Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century
by Graham Robb
Norton, 342 pp., $26.95
Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947–1985
by James McCourt
Norton, 577 pp., $29.95
Strangers—the word was once homosexual slang—is a glorious book packed with information and historical comedy, while the writing has a kind of sly and serious charm about it. Graham Robb’s study of nineteenth-century homosexual culture is largely about gay characters and themes in literature. The atmosphere is dense and rich, the references almost overwhelmingly cosmopolitan. That bisexual Tiresias, for instance, is far from being the only sexual oddity in Eliot’s The Waste Land. There is also Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, who, as Robb points out, helps to keep both international trade going and a richly epicene literature alive. “Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants,” he
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
Nothing could sum up in a better or more businesslike way the nature, itself demotic, of male underground homosexuality in nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century Europe. And it is soon capped by another bizarre comparison pre-dating The Waste Land itself—that of Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle’s Wilde-like alter ego, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle first met Oscar Wilde at a publisher’s dinner party in 1889, a dinner which led to the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work which Doyle felt to be on a “high moral plane,” and perhaps had an influence on The Sign of Four (1890), Holmes’s second appearance in print. Years later, Doyle remembered that “golden evening,” in which Wilde’s conversation, with its “curious precision of statement” and “delicate flavour of humour,” convinced him that he had been dining with Sherlock Holmes himself. In 1923, during what Graham Robb happily terms Doyle’s “ectoplasmic phase,” when the author was fascinated with the occult sciences, he claimed to have received a message from beyond the grave which he swore that no man “of real critical instinct” could doubt came from Oscar Wilde. It certainly possessed all Wilde’s (or Holmes’s) Irish humor. “Being dead,” it ran, “is the most boring experience in life, that is if one excepts being married or dining with a school-master!”
Art, aestheticism, and homosexuality made a rich trio in the nineteenth century, with mystery and detection as their friends and allies. “Like a true Decadent,” writes Robb, Holmes enjoys “introspective” German music and listens to it with “languid, dreamy eyes.” “‘Art for art’s sake’ is one of his mottoes—applied, not to poetry, but to the incongruously useful art of criminal detection.”
Unfortunately, in the post-Wilde era, criminal detection would come to be turned on the strangers—the homosexuals themselves. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was prosecuted in England in 1928, even though Queen Victoria herself had stoutly denied that lesbianism existed at all. The novelist E.M. Forster was thrown into a great flurry on hearing that he might be asked to give evidence, or at least should make some sort of appeal. (He finally joined the campaign in defense of …