one of hte men who attempted to blackmail Wilde, and deduced from this -- together with the implications of a night-time walk along the Embankment and the theatrical company -- the possible nature of the threats he used to extort money.

You see what I mean? (I dithered about whether to call out "gather clues" and "deduced" in the above passage or whether it was too obvious, but in case you're skimming, well, take it as pointed out.)

Speaking of newspapers, one of Cook's main sources is a scrapbook maintained by George Cecil Ives, an early gay rights campaigner. He read all kinds of newspapers and kept clippings of any report relating to homosexuality, much as Holmes himself read all the papers and kept "commonplace books" to help him in his investigations. (I'm not saying Holmes is based on Ives, as Ives was very secretive -- just that it's interesting that they operated the same way, especially in the context of the above quote from Cook about careful readings of news reports and what one could deduce from them.)

And on the subject of the Embankment (the scene of the above-mentioned blackmail attempt), it comes up repeatedly in Cook's book as a gay cruising ground, hence Cook's mention of "the implications of a night-time walk along the Embankment". Keeping that in mind, let me show you something from "The Five Orange Pips".

The client:

The man who entered was young, some two-and-twenty at the outside, well-groomed and trimly clad, with something of refinement and delicacy in his bearing.

He's in fear of his life. So Holmes says he'll take on the case, and will see the guy in the morning. He advises him to go straight home and to take care. In the morning, however, the newspaper brings the news that the man has been found drowned in the Thames. Holmes is upset.

“That hurts my pride, Watson,” he said at last. “It is a petty feeling, no doubt, but it hurts my pride. It becomes a personal matter with me now, and, if God sends me health, I shall set my hand upon this gang. That he should come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death—!” He sprang from his chair and paced about the room in uncontrollable agitation, with a flush upon his sallow cheeks and a nervous clasping and unclasping of his long thin hands.

“They must be cunning devils,” he exclaimed at last. “How could they have decoyed him down there? The Embankment is not on the direct line to the station. The bridge, no doubt, was too crowded, even on such a night, for their purpose. Well, Watson, we shall see who will win in the long run. I am going out now!”

(emphasis mine.)

If I were George Ives, reading that in the 1890s, I know what I would think.

There are other similar mentions in canon. I found a couple of them a while back when I was looking for something else and came across the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work on Google Books. An article about male prostitution in Victorian literature mentions:

Finally, in his mainstream Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle makes oblique references to two London scandals involving male prostitutes. Holmes -- now resonant of the classic fin de siecle homosexual aesthete -- asks his accomplice, Dr. Watson, to flee to the continent with him after Holmes almost dies in Vere Street, London, the site of the notorious scandal involving a male brothel named the White Swan. Although the Vere Street Coterie was convicted in 1810, before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, the scandal remained in the public consciousness throughout the nineteenth century. In another story, Holmes adopts a 14 year old "telegraph boy" as his valet, a reference that Conan Doyle's readers no doubt would have associated with the recent Cleveland Street Affair, when "telegraph boys" serviced aristocratic patrons and subsequently gave incriminating testimony.

(Notice how these scandals all seem to have the names of streets?) Anyway, the Cleveland Street scandal was huge news in 1890-1891, and everyone would have heard of it. Taking a telegraph boy as a valet would be like one of your friends saying his girlfriend used to be a White House intern.

It seems to me that the Holmes canon actually reads *gayer* if you happen to be familiar with London's late 19th century queer geography. There are bits of subtext there that we're not even noticing, unless we know the period (and the queer subculture) very well indeed.

Cook also talks, at length, about bohemianism, Oscar Wilde, and the stereotype of "the classic fin de siecle homosexual aesthete" as found in literature, discussed in court, and reported in the press. There's a lot about Dorian Gray (which, you may know, was written after ACD had dinner with Oscar Wilde -- see [personal profile] hradzka's awesome post about it for detail and a fun poem), and then it goes into talking about the Wilde trial and the way people conflated aestheticism and bohemianism with "gross indecency":

The Evening News labelled Wilde "one of the high priests of a school which attacks all the wholesome, manly, simple ideals of English life, and sets up false gods of decadent culture and intellectual debauchery."

Some of the things associated with "indecency" included: being clean-shaven (no beard or mustache), excessive particularity or unconventionality in dress, oriental interior decoration, sitting inside with the curtains shut, anything French, and the city -- London -- itself. Homosexual men were also thought to be particularly subject to neuraesthenia. Sound like anyone we know?

Now, I'm not saying Guy Ritchie didn't take his vision of Holmes, and of Holmes's London, a bit far. I'm not saying he didn't get things wrong. But... it resonates for me. I like my Holmes messy, dissolute, and thoroughly embedded in his city. If you do, too, you should read Cook's book.
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