Updated: Aug 5
We celebrate London Pride 2019 with a look at some of literature's noteworthy queer authors.
The origins of queer literature
The great canon of Western Literature more or less begins with Homer’s Epic of warfare, The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War. If you’re familiar with the rough chronology of events, you’d be forgiven for thinking Homer begins with the love affair between Paris and Helen, which sets the war in motion, or even with the Greek ships sailing ominously across the Aegean Sea. Indeed, it is not uncommon for modern retelling of the story even earlier, with Paris judging a competition between goddesses, and awarding a golden apple to the most beautiful of the three.
Contrary to what you might expect, however, Homer begins his song ten years into the war, a point at which both armies are exhausted by seemingly endless battle. The Greeks have a problem on their hands: Achilles, their greatest fighter, has thrown down his weapons and refuses to return to the fray. And what brings Achilles back into action? The death of his beloved friend Patrochlus, slain in battle by the Trojans, and often presumed to be Achilles’s lover.
It seems then that profound love between two men, the kind of love that in another century Oscar Wilde would refer to as “The love that dare not speak its name”, has never been simply on the margins of literary fiction and poetry, but has its proper place right at the core.
In celebration of London Pride, here are a couple of couples whose love and writing changed the course of literature.
W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
One of the most popular and influential queer poets of the Twentieth Century is W. H. Auden. Auden’s glittering career began when as a twenty-three year old, his volume entitled simply Poems was published by Faber and Faber, then run by TS Eliot. Auden’s difficult, early verse was much of a piece with the high modernist writers of the 1920s, but over the course of his life he would experiment with a large number of different poetic styles, ranging from verse-drama to short comic poems.
His achievements include holding the chair of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and, though he didn’t live to see it, having one of his poems recited in the hugely successful romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral. This is probably how most people have first encountered his work today; the poem “Funeral Blues” is read by John Hanna’s character as a lament for his deceased partner, played by Simon Callow. It begins:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
W. H. Auden
From the beginning of his career onwards, Auden’s name was linked with another major figure of English letters, Christopher Isherwood. They shared a political outlook, and were both early critics of Nazi Germany. Isherwood’s Berlin novels have also been transposed to the silver scene, in the form of the musical Cabaret.
Isherwood and Auden were intermittently lovers, literary collaborators, and always friends. Rather touchingly, Auden did in fact marry a woman--another queer writer, Erika Mann. As an outspoken detractor of Hitler living in Germany, Mann needed to marry Auden to gain a Britsh passport in order to escape the fascist regime. The two writers never lived together, in spite of their marriage, but remained cordial to the end, and Auden was even remembered in Mann’s will.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West
Although, like Auden, Woolf was part of a heterosexual marriage (and hers was motivated my more than just a passport), she too had extramarital relationships, notably with the fellow writer Vita Sackville West. Vita inspired Woolf’s playful, historical romp, Orlando, and even after the affair ended the couple remained close friends.
In the character of Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf presents a moving portrait of a woman living in a heteronormative marriage, with repressed homosexual desires. This is how Woolf describes the time Clarissa is kissed by her friend Sally, a moment never to be repeated which she will remember all her life:
Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it--a diamond, something infinitely precious…
Woolf was not just a talented writer: she pushed the limits of what a novel could be. With her explorations deep into human consciousness, and her disregard for conventional plotting and the usual treatment of the passage of time, she opened up new possibilities for writers of her own time and all of those who came later. It is impossible now to imagine what twentieth century fiction would have looked like without her influence.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.