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The Fraternity of

the Estranged

The Fight for Homosexual Rights in England


Brian Anderson

Copyright © 2018 Brian Anderson

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.

Cover Artwork credit to Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), The Critics, with acknowledgment to the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum for permission to reproduce it.


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ISBN 978 1788034 876

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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Author’s Note

Although this book resonates with contemporary academic research, in the fiftieth year since the decriminalisation in England and Wales of sexual relations between men in private, it is intended to speak principally to the LGBT community and, in a time more accepting of sexual diversity, to a wider readership. For many, Carpenter and Symonds remain dead to the world: their brave stand against persecution and intolerance not widely known. This narrative recounts the writing of important books, but it also offers a glimpse of what it was like to be homosexual in late-Victorian England.




My Best Work, My Least Presentable

A Fateful Collaboration

A Defence of Erotic Life

Born Lovers of their Own Sex

A Literary Inquisition

A Wicked, Scandalous and Obscene Book

A Stifled Anachronism

Eros, the Great Leveller

The Fraternity of the Estranged





July 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation in England and Wales of sex between two men in private. The law that had made such relations a crime had been passed in 1885, and remained in place for 82 years. But this restriction on same-sex love did not go unchallenged: between 1891 and 1908 three books appeared in England on homosexuality and the rights of homosexual persons. They were written by two homosexual men, Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, and a third, Havelock Ellis. Setting out in life as young university dons, Carpenter and Symonds seemed the least likely of individuals to court notoriety as defenders of homosexuality, whilst the shy and retiring Ellis was a most improbable student of sex.

At the time, the study of what was then called ‘sexual inversion’ was the almost exclusive preserve of writers on the European continent. Books on homosexuality that circulated freely there were hardly known in England, where, apart from its occasional discussion in medical journals, anything published on the subject was liable to be prosecuted for obscenity. Men who loved men were pushed to the margins, in a society where masculinity was strenuously upheld. In such a hostile environment, the appearance of these publications was highly significant. They were the first English contributions to the scientific understanding of homosexuality, and at the same time opened the long fight for the legal recognition of same-sex love that was finally won in 1967.

The special circumstances under which these books came to be written has not before been comprehensively documented. Here, through a combination of history, biography and textual analysis, the full story of the individuals who opposed this legislation and argued for homosexual equality is told. And, as the hazardous progress of these books towards publication is recounted, what was written is critically examined.

Chance pervades this narrative at every level. If certain events had not combined with the twists and turns of coincidence and circumstance, it is highly unlikely that any of these ground-breaking books would even have been conceived, let alone published. There would be nothing to tell if Carpenter had not discovered the homoerotic poetry of Walt Whitman at a time when he was deeply troubled by his homosexuality. Equally, if, after a crisis of belief, he had been able to resign as an Anglican curate but remain at his Cambridge college. When this was denied him, he became a peripatetic lecturer in the industrial towns of northern England, which radicalised him and brought him into contact with Ellis.

Similarly, if Symonds had not been forced to leave his Oxford college after a homosexual scandal, and had not also read Whitman at a time of crisis over his homosexuality. And if he had not abandoned the study of law for literary criticism, he would not have been approached by Ellis to contribute to a series of books that he was editing. In turn, this led to their collaboration in the writing of what turned out to be a fateful book on homosexuality.

Further, this story could not be told if the adolescent Ellis had not been taken to Australia by his sea captain father. Alone in the outback, where books were his only consolation, by chance he came across James Hinton’s Life in Nature,¹ and discovered that, at about his own age, he had studied medicine. His future being unclear to him, in a flash he decided that he too would become a doctor. Perplexed by his sexual awakening, precociously he resolved to make the study of sex his vocation. But, once back in England, the cost of a medical education thwarted his ambition, until the gift of Heaven, without any effort of mine, fell miraculously upon me. The Hintons, who had befriended him, loaned him £200, without which the life that he had mapped out for himself would have been forever closed and my whole life-course altered

Finally, there is a fourth individual in this story, without whose intervention the history of homosexual law reform in England may have taken an entirely different path. In 1885, Henry Labouchère, the Member of Parliament for Northampton, succeeded in having a five line clause inserted into a piece of legislation that had nothing to do with sex between two men. It was its inclusion in the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act that made any intimate behaviour between men, whether in public or in private, potentially a criminal act. It would ensnare countless individuals before it was revised in 1967.

The iconoclastic poet Walt Whitman was the dominant presence in the lives of Carpenter and Symonds. He is woven into this story. In fear of the rigid taboo against the physical expression of their homosexuality, early in life both adopted a romanticised form of male-loving: an aesthetic idealization of their erotic instincts. Whitman’s fervent espousal of male comradeship sanctioned the expression of their sexual natures but, more importantly, the empowerment to write about homosexuality flowed directly from him. Of discovering Whitman, Carpenter recalled: I find it difficult to imagine what my life would have been without it.³ And Symonds would write, barely a month before Whitman’s death, You do not know, & I can never tell anyone, what Whitman has been to me.⁴ Whitman was also a significant figure for Ellis, who placed him among the new breed of realist writers of his day. He was given a whole chapter in his first book, The New Spirit, in which he sought to capture the ethos of his times, expressed in the writing of leading literary personalities. Whitman was also the subject of Symonds’s first exchange with Ellis on homosexuality, and it was through the chance discovery of Carpenter’s Whitmanesque long prose poem Towards Democracy ⁵ that Ellis first came to know him.

It was when Symonds’s friendship with Ellis grew, that he asked him if he would take a book by him on homosexuality, for a series of scientific texts then under his editorship. He had written and privately circulated two monographs on homosexuality, which were outcomes of personal and contemporary events in his life. Both were defences of homosexuality, but in origination and purpose were essentially different. The first, which is referred to throughout as the Greek Problem,⁶ was the product of a Platonising phase in his life, which lasted from adolescence until his late twenties. It was an examination of the practice of paederasties, of boy-love, found in the refined civilisations of the ancient Greek city states. The second, referred to as the Modern Problem,⁷ was a direct outcome of the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. Under the Offences against the Person Act of 1861, the crime of buggery, if no longer a capital offence, remained in place, but at the instigation of Labouchère, the 1885 Act introduced the misdemeanour of ‘gross indecency’ between male persons. Symonds wrote the Modern Problem to contest this legislation, by advancing a case for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults that took place in private. It was a political manifesto: the first to fully address the plight of homosexuals in England.

When the cautious Ellis prevaricated over taking a book on homosexuality for his series, considering it too risky, Symonds, out of the blue, suggested that they might write a book together on the subject. His approach was timely, as unbeknown to him, Ellis was preparing to make the study of human sexuality his life’s work. But of much more significance, he was equally unaware that, at this very time, Ellis was facing a personal crisis, after discovering that the woman who he had married only six months earlier was lesbian. This was the decisive factor in Ellis’s decision to collaborate with Symonds on the writing of Sexual Inversion, the book for which he is now best known. If Ellis had not agreed to collaborate, this book would never have been written. Acutely aware of Victorian attitudes towards homosexuality, Ellis knew that, rather than collaborating on a book on the subject, he should have passed it over as an unpleasant topic on which it was not wise to enlarge. Later, he would acknowledge that writing the book was a mistake, and claimed that it had never been his intention to launch his career as a sexual theorist with such a publication. He described the time spent on it as this toilsome excursion.

But it was Ellis’s decision to collaborate that propelled Symonds, and then Carpenter, into the field of sexual politics. Carpenter, then known only for his writing on economic and political subjects, had come to know Symonds through their mutual admiration for Whitman. Once drawn into the project, like Symonds, he wrote an account of his homosexual history and, importantly, each provided essential material for the book, in the form of autobiographical notes written by homosexual friends and acquaintances. The excessively shy Ellis, had he intended to write a book of his own on the subject, would have struggled to acquire such material.

Early in 1893, before much progress could be made on the book, or before he could even meet Ellis, the tubercular Symonds died in Rome. Given his nervousness about the wisdom of writing such a book, expressed time and again in an intense exchange of letters with Symonds, (the substance of chapter three), Ellis could have abandoned the book, reserving the subject of homosexuality, as he had intended, for inclusion in a more comprehensive work. But, intent on establishing himself as a serious writer on human sexuality, and to earn money, he worked on his own material and that provided by Symonds. In 1896, he had Sexual Inversion published, firstly in German, and the following year in English, with Symonds named in both books as the co-author.⁹ When the English edition was already in circulation, following an intervention on behalf of Symonds’s family all remaining copies were bought up and destroyed. Ellis then removed Symonds’s contributions and all references to him and republished the book, only to have it prosecuted in England as an ‘obscene libel’ and banned.

Except for his analyses of the small number of case histories provided for him, Ellis’s book was entirely derivative: a compilation of the findings of continental investigators, with his own observations added. Although now a certificated physician, except for a few months after he qualified, and occasionally when acting as a locum, he never practiced. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost everything he knew about homosexuality came from what others had recorded, and which he had a talent for weaving into a convincing synthesis. As one of his biographers wrote, he learned more about sex from books and less about it from personal experience, than almost any man of his age.¹⁰ He shunned social intercourse and relished solitude; undertook no empirical research on homosexuality, and is not known to have interrogated a single homosexual person, except perhaps his wife. This was in marked contrast to the continental physicians on whom he drew so heavily for the book. Their publications grew out of direct contact with individuals in prisons, asylums, and their own consulting rooms.

But, influenced strongly by his long-written exchanges with Symonds before his death, and afterwards with Carpenter, in Sexual Inversion Ellis concluded that homosexuality was not a pathological condition but a congenital abnormality. If he added little else of significance to what was then known about homosexuality, this alone marked him out as a progressive voice, and for England, made his book ground-breaking. Although banned, for the first time individuals able to acquire a copy could begin to understand their same-sex desires.

This is where Ellis’s role in support of the homosexual can be said to have ended. Although he had a life-long commitment to scientific impartiality, he was unable to reconcile himself to his wife’s lesbianism, which destroyed his marriage almost before it had begun, and could not bring himself to condone homosexual lovemaking. He ignored the evidence from his own case histories, in which respondents overwhelmingly confirmed its bodily and mental benefits. Instead, he consigned homosexuals to lives of unnatural chastity. His reluctance to discuss the subject was such, that when an individual who had read Sexual Inversion wrote to him, he invariably referred him to Carpenter. He also disapproved of homosexuals fathering children: a reflection of his long-held views on the influence of heredity, and his enthusiastic support for the new science of eugenics. It would be excessive to brand Ellis as homophobic, but however humane his treatment of the subject, the concluding chapter of Sexual Inversion reinforced Victorian social attitudes towards the homosexual.

After Symonds’s passing, it was left to Carpenter to continue the long struggle in England for the legal right of consenting adult homosexuals to enjoy sexual intercourse in private. Such a right to privacy had not existed in any European country before it was granted by the French penal code of 1791 and incorporated in the 1805 Code Napoléon, but denied to homosexuals in England and Wales until 1967.¹¹ Within months of Symonds’s death, encouraged by his close friend, the female emancipationist Olive Schreiner, Carpenter began to write a series of women-related pamphlets on sexual issues. At the same time, he penned a pamphlet on homosexuality, in which he embarked upon the difficult, and dangerous, task of constructing a homosexual identity that detached the innate homosexual bias from carnality. Skilfully written, and for private circulation, the pamphlet escaped the censor’s pen. In 1896, he combined and expanded his pamphlets, judiciously leaving out the one on homosexuality, and published a pioneering book, Love’s Coming of Age.¹² Many of its conclusions, if applauded by progressives, elicited a collective drawing in of breath, as one by one he demolished Victorian sexual codes. In a slightly more tolerant climate, the 1906 edition of the book included a chapter on the nature of the homosexual person, depicted as belonging to an ‘intermediate sex’.

Two years later, he published The Intermediate Sex,¹³ a book devoted entirely to the subject of homosexuality. It was the first widely-read, unambiguous defence of same-sex love to appear in general circulation England. Although his depiction of the homosexual person was controversial, as we discuss in chapter ten, in challenging attitudes towards homosexuality he was years ahead of his time, calling not only for the reform of the 1885 anti-homosexual legislation but for the social acceptance of the homosexual. Remarkably, he also called for institutional recognition of same-sex relationships. But some of his claims were likely to have impeded, rather than advanced, the position of homosexuals of his day.

Carpenter was the necessary corrective to Ellis, his always slightly distant friend. Both wanted to bring the discussion of human sexuality into the open, but Ellis’s aim, despite his youthful enthusiasm for radical social reform, was a narrow one: to advance knowledge through the writing of what were, essentially, medical texts addressed to physicians and lawyers. In contrast, Carpenter began from the personal: from the need to defend his natural attraction to the male. He wanted to raise public awareness and acceptance of homosexuality, to argue for the value of the homosexual to society, and to offer comfort to those who made up his ‘fraternity of the estranged’.

Together with Symonds, Carpenter contested the criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, but his radicalism went beyond claims for same-sex attachments. He wanted to change Victorian attitudes towards human sexuality. Ever conscious of the emotionally-constrained lives of his six sisters, it was to the then controversial question of the ‘new woman’ that he first turned. Believing that sexual fulfilment was a primary human need, he was one of the first men of his time to acknowledge women’s erotic natures, and to argue for the breaking of the link between sex and procreation. For many of his detractors, he posed a greater danger as an instigator of sexual anarchy, than as a defender of same-sex love.

Drawing on self-knowledge and their life-experiences to challenge the entrenched view that homosexuality was a pathological condition, Carpenter and Symonds fashioned a counter-discourse, in which the homosexual impulse was presented as a natural variant of human sexuality. The morbidity claim, which had its origin in the study of inmates of prisons and mental institutions, was already being contested by the inclusion in the literature of a growing number of positive homosexual self-definitions. Such autobiographical narratives challenged established thinking and provided a foundation on which Symonds and Carpenter built their case. What I am, is what I had to be, Symonds protested.¹⁴ For both, the enfranchisement of their own sexual natures was essential for their psychological well-being and sense of personal worth.

Carpenter made his literary debut with a slim volume of unremarkable (and unremarked) poetry. Following the publication of his prose poem Towards Democracy, he found his authentic voice with a succession of tracts on political and economic issues of the day. Many of these pieces were combined in popular publications which, like subsequent books, articles and speeches over a period of forty years, made him one of the most recognised of the early English socialists. But it is his books on human sexuality, especially homosexuality, that give him real contemporary relevance.

For his health, writing mainly in Davos Platz in the high Swiss Alps away from great libraries was challenging, but Symonds’s output was impressive. His magnum opus, the seven-volume Renaissance in Italy, was supported by substantial works on Michelangelo, Dante, Shelley, Sydney and Jonson; translations of the autobiographies of Benvenuto Cellini and Carlo Gozzi; poetry and essays, and much incidental writing for the leading English literary journals of the day. He occasionally dismissed this endeavour as sterile, detached from real life. Conscious that he might be taken at any time, it was his two monographs on homosexuality and his memoirs, in which he recounted his tortured life, that he saw as his ‘best works’ and most wished to see preserved.


Aged barely sixteen, Henry Havelock Ellis was taken by his sea captain father on a voyage around the world, to prepare him for a settled life at home. On reaching Sydney, it was decided that he should remain for a time in Australia and a post was found for him as an assistant master at a private school. When it was clear that he could not carry his pupils far, he was dismissed. A year as a private tutor followed, after which he took up another post but left after nine months, distinctly a failure.¹⁵ To remedy his shortcomings, he trained as an elementary school teacher, and was then sent off to divide his time between two remote schools at Sparkes Creek and nearby Junction Creek. By now approaching his eighteenth year, it was here that he entered the world, without a single friend in the whole southern hemisphere into which he had been so unceremoniously dropped.

Living in an isolated one-room schoolhouse in Sparkes Creek, out of sight of women, his desire for knowledge was more massive than my desire for love.¹⁶ The physical efflorescence of puberty had begun early, and he had already taken to noting its occurrences in his pocket diary:

All the obscure mysteries of sex stirred dimly and massively within me; I felt myself groping helplessly among the difficulties of life. The first faint germ was formed within me of a wish to penetrate those mysteries and enlighten these difficulties, so that to those who came after me they might be easier than they had been to me.¹⁷

He felt an impulse to intellectualise his personal situation, transforming