Homosexual desire in nineteenth-century British politics
Sex scandals are not a new occurrence for the political elite. Though ‘homosexual’ had not emerged as social category until the late-nineteenth century, homosexual sex scandals challenged the heteronormative masculinity of the British government during the nineteenth century. British politics prided itself on close homosocial bonds between politicians, whether in the context of the London club or at the country hunt. However, when politicians transgressed the appropriate norms of heteronormative behaviour, the impact was significant both on the individual and the country. This article considers what this transgressive behaviour meant for those in politics and how political figures remembered such scandals.
Sex scandals were obviously damaging to the individuals involved, but also to Britain’s international representation. In 1833, Lord Greville, political and social diarist, noted in his diary the impact of scandals on British politics. Greville was concerned that the population, with a thirst for gossip, was more interested in sex scandals than they were in the workings of government. He was also worried, not only about what such scandals reflected about aristocratic morality, but also about Britain’s international reputation. Nearly a decade later, Greville noted how though the aristocracy might be ‘mighty proud of our fine qualities’, international audiences had a ‘less exalted idea of our perfections’. As historian Michael Mason attests, the ‘fineness or purity of tone in respect of sexual manners’ was linked to national pride. The transgression of heteronormative and moral codes of respectable behaviour posed challenges for politicians, colleagues, and the political institutions of the country.
Remembering homosexual practices
In his memoirs, Irish nationalist politician T. P. O’Connor recalled his memories of his ‘poor’ friend Michael Francis Ward, MP for Galway. O’Connor formed a ‘close and romantic friendship’ with Ward during their schooldays and presented him as a victim of his passions. He describes his friend as sexually ‘the most immoral’ he had ever known. O’Connor’s description of Ward’s physical attributes focused on his ‘almost feminine beauty’ of blue eyes, small nose, and coloured complexion, but contrasted his ‘girl-face’ with his physical strength, ‘nerves of steel’ and ‘cold and desperate courage’. This form of courage was not something necessarily to be praised. He noted that despite his frequent sexual activities with various women, and his later marriage, he fundamentally hated women, stemming from a reverence for his own mother. After the death of his wife, Ward pursued ‘men of irregular passions’ despite his responsibilities at the upcoming General Election. O’Connor provided a more sympathetic account from the period, but his memoirs show the difficulties he had in encapsulating his friend’s inconsistencies over appearance and sexuality.
O’Connor’s memoirs also reveal the serious impact that accusations of male same-sex relationships could have on reputations. He recounts how Irish Nationalist politician William O’Brien campaigned to have the ‘activities’ of police officers at Dublin Castle investigated in 1884. O’Connor noted the significance of this political gamble: if the investigation yielded no results, O’Brien would have committed suicide. Ultimately the campaign paid off as it revealed Dublin Castle as being ‘the refuge and the shelter of men of the most degraded vices’.
Calling the seat of the British government into disrepute functioned as part of the wider campaign for Irish independence proclaimed by O’Brien and his colleagues, showcasing the transgression of norms. Here O’Connor presented homosexual relationships in a more condemnatory tone, referring to them as the ‘hideous crimes of sexual degeneracy’, language which far exceeded the caution he expressed when referring to Ward’s various relationships. This could also be partly owing to the environment in which the activities took place; whilst Ward went ‘underground’ in London to satisfy his pleasures, officers undertaking similar activities in the closeness of the British power in Ireland proved too much.
Politicians’ exhibition of same-sex desire challenged the heteronormative values of British politics and therefore tainted the perceived morality of the British aristocracy. How men recorded these scandals is useful for historians in unpacking the nature and scope of homosexual relations, and how these representations changed over time. As scholars, we can examine accounts of ‘same sex desire’ in the earlier nineteenth century, but we must be cautious about our application of terms that were yet to be in popular use.