REPRESENTING MEN’S FRIENDSHIP IN FICTION: DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T

My colleagues David Owen and Cristina Pividori invited me some time ago to contribute an essay to a volume on World War I, an event that fascinates me in its brutality, terrible as this may sound. They chose for me the two novels I should analyze in my article: Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921) and Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922). These two books are middlebrow fiction and were extremely popular in their time, but are now more or less forgotten. Raymond’s novel is too sentimental for our tastes and is probably rightly neglected but I found Ewart’s Way of Revelation an excellent novel. David and Cris chose these books knowing that I appreciate less-than-literary fiction but also because they wanted me to explore the male friendships that occupy each author in each book. I learned many, many valuable lessons.

Male friendship is a classic trope of WWI fiction but what I found in Raymond and Ewart was a less inhibited display of affection than I had seen thus far, after reading quite a long list of literary Great War fiction. In Raymond’s novel Rupert Ray and his soul mate Edgar Doe are boys who enlist out of public school to fight in the fated Dardanelles campaign. Ewart’s Adrian Knoyle and his best friend Eric Sinclair, already in their twenties, abandon a comfortable life for the trenches in France. I was truly surprised by the vocabulary of affection and the choices in behaviour in both books. Rupert frequently calls Edgar ‘beautiful’ and Adrian chooses Eric’s company in war rather than stay with his girlfriend Rosemary. At the same time both books make a clear distinction between male friendship and homosexuality: in Raymond’s novel there is a young gay man and he certainly is seen with aversion (yes, quite homophobic). Something else that puzzled me, by the way, was precisely the use of ‘gay’, often applied to Adrian and Eric meaning that they are happy men about town. Eric’s girlfriend Faith even finds him ‘too gay’, meaning too fond of having sex with chorus girls…

Ernest Raymond only realized in the 1960s that Tell England had a high homoerotic content and he claimed then that when he wrote his novel the word ‘homosexual’ was simply not on the horizon. This puzzled me very much, as ‘homosexuality’ was a concept first introduced in the Victorian Age, in 1869, to withdraw ‘sodomy’ from the catalogue of sins and present it in clinical terms as a perversion. This humilliation, paradoxically, was supposed to be a step forward. The men ostracized for their sodomitical practices suddenly saw themselves liable to legal punishment (think Oscar Wilde) but also in possession of a new label that defined a particular identity. This was, in the long run, positive.

Sexologist Havelock Ellis, a man of much higher impact in Britain than Sigmund Freud around WWI, concluded in the third edition (1927) of his renowned Sexual Inversion (1897) that “However shameful, disgusting, personally immoral, and indirectly antisocial it may be for two adult persons of the same sex, men or women, to consent together to perform an act of sexual intimacy in private, there is no sound or adequate ground for constituting such act a penal offense by law”. Ellis and other pioneers like Edward Carpenter or John Symonds, together with world-leading sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and certainly Freud himself, insisted on proving that homosexuality was neither a crime nor a vice. They still labelled it an ‘anomaly’ and a ‘perversion’, presenting ‘inverts’ as abnormal, though not diseased. However, despite their efforts and although the language of masculine desire already existed in poetry (thanks to Walt Whitman) the aftershock of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 still persisted, so that homosexuality still remained stigmatized (punishable by law until 1967 in the UK, considered a mental disease until 1970). Back to Raymond’s claim that he did not know the word homosexual in 1922, when gay still meant happy-go-lucky, he was being honest: ‘homosexual’ was only used in scientific circles, other colloquial words (‘pansy’, ‘fairy’) were used by homophobes in the social context. It seems that ‘gay’ only started meaning ‘homosexual’ when homosexuals themselves chose it as their preferred codeword in the 1950s.

Some authors such as Sarah Cole and Joanna Bourke have claimed that the extraordinary circumstances of WWI provided men with a situation in which the constant mortal danger allowed for displays of affection between heterosexual men that would have been frowned upon in ordinary society. They claim that indeed male friendship of this intensity died in WWI. When the soldiers returned they were meekly led into marriage and told that real intimacy could only happen in heterosexual coupledom (aided by handbooks such as Marie Stopes’ revolutionary manual Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1919)). Where am I going with this? Well, I’m arguing here as I argued in my essay that the advances in Gay and Queer Studies (particularly Eve Sedgwick’s seminal volume Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 1985), have paradoxically caused great damage to the affection between heterosexual men and its fictional representation. Apparently, women feel no anxiety about whether friendly affection has a covert lesbian undercurrent and, so, the portrayal in fiction of female friendship hardly ever focuses on this issue. In contrast, since Sedgwick outed most male friendships in fiction as secretly gay (to be fair, she used ‘homoerotic’ rather than ‘homosexual’), the representation of this kind of relationship has become extremely complicated. I loved reading Raymond and Ewart precisely because their men were free from the problem of the homoerotic (although I do see that Cole and Bourke are quite right).

I’m then convinced that the representation of male friendship in fiction must be carefully separated from the representation of gay love, and both need to be encouraged in all genres and levels of fiction. I read just yesterday an article about the growing presence of ‘bromosexual’ friendship (between gay and heterosexual men) in American fiction–and I was totally non-plussed for I see that type of friendship around me with notable frequency. Anyway, I have already narrated here the immense pleasure that I feel when reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (I’m in volume 10 of 20, had to stop for a while or I would read nothing else…). I enjoy the series very much because I admire the gentle, natural way in which O’Brian represents the friendship and intimacy between these two heterosexual men. But, and here is the real reason for my post today, reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Thorne (supervised by J.K. Rowling) I came to the conclusion that representing male friendship is now a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

I was asked for my opinion about the play for an article in El Periódico and I wrote that a nice opportunity to represent gay love is missed in the relationship between teenager Albus Potter and his best friend Scorpius Malfoy. Actually, charming Scorpius is the best element in this mediocre play which is bound to disappoint most Harry Potter fans. The case is that I got a quite furious email from a male ex-student, chastising me for outing the two boys. Just the day before another student had emailed me a Guardian article in which the (male) author defended the thesis that it is very, very important for Albus and Scorpio not to be seen as gay since this will help little Potterhead heterosexual boys to express their affection for other boys more openly. My answer to my ex-student’s email message was this: of course I see the need to open up the representation of male heterosexual friendship to more fulfilling, less homophobic ways of expressing affection but I just happen to believe that in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this friendship is actually gay love.

Why? Because I see that in other cases, like the Aubrey/Maturin series or the pair Captain Kirk/Spock it is not. Sedgwick’s many followers tend to insist that most male friendship is secretly gay, which I totally dispute. And, yes, I’m well aware that Kirk and Spock have been the object of plenty of slash fan fiction. Yet, for me, the key lies in whether the presence of women in the life of the men in question feels forced or not: heteronormative or plain heterosexual. [Spoilers!!!] In the case of Albus and Scorpius the last minute introduction of a girlfriend is a dreadful, mismanaged heternormative intrusion, whereas in the Aubrey/Maturin series the presence of the women beloved by these men makes perfect sense. Now somebody will accuse me of being homophobic, biphobic, or queerphobic… I don’t know.

Last but not least, have a look at this wonderful photo and tell me whether the men seen kissing in it are friends or lovers. Also, once you know the correct answer, consider how it is circulating what and who exactly benefits from its publication: https://www.elperiodico.cat/ca/noticias/extra/peto-castellers-merce-barcelona-5458028

My article:
“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”. In Writings of Persuasion and Dissonance in the Great War: That Better Whiles May Follow Worse. David Owen and Cristina Pividori (eds.), Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 205-219. ISBN: 978-90-04-31491-7. https://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war

Available online my other articles about male friendship:

“Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus”. Clues: A Journal of Detection 29:2, 2011. 73-82. ISSN 0724-4248. https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052

“Antonio cuestionado: El mercader de Venecia de Michael Radford y el problema del heterosexismo”. Dossiers feministes, nº 20, 2015, 261-283. https://www.e-revistes.uji.es/index.php/dossiers/article/view/1772/1811

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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