Fans of Peter Ackroyd’s visceral histories will welcome this enthralling and compassionate exposé of LGBT+ life across 15 centuries in the UK capital. The book starts with the open homoeroticism of the ancient Romans, mining original sources previously expurgated of their “queer” content by nervous commentators.
Ackroyd shows how same-sex intimacy and gender fluidity have always been present in human societies. It’s a tale of passion, partnerships, titillation, ingenuity, experimentation, prostitution, punishment and resistance. It’s a story of class: one rule for them, and another for us.
In Rome, of which Londinium was a busy outpost, the city thronged with meeting places such as lupanaria or “wolf dens” (pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). In Anglo-Saxon warrior culture men wore ostentatious outfits and jewellery and dyed their hair blue, green and orange. Christianity’s single-sex abbeys and monasteries were hotbeds of sexual activity.
But it was through the 16th and 17th centuries (during the rise of capitalism) when London became a seething, chaotic populous modern centre for world trade, immigration and mass production, that opportunities for sexual gratification rose to new heights.
Clubs, societies, “molly houses” (gay brothels where men dressed as women and took part in mock marriages and birthing ceremonies) abounded. Theatres thronged with queer folk and cross-dressers; raucous “ladies” nights flourished. Plays, poetry and pamphlets teemed with queer references.
Women often lived as married men for years without discovery. Other women took male identities to escape increasing pressure to marriage and motherhood, joining the military campaigns shoring up the growing British Empire.
But it wasn’t all dressing up and dalliances. Punishments for same-sex love were first recorded around the fall of Rome and the arrival of Christianity — but in 18th century London the crackdown was devastating.
Ackroyd describes violent raids on the clubs and molly houses. Women passing as men were imprisoned. Men and women were pilloried while fevered crowds chucked dead cats. Hundreds were hung or transported. There was organised resistance; people fought the raids and spoke out against the death sentence.
Ackroyd doesn’t just tease out salacious details to make the reader giggle and gasp, but succinctly explains the evolving social fabric in which LGBT+ life is experienced and out of which “queerness” is defined and regulated.
Vitally, he grasps fundamental differences in same-sex love between men and between women as rooted in differing social roles and conventions surrounding masculinity and femininity, and the fraught relationship between the public and the private. Highly recommended.