cover image STRANGERS: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century

STRANGERS: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century

Graham Robb, . . Norton, $27.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-393-02038-0

With an impressive oeuvre comprising acclaimed biographies of Rimbaud, Balzac and Victor Hugo, Robb returns to spoof the poststructuralist convention that homosexuality, because it was not then categorized or "named," cannot be said to exist prior to 1880; he also argues that homosexual men and women in this period were not automatically persecuted. For Robb, Oscar Wilde's "martyrdom" and similar cases were exceptions to the rule of, if not acceptance, then a grudging knowing. He unpacks now obscure layers of contemporary allusion to show evidence of gay tolerance in many kinds of literary work, from high to low, from Continental, U.S. and U.K. fiction to the most obscure, nearly unreadable pamphlet. And some of the material is decidedly and hilariously antiliterary. "In Weiberbeute by 'Luz Frauman' (Budapest, 1901), a frustrated lesbian hypnotizes her girlish stepson into thinking himself a woman. She then induces a phantom pregnancy in him, fosters her own son on him and convinces him he has given birth to a girl." Still, Robb's claim that the eponymous castle in Eekhoud's 1899 novel Escal-Vigor is a "partial anagram of Oscar Wilde" seems true only in the sense that it's also a partial anagram of Gore Vidal. The book ends fittingly on an extended inquiry into the mystery of why so many fictional detectives, beginning with the 19th-century Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, but also the 20th-century Miss Marple and Nero Wolfe, seem to be telling us today they're gay. This agreeable, provocative romp shows that, at least in some strata of society, their peers already knew. (Dec.)