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Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century
H.G. Cocks
London & New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2003.
£39.50, $59.50, 258 pages, ISBN 1-86064-890-8 (hardback).

Gilbert Pham-Thanh
Université de Paris 13

 

Nameless Offences is structured into five chapters and three parts. In the first part, Cocks shows how the expansion of criminal law made it possible for nineteenth-century society to articulate the “nameless crime” (3) of homosexuality. Then, he examines the twisted Victorian strategy of describing and erasing the sodomite experience, in a general framework of competing idioms where streetwise blackmailers converse with law people inside courtrooms, thus drawing the historical background of “the closet”. He finally focuses on the impact this special discourse had on some categories of males, who were encouraged to seek transcendent expression for their homoerotic urges, and ended up constructing their individuality in accordance with the standards of acceptability. The mainspring of the work is the determined endeavour to explode the idea that homosexuality was silenced throughout the nineteenth century.

In the introduction, key notions that have come to be associated with Victorianism are summoned, such as morality, decency, respect, scandal, or the opposition of private and public. At that point, Cocks notes how the definition of a sodomite shifted from "performer of a specific act" to "type of person with a specific cast of mind". He also hints at the great number of scandals and cases in early Regency to add that homosexual behaviour was rampant on the public scene around 1780-1850, with the attendant legal prosecutions that proved “sustained, unspectacular, insidious, everyday and even familiar” (6). He concludes by reporting the relatively smaller number of cases that were brought to court at the turn of the twentieth century, even if their notoriety leaves a lasting mark on the representation of fin de siècle.

He convincingly argues that the public discourse relating to homosexuality was basically founded on the legal idiom, which offered the received version of acceptable language. Thus, journalists could find an adequate terminology for events that clearly belonged to the underworld and the street, where male prostitution, indecent behaviour, rape and blackmail proved to be connected in different ways with respectable gentlemen, with the result that two antithetical worlds were shown to interact, to mingle with each other, “the world of the street intruded […] into the realm of respectability” (115).
The same dual principle is also active at other levels and the Victorian society emerges as a complex structure where tensions arise between the necessity to guard morality and keep up appearances, and the fundamental adherence to the principle of liberalism.

In this context, it is particularly striking to note how what took place in private came under the jurisdiction of the law, simply by enforcing new notions of public and private. So, from the moment a person qualified as an acceptable witness to the offence, the private sphere was no longer one such and the offenders could be prosecuted, counting for nought the alleged sanctity of the home sanctuary and putting an end to the privilege of masculine sexual liberty. In this perspective, Cocks mentions the famous 1885 Labouchere Act, only to claim that the prosecution for “gross indecency” in both private and public was actually nothing new, all the more so since all forms of sodomy had already been outlawed under Henry VIII in 1533. Anyhow, the whole system secured an efficient way of policing the private sphere.

Cocks goes on to demonstrate that legal reforms hardly ever came as a concerted attempt to restore morals after the laxity of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but rather marked an effort to catch up with daily practice in the courtrooms, at a time when so many disputes were settled there. He notes the change that occurred in the second half of the century, when judges became more suspicious of unwanted testimonies from lower-profile individuals—“common bouncers”—who clearly aimed at exposing the gentlemen who would not give in to blackmail. As a result, the separation between private and public was reinstated, so to speak, while a man’s good reputation served as a guarantee of a good character—the appearance would inevitably give away the idolater of debauchery. Meanwhile, the police strove to limit homosexual dealings to specific areas, content to contain rather than to eradicate a behaviour that was still considered better left unspoken of, if one was to avoid spreading word of such a corrupting habit to the lower, uneducated classes. In addition, past experience had shown that the police could easily be ridiculed in pointless cases where no satisfactory evidence was presented to the judges and the defendant was released or got off lightly. However, this was slightly counter-balanced by the influence of “new journalism”, which encouraged investigation into the private lives of public figures, by the end of the nineteenth century. Likewise, science made homosexuality an object of study, making it necessary to recast their identities for homophiles who could not face this particular condemnation. In the final part, Cocks relates the itinerary of the “Bolton Whitmanites”, a community of males living in the countryside, whose homoerotic desires were repressed or channelled into the cult of comradeship, within a framework of classless, universal brotherhood. This transcendent bonding enabled the members to develop a language of loving comradeship, and even though some of them were married, they would occasionally share the same bed, where sexless nights were spent exchanging ideas or feelings and reciprocating compliments. The theme of homosexuality was a topic of endless discussion among them, and revealed their fascination and repulsion for same sex desire. Most of all, it was an occasion for them to fathom their personality, and to negotiate an identity that could not be directly disclosed.

Nameless Offences was first devised as a Ph.D dissertation, a fact that shows in the quality of the documentation in use and the carefully-planned demonstrative structure of the whole. Well-written, the book makes good reading. Most of all, it offers a lively panorama of Victorian society, seen from a refreshingly new perspective that will contribute to the impetus of Masculinities Studies. The blurb may sound dismissive, since Cocks does more than cater for students and “a more general audience”. In addition, he manages a very good introduction which lays out the critical heritage—Foucault and Sedgwick are among the most influential references—on which he based his research. Unsurprisingly, the reader is introduced to all sorts of differences touching on the various definitions of the “unsayable/unspeakable” and their legal status, such as the controversial necessity to show evidence of sperm emission to prove the reality of the act, or the habit in the sixteenth century to refer to sodomy in case of penetration of a woman by an animal. It is also a great occasion to brush up one’s vocabulary and perhaps to examine what distinctions or connotations may lie behind the specific terms quoted, such as “sodomy”, “unnatural crime”, “indecent behaviour”, “indecent assault”, “gross indecency”, “indecency with males”, “buggery”, “misdemeanour”, “to commit the felony”, “to cruise”, “Mollies”, “Marie Annes” and “Margeries”. Finally, Nameless Offences reminds the reader that the public discourse on homosexuality may not always be outspoken, but it makes readable material, a paradox that clearly echoes in such quotes as: “an offence so unnatural as even to appear incredible” (79), or “the evidence was, of course, unfit for publication” (82).



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