Contents Index

Toward the Gothic: Terrorism and Homosexual Panic

E. K. Sedgwick

Chapter 5 of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 83-96

{[83]} The century and a half after The Country Wife seems to have been a crucial one for the crystallization in modern terms of the male homosocial spectrum. In Homosexuality in Renaissance England, the most sophisticated work so far in pre-nineteenth-century gay male historiography, Alan Bray dates two related, important developments at around the time of the Restoration: first, the emergence of a distinct gay male sub-culture; second and more importantly for our purposes here, the formulation of a homophobic ideology in terms that were secular and descriptive enough to seem to offer the English public a usable set of cognitive categories for their day-to-day experience. In Bray's account, the oppression of male homosexuality before the late seventeenth century occurred primarily in anathematic theological terms that, absolute and apocalyptic as they were, were difficult for people to apply to the acts they ordinarily performed and perceived. Only after the last quarter of the seventeenth century does he find evidence of (what he calls) legal "pogroms" against whole groups of men, based on their recognized homosexual identity.

It is not that homosexuality was more fiercely disapproved of. There is no evidence whatsoever of any absolute increase in hostility to homosexuality. . . . The change is not absolute but rather in the extent to which people actually came up against that hostility; and the reason for the change is not in the hostility but in its object. There was now a continuing culture to be fixed on and an extension of the area in which homosexuality could be expressed and therefore recognised; clothes, gestures, language, particular buildings and particular public places -- all could be identified as having specifically homosexual connotations.1
{84} Although the actual number of men caught up in the "pogroms" was small compared to the number of men who were probably involved in the new homosexual subculture, Bray describes the legal persecutions as having a disproportionate effect, chilling yet consolidating, on the emergent homosexual identity. The institutional locus of this identity he places in the "molly houses," taverns and places for socializing for gay men. Although the legal "pogroms" had a terroristic intent and effect against the houses, Bray also tries to account for the long stretches during which the houses were allowed to remain open and relatively unmolested.
Effectively, they were tolerated, although in a tense and hostile atmosphere; and that accords ill with the violence and downright savagery of the periodic pogroms. For all the protestations to the contrary, one cannot avoid the conclusion that they served a function wider than the needs of those who took refuge in them: that society, however ambivalent its attitudes, had an interest in them. . . . [T]hey served, in effect, a dual purpose, for they must have restricted the spread of homosexuality at the same time as they secured its presence. To take on a new identity of this kind was a formidable prospect; for some altogether too much. If homosexuality had implications as broad as this, then for many it was not to be. Is the hostile but tangible toleration then so surprising? For the same reason that for some the molly houses provided a solution and a means of escape, for others they effectively closed the door: too much was involved. They thus served the needs of persecutor and persecuted alike.2
Although Bray sees that the society's (limited and marginalizing) tolerance of the molly houses is as important a theoretical question as its (sporadic) persecution of them, his argument is, I think, circumscribed by an implicit assumption that male homosexuality and the European social order are incompatible in essence: that if the regulation of male homosexuality proceeded through the selectivity of terrorism rather than through genocide, that was because the numbers of men involved were simply too great, and because the persecutions tended themselves to solidify the homosexual culture they were aimed at eradicating.
[The mollyhouses] were not difficult to find; and they were vulnerable. Why then be content with containment? Why not pull them up by the roots and have done with them once and for all? That plausible chain of thought was the element of instability, and the result was an uneasy balance between two contradictory responses. It was at just this point that the Societies for the Reformation of Manners had their place; their role was to tip the balance, when they were able, from containment to the pogrom and genocide. Yet {85} ultimately it was a hopeless task. There are times when, if your right hand does offend you, it is not possible to cut it off. This was one of these; for the molly houses were not a finite entity within society that could be cut out: they were a function of society itself. And so when the bloodletting was over, the pressures that had produced the molly houses in the first place began their work again; and once more they appeared and gained a precarious stability until another attempt was made to suppress them. Not only did the intermittent persecutions ultimately fail in their objective; ironically they added steam to the very pressures which were to recreate the molly houses after the overt persecutions had ceased, for it was just such manifest and unavoidable animus that made the molly houses so pressing a necessity.3 [Emphasis mine]
Bray claims to be describing how the molly houses and the emerging male homosexual culture "were a function of society itself." In effect, though, he is describing them in hydraulic terms as alien and inimical "pressures" on the society, or at most as its mere gaseous byproducts, whose impact the society in its own, conservative interests must by definition minimize as much as possible -- whether through eradication (impracticable), suppression (counterproductive), or channelization (relatively effective). Bray's argument at this point is not only less supple than it might be but also somewhat circular, since the "pressures" in Bray's account can only come from a somehow already-constituted homosexual entity, whether social or intrapsychic, while it is just the formation of that entity that he is concerned to describe. He seems to recognize and deprecate this circularity, but his conceptual model does not quite let him dismantle it. In what senses are the mollyhouses "a function of society itself"?

Bray's argument at this point is similar to an argument Jeffrey Weeks elaborates from Mary McIntosh: that the modern "homosexual role"

has two effects: it first helps to provide a clear-cut threshold between permissible and impermissible behaviour; and secondly, it helps to segregate those labelled as "deviants" from others, and thus contains and limits their behaviour pattern.4
Our discussion so far of the importance of male homosocial desire -- the spectrum of male bonds that includes but is not limited to the "homosexual" -- offers, I think, the beginnings of a rather different and more fully dialectical answer to Bray's important question about how the "molly houses" do perform a function for society as a whole. For while male genital homosexuality may or may not be "a function of society itself" -- that is to say, a necessary, noncontingent element in the structure of so- {86} cial continuity and exchange -- it should be clear that the larger category of male homosocial desire does have that signal importance.

Obviously, it is crucial to every aspect of social structure within the exchange-of-women framework that heavily freighted bonds between men exist, as the backbone of social form or forms. At the same time, a consequence of this structure is that any ideological purchase on the male homosocial spectrum -- a (perhaps necessarily arbitrary) set of discriminations for defining, controlling, and manipulating these male bonds -- will be a disproportionately powerful instrument of social control. The importance -- an importance -- of the category "homosexual," I am suggesting, comes not necessarily from its regulatory relation to a nascent or already-constituted minority of homosexual people or desires, but from its potential for giving whoever wields it a structuring definitional leverage over the whole range of male bonds that shape the social constitution.

That said, let me back up a little to clarify. One of the liabilities that goes with Bray's inadvertent reification of "the homosexual" as an already-constituted entity is a set of premature assumptions about the interest that "society" or "the status quo" has in suppressing or controlling it. Thus, even prior to a reification of "the homosexual" there goes a necessary reification of "society" as against it/him. This has a disturbingly functionalist effect on Bray's argument. The mollyhouses, he says, "served the needs of persecutor and persecuted alike"; but since by "persecutor" he evidently does not mean the Societies for the Prevention of Vice, it is not clear what he can mean, except for some tautologically rounded entity that comprises the-interests-that-are-served-by-the-containment-of-homosexuality. It is clear, however, that we are meant to read this entity as coextensive with "the powers that be," "the status quo," or some similarly static and totalizing description of the social constitution. And how could such an entity, described in such a way, not have some purposes that could be served by the containment of male homosexuality?

The pull toward functionalist tautology is probably inevitable in history written from the point of view of oppressed groups -- not least in the present study. We can, however, at least specify, for the formulation above, that the power of cognitively dividing and hence manipulating the male homosocial spectrum must itself always be understood to be an object of struggle, not something that resides passively in a reified "status quo." Within any "status quo," even among the more privileged constituents of it, a competition of interests will lead to competing models and formu- {87} lations of ideologically important social nodes. And while the consequences of the entire process can therefore not be what any single interest "had in mind," the resultant space of power -- perhaps even the vacuum of power -- then powerfully invites appropriation by interests that are themselves consequently reshaped by their inclusion of it.

Thus, to describe a repressive recuperation of new social or technological developments does not require a conspiracy theory, a fantasy of omniscience or omnipotence about a particular party or interest. Neither, though, does it require an equally totalizing refusal to consider the separate interests of separate constituencies. Bray follows Foucault in, as it were, anthropomorphizing as a single organism the entire body of society (excluding, in Bray's case, the objects of homophobic oppression), as an alternative to the vulgar plural anthropomorphizations of conspiracy theory. Foucault, perhaps unlike Bray, realizes that the functionalist tautologies of explanation are not to be opened out through this strategy, and so to a large extent simply suspends the category of "explanation." Bray rightly declines to follow Foucault in such an expensive move; but by acceding to a premature and narrowed-down view of the scope of the social effects of homophobia, he perpetuates rather than dismantles the not-very-explanatory opposition of "society" as against "the homosexual."

In fact, once the secularization of terms that Bray incisively traces began to make "the homosexual" available as a descriptive category of lived experience, what had happened was not only that the terms of a newly effective minority oppression had been set, but that a new and immensely potent tool had become available for the manipulation of every form of power that was refracted through the gender system -- that is, in European society, of virtually every form of power. Not being the creation of any one agency in the society, this tool -- the ability, to set proscriptive and descriptive limits to the forms of male homosocial desire -- became the object of competition among those who wished to wield it, as well as an implement of oppression against those whose practices it at a given time proscribed. What modern European-style homophobia delineates is thus a space, and perhaps a mechanism, of domination, rather than the agency or motivation or political thrust of that domination. So far as it is possible to do so without minimizing the specificity and gravity of European homosexual oppression and identity, it is analytically important to remember that the domination offered by this strategy is not only over a minority population, but over the bonds that structure all social form.

{88} If we see homophobia as a mechanism for regulating the behavior of the many by the specific oppression of a few, then we are in a better position to consider the question set by Bray. How, he asks, given a virulently homophobic public ideology, are we to account for the many episodes of calm, for the relative continuity, actually enjoyed by most of the molly houses most of the time? Or to extend the question to a broader one about modern European-style homophobia: what does it mean -- whom may it benefit -- when the oppression of homosexual men has a marginal, terroristic, synecdochic structure rather than a wholesale, genocidal, literalizing one?

In linking the descriptions "terroristic" and "synecdochic" here, I am describing a relation of part to whole that is, constitutively, unstable and unascertainable. The terrorism of the lynch mob would not have been a potent weapon if the Black Americans claiming their rights and freedoms had known, not only that some proportion of them would be murdered, but which ones. The genocidal "solution" was never possible in the American South because the struggle was, precisely, over the control of labor power: only the specifically disproportionate effect of terrorism, made possible by the randomness of the violence, gave the needed leverage without destroying the body on which it was to work.

European society may or may not have actually "needed" for there to be homosexual men. What it did need or, to put it less functionalistically, what its constituent interests found many ways to use -- was a disproportionate leverage over the channels of bonding between all pairs of men. To maintain such a disproportionate leverage, however, requires that shows of power be unpredictable and in an unstable relation to the "crime" that is ostensibly being regulated. (For example, even though rape was the pretext for the lynchings of Black men in the American South, fewer than a third of the men lynched were even accused of rape. And this gap between the rationalization of terrorist acts and their actual execution was not an obstacle to, but an important part of, their efficacy as terrorism.)

For the elaboration of secular power over male bonds, then, it made sense that the molly-house persecutions be pogromlike in nature, that the distinctly homosexual man not know whether or not to expect to be an object of legalized violence. But a subtler, answering strategy was also called for, complementary to this one, to consolidate control over the bonds of men who were not part of the distinctly homosexual subculture. Not only must homosexual men be unable to ascertain whether they are to be the objects of "random" homophobic violence, but no man must be able {89} to ascertain that he is not (that his bonds are not) homosexual. In this way, a relatively small exertion of physical or legal compulsion potentially rules great reaches of behavior and filiation.

The repeated verb "must" in the last paragraph flirts in a now-familiar fashion with the functionalism we just discussed. (It is a more forceful form of the shadowy, ominous "It is no accident. . . .") Again, though, what we are describing is a space or mechanism of potential power; to activate it does require a manipulation of the pincers movement sketched in the last paragraph; this activation has been performed or attempted repeatedly in different interests in the last three centuries of European and American culture; and, ideological processes being as past-dependent and structurally conservative as they are (see Introduction iii), the result has been a structural residue of terrorist potential, of blackmailability, of Western maleness through the leverage of homophobia.

So-called "homosexual panic" is the most private, psychologized form in which many twentieth-century western men experience their vulnerability to the social pressure of homophobic blackmail; even for them, however, that is only one path of control, complementary to public sanctions through the institutions described by Foucault and others as defining and regulating the amorphous territory of "the sexual." (As we have seen, and will discuss further in chapter 8, the exact amorphousness of the body of "the sexual" is where its political power resides, in a sexually repressive modern context.)

From this point of view, another phenomenon that begins to make sense in a new way is the tendency toward important correspondences and similarities between the most sanctioned forms of male-homosocial bonding, and the most reprobated expressions of male homosexual sociality. To put it in twentieth-century American terms, the fact that what goes on at football games, in fraternities, at the Bohemian Grove, and at climactic moments in war novels can look, with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly "homosexual," is not most importantly an expression of the psychic origin of these institutions in a repressed or sublimated homosexual genitality.5 Instead, it is the coming to visibility of the normally implicit terms of a coercive double bind.6 (It might be compared to the double bind surrounding rape that imprisons American women: to dress and behave "attractively," i.e., as prescribed, is always also to be "asking for it.") For a man to be a man's man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being "interested in men." Those terms, those congruences are by now endemic and {90} perhaps ineradicable in our culture. The question of who is to be free to define, manipulate, and profit from the resultant double bind is no less a site of struggle today than in the eighteenth century, however.

It is perhaps a truism by now that a major thrust of the male gay movement throughout its history has been, not so much to redefine "the homosexual," but to assume or resume some control over the uses and consequences of historically residual definitions. (Consider, for instance, the controversial position of drag, of camp, of outrageousness, in gay politics since Stonewall.7) The struggle within "conservative" politics -- say, within the Republican party, between its "moral majority" and capitalist constituencies -- over how, how pointedly, and for what ends to exploit the residual shapes of American homophobia and homosociality is equally agonistic, but less public.

The present study is concerned, not distinctively with homosexual experience, but with the shape of the entire male homosocial spectrum, and its effects on women. Historiographers of male homosexuality are, as we have seen, already exploring the nature, development, and effects of the active persecutions directed against institutions and members of the emergent subculture; our own emphasis will be on the mechanisms, the ideological tentacles into their own lives, by which nonhomosexual-identified men were subject to control through homophobic blackmailability.

This chapter and the next will discuss the Gothic novel as an important locus for the working-out of some of the terms by which nineteenth- and twentieth-century European culture has used homophobia to divide and manipulate the male-homosocial spectrum. To view the Gothic in this light is to some extent consistent with the "common sense" of modern criticism of the Gothic, which typically views it as an exploration of "the perverse." When I began to read Gothic novels, as an undergraduate, it was because they had an alluring reputation for decadence. Decadence is a notably shifty idea,8 but clearly its allure to the middle-class adolescent lies in its promise of initiatory shortcuts to the secret truths of adulthood. The secrets of sexuality are represented by practices (most explicitly, incest and rape) that run counter to the official version. In a close relation with these, the secrets of class are represented in decadent literature by elements of the bourgeoisie that can dissociate themselves from the productive modes of their class and, by learning to articulate an outdated version of aristocratic values, can seem to offer some critique of -- some ready leverage on -- the bourgeois official culture.

Even beyond the allure of decadence to the naive and ambitious reader, {91} though, the Gothic makes a teasing proffer of insight into important historical questions. Within the historical frame of the Industrial Revolution, the Gothic is preoccupied with dramatizing versions of the mutual reappraisal of the middle and upper classes. The ties of the Gothic novel to an emergent female authorship and readership have been a constant for two centuries, and there has been a history of useful critical attempts to look to the Gothic for explorations of the position of women in relation to the changing shapes of patriarchal domination.9 A less obvious point has to do with the reputation for "decadence": the Gothic was the first novelistic form in England to have close, relatively visible links to male homosexuality, at a time when styles of homosexuality, and even its visibility and distinctness, were markers of division and tension between classes as much as between genders.

Notoriously, as well, the Gothic seems to offer a privileged view of individual and family psychology. Certain features of the Oedipal family are insistently foregrounded there: absolutes of license and prohibition, for instance; a preoccupation with possibilities of incest; a fascinated proscription of sexual activity; an atmosphere dominated by the threat of violence between generations. Even the reader who does not accept the Oedipal family as a transhistorical given can learn a lot from the Gothic about the terms and conditions under which it came to been forced as a norm for bourgeois society. Indeed, traces of the Gothic are ubiquitous in Freud's writing, and not only in literary studies like "The 'Uncanny'" or "Delusion and Dream"; it is not surprising, though maybe circular, that psychoanalysis should be used as a tool for explicating these texts that provided many of its structuring metaphors.

Particularly relevant for the Gothic novel is the perception Freud arrived at in the case of Dr. Schreber: that paranoia is the psychosis that makes graphic the mechanisms of homophobia. In our argument about the Gothic in the next chapter, we will not take Freud's analysis on faith, but examine its grounds and workings closely in a single novel. To begin with, however, it is true that the limited group of fictions that represent the "classic" early Gothic contains a large subgroup -- Caleb Williams, Frankenstein, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, probably Melmoth, possibly The Italian -- whose plots might be mapped almost point for point onto the case of Dr. Schreber: most saliently, each is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male. If we follow Freud in hypothesizing that such a sense of persecution represents the fearful, phan- {92} tasmic rejection by recasting of an original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire, then it would make sense to think of this group of novels as embodying strongly homophobic mechanisms. (This is not to say that either the authors [as distinct from the characters], or the overall cultural effects of the novels, were necessarily homophobic, but merely that through these novels a tradition of homophobic thematics was a force in the development of the Gothic.)

At the same time, for a group of authors (Walpole, Beckford, Lewis) of other classic early Gothic novels, not novels of paranoia in this rigid sense, a case can be made about each that he was in some significant sense homosexual -- Beckford notoriously, Lewis probably, Walpole iffily. Beckford was hounded out of England in 1785 over charges involving a younger man, and had other more readily verifiable passions for young men as well. Different writers about "Monk" Lewis attach different degrees of belief to reports (such as Byron's) that Lewis had "male-loves"; Louis F. Peck, a careful, conservative biographer, seems to find Byron's account plausible although "impossible to confirm or disprove," and elsewhere in the biography includes apparently supporting evidence without comment. About Walpole, his archivist Wilmarth Lewis simply concludes that no "proof" of "'overt behavior'" "has come to light."10 A stigma, sometimes an honorific one, of "decadence" and "obliquity" that settled over the genre owed much more to these three figures than to the other five, at any rate. The Gothic novel crystallized for English audiences the terms of a dialectic between male homosexuality and homophobia, in which homophobia appeared thematically in paranoid plots. Not until the late-Victorian Gothic did a comparable body of homosexual thematics emerge clearly, however. In earlier Gothic fiction, the associations with male homosexuality were grounded most visibly in the lives of a few authors, and only rather sketchily in their works.

One of the concerns of Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England is to dispute the stereotype conveyed by historians such as Lawrence Stone11 as well as by popular literature -- linking English male homosexuality, or at any rate the emergence of a male homosexual subculture, to the aristocracy. On Bray's evidence, the molly houses were frequented by a strikingly wide social spectrum of Englishmen. On the other hand, it seems to be true that the line between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, practically undermined and yet ideologically hypostasized as it was at the end of the eighteenth century, was an important fault line for, among other things, the apportionment of knowledge and perceptions about the shape {93} of the male homosocial spectrum. For example, the conservative uses of visibility and invisibility differ strikingly across class lines: of Walpole, whose life was staggeringly well-documented, we cannot tell how far he was homosexual, because of the close protective coloration given by the aristocratic milieu. Of Beckford we know on the whole much less, but his homosexuality was a public scandal -- a scandal created, and periodically revived, to keep his newly rich family from a peerage!

At the same time, creators of ideological meanings for the bourgeoisie were, as we saw in the last chapter, busily constructing a view of the social world in which the English class system was shaped like an Oedipal family, with the aristocracy acting the role of parents whose fate it was to be both overthrown and subsumed. An important, recurrent, wishful gesture of this ideological construction was the feminization of the aristocracy as a whole, by which not only aristocratic women (as in Sterne), but the abstract image of the entire class, came to be seen as ethereal, decorative, and otiose in relation to the vigorous and productive values of the middle class. (As I will discuss in chapters 7 and 8, this mapping of the "feminine" onto the"aristocratic" represented a distinctive moment in the ideology of femininity, as well; it is important to keep emphasizing, in this discussion of the mutual mapping of gender and class ideologies, that the meanings of the gender and familial terms are as historically contingent as those of the class terms.)

If we look at the history of distinctively homosexual roles in England, we find that something recognizably related to one modern stereotype of male homosexuality has existed since at least the seventeenth century -- at least for aristocrats. The cluster of associations about this role (the King James Version?) include effeminacy, connoisseurship, high religion, and an interest in Catholic Europe -- all links to the Gothic. (If this culture is distinct from, or only partially overlaps with, the homosexual culture associated by Bray with the molly houses, that may be accounted for by the English focus of his inquiry; mobility and internationalism being among the things that most readily distinguished the English aristocracy from their compatriots.) This stereotype is not very different, of course, from a more broadly applicable aristocratic stereotype, at least as viewed by the bourgeoisie. The stylistic links between Lord Alfred Douglas and a heterosexual Regency rake would have been much stronger than those between Douglas and nineteenth-century middle-class homosexuals like the Housmans, or Edward Carpenter, who, relatively untouched by this aristocratic tradition, turned toward a homosexual role that would {94} emphasize the virile over the effeminate, the classical over the continental. (See chapter 9 and the Coda for more on the class stratification of late-Victorian styles of male homosexuality.)

It was part of the strange fate of the early Gothic that the genre as a whole, conflicted as it was, came in the nineteenth century to seem a crystallization of the aristocratic homosexual role, even as the aristocracy was losing its normative force in English society more generally. And by the turn of the twentieth century, after the trials of Oscar Wilde, the "aristocratic" role had become the dominant one available for homosexual men of both the upper and middle classes. Among the other consequences of this shift was probably the political isolation of gay men until the 1960s, at the same time as there seems to have been considerable, tacit, and in many respects conservative male homosexual influence over English high culture.12 The structural importance of this shift for the emergent middle-class homophobic culture of "male bonding," as well as on women and the perception of women, was thorough and richly complicated.

One of the most distinctive of Gothic tropes, the "unspeakable," had a symptomatic role in this series of shifts. Sexuality between men had, throughout the Judaeo-Christian tradition, been famous among those who knew about it at all precisely for having no name -- "unspeakable," "unmentionable," "not to be named among Christian men," are among the terms recorded by Louis Crompton.13 Of course, its very namelessness, its secrecy, was a form of social control. Many critics of the Gothic mention, and I have discussed at length elsewhere,14 the defining pervasiveness in Gothic novels of language about the unspeakable. In the paranoiac novel Melmoth, for instance, when Melmoth the persecutor finally wears down his victims into something like receptiveness, he then tells them what he wants from them; but this information is never clearly communicated to the reader. The manuscripts crumble at this point or are "wholly illegible," the speaker is strangled by the unutterable word, or the proposition is preterited as "one so full of horror and impiety, that, even to listen to it, is scarce less a crime than to comply with it?"15

The trope of the "unspeakable" here seems to have a double function. Its more obvious referent is a Faustian pact, for Melmoth practices "that [nameless] art, which is held in just abomination by all 'who name the name of Christ.'"16 The other half of the double meaning -- the sexual half -- excluded the exoteric portion of Maturin's audience (possibly including Maturin himself?). Certainly, however, it meant something to {95} Maturin's great-nephew, Oscar Wilde. Seventy years later, forced to leave England after his disgrace and imprisonment for homosexual offenses, Wilde was to change his name to Melmoth.

But although in the Romantic period the Gothic unspeakable was an ear-impenetrable shibboleth for a particular conjunction of class and male sexuality, its role had changed markedly by the turn of the twentieth century. Partly through Wilde's own voluntary and involuntary influence ("I am the Love that dare not speak its name"), what had been a shibboleth became a byword. What had been the style of homosexuality attributed to the aristocracy, and to some degree its accompanying style of homophobia, now washed through the middle classes, with, as I have said, complicated political effects. The Gothic, too, changed: homosexual implications in Melmoth or Vathek had been esoteric; parts of Dorian Gray were, or were used as, a handbook of gay style and behavior.

A story, Gothic in its own right, from Beverley Nichols' twentieth-century autobiography, Father Figure, will illustrate the particular comic, educative, and terrorizing potential that the Gothic novel and the "unspeakable" had realized by the first decades of this century. Nichols' middle-class parents had a higher-class male friend who rouged, acted effeminate, and would to a knowing observer have seemed from the first glance to be telegraphing his homosexuality. The elder Nicholses, reactionary but unworldly, saw none of this. They were simply delighted that their friend took such a keen interest in their young son. One night, though, Beverley's father came into the boy's room drunk and found him with a copy of Dorian Gray -- a present from the friend. The father nearly choked. He hurled the book at his son. He spat on it over and over, frothing at the mouth. Finally he began ripping the book to shreds -- with his teeth.

Beverly was terrified and puzzled: why was his father so angry? The father couldn't believe he didn't know, but finally the boy's obvious puzzlement convinced him. "What did Wilde do?" The father couldn't utter the words that would explain it. Instead, he stole into the bedroom again at daybreak, and left a slip of paper on which he had written down, he said, the man's crime. As his father left, Beverley, now delirious with anticipation, tiptoed across the room to where the paper lay.


It is hard to imagine today that a Gothic novel and a Gothic trope could have such a pivotal and mystifying force. For the Nichols circle, the Gothic acted as an electrified barrier between generations, between {96} classes, between sexual choices; for the middle-class reader today it is something to pass up at the supermarket. In the following discussion of Hogg's Confessions, and in the discussions in chapters 9 and 10 of Dickens' later, Victorian Gothic, I will make some suggestions about the source and meaning of the leverage on class and gender relations offered by these new presentations of homophobia in the late eighteenth century.


1. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), p. 92.

2. Ibid., p. 102.

3. Ibid., pp. 102-3.

4. Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London; New York: Quartet Books, 1977), pp. 3-4.

5. On this see Georges-Michel Sarotte, Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1978), and Paul Hoch, White Hero Black Beast: Racism, Sexism, and the Mask of Masculinity (London: Pluto, 1979). The unusually exacerbated and intensively, punitively regulated relation of male homosexuality to the military -- the most male-homosocial of institutions, and the one where the manipulability of men is most at a premium -- makes sense in this light. Weeks offers a short discussion, without interpretation, of the history of this regulation in Coming Out, pp. 12-13.

6. For examples of this see Ann Whitehead, "Sexual Antagonism in Hertfordshire," Dependence and Exploitation in Love and Marriage, ed . Diana Leonard Barker and Sheila Allen (London: Longman, 1976) and Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1983), 14-28.

7. On this see Weeks, Coming Out, pp. 185-237.

8. Richard Gilman devotes an entire book (Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979]) to the shiftiness of this term -- without apparently having noticed how many of its uses can be explained by its being a euphemism for "homosexual."

9. See, for instance, Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nienteenth-Cnetury Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

10. On Beckford, see Boyd Alexander, England's Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford (London: Centaur, 1962); on Lewis, see Louis F. Peck, A Life of Matthew G. Lewis (Cambridge: Harvard University. Press, 1962), 65-66; on Walpole, see W. S. Lewis, Horace Walpole (New York: Pantheon, 1960), p. 36.

11. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 541-42; discussed in Bray, Homosexuality, p. 138, n. 26.

12. On this see, for instance, George Steiner, "The Cleric of Treason," New Yorker 56 (December 8, 1980), 158-95; esp. pp. 179-83. However, I have found it surprisingly difficult to find good, nonhomophobic material on the extent and possible effects of this male homosexual influence.

13. Louis Crompton, "Gay Genocide: From Leviticus to Hitler," in The Gay Academic, ed. Louie Crew (Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications, 1978), p. 67.

14. Eve Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno, 1980) , esp. pp. 14-20.

15. Maturin, Melmoth; these and other "unspeakable" incidents are to be found in chs. 3, 8, 9, 11, 39; the last-quoted is from ch. 28.

16. Ibid., ch. 32.

17. Beverley Nichols, Father Figure (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), pp. 92-99.