three pairs of lovers with space

GREEK LOVE IN MODERN GREAT BRITAIN

 

The history of Greek love in Great Britain in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries is a grim story of relentlessly increasing suppression, intensifying sharply towards the end.

Police surveillance, prosecution and hanging for sodomy, extremely rare in the preceding centuries, suddenly mushroomed at the beginning of the eighteenth and continued unabated. The thinking behind the newly-intense animosity towards Greek love is made clear through the utilitatarian counter-arguments of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty, written in about 1785, but left unpublished.

The nineteenth century might be thought to have offered some kind of relief in that the death penalty for sodomy, as for hundreds of other offences, fell into disuse and was finally abolished, but the numbers whose lives were thus spared were trivial, and far more ominous developments were afoot.

It was over the course of that century that ordinary physical intimacy between males gradually became taboo in England, so that by its end the Englishman stood in frigid contrast to his Mediterranean counterparts.  Friends stopped hugging and kissing when they met, or walking arm in arm, newly fearful of horrid suspicion. Boys were allowed to show their natural affection for only a little longer.

Given, however, that Greek love has always flourished most in societies where adolescent boys are homosocial, and considering also the association of nudity with sex, it may in retrospect seem surprising that it took those determined to suppress it so long to stamp out the ancient custom throughout Europe of boys bathing naked when with their own sex, but, even in England, this did not in fact happen until the middle of the twentieth century.  On Favouring Tradtional Sea-Bathing, 1882, a magazine article written by a mother with daughters, arguing strongly not only for boys to continue bathing naked, but for females not to be shielded from the sight shows not only a generous understanding of the joy nudity gave boys at the sea-side, but a positive consciousness of there being sexual implications.

Nowhere in Britain offered as much scope for Greek love to flourish as the boarding-schools then attended between the ages of about eight and eighteen by almost all boys of the upper class and many of the middle classes. In the schoolboy novel Tim, set at Eton in the 1870s and reviewed here, and in illustrations to children's literature, boys could still walk arm in arm.  The subsequent change is finely described in The Fall of Doctor Onslow. This historical novel, quite exceptional in its authentic evocation of the period, was loosely based on the real story of Harrow's greatest headmaster, Charles Vaughan, obliged to resign in 1859 over an affair with a boy. As Onslow, the fictional version of Vaughan, was made to observe a generation later, compulsory sports and supervision "by masters turned into moral policemen" had radically changed boarding-school culture, so that boys no longer held hands, were incapable of spontaneous feeling, and had a "hatred and fear of emotion which they call possession of a manly character."

In 1885 the "Labouchere Amendment" to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, hugely increased the scope for persecution of homosexuality by expanding the prosecutable offences from just sodomy, long legally defined as pedication only, or attempted sodomy, to "gross indecency", which included every male homosexual act. Probably the most important result of this was to make it far easier to prove the law had been broken, so prosecutions again mushroomed.

This soon generated a number of scandals. The first important one was the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, in which a house in that street was found to be used as a brothel for trysts between teenage telegraph boys and some eminent men.  Montgomery Hyde's book about this is reviewed here.  One of those nearly implicated was no less than Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-92), the grandson of Queen Victoria who would have become King but for his premature death. His likely pederasty is discussed in a review of Theo Aronson's biography of him, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld.

Ironically, this very era gave rise to a flowering of literature by a number of pederastic writers known collectively as the Uranians. The best-known of these was Oscar Wilde, of whom biographies by McKenna and Edmonds are reviewed here. The Greek love poems of Lord Alfred Douglas are eight in number, published in 1893-6. The Priest and the Acolyte is a pederastic short story by J. F. Bloxam that played an indirect role in the fall of Wilde, since he had contributed to The Chameleon, the periodical in which it was in 1894 published. Also associated with the Uranians was the colourful academic Oscar Browning, of whom a biography by Anstruther is reviewed here.  The last of them is sometimes considered to be Ralph Chubb, whose life and writings are the subject of Ralph Nicholas Chubb: Prophet and Paiderast, 1892-1960.

The conviction of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency in 1895 made things worse still for the practise of Greek love. Not only did it and the Cleveland Street scandal outrage the public, increasing both its awareness and its hostility to homosexuality in general, but they drew attention to the corruption of the young in an age which believed that homosexuality was depraved and boys could be taught irrecoverably to become adepts of it.

Hence the twentieth century was even fuller of disasters occasioned by exposures of pederastic liaisons than its predecessor. The Tragedy of Sir Hector Macdonald, the story told by Cambridge Professor Ronald Hyam of the downfall of a British general and national hero over Greek love affairs in Ceylon in 1903, ushered it in characteristically.

As Britain was by this time one of the most repressive countries in the world towards Greek love, it is unsurprising that many British pederasts lived, or at least sought sexual and emotional relief, abroad. Despite Macdonald's fate, the British Empire offered considerably more sexual freedom than Britain herself. Such is the subject of Hyam's Empire and Sexuality, reviewed here, and a section of his Understanding the British Empire, reviewed here. These books included two of the three valuable accounts of the Paidikion, British army Captain Kenneth Searight's compilation of pederastic writings, which included an immensely detailed list of his many erotic encounters with boys from 1897 to 1917, mostly in India.  The other and first account of it was Paidikion: A Paiderastic Manuscript by Toby Hammond.

Other pederastic travellers who described their liaisons with boys around this time included the aforementioned Douglas, whose adventures in Algeria, 1895 and misadventure in Paris, 1900 are recounted from the primary sources, and Frederick William Rolfe in his Venice Letters. Later, there was the journalist Michael Davidson, who lived in numerous countries in Europe, Africa and Asia from 1920 until he settled in Italy in 1958, the playwright Joe Orton, who stayed for the last time in Tangier in 1967, both frequently expressing  disgust with the comparative sexual climate of Britain, the writer Angus Stewart, also in Tangier, and the teacher James Darling in three continents in the 1980s, his book about it, It’s Okay to Say Yes, being reviewed here.

Despite the arm of the state growing longer and more intrusive with every passing decade, Greek love continued to be practised quietly. Jack Robinson's autobiography of his childhood, Teardrops on My Drum, reviewed here, describes considerable pederastic activity in Liverpool in the early 1930s, without anyone encountering trouble. Similarly, in his memoir of his childhood in the 1920s, Cider with Rosie, often cited for its vivid portrayal of rural life in that era, Laurie Lee ended his list of the villagers' transgressions with the remark "and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers." This would have been unthinkable by the end of the century, when the merest friendship between a man and unrelated boy was likely to incite investigation.

For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Greek love continued to flourish in boarding-schools, despite continued efforts to suppress it. Recollections of experiences there as boys in the first three quarters of the twentieth century, before the popular panic over child sexuality began, include ones by eminent writers such as the diarist James Lees-Milne, the screenwriter Gavin Lambert, the novelist Simon Raven and the actor Stephen Fry. Taming Mr. Rudge is a repelled Robin Maugham's account of the liaison between a boy and master at his prep school around 1928, while his own experiences at his next school are recounted in Robin Maugham at Eton. To Be or Not to Be a School Tart at Eton describes the painful dilemmas involved in becoming a pederastic sex idol at Eton in 1946-7.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, principally occasioned by the general adoption of the contraceptive pill by women of fertile age in 1961-3, brought none of the temporary relief to men and boys who were or would have been receptive to Greek love that it did for a while in other countries in northern Europe. Perhaps the latter's willingness to be more liberal-minded about it was in part a reaction to their experience of the National Socialist yoke, and the British simply had no cause to. At any rate, the boy-lover Michael Davidson, looking back over his life in 1969, noted that pederastic affairs had come to be punished with far greater severity despite or because of the legalisation of sex between men in 1967.[1]

The repression continued to worsen considerably thereafter, even while obviously consensual Greek love became de facto legal in the Netherlands and Scandinavia for more than a decade, and most other countries in western Europe dropped their ages of consent to allow at least some of it. The historian John Mackenzie wrote in 1990:[2]

As 'freedoms' are now being reinterpreted in the light of particularly narrow bourgeois tastes, intolerant, philistinish and culturally blinkered, the British are again becoming the social fundamentalists of Europe, if not of the world, bent upon infringing the civil rights of minorities, inhibiting the arts, and transforming human sexuality once more into an area of tension, fear and ignorance.

In conclusion, Great Britain and Ireland were probably the only European countries of which it can be said that never in their modern history could a man and adolescent boy engaged in a genuine love affair or merely enjoying consensual sex hope to avoid dire consequences if they were exposed. 

 

[1] Michael Davidson, Some Boys, American edition, 1971, pp.245-6.

[2] In his introduction to Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Manchester, 1990,  p. 9