Effeminate England follows somewhat self-consciously in the wake of Alan Sinfield's recent book on the 20th-century cultural construction of the effeminate homosexual, The Wilde Century. Where Sinfield established that it was only as and after Wilde was tried for gross indecency that the figure of the gay man became synonymous with that of the effeminate aesthete or dandy, Effeminate England moves on from this, aiming to "analyse some of the main patterns in homoerotic writing produced after 1885", specifically those which exemplify Joseph Bristow's thesis that "effeminacy became the main stigma attached to male homosexuality in the eyes of English society".
This leads the author to bring together a somewhat motley crew. There is a well-judged opening chapter on Wilde, prey to none of the hagiographical tendencies of some recent studies, and concerned to take account of other pertinent readings of Wilde, which begin at least by considering matters other than his sexuality: his Irishness, and his knowledge of the theatrical audience, for example. However, Bristow's project with Wilde - to identify and to criticise a fatalistic disposition in his writings, not least by way of their apparent prescience regarding details of his own future - falls a little short of the series of intelligent textual analyses he offers.
The same cannot be said of the chapter on E. M. Forster. This is a brilliant exegesis of standard and lesser-known texts, and one which, probably for the first time, succeeds in the tricky endeavour of addressing Forster's apparent liberal anti-colonialism in the light of his sexuality.
Thereafter, Effeminate England is engaging but its argument is not so solid; in part because Bristow overextends himself. The focus on effeminacy is taken to cover writing "both effeminophilic and effeminophobic", hence Forster's reaction against the Oscar-cised gay literary inheritance is followed by the quite antithetical embrace of the same by Ronald Firbank. Bristow's account of Firbank is a pleasure to read, but his claim for Firbank's "motivated" camp, focusing on the latter's interest in lesbianism, does not tie in well with the chapter on Forster, nor the following one on gay male autobiography, which turns back chronologically to consider John Addington Symonds's memoirs, before taking in J. R. Ackerley, Jocelyn Brooke and Quentin Crisp.
This last chapter's turning back epitomises my main reservation about Effeminate England. Bristow seeks to justify the collection of writings from a broad range of contexts on grounds that "they represent some of the most incisive works of homosexual self-examination from this period", and because "they enable us to chart discernible shifts and changes in male homosexual consciousness from the 1880s to the 1960s". The point is that the 20th century has concentrated so many shifts and reversals in cultural thinking around homosexuality that the claims for it as a given "period" seem limited. Had Bristow pursued the more obvious, chronological approach, he would have had to consider the ways in which gay-authored writings have progressively disowned the "effeminophilic" tradition last spotted here in Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant.
Bristow offers as a coda a reading of Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library - a novel he has to admit is uncommonly, if not uniquely, nostalgic of its time, in "pay[ing] I tribute" to the "queer tradition" Bristow seeks to establish. As a whole, Effeminate England is better taken as the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, Bristow has written a fertile, compelling and individual work which will be required reading for anyone teaching or studying 20th-century gay and literary studies.
Richard Canning is a lecturer in English and American literature, University of Sheffield.
Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885
Author - Joseph Bristow
ISBN - 0 335 09666 2 and 09665 4
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £42.50 and £13.99
Pages - 208