Gay Life Stories
When archaeologists opened an ancient Egyptian tomb in 1964 they weren’t sure quite what to make of the relationship between the two men interred there. Carvings showed Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum embracing and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Were these men friends, lovers or brothers? How, in 2400 BC , did their clear affection for each other play out with the royal court where they worked or with the wives and children who were also depicted?
It is just such a question that Robert Aldrich’s group biography addresses, exposing some of the challenges of exploring ‘gay lives’ in the past. We can’t use our current understanding and language of sexuality to explain what was happening in ancient Egypt. The one thing we can be sure of is that this pair would not have recognized themselves as ‘gay’ in any contemporary sense.
In over 80 beautifully detailed vignettes of men and women who have lived and loved in the centuries since, Aldrich teases out what each might tell us about identity, community and subculture and how these relate to their historical and cultural contexts.
Just as deftly he shows how history couched each figure, how they were treated by commentators then and since and how these lives might relate to our own times. We see, for example, how the ancient Greeks featured in the Maharaja of Chhatarpur’s (1866 – 1932) conception of his Indian realm and of relations between men; how the wry chronicler J.R.Ackerley sketched the Maharaja’s peculiarities (and supposed ugliness) in Hindoo Holiday; and how the British Empire within which the Maharaja ‘ruled’ criminalised sex between men – a law only repealed in 2009.
Aldrich looks at ideas of gender identity – partly via the incredible story of the cross-dressing French diplomat and sometime spy the Chevalier d’Eon (1728 – 1810) – and at the erotic and power dynamics sometimes at play in same-sex relationships between people of different classes, nationalities, ethnicities or ages. There is a touching sketch, for example, of English writer Christopher Isherwood’s 33-year relationship with the American artist Don Baccardy, who was 30 years his junior.
Artists and writers are heavily represented, so too are radicals and pioneers, the middle classes and the privileged. There are more men than women. Despite the global spread, the emphasis is on white westerners and there is an implicit exoticisation of ‘others’ under section headings like ‘Love in the Levant’ and ‘Japanisme’ (although Aldrich is also a critic of such tendencies).
A particular idea of gay identity and desire emerges from this, which might have been complicated a little if, for example, the maharaja’s servants had been in the foreground instead of the maharaja. It is easy to quibble with the selection, though, and this should not detract from what is a considerable achievement. It is a beautifully illustrated, warm-hearted book, which drew me in and kept me reading into the early hours. Aldrich deals with complex issues and complex lives accessibly and with a seductively light touch.
Matt Cook is author of London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 (Cambridge, 2008).
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