In Outrages, Naomi Wolf turns her gaze towards Victorian Britain when, she argues, the suppression of homosexuality and strict censorship created the modern concept of homophobia.
The spine of the book is the story of the English poet and critic John Addington Symonds, the subject of Wolf’s doctoral thesis, and she suggests, one of the originators of the modern gay rights movement. Wolf postulates in the book that Symonds lived his life in fear of the possibility of penal servitude or execution.
However within days of publication, Wolf had to admit that she was completely wrong in asserting that dozens of executions for sodomy were carried out at the Old Bailey during the second half of the 19th century. During a BBC interview last week, historian Dr Matthew Sweet forensically challenged Wolf’s assumptions, informing her that the phrase “death recorded”, which she assumed meant execution, actually allowed a judge to abstain from pronouncing a death sentence if a subject was “fit for pardon”. He said he could find no evidence of any executions after 1835.
Sweet also told Wolf that one of those she claimed had been executed had actually been released after two years, and that the case involved indecent assault of a child rather than consensual sex as she had assumed. Wolf and her publishers have promised to correct these specific errors, but Sweet believes her entire use of the Old Bailey records is now flawed.
Wolf is on stronger ground when she traces the impact of the Obscene Publications Act, which was introduced in 1857 after pressure from anti-pornography campaigners. The law applied to material of a nature “calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well regulated mind”, and had particular implications for homosexual writers, and for those who published and sold their work.
Just two years before the Act, Walt Whitman’s seminal Leaves of Grass had been published across the Atlantic. By the time the edition containing the Calamus cycle of poems focusing on love between men was published, it had to be smuggled into Britain. Homosexual love in literature had been driven underground, and a prison term was a real possibility simply for expressing such love on the page.
Wolf’s protagonist Symonds first read Leaves Of Grass after he got married, and after scandals linking him to homosexuality had brought him close to breakdown. Whitman’s poetry, celebrating the natural and the carnal, was a revelation and an inspiration that would sustain Symonds through years of mental torment. The two began an epistolary friendship, which lasted all their lives, during which Whitman too faced censorship as well as penury.
Symonds fell in love several times, and sometimes wrote his poems in “Greek code”, sending them to friends. At times he asked for them back to burn them, or hid them in a black iron box. Despite the risks, Symonds continued to write, publishing a volume of Greek poems, which allowed British schoolboys to read that there had been a civilisation in which men loved men.
In 1881, Symonds fell in love at first sight with a Venetian gondolier and subsequently published what Wolf describes as several “banal” or “trite” poetry collections. But like Symonds himself with his coded pagination, Wolf hints that there was more to these than met the eye.
Along the way, Wolf tells the stories of others who faced homophobic persecution and censorship. Oscar Wilde, who was influenced by Whitman and Symonds, appears too, but the book’s thesis is that the foundations for what happened to him in 1895 were laid in the preceding decades.
Before he died Symonds went into full advocacy mode, publishing an essay “The Problem of Modern Ethics”, which knocked down one fallacious belief after another regarding love and sex between men (Wolf notes that lesbianism doesn’t even get a mention). He had collaborated with Havelock Ellis, whose better known “Sexual Inversion” barely acknowledges the man Wolf believes “helped write a whole new world into being”.
Symonds also left instructions as to how his memoirs should be edited, but he could hardly have imagined that a woman with a doctorate in queer studies, Amber Regis, would be the person to present his story to the world 140 years later. Through the complex clues Symonds left behind, Wolf finally pieces together the true and passionate shape of many of his poems.
“With a kind of mad brilliance,” writes Wolf, “he had created a time capsule or Rubik’s cube, making use of both the present and the future to ensure that future readers could solve the puzzle he had left for them, and thus unlock his truly intended love story.”
In the final chapter Wolf wanders among the Oxford colleges of Symonds and Wilde as they fly rainbow flags, and encounters Whitman’s poetry at the New York Aids memorial, remarking that “without the courage of these lonely souls writing alone, the good things I saw around me would never have been possible”.
A blend of the personal and the political, the legal and the literary, Outrages blazes with passion for those who found a way to express forbidden love despite the risks they ran. It is a real pity that Wolf’s serious research errors will inevitably raise further questions. Readers may be best advised to wait for the next edition. The tale Wolf tells is a compelling one, but if her goal is to set the record straight on the origins of modern homophobia she needs to get it right.