Last week, an old friend and fellow Romanticist posted an indignant "name and shame" tweet in defence of her gay friend, who'd been thrown out of a well-known chain of Irish pubs for kissing his boyfriend. It brought home how little, in some respects, has changed in terms of public attitudes to same-sex relations since the Romantic period, when homosexuality was a capital offence, and when hangings for "bestial" acts were regular occurances in London, enjoyed by large, hate-filled crowds.
My historical crime novel, The Cunning House, appeared this week. The book is set in Regency London's most notorious "molly house" (or gay bar, in today's parlance). I first had the idea for The Cunning House during a module I teach at Aberystwyth University entitled "Romantic Eroticism", which focuses on popular print and visual culture in the early nineteenth century. I'd been discussing the raid on The White Swan with my undergraduate class in the context of Cantos 5-6 of Byron's Don Juan. To explain: the Swan mollies, Dr Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora, Mistress Fox, et al, cross-dressed, as does Juan/Juana in Byron's satirical romp. The White Swan raid was so notorious at the time that it's inconceivable Byron wouldn't have known about it. I think we can consider the public outcry at, and press attention to, the events around the White Swan as "co-texts" to Don Juan.
The White Swan was situated in seedy Vere Street, near the theatre district. (It was torn down, along with Vere Street, in 1905 as part of the Kingsway-Aldwych improvement scheme.) For six months in 1810, mollies assembled there to indulge passions for which the age tried to hang them. And tried hard. Following a raid by Bow Street police on 8 July 1810, five of the "Vere Street gang" were pilloried, and two were launched into eternity from Newgate gallows.
The statutes permitting judges to reach for the noose dated from King Henry VIII’s time, and were finally removed from English law in the 1860s. However, discrimination and intolerance against non-heteronormative sexual behaviour remains deeply enshrined, socially and ideologically. The Catholic church, for example, still considers same-sex relations to be “contrary to natural law”, a formulation that would not look out of place on old Henry’s 1530s statute book.
Regency molly culture was rich, irreverent and often outrageous. Among the men captured in “nankeen trowsers” or wearing women’s clothing on 28 July were Richard Francis, Thomas White and James Amos, aka Miss Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora and Mistress Fox. The newspapers had a field day, reporting on how the “odious reptiles” had been held at the St Clement Danes watchhouse ahead of their hearing, relating the vehemence of the enormous crowds that lined the street to pelt the culprits whenever they were moved, and printing coy allusions to the men’s “detestable sins” and “bestial” conduct. 50,000 Londoners turned out to pillory five of the “Vere Street Coterie”, hurling everything from offal and rotten fruit, to dead cats and stones. The air was thick with it.
The Cunning House is narrated around two historical events from the Summer of 1810, each the key to the other. The first is the raid on The White Swan, the second the discovery of a dead body in St James’s Palace, a short carriage ride away. The corpse was that of Joseph Sellis, the Corsican valet to the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George III. The official account – still reeled out by official biographers today – is that Sellis killed himself after attacking the sleeping Duke with his own military sabre. But the Palace servants whispered: that the Duke had indulged illegal passions of his own; that he’d been in the habit of visiting The White Swan to see his particular favourite, Thomas White (Blackeyed Leonora); and that Sellis had tried his hand at blackmail.
Government cover-ups of sex crimes and conspiracies of silence by cosy, entrenched power is another thing our own period has in common with the Romantic era. A hastily convened inquest conducted under the aegis of St James’s Palace’s Court of Royal Verge exonerated the Duke from any involvement in Sellis’s death. Shortly afterwards, the raid on The White Swan took place, and even though the 17-year-old drummer boy Thomas White wasn’t in the pub that night, he was arrested and hanged at Newgate prison. Conveniently for the Duke, perhaps, who was watching in the press yard. Royal biographers see valet, drummer boy and The White Swan as footnotes to the life of the Duke of Cumberland, who shrugged off rumours of a murderous conspiracy, and duly went on to be King of Hannover. I saw a Regency cold case waiting to be reopened.
My fictional inestigator, Junior Prosecutor Wyre, is a man dipped in the prejudices of his age. His Courthouse day job is to deliver mollies to the hangman. Following a visit, however, from the secretive Miss Crawford – who may be both more and less than she seems – Wyre finds himself reluctantly drawn into a dark nexus of conspiracy, fanatical religious cults and agents in the war with France. As I write in a guest blog for Crime Time, by the end of the case, Wyre is thrown hard against his prejudices, and must choose between his innermost desires and those of his all-powerful masters.
The novel is graphic, and unblinking, and it won’t be for everyone. It’s not without its humorous moments, though, and for Romanticists, there are cameos from a certain South Molton Street printer called William, and a soon-to-be famous resident of the Swan and Hoop coaching inn.
And The White Swan today? The London School of Economics occupies its original site. But the tavern’s gleefully indecorous spirit lives on in BJ’s White Swan of the east end, almost closed down by Tower Hamlets council last year for hosting amateur stripper nights. More of those continuities …