In 1881, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain was published privately in 250 copies. It purports to be the memoirs of Jack Saul, a rentboy or “Mary-Ann”, and is one of the most explicit pornographic gay novels of the 19th century. For the hefty sum of four guineas, one could read in intense detail about the scandal of Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park, two Victorian cross-dressers who were tried at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in 1871.
This strange book is important because it represents the emergence of a now important trope in Queer writing: sex as solidarity. It is pornographic, but not gratuitously so. Its intimate descriptions have the intention of defending unfortunate souls such as Boulton and Park. Jack Saul spends the night in the transvestite couple’s rooms and the next day has breakfast with them “all dressed as ladies”.
Traditionally, and a cynic would say this is still often true, gay writing was fixated on sex, and barely connected to the real world. Pornography, straight or gay, was loud, obscene and often amusingly so. What The Sins of the Cities does differently is to depict believable and close homosexual relationships. Indeed, the author’s descriptions of meeting covertly in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens are imbued with a joy and fear known viscerally by gay men in London both now and then.
Such realism is not matched in the book’s authorship. Many different people have been suggested as its composer, not least the renowned pornographer James Campbell Reddie. Another suspect, to use a sadly operative word, is the Pre-Raphaelite Jewish painter Simeon Solomon. While this ascription is largely based on the circumstantial evidence of Solomon’s friendship with Boulton and Park, Solomon did try his hand at sexualised penmanship at various points in his life. His A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, a mystical tale of Hebraic voyeurism, published as a prose-poem in 1871, has much in common with the shifting sands of The Sins of the Cities.
Solomon was a man for whom the lasciviousness of meeting in Pleasure Gardens and dressing up in costume was second nature. He would often entertain the likes of Charles Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his rooms, dressed as an intoxicating Arabian prince, or otherwise more literally intoxicated. Perhaps unusually in the history of Queer Victoriana, he was able to enter a form of popular culture. Walter Pater wrote of how Solomon’s painting Love Among the Schoolboys was incredibly common to be hung on the wall of any Oxford undergraduate aspiring to popularity. It played a double role, signifying both the student’s fashionableness in having his finger on the pulse of artistic modernity, and, more putatively, noting to his friends his openness to experimentation.
The Sins of the Cities is part of a genre not as uncommon as one might think. The Victorian period, with its explosion in printing and London’s particular densifying in the period, meant that a book of such explicitness could go unnoticed enough not to arouse attention, except by those who wanted their attention aroused. Indeed, it is easy, and not unfounded, for 21st century commentators to see the period as a time of intense oppression of homosexuality, where one could barely move for a threatening copper on every corner. In reality, when Boulton and Park were tried in 1871, since there was no evidence of anal sex (one wonders what the relevant authorities were looking for as evidence of this), and, despite the prosecutors’ best efforts to persuade otherwise, dressing in women’s clothing not being a crime, they were acquitted of all charges.
At the risk of creating my own obfuscating metropolis in this article, I shall introduce a further book to push this point. Around 1888, an odd text by “Walter”, entitled My Secret Life, began to appear in London in several volumes. It is a sprawling and disorganised collection of, at times, quite repellent writing about growing up gay at public school and in adolescence. It is at once beautiful – as an insight into the confused and developing mind of a Victorian gay boy: a 19th century Sex Education – and obscene – the narrator is a clear pervert throughout and damages his own body in his escapades. The point is thus: to find gay characters in 19th century literature, one needn’t search for masturbation in classic novels (see Eve Sedgwick on Jane Austen), or read only between the lines to find David Copperfield’s latent lust for his various father-figures. That is not to say there is no value in doing these things, only that 19th century London offers up its own homosexuality with great fecundity, and it is perhaps there, where the sex was actually happening, that we should start looking, rather than in the nooks and crannies of the classics.