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The last book that the eighty-nine-year-old novelist Rebecca West published during her long and distinguished career was 1900: a beautifully illustrated account of the most decisive cultural and political events that occurred not only in Britain but also across the globe during this pivotal year. Amid her wide-ranging discussion of such dispersed phenomena as the Second Anglo-Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, the tidal wave that swept the Texas coast, and the evident decline in Queen Victoria’s health, West – who took her professional name from Henrik Ibsen’s forthright heroine in Rosmersholm (1886) – turns her attention to the unsettled literary climate in England at the turn of the century. Her inquiries for the most part focus less on drama and poetry and more on fiction: the genre in which she would firmly establish her reputation, some years after she started contributing her frequently irreverent articles – ones that did not hesitate to attack established figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Mary Augusta Ward, and H. G. Wells – to the Clarion (a socialist newspaper founded by Robert Blatchford in 1891) and the Freewoman (a sexually progressive feminist journal published in 1911 and 1912). ‘In Great Britain’, West writes, ‘the literature of 1900 did little to dispel the curious preoccupation of the time. Fiction was the thing and it had developed along perilous lines.
Shortly after the English capital suffered two rare earthquakes in February and March 1750, the Bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock, rushed into print with a controversial pamphlet declaring that the seismic ructions expressed nothing less than a 'strong summons, from God, to repentance'. Sherlock asserts this 'particular mark of divine vengeance' was a stern reminder of the 'destruction of Sodom by fire from heaven' recorded in many parts of the Bible (7). More to the point, he blames these cautionary events on the 'unnatural lewdness, of which we have heard so much of late' (7). Here he implicitly refers to the 'vile book' that he had, a year earlier, done his utmost to 'stop' in its 'progress'. In March 1749, Sherlock had already expressed his dismay to the Secretary of State that the 'prosecution against the printer and publisher of the Memoirs of a Lady of Pleasure' (commonly known as Fanny Hill, first published in two instalments in November 1748 and February 1749) had resulted in an expurgated edition that 'le[ft] out some things, which were thought most liable to the law and to expose the author and publisher to punishment' (56-7). The very idea that even a heavily edited version of this erotic narrative should remain in circulation, after some sixty copies of the first edition had been sold, contributed greatly to his belief that the time had come for Londoners to suffer God's wrath (56). The Memoirs, which had subjected its author, John Cleland, to a fine of 100 and a short spell in jail, remained for Sherlock a 'reproach to the honour of the government, and the law of the country' (57).
In the summer of 1895 American critic Edmund Clarence Stedman sent a letter across the Atlantic to Robert Bridges about a second decisive change that had just occurred in the career of one of the English poet's most widely published compatriots: “the Armytage-Tomson-Watson sequence is interesting. Well, a woman who can write such ballads has a right to be her own mistress” (Stedman and Gould 2: 185). Stedman's intriguing comment arose from the succinct biographical entries that he was compiling for A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895 (1895). Without doubt, Stedman's eagerness to include up-to-date information about numerous poets whose reputations developed in the 1880s and 90s shows an unmatched thoroughness in such anthologies of the day, and the resulting comprehensiveness of his 1895 volume has ensured that it remains an enduringly useful source of reference.
The title of this chapter puts in roughly historical order related types of criticism that concentrate on varieties of what might be loosely termed sexual dissidence. All of these labels emerge from dynamic mid- and late twentieth-century struggles to emancipate anti-normative sexual desires and gender identities from legal, medical and moral oppression. The word gay, for example – if traceable to male homosexual parlance of the Victorian era – became a politically charged term around which the short-lived Gay Liberation Front (GLF) of the late 1960s and early 1970s could mobilise demonstrations, festivals and marches that celebrated same-sex desires. Repudiating the clinical and pathological connotations often attached to the category homosexual (in use from at least the 1890s onwards), the GLF upheld gay as an expression of pride in those desires between persons of the same sex that western cultures had for centuries outlawed and punished. In the annals of sexual history, GLF came into its own after the police attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village at New York City, on 27 June 1969. Rather than succumb to police harassment, the Stonewall's customers fought back at the authorities for two nights. Soon referred to simply as Stonewall, this upsurge of militancy immediately provoked – in John D'Emilio's words – ‘intense discussion of what many had begun to memorialise as the first gay riot in history’.
Spreading rapidly across the United States, the GLF soon established itself in other western nations such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. This movement derived its political energy from a broad repertoire of socialist and leftist thought that energised Civil Rights groups, such as the Black Panthers and the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), in North America.
Historians of nineteenth-century British writing sometimes claim that the Victorian period properly begins some five years before Her Majesty the Queen ascended the throne. There are good reasons to justify why 1832, rather than 1837, should open the Victorian age. To be sure, the obligation within the discipline of English literature to compartmentalize historical periods often imposes barriers that can obscure important continuities between what precedes and follows a supposedly defining moment. Delimiting fields of study according to hard-and-fast distinctions looks all the more incoherent when we consider that some epochs such as the Romantic characterize a dynamic intellectual movement, while others like the Victorian remain subject to the presiding authority of a monarch. But whatever disputes we may have with the peculiar manner in which we find ourselves dividing one period from the next, 1832 designates a decisive turn of events.
The year 1832 witnessed the passing of the Great Reform Bill. This parliamentary act acknowledged a massive transformation that the nation had been undergoing for almost two decades - one whose repercussions would resonate long after Her Majesty expired in 1901. Once the Battle of Waterloo terminated the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Tory-governed Britain moved into a phase of political unrest. In this respect, the most famous conflict occurred at St Peter's Fields, Manchester, in 1819 when some 80,000 people demonstrated for annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the lifting of the Corn Laws (which made bread, the staple diet of the poor, costly).
This Companion to Victorian Poetry provides an introduction to many of the pressing issues that absorbed the attention of poets from the 1830s to the 1890s. It introduces readers to a range of topics - including historicism, patriotism, prosody, and religious belief. The thirteen specially-commissioned chapters offer insights into the works of well-known figures such as Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson, and the writings of women poets - like Michael Field, Amy Levy and Augusta Webster - whose contribution to Victorian culture has in more recent years been acknowledged by modern scholars. Revealing the breadth of the Victorians' experiments with poetic form, this Companion also discloses the extent to which their writings addressed the prominent intellectual and social questions of the day. The volume, which will be of interest to scholars and students alike, features a detailed chronology of the Victorian period and a comprehensive guide to further reading.
If Oscar Wilde is remembered for anything since his turn-of-the-century demise, it is his meteoric rise as a raconteur, playwright and cultural critic, and his startlingly rapid fall into disrepute as a homosexual committed to two years in solitary confinement with hard labour in Reading Gaol. Since this memorable story has been told so many times and in so many versions - not least in his own work of life writing, posthumously named De Profundis, and in biographies as notable and substantial as Richard Ellmann's - one would reasonably imagine that we must now know all there is to discover about Wilde's scandalous sexual behaviour, not to say the imprint of transgressive desire across the gamut of his works. Indeed, the enduring interest in his life and writings - from Peter Ackroyd's fictional The Last Will and Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) to Philip Prowse's visually arresting productions of the Society comedies - suggests that Wilde addresses issues that still vibrantly preoccupy our own fin de siecle, particularly where questions of sexual identity are concerned. This is especially the case in the world of scholarly research where the upsurge of critical attention paid to Wilde's oeuvre has risen sharply in the light of a burgeoning lesbian and gay studies since the mid-1980s. Such developments have meant that academic readers are now altogether freer in articulating the homoerotic patternings that would seem to inflect his writings from beginning to end.
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