A review of The Cleveland Street Scandal by H. Montgomery Hyde (London, 1976)
Interesting, but too narrow for satisfaction ****
A wave of growing moral panic over sexual exploitation of the young sweeps over Britain, resulting in broader and tougher legislation to combat it. A few years later, there are sensational revelations about secret trysts in a homosexual brothel between teenage rent boys and some members of very high society. Claims are made in Parliament and the press that the establishment knew all about it from the police but colluded in hushing it up and helping the guilty escape justice. If all this sounds uncannily topical, that is because the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889 does bear a bizarre resemblance to current affairs. Far though from riding the tide of today's hysteria over sex involving boys, this history was written in 1976, when attitudes to pederasty were about as calm as they have ever been in modern Britain, and by a man who had forfeited, rather than sought to fortify, his career in Parliament through involvement in sexual politics (in his case homosexual emancipation).
I should for balance point out some of the more serious differences between this Victorian scandal and today's. The only casualties of the uproar about Cleveland Street were two obviously guilty men suffering very brief imprisonment for "gross indecency" and procurement, a third for libel, and another two driven into exile. Even if one blames it for darkening the atmosphere for Oscar Wilde and others soon to follow, that is a far cry from today's maelstrom. Then as now, British attitudes were more repressive than continental ones (Charles Hammond, the brothel-keeper, could not be extradited from France because his rentboys were willing and over 13, then the age of consent there), but they were not so vindictive or unjust as to investigate unprovable goings-on of half a century earlier. Far from being so credulous as to believe almost any allegation, the Victorians were outraged by aspersions cast without evidence, especially on those of high repute; it would have been unthinkable, for example, to destroy the reputation of a bemedalled Field Marshal in his nineties by raiding his home on the basis of an anonymous accusation and splashing it over the news (as has just been done). Rather than demanding salacious details of sexual misdeeds, everyone concerned with the Cleveland Street scandal seemed concerned to protect public morality by saying as little about it as possible.
Montgomery Hyde tells the story well with satisfyingly extensive quotation of his original sources, which are mostly court records, letters and speeches. There is no discernible bias and his opening sentence lamenting Victorian prostitution is his sole judgmental remark. He used documents recently released from the Director of Public Prosecutions, and he was a barrister. Unsurprisingly therefore, his grasp of the legal and political wrangling that was the scandal's hard core is sharp and his account of it authoritative. Disappointingly though, Hyde largely limits himself to such wranglings and one is left mostly in the dark both as to what was going on behind them and to what the scandal meant to anyone in broader terms.
I am not always sure if Hyde is displaying reticence or ignorance. When he says, for example, that "nothing more is known of Veck, Newlove, Allies and the telegraph boys", it is clear he means simply that further information on such humble folk was not available from published biographical sources and he did not bother to find out more from the obvious unpublished records. But what of Lord Arthur Somerset, who, as the only establishment figure finally acted against, is the nearest to being the main protagonist? His sexual behaviour is at the heart of the story, but besides the legal evidence, the nearest Hyde comes to revealing anything about it is two citations which together hint vaguely that he liked boys, but not sodomising them. Much more bizarre is Hyde's failure to reveal the pederasty of the influential Reggie Brett, whom he introduces as Somerset's close friend from their Eton schooldays. How can this not fail to mislead, when Brett is a pivotal character throughout the story and his letters a major source for it? His own tastes can hardly not have increased his sympathy and understanding of those who ran into trouble and his efforts to help them. Yet Hyde cannot be ignorant of Brett's passion for boys, since the same letters furnish abundant evidence of it, and it had been well known even in Brett's own day: his wooing of boys on frequent visits to Eton was sufficiently well known in high society for boys' mothers to warn their sons against being alone with him.
Just as limiting is Hyde's failure to shed light on what anyone thought of the scandal beyond brief expressions of conventional outrage by those concerned in handling it. How shocked were most people and exactly why? He describes how the puritanical journalist W. T. Stead was more responsible than any other individual for the legislation which made the goings-on in Cleveland Street prosecutable, but omits his comment a few years later that "if all persons guilty of Oscar Wilde's offences were to be clapped in gaol, there would be a very surprising exodus from Eton and Harrow, Rugby and Winchester, to Pentonville and Holloway." And what, on the other extreme, did men like Wilde make of it all? Here we are left entirely in the dark and I at least was left unsatisfied.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 8 April 2015.