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A Boarding School Romance In The Nineteenth Century

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 20 mei 2006

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

In a recent gay encyclopedia of The Netherlands (2005) the authors Thijs Bartels and Jos Versteegen claim that Jacob Israel de Haan’s Pijpelijntjes (1904) is the first Dutch gay novel. Unfortunately they don’t explain how they came to this conclusion, although there are other books which might be thus named. On a global level there are many more contestants for the honor of being the first gay novel: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” from 1890 by Oscar Wilde, “Moby-Dick” from 1851 by Herman Melville or “Phaeton,” an obscure collection of letters from 1823 by the German author Friedrich Wilhelm Waiblinger, which was recently republished.

The problem of most of these novels is that they contain rather vague allusions and shadowy meanings. Most readers will not recognize them as being gay in the modern sense of the word, except for De Haan’s work.
Some time ago already “Le Secret de Geri” by Louis Beysson from 1876 appeared in a new edition (2002). This novel is also sold with the title of being “the first gay novel.” And indeed it was in this period that in the French literature works appeared that deserve the label “gay novel.”

Even before André Gide and Marcel Proust there were authors who produced gayish novels, like Achille Essebac with “Dédé” (1901) and the Belgian Georges Eekhout with “Escal-Vigor” (1899).

The latter is about a relationship between two men battling social prejudices, without success. Earlier, Henri d’Argis wrote a frank gay novel, “Sodome” (1888). This work contains some careful gay and straight sex scenes.

It’s about the decline of a man who wants to maintain a platonic way of loving but keeps falling back to the more worldly kind. It starts off with a hysterical mother and a priest who seduces boys and it finishes with insanity and murder, the typical story of a degenerate in those days. The preface is by Paul Verlaine, also a clear gay signal.

With other authors one needs more context, as with several novels by Pierre Loti. Richard Berrong’s “In Love with a Handsome Sailor, The Emergence of Gay Identity and the Novels of Pierre Loti” (Toronto 2003) is very helpful with such a study. The yellow cult book “A Rebours” (1884) by Joris Karl Huysmans is also hard to recognize as being gay.

The main character is more of a dandy than a pédé, as the French would label the homosexual in those times. Even before that “Le Secret de Geri” appeared. Could this be the first really gay novel? The question remains: which criteria to use?

Desire and Conduct>

So why do Versteegen and Bartels list “Pijpelijntjes” as the first Dutch gay novel? Let me take a guess. Firstly it’s important that the main character is recognizably gay, meaning that he has sexual desires for someone of the same sex. Adolescent love of teenagers doesn’t count; it has to be fully-grown men whose erotic desires are aimed for a sustained period of time at other men or boys (in the latter case we should maybe rather call it a pedophile novel). Another guideline could be that, aside from desires, there should also be concrete expression of these feelings: homosexual conduct.

There ought to be sexual behavior or at least the wish to experience the actual desires. Such acts are somewhat muffled in “Pijpelijntjes” like in most novels of this time frame but they are unmistakably there.

A third important element: a more or less positive or neutral perspective of the author on homosexuality in the context of his time and society. Most people will not consider a novel gay if it just contains ranting insults on gays and gay sex. In De Haan’s book man to man love is considered very normal. A fourth criterion could be that the author has to have homosexual desires himself.

One can argue about all these requirements of course and there are a lot of borderline cases; cause really, who is homosexual and what is a homosexual act? And are Gerard Reve’s novels really positive about homosexuality?

Another valid point would be of course whether it is interesting in the first place to define gay novels as a separate genre. Gerrit Komrij once valiantly stated that all great art is gay art, so that would mean that all great novels are gay anyway. He has deserted this provocative statement by now. They don’t have any gay bookshelves in France. A novel is considered literature or not, and they don’t differentiate between the civilians either in the republic. Literature is good or bad, not gay or straight.

It is remarkably in the French language that gay literature has known the broadest exposure, the maximum depth and the longest history. And strangely enough it’s from that country that the idea of the “first gay novel” now emerges again. Let’s unravel this novel here and check whether our criteria hold up.

Platonic Love

The novel “The Secret of Geri” is a rather sugary story about a boarding school romance, an “amitié particulière.” It has a somewhat bizarre publication history. It first appeared in 1876 as “Geri ou un premier amour”; then in 1884 in an extended, more moralistic reprint as “Un amour platonique.” The difference between the two editions: an added framework around the original story. The direct is replaced by the indirect. The second version ends with the tragic death of the main character who never recovered from the shock of his first love. The latest version is from 2002 with a new title “Le Secret de Geri” and consists of a combination of both versions. Gay publishing house Quintes-Feuilles, which calls this book the first gay novel, seems mainly to have been founded to sell the works of Jean-Claude Féray.

It remains a mystery to me how he came up with the title “secret”; on the cover he suggests it’s up to the reader to unravel the secret. As if that’s the main issue of Beysson’s book. To me the main issue of the book is the all-encompassing influence of one’s first love on the rest of one’s life. So to me the first title seems to be the most appropriate.

A short summary of the main storyline: Victor from Lyon falls in love with the Italian beauty Geri, an orphan. Both are attending a Swiss boarding school. The boys at the school get to choose who they think is the most worthy from their midst and this boy in his turn chooses a consort with whom he will then become the center of a festive dinner.

The boys choose Geri and Geri chooses Victor. It is the beginning of their relationship, which is doomed from the start as Geri is gravely ill. They meet in secret, which is difficult as Geri lies ill and weak in his room and Victor is not meant to visit him there.

The secretive relationship mainly consists of hugs and hand-kisses and whispering sweet words, there’s no sex involved. With the Easter holidays all the boys go for a two-week holiday without their ill comrade.

Victor sends Geri a note which is intercepted by the Priest Superior. He forbids them to have any more contact with each other. During the extended school-walk preceding the summer-holiday the two lovers succeed to speak and hand-kiss again. Caught in a thunderstorm they spend the night together in a logger’s cabin. The Superior fortunately does not notice their disappearance and their night spent together (the only one in their entire romance).

The next night they meet once more in the school-garden. Geri arranges for a final meeting with Victor, but Victor can’t keep his promise as all the pupils are called in to help fight a fire in the village. As they get back he sees Geri leave in a carriage accompanied by his tutor. The Superior notices his anger and desperation and decides to send Victor’s father a letter stating that he should not return to school.

So the boy remains home, deeply in love and deeply frustrated. The letters he writes to Geri all fail to reach their destination as the tutor now intercepts them. He receives Geri’s letters only much later as he’s forced to spend his holiday elsewhere. His father has reprimanded him severely; such romances are not to be. A last desperate message from Geri only reaches Victor when the new school season has already started.

The desperate lover travels to the boarding school where the dying Geri declares him his love once more. The Italian beauty finally dies with the name of his Victor on his lips; his lover, however, isn’t present at his deathbed. The secret in the title could refer to the tutor who doesn’t seem too concerned with Geri’s health as he profits from the inheritance of the wealthy orphan. The nasty grown-up world double-crosses the adolescent love, even sacrificing the virtuous Geri for material gain.

Puppy Love

In the second version another story is fabricated around this original framework, in which two men discuss this love affair and relate how the main character was forever scarred by this introduction to love and beauty. Very platonic. He did get married in later life, although he always remained unhappy, and finally died while cursing the love for women.

Féray points out that this more moralistic turn could be inspired by the conservative trend in France around that time. In his epilogue he explains that both versions of the story were largely ignored. The author, Louis Beysson (1856–1912), concentrated on painting and writing more acceptable novels and plays after this turbulent adolescent infatuation.

He lived as a monk in a monastery for a while but apparently found no peace there either. He got married in later life with a woman owning a painter’s school at which he taught. You could see his wandering lifestyle as a confirmation of the unrest that had caught Victor after his first unfortunate romance.
If I check the criteria of what makes a gay novel, this book would just not make it as such.

It is rather a boarding school novel of which there are dozens of others from that time, especially in England. The main characters are caught in some sort of puppy love, they are not necessarily gay, although in the second version it is emphasized that Victor never recovered from his first love – even the theme of the book. There is no real sex in the story. The first version, and also the second, can be considered as a positive expression of homosexual love from boy to boy.

Finally, we don’t know whether Beysson was gay. It seems like it and he probably had a similar passionate experience in his youth, but this doesn’t keep him from a married life. The book comes close to a gay novel but could still be better classified as a boarding school novel, although pleasantly erotic.

A Sodomite After His Own Image

The novel is an effective tearjerker but not really gay. In my opinion the first gay novel was written by my all-time favorite author, the Marquis de Sade. “La Philosophie dans le Boudoir” dates from 1795. Not only is the main character gay, it also contains lots of sex and a genuine plea for homosexuality and sodomy. The characters passionately discuss several expressions of love, mostly after having put them into practice. De Sade was a sodomite who had created a main character after his own image. The best aspect of this novel is also that another main character is a lesbian and a third is about to become one.

The Sapphic love is not just the starting point of the story; it actually contains a fully fletched lesbian storyline. The ending offers also a great and rather cruel lesbian lesson: the humiliation of the mother of the girl getting lesbian tutoring for double-crossing her pleasure. What could be a more ideal first gay novel than Sade’s “La Philosophie dans le Boudoir”? It meets all the aforementioned criteria and could even be considered a lesbian novel too! However, what is the need for a discussion on the (first) gay novel anyway?

It offers us criteria which make it possible to compare such novels to certain formal criteria in order to list them historically and culturally. We can get more precise in categorizing genres. The passionate friendships of men can be placed apart from those of boys like in Beysson’s boarding school novel or as described for English novels in “Happiest Days: The Public School in English Fiction” (1988) by Jeffrey Richards and “The Poisoned Bowl: Sex, Repression and the Public School System” (1995) by Alisdare Hickson.

The passionate love in German literature is a central theme in “Die Schande der heiligen Päderastie: Homosexualität und Öffentlichkeit in der deutschen Literatur 1750-1850" (1990) by Paul Derks. Next to these genres there are the more pedophile works of André Gide and Thomas Mann, once controversial because these books were considered gay, now because they’re called pedophile.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century transgender themes were popular in French literature as with Georges Sand and in works which had her as their theme. Classics in this genre are “Mademoiselle de Maupin” (1835) by Théophile Gautier and Balzac’s “La fille aux yeux d’or” and “Séraphita,” both from the same year 1835! Transgender themes are very suitable for gay and lesbian experiments as in “The Girl with the Golden Eyes.”

Before the real gay novels gained popularity, these other genres of friendship, such as boarding school romances and transgender themes were more profoundly explored, though when the gay novel was really introduced after the Second World War, it quickly surpassed them. Sade is also in this aspect remarkable: he doesn’t care for boarding school situations or passionate friendships, he prefers real gay, lesbian, pedophile and transgender themes and adds a healthy and explicit dose of sado-masochism way before even Proust dares to tentatively sniff at the subject. And Beysson’s boarding school novel might be the most gay of all nineteenth century boarding school literature; it most definitely is not the first gay novel.



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