"You are a piece of caustic, Tom," retorted Mr. James Harthouse. There was something so very agreeable in being so intimate with such a waistcoat; in being called Tom, in such an intimate way, by such a voice; in being on such off-hand terms so soon, with such a pair of whiskers; that Tom was uncommonly pleased with himself . . . James Harthouse continued to lounge in the same place and attitude, smoking his cigar in his own easy way, and looking pleasantly at the whelp, as if he knew himself to be a kind of agreeable demon who had only to hover over him, and he must give up his whole soul if required. It certainly did seem that the whelp yielded to this influence. He looked at his companion sneakingly, he looked at him admiringly, he looked at him boldly, and put up one leg on the sofa.
Even if Tom had not erected that leg, we can easily discern the homoeroticism of this scene. A quarter century after the publication of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), desire between Dickens's men has become obvious. This is a significant achievement: aspects of Dickens that were previously unmentionable or treated squeamishly have become much easier to see.
Yet this achievement has also been shadowed by failure. Queer analysis of a literary text often dwindles to pointing out that, yes indeed, there are homoerotic resonances—as if that in and of itself were interesting. Just what exactly one means by "homoerotic," however, remains frustratingly vague. To adapt the words of the dying Mrs. Gradgrind, it often seems as if there's a queerness somewhere in the room, though one can't say positively who has got it. For Sedgwick, this vagueness empowers "homosocial desire," a provocative phrase for an erotic feeling which unpredictably infiltrates relations that are "just" homosocial. As long as men did not think of themselves as loving other men, male-male desire could enable intimacies in and out of the workplace. Yet looking at such desire in literary texts offers an opportunity to define conditions of affective relations that were far less certain in life.
For example, though Hard Times is Dickens at his most schematic, the relation between Tom and Harthouse is remarkably complex, even if we leave out Louisa, Tom's sister, as the Sedgwickian catalyst for Harthouse's designs on Tom. Their eroticism looks mostly like mutual narcissism, for each man cares about the other solely to feel better about himself. Tom is flattered when Harthouse reverses the power of ingratiation. While subordinates usually strive to ingratiate themselves with those more powerful, Harthouse skillfully does the opposite. Dickens's parallel phrases, "in being so intimate . . . in being called Tom . . . in being on such off-hand terms," present Harthouse's effect as a seduction by prose rhythms, as if the repetition of syntactic forms becomes a metaphor for steadily increasing male-male familiarity. Harthouse flatters himself with his Iago-like skill at knowing exactly how to manipulate Tom. Yet even as Dickens underscores both men's weaknesses, he invites sympathy with the needs that their relations satisfy. Tom, having been brought up by Gradgrinds and Bounderbys, at last finds someone who can actually sustain a conversation; Harthouse longs for Tom's "whole soul" as a tonic for his inner emptiness. Simply to call this scene "homoerotic" misses the dense interactions of social roles, individual hopes, self-delusion, and stylistic wizardry that texture this encounter.
The lack of attention to such texturing in much queer criticism stems from the strange (non)reception of Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet (1990), whose first axiom is "People are different from each other" (22). Her point is less to note the obvious than to indicate a major critical void: "It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact" (22). Despite Sedgwick's fame, the void remains: Sedgwick's axiom has been cited endlessly, but no one has taken up her challenge to increase, even by a few, the "tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization."
Sedgwick's axiom has a corollary of equal importance: "Relationships are different from each other." If few conceptual tools exist for describing individual subjects, even fewer describe the complexities of erotic relationships: homo- vs. heteroerotic does not get far, nor do a host of other binaries (butch/femme; top/bottom; daddy/boy; master/slave). The situation is worse when one comes to homosocial desire. While Between Men implied that homosocial desire might take a variety of forms, Sedgwick never categorized these forms by means of key similarities and differences.
Holly Furneaux's book valuably provides some of these categories and locates them historically in the context of Victorian England. While recognizing the large body of work that has already been done on Dickens and same-sex desire, Furneaux treats Dickens's oeuvre as a large, synchronic bloc and then looks, within it, for meaningful ways of describing desire between men. (Except for noting the inevitable Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, Furneaux passes on the complex question of desire between Dickens's women because, she argues, it follows a different historical trajectory.) Furneaux categorizes the culturally sanctioned forms in which Dickens's males desire other males: bachelor dads (Brownlow in Oliver Twist); serial bachelorhood (Mr. Pickwick or Mr. Lorry in A Tale of Two Cities); sibling triangulation (Ruth Pinch's mediation of the love between Tom Pinch and John Westlock in Martin Chuzzlewit); queer travelers and exiles (Pip with Herbert and Clara Pocket in Egypt in Great Expectations); nursing (Mark Tapley's care for Martin Chuzzlewit); and male touching as a form of healing (George's relation to Phil in Bleak House). Within these categories, Furneaux provides many more examples than the ones I have listed: her command of the entire Dickens canon, including several rarely-discussed works, is one of the strengths of the book.
This emphasis on the variety of Dickensian homosocial desires accompanies one on "a genealogy of more positive queer affect and experience" (21). Furneaux contests what she perceives as the too-exclusive negativity of previous accounts of queerness in Dickens, such as Sedgwick's discussions of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in Between Men, William Cohen's reading of Great Expectations, or Lee Edelman's treatment of Dickens's children. I agree with Furneaux's claim that critics have overstated the negative aspects of homosocial desire in Dickens's work. But while I sympathize with her desire to find queer-positive models in literary history, this tactic comes too close to searching out queer figures who will be a credit to their sexuality. More seriously, good politics makes for bad hermeneutics. Reversing a polarity by accentuating the positive preserves the negative emphasis as a shaping absence, with a consequent flattening of interpretation. Furneaux's urge to paint Dickensian male-male desire in golden hues crimps the variety of homosocial bonds that she treats within her chapters. As the chapters march through positive examples, each ends up looking much like the others. When Dickens does not provide enough happy examples, Furneaux turns to other figures supposedly inspired by his example, as in her extensive discussion of Whitman in the chapter on queer nursing.
In repeatedly stressing happy examples, Furneaux overstates an important historical point: what might look to the twenty-first century like wildly counternormative relationships were not perceived as such by Dickens or by many Victorians. "The alternative presentations of kinship that proliferate in Victorian fiction," she writes, "displace the biological family as natural given and demand a further debunking of the fantasy that the Victorian era enshrined a narrowly conceived form of family" (22). In light of this point, which she admits is not original, Furneaux rightly contends that Dickens's work hardly enshrines the idealized model of the nuclear family sometimes identified with him but seldom found in his work. The unintended result of Furneaux's argument, however, is that her queer Dickens ends up not looking queer at all because his social arrangements fit so well into Victorian structures, if not twenty-first century ones.
Her queer Dickens thus becomes too straight. The acceptability of a wide range of homosocial relationships among the Victorians justifies her "alternative, optimistic genealogy" (253) only if Dickens can be read as straightforwardly reflecting this acceptability. But in her eagerness to praise male homosociety, Furneaux misses the creepy edges that energize even the happiest of Dickens's representations. This creepiness comes not from Dickens's reflection of contemporary social mores but from the demands of the literary text. In Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, the devoted Mark Tapley attends Martin during his fever in ways that do not sound as straightforward as Furneaux wishes:
Mark, fatigued in mind and body; working all the day and sitting up at night; worn with hard living and the unaccustomed toil of his new life; surrounded by dismal and discouraging circumstances of every kind; never complained or yielded in the least degree. If ever he had thought Martin selfish or inconsiderate, or had deemed him energetic only by fits and starts, and then too passive for their desperate fortunes, he now forgot it all. He remembered nothing but the better qualities of his fellow-wanderer, and was devoted to him, heart and hand.
Dickens creates a remarkable conversation between the narrator's point of view, which condemns Martin; Mark's purported point of view, which adores Martin; and a third point of view, evoked by negatives ("never complained or yielded") and subjunctives ("If ever he had thought Martin selfish or inconsiderate"), which suggests that Mark's supposed adoration of Martin is more critical than it might appear. This third point of view underscores, even as it disowns, Mark's resentment of Martin's appalling character. It is especially telling that Mark remembers "nothing but the better qualities" of Martin when Martin cannot demonstrate any of those qualities, since he is prostrate with fever. Yet for Furneaux, this passage represents Mark's "heartfelt devotion" (196) pure and simple. Her determination to find positive queer role models leads her to treat texts such as this primarily at the level of mimetic representation. Taking Mark as a real person behaving admirably, she largely overlooks him as a figure in a narrative who is described through a particular narrative voice and who enables certain narrative imperatives.
Attempting to force his sister's selection of a partner into line, literally, with his own, Ben Allen threatens to "take her abroad for a while and see what that'll do" (p. 512). Arabella manages to resist her brother's choice and without this intermarriage to sanction his relationship with Bob Sawyer the two men opt to relocate. In this they follow a parallel tradition of homosexual emigration and travel, such as that which had already achieved a certain notoriety as practised by figures such as William Beckford and Lord Byron. (152)
In claiming that Allen and Sawyer follow a tradition that parallels one established by Beckford and Byron, Furneaux ignores the complex network of social, psychological, and literary relations whereby historical figures become models for literary ones. Her argument thus exemplifies the wider trend that Mary Poovey has criticized in Victorian studies, whereby "easy segues from context to text leave too many important questions unanswered" ("Mediums, Media, Mediation: A Response," Victorian Studies 48 (2006): 249).
In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Sedgwick notes that an analogical system may display "infinite gradations along the finitely specified dimensions" (108). She invokes these "infinite gradations" to further her earlier project of expanding and complicating categories for describing affective relations. In particular, she encourages critics to abandon or at least to imagine setting aside the binaries that have so structured thinking about sexuality (homo- vs. hetero-; subversive vs. hegemonic; queer vs. normal) and to replace them with systems based on what she terms "n>2" (108), meaning structures with more than two possibilities and with multiple gradations within those possibilities. Furneaux's division of Dickens's queer representations into the negative relations described by other critics and the positive ones that she presents in her book represents the kind of thinking that Sedgwick wishes to revise. While Furneaux's typology of male-male affective relations in Dickens is an important blueprint for future work, Sedgwick's recognition of gradations within finitely specified dimensions locates Dickensian eros on a richer map than the one provided by Queer Dickens.
Holly Furneaux. Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. Oxford, 2009. x + 282 pp.
Last modified 14 July 2014