Scholar's 'queer' curiosity tract

Revisionist account of eminent Victorian aims to find space for the sexual. Matthew Reisz reports

January 28, 2010

As the foremost chronicler of Victorian England, Charles Dickens may seem an unlikely topic for a book focusing on "queer" literary subtexts.

As Holly Furneaux, lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Leicester, puts it: "People have a very personal relationship with Dickens. Some imagine him as a figurehead of a very traditional heterosexual family, a paragon of hearth and home whose books have no space for the sexual. There's still an academic investment in that sort of Dickens."

Yet this is a picture she has set out to demolish in a book, Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities, in which she suggests that he "was fascinated by the limitations of the family as defined by marriage and reproduction" and "constantly explored alternative domestic spaces and bonds".

She will be presenting the results of her research alongside colleagues from Leicester's Victorian Studies Centre at a conference at the university next week.

Dr Furneaux said there were not many examples of "happy and sustaining family groupings" in Dickens' work, yet everywhere she looked she found traces of forbidden desires. Queer Dickens points to his "enthusiastic pursuits and portrayals of male intimacy", recurrent figures such as the "bachelor dad and male nurse" and his focus on "nurturing masculinity".

"Male nursing is the central theme of Great Expectations, although our preconceptions have prevented us from seeing it," she said.

Perhaps even stranger are the many sexual triangles that result from male characters' "compulsive shifts of attention from a close male friend to his (most often) physically similar sister".

Although Dr Furneaux's book builds on the work of earlier queer theorists, it rejects their style of "queer pessimism", which sees "ravers, club kids, HIV-positive barebackers, rent boys, sex workers, homeless people, drug dealers and the unemployed" as "exemplary 'queer' subjects".

Instead, she hoped to reveal how "queer parenting, queer family, queer domesticity, queer tenderness and queer happiness" can be found at the heart of even the most celebrated Victorian novels.

Dr Furneaux helped to establish the Queer Midlands network, which brings together academics and activists, and said she envisaged her work as a "political intervention", as well as part of "our continuing reinvention of the Victorians".

She added that she hoped the book would help "people who identify as queer feel embraced and celebrated by their canonical literary heritage", suggesting that literature dealing with queer desire had been "written out" of history.

Dr Furneaux concludes her book by looking at the ways that adaptations of Dickens' novels have embraced or shied away from the queer subtexts she identifies.

She cites the gay entertainment website, which pointed out that almost everyone involved in Douglas McGrath's 2002 film of Nicholas Nickleby "either is queer, has played queer, portrayed a queer's mother or father, or met Madonna".

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