Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford

Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford

Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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    Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford
    Book Description:

    In April 1895, Oscar Wilde stood in the prisoner's dock of the Old Bailey, charged with "acts of gross indecency with another male person. These filthy practices, the prosecutor declared, posed a deadly threat to English society, "a sore which cannot fail in time to corrupt and taint it all." Wilde responded with a speech of legendary eloquence, defending love between men as a love "such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare." Electrified, the spectators in the courtroom burst into applause.

    Although Wilde was ultimately imprisoned, the courtroom response to his speech signaled a revolutionary moment-the emergence into the public sphere of a kind of love that had always been proscribed in English culture. In this luminous work of intellectual history, Linda Dowling offers the first detailed account of Oxford Hellenism, the Victorian philosophical and literary movement that made possible Wilde's brief triumph and anticipated the modern possibility of homosexuality as a positive social identity.

    A homosocial culture and a language of moral legitimacy for homosexuality emerged, Dowling argues, as unforeseen consequences of Oxford University reform. Through their search in Plato and Greek literature for a transcendental value that might substitute for a lost Christian theology, such liberal reformers as Benjamin Jowett unintentionally created a cultural context in which male love-the "spiritual procreancy" celebrated in Plato'sSymposium-might be both experienced and justified in ideal terms. Dowling traces the institutional career of Hellenism from its roots in Oxford reform through its blossoming in an approach to Greek studies that came to operate as a code for homosexuality. Recreating the incidents, controversies, and scandals that heralded the growth of Hellenism, Dowling provides a new cultural and theoretical context within which to read writers as diverse as Wilde, Jowett, John Addington Symonds, Walter Pater, Lord Alfred Douglas, Robert Buchanan, and W. H. Mallock.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6874-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    Linda Dowling
    (pp. 1-31)

    In the final week of April 1895 Oscar Wilde stood in the prisoner’s dock of the Old Bailey, charged, in the dry words of the indictment, with “acts of gross indecency with another male person” committed “against the peace of our said Lady the Queen her Crown and dignity” ( Hyde, Trials 179). The prosecutor for the Crown explained to the jury in more vivid terms just what this meant: Wilde and his co-defendant had joined in an “abominable traffic” in which young men were induced to engage in “giving their bodies, or selling them, to other men for the...

    (pp. 32-66)

    The most memorable figure of J. A. Symonds’s Oxford career, the man he met weekly for almost two years, and into whose beloved presence he never stepped without acute emotion, was Benjamin Jowett, Tutor of Balliol and Regius Professor of Greek. As Jowett supervised the younger man’s preparation for the crucial final honors examination in classical philosophy and history, the course of study known at Oxford asLiterae humaniaresor Greats, Symonds found himself by turns crushed and uplifted by the intense experience of these tutorials, “feeling myself indescribably stupid, and utterly beneath my own high level,” as he recalled, “but quitting...

    (pp. 67-103)

    Preparing for a reading assignment in Plato’sApologyduring his final year at Harrow, J. A. Symonds “stumbled upon” two other dialogues, thePhaedrusand theSymposium. The accident transformed his life. “Here in thePhaedrusand theSymposium,” as he was to recall thirty years later, “I discovered the trueliber amorisat last, the revelation I had been waiting for” (Memoirs99). Symonds, who had earlier been both a witness to appalling scenes of the rankest schoolboy sex as well as a queasy recipient of unwelcome caresses from his headmaster, now realized that the erotic dream of ideal...

    (pp. 104-154)

    “I rather look upon life as a chamber,” says Mr. Rose in W. H. Mallock’sNew Republic(1877), his voice like a lonely flute, “which we decorate as we would decorate the chamber of the woman or the youth that we love” (21). Mr. Rose’s utterance marks the moment when the sexual ambivalence within Oxford Hellenism, so plausibly depicted by Pater as the very engine of past and future cultural regeneration, is thrust into a scandalous visibility upon the national stage. For Mr. Rose, as contemporary readers were at once aware, is Pater, and if Pater and his notions of...

    (pp. 155-168)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 169-173)