It is a truth now occasionally, if not yet universally, acknowledged: that a single man, whether or not he possesses a good fortune, could be in want of not a wife, but a husband. The passage last weekend of New York’s historic same-sex marriage bill, which made the state the largest to join the gathering movement, was thrilling to all supporters of equal rights. But, watching the joy that exploded in the streets of Manhattan, I felt a moment of sadness for all the writers, over the last century and earlier, who spent their lives in long-term homosexual relationships but were unable to record them in fiction. From Pride and Prejudice to Freedom, straight marriage—good, bad, or heinous—is the most exhaustively explored subject in literary history. But, if we look to literature, in so many cases, to teach us how to live, gay couples embarking upon marriage today will find few examples to guide their way.
Gertrude Stein, W.H. Auden, and W. Somerset Maugham are just a few of the writers whose homosexuality was an open secret during their lifetimes. But even these courageous figures rarely depicted gay couples in their fiction. The memory of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial for “gross indecency,” in which passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray were read as evidence, was likely still too fresh. (The magazine editor who originally published Dorian Gray as a serial tried to reduce the damage to Wilde by censoring the text, as I explained in this column, but his alterations were insufficient to protect the author.) Modern literature is full of variations on the theme of the closet, amounting to a virtual manual in how to disguise a gay relationship.
Henry James’s novel The Bostonians (1886) is credited with originating the term “Boston marriage,” used to describe two women who cohabit on a long-term basis but may or may not be sexually involved. In the novel, the unmarried feminist Olive Chancellor becomes fixated on her young protégée Verena Tarrant, who ultimately rejects her for the smooth-talking Basil Ransom. (Olive, for her part, has “no views about the marriage-tie except that she should hate it for herself.”) James brilliantly introduces Olive from the perspective of Ransom, who imagines himself to be suave and sophisticated but is flummoxed by the way Olive confounds his ideas of femininity. He sees her as nervous and “morbid,” in plain clothes and no jewelry. There is something sexless about her: “She was a spinster as Shelley was a lyric poet. … She was so essentially a celibate that Ransom found himself thinking of her as old,” even though he knows she is younger than he is. “He did not dislike her … but, little by little, she gave him an uneasy feeling,” Ransom concludes. He is too conventional to recognize Olive as she really is; he can process her sexual identity only as “unease.” (Of course, she may not be aware of it herself.)
In Of Human Bondage, which appeared in 1915, Maugham presented an even more bizarrely encoded female character. Scholars have speculated that Mildred, the great love interest of Maugham’s alter ego Philip, was modeled after a man who broke the writer’s heart in his youth—not least because of the way Maugham depicts the character physically. Mildred is an odd and unattractive love object, with thin, pale lips, narrow hips, and “the chest of a boy.” She is cold and deeply unappealing; Philip’s passion for her manifests more as anger than desire. The two other major love relationships in the novel are depicted as more emotionally satisfyingly, but sexually they are left undeveloped. Norah, the woman with whom Philip has a more even-keeled affair, is tender and nurturing, but their sexual relationship is “not essential.” And for Sally, the much younger woman whom he finally decides to marry, Philip feels “a great affection. … She was a splendid animal, without defect.”“I’m so happy,” he tells her after she accepts his proposal. “I want my lunch,” she replies.
Maugham cohabited for 20 years with Gerald Haxton, the love of his life, until Haxton’s death in 1944. But, to the best of my knowledge, it was not until The Razor’s Edge, one of his last works, that Maugham depicted an obviously homosexual character—and, even there, the sexual orientation of Elliott Templeton, while obviously suggested, is left unstated. Maugham’s obituaries did not mention Haxton; The New York Times referred to Alan Searle, his partner at the time of his death, as a “secretary and companion of many years.”
Contemporary writers have done their part to air out the old closets. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s modern-day Mrs. Dalloway is Clarissa Vaughan, who lives happily in New York City with her partner, Sally. (Virginia Woolf, though married for most of her life to Leonard Woolf, had a romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West, which she alluded to, again in coded form, in her novel Orlando, about a character who switches fluidly between the two genders.) More controversially, David Leavitt resurrected writer Stephen Spender’s sexual struggles in While England Sleeps, which resulted in Spender suing Leavitt for plagiarizing his autobiography. Spender objected not to Leavitt’s depiction of him as homosexual, but to Leavitt’s having falsely adapted his work (without attribution) by adding “pornographic” details. “Even had I ever been disposed to write such scenes, they could not, in 1951, have found a publisher,” Spender wrote in an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 1994. “Authors of the 1990’s like Mr. Leavitt, who are entirely free to exploit a wave of popular interest, would do well to understand that writers as recently as the 1950’s ran considerable risks of being prosecuted under [Britain’s] intolerant laws.” It’s terrible to remember that a writer like Maugham or Spender—and many of their more recent counterparts—could have faced prison time for writing fiction that crossed autobiographical lines.
But, at the same time, it does feel a little reductionist to complain about the lack of great fictional gay love. For to do so suggests that there’s something essentially different about love between people of the same sex that can’t be communicated—even metaphorically—through a depiction of a heterosexual relationship. And that runs counter to the equality movement’s resounding and resonant argument that homosexual love is no different in kind from heterosexual love, and ought to be legally recognized in the same way. This is a truth that by now feels self-evident. As a straight woman, my only access to homosexuality is imaginative, through the medium of art. In the best of these works, it’s the idea of love that is paramount, not the particulars of who does what to whom. The affair between two men in Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, to give one particularly graphic example, is one of the most moving depictions of obsessive passion in recent writing.
But I can imagine how frustrating it must be for gay readers to overwhelmingly suffer straight depictions of love and sex. And so I look forward to the day when I read a novel in which a Mr. Darcy figure asks for the hand of a Mr. Bennet. Pride and prejudice, indeed. It might even become a new classic.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on twitter @ruth_franklin.