Are your fingers pointed or blunt?

P.N. Furbank

  • Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century by Graham Robb
    Picador, 342 pp, £18.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 330 48223 8

Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the 19th century, although homosexual love and homosexual fraternising were hardly admitted to exist, except perhaps in court reports, they were an omnipresent and vital part of the national life. Moreover, homosexuals, whether male or female, were not invariably downtrodden and anxiety-ridden outcasts: there were those who, as can be seen from their letters and diaries, coped with their situation rationally, adeptly and happily.

They were the lucky few, no doubt. But Robb argues a striking theory: that, at least in the earlier 19th century (a time when the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’ had not yet been invented), homosexuals were not persecuted or witch-hunted by the law as such. Convicted sodomites were sometimes put in the pillory, but then so were many other kinds of offender. ‘There is no real evidence,’ he says, ‘that juries were unusually vindictive’ when it came to homosexuality. Indeed, according to him, this generalisation remains true for most of the century:

Nineteenth-century homosexuals lived under a cloud, but it seldom rained. Most of them suffered, not from the cruel machinery of justice, but from the creeping sense of shame, the fear of losing friends, family and reputation, the painful incompatibility of religious belief and sexual desire, the social and mental isolation and the strain of concealment. Loveless marriages cause more lasting grief than laws, and still do.

Robb argues that the plight of the homosexual, as regards the law but not only the law, actually grew considerably worse during much of the 20th century. For instance, according to his statistics, arrests and convictions for ‘gross indecency’ between males snowballed in the years immediately after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

Nevertheless, his book, which is admirable for its thoroughness, and for its eye for the telling fact, anecdote or quotation, tells a dreadful story when it comes to 19th-century medical opinion. For one thing, it was assumed by doctors that a man who felt desire for other men must be, in some sense, a woman, and the signs of his femininity could be ‘scientifically’ detected, as could the opposite signs with a lesbian woman. A homosexual man would have a ‘feminine’ body (‘weaker muscles and softer, more flaccid flesh’, and a ‘greater proportional width of the pelvis’); and, if one were to accept the findings of a German voice specialist, a ‘very decidedly masculine type of larynx’ was to be found in ‘23 inverted women’. Male homosexuals, it was held by certain doctors, had unusually formed buttocks and corkscrew-like penises, which meant that they could not urinate in a straight line. A friend and colleague of Marcel Proust’s father told him, as a fact full of medical significance, that ‘there is more variety in the shape and size of the penis than there is in the face.’ Oh my God.

Change only came towards the end of the century, in the shape of a new relationship between patient and doctor. Patients – according to Wilhelm Griesinger, founder of the Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, and his successor Carl Westphal – were to be regarded with sympathy, as suffering from a state of being rather than an acquired habit. (As Robb puts it, ‘Faces, not genitals, should be the focus of attention.’) Patients were encouraged to furnish their doctors with written confessions – this was a momentous step, for they like nothing better – and from this source medical science acquired an immense amount of new lore. For their part, the doctors, who drew on these confessions in case-studies, contributed an impressive array of ‘scientific’ terms: ‘allosexual’, ‘parisexual’, ‘femino-sexual’, ‘ephebophile’, ‘commasculation’ and so on. The patients themselves rather relished these high-sounding terms and, as Robb says, it all ‘eventually looked very much like progress’.

But underlying it, he argues, was a bitter irony. The turn in medical attention from the body to the mind led patients to exchange one prison for another, worse one. This realisation was, it is true, a long time in coming: ‘The full humiliating effect of medical discourse was not felt until well into the 20th century, when superstitions adopted by the medical profession returned to the community emblazoned with technical terms. Liberated gays such as Edmund White and Martin Duberman spent years looking for a psychoanalytic cure. Nineteenth-century homosexuals were untroubled in comparison.’ This might seem horribly like the truth, were one to generalise from what Robb tells us about Magnus Hirschfeld. He was the founder in 1899 of the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (‘Yearbook of Sexual Intermediacy’) and a most philanthropic man, who propagandised energetically for tolerance towards Oscar Wilde. But, of all unutterable sillinesses, he was an exponent of the ‘identification game’:

The supposed ability of homosexuals to recognise one another at a glance was a challenge to medical science. Doctors prided themselves on their ability to replicate by ‘rational’ means the instinctive insights of homosexuals. Throw an object at the lap of a sitting homosexual, said the Berlin doctor Magnus Hirschfeld in 1913, and he will automatically open his legs to catch it. A lesbian, being a natural trouser-wearer, will close her legs.

A Hirschfeld-inspired questionnaire, designed to help readers to decide if they were homosexual, asked: ‘Are your fingers pointed or blunt?’, ‘Do you give off an odour, especially when warm?’, ‘Are you talkative?’, ‘Are you logical?’

We have to consider, however, the nature of Robb’s basic theory or outlook; and I hope I am not misrepresenting him in saying that he holds that, if homosexuality is a problem, it is one which only common sense can solve. He is dismissive of theory and waves away Freud and Foucault brusquely, almost contemptuously.

There is, I feel, a kind of ingratitude here, especially since he complains in his opening chapter that ‘public behaviour towards gay men and women has changed enormously, but private ideas about homosexuality are much what they were two hundred years ago.’ One would never gather from him Freud’s magnificence as a writer: his immense boldness but extreme prudence on the printed page, his lack of dogmatism, his readiness to admit ignorance and the possibility of error. (It was as a writer that he himself believed his genius lay, and writer’s block was for him a torture.) One could put it another way and speak of his intense sense of responsibility. Robb quotes from a letter from Freud to an American woman who was troubled by her son’s homosexuality. ‘Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage,’ he wrote to her, ‘but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development.’ Robb admits to the humaneness of Freud’s letter but quarrels with ‘a certain arrest of sexual development’ as insulting. At least one can be sure that for Freud the phrase involved no value judgment.

It is in fact a weakness in Robb’s book that whenever a great writer comes under discussion, he tends to misread. (A social history approach can have this effect.) I am thinking, for instance, of his interpretation of Hans Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, which makes it an expression of Andersen’s haunting fear that, even at the height of his popularity, someone might point out his nakedness, i.e. his homosexuality. ‘The point of "The Emperor’s New Clothes",’ Robb writes, ‘is not that the emperor is pompous and gullible but that he feels himself to be an imposter.’ This is a terrible diminishment of a masterly story. The weavers in the story say that the clothes they have made for the emperor have the marvellous property of becoming invisible to anyone who is unfit for the office he holds or is incorrigibly stupid; and certainly, on this basis, the emperor feels himself to be an imposter, but then so do all his courtiers, and so, until the child speaks out, do the people in the street. He is sharing a common terror, not suffering from a private one. And when he realises the crowd has discovered his nakedness, he thinks: ‘I must go through with the procession.’ ‘He carried himself still more proudly, and the chamberlain held on tighter than ever, and carried the train which did not exist at all.’ Thus the emperor proves his fitness for his post after all.

Robb wants to class Andersen’s tales as ‘gay literature’ or ‘gay writing’, to which my response would be that there is really no such thing as ‘gay literature’ (or at least we do better to think not), any more than there is ‘gay painting’ or ‘gay music’; there is merely literature. The term ‘gay literature’ still carries a faint whiff of the ghetto.

Curiously, again, Robb appears to misrepresent a passage in Balzac’s Illusions perdues, describing the beautiful Lucien de Rubempré, with whom Vautrin was to fall in love. ‘Like most men with subtle, not to say cunning minds, his hips were shaped like those of a woman. This is nearly always a reliable clue to character and was so in Lucien’s case.’ In reading Balzac, one has to brace oneself for, every now and then, a piece of the most dreadful nonsense, and so it is here. But Robb appears to speak of Lucien as one of Balzac’s ‘homosexual characters’, which, after all, he is not; had he been so, the story would have been quite different.

Then Robb, I feel sure, quite misunderstands a letter written on 22 February 1884 by Henry James to John Addington Symonds, apropos of an article of his own about Italy which he had sent to Symonds. James writes:

I sent it to you because it was a constructive way of expressing the goodwill I felt for you in consequence of what you have written about the land of Italy – and of intimating to you, somewhat dumbly, that I am an attentive and sympathetic reader. I nourish for the said Italy an unspeakably tender passion, and your pages always seemed to say to me that you were one of a small number of people who love it as much as I do – in addition to your knowing it immeasurably better. I wanted to recognise this (to your knowledge); for it seemed to me that the victims of a common passion should sometimes exchange a look.

Now, it would hardly be disputed that James was homosexual, but on the other hand it seems improbable that he ever sought physical ‘affairs’. Nevertheless, Robb interprets the letter as a kind of nod or wink or coded sexual hint. ‘Almost everything in his letter to Symonds is a self-revelation: the love of Italy; the small number of people, the exchanged look, the "victims of a common passion", and that key word "unspeakably", attached to "tender".’ Robb has not spotted an engaging characteristic of James’s, which one often comes across in his letters: that he likes to use the most extravagant and amorous language, especially to friends, precisely on the assumption that he will not be misunderstood. The truth was, as one knows from his wonderful Italian Hours and his early letters from Italy, that there was no exaggeration in his – quite unsexual but overwhelming – passion for Italian buildings and paintings and landscape and creeper-garlanded Roman walls. His response in the matter, and in all matters that most counted for him, was wholehearted and single-minded, and he would have thought the idea of double entendres and sexual hinting vulgar and silly.