How True-to-Life Was Lord Dismiss Us?
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Raymond-Jean Frontain’s article on Michael Campbell’s Lord Dismiss Us [Sept.-Oct. 2014 ] so much that I bought a copy. I was delighted to receive an original copy. I enjoyed the book, although I do not think that it was necessarily the best boys’ boarding school novel: have your subscribers ever read Sandal, or St. Matthew’s Passion?
I was at a “minor” boarding school in England in the 1960s which was very similar to Weatherhill. We had large dormitories with senior prefects who did not hesitate to use their power to gain sexual favors. As it happened, I was very happy with that situation and used the same power when I was a prefect and head of house.
It was the 1960s, and love between boys was not approved of, still less love between boys and masters. In reality, such relationships were commonplace in the independent private school world of the UK. In the vast majority of cases, the relationship was between two heterosexuals who found themselves in an all-male society. As soon as they were in mixed-gender society, their “normal” disposition exerted itself. However, there were those (including myself) who enjoyed and welcomed the homosexual advances of boys and masters.
I think the author of Lord Dismiss Us deliberately ducks the issue by having the affair between Carleton and Allen end as it did. After all, it was Carleton who was shocked by the fact that he had an erection while lying on Allen after they had both agreed that nothing physical would take place. As I found out on numerous occasions, agreeing that no physical activity would take place at the beginning of a relationship did not preclude such a relationship later on. Hormones have a habit of accelerating actions. As for Ashley’s suicide, I find that too melodramatic. I think this book was a product of its time, and the author could not let a gay relationship, whether between two boys or a boy and a master, end happily. I did not read into the story that Carleton would find another same-sex partner.
Are we any more enlightened in 2014? Not in all respects by any means. It’s fine for same-sex couples to marry but unthinkable that an under-age same-sex relationship between two boys or two girls might be okay. The fact that there are older men who want to have a sexual relationship with a minor is viewed as reprehensible. The possibility that such a relationship could be mutually beneficial is dismissed out of hand.
James G. Marshall, Rhinebeck, NY
The First Gay Novel
Editors Note: The previous issue (Nov.-Dec. 2014) posed the question, “What was the first gay novel?” and nominated eight candidates. We received a number of letters and comments, including (as expected) some books that weren’t included among our options. Among the latter were the following:
“I wouldn’t necessarily nominate it for the first gay novel, but Bertram Cope’s Year, written by Henry Blake Fuller and published in 1919, has a lot to recommend it. This from Publisher’s Weekly: ‘The bittersweet core of the narrative, discreetly implied, is the homosexuality of its hero, Bertram Cope. … An important discovery for the gay literary canon, particularly for its rare portrayal of day-to-day gay domestic life.’”
“I remember reading a paperback book with the title of Quatrefoil [by James Barr, 1950]and another titled Song of the Loon [by Richard Amory]which were available on newsstands in the late 50s or 60s, and these would have been the first gay novels for many. Maurice was not then readily available, and neither were most of the other books.”
“Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and his Friend. Published in 1870, before any of the others on your list, it was a lot gayer, too. Not today’s style, not well known, but there it is, a definite gay novel.”
“Lonnie Coleman’s Sam. I was fifteen when I read it. It was a paperback for 35 cents. I saw it in a bookstore here in Seattle a few years ago in a vintage collection for about twenty dollars, and I should have bought it. So that was my first gay novel.”
Some comments on the eight nominees spotlighted in the current issue went like this:
On Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“Dorian’s exploits are full of dark unspecified atrocities which, though not clearly stated (unless you read the more recent unexpurgated version, which has been fully restored), are veiled and coded for queer sensibilities.”
On E. M. Forster’s Maurice:
“Although not published until Forster’s death, this is the first openly gay novel on the list and the first book to describe homosexuality as a way of being in the 20th century.”
“For me, Maurice is the first novel about explicitly romantic and sexual same-sex relationships. Dorian Gray, as much as I love the book, is veiled so thickly in the gauze of Victorian innuendo that, even in the unexpurgated version released last year, we have to read between the lines.”
“It was the first one written specifically with gay characters.”
On Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
“It’s taken a long time for Proust’s world to traverse the journey from great literary classic to major work of ‘gay’ fiction. But it’s an inherently ‘gay’ quantum in terms of the æsthetics obsessively doted upon and the sheer scope of ambition. Framing it in terms of a gay subject actually increases penetration and understanding of the text and characters rather than causing a shallowness of view.”
On Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness:
“Surely the earliest and most love-driven novel ever written in the genre. Daring, tender, and informative. I was 12 when I read it—and cried buckets. I am now 80 and have just been given the right to marry my ‘partner’ of 40+ years. I have been blessed with being alive and aware during this era of profound change.”
“Even though I am a gay man (now 76), when I read this in the early 1950s, I was thrilled to find women and men who were like myself who were neither criminals nor mentally ill. Those were the choices with which I thought I would have to face life in 1954.”
On Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar:
“I selected it because there was no ambiguity about what the book was exploring: homosexual longing, love, and rejection. All of the earlier books were indirect about the topic.”
On Mary Renault’s The Charioteer:
“All her historical novels opened a window of homoeroticism to this teenage boy struggling with his own identity. I was an avid reader.”
On James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room:
“This novel strikes a resounding chord of hope for those of us resisting suffocation in a web of oppression.”
On Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man:
“I still recall buying it in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a half hour away from the liberal arts college I was attending in Minnesota the year it came out. I was young then and had far more questions than answers. I recall the illuminating details and the wonder and lust it created in me. All those memories were renewed when the film of A Single Man came out recently.”
To the Editor:
O tempora, o mores! The earliest surviving “gay” novel is surely Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. Another candidate might be L’Alcibiade, fanciullo a scola (1652), translated as “Alcibiades, the Schoolboy,” along with several other Italian works of that period. If you wish to be a stickler, as some do, claiming that the true novel originated only in the 18th century, a candidate could be Sins of the Cities of the Plain, a pornographic novel by William Lazenby published in 1881.
William A. Percy, Boston