Strangers by Graham Robb

The secret history
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Ever since the pioneering work of Michel Foucault, the prevailing assumption among academics has been that homosexual identity was a product of the late 19th century, when the term first appeared in medical discourse. This "social constructionist" approach has long been absurd to anyone who has studied figures as varied as Christopher Marlowe and the "Mollies" of Georgian London, let alone the same-sex unions sanctified by the medieval church. Graham Robb, in this comprehensive account of homosexual love in the 19th century, now scotches the idea completely.

Robb's aims in Strangers are to show that a rich same-sex culture existed in the first part of the century (and earlier) and, more contentiously, to compare the Victorian experience of homosexuality, often positively, with that of the present day. He comes to the task as the acclaimed biographer of Hugo, Balzac and Rimbaud. The last two played a significant part in forging modern homosexual identity: Balzac by his revolutionary portrayal of homosexuality in novels such as Illusions Perdues; Rimbaud by his iconic partnership with Verlaine, rivalled only by that of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas.

In his introduction, Robb decries the prejudice that studies of homosexuality continue to inspire in academic circles, stating that "scholars in Britain, France and the United States wished me a speedy return to biography and literary history". Reading the first third of the book, however, one tends to agree with them. It is not so much the subject matter - a trawl through the long and shameful history of persecutions - that makes the heart sink, as Robb's dry and statistical approach. He offers an extensive account of criminological and medical definitions of homosexuality, noting the crucial switch from the former to the latter. That itself was a form of progress since even suffering a mental illness was thought preferable to acquiring an unspeakable vice - although the suicide note in which a young man urged his parents to read Krafft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis as a means of understanding him shows just how limited such progress was.

The usual suspects abound, together with some unusual ones. It has long been a shibboleth of gay writing that the most rabid homophobes are attempting to conceal their own sexuality. Nevertheless, one would wish that Robb had presented the evidence for his startling claim that Alfred Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensbury, was himself homosexual. Even within the context of 19th-century sleeping arrangements, the fact that the "handsome bachelor" Abraham Lincoln shared a bed for four years with an Illinois storekeeper, Joshua Speed, is worthy of note. The most fascinating discovery is that Russia's first great 19th-century homosexual martyr was not Tchaikovsky but Gogol who, having been told by a priest to abstain from sleep and food until his soul was clean, duly starved to death.

While Robb is undoubtedly correct in pointing to the range of homosexual activity throughout the century, he is far less convincing in his claims for Victorian tolerance. He quotes the few voices raised in Wilde's defence and downplays the immense weight of hostile opinion. He asserts that it would be "an insult" to regard a reporter's derogatory remarks at the trial of the notorious transvestites Boulton and Park as representing the common view. As sole corroboration he offers the approval of their antics, and applause at their acquittal, heard from a public gallery packed with supporters.

The second and third sections deal with homosexual self-assertion and the integration of the homosexual and the wider world. They are considerably more successful, not least because Robb moves away from legal and medical texts to letters, diaries and novels that fire his imagination. He shows that the history of same-sex lovers turning to the Greeks for validation applied as much to women as men. Achilles' seduction of Lycomedes's daughter while dressed as a woman offered a perfect code for a 19th-century lesbian such as Anne Lister, who immediately recognised the reference when a companion in a Paris pension asked, "Etes vous Achilles?"

Robb estimates that about 50 works of Western literature in the 19th century can be said to treat male homosexuality more or less openly (works about lesbians, with such honourable exceptions as Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, were largely written by men for the purpose of titillation). He ranges wider than is customary, back to 1748 for Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random, which contained a pioneering - albeit ironic - defence of sodomy, and as far afield as Brazil for Adolfo Caminha's 1875 novel, Bom-Crioulo, as revolutionary in its depiction of love between different races as members of the same sex.

He explores popular sources such as slang. In Paris, "It smells of garlic" meant "there are lesbians about" because of the supposed resemblance between a garlic clove and a clitoris. Classified advertisements studied include the first extant homosexual contact ad, from an Austrian paper of the 1880s: "Seeking a friend who, like me, enjoys solitude and shuns company, especially that of women. Happy indeed the man who suffices unto himself. Happier still the man who has a like-minded friend.Whoever understands me should write to 'Mr Nature-Lover'".

This is a rich and informative study which provides a fascinating picture of homosexual life and literature in the 19th century. It is unlikely to convince anyone that, in spite of the appalling suicide rate still prevalent among gay teenagers, the average homosexual's life and the average heterosexual's attitude towards it are not infinitely preferable today than in the 19th century. Yet Strangers brilliantly evokes the vibrant sub-culture that flourished even in the most inhospitable terrain.

Michael Arditti's most recent novel is 'Easter' (Arcadia)