Writing What’s Forbidden
Even now I feel self-conscious to be telling you that I’m gay and that sexuality has always had something to do with my writing. Although Lord Byron’s sexuality was not identical to mine, there were evidently elements of eros and libido that drove him into writing too. My passion for him has something to do with that shared element in our make-up. To show you how he’s taught daring to me, I’m laying my cards on the table. I’m telling you as honestly as I can what the kinks are in my personality, what urges and what shames drove the interior and dreaming me into print and publication. The process has felt redemptive.
My biography of the nineteenth-century prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was my first attempt to break down the wall between my interior and exterior, between my private and public selves. It was to be a coming out of the closet. I’d come out to close friends before, but never to strangers. By writing a book-length work effectively outing a famous British politician I hoped officially to out myself.
All this began a long time earlier with a stray remark to me by the classicist, Michael Dewar. He’d taken a long train ride from Italy to Britain. He’d brought along several of Disraeli’s novels to read on the train. “They’re so camp,” he said to me laughing. How could that be, I wondered? How could Disraeli have made it not once but twice to the highest elective office in Britain, if he were in fact the gay author of camp novels?
Gay as an identity didn’t exist in the nineteenth-century. You could be hanged for sodomy. Or, you could be put into the stocks for attempted sodomy until the middle of the 1800s. You could be arrested if you were a man who dressed as a woman and walked down Piccadilly. Oscar Wilde went to jail for “gross indecency,” which in nineteenth-century Britain meant homosexual acts that did not amount to sodomy. Insertive anal sex was considered the pinnacle of moral corruption, but the law laid down that anything leading up to that was almost as bad. Sex between two men was what Oscar Wilde’s friend, Alfred Douglas, called the “love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde was allowed to defend this in his trial, but it didn’t help him. He went to jail and it broke him.
That’s why it was surprising to find that in the dozen novels Disraeli wrote over the course of his life there were so many hints of homoeroticism. School-aged boys are frequently in love with other boys. There are long defenses of effeminacy in men, even though effeminacy was then considered an outward sign of wanting to commit sodomy. There are repeated references to classical myths and ancient history where men have sex with one another.
Disraeli’s life was itself curious. He married late in life a woman who was much older than him and far beyond her childbearing years. After she died his closest companion became his private secretary whom he treated as both a son and a lover. This young man inherited Disraeli’s literary estate when he died.
Disraeli was also exceptionally devoted to the monarchy. He was the only British prime minister during a reign of sixty-three years who inspired reciprocal affection in Queen Victoria. Historians have often written of him as the architect of the late Victorian monarchy’s revival. This made sense to me. He liked queens. So did I. Looking at his sexual ambiguity was a way of exploring my own.
Disraeli never attended one of the ancient public schools. He didn’t go to a university. He was only converted to Christianity when he was a teenager. He rose to politics not via landowning, industry or law, the traditional routes into the Victorian political establishment, but via the writing of commercial fiction. His father, Isaac D’Israeli (Disraeli later changed the spelling), had inherited money from his father. Isaac was well-known on London’s literary scene. He’d written an early nineteenth-century bestseller called Curiosities of Literature. He was friends with Byron’s publisher, John Murray. Isaac knew Byron and Byron in turn admired Isaac D’Israeli’s work.
Disraeli wrote his first novel when he was twenty-two. It was a surprise hit called Vivian Grey. Its androgynously-named hero experiences a success in London society. One reason sales took off was because the publisher started the rumor that the author himself was a celebrity in the society he was describing. This wasn’t true, and sales tapered off when Disraeli’s identity as a young nobody was revealed. Nevertheless, it gave Disraeli attention he hadn’t had before.
He was able to sell a string of subsequent society novels to publishers. He began to cut the figure in society he’d only pretended to before. He became a dandy. He curled his hair and wore velvet waistcoats. He wore jackets of canary yellow or emerald green. He carried a cane. He made love to rich heiresses without being able to persuade any of them to marry him.
His real love in this period might have been his sister, who looked after him and never married herself. He went on a long Mediterranean journey to Jerusalem via Spain and Turkey. He returned and wrote a novel about the marriage between a Jew and a Muslim who create harmony between two mutually hostile religions through their love match.
One modern critic, Andrew Elfenbein, has read Disraeli’s life as an attempt to impersonate Byron. The literary ambition, the dandyism, the exotic love life, the grand tour through the Mediterranean, the admiration for Middle Eastern aesthetics and manners: in all these Disraeli followed in Byron’s footsteps.
I settled down to read Disraeli’s novels. Most historians had dismissed them as boring or unreadable. Some of them were heavy-going, it was true. There was also a sparkling voice on the page with an infectious love of pleasure and enjoyment. I loved his outlining the blue veins in young men’s foreheads. I loved his pointed references to the king of the Greek gods falling in love with a boy waiter. I loved his showing how the Roman emperor Hadrian was lost at the death of his male lover, Antinous. I loved a strange Jewish seer, not unlike Disraeli himself, who collected around himself a circle of adoring, high-born, young men.
All this was outrageous and dangerous in the midst of a social system where anyone discovered to be a lover of other men faced harsh punishments under the law. Moreover, Disraeli’s books weren’t arguments in favor of reducing those punishments. It was story-telling that didn’t take itself very seriously. It invited the reader to enjoy what was possible. To judge from the love affairs touched upon in Disraeli’s texts, a great deal was possible. There were few grievances and many adventures to be had among Disraeli’s gods, dandies, students, and sages. The possible consequences didn’t seem to bother him.
All this somehow made me braver myself. In addition to my sexuality, I’d always been ashamed of my body. I was skinny as a kid and always wore sweaters to cover things up. In my forties I began to have a belly of which I was also ashamed. That too needed a disguise. I had always put on more clothes to make myself more presentable. The summer I read through Disraeli’s novels in the British library I dared to wear only a tee shirt. This is who I am, world. Take it or leave it.
In the reading room I had a shock. I ran into the husband of one of the archivists from Windsor. He was a distinguished scholar. He was the son of a Belgian viscount. He would soon retire knighted by the queen in an order which she controlled herself without any reference to the government. He was funny, friendly, and easy to talk to. He had formidable knowledgeable about the porcelain King George IV had been able to pick up for a song after the French Revolution. He was wearing a tee shirt too. I was on a sabbatical from my little college in Wisconsin. Here I was in London being thought worth some irreverent and cheerful banter by a knight of the round table.
It was not all smooth sailing. In the early years of the twenty-first century there was an opening of the Western mind to homosexuality and a reduction in prejudice. In the States there were situation comedies like Will & Grace with openly gay characters. There was a major Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks about the AIDS crisis. The armed forces of England, France, and Israel for the first time welcomed gay recruits. Yet, when I pitched my Disraeli book to my British agent, who I don’t think was homophobic herself, I ran into a roadblock. She thought the idea was promising, but “it can’t be all gay, Bill.” She didn’t think the market could bear it.
The editor she eventually sold it to, at the London office of Simon & Schuster, didn’t think so either. They thought it could be about 25% gay, but the rest must be Disraeli’s politics, his contribution to the evolution of the monarchy, his theatricality, self-parody, and exaggeration in an era we’ve usually thought of as sober, staid, and serious. It was all right for me to call him “flamboyant,” but I wasn’t to make too much of it.
The book when it came out had a helpful push from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker who called its assessment of Disraeli’s sexuality “categorical and convincing.” Other reviewers in London were also kind to it. One review in a prominent left-leaning British news magazine, The New Statesman, stuck in my craw, however. A paraphrase of its leading line might go like this. “We’ve all known Disraeli was gay, but it takes this overly earnest, young American to feel the need to say it out loud.” This made me furious. “You did not know it,” I wanted to shout. “It’s not in any of the books about him. And if you think it’s vulgar to speak openly about something he must have struggled with in that era, I’m glad to be the one to do it.”
I was hopping up and down. It was the first time I was a little out of love with that clammy island and its people with crooked teeth. The review sent me into the stacks of the London Library one Saturday afternoon to look for something completely different. To be honest, I was probably thinking of consoling myself by looking at an art book of male nudes. Instead, what I found was a catalogue from a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition on the clothing of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Dear writer who is reading this, when you write a book, do please ignore your reviews. Don’t forget what you love. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Swim full speed ahead and ignore the sharks underneath. Swim fast enough and you’ll outpace them. Swim long enough and they’ll learn to respect your persistence and strength. Enjoy the swim because you’ll discover your next project in the beautiful blue water right ahead of you.