- 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of boys and young men; two long chapters, however, are devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of some hitherto unpublished writings by Jeremy Bentham on the subject of homosexuality and the laws relating to it.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.
Vol. 7 No. 14 · 1 August 1985
SIR: Dan Jacobson’s review of Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England (LRB, 20 June) offers a graphic and depressing index of the unhappy relations prevailing between sexual politics and literary criticism in contemporary England. It seems that most male heterosexual critics have been obliged, grudgingly, to admit the central and complex relevance of gender to all aspects of writing and reading. Jacobson’s piece, however eloquently, exemplifies a continued Nelson-like refusal to acknowledge the equally crucial contingency of sexuality, especially in relation to the sexual object-choice of writers and readers.
It was particularly unfortunate to find a critic positively parading his ignorance of the concept of homophobia in a week which saw the appearance in court of the staff of London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop, on charges related to their selling of books by writers including Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Verlaine – the grounds being their possible ‘obscenity’. There seems to me to be a direct and simple parallel in this instance between the value one might place on the literary judgment of a Customs official who is reported never to have even heard of Catullus or Oscar Wilde, and that of a reviewer who casually describes his ‘misgivings’ concerning the fact that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Gay Studies Division. Oh for such a day in England. Given that the reviewer in question is apparently a reader in English at University College London, I can only hope for the sake of his students that his curriculum is not so daring as to include any of the above-mentioned writers, let alone Whitman or Frank O’Hara. But then of course ‘English’ is heterosexual, isn’t it?
According to Jacobson, Professor Crompton ‘introduces us’ to the term ‘homophobia’, a word which he finds ‘unusual’ and describes as ‘brand-new’. It is perfectly clear that the readership of the LRB which he envisages does not include lesbians or gay men, who have been quite familiar with the word in question, in both academic and colloquial discourse, for well over a decade. It is this blinkered and sophisticatedly bigoted purview, categorically excluding homosexuality from the ordinary field of critical vision, which informs Mr Jacobson’s smug reading of Professor Crompton’s book.
I strongly question Mr Jacobson’s emphatic initial claim that the book’s 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’. This imagined fissure supposedly divides the author’s careful study of the hitherto unpublished (and extensive) writings by Jeremy Bentham on the subject of homosexuality, and his equally meticulous analysis of Byron’s many homosexual relationships and their relation to his writing. Such an interpretation as Jacobson’s is only possible if one is unable or unwilling to face the book’s explicit central theme: namely, the theorisation and treatment of homosexuals in Georgian England, and their responses.
It is this theme which makes Byron and Greek Love such a timely and salutary text. For what Professor Crompton describes in sober and terrifying detail is the attempted annihilation of homosexuality as such in Georgian England, with an escalation of public torture and executions for sodomy which had not been equalled elsewhere in Europe for almost two centuries. It is of course possible to entertain serious doubts about the value of the concept of homophobia. At first sight little is gained from an attempt to ascribe all aspects of irrational hostility to homosexuality to a single all-determining and exclusively psychological cause, especially since the same species of assertion has so frequently been applied by those who themselves regard homosexuality as a form of pathology. But the sheer enormity of the situation which Professor Crompton describes surely requires a serious and sustained acknowledgment of the issues involved? This is not how I would describe Mr Jacobson’s response. Besides, the English persecution of homosexuals was clearly not simply an arbitrary moral panic or witchhunt, organised by a few perverse conspirators. On the contrary, the continuity of this ‘structure of feeling’ in modern British history suggests a highly specific structure of xenophobic moral puritanism which indeed amounted – and amounts – to a type of nationalistic paranoia crossing all traditional boundaries of class, age, gender and political alignment. It is in this context that Mr Jacobson’s review should be read, as evidence of a continuity of attitudes towards homosexuality between the literary worlds of Georgian and Thatcherite London.
It is also in this context that we can understand Professor Crompton’s immensely significant and successful comparative study of two such different men as Bentham and Byron. The former emerges as a classic and inspiring example of that rare type of intellectual whose rationalism ran against the grain of his prejudices, until they succumbed. Byron, on the contrary, was never able to achieve such a moral and psychological transformation, largely because of the only too real risks to which his bisexuality exposed him. As Professor Crompton points out, throughout his life he sought out ‘good’ women, to whom he could confess and thereby confirm his sense of guilt. Given that library shelves are groaning under the weight of books dealing with Byron’s heterosexual peccadilloes, I find it quite extraordinary that Mr Jacobson should complain at this study of Byron’s sentimental paedophilia. He laments that the ‘truly catastrophic figures in the unfolding drama of Byron’s life, like Lady Caroline Lamb, Annabella Milbanke (the poet’s wife) and Augusta, come and go in the book with great rapidity,’ when it is abundantly clear that what Professor Crompton is in part explaining is the reason why they came and went so much in Byron’s own life. Or perhaps Mr Jacobson cannot accept that not all of Byron’s loves were ‘truly catastrophic’, and that those which weren’t were homosexual. In any event, Byron emerges from these pages as a misogynist of the first water and, in this respect, very much a man of his times. Rereading Mr Jacobson’s strained and contorted review only confirms my initial impression that he is equally a man of ours, and further underlines the intellectual courage of Jeremy Bentham when, in his ‘Essay on “Paederastie” ’ of 1785, he wrote that on ‘this subject a man may indulge his spleen without controuls. Cruelty and intolerance, the most odious and mischievous passions in human nature, screen themselves behind a mask of virtue.’
Polytechnic of Central London
Dan Jacobson writes: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman are included in the curriculum of the English Department, University College; Catullus, too, has been studied in a course entitled ‘The Classical Background of English Literature’. The notion that it would occur to me or to any of my colleagues to try to exclude them from the study of ‘English’ is sheer fantasy on Simon Watney’s part. So, too, is his assertion that my review of Professor Crompton’s book offered evidence of a ‘continuity’ between my attitudes and those of people who believed it to be right to hang and pillory homosexuals. But since Simon Watney has apparently no difficulty whatever in categorising the deepest springs of the psychology of a man like Byron, it is perhaps not surprising that my hidden motives should be wholly evident to his gaze.