Charles Upchurch. Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xi + 276 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-25853-2.
Reviewed by Scott de Groot (Queen's University, Kingston)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski
Sex and Conflict in an Age of Reform
In 1833, John Palmer, a working-class constable of London’s recently formed Metropolitan Police, attempted to prosecute a man for propositioning him sexually on a Mayfair street. However, since the accused was Charles Barring Wall, an Oxford-educated Member of Parliament, a jury of propertied gentlemen took mere moments to reach a not-guilty verdict, following a parade of high-society character witnesses at the Court of King’s Bench. Nevertheless, far worse outcomes could befall police functionaries than a mere failure to convict. In 1865, when Constable Teehan proved similarly unable to convince a jury that he witnessed two middle-class men “behaving in the most indecent manner towards each other,” Teehan was reprimanded by the presiding judge, stripped of his blue waistcoat, and tossed out from the Metropolitan Police into the teeming ranks of London’s unemployed (p. 116).
These episodes from Charles Upchurch’s Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform highlight its significance as a study that, without ontological fanfare, decenters sexuality in favor of investigating sex between men as loci of social and cultural conflict from roughly 1820 to 1870. If students of British queer history are familiar with the eighteenth century molly houses and the great legal dramas of the late nineteenth century, scholarship treating the intervening years has been relatively sparse, and Upchurch does an admirable job of bridging the gap in our understanding. Upchurch’s sources--criminal court records, Home Office correspondence, and newspaper articles--furnish rich social history narratives, and demonstrate the considerable extent to which the regulation, accommodation, and meanings of sex between men was fractured by class and gender.
Examining family and community responses, chapter 1 is perhaps the book’s most innovative. More than members of a coherent subculture, men who had sex with men were imbricated in broad social networks of wives, children, siblings, neighbors, friends, and colleagues. While families and communities were not simply accepting or indifferent when learning members had been charged for ‘crimes against nature,’ neither did they instantly ostracize or denounce. Considerable space for reincorporating fallen men back into the family was constituted by forgiveness, social necessity, economic desperation, and affection.
Chapter 2 unpacks the socially fractured meanings of sex between men, and although no class straightforwardly accepted such relations, upper-class men possessed cultural resources for viewing them as amorous conquests or noble bonds. Age differentiated partnerships were by no means unheard of in the working class, and sex motivated by financial gain did not necessarily compromise masculine status. However, with its emphasis on marital domesticity and moral rectitude vis-a-vis the aristocracy, the middle-class was singularly hostile to sex between men. Upchurch also explores the dispersed nature of London’s male sexual geography, as “part of the everyday life of the city,” in a vein that is by now historiographically very familiar; men have long sought “privacy in public,” as George Chauncey put it years ago in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), and as H. G. Cocks (Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century ), Matt Cook (London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 ), and Matt Houlbrook (Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 ) have more recently analyzed in the context of London (p. 76).
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 respectively explore legal reform, newspaper reporting, and the emergence of the London Metropolitan Police. While the revision of sodomy and related laws under the general consolidation of English criminal law in the 1820s and 1830s entailed reduced sentences, an unintended consequence was greater regulation in practice. In a Foucauldian tone, Upchurch detects a shift from “rare but brutal displays of state power upon the body of the convict and toward a system where less severe punishments were implemented with greater frequency and consistency” (p. 83). Under the new regime, false accusations regarding sex between men were punished more severely than the acts themselves, reflecting the importance of masculine honor and reputation for the upper-class men who framed the law.
The same period saw the formation of London’s Metropolitan Police, which was originally unpopular with virtually everybody. Working-class communities wished to retain prerogatives to settle disputes internally. The propertied classes feared the police would menace British liberty by becoming a “despotic ‘system of spies’ on the Continental model,” and naturally mistrusted the rough men who occupied police uniforms, often transiently (pp. 120-122). This led to many failed prosecutions; juries of upper-class gentlemen were suspicious of motives for bringing male sex cases to trial, given widespread practices of bribery, blackmail, and so forth.
Benefiting from electronic databases searchable by keyword, Upchurch also charts the extent to which such arrests and criminal proceedings were covered by London newspapers. From 1820 to 1860, there were over one thousand reports, more than previously assumed, and enough that by mid-century Londoners were assumed to be aware of the crimes reported “in that part of the paper” (p. 16). Considerable similarities in reporting characterized newspapers from across the class spectrum, as the same courtroom accounts were often recycled. But middle-class papers ran the greatest number of reports overall. Upchurch explains this with reference to their editor’s political liberalism, which subordinated moral distaste to the greater good held to derive from objective and holistic reporting.
Chapter 6 examines how laws regulating sex between men were deployed in practice to uphold the class and gender order instead of protecting individuals in general from physical abuse. Women were unable to use sodomy laws to protect their bodies, and it was not the cross-dressing molly or recidivist type that drew the greatest regulatory attention, but men whose relations transgressed lines of class. Here we also encounter most of Upchurch’s attention to race and empire, such as vignettes of an escaped former slave from the West Indies and a diplomatic row over the arrest of a Turkish seaman. However, the discussion does not much fill what seems to me a lacuna regarding the broader ways that the Age of Reform was also very much an Age of Empire.
The book’s conclusion, chapter 7, fits somewhat uneasily with preceding sections. In an eleventh-hour leap, focus shifts from the mid-nineteenth century to its closing years and the terrain of sexology, discourse, and medicine. Seemingly, this is to show that, when class and gender are foregrounded, fin-de-siècle sexological writing constituted less of a break with preceding decades than previously thought, while indeed providing new conceptual resources of subjective identification for men who desired men. Briefer than convincing, the result is a missed opportunity to solidify an analysis of the preceding research, and punctuate the importance that it certainly has.
Before Wilde is above all a social and cultural history, and throughout there emerges a vivid sense of the tremendous upheaval characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century Britain: increasing urbanization, industrialization, dislocation, and threats of political revolution on the one hand, and responses such as legal reform, modernization efforts, and the formation of new state institutions on the other. It is a great virtue that the book historicizes sex between men, not as prefigurations of a sexuality, but rather as refractions of broader social conflicts and cleavages wrought by such momentous change. Perhaps a minor complaint overall, it is unfortunate that we must reflect back on this through the mist of the Foucaultian sexological problematic of acts versus identities, which Sean Brady has demonstrated the major empirical limitations of in the British context, and which in any case has outlived its usefulness as a theoretical problematization, as Michel Foucault himself would no doubt readily admit.
. Sean Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); for Foucault’s emphasis on problematizations, see Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005).
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Scott de Groot. Review of Upchurch, Charles, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform.
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