A Secret Between Gentlemen is a unique historical biographical trilogy revealing the gay scandal, hidden for 120 years, that embroiled the noted British MP, connoisseur and philanthropist Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea, in 1902.
NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?
Peter Jordaan: It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction. The events occurred in 1902, as Britain was preparing for the coronation of King Edward VII. Behind the scenes, officials were scrambling to hush up a major homosexual scandal involving thirty prominent and aristocratic gentlemen.
The ringleader was the M.P., connoisseur and plutocrat, Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea. Considered the most handsome man in Parliament, he was married to the heiress Constance de Rothschild.
The scandal was smothered by the British Government to avoid “a great national disgrace, and pollution of the public mind.” Until now the details have remained unknown. All those involved were secretly granted immunity from prosecution, with the exception of two procurers from the gentry who were quietly imprisoned in a stage-managed trial. However, their sentencing was to ultimately have extraordinary consequences half a world away in Australia and Africa.
NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?
PJ: Pure curiosity! After stumbling upon the story in late 2016, I began to wonder: who were these people really? What was their reality? How could this have happened? The author Toni Morrison once said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I did. Answering those questions took me on a research journey across the world.
NOTCHES: This book engages with histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?
PJ: I considered it vital to detail the social background against which the affair took place. Contrary to common perception, it was far from a placid time. The 1880s had witnessed the rise of the Purity Movement in England, while the close of the century saw a moral panic over social degeneracy, and the Cleveland Street Scandal and Oscar Wilde trials. Keeping a lid on scandal involving the ruling class was considered absolutely vital by successive British Governments in order to maintain social harmony, and the status quo.
The book also details how the democratic spirit of Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter infused British politics at the highest level through gay men. While the impact on Whitman and Carpenter on working class groups in England has been written about, the fact the upper class were similarly affected may come as a happy surprise.
NOTCHES: How did you research the book?
PJ: One of the first tasks was to trace and contact the descendants of those involved. Early on in the research I had a church warden in Scotland looking out on my behalf for an elderly lady who came regularly to lay flowers on her husband’s grave. I’d identified her as a descendant of one of Lord Battersea’s procurers. You have to play detective. I was eventually able to reach her through an auction house after she sold some war medals. Two photographs from her albums eventually featured in the book. Tracking down other descendants in Algeria and France took literally years of sleuthing.
A great help was the guest book for Lord Battersea’s seaside palace, which is in the possession of a further descendant. I visited private archives at country houses in England and Scotland; traced and transcribing a great many files; and interviewed or was helped by literally hundreds of people. And yes, in a quest of this nature, one always runs into brick walls. In the last chapter of the book I share some of this research journey.
NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?
PJ: As I came across more compelling material, the draft kept getting bigger, so I actually had to split it twice – hence it became a trilogy. The first volume alone is over 800 pages: a big plum pudding stuffed with surprises that a reader can dip in and out of.
NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?
PJ: One prominent gay scholar did caution me not to touch the issue of pederasty “with a bargepole”. Given it played so prominent a role in the lives of some of the gentlemen I was writing about, it would have been impossible not to. Aside from the scandal, before the mid-twentieth century, homosexual interactions that were age, class, and power equivalent were only half the story, if that. However, the well-meant warning did make me wonder to what degree the desire for assimilation, and fear and timidity, particularly in the current social climate of finger pointing and witch hunts, are distorting the telling of sexual history. (Is the reason why women appear to be at the forefront of the field possibly due to it now carrying too many reputational risks for male academics?) I’m in the fortunate position of being beholden to no one, and have zero fucks to give to censors or scolds. So nothing was withheld.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
PJ: Probably from reading The Worm In The Bud, the landmark work on nineteenth century sexuality published by the late Ronald Pearsall back in 1969. He was an English cinema manager, insurance salesman and store detective who proved the truism that great scholarship is by no means the exclusive province of the university-educated. Pearsall left school at fourteen.
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
PJ: It would be useful in law studies as a study of privileged justice. For anyone interested in how nineteenth century Britain actually worked, the early chapters also provide a behind-the-scenes whistle-stop tour of that realm.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
PJ: We like to comfort ourselves that deference to power and privilege has faded. However, as the collision of wealth, power, privilege and policing surrounding the Epstein affair has shown, it’s alive, thriving, and stronger than ever. The Battersea Scandal offers a distant mirror, and is as relevant today as it was in that other world of Edwardian Britain.
NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?
PJ: I’m continuing to research the fascinating Lord Battersea and his scandal. While the gears of scholarship grind slowly, I hope others will also bring to light more information. Throughout the trilogy I was keen to leave a trail of leads on matters worth pursuing, and am following up on one of these for another book. It helps fill in the days.
Peter Jordaan is a writer and historian. Prior to publishing the biographical trilogy A Secret Between Gentlemen, he edited for publication The Dead Past, the memoirs of the sinological scholar and rogue, Sir Edmund Backhouse. He tweets from @alchemiebooks
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