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‘…too strong for words to name’

Co-Presidents of Trinity’s LGBT+ society, 1TQ, Mimi Trevelyan-Davis and James Riseley, and Fellow in English, Dr Joe Moshenska, have co-curated an exhibition in the Wren Library exploring the nature of male friendship.

Through the prism of three famous members of Trinity College – Francis Bacon, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and A E Housman – they consider the categories used to interpret sexuality, past and present, and to think differently about friendship. 

2017 marks fifty years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in the UK. February is LGBT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Trans) History Month in the UK, when exhibitions across the country mark this important anniversary.

Tennyson and Hallam aboard the SS Leeds, 1830

At this historic moment, the Wren Library’s collections invite us to consider the ways in which LGBT people have often been excluded from standard historical narratives; to question categories we use when interpreting sexuality throughout history; and to push us to consider these questions in relation to the past – and the present.

We have selected early versions of works by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, including the manuscript of his famous poem, In Memoriam A.H.H. Also, some books by the sixteenth-century scientist, polymath and politician Francis Bacon, and the selected poetry of A E Housman.

The writing and works of these three Trinity men, from different disciplines and eras, offer intriguing insights into their respective friendships and the nature of those relationships at the times in which they lived.

We are very aware that modern terms such as ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual’ or ‘bisexual’ cannot be applied to past eras straightforwardly, since they reflect modern assumptions and beliefs. So where does this leave us when we look into the past? The refusal even to acknowledge the possibility of LGBT identities in earlier periods risks marginalising these communities in the present and denying them a history. But to apply such labels risks reducing LGBT identities to a few characteristics that exist unchangingly, a simplification of another sort.

This exhibition sheds light on these questions by pushing us to think differently about friendship as a category. Historically, the languages and gestures of what we would call friendship and romantic love have often overlapped and intermingled.  Insisting that those involved were ‘just friends’ has sometimes served to diminish or ignore same-sex relationships. Conversely, for some LGBT people, friendship can be a helpfully elastic and ambiguous category, a way of avoiding labels with which they are uncomfortable.

Many have wondered about the intense love expressed in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote in the wake of the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. These speculations were not confined to more recent times.

When the poem was published in 1850, The Times review criticised its ‘amatory tenderness.’ Tennyson had unsettled the frequent and nervous insistence that ‘pure’ and eroticised friendship were comfortably distinct.

And in Victorian England, many recognised that, not least Hallam’s family who forbade their son from publishing a book of poems with Tennyson. Hallam had told Tennyson’s mother that he saw this ‘as a sort of seal of our friendship’, but Hallam’s father objected to such a close collaboration, and the poems were published in separate volumes in 1830.

Conversely, the sexuality of A E Housman was only revealed posthumously in 1967, with the publication of De Amicitia (‘Of Friendship’) by his brother, Lawrence. The title references Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia, a treatise on friendship written in 44 BC, concerning, like Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the difficulties of bereavement and loss. This ‘friendship’, however, is explicitly framed as homosexual, with Lawrence Housman addressing his brother’s unrequited love for a Moses Jackson, a classmate during his undergraduate years at Oxford.

This touching account of friendship, an unrequited love, also contains strong polemical writing against the criminalisation of homosexuality, stating it had ‘broken many heads, and many hearts, and ruined many lives.’

Thus the exhibition in the Wren Library encourages us to consider the ambiguous status of sexual identities in the historically changing languages of friendship, love and intimacy. We see this too in the minute changes which were made by Bacon – who was accused of sexual activity with other men following his political fall – to his essay ‘Of Followers and Friends’, developing a progressively more cynical view of friendship grounded not in love but utility.

It is because the Wren collections allow us to ask such questions anew that they remain a crucially relevant resource today.

‘…too strong for words to name’ runs until the end of February 2017. It is free to view during the public opening hours of the Wren Library.


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