Mark Harris
January 28, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century

Current Status
In Season
Graham Robb
W.W. Norton
Gay and Lesbian, Nonfiction

We gave it an A

Any account of Victorian-era homosexuality must, to some extent, deal with oppression and repression; the triumph of this erudite and enthralling survey of the art, politics, criminality, science, literature, geography, and romance of gay life is that it’s also a history of expression and connection. Graham Robb, a noted biographer of Rimbaud and Balzac, has done his homework with Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, but knows enough never to let the results feel academic, whether excavating the methodical list John Maynard Keynes kept of his partners (”Stable Boy of Park Lane…Lift boy of Vauxhall”) or offering a shrewd queer rereading of (don’t laugh) Hans Christian Andersen’s ”The Ugly Duckling.” The irresistible details serve a larger thesis; as some tried to puzzle out homosexuality’s origins and others tried to legislate or police it away, Robb shows that same-sex romance — and, not incidentally, sex — flourished with shared references, encoded language, and political self-assertion. If that sounds a lot like our own century, that’s his point, and he makes it superbly.

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