In the 19th century, following the Enlightenment, the process of secularization seemed to be on a slow but unstoppable roll.  One consequence of this was the development of a view of history, whereby religion in general, Christianity in particular, and above all the Roman Catholic church, assumed the rôle of the enemy of all progress, and progress was by definition good.  Clerics were pictured as Asuras (in Hindu epic titanic beings perpetually at war with the Devas or gods) always opposing the scientists with their own Clerisy.

Hank has taken on manfully those who distort the history of the Galileo affair to fit this picture, and even more so those who suggest that Giordano Bruno was a martyr for science.  My own bugbear is Washington Irving (יִתְנְסַח אָע מִן-בַּיְתֵהּ וּזְקִיף יִתְמְחֵא עֲלֹהִי; וּבַיְתֵהּ נְוָלוּ יִתְעֲבֵד, עַל-דְּנָה) [1], who in 1828 published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, propagating the idea that Columbus had to face the Inquisition for suggesting that the Earth is round.

These days we have the struggle for what may be called (for short) Gay Rights.  I am not going to deal with this issue as such, but merely to point out some similar processes that are occurring in the historical treatment of the subject.

Alan Mathison Turing

In Britain there is now considerable pressure for a rehabilitation (of some kind) of Turing.  It is now common knowledge that he was tried and convicted as a homosexual in 1952, and committed suicide in 1954.  Some talk of a pardon, some of a monument, others of this or that ...

From the beginning, when I first read about him in the New Scientist, I have found him rather a fearsome figure.  Firstly, I could not get my minds round Turing machines; my mathematical mind is a much more ‘graphical’ than ‘logical’ one.  And Turing was a mathematical logician of the first rank.  Number theorists may think they are the cat’s whiskers of mathematicians, but I regard logicians as an altogether more rarefied and exalted species.  Aficionados of The Big Bang Theory may remember when Sheldon and Amy temporarily broke up after an argument over whose discipline contained the other — well, when Sheldon invoked the name of the mathematical logician Gottlob Frege, that was really punching below the belt.

As Goethe said, when flummoxed by the new generation of philosophers around the turn of the 19th century:

Mein Kind, ich hab’es klug gemacht,
Ich hab’ nie über das Denken gedacht.

My child, I’ve played it clever,
I’ve never thought about thought itself.

Many factors beyond his homosexuality would have contributed to Turing’s isolation after the Second World War.  His father was a British member of the Indian Civil Service, and his mother from a similar family.  Senior members of the Indian Civil Service used to call themselves the “Heaven-born”, and members returning after Indian independence in 1947 were often met with the attitude “you can’t treat us like you treated the natives” [2].  None of this should have applied to Turing, but class prejudice affects all members, good and bad.

But the last straw seems to have been the loss of his security clearance after his conviction, so he could no longer work on projects of national importance.  As his MacTutor biography states:

Worse than that, security officers were now extremely worried that someone with complete knowledge of the work going on at GCHQ was now labelled a security risk. He had many foreign colleagues, as any academic would, but the police began to investigate his foreign visitors. A holiday which Turing took in Greece in 1953 caused consternation among the security officers.

This must be seen against the background of the activities of the Cambridge Five, a ring of spies, who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and at least into the early 1950s.  At least two of these were known to be homosexual, and were members of the Cambridge Apostles, an intellectual secret society.

So where does 1885 come into it?  1885 is the date of the so-called Labouchere Amendment, which widened the scope of the law against male-on-male sexual activity by including “gross indecency” (previously proof of actual male copulatory activity had to be found).  It was added, as Section 11, to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which was designed to prevent young girls being taken into prostitution, and included raising the age of consent from 13 to 16.

Oscar Wilde

The first notable character to be convicted under the law, ten years later, was the Irish author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, and his name is often linked with that of Turing.  At the end of the letter to The Times An 1885 disgrace, the author states:

Many otherwise innocent men apart from Wilde and Turing have suffered under this infamous amendment, notably the late Sir John Gielgud.

And here is where I take issue with today’s historians.  Whether ‘otherwise innocent’ is true of Wilde in the technical, legal, sense, it can hardly be said of his behaviour.  If ever there was a man for whom the word ‘vainglorious’ applied, he is the one. 

His downfall came about through his association with the Queensberry family.  The son, Lord Alfred Douglas, introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground of gay prostitution.  This dragged Wilde into Douglas’s feud with his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, known for his outspoken atheism and brutish manner, and who is today remembered for the creation of the modern rules of boxing.  As hostilities escalated, on 18 February 1895, the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, inscribed: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” (so mis-spelt). Wilde, encouraged by Douglas and against the advice of his friends, initiated a private prosecution against Queensberry, who was arrested on a charge of criminal libel, a charge carrying a possible sentence of up to two years in prison (Libel Act of 1843): as sodomy was then a crime, Queensberry’s note amounted to a public accusation that Wilde had committed a crime.

The case and its aftermath is so well known that there is no need to elaborate further.  However, G.K.Chesterton’s insight on “Victorian Values”, in Chapter 1 of Heretics, is apposite here:

In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous. The age of the Inquisition has not at least the disgrace of having produced a society which made an idol of the very same man for preaching the very same things which it made him a convict for practising.

The extraordinary ferocity of 19th century England against homosexuality is, I understand (most likely from a private communication with someone who had made a close study of the subject) due to two factors:
— Firstly, it was supposed to be bad for military virtue.  This is unlikely, considering the practice of the Ancient Greeks.
— Secondly, it was considered to be a particularly French vice.  Probably not true in practice, but logical, at least — they do have a reputation for boasting about such things.

It is now the fashion to explode in self-righteous indignation at people such as those 19th-century lawmakers.  But in their defence, it should be noted that many of them would have been educated at boys-only boarding schools.  And what went on there, more often that not reluctantly in regard to one of the partners, is legendary ...

Sir John Gielgud

One other person frequently cited in connection with the 1885 law is the illustrious Sir John Gielgud, one of the two great Shakespearean actors of the mid-20th century in Britain, the other being Sir Laurence Olivier.  In an interview with him, published in the Telegraph, he described how he enraged Gore Vidal by refusing to take part in one of the latter’s productions, saying he would not take part in “such pornography”.

Gore Vidal was an extremely influential man, and so it seems, was quite dangerous to cross.  The feud between him and Bill Buckley is an example of how easy it is for conservatives to wrong-foot themselves by injudicious use of language.  In Britain it could be difficult to make critical statements about him for fear of libel action.

But John Gielgud, in my view, has something of a hero status for riling him so much.

[1] let a beam be pulled out from his house, and let him be lifted up and fastened thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this (Ezra 6:11).

[2] This was nothing new.  In the late 18th century, Caversham Park near Reading was owned by Major Charles Marsack, returned from India.  Rather unpopular, he acquired the nickname “Major Massacre” for cutting down the oak trees on his estate. 

(Cover picture – the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London)