In the latter part of 1894, A E Housman drafted a poem in which he complained about the state’s interference in the private lives of men such as himself. ‘Let God and man decree/Laws for themselves and not for me,’ he wrote. ‘Their deeds I judge and much condemn,/Yet when did I make laws for them?’ Naomi Wolf’s aptly titled Outrages shows how several such laws were introduced in Britain in the second half of the 19th century in a flurry of parliamentary acts intended to regulate people’s personal conduct. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 allowed police and customs officials to enter private premises without a warrant in order to find, seize and destroy publications deemed ‘of a nature to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind’. The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 authorised the forcible medical examination of homosexual men for signs of sexual activity. Most notoriously, Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 extended laws against sodomy to include acts of ‘gross indecency’ between men, whether committed ‘in public or in private’.
Much of the impetus behind such legislation came from ‘voluntary societies’ made up of high-minded puritanical busybodies, who became a real political force in Britain. Their ideas travelled across the Atlantic to America, where in 1873 an ardently Christian postal inspector called Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and gave his name to a new law criminalising the distribution of ‘obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious’ material by mail. This was a particularly insidious law. It meant that while (thanks to the First Amendment) you were at liberty to publish such books as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it became ‘effectively illegal to distribute them unless you could transport them personally by hand’.
Whitman provides a useful transatlantic perspective in Outrages, but a more important figure here is the British writer John Addington Symonds, one of the subjects of the doctoral thesis Wolf wrote at Oxford. In their very different ways, both men looked forward to a distant era in which people’s private lives would no longer be the province of lawmakers. While Whitman’s declamatory and urgently physical poetry anticipated that of Allen Ginsberg (whose Howl and Other Poems would have a famous run-in with the law in the following century), Symonds’s published writing was a good deal more circumspect. Symonds had nevertheless fallen upon Leaves of Grass, the 1860 edition of which included a section of new poems entitled ‘Calamus’, in which Whitman’s celebration of ‘the dear love of comrades’ was even more explicit, even more frankly sensual, than the verse published in the original edition.
The two men had an uneasy epistolary relationship, in which both of them equivocated about their sexual preferences, an equivocation Wolf persuasively ascribes to the very real dangers of prosecution if one wrote openly about such matters, even in private correspondence. While Whitman’s book was frequently attacked as obscene, leading to the production of bowdlerised editions and a considerable loss of sales, much of what Symonds wrote was fudged for publication or simply locked away in black iron boxes in his study. Wolf suggests that Symonds feared not only that his homosexual poems might fall foul of the obscenity laws but also that they might provide evidence in a prosecution for sexual crimes. If this seems fanciful, one need only look ahead to the first of the Wilde trials, where (though Wolf doesn’t mention it) The Picture of Dorian Gray was introduced by the Marquess of Queensberry’s counsel in justification of the marquess’s alleged libel.
While Wolf rightly considers much of the poetry that Symonds published banal, she notes that he ‘scattered deliberately into the future a set of seeds for a more progressive world than the one in which he lived – seeds of the world we now see around us’. For us to understand the true nature and import of this poetry, it was necessary for Symonds’s memoirs to be published in full, which did not happen until 2016. In these, he left instructions for later readers to decode his verse: he ‘outlined the order in which the selected poems should actually be read, and explained that the material surrounding them was inconsequential padding, designed to misdirect most readers of the 1880s’. Wolf’s unravelling and reconstructing of these ‘sodomitical’ poems provides one of the most fascinating elements of her wide-ranging book.
Among the seeds Symonds scattered into the future was his pamphlet A Problem in Modern Ethics (privately published in 1896), in which he declared that ‘legislation is interfering with the liberty of individuals, under a certain misconception regarding the nature of their offence’. This seed apparently fell on stony ground, since misconception still prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, when many of the parliamentary debates on the Wolfenden Report revolved around the question of whether or not homosexual men could be ‘treated’ or ‘cured’, even though Symonds had insisted some sixty years earlier that ‘inverts’ are aware of their sexual inclinations ‘from their earliest childhood … cannot divert them into normal channels, and … are powerless to get rid of them’.
More generally, Wolf traces an alarming elision in 19th-century Britain between laws protecting the nation’s physical health and those protecting its moral health, asserting that Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain ‘established the idea (in civic rather than religious terms) that uncleanness was not just a personal physical issue, but also a public and moral one’. The language of physical squalor – ‘dirt’, ‘filth’, ‘disease’ – was applied equally to ‘indecent’ books and to people’s sexual behaviour, along with the notion that both should be subject to legislation for the common good because they were considered infectious. Such ideas and language were still current in the era of the Wolfenden Report. The Bishop of Rochester was far from alone in declaring that ‘there is no more baneful or contagious an influence in the world than that which emanates from homosexual practice’, which he additionally likened to leprosy.
Alongside her two principals, Wolf draws numerous other people, books and institutions into her story, including Boulton and Park, Simeon Solomon, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Dr Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum. Nor does she forget that for every Oscar Wilde, hundreds of other men lost to history were similarly prosecuted. Throughout the book, she instances cases in which ordinary working people were given savage sentences after being convicted of sodomy or even ‘attempted sodomy’. To take a single shocking but representative example, while Symonds was carefully replacing male pronouns in his poems with female ones in order to publish them in Many Moods (1878), at the Old Bailey fifteen-year-old Marcus Manuel was being given ten years’ hard labour for sodomy, a sentence that supposedly ‘took his youth into account’.
Towards the end of the book, Wolf describes returning to Oxford during Gay Pride to do her final research. Rainbow flags flutter above every college, but she is well aware that, with the rise of new right-wing movements, the freedoms to which Whitman and Symonds looked forward cannot be taken for granted. Imaginatively researched, entertainingly written and enjoyably indignant, Outrages is a sobering and timely book.