Escape of a Half-Naked Sailor

P.N. Furbank

  • Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Fred Barnes, Naomi Jacob and Arthur Marshall by Paul Bailey
    Hamish Hamilton, 242 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 241 13455 2

I used to have a homosexual friend who puzzled over the phenomenon of the homosexual ‘queen’. The performance – screams, limp wrists, hand on hip etc – was a very familiar one, many of one’s friends would occasionally indulge in it: the puzzle was that it was reputed to suggest a woman, whereas one never saw women behave in the least like it. The impersonation, though a deliberate breaking of the rules of orthodox ‘masculine’ behaviour, engendered a freak, a monster, unknown to the species or to ordinary human society.

Why this was so, I would think, is because ‘queening’ is, or was (maybe it has pretty much gone out in our post-Wolfenden days), an acting-out of self-hatred or desperate self-mockery. The thought occurred to me recently on seeing a production of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at the National Theatre. The actor playing Lord Foppington, the madly vain ‘man of fashion’, was highly talented; but he (or perhaps more likely the director) had decided to make Foppington to some degree a ‘queen’, and the result was that, brilliant though the performance was in many ways, it just wasn’t – a fatal flaw – actually funny. One can easily see why, moreover. To ‘queen’ is to laugh at oneself, whereas Foppington has to be blissfully innocent of any shadow of self-criticism.

The novelist Paul Bailey has produced a biography of three ‘Queer Lives’; that is to say, lives of the ‘queer’ or (as they have later come to be called) the ‘gay’.[*] The subject of the last of his studies is Arthur Marshall, famous as the reviewer of girls’ school stories and impersonator of ‘Nurse Dugdale’. Bailey was told by Marshall’s friend Noel Annan that Marshall was homosexual and once suffered much unhappiness from an affair with a demobbed soldier. There seems no reason to disbelieve this. But it does not follow that one should have guessed it from his passion for female impersonation. He makes the point himself in his autobiography, Life’s Rich Pageant.

Kind readers, possibly worried about me and the effect on my character of all those female clothes, need not be anxious. The donning of the necessary underclothes and, usually, silk stockings, the dresses, the wigs, the make-up afforded me no pleasure in themselves and were merely a means to an end, that of acting. I got no kick of a transvestite sort . . . The dressing up was pleasurable solely because it was the theatre, it was acting, it was make-believe, it was fun.

Much of the reason his reviewing and his drag-act went on making one chortle, never seeming to grow stale, lay in the fact that, unlike the case of ‘queening’, it contained not the slightest trace of misogyny or of self-contempt.

Indeed, it may be entirely wrong to associate transvestism with homosexuality. One thinks of the impressive story of the Chevalier d’Eon, diplomatic representative of Louis XV in England. A valiant military man and notably skilled fencer, he eventually decided, on ideological grounds, that he valued femininity (the ‘Amazonian’) above masculinity and took to women’s dress. To support himself, though hampered by a skirt, he would give public exhibitions of fencing; and he spent the last years of his life in tranquil domesticity with the widow of a naval officer. (She was astonished beyond belief when, at his death, it was revealed that he was a man.)

Female impersonation, expertly undertaken as by Marshall and d’Eon, is a matter of choice; homosexuality, evidently, is not. But why should it be a deep problem? At first sight the reason is not obvious, and indeed it is plain it was not so in the Greco-Roman world. Brichot, writes Proust, striving to understand the Baron de Charlus’s homosexuality, ‘reassured himself by recalling pages of Plato, lines of Virgil, because, being mentally as well as physically blind, he did not understand that in their day to love a young man was the equivalent (Socrates’ jokes reveal this more clearly than Plato’s theories) of keeping a dancing-girl before getting married in ours’.

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[*] The term ‘queer’ cam in, I think, in the late 1920s, and ‘gay’ in the late 1940s or early 1950s.