Philip Hensher

Love under wraps

Our main sources for this clandestine history are random court cases, which often give a sensational, one-sided view

It’s an important subject: the existence of a permanent and significant minority within London’s life. Gay men and lesbians have always been there, leaving — or taking care not to leave — traces of their existence. But for the historian, a difficulty arises: often the only evidence lies in their occasional brushes with the law. We often know nothing about how gays lived in each other’s company. Letters were destroyed; diaries were scrupulously kept free of anything that could lead to a conviction; and lives were reconstructed around the fictions of a bachelor chambers, or two ladies sharing. How many devoted footmen to bachelor barristers were actually lovers of decades? Everybody involved would have understood that to leave witness to posterity might also mean giving witness to the police courts.

The result is, in individual cases, not a blank but a façade of heterosexuality. Some art historians are still apt to suggest that a figure like John Singer Sargent, who left no trace of a love life apart from a body of rapturous private drawings of a nude lift attendant, Thomas McKeller, is likely to have been heterosexual. Schubert is another case of there being no letters or clear evidence, but just the signs of a covering of traces and, in my view, the ecstatic private expression of what it is to be taken in a man’s arms in the ‘Suleika’ songs. That is not enough for many historians, and lack of evidence is often taken as a positive sign that an individual was, in fact, secretively heterosexual.

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A certain degree of speculation and intuition may always be necessary to have even a glimpse of this hidden society.

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