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Gay News : Publications : Issue 293 : Antoine and Camille, Gay sex in the Napoleonic Era - part 2

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Antoine and Camille, Gay sex in the Napoleonic Era - part 2

by Caspar Wintermans in History & Politics , 02 februari 2016


What do a barrister, an actress, the virtuous, sensitive housewife, the courtesan, the sanctimonious lady, the shop keeper, the woman farmer, and the shoe polisher have in common? A chronicler asked himself this question in 1801, when the economy in consular France revived. The answer: they read - no, they devour - novels (the sanctimonious lady in secret). The supply of novels saw a strong increase; the book trade had become a goldmine, also because of the lending libraries that were springing up everywhere. They brought the novel in reach of those with less capital, as books were expensive. Only the rich could afford them, and they had their octavos and duodecimos beautifully bound. Mr Average had to settle for a more austere edition of his easy reading.

And let’s add another category to the above list of literature lovers, a minority that was usually at a loss about themselves and would hardly ever dare to tell their mothers and fathers that they were not cut out to become mothers or fathers - the lesbians and homosexuals who were born around 1785 and were yearning for a same-sex partner.

What could they read about their desires in the novels from their era? Not a lot, as the theme was hardly ever dealt with. Only a handful of writers was addressing the theme, and usually indirectly.


Depraved Beings

“La Religieuse” by Denis Diderot had already been written in 1760, but was only published in 1796, after the author’s death. The story of Suzanne Simonin, a bastard child that was forced by her biological mother and her husband to enter a convent, is seen as atheist propaganda. But this is somewhat simplistic. The heroin, who describes her life in a long letter to a potential well-doer, is not in conflict with God, but with His staff. She reaches the conclusion that it is simple to enter a convent but hard to leave one, even though it should be the other way round. Her report of the bullying and physical abuse she has to undergo because of her rebellion, was welcomed in secularised France. In 1825, the novel was placed on the index by the police force of conservative king Charles X.

For our purpose, the episodes inside the convent of Sainte-Eutrope are of importance. The abbess of the convent is a bit strange, Suzanne thinks. She cannot sit still, scratches herself, and even crosses her legs. That can be regular male behavior, but certainly not in a woman! The response of this abbess looking at a sister undressing for castigation does not benefit discipline. Extremely touched, she kisses the forehead, eyes, shoulders and mouth of the sister concerned, and the abbess praises her soft, white skin and her firm breasts.

The whip never comes out. Suzanne also thinks it’s strange that Mother Superior, delighted about her harpsichord play, caresses and kisses her. Even when this hugging increases and the abbess has an orgasm - Diderot’s writing leaves no doubt about this — our heroin still doesn’t get that this “abominable” lady is in love with her. Not until her confessor, from whom she hides nothing, warns her about such intimacies. The abbess admits she is no good (“I am doomed...”) and dies in fear of hell and damnation. No, Diderot, enlightenment philosopher and one of the initiators of the “Encyclopédie,” paints an extremely dark portrait of a “dyke.”

The publication of “Les Liaisons dangereuses” (1782), the masterpiece of Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos, caused a real sensation. It is about a conspiracy by the viscount De Valmont and marquise De Merteuil to ruin innocence, in the person of Cécile de Volanges. They succeed only too well. The marquise, one of the scariest female figures in French literature, pretends to be the confidante of a girl. She gets the girl so inflamed at a tête-à-tête through lascivious talk that in her arms, Cécile totally forgets all about her betrothed cavalier Danceny.

“That precious girl is truly most charming!,” marquise De Merteuil reports later. Laclos is expressing himself very discretely. Not a cross word is spoken, but the suggestion, and therefore the desired effect, is powerful. In a luxury edition of the novel from 1796, Cécile was depicted in a lesbian setting. But also in this book, a woman (also) loving women is depicted as a perverse, depraved being.



‘Shameless Satyrs’

Just like Choderlos de Laclos, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard also chose the form of an epistolary novel that was published anonymously in 1802: “Héliogabale, ou Esquisse morale de la dissolution romaine sous les empereurs.” Actually, it can hardly be called a novel. The strict republican author’s intention was to express his ideas on the ideal regime. The fact that he was expressing such negative sentiments about absolute monarchy and the corruption and moral degradation that ensued, can be called ironic in retrospect. For two years later, Napoleon placed the emperor’s crown on his own head.

Heliogabalus is unworthy wearing the purple. The “good ones” agree on this. They consider his marriage to the charioteer Hierocles the pinnacle of aberration.

“The most obscene lust ruled the festivities, in which its already loose nature was characterized by all excesses of the dirtiest fantasies. They went ahead and did it all over again, the excesses of Dionysian and Priapic rites.
In imitation of the priests of Attis and forgetting his gender, the emperor is dressed in a long women’s gown that drags along the ground. [...] His weak steps, his feminine posture, the sound of his voice, which he softens by talking as if he has some porridge in his mouth, everything about him reveals the priestess of Venus. [...] He is overwhelmed by the charms [of Hierocles], and even more by his talent for lechery.
Yes, the tyrant wallows in the mire of the filthiest lust, sinking lower than animals.”

The historic sources of these scenes are given by the erudite Chaussard as footnotes. The reader is also informed about the homosexual activities of bisexual Julius Caesar, “the husband of all women, and the wife of all husbands.” Even though the moral intent is abundantly clear - Heliogabalus is not presented as a role model and dies horribly - the reviewer of the “Mercure de France” expressed serious concerns. He found keeping quiet about “pederasty” preferable over mentioning it, even in terms of disapproval.

Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Choudard Desforges certainly didn’t have a moralist reputation. He was an actor, and actors then were known as debauchees. He was also a play write and novelist. His autobiography, “Le Poète, ou Mémoires d’un homme de lettres écrits par lui-même” (1798), is entertaining prose, in which he discusses his countless affairs with pretty girls (the details would even make a prostitute blush, a journalist thundered), but even Desforges thought there were limits. To save his readers from having “convulsions of indignation,” he didn’t dwell on the “filthy orgies” these “shameless satyrs” celebrated at boarding schools for boys.

“Flee far away from me, modern Ganymedes and Gitons, equals of Encolpius and Ascyltos, flee forever. I will not dishonor my brush by condemning it to depict your unimaginable excesses and your repulsive and artificial pleasures. Enough other painters, not worthy of a mention, have stained canvasses with outrageous and inexcusable obscenities.” Desforges knew his classics; Giton, Encolpius and Ascyltos appear in Petronius’ “Satyricon,” which was published in a new translation in 1802. An attack on morality was how it was described by “Journal des débats et des décrets”...


Foreign Phenomenon

The view that homosexuality is a phenomenon that isn’t typically French is vented in the work of the funny Élisabeth-Marie Guénard, baroness de Méré, one of the most productive authors of this era. In “Zulmée, ou la Veuve ingénue” (1800) Michaello from Rome follows the heroine to Paris where he becomes a general practitioner. Fascinated by Zulmée, he is immune to the art of temptation by his female patients, who tend to draw the conclusion that their handsome doctor is “Italian” in the “adverse” meaning of the word.

Also in “L’Abbaye de Saint-Rémy, ou la Fille de l’abbesse” (1807), Madame Guénard makes a connection between Michaello’s fatherland and same-sex love. At night, predatory female Adrienne is harassed by an intruder she takes, in the dark, for a lady. “Are we in Italy?,” she wonders. False alarm, the visitor is a gentleman.

One only found practicing homosexuals in erotic novels, where they usually had to endure a lot of criticism by the heterosexual characters. Take “Félicia, ou Mes fredaines” by André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat for example, which appeared in 1775 and was continuously reprinted, sometimes in illustrated editions. The report Monrose gives of his adventures at boarding school to the narrator is quite extensive - and recorded assuming the narrator would be glued to it -, but is immediately followed by a blatant condemnation of the seduction attempts the boy was exposed to by his teachers and comrades.

In a later chapter during lovemaking, Monrose and his mistress get unwanted company in the person of Lord Kinston (a foreigner!), inflamed by “the divine and attractive behind mother nature bestowed upon Monrose.” Kinston’s intention to fuck it is foiled by violent resistance from its owner, after which the threesome falls from the bed, rolling over the floor. A burlesque scene.


Bedroom Philosophy

One of the few fictive heterosexuals who could muster sympathy for “sodomites,” speaks out in 1795. Cavalier de Mirvel does not feel insulted when a man wants to sleep with him: “‘The ridiculous pride of our dandies that think they have to answer such propositions by wild beatings with their cane, is completely strange to me. Does a human being have his urges under control? Is someone saying something unpleasant when he expresses his desire to revel in the body of someone else?

On the contrary, it is a complement, so why would we insult or mock him? Only fools would do so. A reasonable person would not speak of the subject differently than I. But unfortunately, the world is full of despicable rabble who think that if you offend their honour if you let know that you are interested.’”

This unorthodox point of view was defended in “La Philosophie dans le boudoir,” a work by marquis de Sade. Whether the average homosexual, looking for something to go on, derives support from it is questionable. Sensible observations in the works of this gentleman are always marred by endless passages full of cruelty, murder and manslaughter, something a humanitarian person would not appreciate.

This book was banned in France as well, just as most of the titles mentioned above were. But wasn’t there a single novel a “pederast” in the Napoleonic era could identify with?
Yes, there was.



(To be Continued)








 
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