Homosexuality in Victorian Britain and The String of Pearls
Part I: Homosexuality in Victorian Britain
Most people would agree that the Victorian era was not an ideal time in history to be homosexual. Not only was homosexuality considered a sin and a taboo, but homosexual acts between men were explicitly illegal. Men who were caught, or accused of, having sexual relations with other men were often arrested, forced into pillories, publicly humiliated, or even put to death. Sexual relations between men remained a capital crime until 1867 in Britain (Gilbert) and remained illegal in the country well into the twentieth century.
Of course, this did not stop Victorian men from being attracted to other men and pursuing romantic and sexual relations with them. In fact, scholars such as Louis Crompton argue that same-sex attraction probably occurred with the same frequency during the nineteenth century as any other time in history; people simply weren’t as open about it because of the legal and social consequences of one’s homosexual behavior becoming public knowledge (Byron and Greek Love). Some of the most well-documented cases of men who had relations with other men are the cases that involved the celebrities of the century, men such as Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
After rumors began to spread about his sexual relations with men, Byron chose to leave England rather than sit around and wait to be accused of sodomy. Byron had attempted to keep his sexual relations with men private since because during his lifetime, homosexuality was a capital crime. However, the rumors still circulated and continued to be spread.In 1816, Byron left the country permanently on his own accord (Crompton).
Unlike Byron, Oscar Wilde chose to stay in the country and face the legal repercussions of his homosexual affairs. Wilde faced a less severe punishment for his homosexual affairs than Byron would have as homosexuality was no longer a capital punishment in Britain. However, Wilde did face imprisonment if found guilty of “gross indecency.” Despite this, Wilde chose to remain in the country and see his trial through to the end even after his friends prepared him an escape (Ellmann). Wilde would later be convicted of “gross indecency” in 1895 and be sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor (Walshe). Wilde remained in prison for two years and afterwards was exiled from England for another three years, before his death in 1900.
Byron’s and Wilde’s lives illustrate how drastically the criminalization of male homosexuality during the Victorian era affected men who engaged in homosexual relations. Even men who lived on the opposite ends of the nineteenth century and had wealth and fame behind them were arrested and/or exiled for their sexual affairs with men.
Part II: Homosexuality in The String of Pearls
Victorian-era homosexuality also extended to fictional depictions. During this time, homosexuality in fiction, if depicted at all, would often be reserved for subtext and not made explicit. Characters that could potentially be intended as, or at the very least read as, homosexual were still being written, the writer simply wasn’t always blatant about it. One example of homosexual subtext in fiction is James Malcolm Rymer’s The String of Pearls, which was published in 1850, between the lives of Byron and Wilde.
The first character who may be written with homosexual subtext is the character of Colonel Jeffery, a colonel in the Indian Army, who spends most of the story investigating the disappearance of his close friend, the former-Lieutenant Thornhill. In “Chapter X” of The String of Pearls Jefferey discusses his affection towards Thornhill to Johanna Oakley in great detail. In this chapter, the narration explains that it is completely normal for two sailors to become close friends during their travels, and Jeffery and Thornhill are no exception. Men who find themselves abroad for extended periods of time often grow close through the “ties of brotherhood” and the relationship between Jeffery and Thornhill grew to be an “almost romantic friendship” by the start of the novel (Rymer).
The “ties of brotherhood” may be understating how close some men grew while sailing abroad during the Victorian era. According to Albert N. Gilbert’s article “Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,” homosexual relations amongst men in the royal naval forces was a common, albeit hush, practice. One source from the later-Victorian era, claims that sodomy among men in the Royal Navy was a “regular thing on ships that go long distances” (qtd. in Gilbert). However, due to the criminalization of homosexuality during the Nineteenth century, there is very little surviving evidence of homosexual relationships between men in the naval and military forces from this time. The men who engaged in sexual activity with other men typically would have wanted their relationships kept secret.
One source that does remain of homosexuality in Victorian armed forces is the documented trials of those who were caught in the act and/or accused by others while serving in the Royal Navy. These trials would include a wide range of homosexual acts of varying degrees of severity (Gilbert). These trials have different verdicts and levels of proof, but there is enough documentation to suggest that homosexual activity in the Royal Navy may be as frequent as the British sailor claimed. Or at the very least, believed to be as frequent as he claimed.
The knowledge that homosexual activity may have been a fairly common practice amongst sailors at this time alone isn’t proof that Jeffery’s and Thornhill’s relationship may have gone beyond that of mere friendship. However, Jeffrey’s descriptions of Thornhill and their friendship could suggest that their friendship wasn’t merely platonic.
The narration makes their intense emotional connection explicitly clear. Their friendship is something beyond a typical sense of camaraderie that two men serving together may feel: “Thornhill made colonel’s breast the depository of all his thoughts and all his wishes, and a freedom of intercourse and a community between them” (Rymer). Jeffery is motivated by this intense emotional connection with and loyalty to Thornhill. This is shown through Jeffery’s unwillingness to stop the investigation, even when he is sure that Thornhill is dead.
Another scene that points to Jeffery’s attraction to Thornhill is when he is confronted and questioned about Thornhill’s physical appearance. Jeffery seems incapable of giving any useful information that would allow others to recognize Thornhill if they saw him, or would help Johanna confirm or deny her suspicions that her fiancé, Mark Ingestrie, and Thornhill are actually the same person. In fact, the only thing Jeffery can say about Thornhill’s physical description is how good looking he is. He only confirms Johanna’s inquiries that he has “fair hair and large clear eyes” and adds that “his smile was the most singularly beautiful [Jeffery has] ever beheld in a man” (Rymer). Jeffery doesn’t attempt to provide Johanna with any more detail to help confirm or deny her suspicions.
Afterwards, Jeffery only expresses that he hopes that Johanna is mistaken about Thornhill and Ingestrie being the same person. Although he claims that he hopes she is wrong for her own sake, as he fears that Thornhill is dead, it’s possible that he simply doesn’t want his lover and Johanna’s to be the same person. Maybe Jeffery doesn’t give any more description of Thornhill, not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t want the confirmation of Johanna’s suspicion himself.
Jeffery is not the only character who has some potentially homosexual subtext in The String of Pearls. In “Chapter XXXIII” Johanna, while disguised as a man, is mistaken for Arabella’s boyfriend by Arabella’s servant woman. In this scene Johanna embraces her friend, while in Arabella’s bedroom: “Johanna flung herself into her friend’s arms, and while they kissed each other […] a servant girl, with open mouth and eyes, looked into the room, transfixed with amazement” (Rymer). The servant girl, Susan, assumes that Johanna is a boy and considers the entire scene to be scandalous. It would have been immoral for a young woman, such as Arabella, to be entertaining a young man in her own bedroom, especially while engaging in physical romantic activity such as kissing.
Despite the immoral implications that Susan assumes, this scene is played for laughs. Johanna, while dressed as a boy, looks much younger than she actually is and appears to be too young for Arabella, especially since Arabella is more interested in older men. Susan continues to go on about how scandalous it is that Arabella is with such a young boy when she there are “a lot young men with whiskers to be had” (Rymer). Because the scene is presented as a funny misunderstanding and overreaction on the servant’s part, it would not typically be taken seriously by the reader.
However, the scene does point out to the reader that Arabella and Johanna have an intimate enough relationship that they would be mistaken as lovers if they weren’t of the same sex. It is possible that the only reason they have never been mistaken as lovers before this time is because they are both young women, and homosexuality among women would not have been considered a norm at the time. In fact, homosexuality among women was not actually illegal, so two young women would have had a lot more freedom when expressing their affections in public without raising suspicion among their neighbors.
Intense friendships that pushed the boundaries of what would be considered platonic as well as sexual relationships between men still occurred during this time. Evidence of these relationships still exists in court records, writings, and literature from the Victorian era.