As Pride Month draws to a close, I wanted to write a post highlighting a few of the queer writers in the Gothic canon. Gothic literature has been closely associated with taboo sexuality since its inception, and we can see this legacy clearly today in the queerness of modern horror (and in the unexpected adoption of the Babadook as the unofficial mascot of Pride this year). Not all of the LGBTQ representation in Gothic fiction has been particularly positive, as these works often play to society’s anxieties around sexual taboo. But the Gothic was also a place where many queer writers found a home. As is often the case with historical figures, it can be difficult to speak with certainty about the sexualities of authors long dead, especially since most of them lived during a time when “sodomy” was punishable by exile, arrest, and even death. Almost every writer of early Gothic fiction has been accused by enemies or claimed by critics to be part of the LGBTQ community, with varying amounts of evidence. In this post, I will highlight three of the most notorious gay or bisexual writers whose personal and romantic lives have contributed to their fame almost as much as their works have.
Our first author is a little less famous than the other two I will mention, but he is one of the foundational authors of early Gothic fiction, as I covered in my post on the Roots of Gothic Literature. William Beckford is best remembered for writing the Gothic novel Vathek, published in 1786. Vathek combined the newly formed Gothic genre with eighteenth-century Europe’s obsession with Orientalism. The plot revolves around an Arabian tyrant, Caliph Vathek, and his black magic dealings with a man called the Giaour in pursuit of supernatural power, knowledge, and wealth.
Around the time that Beckford was writing Vathek, he became entangled in a scandal over his relationship with William Courtenay, son of the 8th Earl of Devon. Beckford was ostracized by British society in 1784 after Courtenay’s uncle publicized their affair, and fled to mainland Europe to avoid possible consequences.
George Gordon Byron, namesake of the dark and brooding trope of the “Byronic hero,” was a Romantic-era pop star. He became an instant celebrity after publishing the first edition of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, and lived in fame and infamy ever since. Byron was strongly influenced by William Beckford, whose Vathek inspired him to write “The Giaour,” an Orientalist poem about a Muslim and a Christian man, and how their differing religions affected their views on love, sex, and death. The poem is significant in the Gothic tradition for its early mention of vampires, several years before these creatures became a popular topic in literature. Byron contributed further to the vampire genre when John Polidori used Byron’s unfinished fragment of a novel as the basis for his short story “The Vampyre” and clearly based its seductive vampire character on Byron himself.
Byron was infamous in his lifetime for his scandalous affairs with women, including Lady Caroline Lamb whose initial impression of Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” has become a lasting part of his image and appeal. His affairs with men and boys were less well known. Several Byron biographers have suggested that he was involved with one or more of his male peers while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, and continued to seek such relationships throughout his life. Unlike William Beckford, Byron seems to have first traveled abroad not to flee such scandals but to chase them. During his grand tour of the Mediterranean, Byron wrote letters home to a friend that allude in coded language to homosexual encounters while in Greece and Italy. After returning home to England for a few years, he went abroad permanently after his separation from his wife caused a scandal, and is said to have continued pursuing men and women alike while gallivanting about Europe and becoming entangled in the Greek War of Independence.
Oscar Wilde is perhaps the poster child for queer Victorian writers. Wilde is best known for two of his major works: a satirical play called The Importance of Being Ernest and his more Gothic piece, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve covered Dorian Gray on this blog in my discussion of the Gothic trope of the Doppelganger. I’ve also discussed one of Wilde’s lesser-known works that falls under the Gothic purview: a short, humorous ghost story called “The Canterville Ghost,” which mocks the trope of the Creepy Housekeeper.
Oscar Wilde’s sexuality became a matter of significant public interest when it formed the basis for a court case, Regina v. Wilde. In an earlier court case, Wilde had attempted to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel after the other man had left him a note addressed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” The trial backfired, as Queensberry sought to defend himself by proving that his statement was factual rather than libelous. Details of Wilde’s personal life were revealed, and he was questioned about both the hidden meanings in his works and his relationships with young men. Wilde ultimately dropped the case and Queensberry was found not guilty. Only a few days after the initial trial, Oscar Wilde was arrested on a charge of gross indecency, a term referring to homosexual acts that were illegal under British law. He spoke eloquently at the trial, especially in response to questions about “the love that dare not speak its name”—a line that comes from the poem “Two Loves” by Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Nonetheless, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. After his release, he went to France and lived out the rest of his life in exile, under the false name Sebastian Melmoth (an allusion to the Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer).
As these three authors show, LGBTQ writers have always been and will always be at the center of the Gothic movement. This Pride month, I want to acknowledge their contributions and reaffirm that the Gothic is a place for all identities and sexualities. Happy Pride, and let me know what other authors you’d like to learn about in the comments!