Early 20th Century Literary Queer Love-In

T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, laughed at [E M Forster’s “The Life To Come”] – a reaction that puzzles [Oliver Stallybrass] as much as it puzzled Forster – and was perhaps lucky*, three years later, to be shown ‘Dr Woolacott’. This, by way of contrast, he considered ‘the most powerful thing I ever read … more charged with the real high explosive than anything I’ve ever met yet’; […] I have already quoted T. E. Lawrence’s remarkable encomium of ‘Dr Woolacott’; and, although the story’s fascination for T. E. tells us more, perhaps, about his powerfully developed death-with than about its own intrinsic quality […]

—  Oliver Stallybrass, introduction to The Life to Come and Other Stories by E. M. Forster.

File under “intersections between my favourite historigays”, next to “that time an exasperated Sassoon called T.E. a “tank-vestigating eremite”.

I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket, and then I have wanted to write respectable novels…

— E. M. Forster, Personal memorandum, 1935 (as quoted in the introduction to The Life to Come and Other Stories, pub. Penguin).

One thing I am noticing in my laid-back holidaying in the queer society of the early 20th Century is that, while shut up together as universally ‘perverse’, homosexuality and sadomasochistic leanings were allowed a greater degree of crossover between them; in that it was equally condemnable to want to be buggered as beaten by a chap, so that once one was already a transgressor as a homosexual, there was little shame or condemnation left for the other vice.

It seems that as we edge closer to the acceptance of homosexuality as “normal” (scare quotes because really the concept of normal is stupid), the more shedding of this association in popular consciousness occurs. The end goal, indeed, seems to be to shove “undesirable” sexuality out of queerness in order to give queerness a boost toward the “desirable”. I don’t think that process is complete yet; certainly “perversity” seems to have a slightly better reception in queer circles than in straight ones – indeed during my brief and irritating time going to scene parties in Brighton confirmed the idea that it was seen as far cooler to be blasé about people’s sexual practices (known or rumoured) than it was to be scandalised by them, which was more often the case with the self-professed “liberal” London Goth Scene (or at least, the heterosexual parts thereof).

But I do find it interesting that Forster bundles up his desire to be “loved by” and “even hurt by” his fictitious young man of the working classes into one package. Whether one argues it as the physical interpretation of both “loved” and “hurt” (sex, and masochism) or the emotional (romantic attachment, and heartbreak), it seems he associates the two things closely with each other and looks to embrace them both. In the sexual sense this is a difficult conclusion for people to reach unaided now; in the romantic sense it borders on the chivalric and certainly demonstrates an understanding of how love affairs are prone to work (as one would expect from a good novelist: spend long enough looking at human nature for the purposes of reproducing it and one is bound to acquire a certain amount of insight into the natural course of love).

In the prelude to reading the slightly-larger-than-sane pile of biographies of Forster I seem to have accidentally acquired (and later, no doubt, returning to the increasing mound of Lawrence biographies, all of which are endearingly ancient bindings and smell irresistibly of second-hand-book-shop, a heady perfume of dust, vanilla, leather, decaying canvas, and ink), I can make all kinds of assumptions about how Forster felt about his romantic & sexual identity, and no doubt in the aftermath of the same I shall continue to wonder, since none of us can actually know.

But on the basis that he wrapped up pain and love into one inextricable package, I am fond of who I think he might be.


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