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Robust body and social souls: Reassessing Ronald Firbank's effeminate queer men.

Attempts to place Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) in the context of the British literary canon have frequently focused on his campy humor and his disjointed, seemingly frivolous style in order to present him as a bridge between a Wildean decadence and modernist experiments in narrative. One early version of this critical trend stems from E. M. Forster, who categorized Firbank as a modern writer belonging to the "fin de siecle" and as an occasionally admirable "butterfly" who wrote "frivolous stuff' and "an untainted series of absurdities" (118, 119). Another, more sympathetic version stems from Evelyn Waugh, who likewise asserted Firbank's association with the decadent nineties but emphasized how Firbank simultaneously avoided outdated "attributions of cause to effect," largely through his humorously proffered "illuminated fragments of the commonplace," fragmented commonplaces being a hallmark of British modernism. Firbank's "literary influence," Waugh argued, derived from his "experiments" with non sequiturs and fragmented "selective" details, all set forth in a "peculiarly appropriate and delicate" fashion (57, 58). Both Forster and (to a greater extent) Waugh appreciate Firbank's reappropriation of Wildean fin-de-siecle fancifulness for modern literary experimentation. Yet, they also characterize Firbank's work as "frivolous" and as "peculiarly... delicate," thereby implying that his writing is somehow effetely idiosyncratic and slight. In doing so, they subtly present his work as an updated version of a pathologically decadent and enervated late-nineteenth-century homoerotic aesthetic.

More recent critics have advanced this double-edged line of analysis by describing Firbank's style as technically interesting, yet as semantically uncertain and as pessimistically effete. Jonathan Goldman, for instance, suggests that, as opposed to meaningful modernist experiments in "resignification," Firbank's frivolous dialogue results in the "designification" of language and accompanies "plots" that "follow the same pattern" (303, 302). Jed Mayer argues that in Firbank "[u]tterance is fragmented" and that "disembodied conversations take place in a kind of void," thereby stressing a similarly repetitious vacuity of signification (96). Mayer contends, moreover, that this fragmented style reinforces diverse themes of social "marginalization" (111). According to these critics, Firbank's frivolity and experiments in narrative discontinuities evoke an aura of semantic ephemerality, a lack of solidity, and social estrangement.

Although persuasive, these analyses of Firbank's fragmented literary style, his breakdowns in signification, and his "disembodied" voices echo troubling turn-of-the-twentieth-century conventions that linked same-sex desiring bodies and identities to a degenerate aestheticism, feebleness, and social alienation. Alan Sinfield has traced how the "vaguely disconcerting nexus of effeminacy, leisured idleness, immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism, which Wilde was perceived as instantiating, was transformed into a brilliantly precise image" of a "queer" identity in the late nineteenth century, an identity that extended, with qualifications, into the modern period (118). One might think here of Forster's withered Platonist Clive Durham in Maurice (written 1913-1914) or Waugh's intensely effeminate Miles Malpractice and Peter Pastmaster in Vile Bodies (1930) or Anthony Blanche and Sebastian Flyte in Brides head Revisited (1945). In a flagrant yet conventional display of misogyny, these overtly feminized queer characters are diversely enervated or decadent aesthetes who end up emotionally alone, psychologically alienated from society, and frequently drunk. While I do not wish to dispute Firbank's lauded role as a stylistic bridge between a fin-de-siecle aestheticism and a fragmentary modernism, I do want to suggest that some of the critical descriptions of this role are problematic. They risk replicating, however unwittingly or sympathetically, early-twentieth-century literary stereotypes that presented same-sex desiring aesthetes as effeminate and as consequently weak, unhealthy, socially alienating, and relatively unproductive.

Critics' concentration on Firbank's camp style, especially, has long worked in parallel, and sometimes in direct conjunction, with their emphases on the queer characters that populate his fiction. Firbank's frivolous body of work, in other words, frequently gets conflated with a rhetoric that constructs queer males, in particular, as weak and epicene, with bodies and personalities that do not quite register in conventional society because they deviate threateningly from social norms. Richard Collins brings this cultural background to the fore in his analysis of Firbank by pointing to a "textual instability that complements the sexual indeterminacy" in his novels (39). Referencing Susan Sontag's description of "the androgyne" as consisting of "swooning, slim, sinuous figures," Collins connects Firbank's "textual instability" to how he "escalates his erotic content, from a variety of androgynous pagan subjects to monstrous sphinxes and hermaphrodites" (39, 42). William Clark implies a similar connection through his adjacent descriptions of Firbank's "etiolated plotless structure" and the "minority of male degenerates, powdered, pale, and languorous" that populate his novels (138). These critics suggest that Firbank's "sinuous" or "etiolated" aesthetic resonates fittingly with his ambiguously gendered and degenerate queer bodies.

Even when critics do argue for the perverse strength of Firbank's writing, their fascination with his allegedly disaffected, effeminate queer characters tends to become the dominant note, overshadowing their admiration for his technical strengths. Ernest Jones, for instance, acknowledges "a tough core of common sense to [Firbank's] dallyings with the trivial," yet he highlights the weak "world-weary figures" and the "real ennui" and "feeling... of the sadness and mortality of all things human" that pervades Firbank's novels (x, xvi). In this way, Jones himself subscribes to a version of what he calls the "Firbank legend," which posits a "delicate posturer" in place of the vigorous "artist" (vii). This overlooks the young Firbank who, according to his biographers, took extensive walks, ran, swam, tried rowing, attempted "some cape-play with a mild bull" in Spain, was a decent horseman when he needed to be, and a fervent traveler, and who imparted some of this vitality to his characters (Benkovitz 64). (1) I do not wish to misrepresent Firbank as an ardent athlete, but I do want to reorient, however slightly, a critical preoccupation with his later passive morbidity. For critical conventions of an intriguing and brilliant yet overly "delicate," "sad," frequently "drunk," and socially estranged Firbank overwhelmingly govern interpretations of his style, his themes, and especially his queer male characters (Horder 74, 81, 24).

These critical conventions, I think, provide us with valuable but nonetheless distorted understandings of Firbank's portrayal of effeminacy and homoeroticism. To balance out these critical and literary legacies, I want to put Firbank into context with Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, who promoted a form of muscular homoeroticism that they distinctly distanced from a too overt femininity. Examining Carpenter and Ellis alongside Firbank gives us a new angle from which to examine Firbank's complex constructions of sex and gender in his novels. Reflecting yet implicitly critiquing Carpenter's and Ellis's inherent misogyny, Firbank, I want to suggest, offered a similar reorientation of queerness but did so by celebrating womanly men. For Firbank, gender ambiguities do not equal or bring about effeteness, world-weariness, or social alienation. His same-sex desiring male characters are epicene, to be sure, but they are concurrently strong, productive, athletic, and capable of gaining friends and admirers. His frivolous style and seemingly offhand interjections, moreover, rather than offering a semantic uncertainty, provide an atmosphere of insouciance and nonchalance that serves to normalize these characterizations. Firbank's queer characters become, as Don Adams convincingly argues, a natural part of his "social carnival," a mode of sociability existing in the pastoral tradition, an "imaginative safe-haven, a place where one may be entirely at home in one's natural or chosen identity" (122, 127). To Adams's description of the pastoral I would only add the key elements of health and vitality. These traits especially, as I will argue, apply to many of Firbank's same-sex desiring men, whom he presents as exhibiting robust bodies, possessing social souls, and occupying integral parts of his fictional world. Consequently, he offered a rare, almost unique, positive relationship between effeminacy and a healthy homoeroticism in the early-twentieth-century British novel, while revitalizing and revaluing conventional feminine interests as a critical element of a desirable homosexual identity.

A widespread stereotype of homoeroticism at the turn of the twentieth century portrayed unhealthy, debauched, and even monstrous bodies alienated from and leeching off of society. Much of the impetus for such public denunciations stemmed from rhetoric surrounding criminal trials for sexual deviancy, most notably Oscar Wilde's. Reporting on such trials, as Matt Cook has shown, news sources frequently depicted same-sex desiring men as "pariah[s]," as "fleshy and decadent; weak and effeminate; or more generally as 'unwholesome' and 'beastly'" (61). As Ed Cohen has remarked, contemporary newspaper reportage even linked Wilde's "artistic and sexual practices to the fall of empires" and hence to threats to Britain's own imperial prosperity (170). Sean Brady argues that for many people during this period "social toleration of sex between men" seemed to threaten Britain's "cultural self-perception of pre-eminence in the wider world" because this deviancy threatened popular conceptions of heteronormative masculine power and virility that seemed to be the foundation of British strength (24). Public opinion generally held that same-sex desiring individuals, rather than be brought into the fold, should be ostracized for the safety of the state and the empire.

To counteract this negative rhetoric, British sexologists such as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis began to challenge what Laura Doan and Chris Waters have called the "equation of effeminacy and male homosexuality" (43). After Wilde's trials, Carpenter and Ellis promoted a sturdy, vigorous, and affable homoeroticism, which they calculatedly distanced from the aesthetic effeteness that Wilde had made so socially suspect. By doing so, they bravely and accurately rendered the self-perceptions of many strong men interested romantically in other men in the face of public homophobia, but they did so by adapting an entrenched public misogyny. (2) They "normalized" queer men who fit more comfortably into stereotypes of a productive, strong, and intelligent Edwardian masculinity by distancing such men from their more feminine counterparts, who represented for the general public the embodiment of "idleness," "immorality," and "decadence" detailed by Sinfield.

Carpenter, in particular, became well-known in early-twentieth-century British intellectual circles for calmly explaining sexual inversion, a prominent formulation of same-sex desire, by detailing the spectrum of biological sex and gender characteristics within the general population. In The Intermediate Sex (1908), for instance, Carpenter insisted on recognizing that "the number of persons occupying an intermediate position between the two sexes is very great" and that many individuals' "inner psychical affections and affinities shade off and graduate, in a vast number of instances, most subtly from male to female, and not always in obvious correspondence with the outer bodily sex" (9, 10). Carpenter describes individuals who exhibit both male and female physical traits and individuals who blend conventionally masculine and feminine psychological and behavioral traits all within one body. Sex and gender exist on a spectrum, he observes, and they do so naturally. Drawing on European sexual theorists such as Karl Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and others, Carpenter argued that a consequence of this spectrum was the manifestation of Urnings or inverts, individuals who experienced "sexual inversion--that is the leaning of desire to one of the same sex" (51). Due to the variations in physiological and gendered psychological attributes, attractions between individuals with equivalent genitals became almost inevitable.

In addition to explaining inversion, Carpenter used The Intermediate Sex polemically to legitimate same-sex desire and to justify the social value of male sexual inverts. He wanted to do so, moreover, according to the principles of his socialism, which, as Ruth Livesey has shown, he shared with Ellis and their radical associates, who viewed "sexual desire" as a "transitive force that only needed to be released from the forms of bourgeois society in order to bring a new future of social relations into being" (86). To facilitate achieving these goals, Carpenter distanced his ideal male invert from public perceptions of a degenerate Wildean homoeroticism. Eschewing connotations of idleness and immorality, Carpenter insisted that "a vast number of intermediates do actually perform most valuable social work" (100). Due to the "interaction between its masculine and feminine elements," Carpenter suggested, the "Uranian temperament" has a particular proclivity for producing members of the "artist class," the "teaching profession," and people who perform "philanthropic work" (102, 104, 106). Carpenter advantageously engages the term Uranian, a reference to the Greek sky god Uranus, as an ennobled synonym for intermediate inversion. (3) Yet, while Carpenter willingly admitted to the social benefits of a limited "feminine element" in male inverts, since this tempers the desire for "business success, fame, and other motives which rule" the overly greedy or egotistical "normal man," a too overt or obvious effeminacy recalled the social threats of both an indolent socio-economic privilege, one akin to that idealized by the effete Wildean decadent, and a lower-class dissipation (120, 119). Thus, despite promoting theories of sexual and gender intermediacy, Carpenter curtailed his associations of the socially useful male invert with femininity and derided men who manifested too much of this element, who were, from his perspective, too abnormal to be recuperated.

Whether this was a conscious pragmatism, a form of sexual realpolitik, or a misguided idealism, throughout The Intermediate Sex Carpenter advocated for the normality and social virtues of more conventionally manly and physically fit inverts by juxtaposing them against more feminine and morbid foils. He observes how
[f]ormerly it was assumed as a matter of course, that the [inverted or
Uranian] type was merely a result of disease and degeneration; but now
with the examination of the actual facts it appears that, on the
contrary, many are fine, healthy specimens of their sex, muscular and
well-developed in body, of powerful brain, high standard of conduct,
and with nothing abnormal or morbid of any kind observable in their
physical structure or constitution. (22)

Carpenter attempts to establish here a new type of normality, one that places a form of inversion within idealistically conformist masculine stereotypes. These normal "muscular" masculine inverts, powerful in body, mind, and morals, he then distances from those who, since at least the 1890s, had been their stereotypical representatives, specifically effeminate men. He openly maligns these latter, noting that they often represent "extreme and exaggerated" forms of inversion. They "are not particularly attractive, sometimes quite the reverse. In the male of this kind we have a distinctly effeminate type, sentimental, lackadaisical, mincing in gait and manners... his figure not unfrequently betraying a tendency towards the feminine, large at the hips, supple, not muscular," in other words, someone who is mawkish, apathetic, not very strong, and ineffective in temperament and physique. This "extreme" and socially undesirable form of inversion, Carpenter insists, is a rarity, while "[i]f we now come to what may be called the more normal type of the Uranian man, we find a man who, while possessing thoroughly masculine powers of mind and body, combines with them the tenderer and more emotional soul-nature of the woman," but he reiterates, and almost immediately to clarify his claim, these "normal" Uranian men are nevertheless "often muscular and well-built" (31). Although acknowledging the feminine elements of intermediates, Carpenter repeatedly and vociferously undermines the radical nature of gender and biological sex spectrums by lauding more socially acceptable, normatively masculine inverts.

For his project of promoting the manly invert, Carpenter had a prominent, if less overtly polemical, ally in Ellis. In Sexual Inversion (first published 1897, revised and expanded 1915), Ellis introduces his subject by linking it to ancient militaristic communities in order to undermine its lingering associations with degeneracy, languor, and an antisocial feebleness. "The homosexual tendency," he observes, "appears to have flourished chiefly among warriors and warlike peoples... the instinct has been cultivated and idealized as a military virtue, partly because it counteracts the longing for the softening feminine influences of the home and partly because it seems to have an inspiring influence in promoting heroism and heightening esprit de corps" (9-10). Ellis connects this now disparaged but once widely encouraged "tendency" to a heroic civic toughness tied to communal loyalties. He also benefits from British intellectuals' regard for classical Hellenism by tracing same-sex love to ancient Greek achievements: "the most thoroughly known case of socially recognized homosexuality is that of Greece during its period of highest military as well as ethical and intellectual vigor" (11). By connecting this sexual behavior to martial prowess and to Greek virtues and "vigor," not simply aesthetics, Ellis recontextualizes inversion in the light of a conventionally masculine physical, moral, and mental fortitude. In the 1915 edition, moreover, while Ellis admits to the validity of a "general, though not universal, tendency for sexual inverts to approach the feminine type, either in psychic disposition or physical constitution, or both," he quickly qualifies this by insisting that the "feminine traits of the homosexual are not usually of a conspicuous character" (287-88). Ellis was not as adamant as Carpenter in advancing masculine at the expense of more feminine inverts, but he does persistently, if more cautiously, argue for the historical masculinity of male inversion in order to distance its positive attributes from socially mistrusted and misogynist associations with degeneration and effeteness.

As part of this project, Ellis also emphasizes the value of inverts to modem society, if again in a more ambivalent fashion than Carpenter. Ellis argues that sexual inversion has been particularly prevalent "in Europe from the beginning of the Christian era" in "men of exceptional ability and criminals" (24). More extensively than Carpenter, Ellis asserts that some same-sex attraction has been validly connected to risks to the larger community, such as social delinquency and sickness, threats that extend into the twentieth century. Yet despite these forays into an unbiased objectivity, Ellis highlights what he observes are the overlooked contemporary public benefits offered by morally "exceptional" inverts. "It has not, I think, been noted," he writes, "that among moral leaders, and persons with strong ethical instincts, there is a tendency toward the more elevated forms of homosexual feeling" (27). Even in "our own day," he theorizes, "the person who sees his own sex also bathed in sexual glamour, brings to his work of human service an ardor wholly unknown to the normally constituted individual; morality to him has become one with love." Ellis declares that he does not want "to insist on this point," but he does so nonetheless by remarking that "[i]f it is probable that in moral movements persons of homosexual temperament have sometimes become prominent, it is undoubtedly true, beyond possibility of doubt, that they have been prominent in religion" (27-28). As such, part of Ellis's attempt to de-stigmatize sexual inversion includes an effusive insistence on humanitarian, philanthropic, and spiritual inverts who exhibit generally, if not exclusively, masculine traits of strength, bravery, morality, intellect, and productivity leading to public prominence and who eschew the more indolent, dissolute, and threatening characteristics associated with Wildean aesthetes.

Both Carpenter and Ellis, then, made successful forays into differentiating certain types of inversion for the British public and thereby partially succeeded in dismantling a nearly monolithic image of the degenerate male invert. In doing so, they emphasized the potential physical, mental, and moral vitality of modem men who seek intimacy with other men, whom they presented as more socially acceptable and as able to benefit the larger public. They offered this new queer normative in an attempt to disarm public perceptions that the vast majority of inverts were effetely unproductive and unhappily isolated. Unfortunately, in making their claims they reiterated significant portions of the mutually homophobic and misogynistic language of the very rhetoric that they were trying to neutralize. The continued dispersal of this late-Victorian rhetoric had dire consequences for early-twentieth-century men who manifested feminine attire and mannerisms. This was particularly true for men with a lower socio-economic status, such as Quentin Crisp, who were often vilified, sometimes violently, by the general public and excluded from more privileged and more discreet homosexual communities. (4) All the same, these sexologists do provide a perspective aside from the fin-de-siecle Wildean decadent and a more contemporaneous lens through which to view Firbank's many portrayals of young men who are romantically or sexually interested in other men. Firbank, as we will see, echoes Carpenter's and Ellis's assertion of healthy, productive, and socially acceptable queer bodies, but he does so by amalgamating them dialectically with an effeminate aesthetic homoeroticism.

Like Carpenter and Ellis, Firbank manifested a distinct eagerness to conceive of same-sex desiring men as vigorous and socially useful. Firbank, however, refused to depict health, courage, intellect, or social value as necessarily unavailable to queer men with feminine tendencies. In his first published novel, Vainglory (1915), Firbank distinctly emphasizes physical vitality in effeminate men and he does so via nouveau-Wildean aesthetic contexts. He presents the pianist and composer Winsome Brookes, for instance, as "a pleasant picture of health" if a bit "dreamy" in his manner. Firbank again attributes to Brookes a blend of vigor and an overly refined, wistful chann when he notes that due to "the over-elaboration of his dress" Brookes "suggested sometimes... a St. Sebastian with too many arrows" (84). Firbank creates here a multifaceted image of effeminacy and aesthetic homoerotic fortitude. Brookes's too careful dress, along with his obsession with "grooming fitfully his hair," suggests stereotypical feminine concerns with appearance (105). The allusion to St. Sebastian, meanwhile, revives a fin-de-siecle fascination with a male martyr that blended masculinity and effeminacy and that provided a familiar homoerotic trope for renaissance and baroque painters, such as Sandro Botticelli and Guido Reni, who used arrows piercing well-formed bodies to symbolize a violently repressive society. Richard Kaye has traced the divergent subsequent traditions associated with Sebastian, which present him as "an oblique emblem of erotic emancipation," a "Christian warrior of manly, individualistic temperament, self-assured rather than uninhibited," and "a powerful visual metaphor for 'decadence,' a male who could induce--if not exactly represent--otherwise unsanctioned, homoerotic yearning" (271-72). Firbank's own campy modernist style, formulated through his exaggerated and seemingly offhand allusions, such as his comparison of Brookes to a Sebastian with "too many arrows," offers an analogous yet more satirical complexity of resonances. On one level, it lampoons Brookes's uninhibited tendency towards sartorial extravagance or over-indulgence. Yet on another level, it connotes and valorizes his fortitude, his ability to survive pain and adversity due to contemporary British aggression against sexual and gender nonconformity. More roguishly, the description asserts Brookes's own well-formed physique, reminiscent of earlier images of Sebastian, and Brookes's propensity to engage unconventionally intense, penetrative sensations. For Brookes, Firbank humorously implies, sometimes too much is just enough, presenting a positive paradox of self-indulgence and strength.

For St. Sebastian, this trajectory led to an isolating martyrdom, but Brookes is rarely alone and his fate is far from tragic. Firbank actually has several characters overtly admire his physical health in the context of allusions to his sexual nonconformity, thereby implying that these traits facilitate his association with certain middle-class social circles. Mrs. Asp whispers to Mrs. Henedge, Brookes's patron, "I think your young musician so handsome.... With a little trouble, really, he could look quite Greek" (91). Turning from renaissance painting to Hellenic statuary, Firbank has Asp imagine that without his over-elaborate dress Brookes might look like statues of young Greek men, the most widely available depictions of Greek figures, thus almost certainly what Asp has in mind. These statues, such as the diadumenos or the apoxyomenos, are idealistically muscular and have been potent symbols of homoerotic art in England since at least the 1870s. (5) Ms. and Mrs. Wookie reaffirm that it is clothes and not Brookes's physique that he must "trouble" over to look Greek. Ms. Wookie evokes his strength by remarking that "Mrs. Henedge will be quite secure" wandering in unsavory places if Brookes accompanies her and Mrs. Wookie reports that "[n]obody in the world ever got over a stile like Mr. Brookes." Brookes's remarkable method of surmounting stiles could be flamboyant; but, given his health, it is almost certainly athletically so. Consequently, although Aurelia Pantry offers a rare (for a Firbank novel) denigration of same-sex desire by calling Brookes "that perverse musician" in her discussion with the Wookies, the majority of characters recognize him as a desirable companion (138). This is not to say that Brookes is a luminary Olympian, but throughout the novel Firbank conflates his effeminate homoeroticism with his corporeal solidity, physical prowess, and social desirability.

Coincident with physical and social charms, Firbank endows Brookes with a generally talented and adventurous artistic agenda. When a woman at a party asks Brookes if he can "play Apres Midi sous les Pins," the second movement of Vincent D'Indy's tripartite Jour d'ete a la montagne (1905), originally composed for an orchestra, he responds "[c]ertainly,... I can play anything when I have the music!" Firbank supports Brookes's confidence in his ability to play challenging piano scores by having him perform "the exiting Capriccio Espagnol of Rimsky-Korsakoff," also composed originally for an orchestra, and "an exciting Czardas of Liszt" (94, 95). Mrs. Henedge may think that Brookes is being "hardly serious" with this performance but she is mistaken (96). Firbank has chosen these last two pieces for a reason. Nikolai Rimsky-orsakov's Capriccio and Franz Liszt's Czardas are playful but are physically demanding to play. As such, they reflect both Brookes's assertive aesthetic taste and his bodily prowess, namely the strength and vigor it takes to sound complex chords in quick succession, often at a forte (strong or loud) and even fortissimo (exceptionally strong or loud) volume. Firbank likewise associates Brookes in this scene with two strikingly powerful musicians. Rosa Newmarch, known for writing the program notes for Henry Wood's popular Promenade concerts at the Queen's Hall (1908-1927), observed in 1908 that Rimsky-Korsakov combined in his compositions "poetic interest with a vigorous and manly optimism," his manliness perhaps also being suggested through his well-known career in the Russian navy prior to becoming a professional musician (173). Liszt's legacy was more famous if slightly more complex in terms of the musician's virility. Charles Baudelaire, for instance, in his prose-poem "Le Thyrse: A Franz Liszt," praises the musician's intense physical and emotional virtuosity, his blending of masculine strength and feminine grace, through the analogy of the phallic or conductor's baton-like flowering Thyrsus: "Le baton, c'est votre volonte, droite, ferme et inebranlable; les fleurs, c'est la promenade de votre fantaisie autour de votre volonte; c'est l'element feminin executant autour de male ses prestigieuses pirouettes" ["The baton is your Will, straight and firm and steadfast; the flowers are the motions of your fancy round that will, the feminine principle executing its hypnotic pirouettes round the male"] (144, 145). By associating the effeminate Brookes with Rimsky-Korsakov, and especially Liszt, through his recital of their music, Firbank attributes to the feminine Brookes a body and a personality capable of handling the rigors of strenuous performance in a social setting.

Firbank's representations of Brookes's personal compositions, conversely, may exhibit traces of a frivolously amusing musical decadence, but in these instances it would be a mistake to link Firbank's exaggerated descriptive style too closely to a fin-de-siecle languor. Rather, these seemingly decadent moments are a stylistic strategy, one that creates what might be termed a style of surprise. These moments, this is to say, allow Firbank to provide a surprisingly industrious significance to what critics have considered his butterfly-like humor or designifying proto-modernist language. After playing the Capriccio but before playing the Czardas, Brookes leans back from the piano and tells his audience that he is performing a selection from his own new opera that consists of "only the movement" of an actress's "dress," a piece absurdly lacking in both strength and talent (95). Firbank's portrayal of this lazy staging of ambient noise, however, works as a narrative tactic, one that draws on associations of queerness and feebleness in order to distract, temporarily, from Brookes's general penchant for a more daring aesthetic. This penchant becomes more poignant because it is less expected. While visiting a pastoral cathedral town, for instance, Brookes formulates an opera that starts "fortissimo" and notes that the "effect of the Overture will be the steam whistle that summons the factory hands. Such a hoot!" (189). Brookes's onomatopoetic use of "whistle" and "hoot" bolsters his camp comedy, but this is not based on a lazy or superficial musical exoticism. Firbank's poetic joke, which sets high-art opera, factory noise, and silly onomatopoeias in an unexpected combination, ostensibly reaffirms Brookes's aesthetic dilettantism. Yet, despite this light linguistic play, Firbank actually enables Brookes to highlight, however briefly, new moments of social alertness and aesthetic opportunities. Through formulating in the countryside an opera inspired not by traditional aristocratic characters or idealized shepherds but by factory workers, Brookes brings into the English pastoral tradition an awareness of working-class life unnoticed by any of the novel's other characters. Simultaneously, Firbank allows Brookes to explore the effects of a hard, loud, demanding industrialism on the aesthetic possibilities of classical music. Brookes should be considered, then, as a modem composer akin to T. S. Eliot's conception of Igor Stravinsky, i.e., someone who could "transform... the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery... and the other barbaric cries of modern life... into music" (453). As such, Brookes's humorous switching between and blending of frivolous and serious, pointedly modem music serves strategic purposes. It blurs the lines between playful and serious art and between a robust body of aesthetic work and the robust body and style of the artist. Throughout, Firbank subtly, yet forcefully, implies Brookes's compositional adventurousness.

Brookes's artistic range indicates not only his physical and aesthetic hardiness but it occasionally provides him with some form of social success. While Firbank often uses this success to satirize sexually nonconformist men using art to infiltrate a charming yet aesthetically unsophisticated society, he also insists on Brookes's at least partial realization of this endeavor. Mrs. Henedge claims "I enjoy his music so much" because he "reaches to a pitch of life" and Lady Georgia remarks that a "requiem" Brookes composed "showed style" (83, 196). Among socialites, Brookes's art has a reputation for animation and elegance and this is not simply a superficial assessment. Brookes's music is likewise praised by more discerning characters, such as Claude Harvester, a fictional novelist whose literary style, as Ifan Fletcher, Carl Van Vechten, and Ellis Waterhouse have argued, bears a marked resemblance to Firbank's (Horder 51, 163, 214). Harvester remarks on the "tired ecstasy" of Brookes's music, a critique that offers dialectical, hence not precisely paradoxical, associations of exhaustion and excitement (83). During the performance of the Capriccio, Harvester observes with more explicit positivity, "[w]hen Winsome plays like that, I want to live in a land where there'd be eternal summer" (94). Brookes refreshes the melancholic world of middle-class drawing-room gatherings by rejuvenating the desiring instincts of the lethargic Harvester. If Harvester's opinions as well as his aesthetic style echo Firbank's own, Brookes's music should be interpreted as a stimulus for valuable artistic communities or interchanges. Far from decadent or world-weary, Brookes is productive and his aesthetic productions, when seriously contemplated, are revitalizing.

Brookes's aesthetic instincts, moreover, inspire him not only to produce adventurous modem compositions and to circulate in the broader heterogeneous society populating both the countryside and urban drawing-rooms, but they also draw him into contact with likeminded effeminate queer men, such as his friend Goosey Pontypool, often in spiritual spaces. Mrs. Henedge reports that "Winsome, lately, has taken quite a fancy to Goosey, while risking their necks together upon the scaffolding of St. John's" (189). As with Brookes, Firbank makes use of conventional expectations to present Pontypool as a queer aesthete. His nickname, Goosey rather than Gander, indicates his feminine attributes, his mother considers him suspiciously "affected," and he becomes intimate with Brookes as they admire the art and architecture of a new Catholic church, thereby activating traditions of queer communities connected, in part, by interests in Catholicism, Catholic art, and ecclesiastical settings (119). (6) This Catholic church, as do so many churches in Firbank's fiction, represents less a setting filled with dark comers, effete scents, or debilitating sexual shame, and more an aesthetic and spiritual venue filled with a bold, playful, homoerotic energy. Firbank furthers this queer Catholicity through reference to John, the disciple with whom Jesus was arguably most intimate. Using long-standing contextual clues, specifically aestheticism, effeminacy, affectation, and persistent preoccupation with spirituality, Firbank implies the same-sex desires of these characters. What is new is his willingness to present these characters as bravely pursuing these interests together while "risking" their limbs and lives. Their alleged physical bravery, of course, might be perceived as somewhat hyperbolic, as an extension of Brookes's and Pontypool's as well as Firbank's own decadent or even more frivolous and thus camp affections and exaggerations. But, as Firbank has Pontypool declare, "[i]t's no crime to exaggerate. It's a sign of vitality rather. Health" (192). Through Pontypool, Firbank recontextualizes decadence by associating exaggeration and artifice not with a fin-de-siecle ennui, isolating languor, or criminal desires, but with an unexpectedly vigorous, courageous joie de vivre. As such, rather than languid, world-weary, or alienated characters, Firbank fashions these men as revitalized versions of daring effeminate aesthetes who mingle, often happily and energetically, both in heterogeneous and in more specifically homoerotic social circles.

Brookes and Goosey use a fairly refined aesthetic sense to circulate in respectable upper-middle-class environments, such as drawing rooms and artistic, affluent churches. Yet Firbank was not only interested in middle-class spatial contexts. At times, he associates a simpler response to beauty with an effeminate vibrancy in less rarefied, grittier settings, such as urban public transport. In The Artificial Princess (written c. 1915), he describes how a Baroness, temporarily obliged to ride public transportation, encounters a quixotically beautiful, virile, and unexpectedly floral-minded working-class young man on a tram. He is an "impressionable-looking youth in a blue smock, picturesquely patched in conventional places," with "profusions of golden hair, and eyes as hard as flints," who "looks wonderfully robust" within his proletarian clothes. The Baroness admires him, finding him "charming" and "all too sweet," until he "asked her the name of the flowers she was wearing in her hat." His contrasting combination of golden hair and flint-like eyes had balanced his soft and hard, feminine and masculine elements, but his question signals an unexpected predominance of traditionally feminine interests. Instantly aghast, the Baroness refuses to answer him because she feels that to "talk chiffons to such a person was out of the question" and she begins to wonder if he is psychologically "mad" or a "lunatic," despite his physical robustness (44). The Baroness's response to the man's query is humorous in its disproportionate irrationality; but, as in the cases of Firbank's humor discussed above, this is a stylized excessiveness meant to jolt the reader into reconsidering prepared stereotypes. Her immediate imputations of mental illness to the young man are redolent of the excessive pathologizing of effeminate homosexuality challenged by Carpenter and Ellis. Her surprisingly strong reaction likewise illustrates the confusing, for her, amalgamation of the youth's working-class solidity, his virile body, and his non-flirtatious attention to her attire. His curiosity regarding her luxurious female clothing frightens her because it exceeds her expectations of what should concern an ostensibly masculine working-class man. Firbank shapes the Baroness's response this way so as to challenge expectations that healthy, sane, working-class masculinities are all uninterested in conventionally feminine attractions, such as flowers and hats, on an artistic level. Simultaneously, Firbank's use of the commonplace setting of a public tram implies the ordinariness of these interests in certain non-languid, non-weary, non-neurotic men.

Firbank offers no sure evidence pertaining to the sexual interests of the young man in The Artificial Princess, although his depiction, especially considered in the company of Firbank's other young men, leads to a plausibly queer reading of him. In The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), Firbank overtly stresses male-male attraction in his characterization of an impecunious former choirboy, accused of stealing from his cathedral, who emphatically blends athleticism with epicene behavior to gain the protection of a wealthy older man. Count Cabinet employs Peter as a secretary but primarily interacts with him on an eroticized aesthetic level: "to behold the lad trip along the riven breakwater, as naked as a statue, shoot out his arms and spring... was a beautiful sight...; while to hear him warbling in the water with his clear alto voice--of Kyries and Anthems he knew no end--would often stir the old man to the point of tears." Firbank indicates that this relationship, if potentially exploitative, is a reciprocally practical arrangement for both the count and Peter, as they exchange safety and luxury for visual and aural pleasures. As enthusiastically as Peter jumps and swims, he eagerly exhibits queer identifiers, as indicated by the "lisping tones he preferred as a rule to employ" and his attempts to speak "archly" (566). Firbank's language here is wonderfully ambiguous as he invites his reader to wonder whether Peter "preferred" these mincing mannerisms as a means to please his employer or to amuse himself or to satisfy some personal instinct, or for all three reasons together. Subsequently, Firbank has Peter continue his "cloying" affectations when flirting with boys in a nearby town, away from the count, as if to confirm that queer young men can pursue an arch voluptuousness as they pursue artistic and athletic hobbies, both to attract myriad sorts of male admirers and for the sheer pleasure of the performance itself (575). Firbank's advance from the natural seaside setting to the town similarly blurs the lines between the naturalness and the social inspiration of Peter's "preferred" effeminacy, which may be as innate to him as a desire to jump and swim or a trait acquired to amuse his patron and his more youthful acquaintances. Consequently, as opposed to being effete, effeminacy functions in Flower equally as a desirable part of one's own natural identity and as a behavior cultivated to inspire desire in others.

Rather than emphasize the scandalousness of these identities, relationships, and behaviors, Firbank instead implies their relative conventionality by associating them with the interactions of more socially acceptable, and even celebrated, performers with their audiences. As Peter swims and sings, the count likens their shared situation to that of respectable actors or musicians who inspire "the ecstasies of certain musical or 'artistic' dames at Concert-halls, or the Opera House" (566). Via these musings, Firbank proposes that Peter and the count are respectively analogous to musicians who willingly sell their extraordinary attractions and to ostensibly "'artistic'" or refined patrons who pay to appreciate them. This analogy associates Peter in particular with a culturally tolerable and even institutionalized tradition of men who actively cultivate the often archly affected or exaggerated behaviors required for the stage with the physical prowess required of musical and theatrical performance. While this artistic analogy overlooks troubling implications of prostitution, it does provide a positive comparison for a nontraditional and not necessarily unethical relationship.

In other instances, Firbank found the heightened mannerisms of the stage useful for accentuating how unconventionally gendered men could have a multifaceted allure for both sexes. In Caprice (1917), Firbank describes the actor Harold Weathercock as "an adolescent of a sympathetic, somewhat sentimental, appearance, who, despite emphatic whiskers, had the air of a wildly pretty girl" (334). Weathercock is notably not androgynous, but successfully mingles hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine traits in what Judith Butler might call a subversively "performative" fashion (180). The exaggeration of his assertive facial hair and intense feminine magnetism highlights how he plays on unstable gender binaries to appeal willingly to a variety of nonsexual and sexual predilections, an aptitude useful not only for an actor but for anyone who hopes to charm a heterogeneous public. Firbank alludes to this wide-ranging draw by having the theatrical impresario Sarah Sinquier seek Weathercock out in the studio he shares with the "very, very handsome" Noel Nice to hire him for the male lead in her production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (373). Weathercock's fitness for this role evidences his romantic fascination for a general audience and his ability to interpret an unnecessarily taboo love, an ability undoubtedly sharpened by his intimacy with Nice. Firbank playfully consolidates the many-sided charms of the pair by referring to them as "versatile young men" and through Weathercock's somewhat salacious name with its overtones of both a variable weathervane and a sexual flexibility (353). The couple is thus "queer" in at least one early-twentieth-century sexual sense of the word, which implied erotic preferences and gendered behaviors capable of manifesting in polymorphous ways for mixed audiences. (7)

In Caprice, Firbank also specifically plays with the nonerotic cross-sex attraction of queer characters through engaging the cross-dressing traditions of the British theater. In Sinquier's production, Miss Iris dresses as a gentleman for a "breeches part" and earns a sardonic tribute from Jack Whorwood, who flirtatiously offers her "a fatuous, easy smile." Miss Iris considers this a "trifling triumph": it is "trifling" because Whorwood's responsiveness to her is itself "fatuous," since it is inspired by her temporarily adopted gender, yet a "triumph" because "he looked too charming" and so she appreciates his feigned flirtation nonetheless (378). These actors enjoy ambiguous gender characteristics and, as their evocative names indicate, a substantially unrestricted romantic play or even an apparent sexual availability that proves appealing to the women and men around them in the theater.

As such, if in Vainglory and The Flower Beneath the Foot Firbank uses commonplace town and country locales to explore the naturalness of an energetic effeminate homoeroticism, in Caprice he uses the heightened freedoms expected of a theatrical milieu to facilitate his characters' more overtly performative engagements with nontraditional romantic combinations. He likewise uses the fluidity of the theater and theatrical roles to foreground the potential multiplicity of the aesthetic and erotic attractions of any individual. I write "any individual" because for Firbank the theater provides a heightened sense of ordinariness, somewhere between Shakespeare's world and the quotidian nature of the one in which Firbank himself lived. Theatrical traditions, albeit set apart from an everyday conventionality, are easily recognizable and accessible and Firbank uses them to normalize, if only to a degree, his playground of erotic energy. As with his earlier use of St. Sebastian or his Baroness, Firbank's humor and camp exaggerations deftly avoid the intensity of religious, historical, or even romantic tragedy. For instance, when Sinquier dies by falling through a trapdoor in her theater Firbank sidesteps catastrophe by shifting his focus to the melodramatic but still fairly ordinary amorous and financial intrigues of the other characters. In this way, Firbank uses the exaggerated manifold allures of his theatrical characters to reflect humorously and even irreverently men and women who had to negotiate the complications of attracting one sex or gender while simultaneously attracting or having to pretend to try to attract another. The theater provided Firbank with a relatively innocuous mirror of the outside world wherein a failure to perform adequately led not to poor reviews or to bad art but to the more pragmatically catastrophic circumstances of prison and public hostility, which was hardly humorous.

Queerly gendered men desiring same-sex encounters were not, of course, limited to theatrical communities, and after Caprice Firbank extended his exploration of this subject to more militaristic circles in Valmouth (1919). By doing so, he challenged idealized versions of an intensely masculine, homoerotic, ancient Greek militarism, such as those advanced by Ellis, as well as literary and cultural traditions that presented homoeroticism in the British Royal Navy as a socially disruptive source of derisive humor and brutality. Jane Austen possibly hints at these latter traditions in Mansfield Park (1814), wherein Mary Crawford sniggers that of "Rears, and Vices," she "saw enough" thanks to her uncle's friendship with numerous admirals, a probable joke about buggery in the navy (71). B. R. Burg has shown that sodomy in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Royal Navy was hardly a laughing matter as sailors convicted of sodomy or homoerotic behavior were frequently hanged or severely beaten by their own comrades. (8) The situation improved in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although accusations of homoerotic behavior could still threaten a sailor's career and homophobic violence lingered in the literary imagination. (9) Herman Melville alludes to this internecine violence in the British Royal Navy in Billy Budd, Sailor (1924). Tracing the erotic undertones of violence in Billy Budd, Eve Sedgwick has observed that Melville's concern with naval homoeroticism raises the question of whether "men's desire for other men" is "the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture" or "among the most potent of the threats against them" (93). Sedgwick argues that, in Billy Budd, same-sex desires subconsciously maintain the potential either to support the willingness of men to submit to brutal power structures or to rebel against them. Whereas Ellis's references to same-sex relationships within the ancient Greek tradition emphasize manly heroics, comradeship, and group unity, homoeroticism in Britain's navy traditionally created social disunity by inspiring jeering and often vicious reprisals.

Like Ellis, Firbank suggested that homoeroticism could increase the esprit de corps, and hence the civic value, of the armed forces, particularly the navy. In opposition to both Ellis and commentators on British naval traditions, Firbank also used military motifs as an expedient means to argue that femininity and potency could coexist within male bodies that were socially desirable. In Valmouth, for instance, Mrs. Thoroughfare favorably describes her son Richard "Dick" Thoroughfare, a popular naval captain, as "big, handsome, strong--and delicate!" (388). Extending her maternal feelings to more general romantic preferences, Mrs. Thoroughfare exclaims, "some men are ultra-womanly, and they're the kind I love!" Lady Parvula amplifies Mrs. Thoroughfare's train of thought by connecting worthy "ultra-womanly" men to the Spartans, reputedly the most hyper-masculine and physically fit of the Greeks. Lady Parvula remarks, "I suppose that none but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate?... It was only in war-time, was it, that the Spartans were accustomed to put on perfumes, or to crimp their beards" (406). Firbank employs Mrs. Thoroughfare and Lady Parvula to distinguish feminine men as the most desirable because they are the bravest and, concomitantly, to posit that men at their bravest are the most free to indulge in a feminine aesthetic. If the Spartans, Firbank further insinuates, needed war to prove their bravery and thereby enable them to decorate themselves, modern men who accessorize daily without overcompensating with violence are perhaps significantly braver, whether they are in the navy or not. In both cases, the willingness of men to break free from gender conventions by decorating themselves with scent and elaborate hair styles comes to symbolize their fearlessness without compromising their display of physical strength and resolution or their socio-sexual allure.

Firbank further evolves his military theme by heightening its homoerotic potential and by undermining its violent connotations for his own era. He does both through his sympathetic portrayal of the modem lovers Dick Thoroughfare and Jack Whorwood, who is presently in the navy rather than the theater. Thoroughfare reveals his relationship with Whorwood by reporting that the latter, "upon a cruise, is, to me, what Patroclus was to Achilles, and even more" (398). Given the famed long-lasting love between these Greek warriors, the last clause here almost insists on an intensified sexual element between Thoroughfare and Whorwood. Firbank's use of "cruise," moreover, connotes sensuality and freedom. The British lexicographers Farmer and Henley noted in 1891 that "cruiser" could refer to a prostitute, someone who is sexually available, and this sexual slang extended into the twentieth century (222). Firbank's use of "cruise," while likely activating these sexual connotations, certainly undercuts the warlike resonances of the ancient Greek couple and the brutal responses to homosexuality in contemporary British culture. It also deemphasizes the militarism of his couple's joyriding. Firbank's couple is clearly more interested in the navy as an opportunity for sexual exploration and homosocial romantic pairings than for fighting. Their robust daringness blends with femininity not for purposes of combat but for amorous adventures abroad. Thoroughfare, as noted above, is attractively both "strong" and "delicate" and Whorwood himself "resembled singularly some girl masquerading as a boy for reasons of romance" (453). Firbank's description of Whorwood is wonderfully multi-gendered: he is a young man who looks like a girl trying to look like a boy to appeal to Thoroughfare, which he does successfully, even after Thoroughfare marries a woman. Gender and sexual interests are free-flowing and complex, and Firbank presents both men as happy and sturdy as hypermasculine Greeks. Yet, unlike the Greeks, the two never seem to engage in any direct military action.

Consequently, this portrayal of Thoroughfare and Whorwood, characters imagined while Britain was mired in the First World War, offers a not-so-subtle critique of the hyper-masculinity that Firbank thought led modem men to bloodshed. Despite Firbank never directly mentioning the war in his novels, Osbert Sitwell observed that he "was in the best, the least boring, sense a war writer" (Horder 69). Indeed, as Sitwell suggests, Firbank's studied neglect of the war indicates his firm distaste for violence and self-destruction, anti-war wartime values that pervade his fiction. This neglect also offers evidence for what Joseph Bristow has called "Firbank's distaste for masculinist authority" and "masculinist violence," which led, in part, both to his "Anglophobia" and to his "determination to create his own effeminate England" (115, 123). Bristow traces this through Firbank's lesbian characters, but I would suggest that in addition to these women, Thoroughfare and Whorwood, along with all the other robust effeminate men Firbank created from 1915 to 1919, served as a healthy way to reimagine masculinity in opposition to normative hyper-masculine soldiers, so many of whom were bound horribly for death. These reimaginings might, it is true, be seen as somewhat escapist. Yet, Firbank's unconventionally courageous men, interested in erotic play and detached from the traditional manly pursuits of war, also offer valuable, fairly peaceful characterizations of nonnormative male behaviors that could moderate and thereby improve what Firbank perceived as the more brutal elements of British culture.

Firbank's reconceptualization of English masculinity, however optimistic, is nonetheless problematic as Thoroughfare and Whorwood do seem to promote Britain's imperialist project. Christopher Lane has noted that Firbank's colonial interests can reveal a "racial conservatism" and a "profound racism" (183). These traits become apparent in Valmouth, in part, paradoxically, through Firbank's disregard for any of the overtly violent or degrading effects of British imperialism. Thoroughfare at some point has found a bride in the Caribbean whom he sends back to live in a picturesque provincial England, while the ship on which Thoroughfare and Whorwood sail rests for a while "[o]ff the coast of Jamaica" (388). Throughout, Firbank conspicuously avoids any direct allusion to histones of imperialistic repressions or military action as the male lovers seem simply to have explored the sexual freedom of the islands and gained an experiential knowledge that they continue to enjoy with each other when they are back in England. Yet, using the Caribbean islands to symbolize a space of fantasy and sexual license for white men indeed risks a "profound" form of racism, particularly as Thoroughfare spends time with Whorwood and all but abandons his Caribbean wife in England. There are certainly unmentioned yet nonetheless troublingly resonant parallels here between Thoroughfare's conduct toward his bride and what Richard Smith has called the "patronising and belittling" treatment of Caribbean men who came to Britain to support the British Empire's efforts in the First World War (61). As such, the depiction of a fancifully nonviolent navy to reaffirm the bravery and long-lasting romantic bonding of simultaneously feminine and strong male lovers ironically functions as much as a dangerous elision of colonial suffering, militarism, and patriarchal abuse as it functions as a critique of masculine violence.

For Firbank to portray a nonviolent sexual tourism accessible by excursions with the Royal Navy to the Caribbean, while overlooking the oppressive influence of British imperialism on colonized societies, creates a provocative irony. This is particularly true in Valmouth, considering that English culture and English characters dominate the narrative, frequently at the expense of the few Caribbean characters Firbank sets in his English society, such as Captain Thoroughfare's oft-ignored wife. Firbank facilitates a determined oversight by keeping colonial lands out of focus and references to imperialism at an intellectual and emotional distance. Britain's colonies remain far from his setting of provincial England. His stylized camp allusions, moreover, shape brief references to the Caribbean that signal homoerotic transgressions to knowing audiences while keeping imperialism on the fringes of the narrative and imperial violence out of sight altogether. Camp style consequently becomes complicit in repressive colonial fantasies.

Firbank realized this irony and tried to resolve it by decentering England in his subsequent novel Sorrow in Sunlight (1924), which he set on an imaginary Caribbean island. (10) In the provinces of this island, non-European cultural practices maintain power. Much of the narrative takes place in a coastal village, the "remoteness" of which allows for a fantasized paradise relatively untainted by the imperial priority of England, restrictive European sexual laws, or homosexual shame (594). Passing references to offshore "steamers" and "barques" that bring "more than one [matrimonially] ineligible young mariner back to the prose of shore" acknowledge an economic imperialism working in conjunction with sexual tourism but intentionally attenuate their power over the village (599). Any tourism of individual European sailors, who themselves never actually appear, would benefit the men of the village as the latter have a home-ground advantage and their culture prevails against imperialist oppressions, which are kept at a distance at sea or in the island's far-off Europeanized capital city. Indeed, Firbank generally limits his homoerotic references to local villagers. Mrs. Ahmadou Mouth, for instance, sees "two young men" pass by "with fingers intermingled" and notes "the number of ineligible young men or confirmed bachelors around the neighbourhood" (594). This observation is couched in a lament, but her complaint derives from her desire to place her daughters in advantageous marriages rather than from homophobic prudery. The village's culture accepts the physical and emotional companionship of homosexual romance as a matter of course. Firbank has Mrs. Mouth's eldest daughter promenade one evening with her male lover and describes how "two young men, friends, walking with fingers intermingled, saluted them softly" (604). In a surprisingly overt, briefly noncampy style, devoid of exaggerations or witty double-entendres, Firbank evokes a sense of normalcy, happy healthiness, and tender tolerance through the Caribbean lovers' parallel open-air strolls. This portrayal of the Caribbean village's peaceful, nonchalant acceptance of public homosexuality--even homosexuality manifesting a "soft[er]," perhaps more feminine demeanor--is a serious tribute to what Firbank hoped Caribbean culture might be in regions not yet inundated with European influences or destroyed by European brutality. As Lane has noted, Firbank here returns "to Britain an image of sexual and cultural freedom that prevailed over its relentless demand for repression" (184). More specifically, the Caribbean culture in Sorrow represents Firbank's attempt to imagine homoeroticism without the violent or diseased traces generally associated with British same-sex desire. Sorrow never fully resolves the tensions that result when a writer from a colonizing nation writes about a colonized land, but Firbank's attempt to imagine the salubrious freedoms remaining in locations still largely untouched by European flaws produces a valuably liberal, if naive, literary space as a model for European reform.

Firbank's later writing remains undoubtedly troubled by his admiring, optimistic, and yet deeply problematic colonial fantasies. Without setting these issues aside, we should note how he manages successfully and uniquely to reshape gendered representations of same-sex desiring men. Reformulating in fiction the most admirable elements from early-twentieth-century representations of homosexuality, such as those offered by Carpenter and Ellis, Firbank portrays effeminate masculinities through ambiguously gendered bodies that he describes as strong and healthy. Far from being weary, monstrous, or degenerate, his unconventional male characters energetically find lovers and friends, often through their productive artistic endeavors and aesthetic interests. Consequently, Firbank depicts these characters as valued members of both homo- and hetero-social communities. Firbank, as his contemporaries so frequently noted, may himself have been at odds with his society and therefore somewhat of a lonesome figure, but in his fiction he imagined an adventurously complex and a generously inclusive society populated by men who provided a new model of a healthy, happy, generally nonviolent, and feminine masculinity.



(1) For Firbank's athletic activities, sec Horder (17) and Benkovitz (64, 68, 91-92); for pictorial evidence of Firbank running, sec the Daily Mirror photograph reproduced in Firbank's The New Rylhum (88-89).

(2) For representative same-sex desiring men who self-identified as significantly more masculine than feminine, sec Ellis's case studies XVI and XXXIII (134, 190-91).

(3) Carpenter elides many of the connotative differences between earlier sexologists' use of the terms "Urnings" and "inverts," partly to undermine their connotations of femininity. He notes, for instance, that Ulrichs described Uranian love as being derived from "Uranos, heaven," which resulted in the manifestation of "Urnings," female souls in male bodies that desired other males. Observing that "we arc not obliged to accept his theory about the crosswise connexion between 'soul' and 'body,'" Carpenter nonetheless consistently uses Ulrichs's term as a spiritually laudable synonym for inverts (20).

(4) Crisp reports that he learned to live "in a state of feverish awareness" fearing physical attacks from violent men (59). He also recalls that in the 1930s he met "a greater variety of homosexuals" and had "to face the fact that, almost without exception, they did not like me." Many individuals, he reports, "were angry with me for presenting to the world, by whose good opinion they set great store, a brand image of homosexuality that was outrageously effeminate" (79). Recently, Houlbrook has argued convincingly for a "contingent tolerance" and an "equivocal" acceptance of "queans," who tenuously balanced sociability with verbal and physical abuse in certain areas of carly-twentieth-century London (159-60). Even in London, however, more overtly effeminate "queans" or "poofs" were subject to real threats of abuse.

(5) A notable example of late-Victorian connections between Greek statues and homoeroticism was Pater's popularization of Wincklemann's claim that the "supreme beauty" of "Greek art" is "rather male than female" (153).

(6) For the significance of Catholicism for homosexual communities, see Hanson (179) and Hilliard (197-99, 205-06).

(7) See, for instance, Houlbrook's analysis of early-twentieth-century uses of the term "queer" (6-7).

(8) For descriptions of various punishments, see Burg (e.g., 54-59, et passim).

(9) For a twentieth-century case involving accusations of sodomy in the Royal Navy, see "Naval Officer's Libel Action." Times 24 July 1920: 7.

(10) The novel was unfortunately entitled Prancing Nigger for the US edition, a decision, as Christopher Lane notes, influenced by Carl Van Vechten (276 n. 17).


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Author:Deutsch, David
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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