This is the third post in our online symposium on Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality, Rachel Hope Cleves‘s history of intergenerational sex as revealed by the sexual activities of the once well-known British writer Norman Douglas (1868–1952). As Cleves explains in the introduction, “political disincentives,” “visceral discomfort,” “cultural taboos,” and “the limitation of sources” have long “stymied research into adult-child sex.” In Unspeakable, Cleves insists that we must push through these barriers if we are to understand contemporary sexual politics. “Pedophilia is the third rail of contemporary culture,” Cleves observes. “There is no way to understand the third rail without grabbing hold of it.”
In October 1921, the British writer Norman Douglas received a letter from an admiring reader signed “Bryher”. Not knowing the sender and unable to guess their gender, Douglas responded with the greeting “Dear Sir (or Madam)”. He continued: “You don’t even give me a chance of guessing whether you are male or female. Not that these things matter greatly, nowadays!” This playful exchange marked the beginning of a friendship that would span three decades and last until Douglas’s death in 1952. Bryher was a novelist, poet, critic and magazine editor. Assigned female at birth, they identified as a boy and adopted the gender-neutral name of one of the Scilly Isles.* Bryher was in a life-long open relationship with the American bisexual writer H.D., who also became friends with Douglas. Douglas gave H.D. the nickname “Unicorn” and referred to Bryher as “Br, said always with a little growl”, as Bryher remembers in her memoir The Heart of Artemis. An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to warm memories of their friendship with Douglas.
Bryher and H.D., who appear as side characters in Rachel Hope Cleves’ important biography of Douglas, Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality, were not the only feminist avant-garde writers who befriended Douglas. Contemporaries like Nancy Cunard and Rebecca West also enjoyed Douglas’s company and tolerated his sexual relationships with boys. As Cleves makes clear, there is no doubt that these writers, like everyone else in Douglas’s expansive social circle, knew about his sexual interests. Douglas’s letters to Bryher contain numerous details about his everyday life with so-called “crocodiles”, the term he used to refer to the children and young people with whom he had sex. When thanking the enormously wealthy Bryher for cheques she had sent him, Douglas occasionally explains that he is spending it on suits and other items for the boys in his life. He also took his lovers to meet his friends on occasion. In 1924, for instance, a boy named Silvio accompanied him to meet Bryher and H.D. In 1928, he sent Bryher a copy of his latest publication Some Limericks, which contained obscene and humorous poetry, including verses explicitly describing pederastic acts. If either Bryher or H.D. disapproved of Douglas’s conduct, this did not affect their capacity to sustain a deep, meaningful, and long-lasting friendship with him.
Modernist scholars have celebrated H.D. and, to a lesser extent, Bryher for their critical interrogation of constructions of gender and sexuality within early twentieth-century literature and cinema as well as sexology and psychoanalysis. H.D., in particular, is widely recognised for carving out new ways of depicting feminist and queer subjectivities in her work. How could these queer feminist progressives be friends with a man who would undoubtedly be seen as “a monster” when judged by today’s standards, as Cleves acknowledges in the opening paragraph of her book (1)? Cleves answers this question by arguing that “[p]ederasty was less taboo before the 1950s, in effect, because so many other behaviours were disreputable as well” (13). Douglas’s pederastic interests like Bryher’s gender non-conformity and desire for women, including her unconventional relationship with H.D., placed both of them outside of the realm of social acceptability. It is evident from their correspondence, that Douglas and Bryher shared an understanding of themselves and each other as people who transgressed social conventions and were unafraid to acknowledge this. In their early correspondence, fleeting references to erotic texts like Fanny Hill, sex radicals like Richard Burton and sexual scientific works by anthropologist Edward Westermarck serve to establish a mutual understanding that both Bryher and Douglas were comfortable discussing topics others might deem unacceptable and obscene. It is entirely convincing to argue, as Cleves does, that the defiance of moral conventions and mutual acceptance of each other’s sexual difference formed the basis of their friendship.
Cleves’ careful historicisation of shifting social understandings of age difference, childhood and adolescence, and sexuality across the twentieth century also opens up additional questions for future researchers. Bryher and Douglas might not only have shared an interest in sexual non-conformity more broadly, but also in age-differential erotics more specifically. This is not to claim that Bryher was in any way involved in behaviours that would nowadays be described as paedophilic, but to highlight that age difference played an important role in structuring queer desires between people who have (not always correctly) been read as cis women, including individuals like Bryher who identified as boys. Indeed, there are complex traditions of age-differential desire between people assigned female at birth that have not yet received the same scholarly attention as age-unequal relationships between people assigned male at birth. The life-long partnership between aunt-niece couple Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who jointly published poetry under the pseudonym Michael Field, for instance, offers one relatively well-documented example of a queer relationship that was both incestuous and age-differential (Cooper was 15 years younger than Bradley), as recent scholarship has begun to acknowledge. Martha Vicinus has examined the importance of cross-age desire between women who modelled these relationships on mother-daughter bonds. Vicinus reminds us that the 50-year partnership of the Ladies of Llangollen began as a pupil-tutor relationship; Sarah Ponsonby was 16 years younger than Eleanor Butler, a fact obscured by popular images of the couple that present them as age-equal twin figures. Even though there is a growing body of scholarship on pederastic traditions and their uneasy place within histories of cis male homo- and bisexuality, age-differential dynamics have not yet received sufficient attention when it comes to lesbian, bi and queer people assigned female at birth.
Importantly, age-unequal erotics were not necessarily reliant on developmental or chronological age alone. Bryher continued to identify as a boy even when they were an adult. The figure of the boy held erotic potential for her and H.D., although Bryher would also take on more mature roles of caretaker and collaborator in this relationship. Douglas, too, viewed Bryher as a boy, associating them with the male character of Harré from his novel They Went. Although Cleves maintains that Douglas “never attempted to seduce” Bryher and remained “more interested in her great wealth” (183), their correspondence is characterised by playful flirtation. In Heart of Artemis, Bryher cast Douglas in the role of her educator, including on sexual matters: “It was time I was cuffed into shape and I think that only Douglas of all the people that I have known, could have done it. He brought me up, like a puppy, by hand”. In very different ways, the figure of the boy also allowed contemporaries like Dora Carrington, the painter, and Vita Sackville-West, the writer and gardener, to forge bonds with queer men. Carrington’s boyishness attracted the painter and writer Lytton Strachey, who was friends with Douglas. Sackville-West occasionally took on the persona of a boy called Julian, which allowed her to connect erotically with women like Violet Trefusis as well as her bisexual husband Harold Nicolson.
There are very good reasons why scholars have often remained reluctant to engage with these age-differential erotics. As queer and/or trans people of any gender, we are used to being accused of corrupting, seducing and harming young people. Acknowledging age-differential erotics as part of any aspect of queer and trans history runs the risk of reinforcing these damaging tropes, and this is a problem that cannot be side-stepped entirely. Still, the exemplary nuance with which Cleves writes about historically contingent constructions of age in relation to consent, agency, harm and desire offers vital tools to address sexual dynamics that can otherwise seem too difficult or troubling to approach. To be sure, historians of sexuality need to acknowledge forms of abuse, coercion, and violence within queer relationships. This includes relationships between people who have been read as cis women, which are often wrongly assumed to be free from inequality and harm. At the same time, as Cleves shows, these are not necessarily the only outcomes we should expect to find when examining age-unequal relationships. The point here is not to lump together various age-unequal relationships, but to tease them apart. There are vast and significant distinctions between the partnerships of Cooper and Bradley and the Ladies of Llangollen’s, which are distinct from the age-differential erotics mobilised by Bryher, Carrington and Sackville-West in different ways and to different ends. None of these map easily onto Douglas’s at times more fleeting and more radically age-unequal affairs and relationships with boys. More scholarship that takes seriously age as a category of analysis is needed to understand better the complex and capacious ways in which age difference has structured diverse expressions and understandings of queer desire. Cleves’ sophisticated book offers us a rich and invaluable framework to do this work.
*I am using both she/her and they/them pronouns to refer to Bryher to signal the importance of reading Bryher’s life and work as part of lesbian and queer as well as non-binary and trans history. H.D. and others close to Bryher used she/her pronouns to refer to them, but also frequently drew on masculine nicknames like “Fido” in private writings.
Jana Funke is Associate Professor of English and Sexuality Studies at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses on modernist literature and culture, the history of sexuality, sexual science, and queer feminist studies. She is currently completing a monograph on Sexological Modernism: Queer Feminism and Sexual Science (Edinburgh University Press, 2022) and another monograph entitled Sexperts: A History of Sexology (Reaktion, 2023). She is also co-editing (with Elizabeth English and Sarah Parker) a new edited collection entitled Interrogating Lesbian Modernisms: Histories, Forms, Genres (Edinburgh University Press, 2023) and (with Hannah Roche) the first ever critical edition of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (Oxford University Press, 2023).
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