Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain's Age of Reform by Charles Upchurch, pp. xii + 276. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, $45.00/£30.95
There have been so many outstanding recent studies of homosexuality in Victorian Britain that the appearance of yet another posed the question of whether this was strictly necessary. Charles Upchurch, however, amply justifies his project to document sex between men during Britain's age of reform. As he points out, the bulk of existing scholarship has dealt very much with the latter part of the nineteenth century, roughly speaking from the abolition of the capital penalty for sodomy in 1861, or even later, from the furore over Boulton and Park and the emergence of a psychiatric model for interpreting same-sex behaviour. His meticulous study looks back to the earlier part of the century, still relatively under-analysed by historians of sexuality in general, to illuminate a complex and fascinating imbrication of desire, class, urban life, legal systems, the development of modern policing, conflicting interest groups, and the formulation of certain tenets of appropriate middle class masculinity, in a broader political and legislative context. He does, in fact, go back a long way 'Before Wilde' and indeed, leads us to consider (not for the first time) the extent to which Oscar's high-profile courtroom debacle has inflected, even distorted, popular and scholarly understandings of cultures of, and attitudes towards, male same-sex desire in the Victorian era by becoming as it were its 'brand name'.
As with so many topics in the history of sexuality, what historians have pervasively assumed to be an area concealed under a pall of silence and unmentionability is revealed, upon further interrogation, to have been very far from invisible. Upchurch has uncovered hundreds of reports concerning male-male sex in multiple newspapers across the political spectrum as well as numerous routine, rather than sensational, court cases. It would appear that by this period (as Harry Cocks indicated in Nameless Offences 2003) there was less interest in raiding 'molly-houses' or their later equivalents, i.e., places where men seeking men could foregather in relative privacy. Nineteenth century urban policing was more concerned with encounters in streets and parks and other public or semi-public venues. It is somewhat surprising to gather that, although 'Vice Societies' had played a significant role in policing of homosexual behaviour in the eighteenth century, this was not an area of interest for early nineteenth century moral reform bodies. Did this have to do with the legal changes documented by Upchurch, so that it was no longer a matter of bringing private prosecutions, or did anti-vice organisations have differing preoccupations at this period?
There is a illuminating chapter on the context of legal reform during the 1820s and 1830s, a period of significant modernisation. Upchurch summarises this as
[A] new pattern for imposing order by the use of criminal law, shifting away from the use of rare but brutal displays of state power on the body of the convict and toward a system where less severe punishments were implemented with much greater frequency and consistency. This shift required the creation of a more pervasive and bureaucratic system of law enforcement and the inclusion of more types of behaviour within the scope of the law (83).This, he argues, had significant repercussions in the regulation of sex between men. A number of acts passed during this period of general tidying up and rationalisation bore on same sex activity, though one is not in the least surprised to read that these were 'often passed in Parliament without debate… as part of legislation that was primarily concerned with other matters' (91). The 1828 Offences Against the Person Act significantly broadened the grounds for conviction of sodomy by removing the requirement that emission should have occurred. The 1827 Larceny (England) Act also created a wide definition of 'infamous crime' to include attempted sodomy and solicitation and persuasion to the act.
A particularly valuable aspect to this work is Upchurch's attention to class dynamics. As in the cases of sexual assault and violence against women and children documented by feminist historians such as Shani D'Cruze, Caroline Conley, and Louise Jackson, class and respectability played a central role in the narratives constructed around same-sex activity and in the attitudes of the law towards the various parties. Most prosecutions for attempted sodomy (the usual classification deployed when prosecuting sexual acts between males) were atypically directed up the social scale by individuals of lower social status than those they accused. However, the 'respectable' middle class man could draw on a range of assumptions about class-specific behaviour and attitudes to represent a lower-class accuser as an extortionist making baseless accusations of 'infamous crime'.
Class tensions are also apparent in Upchurch's nuanced analysis of the differing origins and agendas of magistrates, juries, and the new Metropolitan Police, recruited from the working class and lacking the community ties of the previous watch system. Magistrates could deploy significant discretion in their handling of these cases, in ways which tended to privilege members of the middle and upper classes. Upchurch points out, however, that this was less an overt conspiracy of class than a morass of unexamined assumptions about respectability and moral character. Even if the tables were not turned with an accusation of extortion, strong representations might be made that an innocent phrase or gesture or accidental contact had been misunderstood, rather than that a reputable man had been guilty of sexual solicitation. There was, however, although this gained rather less traction on the outcome of criminal cases, a counter-discourse of the working man or boy molested in situations such as the workplace where evasion was not an option, or of the young man from the provinces beguiled by the advances of an older and more sophisticated social superior.
This is an impressive work which sheds useful light on a range of areas besides male same-sex desire in the early to mid decades of the nineteenth century, and makes some extremely intriguing suggestions about the ways in which these overlooked earlier developments laid foundations for the emergence of the late nineteenth century medical discourse as a 'cultural rhetoric that created space for the respectable homosexual' (204).
Lesley A Hall