Paralysing posterity

Dan Jacobson

  • Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England by Louis Crompton
    Faber, 419 pp, £17.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13597 8

Times change. If, at the beginning of the 19th century, you wanted to suggest that the pillory and the gallows were inappropriate punishments to inflict on those found guilty of committing homosexual acts, you had to make it clear that you did so in spite of your horror at the moral abominations you were speaking of. Nowadays, if you want to express misgivings at the news that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Division of Gay Studies, you have to be at pains to insist that your misgivings are purely literary and intellectual in character.

We are told on the dust-jacket of his book that Professor Crompton is a founder of the Gay Caucus for the Modern Languages. The ‘Greek Love’ which preoccupies him is not to be confused with Byron’s philhellenism – with his denunciations of those Scots and Englishmen who had carried back to Britain whatever Greek antiquities they could lay their hands on, and his final fatal espousing of the cause of securing the independence of Greece from Turkish rule. Rather, Crompton tells us, it was one of the many terms, some euphemistic, others decidedly the reverse, which were used in Byron’s day to indicate homosexuality. The author introduces us to another unusual term – a brand-new one, this time – in the subtitle to his book. Its appearance notwithstanding, ‘homophobia’ is not supposed to describe an unreasoning hatred and fear of one’s own kind or sex, but the adoption of these attitudes towards homosexuals.

The subtitle is clearly intended to serve as a sort of splint, holding together a book which has a fracture or fissure running right through it. Most of it is about Byron’s secret or semi-secret life as a lover of boys and young men; two long chapters, however, are devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of some hitherto unpublished writings by Jeremy Bentham on the subject of homosexuality and the laws relating to it. (There is also another rather ragbag chapter devoted to Shelley’s views on the topic, and to an account of two great public scandals of the day, involving Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister, and the Irish bishop, Clogher.) Crompton justifies his inclusion of the Bentham material by in effect arguing that if so austere and highly respected a figure as Bentham was afraid to let his liberal views on this particular subject become known, then it is no wonder that Byron and his cronies were terrified into silence about their homosexual activities: a silence so deep that only now have the poet’s biographers begun to come to terms with what it concealed. The trouble with this procedure, though, is that the Bentham chapters are simply too long, too detailed, and too remote from the Byronic intimacies discussed elsewhere, to be conveniently thought of as mere ‘background’. Accordingly, a reviewer seems to have little choice, if he is to do justice to an interesting and contentious book, but to treat the two parts of it separately: first Bentham, then Byron.

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