Matthew Houlbrook’s 2005 book Queer London opens with a romantic letter from one man to another. It’s a good introduction, it’s a very helpful description of queer 1930s culture, but what struck me, more than the story, was the citation.
Figure 1. Photograph of Cyril’s letter to Billy, 1934. The National Archive of the UK (PRO), ref no. MEPO 3/758. Material in the National Archives in the copyright of the Metropolitan Police is reproduced by permission of the Metropolitan Police Authority.
What bothers me is this: it is not merely that most documents about gay life from early 20th-century England have only come to us through the police, it is that it is still the Metropolitan Police Authority who grants permission. Gay history in Britain is still filtered through not merely illicitness or secrecy, but through illegality: in many ways, the oppressors are still telling the story.
Before I ever opened Queer London, before I had looked at any documents of gay history, before I moved to Britain, I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Hollinghurst’s novels, of which there are currently five, are all aware, in some way or another, of the tensions of gay history, and the way that this history is haunted by the missing, the unknown, and the dead. Of these, three deal directly with gay history in twentieth-century Britain: The Swimming Pool Library (1988), The Line of Beauty (2004), and The Stranger’s Child (2011). I am only writing about three, because you can do that in an essay, cut out the parts that aren’t relevant, focus on what is.
Britain in general has a habit of leaving things unspoken. Even now, gayness, hookups, wealth, or anything considered not-quite polite conversation, is sometimes indicated in whispers or eyebrow gestures, or the pauses in jokes. It happens often enough, at parties, in class, that I too have gotten into the habit, and the game that comes from guessing in the silence. It is not supposed to be about shame, merely politeness, but the silence indicates otherwise. Yet when the stories themselves are missing, when the stories being told are about silence and loss, about what is unspoken, it is a habit that is hard to break. It is not that Hollinghurst’s books leave sex out– quite the opposite, in a way that finds me sometimes reading his novels in public with the covers barely open, angled so that no one can read an explicit scene over my shoulder. And they are not niche or unread: The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker prize in 2004 and was made into a BBC miniseries; Hollinghurst is interviewed by newspapers and attends literary festivals. But even in highlighting the silences and omissions, the novels further them, and the unsaid and unpublished of the characters remains so for the readers.
For books about gay life, out gay life, they are remarkably oblique. The Swimming Pool Library is set in the summer of 1983, described in the first line as “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be […] it was my time, my belle époque – but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.” It is the last summer of its kind because of AIDS, which in 1983 was just beginning as a disease in England. It is also the last summer of its kind for the narrator, a young, almost absurdly privileged man, whose title, wealth, and sexual magnetism render him a kind of sexual superhero, able to pick up men anywhere, without regard for schedules or self awareness. At first, he appears as a caricature of racist, out of touch, upper-class Britain, with his boarding-school-and-Oxford education, useless job editing an encyclopedia of architecture, and fetishization of his Black lover, Arthur, whose name he describes as “a kind of time travel, [the kind of name] cried out in passion when my grandfather was young.”
This lazy nostalgia for colonialism returns to haunt him and those around him. Will accepts a job writing an old man’s memoirs, with their similar plot to Will’s life, haunt Will’s own narrative, particularly when the memoirs reveal that the man was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for homosexual acts. A pertinent fact goes unspoken: that the politician who persecuted him, and is later elevated to the peerage, is Will’s own grandfather. It is this grandfather from whom Will has gained his title, and presumably his money; it is this grandfather who funds Will’s life and haunts Charles’. Will cannot edit the memoir, and tells Charles that “All I could write now […] is a book about why I couldn’t write the book […] I suppose there are enough books of that kind to make that of some interest.” Where there is a story to be told, Will can only be silent: even to tell the stories of the past is too risky. In the end, he is trapped between that past, with its secrets and threats, and the future, the knowledge of AIDS and Will’s sexual habits having haunted the reader throughout the book.
Will Beckwith, even with his title and money, describes himself as “tugged between two versions of myself, one of them a hedonist and the other — a little in the background these days– an almost scholarly figure with a faintly puritanical set to the mouth.” I love this description, and feel like it is some shared trait between myself and the narrator. I am, absolutely, on the other end, an almost scholarly figure, mouth pursed, half-longing to find some hedonistic urge, to cut loose and make gleefully bad decisions. Yet I find now that I can’t. After spending so much time reading these texts and attempting to adjust to the English culture of reticence and omission, I find that there are parts of myself that have turned from present to invisible, no longer able to be articulated.
Nick Guest, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty, does not have the connections or wealth that Will possesses, but instead is driven by his desire to fit in with those who do. In Nick’s newly discovered social circle, a family which includes a newly elected Tory MP, it is known but not mentioned that he is gay, just as it is known but barely mentioned that the daughter, Cat, has ‘moods’, which extend to self-harm and terrible depression. Nick does not see the harm in silence; he himself was raised in the habit by his middle-class family: “It was how his family sidled round its various crises; nothing was named, and you never knew for sure if the told was subtly comprehensive, or just a form of cowardice.” Nick becomes complicit in the silence surrounding gay life, even as the AIDS crisis hits Britain.
AIDS, which haunts the whole novel, also provides the ultimate excuse for omission. One death is described as “some extraordinary bug that he’d picked up in the Far East last year. No one knew what it was. It’s thought to be some incredibly rare thing. It’s just frightfully bad luck.” Another simply mentions that “George is gone,” and Nick does not try to remember who George is, only pausing to think that ‘gone’ does not mean that George has gone on vacation. Another man in the baths looks far thinner than he did the previous year, but again, the implication is ignored. Nick, along with the Conservative circles that dominated 1980s politics, ignores what AIDS, and its stigma, means for so many people. Nick is not haunted by his past or his ancestors, instead, he and his social circle are obsessed with Margaret Thatcher: what she thinks of them; if she will attend their parties; what others think of her: it is reputation that haunts the characters, and which silences them. It is reputation that causes characters to ignore the signs of their disease, talking about it so obliquely that the record of what killed them is missing. Even when homosexuality is legal, its reputation makes it unspeakable. Hollinghurst helps all of this along: the texts of AIDS, the public discovery, the panic, the political struggle, are all missing. The narrative simply jumps from 1983 to 1986, skipping the unseemly and disturbing, and all the emotions that go along with it.
I first came across The Line of Beauty as I flew to England for an admissions interview at Oxford university, a place I had wanted to go since I had read Brideshead Revisited at fifteen (a book that deserves its essay about silence, and one from which I suspect I learned much of mine; I still feel too close to it to really be able to write about it). For some reason, the airline had the miniseries version of The Line of Beauty as one of its entertainment options, and I spent half the flight watching pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens as Nick Guest get embarrassed about asparagus etiquette and meet men for blind dates. A few years later, trying to navigate the odd society that university life brought, I picked up the book, and found Nick’s experiences trying to fit into that society a mirror to my own.
By that point, I had picked up the perverse habit of deliberately not picking up hints in conversation, of being silent when the other person is angling for me to ask the obvious question. I had to learn silence in Britain. When I arrived I was forever asking personal questions, or talking too much about my emotions. And I know– I know — that there are parts of Britain where this is ludicrous, some utopia where people talk openly about their feelings and a normal conversation is not preceded with twenty minutes of tiptoeing around. I know, but somehow I chose the other version, the silent version, in the same way that Nick Guest did, with the assumption that it was posher, more authentic, something to which I should aspire. I even once found myself, after tuning out for a few minutes, in a conversation about the excellence of Margaret Thatcher, at which point I, unsurprisingly, simply left the conversation and said nothing. And this is harmful: it is harmful not to talk about AIDS, it is harmful not to argue about politics; it is harmful to let the politically and socially powerful dictate the rules of conversation without question. Like Nick Guest, I wanted to be let in, and I hoped that an invitation to the right parties would shield me, protect me, make me special. Like Nick Guest, it worked for a bit; like Nick Guest, it didn’t stay that way, and eventually all of my knowledge and habits that I had collected as armor didn’t help, and a mistake was made with my visa and I wasn’t able to stay in England.
It is thus a relief that The Stranger’s Child is a novel about how facts and gossip are ephemeral, that what has been collected and learned will inevitably be lost. It starts in 1913, in the kind of setting that Merchant Ivory likes: a young poet, Cecil, goes to stay with his lover George, a fellow student at Oxford, and his middle-class family: his older brother Hubert, his 16 year-old-sister Daphne, and his widowed mother, who is being courted by the man next door. While he’s there, he kisses his lover’s sister, is caught naked in a pool with his lover, and writes a poem ‘Two Acres’ about the house and, in subtext, about his lover. The first section of the novel feels like pastiche, which is sort of the point: as time goes on, the poem, and the story, are manipulated through the century, into the familiar narrative of, say, Atonement, or A Room with a View. When the poet dies in World War I, the poem takes on a new purpose, and becomes a shorthand, for politicians and popular historians, for idyllic, pre-war Britain. Daphne, partially on the strength of Cecil’s brief visit, goes onto marry the his brother, holding onto that secondary fame to lead an artistic life of her own.
As the book goes through the years, the unreliability of narrative is revealed. A particularly shameless literary biographer tries, in the 1980s, to make his reputation by proving that Cecil was gay, and also that he, not his brother, fathered Daphne’s baby while on leave. But his guesses are really never more than guesses: no one who he tried to talk to will reveal any information. They are too worried about protecting their own reputations, and he is too much of an outside, too eager, too lower-middle class, to be let in. The poem, ‘Two Acres,’ is quoted by Churchill at the start of World War II and is memorized by students in schools, without any mention of its subtext, which is in turn hidden, ignored, and forgotten.
At the end of the novel, long after the biographer’s poorly written, sensationalist biography, someone finally reveals a text and a clue. An antique book dealer finds a book with copies of letters sent by Hubert to the man supposedly trying to marry his mother, which make it clear that the man is in love with Hubert, as well as a few inexplicable letters sent by Cecil The dealer shows them to an antique dealer, thinking they might be valuable. Of course they would be, because Hollinghurst has finally shown us a gay text not curated by the police department, one that simply reveals itself in the fullness of time. It does not help the characters: Hubert, too, was killed in World War I, and his whole family, even his later-aristocratic sister, is gone; the biographer has moved on. When the dealers search for copies Daphne’s book online, it sells for hardly any money, a few pounds, even copies personally inscribed to some of the other characters. To find the book then almost seems pointless, and in the end it might be sold to some private dealer. With the original letters are missing, and the copies do not hold the same interest: we still do not have the original text. It seems futile to even search for another history.
I have spent so much time learning this way of communicating, speaking a new language, interpreting the awkward silences in British films or comedy for others, that I don’t want it to be lost. I just want it to be expanded. I know that before I learned it, I was somebody else, someone more open, someone who could write this essay without needing to hide behind extended literary metaphor. I have spent so much time learning this like a course of study, that I seem to have cut out what was deemed irrelevant, and it now seems impossible to bring back.
I want to see texts because I want to know that they ever existed, that about which society has am silent has not always been silent or murmured, even in Britain. I want stories that don’t always end with arrests or loss. I want scholarly biographies that matter-of-factly discuss gay life. I want novels that don’t require an argument for a queer reading. I want to find a narrative that doesn’t require that we always first and foremost consider shame.
I miss Britain. I miss the air, the trains, the London Review of Books cake shop, the strange geography of the cities, the weather, the cooking, and my friends. I miss the tacky holiday decorations in pubs, I miss dances in church basements, I miss red wine at dinner parties, I miss waking across the countryside to get to pubs, and I miss people knowing what I mean when by whispers or eyebrow gestures, or the pauses in jokes. I wish I hadn’t learned to be so damn careful, that I hadn’t learned that language.
Here is the thing, the awful thing: I originally picked up Queer London to do research on a novel, about gay college students in the 1920s. And I am writing this novel with all the hints and winks of the time period, with characters who apologize for their sexuality, who scheme to hide it. I am trying to write it differently, to take that which is historically accurate and polish it so that the shame is rubbed away, so that through the tarnish people’s real lives, and their joy and plans and petty university concerns and love shine through, but there doesn’t seem to be a guidebook, not for the past, and I feel ill-equipped to do it. I can’t blame Hollinghurst– or any writer, really — for not writing another narrative; it feels like rewriting what has actually happened, an alternative-universe version of the real history. In the end, I suppose, the most that can be hoped for is that what is spoken can make up for what is silent, that with enough text a few letters owned by the Metropolitan Police Authority is simply a small part of the story. Because you can do that in a novel, cut out the parts that you don’t want to tell, focus on what you do.
And yet. Moving to Britain, much as I wouldn’t recommend it, felt like finding home, and even as I describe its rules and silences, even as I know that none of this frankly useless knowledge can help me get back there, I cannot help but miss it all desperately. Perhaps that is why writing a novel within the this culture feels like an act of love, even when I know how destructive it can be, when it is forced upon one, when it is the silence of shame.
Sarah Gulick is working on a novel and lives somewhere on the East Coast.