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Fissures within the urban landscape

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

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

Cornell University Press, pp.312, 18.95

Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis Matt Houlbrook

University of Chicago Press, pp.384, 20

Published recently in the Times, William Rees-Mogg’s contention (in a well-meaning if speciously argued piece on the Vatican’s continuing opposition to the ordination of self-confessed homosexuals) that the sexual proclivities of priests attracted to pre-pubertal children was ‘comparable to Oscar Wilde’s relations with London rent boys’ is typical of a fashionable misapprehension which confuses paedophila (as it is currently understood) with the neo-Socratean, hopelessly idealistic conception of paederastia into which Wilde and his associates threw themselves so energetically at the end of the 19th century. As Morris Kaplan so eloquently defines it in his slim but no less esoteric Sodom on the Thames, theirs was a love that combined ‘the passionate devotion and persistent fervour of one, with the forgiving tenderness and self-sacrifice of another’.

Not that this view of ‘the faerie realm of boyhood’ sits any more easily with the far more protectionistically inclined collective consciousness of contemporary society, but neither is this book a paedophile’s charter. Kaplan’s peculiarly tactile dissertation is academically sound — he is a New York trial lawyer — and must be read as entirely representative of its subject’s times and mores.

Even after the incorrigible Eton housemaster Oscar Browning had been banned from seeing (during term time at least) one of his favourite pupils, future viceroy of India George Nathaniel Curzon for developing ‘far too close a personal tie’, the boy’s father Lord Scarborough still felt confident enough to allow Browning and his precious son to take an extended trip to Europe, as he wrote to the old sex pest, ‘… giving you full credit for acting from the purest motive … [one that] … yr sole desire and object has been to elevate … [Curzon’s] … character’.

Oh that the same could be said about Lord Arthur Somerset, who was not quite so lucky when his ‘paederastic’ liaisons with telegraph boys from the Cleveland Street post office blew up in his face in 1889. Nevertheless he did manage to evade arrest by swift egress on the proverbial packet steamer to Boulogne. Despite his sobriquet, ‘Lord Gomorrah’, the unfortunate Somerset apparently never erred again. That didn’t stop ‘Anon’ castigating him in a poem which appeared in the popular press, a vitriolic verse which described how he ‘… thought of the wretched, vulgar tools/Of his faederastian [sic] joy,/How they lay in prison, poor scapegoat fools,/Raw, cash-corrupted boys.’ It seemed there was one law for the rich and another for the poor, and in that respect, with particular regard to the rather drier thrust of Matt Houlbrook’s social history of queerdom, it’s been very much a case of plus

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