New College of the Humanities

The Rise of Gay Rights

The Rise of Gay Rights and the Fall of the British Empire
Liberal Resistance and the Bloomsbury Group
David A.J. Richards
Cambridge University Press  282pp  £20

What a vital subject – pertinent; necessary; well-conceived! Yet pause, reader. What is this book? Do not let its title, or its author’s eminence as Professor of Law at NYU, or the esteem of its publisher, deceive you. Do not imagine that the cover’s portraits imply more than passing interest in Bloomsbury.

For this monograph is arguably among the most misconceived and incoherent studies ever published in the field of gay history. The author does not so much address the subjects clearly announced in the book’s title, he lays them waste. Despite the reiteration of his chosen remit on the copyright page – ‘gay rights’, ‘gay rights – Great Britain’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘democracy’ – The Rise of Gay Rights and the Fall of the British Empire adopts something substantially below sophomoric style to consider Richards’ interests, which appear repeatedly and progressively bound by the 50 states.

His arguments occasionally stray beyond the national American context. They reference John Locke, Gilgamesh and the Oresteia in an opening chapter. Certain British writers surface later, briefly: Orwell, Osborne, Hollinghurst. Still, the overall impression is of an American seminar group predicating a tutorial approach that is entirely constrained by that enemy of intellectual enquiry: the pursuit solely of what is ‘relevant’ to its (US) students. The index cannot lie: there are 35 pages on American ‘resistance movements’; barely 10 on Woolf, most prominent of the chosen Bloomsburyists.

Instead, references revolve overwhelmingly around facets of US history. From third-rate Nietzschean Ayn Rand to hologram-as-President Ronald Reagan; from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Roe vs. Wade. Margaret Thatcher gets a walk-on role, but as ‘a kind of latter-day Ayn Rand, who aligned her politics ... with that of Ronald Reagan.’ And Woolf was the English Willa Cather? Repeatedly we are encouraged to consult another of Richards’ ten works ‘on this topic’ (any topic but this topic, actually).

But perhaps Bloomsbury had this coming? After all, critics have fastened onto the class-bound constraints of Woolf; the manipulation of evidence wrought by Strachey; the supposed special pleading or traces of misogyny within Forster’s liberalism. At least Forster, late in life, paid his dues to a certain land, blessed with ‘the oldest written constitution in the world’, by visiting it.

Woolf paid the New World little attention, though tactfully – presumably bearing in mind her extensive American readership – she did review its writers extensively. In 1938 she responded to the question posed by Hearst’s International and Cosmopolitan magazines, ‘What interests you most in this cosmopolitan world of today?’ quite categorically: ‘America, WHICH I HAVE NEVER SEEN, Interests Me Most in This Cosmopolitan World of Today.’ Richards would surely have approved.

He seems chiefly concerned with hoary anecdotes: what the Bloomsbury set did, not what it wrote. Excepting the odd reference to Mrs Dalloway or A Passage to India, their accommodation of liberal politics – sexual and otherwise – in their works is neglected. This is indefensible, since several literary scholars have done much lately to tease out the complex intersections in the interwar period between post-colonial thinking and socio-political self-positioning – including on sexuality and the law. Yet of their work there is no mention. Once J.R. Ackerley’s Indian memoir Hindoo Holiday was classed as a ‘novel’, I realised, moreover, that this slight work had, perhaps, also not been edited.

Richard Canning‘s most recent publication is an edition of Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory (Penguin Classics, 2012).

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