Civil Liberties

Queer Victorians


Doug Ireland reviews Charles Upchurch's recent book on homosexuality in 19th century England. Besides detailing the surge in "attempted sodomy" arrests after the 1820s—a change Ireland attributes partly to a draconian revision in the anti-sodomy statute, and partly to the creation of the London Metropolitan Police Force— the article pushes back against a common belief about the period:

Previous historical accounts have made the unwarranted assumption that there was little public discussion or public awareness of same-sex activities in Victorian England until late in the century, when a series of notorious cases involving queers culminated in the prosecution and conviction of Oscar Wilde.

But Upchurch, after a decade of meticulous research, demonstrates that this assumption is palpably false. Earlier examinations of the press in early-and-mid Victorian England relied on indexes and databases built on key words that missed many published reports on same-sex conduct and legal action. But by minutely examining the files of three newspapers with different class audiences between 1827 and 1870, and cross-checking them with court records, official documents, and correspondence, Upchurch has shown that not only was there broad public awareness in these years of sex between men, but that male homosexual conduct was a matter of considerable public discussion.

Naturally, the outlet oriented towards the upper classes prefered to cover cases "in which men of social standing and property successfully defended themselves against 'indecent assault' charges," while the working-class paper "usually gave priority in its coverage to those cases involving men of modest means in some way, usually as accusers of the wealthy."

The book is titled Before Wilde. The rest of the review is here.