Queer People: Then and Now

George E. Haggerty
University of California, Riverside

In a chapter of his recent book, How to Do the History of Homosexuality, David M. Halperin argues that Foucault has been misused in discussions of the history of sexuality.   I am going to quote Halperin at length because what he says has significant bearing on the challenge the contributors to this wonderful collection set for themselves from the beginning.   Halperin argues:

By documenting the existence of both a discursive and a temporal gap between two dissimilar styles of naming, Foucault highlights the historical and political specificity of “sexuality,” both as a cultural concept and as a tactical device, and so he contributes to the task of “introducing” the history of sexuality as a possible field of study–as a radical scholarly and political project.   Nothing Foucault says about the differences between those two historically distant and operationally distinct, discursive strategies for regulating and deligitimating forms of male same-sex sexual contacts prohibits us from inquiring into the connections that pre-modern people may have made between specific sex acts and particular ethos, or sexual style, or sexual subjectivity of those who performed them.[1]

In offering this corrective to the impression he may have created by his discussion of Foucault in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality , Halperin begins to suggest a route by which we might resolve the essentialist-constructionist controversy that has often undermined studies of the history of sexuality, especially in the eighteenth century.[2]  As Chris Mounsey and Caroline Gonda point out in “Queer People: An Introduction,” this controversy has animated much recent discussion of eighteenth-century sexual life.   If scholars like Richter Norton and Randolph Trumbach see clear evidence of homosexuality in the period, others, like Cameron McFarlane and Hans Turley complicate this easy familiarity with at least the distance and usually the distinction that Foucault, in short hand, provides.[3]

The eighteenth century has been a rich battleground for these issues because, poised as it is between the early modern historical moment and modernity, it is already showing signs–in the molly houses, the parks, and the courtrooms–of the kind of sexual subjectivity that Foucault sees in the work of mid- to late nineteenth-century sexologists.   All of us writing about the history of sexuality in the eighteenth century–whether we are writing about the unmarried women of Millenium Hall or Anne Lister’s seduction of her gentlewomen neighbors; Beckford and his penchant for little boys or Smollett and his fascination with same-sex behaviors–are dealing with characters and situations that are on the cusp of change.   We police ourselves for over-familiarity, but on the other hand, these figures are familiar.   I can see Walpole and his friends as a circle of silly queens because I recognize them as such.   I cannot make persuasive claims about what they did with each other–that remains hidden–but I can talk about their common obsessions, the jokes they shared, even the attractions they articulated.   There is enough, that is, to enable me to feel that I understand what is going on.

Halperin is attempting to show how sexual subjectivity might have been available even centuries before the topics we in eighteenth-century studies discuss.   If he is correct–and I think in his observations are both welcome and overdue–then how much more likely is it that we will find similar resonances in this century, a period that could be seen as the age in which the discursive range of sexological thinking really got its start?   It is not far from George Cheyne and the hysteria-producing symptoms of obstructed organs to the sexological diagnosis of Westphal and his successors.[4]

Given these concerns and the resulting willingness to reconsider the meaning of sexual alterity, Queer People: Negotiations and Expressions of Homosexuality, 1700-1800 (Bucknell, 2007) is a timely publication, and one that will be embraced by the scholarly community.   In their introduction, Gonda and Mounsey outline recent controversies that beset the field and, with typical grace, good humor, and perspicacity, they address questions that anyone doing historical research in the field of sexuality must consider.   They address the essentialist-constructionist controversy in helpful terms, and their own intervention opens a window capacious enough to include an entire range of historical investigation, the range indeed that this collection represents.   This introduction provides an informed critical basis for the essays that follow; but even more than that, in model introduction form, Gonda and Mounsey introduce each of the thirteen (very engaging) essays to follow.   These summaries demonstrate how thoroughly thought-out this collection is, and how much an informed reader can gain by reading the volume from cover to cover.   It also offers the casual reader or specialized scholar enough information to enable a reading selection that suits her or his interests.   I found these introductory remarks helpful in seeing the larger picture, and indeed these pages suggest what a truly wonderful collection this is.

The collection itself represents an astonishing range of issues and concerns: literary–novels and poems are discussed throughout; historical–pamphlets and historical material structure several of the essays; and musical–two essays advance our understanding of Handel considerably.   The essays are of varying quality to be sure, but even the least sophisticated discusses important material interestingly, and together they make a powerful statement about what is possible in sexuality studies.   I am impressed at the variety, and encouraged by what I see as the great potential this material will have in the classroom.   None of these essays is too complex for classroom use, and many complement materials many of us already use in teaching classes that concern the history of sexuality.

I can hardly do justice to the range and extent of the collection by discussing only a few of the essays, but because of space restraints, that is all I can accomplish here.   For every essay I mention, there are several others as good and as compelling.

In her essay, “Queerness, Class, and Sexuality,” Sally O’Driscoll sets out to re-examine the narrative of the invention of the domestic woman, and looks at “how much energy had to be spent patrolling the perimeters of this construct” and “how little is ‘natural'” in the accepted narrative concerning the emergence of the middle-class woman (72).   O’Driscoll tries to displace the existing status by talking about the sexuality of middle- and lower-class women.   She herself points out how complicated this is: “What then does it mean to talk about sexuality of the lower classes, the vast bulk of the population?   First, when even the term class is anachronistic, there is no single descriptive work that covers all the categories here” (74).   O’Driscoll goes on to consider how women of the laboring class “perceive their sexual lives in the eighteenth century before domesticity took hold?” (74).   In doing so she takes on critics as wide-ranging as Sedgwick and Trumbach, and she uses contemporary pamphlets to make a strong case that laboring-class women had active and rich sexual lives.   As O’Driscoll argues, “the laboring-class women who had talked vulgarly among themselves about sex, but who at the same time fiercely protected certain moral and financial boundaries, came to be represented as uniformly loose and immoral.   They had to be pictured that way in order to play the necessary part of Other against which domestic womanhood could define itself” (81).   That is an important insight, and O’Driscoll’s essay will help us to re-imagine the contours of the sexual past.   This essay adds a great deal to the volume as a whole.

In the essay “People, Place & Performance: Theoretically Revisiting Mother Clap’s Molly House,” Tanya Cassidy attempts to apply sociological theories of urban space to the early eighteenth-century accounts of molly house culture.   The results are interesting, to be sure.   After a survey of the urban space and a discussion of clubs, as represented both in Ned Ward’s writing and in The Tatler and The Spectator , Cassidy discusses the role of the molly house specifically.   As Cassidy argues, the Molly Club does not fit other descriptions and “has its own logic and conventions, and prosecutors and publishers alike were eager for evidence that suited preexisting frames of reference” (106).   Cassidy explores that logic and argues that “the new form of urban space allowed club identities to flourish–identities not born of existential self-recognition but new possibilities of sociability” (154).   This is a useful addition to what we know about these clubs, and it is a helpful correction to the current critical tendency to see essentialist identities at work there.   This is a thoughtful piece, and if the opening passages are theoretically a bit cumbersome, that is made up for by the writer’s truly useful conclusion.   This is an exciting perspective on the material, and it will be useful when one teaches this club literature both to graduates and undergraduates.

In his wonderful “How (Not) to Queer Boswell,” Thomas A. King takes on “the question of how to read Boswell’s strong identification with other men and his insistent desire to pose in their gazes” (116).   King claims that “through residual display, Boswell performed a manliness differentiating the status-bearing body from the emergent classed body under capitalism” (116).   He proceeds to read Boswell’s journals more interestingly than they have ever been read before, and he reaches the conclusion that “the liberal fantasy of masculinity . . . is necessarily constituted in, and constrained by, the fantasy of its own loss.   If we respond with outrage to the scandal of Boswell’s text . . . are we not seduced by the performativity of heterosexual masculinity, reinstating it, in liberal terms, as that expansive ideal of citizenship the necessity of which our very reading of Boswell reaffirms?” (118-19).   That statement may stop us in our tracks, but this is an important perspective in Boswell studies, and one that has clear significance for everyone doing the history of sexuality.   King goes on to give a rich and arresting response to the material in Boswell’s journals that has been read as potentially queer, and he shows how much more complicated the story is that they actually tell.   I find this essay inspiring and I would place it among the very best in the collection; further, I would single it out as one of the essays that makes this collection useful for teaching in the field.

In her essay, “Love between men in Jennens’ and Handel’s Saul ,” Ruth Smith looks at the Biblical sources for Jennens’s libretto, specifically examining their handling of the celebrated relationship of David and Jonathan.   Smith uses the occasion to review helpfully the “charges of effeminacy and homosexuality” that we leveled at Italian opera throughout the first quarter of the eighteenth century (228).   If the oratorio was free of such labeling, Handel and Jennens still found it necessary to treat their sources carefully and to handle meticulously the moments of intimacy that the two characters share.   The most famous of these is, of course, “David’s Lament,” which had had no fewer than ten versifications before Jennens and Handel put their hands to it (231).   For Smith, “Jennens’ version is a formal tour de force, and by comparison with his predecessors, very faithful to the original” (231).   Jennens was in fact deeply learned about the issue of male friendship, and he sent Handel classical sources to help him to understand the complexity of these issues.

Jennens’s emphasis on the manifestation of virtue through the cultivation of social relationships and the social affections is an eloquently dramatized transcript of Lord Shaftesbury’s moral philosophy.   It is also a smart riposte to the strictures of Shaftesbury and later deists on the deplorable ethics of the Old Testament God and his people: Jennens the devout believer is positioning Old Testament heroes on the highest plane of sensibility and integrity. (233)

Only those familiar with Smith’s earlier work on Handel would anticipate these breathtakingly informative analyses.   She shows how the libretto shifts emphases from the Bible, pointing out the ways in which Jennens “contrasts Saul’s morbid passion–which leads him to attempt to murder both David and his own son–with the generosity of David’s and Jonathan’s love” (239).   This essay is learned, engaging, and informative throughout.   It also suggests what a wonderful range of interests this volume addresses.

Finally, Chris Roulston, in her essay “Having It Both Ways?   The Eighteenth-Century Ménage-à-Trois,” discusses the oft-cited but perennially confusing phenomenon of “the threesome, consisting of the husband, the wife, and her female friend, a model that refashioned the boundaries of marriage without rupturing them completely” (274).   Roulston considers this threesome in relation to kinship models (Lévi-Strauss) and theories of the continuum of female relations (Rich and Sedgwick).   She points out that “this particular formulation of the threesome haunted the literary imagination and alternative reading to what would become a more reified marital domestic structure by mid-nineteenth century” (276).   In this essay, she shows “what conditions made these threesomes possible” (276), and examines a wide range of threesome narratives throughout the century.   It is a very rich and entertaining discussion.   Not surprisingly, Roulston returns more than once to Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762), which involves a “re-imagining of the marital relationship through female pair-bonding” (286).   “As a narrative tool,” Roulston says in conclusion, “the threesome is an invaluable reminder of the potential limitations of binary relations, but it is also defined by a domesticity that adultery lacks.   This is precisely why it can be so easily inserted into the existing structure of marriage narratives, potential redefining the institution from within” (294).   What a useful observation, and how great it will be to approach these works with this thoughtful discussion of literary threesomes to generate classroom discussion.

I recommend this collection with enthusiasm.   Scholars and students of the period will find it equally useful.   There really is something for everyone here.


[1]   David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago and London, 2002), 32.   See also “Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” Representations 63 (Summer 1998): 93-120, 108-9.

[2]   Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York, 1990).

[3]   See Richtor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House (London, 1992); Randolph Trumbach’s “London’s Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Social History 11 (1977): 1-33, and “Sodomitical Assaults, Gender Role, and Sexual Development in Eighteenth-Century London,” The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe , ed. Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma (New York, 1989), 407-29; Cameron McFarlane, The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire (New York, 1997); and Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (New York, 1999).

[4]   See, for example, George Cheyne, The English Malady (London, 1733), and Karl Friedrich and Otto Westphal, “Die conträre Sexualempfinding, Symptom eines neuropathischen (psychopathischen) Zustandes” Archive für Psyciatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 2 (1870): 73-108.