As I’ve been discussing in my last few posts, I recently attended a conference which provided me with a load of fantastic facts perfect for blogging.
During one of the panels, I was alerted to a book called Imre: A Memorandum (1906) by Edward Prime-Stevenson. This is the first novel in English to deal openly and sympathetically with male homosexuality, and even–shockingly–has a happy ending. Considering that even today, most openly gay characters in popular culture have horrific or sad endings, this is really remarkable.
Of course there have been other novels in English dealing with homosexuality which have preceded Imre: Bayard Taylor’s 1870s novel Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania is considered an early gay text, but the relationship between the two men is more romantic and spiritual in nature, and not physical or sexual–this idea of spiritual connections between men that ride the line between friendship and romance was fairly prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it’s difficult to ascertain if they qualify as what we would now consider homosexual relationships. This is due, in part, because the term ‘homosexuality’ didn’t exist (at least in English) until the first decade of the 20th century. Instead, the term ‘inversion’ was used, but this was largely applied to those who had engaged in physical acts, which were criminalized at the time. Things become a lot murkier for men who feel strongly, and even romantically, about each other but didn’t commit sodomy.
You also have, of course, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), which dealt fairly explicitly with themes of homosexuality. The character Basil (who is the only likeable, sympathetic character in the whole damn novel), is quite clearly in love with Dorian. However, the book also wraps up homosexuality into issues of debauchery and degeneracy (despite Basil being lovely, and Wilde himself being gay) and Basil, of course, kicks the bucket, stabbed to death by the man he loves.
If anyone out there has read Imre and would like to give further feedback about its treatment of issues of homosexuality, I’d love to know what you think!