Symonds’s Facts, Our Future

One Victorian historian realized that if ideas of sexual morality changed across time, then 19th-century Britain could change, too.

In 1893, John Addington Symonds gave his youngest daughter, Katharine—who was interested in studying history, like her father—some advice: “Keep [y]our eyes and ears always open and slowly … accumulate facts.” Facts had power for Symonds, especially when it came to his academic work on homosexuality. Nothing made him more righteously angry than what seemed to him to be evasion of the truth: whether from teachers who denied the homoeroticism plainly apparent in canonical Greek and Latin texts or from his idol Walt Whitman, who refused to admit to Symonds that his poetry could be read as a celebration of homoerotic desire. He celebrated “impartial clearness of judgment,” “antiquarian zeal,” and “methodic scrupulousness” in modern historical scholarship: qualities that he also sought to bring to researching and writing the history of homosexuality.

Symonds is the first English-language writer to have used the word homosexuality in print, in 1891. But he framed his interventions as academic as much as activist. And—even as he later engaged with the natural sciences and the social sciences—historical scholarship remained at the heart of his theory of homosexuality and of his calls for greater legal and social tolerance for homosexual men. If ideas of sexual morality could be historically specific, Symonds suggested, then people in 19th-century Britain could also change their thinking about sexual ethics: a strikingly original, even liberatory, claim.

But can “methodic scrupulousness” only take us so far? After all, there is another, long tradition in queer scholarship: a caring but attenuated relationship to chronological time. Queer theorists such as Carolyn Dinshaw and Heather Love highlight the ways that present-day queer readers might seek in the queer past not facts but echoes and resonances of ourselves. We look for those who are, and aren’t, like us; for the ways that those in the past both encourage and disappoint. The literary merges into the tactile: we collapse time, touching the past. Pages are passed from hand to hand. Even Symonds himself—despite his faithfulness to “facts”—sometimes dated his age not from his birth, but from the first time he kissed a boy, or the first time he read Plato’s Symposium.

This tradition of intimate and elastic queer time is taken up elegantly in two new books of very different genres. To Shane Butler, whose academic monograph The Passions of John Addington Symonds explores the sheer kaleidoscopic range of academic and literary projects to which Symonds brought a queer sensibility, Symonds’s “thought rests lightly on a tensile surface of time, vibrating with and across it.” The starting premise of Tom Crewe’s novel The New Life is to remove Symonds from his own timeline: the novel (inspired by the story of Symonds’s collaboration with the writer and doctor Havelock Ellis on the academic and polemical study Sexual Inversion) begins in the year after the real Symonds’s death, exploring how two writers with complicated personal lives try to live more boldly in the shadow of the policing of gross indecency and obscenity. Both Butler and Crewe situate Symonds firmly (and appropriately) within the cruising culture of fin de siècle London: the looking and touching that, as much as his reading and writing, shaped his ideas about desire, love, and sex between men. The characters in The New Life adopt a motto—“we must live in the future we hope to make”—that situates their embodied, material experience of life at once within the present and beyond it.

Together, Butler’s and Crewe’s books offer the most vivid and imaginative portrait of Symonds to have appeared for some time. Moreover, they provide a valuable corrective to older scholarship, which has represented the writer as repressed and tortured by the secret of his homosexuality. But it is ironic that such achievements entail representing Symonds—who sought to be such a scrupulous historian—as a figure unconstrained by chronological time.

One approach to this essay would be to evaluate how Crewe’s fiction and Butler’s literary criticism stack up against the reality of the historical Symonds. But to write such an essay might risk falling into the stereotype with which critics and theorists have so often dismissed historians: as naive empiricists who are only there to fact-check. Perhaps it might be more interesting to ask what Symonds’s work as a historian tells us about what it means to take not only a queer-temporal, but a historical, approach to the queer past, and why it might matter.

Indeed, we can, and should, return Symonds to his own time. Doing so helps us to see the possibilities that he opened up, but also those that he helped to foreclose: how the invention and the legitimization of “the homosexual” marginalized other forms of queer and trans life.

Understanding the contingent processes through which paradigms shift is a historical project. It can tell us how we got to where we are now, but it also help us to recognize the unfamiliarity of the past and to meet it on its own terms. It’s so much more than a narrow vision of the historian as a mere fact-checker. And ultimately, it’s a different question from those that scholars coming from a literary studies tradition tend to ask about the queer past. It should not get lost, even amid the wealth of compelling queer work that has come out of literary studies.

Symonds’s own work was centrally interested in how, over time, the ways that societies have understood sexuality have changed. Despite its limitations, his work demonstrates the value of accumulating facts: not for their own sake, but in the service of greater truths.

Symonds first began to write academically about same-sex desire in his late twenties. Over the course of his life, he grew increasingly bolder in his thinking, and increasingly to adopt an ontology of same-sex desire that looked more like today’s “homosexuality.” That is, Symonds’s understanding was of a homosexuality that was congenital rather than context-specific; about individual identity; and about sexual orientation rather than the model of gender “inversion” (that a man’s same-sex desire stemmed from his having a feminine soul) more popular in German sexual science. He was an enthusiastic reader of new German-language scholarship that popularized the “inversion” paradigm and that sought to typologize and explain gender and sexual nonconformity. But he also insistently brought his own historical perspective to how he conceptualized sexuality and discussed it with his interlocutors.

Symonds’s first substantive intervention in the history of sexuality was his 1873 essay “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” a systematic examination of how homoeroticism fit into ancient Greek literature and culture. At this point in his life, Symonds was genuinely troubled about the morality of acting upon one’s same-sex desire. And so, in the essay, he went out of his way to argue that the institution of “paiderastia,” as practiced in classical Athens, was not about mere physical pleasure, but, instead, a more self-consciously elevated, spiritually and artistically enriching, appreciation of beauty. This, he implied, was a moral foundation upon which his own society might sanction same-sex love.

From the perspective of today, such an argument looks apologetic at best, dismissive at worst. And yet, at the same time, his study was not only ethical, but also historical. He used the essay to ask how the social mores of different Greek city-states made sense of same-sex desire, and about how this might have changed over time. This notion—that ideas of sexuality could change throughout history—was the key.

Take Symonds’s treatment of the Iliad (discussed in an especially engaging chapter of The Passions of John Addington Symonds). In his 1873 essay and in other writing about Greek literature, Symonds highlights that Homer’s text depicts the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as comradely and status-equal. This, Symonds makes clear, contrasts with how later classical writers sought to reinterpret Achilles and Patroclus, specifically, within the later, more hierarchical paradigm of pederasty. According to Butler, this historical and literary analysis shows how Symonds’s understanding of the past informed his hopes for reciprocal same-sex love in the present.

But Symonds did not only intend a politically and personally useful argument, but also a historically resonant one. In the process, he advanced a strikingly modern interpretation of the queer premodern past. His account of Achilles and Patroclus, as of other evidence of ancient homoeroticism, sought to balance contrasting aims: acknowledging the presence of same-sex desire in all times and all places; appreciating the variety of ways that different cultures organized and made sense of it; and understanding how these might have changed over time. Above all, and most originally, he argued—in explicit opposition to previous scholars—that our understanding of ancient Greek culture is incomplete unless we understand the place of same-sex desire within it.

In so doing, he became an insightful and trenchant critic of the hypocrisy of a Victorian intellectual culture, which revered classical antiquity while avoiding acknowledgement of the centrality of homoeroticism in ancient societies. In this, and in so much else, Symonds thus engaged with some of the central questions of what, a century later, would become the field of queer history.

In his late writing, such as his 1890s collaboration with Havelock Ellis on Sexual Inversion, Symonds proved a trenchant critic of the rigidity of the new scientific field of “sexology.” The biologists, doctors, and psychologists working in this emerging field often sorted human sexuality into schematic, diagnostic, sometimes pathologizing categories. But Symonds argued that the past, and the present, revealed a richer tapestry of human experience. In collecting individuals’ case histories for Sexual Inversion, he sought to preserve individuality and variety. He even insisted that the entire first half of Sexual Inversion should be historical, before turning to a discussion of sexual inversion in the present—an argument with Ellis that he lost.

Meanwhile, he continued to evince ambivalence about whether it was even possible to claim historical figures definitively as homosexual. For example: in a biography of Michelangelo, grounded in archival documents, Symonds was the first modern scholar to discuss the artist’s relationship with a young nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Yet he resisted offering a sexological diagnosis of his subject. Instead, he argued that whether Michelangelo’s relationship fit into present-day categories was irrelevant to understanding how it inspired his poetry and art, or to understanding how it would have been perceived in its own social context.

Symonds may not have called it “queer history.” Even so, he was doing it 150 years ago.

Symonds was just starting to speak out about homosexuality when he died of complications related to tuberculosis in 1893 at the age of 53. Crewe picks up his novel’s story here. Essentially, he offers a single counterfactual: What if the historical Symonds had not suffered from TB? Crewe’s fictional John Addington does not move to Switzerland for his health, but lives in London; he lives to complete his project with a fictionalized Ellis, only to see it fall afoul of a climate of fear and censorship in the aftermath of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 conviction for gross indecency.

Crewe allows us to imagine the full flourishing of Symonds’s boldness: both in speaking out, and in pursuing a relationship with a man, despite his marriage and children. But Crewe also demonstrates how—like those of any of Symonds’s own historical actors—Symonds’s conceptions of possibility were of a piece with the moment in which he lived.

As a novelist, Crewe can draw upon different resources to make sense of Symonds’s inconsistencies. Crewe’s character John Addington often speaks in Symonds’s own, real words. But other characters—Addington’s working-class lover, his wife and daughters—speak back, criticizing Addington’s hypocrisy and hubris in tones that ring true but to which the historical record cannot attest. Indeed, Crewe’s cast of characters—which also includes a touchingly realized love triangle between the character based on Havelock Ellis, his wife (who in real life was attracted to women), and her female partner—allows him to position Addington’s quest to live into his identity as a homosexual man in the wider context of the fin de siècle bourgeois gender order, in which possibilities for relations between women and between men and women were also changing profoundly.

What all this reveals is that Symonds—like any historical figure—was a creature of his time. But it also demonstrates that the very concept of homosexuality that he helped to make was a contingent formation, which became dominant at the expense of other ways of thinking about gender and sexual diversity.

There is a tradition in Symonds scholarship that has pointed to his failure to imagine a politics of gay liberation. As a young man and throughout his life, Symonds’s soul was set aflame by the iconoclastic, democratic, and erotic poetry of Walt Whitman. He viewed himself as a fellow traveler with the queer socialist activist Edward Carpenter. From his late thirties, he pursued a series of relationships with working-class men in England, Switzerland, and Italy, which he felt gave him authentic insight into ordinary people’s lives and exemplified the power of homosexuality to break down the strictures of the English class system.

But the originality and boldness with which Symonds wrote, and aspired to live—as Eve Sedgwick was one of the first to point out in her foundational Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire—was at odds with his implication in the class and gender system of his moment. When he told his other rich friends that his lovers were his servants, he became not a radical intellectual on the road to liberation, but merely yet another of the many elite English men who used their class and gender as license for their sexual exploits.

Symonds’s late thinking about homosexuality emphasized age and status equality (as opposed to the classically influenced pederasty paradigm, which remained popular among some elite men), the masculinity of both partners (as opposed to the inversion paradigm, which later fed into some early, if pathologized, conceptions of trans identity), and dyadic partnerships analogous to opposite-sex marriage. In other words, he sought to widen Victorian morality just enough to slip homosexuality inside. He was certainly not able to conceptualize a challenge to patriarchy or to the gender order more broadly.

His vision of social tolerance and law reform in some sense saw fruition many decades later. In 1967, England and Wales decriminalized sex between men over the age of 21 in private dwellings (not shared houses or hotels, to say nothing of public toilets). Other legal advances (and setbacks) followed, ultimately leading to nondiscrimination protections and marriage equality in the 21st century. But even this partook of the earlier narrowness of pioneers like Symonds. Indeed, the 20th- and 21st-century rehabilitation of bourgeois homosexuals into the liberal state was successful because it defined them as respectable compared to others.

Who, exactly? Precisely those from whom Symonds had also sought to distinguish himself: those who could not or did not keep their sexuality private; those gender-nonconforming “inverts” and “queens” who lacked the respectability of middle-class, masculine homosexual men; those whose commitment to queer cultures and politics indicated something more challenging and transgressive than a “born this way” strategy of legitimation.

It is telling that the government inquiry into sex crimes that led to the partial decriminalization of sex between men also resulted in the increased policing of sex workers. Back in “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” Symonds had argued that prostitution was exactly the kind of sexual immorality from which ancient Greeks sought to distinguish spiritually enriching forms of love between men. For Symonds, as for the 20th- and 21st-century British state, rights for bourgeois, respectable homosexuals came at the expense of a broader vision of sexual liberation.

Today, we are arguably in a better position than we have ever been to appreciate the limits of liberal rights claims and respectability politics to secure the fullness of human flourishing for queer and trans people. Marriage equality—that form of legal recognition that was supposed to bring about the end of queer history—has not staved off the violent wave of reaction against LGBTQ+ people, and trans people in particular, that is currently unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic.

In another recent book to devote sustained attention to Symonds, Simon Joyce’s LGBT Victorians, Joyce discards Symonds as too flawed—too dismissive of effeminacy; too irrevocably invested in hierarchies of age and class—to be a useful basis for present-day LGBTQ+ politics. In Joyce’s reading, Symonds was a wrong turn: taking us away from the possibility of a more inclusive LGBTQ+ politics that might forge a coalition between queer and trans people.

If identifying a useful basis for present-day politics were the only purpose of engagement with the queer past, then Butler’s and Crewe’s treatments of Symonds would also fall short. It is true that neither is really able to place Symonds and his form of homosexuality within the broader range of possibilities for gender and sexual diversity in the late-Victorian period. Crewe’s characters either come out, or they don’t; the queer sensibility that Butler traces across the various academic disciplines in which Symonds intervened is intellectually and artistically expansive but cannot tell us about the material reality of the many people in Victorian Britain who we know crossed or challenged gender, who belonged to queer communities of various kinds that flourished despite and often without much regard to the law, or, alternatively, who did not think their same-sex sexual activity made them a particular kind of person.

A more strictly historical study of Symonds—that situates him in just this material context—is yet to be written. Such a study might seek to explain Symonds’s role in bringing one particular, influential conception of male homosexuality into being, without demanding that he measure up to the necessarily equally contingent and constructed, and equally limiting, identity categories of our present moment.

But in the meantime, we can take other lessons from the life of Symonds and other elite intellectuals like him. Crewe’s The New Life illustrates this vividly. The latter part of the novel stages a conflict between the liberal cause of free speech and the all-consuming shadow of a moral panic. The conflict reveals the hubris of some characters, the moral cowardice of others, and a kind of transhistorical truth about why so many of we bourgeoisie continue to believe in liberalism, despite the readiness with which it fails to truly grapple either with state power or with populist reaction.

Ultimately, Crewe’s novel invites us to wonder what we would do if we were in the characters’ shoes: would we have the courage of our convictions, even if we knew it was unlikely to have strategic political impact? For what causes is it worth martyring ourselves? What does solidarity entail?

The real Symonds died before he had the opportunity to find out whether he would really have had the courage to speak out publicly amidst the moral panics of his moment. It’s tempting to think he might have grown bolder as he aged. But it is also realistic to imagine that he might have continued to try to have it both ways: balancing his marriage, his wealth, and the bourgeois respectability they accorded him with his sexual relationships with working-class men. We can’t know how he would have responded to Oscar Wilde’s trials or—had he lived to be a very old man—the rise of fascism in Europe, and the persecution of queer and trans life that ensued.

But we do know that he lived on, anyway. Wilde quoted Symonds in the witness box. E. M. Forster cited him as an inspiration while he was drafting his novel Maurice, often referred to as the first gay love story with a happy ending. “Feel nearer to him than any man I have read about,” Forster wrote in his diary. “He was a brave & intelligible man, and I am proud to be in some ways so like him, & mean to think of him in difficulties.”

Knowledge of, and appreciation of, Symonds never died out: he enjoyed a moment of notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s, when a scholarly biography was published and intellectuals and activists associated with the gay liberation movement were struck by the originality of his thinking about homosexuality. Since then, there has been a steady trickle of academic work. Butler’s book is the latest in that line, though perhaps the most successful to date at showcasing the sheer range of Symonds’s intellectual and artistic endeavors, from poetry (and lots of it) to life-writing as well as more scholarly historical and literary-critical work. Crewe’s scrupulously researched novel stands to bring awareness of this figure and the wider milieu of avant-garde late-19th-century thought to a wider audience.

Symonds’s life and work resonate in this moment, it seems to me, because of—rather than in spite of—his limitations. We are alive, now, to the appeal of liberal minoritarian rights politics but also to the limits of its efficacy. We can be compelled by the resounding clarity with which Symonds called out the hypocrisy and moral failures of his own moment, while still appreciating that moment’s distance from our own. We do not need historical actors to be exactly like us, to inhabit the same relationship to identity that we do, to find ourselves enchanted and possessed by them, despite our best rationalist intentions.

And as an academic historian and a college history teacher, I take one last lesson from Symonds’s life and work. In this moment, history has become a political football in the midst of culture war and moral panic that is targeting trans and queer people. Politicians around the world have targeted universities, calling for the banning of gender studies and of historical approaches to gender and sexuality, alongside the study of race and other topics entwined with identity and difference. We often hear claims that trans and queer lives are newfangled aberrations.

Amid all this, I find it clarifying and galvanizing to remember that not only are queer and trans lives not new, but neither is an academic approach to the queer past. Symonds may not have called it “queer history,” and his approach didn’t look exactly how we’d do it today. Even so, he was doing it 150 years ago: turning to classical antiquity and asking how cultures’ understanding of sexuality have changed over time.

“Facts” and “methodic scrupulousness” won’t win the day on their own. But we still need them, especially in a contemporary media landscape that necessitates engaging critically with arguments and applying standards of evidence to politically motivated claims about the past.

Symonds understood this. And like Forster, I mean to think of Symonds in difficulties—for difficulties there will certainly be. icon

This article was commissioned by Ruby Ray Daily. Featured image: Achilles bandaging Patroclus's wounded arm. Ink drawing after an Attic cup by the potter Sosias, c. 500 B.C. Wellcome Trust. / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)