Sodom on the Thames

Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times

MORRIS B. KAPLAN
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7zdzg
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  • Book Info
    Sodom on the Thames
    Book Description:

    Sodom on the Thames looks closely at three episodes involving sex between men in late-nineteenth-century England. Morris Kaplan draws on extensive research into court records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal correspondence and diaries, even a pornographic novel. He focuses on two notorious scandals and one quieter incident.

    In 1871, transvestites "Stella" (Ernest Boulton) and "Fanny" (Frederick Park), who had paraded around London's West End followed by enthusiastic admirers, were tried for conspiracy to commit sodomy. In 1889-1890, the "Cleveland Street affair" revealed that telegraph delivery boys had been moonlighting as prostitutes for prominent gentlemen, one of whom fled abroad. In 1871, Eton schoolmaster William Johnson resigned in disgrace, generating shockwaves among the young men in his circle whose romantic attachments lasted throughout their lives. Kaplan shows how profoundly these scandals influenced the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and contributed to growing anxiety about male friendships.

    Sodom on the Thames reconstructs these incidents in rich detail and gives a voice to the diverse people involved. It deepens our understanding of late Victorian attitudes toward urban culture, masculinity, and male homoeroticism. Kaplan also explores the implications of such historical narratives for the contemporary politics of sexuality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6582-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. EROS IN THE ARCHIVES: AN INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-10)

    “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?” This well-worn comeon was not redeemed by the fact that it was a question addressed to me—by me. It kept going through my head as I almost compulsively traversed the circuit, sometimes returning to the same venue four or five days in a given week. This went on for almost ten years. I was drawn back to London every summer, occasionally during term breaks, and for two sabbatical leaves. What was it that had such a powerful hold on me? Nothing in my background had prepared me...

  4. PROLOGUE: A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
    (pp. 11-18)

    In the spring of 1865, the twenty-five-year-old John Addington Symonds had moved to London with his bride of some months and was living on Albion Street near Hyde Park. Walking home from an evening out with friends, Symonds passed through an alley that joined Trafalgar Square with Leicester Square and that took him past some barracks. Wearing evening dress, Symonds was approached by a “young grenadier” who spoke to him:

    I was too innocent, strange as this may seem, to guess what he meant. But I liked the man’s looks, felt drawn toward him, and did not refuse his company....

  5. PART ONE: SEX IN THE CITY
    (pp. 19-101)

    The presence in London of sites where men looking for sex with other men might congregate was not new in the 1860s. However, this underworld might have become more easily accessible to men such as Symonds who did not set out deliberately in search of it. This enhanced visibility reflected both the proliferation of urban forms of life and the emergence of a heightened consciousness of erotic possibility among middle-class men. Symonds’s narrative of his encounters unsettles any easy division between private and public domains: the urban landscape he charts is at once personal fantasy and social reality. Occasionally, the...

  6. PART TWO: LOVE STORIES
    (pp. 102-165)

    West of London along the Thames lies Eton College, perhaps the premier “public” school in England. In 1872, William Johnson, one of its most distinguished teachers, resigned his post under a cloud of suspicion. Rumor had it that his love for his pupils had got him into trouble, but they rallied around to help him through difficult times. Friendships between the teacher and his students, and among the students themselves, lasted for the rest of their lives. These lives were marked by the continuing importance of love between men. Scandals at school did not often make the newspapers. Troublesome boys...

  7. PART THREE: WEST END SCANDALS
    (pp. 166-223)

    In the flyleaf of his journals for the years 1886–1890, Regy Brett would later write: “All politics—mainly the Home Rule imbroglio. Then the disastrous year 1890 with the scandals that overwhelmed poor P. the Baring smash the fate of Parnell.” His entry of November 5, 1890, reveals a more personal aspect of the scandals: “From June 1889 onwards, certain events in connection with a great sorrow to a personal friend and his unfortunate family, occupied nearly all my time. They ended disastrously for all concerned in the closing months of last year. The worry of them was maintained...

  8. PART FOUR: WILDE’S TIME
    (pp. 224-251)

    Some might say that the West End scandals culminated with the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Nothing in the historical record links Wilde or his friends to the house on Cleveland Street, but a hostile reviewer in 1890 already had sex scandal in mind when he suggested that The Picture of Dorian Gray was fit only for “outlawed noblemen and perverted delivery boys.”¹ When Wilde was finally driven to take legal action against the Marquess of Queensberry, he confronted charges of sexual misconduct linking him to male prostitutes and petty criminals who inhabited a demimonde similar to that exposed...

  9. EPILOGUE: “SEX-MANIA”
    (pp. 252-264)

    Reynolds’s Newspaper, which had covered the earlier scandals extensively from a radical republican viewpoint, devoted several front-page commentaries to the Wilde trials and opened their correspondence columns to wide-ranging debate. From the beginning, they linked the scandal to broader social tendencies, not only aestheticism but also male prostitution, “immorality in public schools,” and “sex-mania.” The editorials and correspondence reiterate themes that cut across the central episodes in this book, while also introducing for the first time an explicit antifeminism and terms of the “new sexology.” In “The Notorious Mr. Wilde,” the paper telegraphs its major concerns. Wilde’s position as writer...

  10. TELLING TALES: SOME CONCLUSIONS
    (pp. 265-270)

    This project was initially animated by questions in queer theory, particularly those that arise from recent efforts to “historicize” sexuality, to situate forms of desire and their expression within specific cultural contexts at definite periods of time. Those questions may have been eclipsed by the extended narratives that make up this book. As I argued in the introduction, the turn to storytelling does not entail ignorance of the discursive constraints and institutional contexts against which individual lives and relationships are played out. I have tried to display concretely the vicissitudes of same-sex desire among groups of men in a particular...

  11. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 271-274)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 275-298)
  13. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
    (pp. 299-304)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 305-314)