Tuesday 7 January 2020

Homosexuality in 18th Century England

It's my pleasure to welcome Lucy May Lennox, to life the lid on a little-explored part of 18th century life!


With the prominence of gay identity today, there is sometimes a misconception that homosexuality is modern, but in reality that could not be further from the truth. There is abundant evidence of a flourishing gay subculture in eighteenth century London, despite attempts to outlaw it. As I was researching my novel, The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, which is set in the opera world of Covent Garden in 1735, I kept coming across surprising, fascinating details about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Although the title character is straight (this is not a m-m romance), the novel explores many different types of marginalized people, so I decided to include some gay and bisexual characters, with references to real practices and people of the time. 

My main source of information was the fantastic website by Rictor Norton. He provides detailed contemporary descriptions of the molly-houses, which were essentially eighteenth century gay bars. These are the roots of modern gay culture, particularly camp and drag performance. Men would dress as women and act out the marriage ceremony, followed by a trip to the marriage bed that everyone witnessed, then an elaborate lying-in and pantomime birth of a wooden doll. As sodomy was a capital offense, men who visited a molly-house were literally risking their lives, and they were frequently raided. Despite the danger, it sounds like there was an atmosphere of fun and freedom, and we can see some element of gay pride, as in this song:

Let the Fops of the Town upbraid
Us, for an unnatural Trade,
We value not Man nor Maid; 
But among our own selves we'll be free

Transcripts of court cases are an amazing picture of how ordinary people talked and thought at the time, and there were, sadly, many cases involving gay men. In 1726, William Brown was tried and found guilty of attempted sodomy in a popular cruising ground north of London called Sodomite’s Walk. He was a victim of what today we would call entrapment: Thomas Newton, a male prostitute, had been sent there to entice other men, in exchange for avoiding prosecution himself. The trial transcript includes this remarkable line:

We asked the Prisoner [Brown] why he took such indecent Liberties with Newton, and he was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no Crime in making what use I please of my own Body.

I was so impressed by this sentiment that I borrowed it for one of my characters, although under happier circumstances. While the court cases show the suffering caused by homophobia, we don’t have the same clear record of ordinary gay people living their everyday lives, although we can imagine it. Brown’s sense of self hints at a rich private life.

Cross-dressing was very popular with people of all classes and persuasions, particularly in theatrical performance and at masquerade balls, where straight men frequently dressed as women. While cross-dressing in daily life was less common and riskier, it did still happen. A man who went by the name Princess Seraphina shows up in a trial in 1732, and the comments of witnesses make it clear that she used female pronouns and dressed as a woman often. But this was not a sodomy trial—Princess Seraphina sued another man for stealing her clothes. Aside from this case (which she sadly lost), she was never troubled by the law again. Unfortunately we know very little about her life, but I included her as a minor character. 

There is less information about female homosexuality but it definitely existed. Unlike sodomy, which was illegal, sex between women was not a crime, and seems to have been considered more of a quirk than a moral failing. There are accounts of women (especially actresses) alternating between male and female lovers, such as Elizabeth Ashe who had a fling with Caroline, Countess of Harrington. The common practice of well-to-do women keeping a lady’s companion also allowed sexual relationships between women to hide in plain sight, as society would assume they were merely friends. I reflected this more relaxed attitude towards bisexuality in women in the character of Tess Turnbridge, an aspiring opera diva who has male and female lovers.

While femme women who took female lovers seem to have been somewhat tolerated, the same was not true of women who dressed as men in daily life. There are some tragic cases of women attempting to pass as men who were publicly whipped or pilloried, including Mary Hamilton in 1746 and Ann Marrow in 1777. It’s interesting to note they were convicted of fraud, not lesbianism (which was not a crime), but the viciousness of their punishment speaks to a deep-seated anxiety about women taking on a male role.

The slang term for lesbian sex was “a game of flats” or “a game at flats.” There was a charming love poem with the title “The Game at Flats” published in 1715, with the footnote “These Stanzas were made on Mrs. B––le, and a Lady her Companion, whom she calls Captain.” How enticing to wonder who this couple might have been.

The Joys of either Sex in Love
          In each of them we read,
Successive each, to each does prove,
          Fierce Youth and yielding Maid.

Even in previous eras with less personal freedom than we enjoy today, there were people who did not conform to society’s rules. I think it’s important to include LGBT characters even in novels that are not specifically about homosexuality, because they have always existed.


London, 1735. Covent Garden offers a world of pleasures and diversions, even for a blind man. Tom Finch approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience, whether he’s pursuing a musical career or pursuing women. And as for his blindness, to him it’s merely an inconvenience. Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demireps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.


Sarah said...

Fascinating. I've used hiding a homosexual affair to cover suspicious behaviour amoungst suspects in my Bow Street Runner novels - not that Caleb cares what people do on their own time so long as he doesn't have to follow up any complaint. I am glad to have male cross-dressers confirmed as an early case mentioned in passing of his was in uncovering the murderer of a man who liked to wear his wife's clothing, or as Caleb says 'a harmless if uncomfortable sounding avocation'. I also have a lesbian couple in one of my romance series, one of whom lived as a boy for a while in her youth, with her father when he was in the army, and met her lover at Vauxhall dressed in male clothing for nostalgia's sake. they sing comic songs at soirées

Regencyresearcher said...

The reason the treatment of Anne Morrow was so severe is that she married three women in her guise as a man. because a husband because the owner of all a wife possessed unless it was protected by trusts or other legal measures, the fake husband managed to rob the so called bride. That was why the case was one of fraud. That generally was why women who lived as men were arrested. There were cases where a wife of some months and even years declared she had no idea that her "husband" was a male.
While cross dressing men and women were acceptable on the stage and in masquerades, men who dressed as women in real life met mixed reactions. If they acted what has come to be called "camp" they were ridiculed and called names. But D'Eon had people guessing for decades as to whether she was a he who pretended to be a man dressed as a woman, or was a man who dressed as a woman . As D'eon was a first class swordsman not many questioned him.

Elin Eriksen said...

Oh my, this was interesting reading. Particularly the difference in how an era is perceived to what it was really like.
I wonder why lesbianism was not forbidden when homophily was but I can imagine...

Arnie Perlstein said...

(at the end of this 2016 post of mine, I suggest that there's a "game of flats" in Mansfield Park

Regencyresearcher said...

Lesbianism wasn't such an offense because there was no penetration. Also, most men couldn't imagine what the couple did to each other in a sexual manner. Queen Victoria refused to believe there was such a thing. Romantic friendships like the ladies of Llongollen were tolerated and even bragged about. At the same time, men could issue vicious taunts and insults at women for liking other women more than they did men. or for being indiscriminate and liking both men and women. Those were some of the charges leveled against Queen Marie Antoinette. The recent movie of Gentleman Jack is the story of a real lesbian Anne Lister. She was flamboyant .