Dominic Janes’s new work, Oscar Wilde Prefigured: Queer Fashioning and British Caricature, 1750–1900, brings a fresh source base and methodology to the study of male same-sex desire in Britain. While others have used caricatures and satiric prints to analyze specific events in queer history from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, no scholar has previously sought to create an argument using primarily this type of source material over such an extended time period. Janes’s central argument is that while it “has sometimes been assumed that it was only with the trials of 1895 that dandyism, aestheticism, and sodomy became linked … these associations went back to the eighteenth century, as evidenced by traditions of caricature” (176). Janes contends that our present understanding of this period “underplays the degree of knowledge available concerning the possibilities of same-sex eroticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (7), and that visual texts (primarily caricatures) can be used as a way of demonstrating the wide circulation of that knowledge. Visual caricature is especially good at recording what men otherwise tried to conceal, since it “was a genre predicated on exaggeration. The nuanced codes with which dissident desires were signaled in the street appear in more pronounced forms in satirical productions” (4). Janes also avoids problematically inferring continuities across too long a time period by asserting that his “aim is to explore whether such works could have been viewed as bearing sexual significance” (4, emphasis in the original), rather than arguing that they definitively did. Proving that something could have been viewed in a certain way might make for a less compelling book if the source material were not so rich. It might not be possible to say exactly what caricaturist George Cruikshank meant when, in 1826 as part of a crowd scene that was set in Brighton, he drew a dandy and a woman perfectly aligned, so that her oversized hat, dress, and curled locks seemed to be worn by him, but Janes seems justified in asserting that this can at least be “understood in the context of implications of queer fashioning” (115). Also, in another widely circulated print satirizing dandies, this one by Robert Cruikshank, Janes points out that, despite the image not being explicitly about identifying the men as having sexual desires for one another, “what we see are the energetically splayed-out legs of one man with another man positioned between them who is administering eau de cologne from a long phallic ampule” (110). Dozens of other images, from mid-eighteenth-century “macaronis” to late-nineteenth-century “aesthetes,” are likewise presented and analyzed. By putting these images into the context of the time, Janes finds potential commentary on homoerotic desire not only in the ribald imagery of the Cruikshanks, but also in more innocuous prints, such as those by Victorian caricaturist John Doyle. These images of effeminate and mincing men are almost always mocking and derogatory, and yet they provided a vocabulary of gestures and styles through which men interested in the homoerotic could identify one another, even as, Janes asserts, most men adopting such styles were not doing so for homoerotic reasons. These visual signs could be understood differently depending on who was viewing them. Less developed but no less intriguing are the arguments for how the dangerous qualities of these stereotypes could propel a career forward, as is outlined for Lord Byron, Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, and others. Borrowing from the insights of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Janes also makes the case that the “image of the effeminate dandy, like that of the macaroni … was strangely convenient for men of a variety of sexual tastes,” allowing a range of other non-normative masculine behaviors to pass unremarked and unmolested (167). These insights, based primarily on the analysis of a wide range of images, are developed in three key sections of the book, each centering on a different period. Macaronis and “men of feeling” are addressed in the first section, on the mid-eighteenth century; the analysis of Regency dandies and “Byronists” is covered in the second section, on the early nineteenth century; and aesthetes and “new men” anchor the analysis of the later nineteenth century. The style of argument does have its drawbacks. More care is given to the description of the specific stereotypes than to that of the transitions between them. At the end of the chapter on macaronis Janes paraphrases Thomas A. King’s argument (The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, 2 vols. [2004, 2008]), writing that “by the mid-eighteenth century an older model in which men courted richer men and women for promotion was replaced (as an ideal) by one in which men thought of themselves as functioning as autonomous participants in public life.” Further down the page Janes mentions that it “has been suggested that all this helps explain why attitudes towards sodomy in eighteenth-century France were less severe than in Britain” (53). Both of these assumptions could be questioned, drawing on the work of Catherine Hall to argue for a later transition on the first point, and on the works of Faramerz Dabhoiwala and H. G. Cocks to provide more compelling explanations on the second. But explaining these broader transitions is not the point of the book, and the chapter ends on the next page. The point of the book—demonstrating that the trials of Oscar Wilde did not represent “a great leap forward for queer visual expression” (229) but rather need “to be seen in the context of long-term developments in the awareness of forms of same-sex desire” (231)—seems established by its final pages, calling into question earlier arguments, including those in Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side: Towards a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities (1993), and Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (1994), over the uniqueness of the Wilde trials in shaping public perceptions. Along the way, Janes also provides arguments that touch on more heated disputes, such as those between Randolph Trumbach and Philip Carter over the meaning of effeminacy in eighteenth-century England, although Janes’s approach and his sources do not require him to take a decisive stand on such questions—an advantage, perhaps, of the exploration of what “could have been.” © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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