The Long View: “A Secret Throb of Colour” – Contemporary Gay Nostalgia for Homosexuality’s Queer Past

Homosexual individuals have experienced British history differently to heterosexuals. We only have to look at the definitions of sexuality to realise this. Male homosexuality was defined as a sexual identity in Britain around 1870, and the word lesbian was first used to connote female homosexuals in 1890. Both terms developed as part of a Victorian science called Sexology, a science which defined same-sex desiring individuals as different from mainstream culture. It did so by attempting to categorize sexually deviant individuals, and to predict where, when and within whom, inverted and “monstrous” sexual acts might erupt. The infamous trial of Oscar Wilde, who was charged with ‘gross indecency’ in 1895, brought homosexuality fully into popular consciousness. It related a series of what were perceived as illicit, disgusting, and queer acts, made all the more compelling as they were undertaken by a high-profile member of British society. 

Sexual acts between women also fell under the legal remit of ‘gross indecency’. However, the Victorian police predominantly considered homosexuality as a gross and violating penetration of the male body. In Wilde’s wake, homosexual sexual acts were closely, and even hysterically, policed by both British law and popular culture. This anxiety changed how homosexual individuals experienced their own desires and relationships, as well as the places and times in which these were conducted. Social prejudices concerning homosexuality continued at least until the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, and the international panic concerning the illness’s attachment to homosexuality’s vibrant and queer culture of casual sex.

The Eighties was also a decade when homosexual culture emotively and politically rallied around a queer subcultural identity. Certain homosexual individuals identified with being queer, shocking, and different, rather than being “normal” (a term that also entered the English language in its current sense in the 1800s). ‘Queers’ argued that throughout homosexual cultural history, individuals had formed communities and relationships which were based on excitement, passion, and resistance. They argued that because of social strictures, homosexuals had undertaken fraught, yet uniquely potent risks to follow their desires. They had formed relationships based on emotive authenticity, rather than listening to what the majority said was acceptable. This, Queer-identifying individuals asserted, was something to be celebrated, and was a heritage that should be imitated.

Speed forward a generation. In 2013, gay marriage was introduced into British law. Because of The Marriage Act (same-sex couples), homosexual couples have the right in England and Wales to openly proclaim their life-long commitment to each other as husbands, or wives. Advocates of marital equality see gay marriage as a sign that our present culture is slowly but surely eradicating prejudice and homophobia. It is a testimony that homosexuality is no longer seen as queer, as clandestine or deviant. Rather, it is considered a normal manifestation of human desire. Well, at least as normal as heterosexuality can be considered to be.

Alternatively, critics of marital equality from within Queer communities have argued that marital equality represents the loss of homosexuality’s unique and potent queer cultural heritage. They see gay marriage as what theorists Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant have termed ‘heteronormative’. It is seen to represent a form of entrapment within oppressive institutions that have historically formed the heterosexual, hostile norm.

Subsequently, gay marriage has caused a conflict within homosexual culture between the present and the past, a tension between contemporary gay normalcy and its queer heritage. It is precisely this conflict that Alan Hollinghurst’s most recent novel, The Stranger’s Child (2011), attempts to tap into. Alan Hollinghurst is a contemporary, Booker prize winning, British author. His five novels to date predominantly focus on male homosexual culture from the late-nineteenth century to the twenty-first. In The Stranger’s Child Hollinghurst engages with a contemporary gay nostalgia for the queer past. The richness of the character’s surroundings – specifically the Edwardian country houses eulogise the homosexual heritages of secrecy, risk and illicit sexual excitement. These sites of domesticity in The Stranger’s Child provide a window into a historic world of intense homosexual emotional and sexual experiences. Moreover, the archaic space of the country house allows Hollinghurst to represent the loss of homosexual queerness in twenty-first century Britain and to think about what, in its stead, gay contemporary culture is left with.

The Stranger’s Child begins in the Edwardian summer of 1913. Daphne Swales is waiting the arrival of her elder brother George, who is bringing his Cambridge friend Cecil back to their country home, Two Acres, for the weekend. The opening is set at twilight. Hollinghurst notes that ‘something in the time of day […] its hint of mystery’ is sensed by Daphne. Hollinghurst lingers on ‘a long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague’. Yet, he stresses that ‘anything Daphne looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour’.

Immediately, Two Acres is conditioned by a sense of a secrecy suggested by the slightly disconcerting approaching darkness. It is this darkness, moreover, that creates a uniquely powerful literary aesthetic, what Hollinghurst calls a ‘throb of colour’. As the verb ‘throb’ expresses, the poignancy of the country house setting is intimately tied to a sense desire or yearning. This is reinforced by Hollinghurst as directly following this powerful, still moment, Daphne interrupts George and Cecil as they emerge out the darkness. George is ‘buttoning his jacket’. In this opening scene, Hollinghurst clearly establishes that it is the mysterious, peripheral spaces and experiences, which will be potent in his novel. Two Acres is a space where homoerotic acts are furtively undertaken. Moreover, George and Cecil’s illicit excitement exceeds their acts and substantiates the larger space. The country house is so strongly defined by their homoerotic, secretive experiences that other characters can feel it.

Stranger's Child Picador

During that evening’s dinner, talk turns to Cecil’s aristocratic country home Corley Court. Particularly, the Swales and their guest discuss the ornamental ‘jelly-mould domes’ which top the Corley’s luxurious and beautified dinning room. George ‘feels rather silly to have bragged about them to his family’, as if his enthusiasm for the jelly-moulds comes slightly too close to his clandestine affection for Cecil. Furthermore, Cecil’s coded response to questions about the domes’ detail – ‘“I don’t know, they’re red and gold aren’t they Georgie”’ – intensifies the intimacy between the two men, so that the architectural motif comes to express an illicit intimacy between George and Cecil. Clearly, neither had spent very much time contemplating the ceiling. Moreover, Cecil’s furtive, provocative use of a lover’s nickname envelops both country houses with a clandestine excitement which comes to define this Edwardian moment in Hollinghurst’s gay nostalgic narrative.

After that Edwardian weekend, we return to Hollinghurst’s characters following a narrative gap of ten years. George is returning to Corley for a weekend mourning the death of Captain Cecil Valance during the recent war. While walking alone in the grounds, George is confronted with Cecil’s marble tomb. He compares his potent memories of Cecil with the figure that is forever realised in marble. He finds that Cecil’s ‘nose has grown somehow mathematical’ and that the whole monument depicts a ‘standardized […] simplified’ version of his ex-lover. The geometric imagery here severs us completely from the sexualised, poignant language employed earlier, and George feels his ‘more magical and private’ Cecil is no longer there. The intervening years have created a final, painful barrier between George and Cecil. A sense of melancholy has begun to enfold Corley Court. Whereas before it was Cecil’s presence that made Two Acres so potent, it is now George’s inability to touch his friend which is the focus of Hollinghurst’s narrative.

Alongside this depiction of disrupted romance, Hollinghurst sets the beginnings of Corley’s own aesthetic make-over. The country house is being refurbished and the ‘old clutter’ of the Victorian home is being closed off behind the ‘off-white dazzle’ of flat, standardized walls. The contrast between the ‘clutter’ and the purer, but colder, ‘off white’ décor mirrors the sterility of Cecil’s tomb. As homoerotic romance and youthful passion are resigned to the past, the country house has also become unrecognisable. Subsequently, the loss of queer excitement is tied by Hollinghurst to the loss of the space which reflects it. Poignantly, within Corley’s refurbishment, George and Cecil’s ‘jelly moulds’ are also ‘smoothly boxed in’ behind the whitewash.

Hollinghurst deliberately positions the next section of The Stranger’s Child in 1967, on the cusp of the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain. However, this sets this moment of gay liberation in a consciously less aesthetic and less romantically aristocratic past. Corley Court has become Corley Court School a middle-class and institutionalised re-appropriation of the Edwardian house.

Hollinghurst’s homosexual narrator Paul is a young employee of the fictitious Midland Bank, another pointedly dull concession to the rise of middle-class commerce, and the corresponding fall of the aristocracy. He is taken to the school on a furtive date with Peter, one of the masters there. The school is, again, undergoing renovation. As they search for a place where they can be alone, Paul and Peter discover a briefly uncovered part of the old Edwardian house amid the building work. Under the bemused eye of the Headmaster, the two men both climb a ladder and look into the dark space between the twenties’ renovations and the original jelly-domed ceiling. Hollinghurst describes the forgotten space as ‘far from the architecture of everyday life [like] finding a ruined pleasure palace’ or a ‘burial chamber long since pillaged’.

The imagery here nostalgically juxtaposes the Edwardian past to the mundanity of contemporary ‘every day life’. Differing from the sanitised Edwardian-esque education being provided by the boarding school, the authentic Edwardian space is explicitly associated with hidden pleasures and excitement. Furthermore, both men make the connection to the homoerotic charge: ‘Peter wink[s] at Paul [and] gaze[s] slyly at the corners of his mouth’. He whispers, ‘“I’ve worked out this used to be the dinning room see”’ and the sound echoes ‘secretively in the space’. This reminder of George and Cecil is a nostalgic return to the original poignancy of the county house. Corley again becomes a space that can facilitate an illicit sexual opportunity for two men. But there is still a strong melancholy associated with thespace. The ‘jelly-moulds’ are to be closed off again, and the domes in the dark have an untouched and lonely quality. Peter and Paul are not witnessing the rejuvenation of this ‘ruined pleasure palace’, but are witnesses to its burial. Paradoxically, at the moment of gay liberation Hollinghurst mourns for the loss of, if not the illegality of clandestine homosexual lives, then the literary aesthetic poignancy that came with the retelling of their affairs.

Hollinghurst ends his narrative in 2008. His final narrator Rob is a rare and antiquarian book dealer. He is hunting for hints of a long forgotten relationship that might have existed between Cecil, and one Harry Hewitt. Rob searches in Hewitt’s, soon-to-be demolished, Late-Victorian house for hints of a possible Edwardian romance. The space has functioned as nursing home, and all associations with Hewitt’s previous home have disappeared. Hollinghurst notes that the rooms are ‘too disfigured for any real sense of marvelment and discovery’.

The Stranger’s Child ends in this shell of a country house, which has undergone a century of restructuring, and is now on the brink of destruction. Its ongoing disfigurement and eventual demolition completes the final touches of a melancholic and nostalgic longing, which began as George felt the barrier of Cecil’s tomb. Still, Rob tries hard to picture Cecil motoring across the then green fields and quiet lanes of Greater London for some sort of clandestine, furtive moment alone with Hewitt. It is hard to imagine in this much changed space. The difference between this image of lust and youth, and the ‘gritty’, ‘dark’ hulk in which Robs stands is immense. Hollinghurst’s final description of the country house is filled with piquant nostalgic regret for the emotions that will never enliven this space again.

In the final moments of Hollinghurst’s narrative, Rob stands in Hewitt’s old safe room, pawing its dark corners for a hint of the vibrant and emotive relationships that he feels certain must once have animated the house. He finds an old, faded page of the Daily Telegraph and realises that ‘the stiffened folds [of] the Telegraph had been used to wrap some square object’. Rob wonders what might have once created this impression in the page. Momentarily, a suggestive mystery echoes through the years. Hollinghurst invites readers to fill what the absent space might once have contained: some breakable, beautiful object perhaps, or maybe a delicious perishable delicacy, maybe something secret, that was quickly covered up by Hewitt and then slowly, lovingly unwrapped in the privacy of his own home. We feel, briefly, back in the Edwardian twilight of Two Acres, waiting for someone to emerge from the shadows. Eventually, however, Rob gives up, feeling that this hollow space in history is ‘a wholly random survival, of no interest in itself’. He takes the page and throws it on the fire.

Behind this piece of newspaper stands the mysteriously exciting spaces of Two Acres and Corley Court, Hollinghurst’s Edwardian country houses, which now are no more.  Throughout The Stranger’s Child, the Edwardian country house has been a trope though which Hollinghurst constructs a powerful nostalgia for queer homosexual relationships. Through these archaic spaces, Hollinghurst eulogises a time in which homosexuality was fraught with the danger of expose and prejudice, but exciting because of that very danger. I don’t imagine for one moment that Hollinghurst, or Rob for that matter, would wish for a return of homosexual illegality. Yet, this moment reminds us that homosexual culture’s movement towards acceptance has not only been a narrative of progression. It is also poignantly informed by what has been left behind. We close The Stranger’s Child with a regret: a complex and challenging desire for a potent and secretive coupling of two men, which will, hopefully, never take place in Britain again.

However, the emotional heritages of queerness have not disappeared completely. Ultimately, we can read The Stranger’s Child as a testimony that queer homosexual culture still exists. It is now a unique and still very suggestive emotional heritage for contemporary gay culture. Hollinghurst’s gay nostalgia reminds us that the past is not the finite history of text books. Rather, it is a living, vibrant and emotional substance, which changes its hues depending on who is engaging with it. For gay contemporary culture, British history is an imaginative space filled with queer poignancies, secrets and dangers. Like the suggestive absence left within the crumpled pages of the Telegraph, this heritage still impacts contemporary individuals’ relationships with objects, spaces and experiences. Gay nostalgia for the Edwardian country house not only constructs the queer past, but allows it to reach into our twenty-first century present.

Marriage may be a rupture with the queer past; it is testimony that homosexuality is no longer considered illicit, secretive or mysterious in Britain. Yet, it might be possible to marry past and present. Because of queer cultural heritage, gay marriage can never be ‘heteronormative’; a simple reproduction of the heterosexual institution of marriage. Like the faded newspaper, the gay marriage license is a text steeped with queer historical significance. The right to marry has a particular potency when considered in the context of the prejudice which has silenced homosexual individuals throughout history. Equally, booking an Edwardian country house as a wedding venue may possess a unique potency for individuals aware of the secretive relationships which occurred there in the past. This emotive reassessment of the present in light of the past ties us to British culture, and reminds us of the cultural importance of British history in our everyday lives. It also asks us to consider the privilege of the present moment, from which British individuals can look back to hostile past, while being protected by the law, and not being silenced by it. These emotive narratives remain unavailable in places where homosexuality is still seen as illicit and disgusting, and is policed as such.

Rather than prioritizing how gay normalcy forsakes homosexual history, gay nostalgia for the queer past is one way in which we can think about these new and intriguing engagements between past and present. Undoubtedly, the twenty-first century has instigated a new and exciting chapter for homosexual culture. Yet within the gay wedding bouquet, there still pulses that small, yet insistent, ‘secret throb of colour’. 

Jack Sargent

Jack Sargent is an English PhD student at the University of Exeter, based at Exeter’s Penryn Campus, in Cornwall. He researches in Victorian to contemporary homosexual literature and culture, and his PhD focuses on the aesthetic, emotive and cultural significance of time in this literature.

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