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A secret history – 250 years of queer literature

Dr Richard Espley, head of modern collections at Senate House Library (SHL), explores highlights from its collection of queer literature and introduces ‘Queer between the Covers’, the University of London’s latest exhibition and events series at the library.

Queer between the covers
Introducing ‘Queer between the Covers’, the University of London’s latest exhibition and events series

The Queer between the Covers season examines the ways in which literature has been consistently used to shape and manipulate public understandings of LGBTQ+ identities, and it was inspired by a manuscript by WH Auden in Senate House Library’s collections which fittingly defies attempts to categorise it.

The library is proud to own this holograph copy of ‘Funeral Blues’

Although this is not the kind of poetic manuscript we might usually imagine in an archive. Rather than a fragment of a poet’s raw thoughts promising insights into the creative process, it is a clean copy of an already much revised and reused poem, being sent out in the hope of publication in a commercial anthology. Accompanied by a letter to the editor commiserating on the difficulty of her task, it speaks more clearly of the poem’s afterlife than its birth.

Visually, the very form of the manuscript seems a little conflicted, for while the handwriting and the layout have a strained formality as though the author were trying to make the whole thing as presentable as possible, the edge is ragged where the page was torn from a notebook, and there are two prominent crossings out. The fact that here the work is titled simply ‘Blues’ already hints at its rather dense publication history. First appearing with a more satirical tone in The Ascent of F6, a play Auden co-wrote with Christopher Isherwood, it was then rewritten in broadly the form represented here and published by Auden as one of a cycle of cabaret songs, before ultimately becoming separately titled ‘Funeral Blues’ in a later collection.

The poem forms the centrepiece to the exhibition

In addition to all of these complications queering our attempts to describe it, the poem forms the centrepiece to the exhibition because of a much later moment of prominence which encapsulates the uncertainties of the relationship between literature and the cultural understanding of sexuality. Whatever Auden called the poem, for certain generations it is most likely to be described as the one that is read out, with considerable emotional impact, by Matthew, as a eulogy for his dead lover Gareth, in Richard Curtis’s 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was a seminal moment in cinematic portrayals of love between men.

Sexual healing - the film

Simon Callow, who played Gareth, later wrote that this was ‘one of the most important films’ of a kind which sought to ‘integrate gays into the world at large’ rather than simply making ‘gay films’ – (Sexual healing, The Guardian, 31 October 2008).

There is certainly some truth to this contention, although it is notable that there is other work by Auden which much more clearly expresses an overtly gay male desire than this comparatively chaste poem. It is more striking that within the film, Callow’s character had to die in order for this love to be expressed. While undoubtedly an important cinematic moment, it seems rather reminiscent of the view of James Baldwin, another gay writer featured in the exhibition, writing about that great Victorian protest novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Baldwin suggested of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s approach to her black characters that ‘she could not embrace them without purifying them of sin’ and that Tom must specifically be ‘divested of his sex’ in order to appear sympathetic to a broad audience – (Baldwin, James, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’, Partisan Review 1949 (16), 578-585; p. 581).

Similarly, while Matthew and Gareth are clearly in love, there is a hesitancy and diffidence to the film which only allows an emotional expression after Gareth’s body, and the possibility of sex, is eliminated. Unlike heterosexual couples in the film, they are never even glimpsed in bed. Moreover, that love isn’t portrayed through a direct declaration, but rather by the formalised reading of a literary work written by a long-dead gay man. Literature is here being introduced into the film to express non-heterosexual lives, even somehow to typify them, but also to reassuringly pitch them as not about sex.

The ambiguities of this moment by no means end with the film’s release, however. Auden’s poetry became a brief bestseller in the light of this reading, occasioning a very successful ‘tie-in’ edition of ten of Auden’s works. This book is in the exhibition, chiefly for the publisher’s choice of cover image, a close-up of Hugh Grant leaning against a wall in a recognisably ecclesiastical setting, with a facial expression which could plausibly be intended as mournful, happy or even seductive. Despite the popularity of the poem reproduced being entirely based on a celebration of love between two men, it is being marketed with an image of the central heterosexual character, which once more all but averts the reader’s gaze from a gay relationship.

What Auden himself might have thought of any of this is impossible to tell, but there is an uneasy tension throughout this story which rather typifies what we have portrayed in the exhibition, the culture’s many struggles to use literature to define, to celebrate and to condemn queer lives.

Dr Richard Espley is head of modern collections at Senate House Library. The Queer between the Covers season runs from 15 January–16 June.

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