In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homosexuality

  • Introduction
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Victorian Literature Homosexuality
Ben Winyard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0055


The 19th century crucially witnessed the genesis of homosexual identities, subcultures, and politics in forms that have endured to the present day. The word homosexual, with its attendant notion of sexual identity, was coined and disseminated in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was a period of enormous opportunities, challenges, and risks for homosexual women and men. The latter were subject to a barrage of infamously hostile legislation that threatened them with prosecution, imprisonment, and, until 1861, death. Explosive urbanization brought together people with nonnormative desires and identities, hastening the development of a recognizable “scene,” mainly for men. Wealth and class were key determinants with a fairly sequestered aristocratic milieu clustered around private clubs and houses, and a more hazardous subculture for nonelite groups dispersed across a range of publicly accessible but easily policed spaces such as pubs, streets, and parks. Lesbian relationships tended to occur within private, domestic spaces, thus reflecting the gender politics of “separate spheres.” Just as homosexuality maintained an ambiguous (and even paradoxical) position within Victorian culture—being simultaneously central and liminal—so, too, is its place within Victorian literature and its specifically Victorian textual encodings. Cultural and legal prohibitions mean that representations of explicitly homosexual desires and intimacies are rare within popular, mainstream fiction and poetry. However, they can be found in oblique, hidden, and even unconscious references within such texts and more unambiguously and openly in “underground” novels, memoirs, and pornography. Literary, historical, and classical studies, mainly written by men, represent another important mode of Victorian homosexual self-expression. Furthermore, increasingly disseminated and sometimes sympathetic discussions of homosexuality within legal, medical, and scientific circles contributed to nascent individual and collective self-definition and provided a language with which to argue against repressive legislation and mores. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the literary and historical analysis of same-sex desires, acts, and identities has been broadly legitimized as a branch of academic study. While earlier critical work celebrated closeted authors and identified and recuperated homosexual subjects and acts hidden within texts, more recent scholarly work emphasizes the historical contingency of “homosexuality” as a stable identity category and instead emphasizes a more labile queerness that resists normativity. While earlier critical work tended to cluster around the fin de siècle, scholarship in this field has broadened out across the whole of the century to consider many authors and texts from the early and mid-19th century. Victorian texts in all their heterogeneity—and novels in particular, with their multivalent emphasis on kinship, desire, matrimony, domesticity, and familial life—remain a rich and robust resource for analyses of same-sex desires, subjectivities, and experiences.

Primary Sources

Given the legal and sociocultural prohibitions against homosexuality in the 19th century, overt primary sources are relatively scarce. Two types of literature, however, offer more open accounts and representations: memoirs, diaries, and autobiographies, and pornography and erotica. In terms of nonliterary, historical sources, some extremely useful archives and special collections have been collated and catalogued in the United Kingdom, while Internet sites increasingly provide free, open access to a number of valuable primary and secondary resources.

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