Friday, February 17, 2006

Alan Hollinghurst on Lytton Strachey's letters

in the New York Review of Books (no subscription required):

The letters throw some light on historical usage in this vaguely embarrassed matter. When such love dared to speak its name, it was not always quite sure what to call itself. The word 'homosexuality,' newfangled in 1892, and spread by the burgeoning literature of psychology, makes its first and only appearance in these letters in 1929. 'Sodomy,' with its resonance of biblical anathema and perhaps of the Wilde trials, is the preferred term at the Cambridge stage; the blunter 'buggery,' as a metonym for the whole homosexual condition, comes later, and has a certain Bloomsbury defiance to it--cheerful, straightforward, but with some residue of awkwardness in its bluntness. (Virginia Woolf gives a revealing account of 'the atmosphere of buggery' around Lytton, which made on her 'a tinkling, private, giggling, impression. As if I had gone in to a men's urinal.')

In Strachey's letters, actual sexual descriptions are greatly outnumbered by hints and fantasies about young men seen on the train or in the street. Levy prints a rapturous letter to Leonard Woolf describing sex with Duncan Grant on Hampstead Heath: 'I had hardly believed so much was possible; to be embraced so passionately, to be kissed so often, and not to know whether one was buggering, or being buggered!' One feels one would, as a rule, have a pretty clear idea about that, but perhaps he is using the word in some looser way, or referring to a commonplace uncertainty about sexual roles. The rapturous note is only heard again in the letters to Roger Senhouse, the much younger boyfriend of Strachey's last years ('Dearest Monster,' 'Dearest angel,' 'Dearest of divine creatures'), with whom sex was sadomasochistic, and again with an uncertainty about roles, the dominant and donnish Strachey gratefully submitting to various mild tortures and an apparently enjoyable crucifixion.

Here's the Amazon link for Paul Levy's edition of Strachey's letters; and here's the link if you feel like buying a copy of Eminent Victorians, which I found entertaining but slight the last time I read it. (And I am sorry to confess that at home I have Michael Holroyd's updated biography of Strachey but found it almost unreadably dull. But then I am out of sympathy with the Bloomsbury thing in general--all that ridiculous self-dramatizing!--so this shouldn't stop you from getting and reading it if you feel that Strachey may have been a fascinating figure and all that. That's not sarcasm, by the way, just an acknowledgment that tastes differ.)

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