three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Tim by Howard Sturgis, London, 1891

 

As noted in the review that follows, "there are no faint hints of eroticism" in this novel, and since one is thus free to consider the passionate love depicted as non-sexual in inspiration as well as practise, one may question its inclusion on this website.  There is equally, however, nothing to rule out its being erotically-inspired and therefore Greek.  Had the author hinted that it was strongly enough to force the reader to suspect this, it would have been unthinkable for the book to enjoy the success it did, with William Gladstone, the greatest British statesman of the day, saying it moved him to tears.  Hence, despite a reluctance to weaken the credibility of the website by making claims for anything being pederastic that may not have been, it has been decided to include Tim here as a historically interesting depiction of a love that in all respects except possibly this one, bears the hallmarks of Greek love.

 

Victorians were nicer than us  ****

                         Eton College

Evidently set around 1870, when the author, like his protagonists,  was at school at Eton, Tim recounts with delicacy and acute and witty emotional observation the sentimental but deeply-moving story of its eponym, a sensitive and delicate boy of nine who stumbles into an overwhelming and unassailable love for 13-year-old golden boy Carol Darley, which remains the defining passion of his life until his untimely death at sixteen.

Contemporary critics noted the authenticity of the setting at Eton, and it is surprising how true the portrait of the school still rings.  Apart from a little more mild, verbal bullying than has been tolerated in the last twenty or so years, such differences as there are cast the present day in an unfavourable light:  the boys then were significantly freer, allowed to keep pets in their rooms for example; though participation in sport was necessary for real popularity, it was not yet compulsory.

One cannot venture far into this tale with becoming aware how very foreign is the emotional landscape. The admired schoolboy hero, Carol, is twice described as walking off publicly arm-in-arm with a friend, while Tim finally secures some social acceptance when he accepts the popular Tommy Weston's offer to go on an expedition to gather primroses.  Their housemaster gives Tim a friendly grasp while inviting him out for a leisurely drive and tea.  The author exhorts his female readers to take home "any little boys at school near you" and comfort them.  Despite stereotypes, Victorians were much warmer than us.

'Tom's visit to Arthur after the fever' from the 1869 edition of Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes (illustrating the publically-approved emotional landscape of the day)

Outside the rigid hierarchy of Eton, no one finds it odd that teenage boys four years apart should enjoy such an emotionally intense friendship.  Tim's father and Carol's likely fiancee are both jealous of their love, and the former is self-interestedly scathing about the strength of his son's emotions, but this is not at all the same as challenging its propriety, as would surely be done today, and mostly it drew approbation. 14-year-old Tim can tell his nurse he loves Carol better than anyone in the world except her without eliciting anything but sympathy.

In view of all this, it is hardly surprising that Tim was a critical and commercial success in its own day that is impossible to imagine in today's hard and relatively unfeeling climate.  I would find such intensely felt love lacking credibility if I had not some familiarity with other Victorian literature.  Some vestige of it endured into the early 20th century; Tim reminds me sometimes of The Secret Garden and The Railway Children, but I fear 21st-century man has lost the knack of such deep feeling.  More specifically, such a love of older and younger boys would anyway today be rapidly aborted by unashamed hostility and poisonous suspicion of imagined longings that would actually be beneficent if only they were real.

It is inevitable that some modern gays have claimed Tim as a gay novel, sadly so as it is quite unjustified. True, it is dedicated to a love passing that of women, a reference to David and Jonathan, but few Victorians would have agreed that was remotely sexual, and there are no faint hints of eroticism.  Tim's love is pure, by which I do not mean there is anything impure about erotic desire, but simply that his love is not mixed with anything else.

Even if a subconscious link was intended between the boys' emotions and their sexual feelings, this would have to be pederastic rather than gay;  their friendship was as unequal as one would expect in view of the age gap, Tim's feelings amounting to hero-worship and Carol's strongly protective.  Carol's good looks are described, but in terms that are, if sensual at all, also more pederastic than gay: "a brighter, truer, more boyish boy ... did not exist in all England."

The story is too simple to be truly great literature, but is excellent nonetheless.

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 23 Oct. 2013.