Hellenism and Homosexuality (Dowling, 1994)

1.158-60, 169, 176. Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994). BL 94/14245

An extract from an undated letter from Oscar Browning to Simeon Solomon, Joseph Leftwich MSS, Jerusalem Archive.

Mid-nineteenth century Victorian Hellenism was promoted by an English intelligentsia: Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, Gladstone and, above all, the hugely influential Tutor of Balliol College and Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, Benjamin Jowett. Hellenism seemed to them to offer a hope of social transformation and the restoration or reinvigoration of a nation corrupted by the effects of laissez-faire capitalism, industrial modernity, mass democracy and the growth of secular materialism. Jowett increasingly produced a Hellenised elite that included the likes of Cecil Rhodes and occupied key posts in the Empire. However, late-Victorian homosexual apologists found in Hellenism a liberal language of a ‘new paganism’, a new social identity and erotic liberation. This pederastic Hellenism was particularly associated with Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds, who (recalling the reference to Magdalen College in ‘Telemachus’) was at the centre of the ‘Magdalen scandal’ of 1862-3, in which he was accused of corrupting choirboys. Pederastic Hellenism assumes its grandest and most subversive form in the figure of Oscar Wilde, a supremely confident exponent of Oxford Hellenism in general. Wilde first began to absorb his Hellenism under the tutelage of J.P. Mahaffy at Trinity College Dublin. He himself attended Magdalen (from 1874 to 1878). The following is an extract from an unpublished letter in which Oscar Browning thinks back over the history of the aesthetic movement and its Hellenism. The double aspect of Hellenism is apparent in the discrepancy between the passage, and the fact that Browning was dismissed from his teaching post at Eton for a homosexual involvement:

Few people know that the aesthetic movement which had so much influence in England from Ruskin to Oscar Wilde had as one of its characteristics a passionate desire to restore “Greek love” to the position which its votaries thought it ought to occupy. They believed that bisexual love was a sensual and debasing thing and the love of male for male was in every way higher and more elevating to the character.

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