It’s no longer news that the Victorians were not really so Victorian after all. The image of a uniformly prudish and morally straight-jacketed nation, ruled over by a sense of Imperial fair-play that trickled down from the black lace trimming on Victoria’s petticoats has been well and truly debunked. We know about the dirty books, the prostitution, the pornographic photos, and the excitable flush that might come to a retired Colonel’s face as he remembered his schooldays and the swish of the birch cane.
Decades of “Victorian Studies” have moved the conversation on from bemoaning hypocrisy in nineteenth century British life to an understanding that, like in any other era, Victorian people lived their complicated and nuanced lives somewhere between morally self-righteous and decadently outrageous, between imperial master and colonial slave, between the pater omnipotens of a vast family and the sexual revolutionary: somewhere between black and white. Victorian values were as diverse as those of any other time.
So it should be no surprise that when Michael Matthew Kaylor, an academic at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic set out to create an anthology of Victorian and Edwardian pederastic verse, he was able to fill over 1,100 pages in two fat hardback volumes. The anthology, “Lad’s Love: An Anthology of Uranian Poetry and Prose” (Valancourt Books, 2010), is the most comprehensive such compendium to date, taking in forty-seven writers, covering a period from about 1860 to 1930, some of them quoted extensively, some represented by just a few poems or paragraphs.
The two volumes are wrapped around with, and peppered throughout with, the paintings of Henry Scott Tuke.
Photo's above: Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929)
A Loose, Underground Social Network
Uranian is a strange term which, in this very specific milieu of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, is very roughly co-terminous with pederastic or, as the Internet often prefers, “boy-loving.” The Uranians were first uncovered by Timothy d’Arch Smith, an antiquarian bookseller, writer and connoisseur of the by-ways of literature.
In 1970 he published “Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English ‘Uranian’ Poets from 1889 tot 1930,” a book-length study of this group of literary- and artistic-minded men who wrote homoerotic, or at the very least homo-sentimental, poetry about boys and young men, shared it among themselves, published it in small limited editions and formed a very loose social network. Even by 1970 the list of publications attributed to this group was nearing 150 titles, and that was just the poetry.
From time to time, the word Uranian was used by these writers to describe their homoerotic desires but it was d’Arch Smith who first consciously commandeered the term for them. Endeavouring to ensure that his readers not lose sight of the element of high-mindedness in his subjects’ passions, he was reminding them that in Plato’s “Symposium” the love associated with Aphrodite Urania was of the intellectual, soulful kind that is long-lasting and committed, in contrast with the kind driven by sex and lust.
What was remarkable about “Love in Earnest” was not so much the uncovering of another strand of the hidden Victorian story.
D’Arch Smith made skilful use of his research into letters and inscribed copies of books to show how these men related to one another and did, however vaguely, constitute a group: they knew each other, they knew each other’s boyfriends, they called on each other; London Uranians would provide a place in town to stay for those visiting from the provinces; they read and commented on each other’s books; and their common understanding about the beauty and desirability of the young male form gave them, to a limited extent, common cause.
Idealised Versions of The Boy
So who were they? Largely they were middle-class professionals, a lot of clergy, some teachers, a doctor, a librarian, also a number of men of “independent means” and some interlopers from the upper classes. Very few were professional writers. For the most part, as far as we can know, their passions were chaste. Even those who had boy-friends seem often to not be in sexual relationships but rather in some continuation of what they would have understood as a classical Greek tradition of mentor and protégé.
There are exceptions, of course, but it is noticeable how this group of writers seem to have been remarkably chaste when plenty of the people around them, their friends and contemporaries, were very sexually active, often getting into trouble because of it.
It’s not that these writers lacked opportunity. Rather, they took their loves very seriously, so that much of their poetry presents highly idealised versions of The Boy.
A new edition of ‘A Boy’s Absence’ by Arnold W. Smith, published by Callum James Books in an edition of 50 numbered copies in 2008
In Arnold Smith’s sequence of sonnets “A Boy’s Absence,” the boy Norman is elevated to the level of a Platonic Form:
“Thou art the mortal shape in which I see
For one brief hour eternal beauty’s face,
And, having seen, must love. Outside all space,
Beyond all time, the sole reality –
The perfect Form – endures, whereof in thee
The lineaments divine I fondly trace.”
The boy becomes almost untouchable and the most that many of these poets could dare to dream of would be holding hands or a stolen kiss. In a poem by Stanley Addleshaw, the boy becomes so very idealized that in his paleness and fragility, he nigh on evaporates into the air:
To A Child
My heart’s desire is white and fair,
More gold than sunshine in his hair,
And in his hazel eyes I see
Such tender looks well up for me,
That I forget my former care.
So frail he is, so slim and rare,
A willow wand he seems to be
That quivers with each passing air,
-My heart’s desire.
His beauty fills me with despair
It overwhelms me so; I dare
Scarcely to pray on bended knee
That I may kiss him reverently,
Fearing to stain beyond repair
My heart’s desire.
Of course, what was true of this particular boy was true of all Boys, and a great recurring theme of Uranian poetry was the fleeting nature of youthful beauty. In Addleshaw’s poem it is Youth itself which is so fragile more than a specific boy; it is an image so pure that you can barely breathe on it without causing it to crumble into dust. Uranian poetry does not come from the realm of earthy, dirty, lust-filled sex and sexuality, but in Kaylor’s lengthy introductory material to his anthology there are some fascinating below the surface readings of these apparently sexless texts, in which he presents what could possibly have been coded, perhaps even subconscious, references to erections and oral and anal sex.
Angelic Appearance, Grubby Existence
It’s telling just how often the choirboy appears in these poems, perhaps the most idealised image of boyhood but also one that bubbles with the tension between the angelic appearance and sound of the robed choir boy and the knowledge of his grubby, day-to-day existence outside of the chancel. Cuthbert Wright in a poem called “The Chorister” acknowledges this dichotomy when he recognises the face of a chorister as one he’s often seen outside the church as “Street arab, gutter urchin, child / Incontinent and wild.” and yet, the boy is now seen through a “yellow incense haze” in a “mist of lights”.
John Gambril Nicholson, a schoolteacher all his adult life, wrote an entire novel on the theme called “The Romance of a Choir-Boy,” and in the passage quoted in this anthology, Kaylor’s argument for reading suppressed sexuality beneath some of the purest expressions is all too easy to grasp.
Philip, a high-Anglican priest is in church listening to his boy, Teddy, singing a solo. A stolen kiss is the only intimate interaction between the two in the whole novel and yet, from Philip’s thoughts listening to Teddy’s singing one might imagine something very different:
“To Philip a curious comparison had presented itself vividly:- The building was like a glass vessel full of colourless fluid, and the voice was a bright stream of red aniline dye, slowly and sinuously penetrating the mass, forcing its way among the molecules, and tingeing the whole very gradually while still preserving its own identity as it sank down to the bottom of the vessel... Perhaps it was the organ-accompaniment which suggested the volume of colourless liquid, filling the containing vessel so fully that the colouring matter could hardly find space for itself therein.”
John Gambril Nicholson and Alec Melling in 1892
These are more than instances of amusing, unintentional innuendo. For this group of writers, the tension between their idealised Boy and the actualisation of their sexuality was often an agony. When their writing is mentioned by critics, which is not often, it is usually dismissed and its literary pretensions ridiculed, but arguments over the quality of this writing miss the point: the importance of this poetry and prose is not in its quality (and some of it is surprisingly good) but in what it tells us about the men who wrote it.
The interest provided by the Uranians to modern readers is biographical first and literary second. Reading through the anthology, in most cases, leaves you wanting to know more about the people who wrote the texts rather than the texts themselves and Kaylor does a good job of providing potted biographies at the head of each section, often including important new information and attributions that haven’t been published before.
Writing As A Safe Way Of Actualising Feelings
What is most striking about these men is how many were broken and troubled souls who lived their lives under enormous social and psychological strains. The Rev’d Samuel Cottam was described by John Betjeman in his diary after going to hear him preach as having rolling eyes and a persecution mania and Auden, who was with Betjeman, speculated that Cottam would soon have to be “taken away.” Cottam’s friend, the Rev’d E.E. Bradford suffered a horrible childhood trauma, had a promising career broken midway through and spent the last thirty-five years of his life as the Vicar of a tiny hamlet, the most isolated parish in Norfolk, living alone with his housekeeper.
John Gambril Nicholson became more and more unstable in later life having a paranoid concern for his own health until his sister could no longer care for him. Edmund John was a frail creature who died of heart-disease at the age of thirty-four.
Lionel Johnson was an alcoholic who struggled all his life with his repressed sexuality and died of a stroke at the age of thirty-five.
Frederick Rolfe lived the life of an outsider, suffering from a persecution mania, occasionally even destitute and living rough. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a controversial inclusion in the Uranian canon, lived a life burdened by crippling religious guilt.
Lord Alfred Douglas’s difficult life and personality have been well documented. Edward Cracroft Lefroy lived a life of almost continual pain which began, perhaps tellingly, as soon as he was ordained, and ended with his early death at the age of thirty-six ...and the list could go on.
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie)
This is not a group of poster-boys for the expression of well-adjusted sexuality. Clearly there are exceptions, but there is a strong pattern of men with all kinds of stresses in their lives which were, to some extent, alleviated and given an outlet in their writing and in their friendships with others who felt in the same way. For many of them it seems as though writing was a safe way of actualising feelings which, if not dealt with, had the potential to tear their lives and the lives of others apart – and what sensitive teenager scribbling poetry in their bedroom today doesn’t know that feeling?
The Importance of Technical Developments
It has seemed strange to some commentators, including Kaylor, that there should have been such a flowering of pederastic verse and prose at the end of the nineteenth century. It might be thought, however, that as with any good mountain which is climbed “because it is there,” this profusion of published books may have come about “because it could.” It is only from the latter half of the nineteenth century that it was possible for books to be produced economically enough for such minority interests to be published in any numbers. Many of the books authored by the Uranians were also published by them, or subsidised by them. It might strike us as odd, for example, that E. E. Bradford was able to issue twelve full length books of poetry with a major and reputable publisher.
How could there possibly have been a market for such a quantity of verse? It is clear now that Bradford paid considerable sums towards the publication and spent a lot of his own money promoting them by sending review copies both to periodicals and literary figures of the time.
Likewise the profusion of small pamphlets and limited editions which now command high prices on the antiquarian book market, were put out under the close supervision of their authors, in small numbers, in a way which just hadn’t been possible until that time.
After the 1930s, with allowance made for the disruption caused by the war, it is not that pederastic literature disappeared. It simply took other forms.
Simeon Solomon, ‘Acolytes.’ Solomon was a popular painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1873 his career was cut short when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street, in London and charged with attempting to commit sodomy
Poetry was no longer so prevalent but novels abounded, and as the 1960s and 70s arrived, such literature became both more widespread and more explicit, and now the Internet is packed to its virtual rafters with self-published stories of pederastic sex and relationships which is, after all, what Uranian writing was a century ago. It seems likely that the Uranian “period” was not so much a “sudden flowering” as a filling of the flower bed with one variety of flowers before the bed was enlarged and the planting changed.
Francis Edwin Murray
One of the key figures of the period Kaylor surveys was Francis Edwin Murray, a bookseller and publisher who took on the Uranian banner with some vigour. Murray was a respected pillar of the antiquarian booktrade in Britain. He came from a long established line of booksellers, enjoying an ordinary but successful career trajectory. By the 1880s he had shops in Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.
He was a publisher as well, putting out works by such 1890s luminaries as Richard le Gallienne and Fiona MacLeod/William Sharp as well as topographical works and his own “Bibliography of Austin Dobson.” To cement his prominent place in the bookselling establishment Murray founded the trade paper, “The Clique.” From this position of social acceptability and financial security Murray became the very centre of Uranian publishing and bookselling.
As well as publishing books of Uranian poetry and prose, he also put out a “Catalogue of Selected Books from the Private Library of a Student of Boyhood, Youth and Comradeship,” a list of over 450 titles which would have been of interest to those with Uranian sympathies. This catalogue, as well as surviving correspondence, show that Murray was involved in a thriving under-the-counter trade in pederastic literature and was at the centre of a network of writers and collectors.
Henry Scott Tuke was known as ‘The Painter of Youth,’ and was associated with the Uranians, yet the strong homoeroticism of his work didn’t prevent a considerable popularity
The books that Murray published were once described by an American who published a couple of similar works as “the flimsy glued paper affairs that Murray gets out,” but, because so very little has ever been written about this group and about Murray’s role in it, such one-off contemporary statements can be given an undue significance. This little nugget is often repeated uncritically about Murray’s publications and the idea has got about that they were cheap and nasty affairs. It is true that when they turn up today, Murray’s titles can look a little the worse for wear.
The house style was for books bound in paper-covered boards with paper labels rather than gilt stamped titles, not the most durable way of constructing a book. However, for books published in short runs (and most of Murray’s Uranian titles were in editions limited to around 100 copies) it was a perfectly acceptable and reasonably economical way of binding a book that was in use across the publishing world at the time.
There is another intriguing element to Murray’s story: was he also a Uranian poet himself? In the 1970s d’Arch Smith identified the man behind the pointed pseudonym “A. Newman”, author of two volumes of Uranian poetry published by Murray, as Murray himself. With the passage of time and more discoveries, this seems less and less likely.
Kaylor, in his introduction to Newman’s first book of poetry (this anthology is so large that it easily accommodates both of Newman’s books in full) maintains d’Arch Smith’s attribution but in an appendix he addresses the question of whether Murray was Newman and makes an attempt at a new attribution to a schoolmaster from Bury St Edmunds.
Sadly, whilst a lot of the attribution makes sense, there is no smoking gun and, perhaps more significantly, no existing evidence that the schoolmaster was ever in contact with or known to any other Uranian.
Newman’s identity is still open to debate, and this is exactly why this group of writers continues to draw interest from antiquarians and collectors today: the sense that there is still more to uncover.
F. E. Murray’s ‘A Catalogue of Books from the Private Library of a Student of Boyhood, Youth and Comradeship,’ in 2010 in een oplage van 50 exemplaren opnieuw uitgegeven door Callum James Books
Diversity And Common Interests
The very large collection that Kaylor has put together illustrates that this group were, in style, quite diverse. There is the steamy hot-house verse of the 1890s from Raffalovich whose boys, one imagines, are draped in orchids and sheer chiffon skirts:
“On the flesh of rosy marble
Soft close hair whose gold is curly,
On the lips the laughter’s berry
Opens scarlet, just as merry
As the tuneful voice’s early
Soaring shrill entrancing warble”
Edmund John and the young Digby Mackworth Dolben, who died tragically young, are also in this decadent tradition, but they liked to mix a heady high-Anglicanism into their Greek myths.
There is also a more modern spirit represented in the Socialism of the poet G.D.H. Cole and writers such as William Paine and Edward Carpenter. And then there are the bright and breezy rhythms of E.E. Bradford and the subtle, self-deprecating humour of A. Newman:
The Bath III
As I my Prince’s body rub,
His skin glows white to pink.
All radiant from his morning tub,
As I my Princes body rub,
He cries, “Oh Glory, how you scrub –
I’m not a blooming rink!”
As I my Prince’s body rub,
His skin glows – white to pink!
But behind this diversity of style, a collection such as this also asks questions about what these voices have in common. Kaylor’s achievement in anthologising so much Uranian poetry and prose has been to throw a spotlight on the inevitable disappointment in these men’s lives.
Uranian poetry is a literature of longing: for a beautiful, untouchable boy; for an unattainable love; for a Platonic ideal of erotic friendship; for the perceived perfection of all youth, and its transience; indeed for the writers’ own youth. Ultimately it is a longing for healing and wholeness which, in some almost mystical way, can only be accomplished for these gentle but sometimes strange and damaged men, by meditation on the image of The Boy.
Callum James is a bookseller, publisher and literary detective living and working in Portsmouth. He has an abiding interest in Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe) and more broadly in gay literature and the more obscure byways of literature from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
He has written for “The Independent,” “The Guardian,” “Gay Times,” “Attitude” and “Wormwood.” He regularly posts new entries on his blog Front Free Endpaper (http://callumjames.blogspot.com). Information about his publishing activities can be found on www.callumjamesbooks.com.
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Lad's Love - Troubled Souls And Their Chaste Longing For The Beautiful, Untoucha