Jodene B on Queer Victorians

Queer Victorians.

For the Victorian era, we are told, there was a massive influx of homosexual, homoeroticism etc. works began to take shape in much of the literature (magazines/Novels). Victorians were not repressive of sexuality of any kind in their literature during their era despite popular belief, they were very appreciative of it. New material to read. I found this rather intriguing because in contemporary times, the idea of “Queers” are looked down upon and fought against more than it is accepted. This is not new, yet today it is treated as such. One thing that must be said about the Victorians is that they were far beyond their times on many issues, the acceptance of homosexuality or any sexuality in their literature and their seemingly nonchalant position towards it is fascinating. In today’s society, there is an uproar if anything other than heterosexual union is presented on television shows, advertisements or otherwise. That’s besides the point however, the ironic thing is that most people in contemporary times view the Victorians as prudes but based on their literature of this time, this is very much not true. It is important to note that what was considered ‘queer’ was, as we were told in class, that of as the uncanny. One thing I found was that there were plenty of researchers during the Victorian ere that were doing relative research on the diversity of sexuality and thus there was a shift in perceptions on the various erotic experiences people faced. It is understandable how some critics may have missed the ‘queer’ messages in poems and other literature of the time but contemporary critics very clearly, have.

In class we were given various examples of writers/poets who have created works with the hints of the topic being of a homoerotic nature. Amy Levy’s work I found rather compelling. So I opted to do a little extra research on her myself. What I found was rather fascinating, the best way to explain what it meant to be queer in the Victorian era was pretty much anything that did not include the pre-ordained rules/ideas of opposite sex desires and marriage. In keeping with what we were told of her life in class and her being a protégé of Oscar wilde, who, as we know praised her work, I went about researching him. That led me to the conclusion that though the Victorians were fairly welcoming of the homoeroticism in their literature, but they had a limit. Oscar Wilde’s notorious case (as we were told in class) that led to him being found guilty of being a ‘sodomite’ and accused of his alleged involvement in what was considered to be ‘gross indeceny’ . His intrigue with Levy’s work then appears to me, as ironic for contemporary readers have found that her work does in fact include homoeroticism within them and he throughout his case never actually agrees to being homosexual. This led me to think of just how accepting the Victorians truly were. It appears as though the Victorians will accept anything that is brought forward in the name of literature (being the era where much interest in learning, especially reading took place) would have been fair game in this time. Thus Homosexuality in the books and magazines were easily accepted but the actual actions or open involvement in these various sexualities in this society was unacceptable and shunned much like Wilde ultimately was. Levy’s work is really impressive in that it is written a kind of tongue in cheek way, on first glance of the two works we discussed in class “To Lallie (outside The British Museum)” and “To Vernon Lee” one assumes the poem is simply about a women going through a depressive state. Once one strips the poems down to its core, stanza by stanza we are enabled to see her celebrate as well as mourn love lost. It shows a women with same sex desires.  That’s the underlying message (Symptomatic reading). Lines such as :

                                                “We solemly discussed the –heat.

I found you shy and very sweet,

A rosebud maiden”

In “To Lallie” like much of the poems of hers, has a double meaning that at first glance, a person might not decipher right away. They make simply take away the innocent nature of the line. We discussed in class however, that this particular stanza might be suggestive of something much more sexual than the random/unexciting talk of the…heat. This makes me wonder if this was how many of the writers got away with having these works during the period. The ambiguity of what the poem says versus what it actually means (Dichotomy of the topics presented). Ultimately what I understand the topic of Queer Victorians was that people from the beginning of time it appears people have always shared various perceptions of sexuality. In today’s society it is taken up as a new phenomenon that we have to shun, keep hidden or get rid of completely. There is no ambiguity in our day, we are given things as they are. The Victorian era stands as proof that they were ahead of their time with much of their literature queer or otherwise. The Queer readings and the people associated is not new, though I always knew that but its impressive to actually see how far it dates back to and how many people, like much of the authors of Queer works in the Victorian era are still unable to unapologetically be themselves without being ridiculed or shunned.

2 thoughts on “Jodene B on Queer Victorians

  1. I think it’s very interesting to see that regardless of the societal norms and the fact that they were shunned to have sexual desires (let alone to have homosexual desires), they wrote about it. In regards to Amy Levy, regardless of the fact that her writing is sometimes ambiguous, she broke not one but many societal norms. Writers such as Oscar Wilde was also gay but as a woman to stand up for her desires, I applaud her. Especially in a time like that. As I read your blog post, I compared those times to ours and it’s kind of funny to see that although that we claim we’re more open about ‘touchy subjects’, people still sometimes struggle to ‘come out’ as homosexual. I’m curious to know why that is. Because although yes, people struggle with it, there are also people proudly attending parades and events for this type of thing. So do you think it’s more of an individualistic issue or is it something that the community influences as a whole?

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  2. Hi Jodene,
    I found your blog entry extremely informative and very true to your opinion. I too was caught off guard with the word “queer” in the novel’s we covered in class, for example in Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, the word “queer” appeared quite often, usually coming from Alice herself. Since the narrative was a children’s book I kind of thought of it just another synonym for the word weird. However, in our day in age, the word queer is taken out of context as you mentioned. Also, I agree with you the Victorians were way in their time such as the topic of homosexuality. Although, the 21st century has evolved with its acceptance of homosexuality and other sexual preference, again I agree without that the Victorians were way more accepting to it. For example, Amy Levy’s work was not seen as a negative connotation but more or less had a very positive response because they saw her work as an art regardless of what the context or what her sexual orientation was. I admire at the face that you decided to take on this topic and make it your opinion and perspective. It is quite refreshing to see an unbias response to a controversial topic that even in our world today are taboo to to touch on.

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