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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 and significant.” But, though the book’s structure is a narrative account of Byron’s homosexual inclinations and encounters and their effects, its real novelty and importance lie elsewhere, in the matter announced in the subtitle. With a dispassionate authority and in a wealth of detail Crompton explores some little-known and very unpleasant features of one of the most richly documented periods of English history—the age of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Castlereagh, Jeremy Bentham, and Byron.

It is of course no news that Byron’s vigorous career as a rival of Don Juan Tenorio was punctuated by homosexual attachments of varying intensity. Crompton acknowledges his debt to Peter Quennell’s Byron: The Years of Fame (1935) and the later studies which dealt with Byron’s relationships with his Harrow schoolmates and with Edlestone, as well as his affairs with fifteen-year-old boys on his first and also on his last visit to Greece. Crompton attempts “to shape this deluge of new material” (much of it scattered through Leslie Marchand’s great edition of Byron’s letters and journals) “into a narrative.” And he adds new and notable evidence, in particular a letter from his Cambridge friend Charles Skinner Matthews to Byron at Falmouth on his way to Greece (1809) and another which reached Byron at Malta on his way back (1811), both of them here printed for the first time. The earlier letter is a reply to one of Byron’s, which leaves no doubt whatever, if indeed any still remained, about the import of Byron’s cryptic references to Georgia, hyacinths, and “Plen. and optabil.—Coit.,” an abbreviated quotation from Petronius which was Byron’s usual phrase for a satisfactory sexual encounter.1

Matthews writes to Byron and Hobhouse in the tone of a professor congratulating his pupils on their progress in what he calls “ma methode,” compliments Byron on his “first efforts in the mysterious, that style in which more is meant than meets the Eye,” takes it that the hyacinths Byron speaks of “culling” at Falmouth “will be of the class polyandria and not monogynia,” and wishes for both of them in their travels in the East “all the success which in your most methodistical fantasies you can wish yourselves.”

The second letter, a reply to one of Byron’s now lost, asks for more details on what must have been an account of Byron’s exploits in the East and then reports Matthews’s own sexual inactivity: “Quant à ma methode, my botanical studies have been sadly at a stand.” There can be no reasonable doubt that Crompton is justified in his claim that the three men “share what today would be called a gay identity, based on common interests and a sense of alienation from a society they must protect themselves from by a special ‘mysterious’ style.” The “common interest” was a love of boys, the “Greek love” of Crompton’s title: Hyakinthos was a boy love of the god Apollo.

The final paragraphs of Matthews’s second letter gave Byron an account of the arrests and punishments of homosexuals in England during his absence: some of what the press of the day called “miscreants” had been exposed in the pillory to the fury of the mob, others hanged. “That which you get for £5,” writes Matthews, jocularly, referring to the easy availability of homosexual pleasures in Greece and Turkey, “we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.”

That men were regularly hanged for homosexual relations in nineteenth-century England—sixty in the first three decades of the century and “another score under naval regulations”—will come as a surprise to most readers; it was in fact the “discovery of an unprecedented number of executions of homosexuals in England in the statistical reports” of the period that first drew Crompton’s attention to his subject. Hanging, however, was reserved for those unfortunates in whose cases solid evidence of sexual intercourse was proved (or confessed); where “evidence both of penetration and emission” was not available, the arrested men were charged with “assault with the attempt to commit sodomy” and given the lesser sentence of exposure in the pillory. Contemporary accounts of what this meant for the victim strongly suggest that hanging might have been preferable. Of one survivor of this ordeal a journalist eyewitness remarked: “The head of this wretch when he reached Newgate was compared to a swallow’s nest. It took three buckets of hot water to restore it to anything like a human shape. Though much battered and bruised, the fellow is in no danger, but he is at present totally blind.”

Crompton quotes extensively from a contemporary pamphlet which describes the ordeal of six men sentenced to the pillory in 1810. What he justifiably calls a “semilynching, which was supposed to stop short of killing” (though in fact the victims did not always survive) was organized by the police, who escorted the prisoners through a hostile mob armed with balls of mud and brickbats. They arrived at the pillory looking like “bears dipped in a stagnant pool”; once secured, they were exposed to the ministrations of “upwards of fifty women who were permitted to stand in the ring, who assailed them incessantly with mud, dead cats, rotten eggs, potatoes, and buckets filled with blood, offal, and dung.” The newspapers reported the event in graphic detail; their editorials, far from expressing sympathy for the victims, declared that if any of them died from the effects of their punishment they would die “unpitied” and “justly execrated,” or else complained that the pillory was too merciful a sentence and demanded the death penalty.

The wretched sufferers on the gallows or in the pillory seem to have been exclusively working-class men; persons higher up on the social ladder who were arrested usually managed to avoid punishment and escape to the Continent, like the Bishop of Clogher in Ireland who, caught in flagrante delicto with a guardsman in 1822, jumped bail and left England for good. Even mere suspicion based on gossip could drive a man into exile; William Beckford, the rich and famous author of Vathek, felt himself constrained to leave England for ten years and was still treated as a social pariah when he returned. Crompton’s thesis is that one of the reasons Byron went into self-imposed exile was his fear that rumors of his homosexual escapades might draw down on him the ostracism of his peers and the vicious rage of the street mobs who, infuriated by the escape of Bishop Clogher, attacked and pillaged the episcopal palace. That such rumors were abroad is clear from notes in Hobhouse’s diary; their source was Byron’s rejected mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, to whom Byron seems to have confessed that, as Lady Byron put it, “from his boyhood on he had been in the practice of unnatural crime.” Given the universal “homophobia”2 which Crompton has so copiously documented for the period, fear of exposure on this score may well have been as urgent a motive for Byron’s abrupt departure from England as the scandal of his broken marriage and his affair with his half-sister Augusta.

It is a remarkable paradox that an England which was in many ways the most liberal country in Europe could condemn homosexuals to the rope and the pillory at a time when on the Continent the medieval laws that made sodomy a capital offense had been totally repudiated, as in revolutionary France, or allowed to fall into disuse, as in Catholic Italy. Reform of the criminal law, imposed by such enlightened despots as Catherine in Russia, Frederick in Prussia, and Grand Duke Leopold in Tuscany, was not even contemplated by the British parliaments of the eighteenth century. As for the manic hatred for sexual deviants that inspired both the mobs at the pillory and the editorial writers at their desks, Crompton explains it as caused partly by English xenophobia and partly by the activities of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which, in the opening decades of the eighteenth century made homosexuality the main target of its propaganda and its network of pious informers. The Napoleonic wars and especially the threat of French invasion after the renewal of hostilities in 1803 did nothing to lessen public virulence against what was considered an un-British vice.

  1. 1

    Leslie A. Marchand, ed., Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. 1, “In My Hot Youth” (Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 206–207; Gilbert Highet identified the quotation “plenum et optabilem coitum” (Satyricon 86) for Marchand; Crompton points out that in its Petronian context it clearly refers to homosexual coupling.

  2. 2

    Until the subject could at last be discussed objectively in the press and in books, there were no words in the English language for homosexuals that were not derogatory. The words that eventually came into use were, however, linguistically inelegant, to say the least. “Homosexual” is an ugly hybrid, half Greek, half Latin; it was taken over from the Germans, who had coined the word as early as 1869. (Crompton mentions an American coinage which never became current—”similisexualism”; it is all Latin but obviously too much of a mouthful for common use.) “Homophobia” is all Greek but unfortunately it doesn’t mean what it is supposed to. The Greek prefix “homo-” means “alike”; “homogeneous” means “of the same kind” and so “homophobia” should mean something like “sharing the same fear.” The word has been formed by false analogy with such words as “xenophobia,” but since the only alternative (used once by Crompton) seems to be “antihomosexualism” it will probably remain in use, all the more so since those unacquainted with the classical languages will take the prefix “homo-” for the vulgar abbreviation of “homosexual” often heard in common speech.

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