Adam Douglas

A Gross Indecency

 

Sir Henry Irving was by any measure an eminent Victorian, a celebrity of his age. For three decades his Lyceum theatre mounted lavish historical extravaganzas, with specially composed orchestral music, performed in front of such spectacular scenery that audiences sometimes stopped the show to call for the painter to take a bow. Irving had a flair for the epic that anticipated Hollywood blockbusters, and the general public (though not always the critics) loved him for it. His funeral in Westminster Abbey saw six hundred wreaths laid in the cloisters. Outside, the London crowds stood in respectful silence and cab drivers tied black crepe to their whips.

Yet, as Irving himself had foreseen, his particular art did not live long beyond the recall of those who had seen him on stage. In the age before film, Irving’s insubstantial pageants were destined to fade into thin air. Aside from a few photographs and a couple of miraculously surviving recordings of him reading in old age, the closest we can get to an appreciation of Irving is through theatrical memoirs. In this, Irving was fortunate in having as his long-term business manager a professional writer, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. In 1906, the year after Irving’s death, Stoker published Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, a weighty two-volume work that remains a vital source for Irving studies.

I have a copy of the first edition on my desk, bought on a book-buying trip to Italy. It is by no means an ideal copy: its red cloth covers are mottled with damp and insect marks, though the pages are surprisingly fresh. The copy is inscribed on the flyleaf by the author, ‘Right Hon Henry Labouchere, PC, with the love and respect of his old friend Bram Stoker.’

If Irving’s star has faded, Henry Labouchere (his surname reflects Huguenot ancestry) is now almost entirely unknown, yet he has some claim to be regarded as one of the most interesting British politicians of the 19th century. Labby, as he was known to one and all, was a radical, a Nonconformist, a wit, a raconteur and a loose cannon throughout his life. His biography boasts enough jaw-dropping episodes to fill a Netflix series. Having run up outrageous gambling debts while at Cambridge, he was sent on business to South America by his family, but he evaded his duties by falling in love with a Mexican circus lady and joining her troupe. For six months he lived in an Ojibwe camp. Brought back to Europe, he spent ten indolent years as an unlikely member of the Diplomatic Service, before being sacked for cheek.

He was first elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1865, but initially failed to secure a safe seat. Meanwhile he dabbled in theatre, which is where he first encountered Henry Irving. In 1867, he and several partners founded Queen’s Theatre, Long Acre. A new company of players was formed, including Irving, Ellen Terry, the diminutive comedian J L Toole and the brilliant burlesque actress Henrietta Hodson, a married lady, though estranged from her husband. After the company fell apart, Labby defied convention by living with Hodson. The 1881 census lists her occupation as ‘concubine’.

Labby inherited a fortune from his uncle and spent a good deal of it on founding his own weekly journal, Truth. Already a seasoned journalist – his dispatches during the siege of Paris in 1870-71 saved the Daily News’s finances and were collected in a very readable book – he filled his paper with gossip and anecdote in what was, after the explosion of mass newspaper readership, a golden age for journalism.

In 1880 Labby’s parliamentary career finally got going and for the next twenty-five years he served as MP for Northampton. On many issues he showed himself on the right side of history: in his defence of the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh, in his sympathy for Irish nationalism, in his opposition to the British invasion of Egypt, to name a few. An anti-imperialist, he led the demand for an inquiry into the behaviour of Cecil Rhodes’s company in Rhodesia. He invented the ‘Grand Old Man’ nickname for Gladstone. He got up Queen Victoria’s nose so much that he was denied high office, retiring from politics with only the privy counsellorship that Stoker politely noted in his inscription.

For all that, Labby’s quarter-century of politicking has left little trace. When he slit open the leaves of Stoker’s biography and looked himself up in the index, he would have seen his name cited just once. The reference leads to a guest list for a famous party Irving threw. There is no mention of his role in the Queen’s Theatre, no mention of their long-term friendship, no mention of his favourite Irving anecdote: when Irving remarked at one of his lavish banquets, ‘And to think, Labby, that I was once receiving five pounds a week from you’, Labby made the table laugh by retorting, ‘Three pounds, Henry, my boy; only three.’

Labby did leave one mark on theatrical history, however. In 1885 he was the author of a key clause in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, classifying ‘acts of gross indecency’ between men as an imprisonable offence. Sodomy had been a capital offence since 1563, though one that was difficult to prove in practice. At a stroke the Labouchere Amendment outlawed all homosexual activity of any kind, both public and private. It was the law under which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1895. Labby showed no mercy then, wishing only that Parliament had stuck to his original proposal of seven years.

What Bram Stoker would have made of this is anyone’s guess. His inscription in the book, with ‘love and respect’, gives no hint of distaste. It is dated 4 May 1909 and was presumably inscribed while on a visit to Labby in his comfortable retirement at the Villa Cristina outside Florence. Stoker’s near omission of Labouchere from his biography of Irving may have been inadvertent: they were his personal reminiscences, after all, and the Queen’s Theatre episode predated his time as Irving’s manager. But Stoker knew Oscar Wilde well, both from Dublin and from the small world of London’s theatres, and at some risk to his own reputation had visited Wilde in his disgrace. Is it too much to think that, for all Labby’s drawling charm, Stoker was inclined to write him out of history?

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