Same-Sex Desire, Ethics and Double-Mindedness: The Correspondence of Henry Graham Dakyns, Henry Sidgwick and John Addington Symonds

By Booth, Howard J. | Journal of European Studies, June-September 2002 | Go to article overview

Same-Sex Desire, Ethics and Double-Mindedness: The Correspondence of Henry Graham Dakyns, Henry Sidgwick and John Addington Symonds


Booth, Howard J., Journal of European Studies


Before there was even an increase in postal flows each Christmas, Victorian males were writing to each other about same-sex love affairs. (1) New postal services played a role in establishing the conditions in which an 'identity' for those who desired their own sex -- the modem homosexual -- could emerge. Letters capture valuable evidence of how the new sexual identities crystallized, and the split between desire and social convention. My project is to look at how letters were used to express, but also to discipline and shape, male same-sex desire in the years 1866-71. The letters discussed here are between the school-master and translator of Xenophon, Henry Graham Dakyns (1838-1911), the moral philosopher, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1901), and the cultural historian and writer on homosexuality, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Although the surviving correspondence between these three men has been used to discuss their lives and work, this article will foreground their use of the letter form. The focus is on a f ive-year period in the late 1860s and early 1870s when they were early in their careers. Examples will be given of the epistolary style of each, but most attention will be given to Symonds. His letters are the most directly concerned with sexuality, survive in the greatest numbers and have the most densely voiced writing style.

The coming of the railways and the reforms of the Post Office made possible new ways of living. A community could be sustained by those living at a distance. Dakyns, Sidgwick and Symonds kept the intensity of interchange common among undergraduates for longer than would have been possible a generation before. The extension of postal services had particularly important implications for minority groupings; the like-minded could now develop their contacts. Such advanced uses of the letter were at first only available to a small minority, due to the low level of education in the general population. It is important to guard against the assumption that the expanded postal volumes in the years after the inauguration of the penny post were made up of personal letters expressing innermost feelings to friends, lovers or family members. Most of the expansion of the post can be accounted for by business letters. (2) The number of items carried by the postal system in Britain grew from 76 million in 1839, just before Rowl and Hill's reforms, to 3,500 million items in 1914, and the same period saw literacy grow dramatically from a 50:50 split between the literate and the illiterate in 1839 to a level of less than one per cent illiteracy in 1914. Measures of literacy, however, do not take into account the proficiency in letter-writing of the author and the differences between regions, the sexes and generations. Efforts to measure literacy often focus on the ability to sign the marriage register, which does not guarantee the fluency required to write a complex letter. Among the children in primary education, for all the increase in numbers after the 1871 Education Act, no more than two per cent were given limited instruction in how to lay out a letter. There was an 'intensification' of the use of the new postal services -- a certain section of the population were sending and receiving letters at a greater rate -- rather than the 'extension' of the post to new users that the Whig reformers of the 1830s had hoped for. (3)

The men discussed here were all of the social and educational group that was the first to take advantage of the new possibilities. Many letters between Dakyns, Symonds and Sidgwick concern travel arrangements, social engagements or upcoming meetings. They take various forms. Some written between Dakyns and Symonds when both were in Bristol are very brief, and of just a few lines in length. Often the Post Office was used to convey the letter -- this was a time when there were collections and deliveries through the day, making the same-day exchange of letters a possibility -- but sometimes they were taken by a messenger. …

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