Felicien Rops  La Soeur du Pâle Voyou au Rat Mort  (1879)

    Felicien Rops La Soeur du Pâle Voyou au Rat Mort (1879)

I gave a paper at TaPRA 2014 which I was also involved in organising (yes, it went very well thank you). My paper was called 'Whatever Happened to Gay Naturalism?' and it asked the question, why was male homosexuality almost entirely unmentioned by the Naturalists? First, homosexuality was a big topical issue in the 1870s and 1880s. Second, it was seen as a social problem. Third, it was something the scientists were talking about. Fourth, lots of other literature was representing it. It's exactly the kind of thing the Naturalists were keen on. In fact, you would have thought the Naturalists would be all over it, but, it seems, not.

Methodologically, the paper is asking how we respond to historical absence. What does it mean to say that something didn't happen? When does nothing become something? How can we be sure that we're looking hard enough, reading subtly enough?

I explore this further by looking at a few case studies where the absence of homosexuality can be specifically demonstrated, where nothing is something: adaptations, like Zola's Nana, that remove homosexual characters; André Antoine's rejection of Lawn Tennis by Gabriel Mourey, a play with (and because of) homosexual characters; and the specific rejection of a subject matter for a novel (and wealth of research material), the famous Roman d'un inverti. I also explore the extent to which absence itself might have been considered a signifier for homosexuality, looking at work like Ernest Feydeau's La Comtesse de Chalis and Paul Alexis's Le Fin de Lucie Pellegrin.

In the final section, I look at two contemporary contextual concerns that will have affected this debate. First the crisis of dénatalité, the sharply declining birth rate in France which saw Germany overtake it as Europe's most populous nation. There is, running through French culture of the Third Republic a set of anxieties about Germany - brought to crisis by the national humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 but continually bubbling under (it is one of the raw nerves that was touched by the Dreyfus Affair). I think Naturalism was affected by this: think of the way that Ibsen was initially considered too Northern European for French tastes (and had to be reinvented as a Symbolist in the 1890s to be wholly embraced by Paris). Strikingly, homosexuality was cast out from France by calling it 'the German vice', which itself expresses anxieties about national penetration.

I also suggest that developments in psychological science affected not just the way the nineteenth century understood homosexuality but possibly the way it understood authorship too. I look at some key moments in the history of authorship, including the two censorship trials of 1857 of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal. Zola's difficulty with representing homosexuality might have been about his problematic position as an author, trying to stand outside the biological and social forces that he wanted to describe. I look at some paradoxical complexities of interior and exterior that run through these debates, focusing on the fascinating story of Dr Laupts.

I'm hoping to find a couple of opportunities to develop the paper over the next few months. If anyone runs a seminar series at a university and thinks this might interest you, get in touch.