The Letters of John Addington Symonds
I was a student at Oxford, re-admitted 30 years after I had first begun (but not completed) my graduate studies. I had been assigned an amazing thesis advisor, Stefano-Maria Evangelista. Evangelista’s analysis of how Victorian gay men used the idea of ancient Greece to express censored thoughts about homosexuality, sparked connections in my thinking with other Victorian social movements.
One afternoon, he said, “You really need to read this.” The book was the first volume of the Letters of John Addington Symonds, an often-overlooked Victorian essayist and critic. I could not stop reading.
Here was the powerful, moving voice of a teenager—and then a young man—documenting his growing awareness of romantic feelings for other young men. But at the same time, as the laws changed around him, the reader could hear this young writer pull back, start to use codes, apparently renounce his first great love, feel overwhelmed with despair, seek “treatment” and force himself to marry a woman. I eagerly sought out the next volume.
At the end of his life, also in secret, he wrote what was likely the first gay rights manifesto in English. Symonds’s letters and life confirmed that writing can change everything, even if not in one’s lifetime.
Naomi Wolf will discuss Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love at the Oxfam Moot, Saturday 25th May at 2.30pm
Read more contributors on the books that changed their lives