I am writing this post is partly to provide information, and partly to solicit it. For as much as I feel I have a creditable shelf full of Victorian reference books, I could always use a few more. I will start with five books specifically on the subject of homosexuality in the Victorian period–my own focus being late in that period and on into the Edwardian era.
Victorian homosexuality is generally a topic you have to cobble together information about, from sundry and scattered sources. The information available leans heavily towards the UK (especially London) and certain celebrated upper-class artsists. However in 2003 Graham Robb provided the first creditable general reference covering the US and UK in ‘Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Ninetheenth Century’. Robb is a biography writer and his style chops together memoir and statistics with his own idionsyncratic assumptions–so it pays to read this book in a strong-minded way rather than take it as gospel. Nevertheless, Robb provides a starting block of more specific research that was, until recently, conspicuously missing.
From here the reader has many directions to go. However for this era I would suggest starting with an appreciation of the role of religion, not only because it is insidiously importnt but also because many novelists lazily stereotype Victorian religious beleifs. I absolutely adore Frederick Roden’s ‘Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture’ which has an amazing depth and breadth of information about how religion and homosexuality (including lesbianism) intersect during this period in the US and UK. That said it retails for an insane cover price of over US$100.
From there I would suggest delving into some of the important cultural movements that have implications for sexuality and masculinity. There are an awful lot of options here but ‘Masculine Desire: the Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism’ by Richard Dellamora is a favorite of mine.
At some point it pays to get specific about place and time. For example if a writer is planning to use London as a setting, s/he will need to realise that its history is very well known and documented–so it pays to work out some of the landmarks and use them to get a more specific understanding of the local culture. For example on of the major turning points in London was the exposure of a house of male prostitution in 1889. One of the better books describing both the events of the prosecution and ts implications is ‘The Cleveland Street Scandal’ by H. Montgomery Hyde. Another approach would be to pick up biographies of known gay figures from that time and place, which in the case of London, would offer enough reading material for a lifetime.
Finally, one obvious way to pick up the aesthetics and language of some of the homosexual cultures of the era is to read the literature. On of the better collections is ‘Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: the Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in England from 1748 to 1914’ edited by Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt.
My two cautions would be to also make sure you research general lifestyle issues for your chosen period and place. For example, food, fashion, politics, symbolism, servants, crime etc etc. Als do not necessarily let youself be drawn into the best documented areas–in fact writing characters from rural area, lower classes and countries other than the US and UK may offer more artistic license than trying to shoehorn a story into the known events at major cities and universities. If you venture into less research areas however you will need to go back to the tried and true method of scouring general reference books and biographies for relevant information as specialist books of ‘homosexual history’ have yet to be written for many countries–let alone books that focus on the Vistorian period or any specific region.
And as I mentioned at the beginning–if there are any books on this subject that you would particulalrly recommend, please let me know. Hell, on of these days I may even stop reading about Victorian homosexuality and… oh… maybe write a novel?