damned_colonial: Sherlock Holmes holding a small, ineffectual hammer. (holmes)
[personal profile] damned_colonial posting in [community profile] queering_holmes
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.

Date: 2010-05-05 05:55 am (UTC)
wrabbit: (stock: awesome!)
From: [personal profile] wrabbit
My copy is full of underlines and hearts.

When he writes "Everyone already knows, instinctively, that Holmes is a homosexual," I went Noooo because now the crowds of people who vehemently disagree aren't going to read the analysis itself. But I suppose they wouldn't be reading this book in the first place.

Date: 2010-05-05 05:55 am (UTC)
ten: Naked male torso (Default)
From: [personal profile] ten
That does sound like a great read, thank you for the review!

Does anyone have a negative review/opinion it? I always like to compare the negative and positive reviews for a source, I find it give the best feel for how I personally might enjoy it.

Date: 2010-05-05 08:39 am (UTC)
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
Dry? *boggles* I found it one of the more entertaining and charming history books I've read. I could see the case that he's covering a lot and so skimming on some points, but it's nothing if not fun.

Date: 2010-05-06 09:09 am (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] torachan
Yeah, I found it really easy to read and not dry at all.

Date: 2010-05-06 07:39 pm (UTC)
daegaer: (Default)
From: [personal profile] daegaer
Yes! It's a really great read!

Date: 2010-05-05 08:56 am (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
That sounds quite brilliant, especially the stuff about subtext.

Date: 2010-05-05 11:20 am (UTC)
naraht: (art-Tentacles)
From: [personal profile] naraht
... "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.

This made me go a little bit o.O

Has anyone else encountered this usage? It does make sense if you were looking for euphemisms, but given the number of times that I've encountered the term in its "straight" usage in Victorian texts, I'd be inclined to think when it came to that engraving that sometimes a clergyman is just a clergyman.

The other thing that niggled me about this book--and I've only looked at the Google books version--was a passing reference to J. Edgar Hoover having been a crossdresser. This is a fairly groundless rumor that no reputable historian really entertains, so I have to admit that it made me a little uneasy about what the standard of research might be for the rest of the volume.

Date: 2010-05-05 03:09 pm (UTC)
schemingreader: (Default)
From: [personal profile] schemingreader
This doesn't seem right to me, since isn't Non-conformist also the word they used at that time to designate all non-Anglican churches? See this Wikipedia article for example. A non-conformist person might be gay, but a Non-conformist clergyman might be...Unitarian.

Date: 2010-05-05 03:13 pm (UTC)
naraht: (art-Tentacles)
From: [personal profile] naraht
Nonconformists would include Baptists, Independents, Congregationalists and so on. (Methodists and Unitarians, maybe, depending on who you asked. Definitely not Catholics or Orthodox Christians) I think the original point of the book was that the term could be used as a sort of double-entendre, but I'm really doubtful about whether it could have applied in the example given.

Anglo-Catholicism has lots of associations with queerness in a British context. Nonconformity? Not so much.

Date: 2010-05-05 01:47 pm (UTC)
brewsternorth: Electric-blue stylized teapot, captioned "Brewster North". (Default)
From: [personal profile] brewsternorth
Awesomecakes. Sounds like I need to actually buy myself a copy, in the interests of not merely enhancing my Holmesian fannishness but as a prolegomena to my own original 'verse writings.

Also, *very* interesting to hear that subtext and literary dog-whistling was known about before "slash" was a verb or noun to do with writing.

Date: 2010-05-05 07:37 pm (UTC)
starlady: Holmes, from the back, is inked out (holmes in the mist)
From: [personal profile] starlady
I can only resist for so long: ordered!

Date: 2010-05-05 08:15 pm (UTC)
fizzyblogic: [Angel the Series] Lorne hiding behind a book (makes our speaking english good)
From: [personal profile] fizzyblogic
I love that book to absolute bits. *pets it*

Date: 2010-05-05 09:57 pm (UTC)
language_escapes: A smiling Sherlock Holmes (Happy!Holmes)
From: [personal profile] language_escapes
Just requested a copy of this and the Cook book from your previous review from the library. I'm crossing my fingers that I'll manage to find the time to read them!

Thank you so much for your detailed reviews of books such as this- makes it so much easier to find good reading material without having to slog through the hundreds of books that are just painful.

Date: 2010-05-06 01:54 am (UTC)
copracat: Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes (2009) (mary morstan)
From: [personal profile] copracat
Lesbians, you say? *rubs hands together in glee*

Date: 2010-05-06 12:09 pm (UTC)
copracat: Caroline Bingley eye-fucking Elizabeth Bennet (caroline bingley)
From: [personal profile] copracat
10% is, as you note, better than none.

Date: 2010-05-06 07:25 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
This book occupies a special space in my heart and on my bookshelf. *g* It was actually one of the first books on gay history that I read, and a whole heap of other books later I do think it's still the best (though I will take the specifically lesbian-focused chapters from some other books). Actually it's one of the better works of non-fiction I've read, full stop. I really don't care that much about french poets but I'm considering looking up the biographies Robb has done of people like Rimbaud just because I'm sure he'll make it worth reading. (And I also suspect Rimbaud's life may be more interesting than his poetry.)

Did I read this book differently?

Date: 2010-06-12 09:07 pm (UTC)
mecurtin: Daniel agrees reading is fundamental (reading)
From: [personal profile] mecurtin
I'm not sure if you understood the last section of the book the same way I did.

I understood Robb to be saying that Dupin and Holmes are *intentionally* written as homosexuals, with the evidence present as subtext -- coded, inexplicit. For both characters, their homosexuality is a "Purloined Letter" -- the secret that is in plain sight, if you only look.

I took Robb also to be saying that both Poe and Doyle, more-or-less straight men, were fascinated to meet homosexuals and try to understand their superpower: gaydar. Dupin and Poe's detective abilities are the textual transformation of gaydar. Holmes tells Watson, "You see, but you do not observe"; gaydar is the type specimen of this kind of observation.


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