Subversive Activities

Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England

by Louis Crompton
University of California Press, 419 pp., $24.95

The nearest English equivalent of the word Herodotus used to describe his account of the Persian War and its antecedents, historiai, is “enquiries”; the Greek verb historein means “to ask questions.” In recent years history has begun to ask questions about people it once took little or no notice of; to concern itself, for example, with “the short and simple annals of the poor” and the “destiny obscure” of the neglected and oppressed. The history of blacks in America has become a flourishing academic industry, that of women all over the world and throughout the centuries an even wider field of research and publication, and “gay history,” of which Crompton’s book is a distinguished specimen, seems, to judge from the wealth of literature cited in his footnotes, to be following in their wake.

Such approaches to history have produced important work; new and significant data have been amassed, which often throw fresh and revealing light on the established record. But since these studies are for the most part undertaken by scholars who share the race, sex, or inclination of the group they are investigating, it is only natural that they sometimes reflect the bias in the minds of their authors. This can manifest itself in a failure to view the new data in historical perspective, in a tendency to base broad generalizations on evidence which, given the nature of historical records prior to the twentieth century, is often inadequate, and finally in a polemical tone that puts the reader on his guard. No historian, of course, has ever been totally free of partiality to a cause, class, or nation, but the best of them have tried to be so, and sincerely thought they had succeeded. Macaulay, for example, would have been surprised and indignant if he had lived long enough to hear himself credited with the creation of the “Whig theory of English history.”

It is a pleasure to be able to report that although Crompton, as a cofounder of the Gay Caucus for Modern Languages, is clearly a committed witness, his book exhibits none of the characteristic flaws of sectarian history. He is, to be sure, too ready to find specific personal references in the works of the imagination (Byron’s Thyrza, for example, is unequivocally identified with Edlestone, the choirboy at Trinity College, Cambridge, with whom he had a deep romantic attachment), but this is an error historians, by the nature of their calling, are prone to; the real danger facing a gay historian, a failure to distinguish between affection, romantic friendship, and sexual passion when expressed in the idiom of a different age, Crompton is fully aware of and gracefully avoids.

Unlike some modern critics who, faced with new evidence, have come to obviously exaggerated conclusions about Byron’s sexual ambivalence (“basically homosexual,” for example), Crompton is measured in his judgment, recognizing that “Byron’s heterosexual impulses were fully as real as his homosexual ones and, if we take his life as a whole, more persistent …

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