Much has been made (often, ahem, by literary critics) of the steamy nature of Victorian homosociality; according to some, all you need to do is get half a dozen Harrow sixth-formers or pre-Raphaelite artists in a room together and they will all be sodomizing each other before you can say “eros.” But I rather suspect that this passage, from G.B. Grundy’s (kind of boring and badly-written) Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: An Unconventional Autobiography is more illustrative of the many elite contexts in which male homosociality flourished in the late-Victorian period:
A surprising incident of a kindred nature took place one night in Corpus Common Room. Cuthbert Shields, who was a great and not infrequent critic of the looks of women, said in that way of his… that he considered that Mrs. Vinogradoff [the wife of the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence] was a very good-looking woman. Women’s looks were not a very favourite topic in Corpus Common Room, so no one took up the challenge, and there was an appreciable interval of silence. [Professor of Latin Robinson] Ellis, who had apparently been asleep in the chair on my left, woke up at this and said across me to Lightfoot [no idea who he is], who was sitting on my right, ‘I sometimes think, Lightfoot, that your wife is quite a good-looking woman.’ He was right, for Mrs. Lightfoot was at the time a very beautiful girl.
Apparently (says Chris Stray in one of his many books about the history of classical scholarship in this period) a classicist called Gilbert Norwood commented in 1923 that “many dons are simply sixth-form boys who have kept on,” and I think that’s true in a variety of ways: I have learned more about Victorian male homosociality as a widespread social institution by talking to modern-day young English men who attended single-sex secondary schools (still, I would argue, neo-Victorian institutions, hence their usefulness as historical comparators) than I ever could by reading the literature about homosexuality. This is what makes writing about Sidgwick so different to writing about Symonds, even though the two were good friends and moved in the same circles: women were simply not interesting enough to Symonds for interacting with them to be a significant factor in his life, but Sidgwick was interested in them as people and as sex objects and as an “other” his single-sex upbringing had not always prepared him to relate to as real, fully-fledged human beings. When I look at Victorian homosociality and heterosexuality, I see a series of fascinating tensions within the lives and thoughts of men who are attracted sexually and personally to women and often are theoretically in favor of women’s intellectual and social equality, but have grown up avoiding them, fearing them, seeing them as a constraint on propriety, and generally being reduced to paroxysms of awkwardness whenever they enter the room or come up in conversation. The parallels to conversations in today’s university common rooms and department lounges are, perhaps, worth noting, but I leave such matters to the reader.