Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Balzac didn’t dare

Tom Crewe on the origins of the gay novel

5089 words

When​ we happen across a gay man in the 19th-century novel, we do just that. We are made suddenly aware of him, standing in sharp relief against the busy background, apparently having very little to do with it. Usually, we see him just for a moment. Often we do not trust ourselves: we do a double-take. Occasionally, there is a flash of recognition. ‘It seemed to me,’ Henry James wrote to the critic and campaigner for homosexual rights John Addington Symonds in 1884, ‘that the victims of a common passion should sometimes exchange a look.’ The common passion James referred to was for Italy – or was it?

Here is one double-take. In Mansfield Park, published in 1814, Mary Crawford is rattling on to Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price:

‘Certainly my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.’

Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, ‘It is a noble profession.’

Rear and vice are different kinds of admiral, and we might think that the pun Jane Austen gave Mary Crawford is about sodomy, well known to be a feature of naval life. Some critics have argued reasonably that it isn’t, that the emphasis of the pun rests on ‘Vices’ (Mary’s uncle, an admiral, has moved his mistress into his household). What we do know for certain is that Edmund and Fanny are very shocked. They are very shockable people, admittedly, but would they be quite so appalled by Mary’s indiscretion if it pertained only to a mistress? Other characters in Austen’s books are relaxed about discussing similarly dubious subjects, such as ‘natural children’ (Emma is unimaginable without one such product of ‘vice’, Harriet Smith). Either way, Austen must have been aware of the possibility she was leaving open. The historian Seth Stein LeJacq has calculated that her brothers Francis and Charles, both of whom became admirals, served on at least ten naval sodomy trials between them, eight of these before Mansfield Park was published. And she wasn’t too delicate to risk such an allusion. Many years after Austen’s death, her favourite niece, Fanny, wrote to her sister: ‘Aunt Jane … was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable.’

Here is a more clear-cut case. In Anna Karenina (1878), Vronsky is eating a beefsteak in the officers’ mess:

Two officers appeared at the entrance door; one, a young fellow, with a feeble, delicate face, who had lately joined the regiment … the other, a plump, elderly officer, with a bracelet on his wrist, and little eyes, lost in fat.

Vronsky glanced at them, frowned, and looking down at his book as though he had not noticed them, he proceeded to eat and read at the same time … [The men try to engage Vronsky in conversation, but he is abrupt and dismissive, refusing to talk.]

The plump officer took up the list of wines and turned to the young officer. ‘You choose what we’re to drink,’ he said, handing him the card and looking at him.

‘Rhine wine, please,’ said the young officer, stealing a timid glance at Vronsky, and trying to pull his scarcely visible moustache. Seeing that Vronsky did not turn around, the young officer got up.

‘Let’s go into the billiard room,’ he said.

The plump officer rose submissively, and they moved toward the door.

At that moment there walked into the room the tall and well-built Captain Yashvin. Nodding with an air of lofty contempt to the two officers, he went up to Vronsky …

‘There go the inseparables,’ Yashvin dropped, glancing sarcastically at the two officers.

This whole scene takes place without any authorial comment – we are left to interpret for ourselves Vronsky’s rudeness, as well as Yashvin’s lofty contempt.

In The Crime of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz, which was published seven years later, we meet a priest called Libaninho, a ‘most active religious fanatic’, with a ‘squeaking voice … fat lemon-coloured face and a shining bald head’, who walks with ‘little mincing steps’. He is a harmless figure in the novel, much given to chatting with religious ladies; some mention is made of pastoral visits to the local barracks. But in its final pages, Father Amaro, who has moved away, bumps into an old colleague. He asks after the people he once knew:

‘And tell me now, master, Libaninho?’

‘I wrote to you about him,’ said the canon, laughing.

Father Amaro also laughed; and for a few minutes the two priests stopped, holding their sides.

‘Yes, it’s the truth,’ said the canon at last. ‘The thing was really scandalous. Because in the end they caught him in the act with the sergeant, in circumstances which left no doubt whatever … And at ten o’clock at night in the poplar avenue. He was very imprudent. But the thing was soon forgotten, and when Mathias died we gave him the position of sacristan, a good post for him. Much better than his office job. And he will fulfil his task with zeal!’

In the opening pages of La Regenta, another great novel about badly behaved priests, also published in 1885, by the Spaniard Leopoldo Alas, we are introduced to Celedonio, a young acolyte serving in the cathedral. He is only twelve or thirteen, but ‘a perversion of natural instincts … could be foreseen in the near future’; he has already attracted ‘suspicions’. After that, he is barely mentioned, until he reappears on the very last page (page 715) of the book. Ana Ozores, a bored wife, torn between the desires of the flesh and the desire for religious meaning, has fainted in the cathedral after a final confrontation with her hulkingly sexy confessor. Celedonio, the ‘scrawny, effeminate acolyte’, is locking up when he sees Ana lying unconscious on the floor:

A wretched desire stirred in Celedonio: a perversion of his perverted lust. To enjoy a strange pleasure, or perhaps to discover whether he would enjoy it, he bent over and brought his vile face close to the face of the judge’s wife and kissed her mouth.

Ana returned to life, overcome by nausea … For she thought that she had felt on her lips the cold and slimy belly of a toad.

The end!

What do these four examples have in common? In all of them, the gay man is the butt of the joke. He is a source of scandal, trespassing beyond the boundaries of decency or authority. In Austen he is a vulgarity; in Tolstoy, Eça and Alas, he is a grotesque. Yet he is also taken for granted, prominent enough to achieve his small representation, however unflattering, in the society shown in the novel. In all four, the gay man is a marginal figure, strictly irrelevant to the main action. Yet in each case, he belongs to a non-marginal institution. In Austen, the navy, at a time of war. In Tolstoy, the army, bulwark of the tsar. In Eça and Alas, the church, at a time when its position in Portuguese and Spanish society was a subject of political contention.

A final commonality: all four authors expect readers to know what is being referred to or represented, but the imagined reader is a (laughing) heterosexual. In his novels of the 1830s and 1840s Balzac, a sexually ambiguous figure himself, depicted a different sort of homosexual character, one whose true nature might be obvious only to a homosexual reader, or whose sexuality is at any rate presented neutrally. In Le Père Goriot, published in 1835, a policeman informs Mademoiselle Michonneau that one of her fellow lodgers at Madame Vauquer’s boarding house, a larger-than-life man called Vautrin, is suspected to be a seasoned criminal by the name of Jacques Collin, who has escaped from prison. The policeman lets slip that Vautrin ‘took the rap for another man’s crime, a forgery committed by an extremely handsome young man he was fond of’. Then he tells Michonneau that they need to get close to Vautrin’s body, to see whether he has a prison brand on his skin:

‘Yes, and so you need a pretty woman for that,’ said Mademoiselle Michonneau swiftly.

‘[Vautrin] wouldn’t let a woman anywhere near him,’ said the operative. ‘I’ll tell you a secret: he doesn’t like women.’

Later, when Michonneau has successfully dobbed Vautrin in to the police, and the other boarders have turned on her for her underhandedness, she takes aim at a young man called Eugène de Rastignac, whom Vautrin had befriended (and whom, readers know, Vautrin has been trying to seduce into some form of discipleship):

‘Monsieur is on Collin’s side,’ she replied, giving the student a poisonous and challenging look; ‘it’s not hard to work out why.’

At these words, Eugène sprang up as if he meant to hurl himself at the spinster and strangle her. That look, whose perfidious implications he understood, had just shone a terrifying light into his soul.

Vautrin is at the heart of two Balzac novels – Père Goriot and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes – and plays a crucial part in another between: Illusions perdues. In each case, his sexuality drives the action: he fails to bring the handsome young Rastignac under his wing, but in the latter two novels succeeds with the handsome young Lucien de Rubempré. But whereas in Austen, Tolstoy, Eça and Alas, the gay figures are marginal but connected to central institutions, here we have a central character who represents the societal margins. Vautrin is a criminal, a member of the underworld, a master of disguise and prison slang. He is one of Balzac’s supermen, an impossibly capable monomaniac. It was quite possible, distracted by this extravagance, to miss the fact of his sexuality: French critics didn’t discuss it until the 1970s.

As a major gay fictional character Vautrin is a unique case. Otherwise, by the last decades of the 19th century, all we had were glimpses and caricatures. Yet it was around this time that gay men (and women) found themselves at last becoming a source of great interest and discussion. The emergent sciences of psychology, criminology and sexology focused significant attention on homosexuality (or ‘inversion’) as a human peculiarity in need of explanation, and the most up-to-date work suggested that it might be an inherited disease. In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that gay readers wishing to see themselves represented in the novel would have turned to Émile Zola, who had become famous for his determination, in his huge cycle of interconnected novels, to represent society in its darkest and bleakest aspects, and for his supposedly ‘scientific’ approach to his characters, whose actions and fates were often explained in terms of inherited characteristics. On 8 April 1890, an anonymous man wrote to Zola from Venice. ‘Before you reach the end of your great novel cycle,’ he wrote,

why don’t you describe the aberration of the reproductive instinct? … A male by birth, brave, intelligent, but condemned from a young age, from birth, in fact, to love only members of the same sex? This type of hereditary nervous disease is your kind of story. It might not be as tragic as Jacques Lantier’s fate, but it’s a thousand times more common.

We can say with near certainty that this letter was written by John Addington Symonds, who was in Venice on 7 April 1890 (i.e. the day before the letter was sent), from where he wrote to his friend Edmund Gosse: ‘I too, felt deeply moved by the analysis of Jacques Lantier in La Bête humaine. On my way from Milan, I wrote a letter to Zola, suggesting that he should make a study of sexual inversion. I think I am going to send it. But I do not suppose he will follow my suggestion.’

What was it about the character of Lantier that had caught Symonds’s imagination? When we are introduced to him in La Bête humaine, which was published in March 1890, we are told about the ‘involuntary shudder he tried to overcome every time he came near a woman’. Fifteen pages on, he is lying on some grass, sobbing:

Oh God, so this horrible affliction he thought he was cured of had come back again, had it? … That had buzzed through his ears since his earliest adolescence with the increasing, all-powerful fever of desire. As others awakening into puberty, dream of possessing a woman, so he was maddened by the vision of killing one.

Lantier’s desire is not homosexual, but it is compulsive, feels inborn and is judged by society (and by himself) as something to be repressed. It’s obvious why Symonds saw parallels. Obvious too why his friend Gosse was also ‘deeply moved’ by Lantier, since Zola’s central image of the ‘beast within’ was the one Gosse used to describe his own homosexuality to Symonds, who shared it: ‘I know of all you speak of, the solitude, the rebellion, the despair … I have had a very fortunate life, but there has been this obstinate twist in it! I have reached a quieter time – some beginnings of [that period] when the wild beast dies. He is not dead, but tamer; I understand him & the trick of his claws.’

Zola kept Symonds’s letter, and we know that it stuck in his mind because he later referred to it in conjunction with another he had received slightly earlier, in 1888 or 1889. This letter was from an anonymous 23-year-old Italian, who made exactly the same request: that Zola write a novel containing a serious study of a gay man. (Zola had included in his 1872 novel La Curée a butler who loses his job after being discovered with a stable hand, but the Italian considered this ‘debauchery’, ‘an absolutely material thing’ that had ‘nothing to do with love’.) What made the Italian’s letter extraordinary was his decision to include a long account of his life, so that Zola could have a model to work from.*

To M. Émile Zola in Paris:

It is to you, Sir, the greatest novelist of our time, who, with the eye of a scientist and an artist, perceives and paints so powerfully all the oddities, all the infamies, and all the maladies that afflict mankind, that I send these human documents so sought after by the learned men of our time … Doesn’t such a terrible illness of the soul deserve to be described? Or at least known by the greatest collector of human documents of our time? I don’t know whether you can do something with the terrible passion I have confessed to you; in any case, I am glad to have revealed it to you.

The Italian has clearly been emboldened by his awareness of the fashionable scientific interest in homosexuality: his ‘human documents’ are in demand from ‘the learned men of our time’. And it’s obvious, from the way he structures his account, that he had been reading the books and articles these learned men were producing, especially the ‘case studies’ written by anonymous gay men, usually in response to questionnaires. In line with the form of these questionnaires, the Italian discusses his family and childhood, his first sense of sexual difference, his sexual experiences in adolescence and his later relationships with men, including a love affair with a sergeant during his military service. He was admirably determined to leave nothing out. Here he tells Zola about the first time he attempted to have anal sex:

I felt a bit alarmed, watching his penis swell to an enormous size and stand fully erect as he anointed it with cold cream. I didn’t think that it would be possible to put this enormous thing in my soft and delicate body. He smeared me with the cold cream, and I let him do it all the while anxiously awaiting the result of these preparations, which made me pant with expectation and, almost, impatience. He stretched me out on the bed as usual, raised my legs and put them on his shoulders, slid in between my thighs until his penis made contact with my body. At the same time he took hold of my shoulders and drove home the first stroke. I felt such a sharp pain that I pushed him away, and despite the effort that he made to hold me, I was able to get out from under him. I jumped off the bed, telling him I no longer wanted to do it.

Though Zola was fascinated by the letters he’d received, and not unsympathetic, he did not write a novel about a gay man. Instead, he put the letters in a drawer. It was not until 1892, when he got into a conversation about homosexuality with a young medical student called Georges Saint-Paul, that he went to dig them out. Saint-Paul remembered that ‘a very natural question came to my lips: “Why haven’t you dealt with inversion? Why haven’t you devoted one of your novels to this subject? Isn’t it worth the trouble?”’ Zola replied that when he received the Italian’s letter, he was already battling censors and moralists, and

I would have been accused of inventing the story out of whole cloth, out of my own personal corruption. And then I would have been condemned for having considered the whole business only as a vulgar speculation on the most repugnant instincts. And what an outcry would have been heard if I had said that no subject is more serious or sadder than this one, that there isn’t an affliction more common or more profound than this one – one that we pretend not to believe exists – and the best thing to do to cure these evils is to study them, to expose them, and to treat them!

He had mislaid the correspondence from Symonds, but gave the Italian’s long letter to Saint-Paul, who published it across two issues of a French journal devoted to criminology in 1894-95, and later, in 1896, as a chapter in his first book, titled Defects and Poisons: Sexual Perversion and Perversity. Zola provided a preface to the book, in which he stated his relief that the letter was now ‘in the hands of a doctor, an expert, who would not be accused of trying to cause scandal’.

Saint-Paul the doctor, however, had chosen to publish the letter with a title. He called it ‘The Novel of an Invert’. Why? Likely he thought he was taking a lead from the Italian himself – and from the connection with Zola. But it also had something to do with the nature of the Italian’s writing. Saint-Paul called the letter ‘as interesting as a novel’, ‘perhaps the most complete and the most engaging narrative of this genre’. He went on to say, with a revealing slippage of terms, that the differences between the several gay men the Italian described made

the characters in this story strikingly memorable. If one had wanted to write a case study on the most typical cases of inversion, one could not have succeeded better in presenting them, making them come alive, and setting them in motion … And this Novel of an Invert has the advantage of being a true, entirely authentic story for which we have definite proof.

So, the Italian’s letter had the best qualities of a novel – memorable characters, striking scenes – and yet it was true. The ‘characters’ weren’t characters, but fit subjects for science. The ‘genre’ of which the Italian’s letter was such a fine example was not fiction, but the invert case study.

One very obvious proof that the novel was not a novel came in 1896, when, eight or so years after he wrote to Zola, the Italian saw Saint-Paul’s book with Zola’s name on the front in a bookshop window, found his letter printed inside and wrote to Saint-Paul about it. ‘In each new novel by M. Zola,’ he told him, ‘I hoped to find a character based on me, but my wait was always in vain, and I ended up being convinced that this writer lacked the courage.’ When he found his life story in Saint-Paul’s book he felt

pleasure at seeing myself published just as I am – though I would have much preferred being brought to life in the pages of a novel and not in a treatise of medical science. In the end, that was what was decided and I can’t dispute it. Still, having been by the side of Hyacinth, the sweet friend of Apollo, or of Alexis, the handsome lover of Virgil, and then to find myself after that in the pages of an anthropology text in the company of a Parker or a Taylor, that was a bit hard, believe me, Sir!

In referring to Apollo and Alexis he means that he had dreamed of seeing himself represented in a modern novel as he could already see himself represented in classical texts. ‘I’ve always thought,’ he wrote, ‘that the horrid Vautrin’s love was more physical in nature than Balzac could have admitted to himself.’ But Zola had been no braver. ‘Why ask our modern writers to do what Balzac himself didn’t dare to?’ he concluded.

The Italian didn’t think that what he had written was any substitute. He knew that his letter was not like any novel he’d ever read. On this point, he made an interesting remark to Saint-Paul: ‘What I sent to M. Zola, you decided to call a novel, and it certainly is a story.’ Here he was anticipating E.M. Forster’s distinction in Aspects of the Novel between a story, ‘events arranged in their time sequence’, and a plot, where the ‘emphasis falls on causality’. He was also recognising a larger formal or contextual difference: Saint-Paul had called his letter a ‘novel’, but it was not published as one; instead it was presented as a case study in a ‘treatise of medical science’, an ‘anthropology text’. The Parker and Taylor whom the Italian resents being in the company of were associates of Oscar Wilde, who had been sentenced for homosexual offences a year earlier.

The irony here is that, though the Italian was entirely right in his scepticism, the case study became the generic basis for what we now call the ‘gay novel’, offering as it does a model form of ‘coming out’: first a tortured dialogue between body and mind during childhood and adolescence, then reciprocated sexual attraction, clandestine first kisses and sexual acts, a developing confidence, and at last the act of confession in the writing of the ‘human documents’ we are reading. This is the reason the Italian’s letter reads much more like a novel to us now than it did to him then.

Itis not a coincidence that in the last two decades of the 19th century, as the invert case study put gay lives into print for the first time, we begin to see the first novels that, rather than including gay characters within Zola-style social narratives (as the Italian wanted), are instead about homosexuality, or, more accurately, about the condition of being a homosexual. There weren’t very many of these books, and most are long forgotten. But already, as Graham Robb observed in Strangers, his study of homosexuality in the 19th century, the trope of the ‘gay tragic ending’ was in evidence: ‘In twelve European and American novels (1875-1901) in which the main character is depicted, often sympathetically, as an adult homosexual man, six die (disease, unrequited love and three suicides), two are murdered, one goes mad, one is cured by marriage and two end happily (one after six months in prison and emigration to the US).’ As Robb says, it cannot only be that authors felt they had to inflict punishment on their characters, as a way of redeeming their text in the eyes of the censor. The tragic death was a strategy: by showing a doom to which gay men were fated, they were arguing against the society that made it inevitable. The logic of the case study lurks here too: the uncertain tone of the Italian’s confessions, which veer between self-hatred, extravagant descriptions of himself as a monstrosity, and a frank acceptance of his nature and the pleasure he has found, is suggestive of the ways in which the ‘tragedy’ of being gay might be played up, not always consciously, as part of the bid for toleration and understanding.

The case study also underlies other, more canonical late 19th and early 20th-century novels by gay men. Wilde’s Dorian Gray, for example, with its progression from innocence to corruption, and symbol of the unadmitted life. Certainly Forster’s Maurice, which begins with its hero at the troubled age of fourteen and ends (happily for once) with his escape with his lover. À la recherche du temps perdu proposes itself as the narrated career of a heterosexual, but is again an autobiographical account of a maturing sexuality which pertains very largely to the habits and love affairs of homosexuals. Melville’s ‘Billy Budd’ and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Prussian Officer’ are oddly similar – oddly, because Lawrence didn’t know Melville’s story – in that they both depict an older man’s unarticulated, obscure but angry passion for a younger subordinate, and both end in the younger causing the older man’s death, before dying himself. These stories could be read as ‘homosexual’ only in light of knowledge of the sort collected by the case study, which allowed the informed reader to extrapolate from external signs to internal states of feeling. Most of all – and perhaps most unexpectedly, considering the distance of time travelled – the case study underlies the major tradition of gay writing that developed after 1945 and that persists to the present day, the often melancholic or tragic novels of individual struggle, of childhood and adolescent experience, of attempted repression, of searching, of sexual experiment and release: from Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, to Edmund White’s Boy’s Own Story to Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You to Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy to Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper. Those novels that largely or entirely concern themselves with gay male characters – such as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, which has no women in it – also have a relationship to the case study, which, especially once it concerns the subject’s adulthood, essentially limits itself to describing his interactions with men of his own kind.

Of course, the case study’s framings of gay experience have remained in currency in part because the experiences of young gay men have remained sadly familiar (and because at certain points, gay men’s worlds were forced to become extremely homosocial). Indeed, although in most parts of the West ‘coming out’ may now be easier than it has ever been, there seems to be a renewed enthusiasm for publishing narratives about the discovery and affirmation of our identity. But we should recognise that the long, largely undetected influence of the case study has also kept gay life, as represented in the novel, on the margins, rendered it exceptional, isolated it, centred it on sexual desire and the problem of its fulfilment, made of it a type of sentimental plea. In his preface to Saint-Paul’s study, Zola concluded with a tentative hope that the publication of the ‘Novel of an Invert’

will inspire a little pity or a little fairness for certain unfortunate beings. And then, everything related to sex is related to society itself. An invert is a disruptor of the family, the nation, and humanity. Man and Woman are surely here on earth only in order to have children, and they destroy life the day when they no longer do what they must.

Though Zola didn’t intend it, this passage contains a rallying cry for a different kind of gay or queer fiction. His point is, in a way, obvious: sexuality relates intimately to the way we live in society, and when society is constructed on heterosexual lines, this means that the homosexual is capable of disrupting every element of it. Yet by failing to outgrow the individualising shadow of the case study, gay or queer fiction has not fully reckoned with this, and not fully reckoned with huge areas of social experience. The requirement to lift our sights – to see gay lives as they interact with, to use Zola’s words, family, nation, humanity – is especially pressing if we are dealing with the past, when society was culturally and legally premised on heterosexuality to an extent no longer possible here (though still the case in many non-Western countries). To write about gay men in Britain in the 19th century, for example, should be to write about them as sons, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, grandparents, members of a social class, employees, employers, thinkers, readers, politicians, imperialists and so on; as part of the world, not as apart from it. To return to Forster’s definitions, this would be to take gay men out of story and put them into plot; to turn them from ‘flat’ characters, with one dominating trait, into ‘round’ ones. This does not mean that we should minimise sexuality – rather, we would see its significance more clearly, as it disrupts, or perhaps doesn’t, in all areas of life; in so doing, we would see the society more clearly also. The same can be done in novels about the present: to live up to the full ambition of the idea of ‘queering’ – as disruption – we need to see a queer individual in the full spectrum of their relationships with people, places, institutions. To keep our exploration within the bounds of identity is to conspire in our own limitation.

When Symonds and the Italian wrote to Zola, the most famous and ambitious novelist of their time, what they wanted was not for the gay man to be separated from the main current of the novel, but to be placed, by act of imagination, definitely and inevitably within it, in modern life, in society itself. They are waiting still.

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Letters

Vol. 46 No. 4 · 22 February 2024

Tom Crewe writes that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library ‘has no women in it’ (LRB, 8 February). Evidently he didn’t register the brief telephone conversation Will has with his sister Philippa.

Clarissa Wyatt
Ripon, North Yorkshire

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