John Addington Symonds: A Biography
by Phyllis Grosskurth
Holt Rinehart & Winston, 400 pp., $6.95
John Addington Symonds was a distinguished—even an important—writer who was also a homosexual. Mrs. Grosskurth has written a most excellent, sensitive and humane biography of a homosexual who also wrote books. To justify such an emphasis she can call on much influential support: on Symonds himself, perhaps, who seems to have thought that his (still unpublished) Memoirs were his most significant contribution to literature, and certainly on those many recent reviewers of her biography in the London press who have treated his writings with patronage or contempt. Though she herself clearly respects his achievement, Mrs. Grosskurth talks of Symonds “having long since slipped into semi-oblivion,” and it would be ironical if the undoubtedly fascinating picture she skillfully gives us of his hidden life should distract attention still further from what surely remains his most valuable legacy to the world: his books.
The life itself was, on the surface, materially successful and was apparently wrecked only by the lingering “consumption” which was ultimately responsible for his death in 1893 at the early age of 53. He was born into the professional middle class, son of an eminent British doctor, and though sensible and sensitive enough to loathe his public school, Harrow—then in its heyday under the reforming headmaster Dr. Vaughan (one of Dr. Arnold’s favorite pupils)—he did reasonably well there. At Oxford he went to Balliol, lived it up, met intelligent friends for the first time, won the Newdigate Prize with a poem on the Escorial, and inevitably traveled extensively on the Continent, had religious doubts, made friends with many of his most interesting contemporaries and married the daughter of an M.P., who gave him four daughters. He wrote a large number of books and articles, mainly on literature and the Italian Renaissance, grew excited by Walt Whitman whose reputation in England he helped to foster, and won a considerable reputation as historian and man of letters. He was, however, driven by ill health to spend the last fifteen years of his life at Davos in Switzerland where he became friendly with Robert Louis Stevenson and whence he made periodic sorties to Italy and to stay with distinguished families in England.
This on the surface—underneath it was all very different. As with Gide, certain pleasures could be traced back to his earliest memories. Choirboys he discovered just before going to Oxford, but already at Harrow he had stumbled into a community of promiscuous thuggery, in which the “reforming” Dr. Vaughan (for inverted commas must be inserted at this stage) was himself involved. Though terribly shaken Symonds was also intrigued, and this double reaction never left him when faced with lust—his own or others’. Thereafter he lived half his life in circumstances which would (as he knew with delight) have horrified the pleasantly cultured audiences to whom he lectured on Florence, which alarmed or titillated most of his friends (though he was always in touch with a wide circle which shared his tastes) and …
Corrigenda May 6, 1965