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Darsie Latimer’s “Little Solidity,” or the Case for Homosexuality in Scott’s Redgauntlet

  • Rick Incorvati

…plus d’informations

  • Rick Incorvati
    Wittenberg University

Corps de l’article

In his 1819 essay “Why the Heroes of Romance Are Insipid,” William Hazlitt takes particular issue with Walter Scott for producing central characters who never act but “are acted upon” (17: 253). If he had written the essay five years later, he might well have singled out Darsie Latimer, the hero of Redgauntlet, not only for being passive and singularly unmanly, but also for getting embroiled in events doomed to failure from their inception. The novel tells the story of Latimer, a young man of about twenty years who, discontented with the tedious world of book learning, ventures out from Edinburgh, leaving behind his more dutiful friend, Alan Fairford, who is completing his preparations for a legal career. The aimless Darsie, meanwhile, heads off to the borderlands of southern Scotland. The tour takes an unfortunate turn when the young traveller becomes the captive of one Hugh Redgauntlet, a Lord devoted to the Jacobite cause which, by the 1765 timeframe of the novel, had become desperate at best. Darsie, who has been raised in the Fairford household and until this point has remained ignorant of his pedigree, learns that he is, in fact, the nephew of this domineering Jacobite and that this family connection—blood ties being what they are among royalists—has rendered him an unwitting pawn in the effort to resurrect Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the throne of Great Britain. Darsie proves to be a less than enthusiastic participant in the cause which never truly becomes more than a farce. Indeed, the fact that Scott fabricated all the events of this tale suggests something of the utter shambles Jacobitism had become by the 1760s: insofar as any efforts to return the Stuarts to the throne existed by this point, the novel implicitly suggests, history could not be bothered to record them.

Scott’s tale of the ineffective Darsie Latimer and the failed uprising resolutely nails shut the Jacobite coffin and brings to a close a series of tales set against the eighteenth- and late-seventeenth-century tensions over succession and the nature of monarchical authority. These novels include The Tale of Old Mortality (1816), The Black Dwarf (1816), and Rob Roy (1818), but Scott’s 1824 novel bears the most resemblance to his first in the series, Waverley (1814), in part because both depict the dying throes of a residual feudal culture, but also because Scott so conspicuously relies on the device of the irresolute hero in both narratives. Why is it, then, that even after the outcries of critics like Hazlitt, Scott deliberately opts for a pronounced passivity in his central character? It does seem reasonable that such a figure would suit Scott’s brand of historical fiction in which a narrative often draws its reader’s gaze not to acts of supreme individual will but to cultural tidewaters that sweep the heroes this way and that. But then again many of Scott’s novels invoke the forces of historical context without presenting the reader with debilitated heroes. Perhaps more plausibly, then, we should see the extreme passivity and indecision that mark the heroes of Waverley and Redgauntlet as indicating the extent to which those cultural forces at work on these characters have become degraded. Taken in this way, Edward Waverley’s suggestibility and his romantic imagination provide an implicit commentary on the Jacobite movement, a movement that must rely on its ability to entice such vulnerable young men in order to gain adherents. When, in writing Redgauntlet, Scott came to reflect on the condition of this political cause two decades after Culloden, we find him developing a new kind of character to suit the occasion. Darsie Latimer, like Edward Waverley, is prone to romantic flights of the imagination, but where Scott’s earlier hero was apt to be enticed into unwise measures, Darsie is cripplingly unsure of himself and ultimately pliant to the wills of those around him, even when those imposing forces significantly run against the grain of his own inclinations. Accordingly, Darsie spends nearly half of the novel as a captive, nursing futile wishes to control his destiny, all the while becoming thoroughly emasculated by being forced to wear a woman’s riding outfit for much of the novel.

This essay offers a character study of Darsie Latimer, a study interested in the way Scott undertook the task of ratcheting up the passivity to suit his purposes in Redgauntlet. In the course of tracing Darsie’s salient features, I make two claims. The first is that Scott delineates a character that can be called a homosexual, by which I mean a character type defined by a proclivity for emotional and erotic attachments to his own sex as well as by a range of personality traits that bear the influence of that proclivity. My second claim is that Scott contextualizes this homosexual type in the mid-eighteenth-century world depicted in the novel. In one sense, such a claim is fairly mundane since Scott’s novels insistently immerse their characters in a context of historically specific possibilities, prohibitions, and pressures, and critics have taken this insistent historicizing as axiomatic ever since Georg Lukacs celebrated Scott’s “capacity to give living human embodiment to historical-social types” (xx). [1] But however routine such observations may be within Scott criticism, very little has been said in sexuality studies to suggest that the practice of historicizing sexuality has a pedigree extending back to the Romantic period. Redgauntlet provides us with reasons to consider that possibility.

Some of my claims will rely on close readings of the text, but much of the evidence for Darsie’s homosexuality derives from fairly patent instances of male attraction. The novel is not subtle on these points, and one cannot help getting the sense that critics working on Romantic-period sexuality have unaccountably overlooked the novel. To date, the most cogent comments on same-sex desire in Redgauntlet can be found in David Hewitt’s introduction to the excellent Edinburgh edition of the novel. In that essay, Hewitt notes that the kidnapping narrative, which forcibly separates the two youths, unleashes expressions of mutual devotion in their letters. That devotion erupts most conspicuously for Darsie, whose correspondences reveal him to be deeply entwined in the friendship as he periodically confesses what he knows to be a self-compromising level of dependence on his companion. Hewitt finds it difficult to read such passages without acknowledging that matters of sexuality circulate here: “Darsie’s writing about himself [in his letters to Alan],” he remarks, “is, in a sense, his ‘coming out’” (xxix). Hewitt remains tentative in his claims with both the caveat in a sense and the ironizing quotation marks placed around coming out conveying the understanding that whatever Scott’s novel may have to say about the sexuality of its main character, our current vocabulary for describing such qualities likely misrepresents the historical specificity of this hero’s condition. This kind of observation regarding sexual orientation, Hewitt cautiously notes, “belongs to the late twentieth century, not 1824” (xxiii).

By framing my argument in terms of homosexuality (without any quotation marks), I mean to mark a departure from Hewitt’s tentativeness. But my intent in using this term (coined famously in 1869) to describe a character delineated in 1824 and who ostensibly inhabits the world of the 1760s is not to dispense with the historical narratives that place the emergence of this sexual type in the later nineteenth century nor to disregard the association between this word and the “species” status of the homosexual, to borrow Foucault’s formulation (43). Rather, my analysis aims to establish continuities between our received understanding of homosexuality and the character that flowed from Scott’s pen, in the process making a case for a substantially delineated homosexual character that predates the efforts of sexologists to depict this type. I take this approach mainly because I find the novel presents the reader with a pattern of same-sex attachments that goes well beyond the bounds of a conventional romantic friendship—indeed those attachments go beyond Darsie’s relationship to Alan. The persistence of this pattern in Scott’s depiction of his central character strongly suggests that we consider a propensity for erotic attachment to his own sex as a significant part of his personality.

My consideration of Scott’s historicized homosexual protagonist falls into three parts. The first offers an analysis of those passages that invite us to consider Darsie as a character defined by his need for masculine company and affection. The second focuses more specifically on those aspects of Scott’s depiction that not only help to establish Darsie’s homosexuality but also root this same-sex desire in the world of 1760s Britain—in the social dynamics promoted by the public schools, in the sentimentality propagated by popular fiction, and in the suppression of hereditary entitlements that followed the 1745 uprising. And the final section undertakes its own historicizing project by considering how these peculiar features of Scott’s novel might compel us to reconsider both the prevailing history of sexuality and the role that the Romantic period played in establishing the preconditions for writing that history.

1. The Case for a Homosexual Orientation

From the opening page of Redgauntlet, with its pleading letter from Darsie to his confidante Alan, Scott leaves little question about the centrality of friendship to his narrative, and not long after apprehending this theme, the reader will also likely sense that one of the two central characters imbibes more deeply of this camaraderie than the other. While both youths take ample opportunity to express the ardency of their affection for the other, it is Darsie who writes the longer and warmer letters, and it is also Darsie who on two occasions rhetorically aggrandizes the friendship by invoking comparisons to the bond between the biblical David and Jonathan. The second of these references most strongly represents the emotional dependence that underlies Darsie’s letters. It appears when, fearing Alan’s affection has been diverted by a young woman known at this point only as the mysterious Green Mantle, Darsie anxiously writes, “my love for Alan Fairford surpasses the love of woman” (113; 2 Samuel 1.26). By invoking the biblical pair and citing this demonstrative passage, Darsie ostensibly intends nothing more than to remind Alan of the committed bond that the two friends share, but situated in the context of his pleading, the allusion also vibrates with other possibilities. The likelihood of an erotic resonance also plagues the earlier evocation of the Jonathan and David friendship which couples this epitome of male bonding with other homoerotically charged exemplars from the Greek and Roman traditions. That short catalogue of famous friends comes in Darsie’s facetious celebration of the British postal system which, he argues, has given the two former schoolmates a distinct advantage over their predecessors since “neither David and Jonathan, nor Orestes and Pylades, nor Damon and Pythias [. . .] ever corresponded together” (6). The latter two examples follow the model set by David and Jonathan in providing instances of complete devotion. Damon of Syracuse expressed his willingness to die in place of his condemned friend if the latter did not return from a final visit to his home; the devotion shown by these two eventually led to both being set free. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, was proverbially the constant companion of Pylades, the latter serving as a guardian, assisting in the avenging of Agamemnon’s murder, and suffering much at the hands of angry gods on Orestes’s behalf. In each of these examples, the backdrop of Greek and Roman culture may carry some hint of eroticism, but that suggestion is stronger in the latter case since in the Amores, a second century CE essay, sometimes attributed to Lucian, Orestes and Pylades are explicitly invoked in an argument professing the superiority of pederastic bonds over the love of women. [2]

Darsie’s desire for the undying friendship of another man partakes very little of the heroic tradition of antiquity, however, as Scott unmistakably correlates the inclination to such bonds with a pervasive lack of self-sufficiency. This unusual protagonist, who demonstrates extremely little agency throughout the novel, stumbles into mishap after mishap. In one of those instances, Darsie stops to watch admiringly a group of horsemen spearing salmon in a stream. He most closely studies one particularly commanding figure who, truth be told, “carried a longer spear than the others” (20), and in the midst of his distraction, he neglects to notice that the incoming tide will soon separate him from the safety of the shore. In this as in many subsequent scenes, the novel’s hero requires the assistance of a more capable protector who can extricate the young man from an easily avoidable predicament. Such absentmindedness is apparently typical for Darsie, as this quality goes neither unnoticed nor unremarked by Alan’s father, Saunders Fairford, and the observations of this sober figure warrant particular attention since they constitute the most concerted attempt in the novel to articulate a discernible but indefinable quality of the young man’s character. Saunders has no small affection for Darsie, yet also feels compelled to caution Alan about his friend’s tendency to be “Scatter-brained [. . .] somewhat light in the upper story [. . .] he has little solidity, Alan, little solidity” (77). The charges of being scatter-brained and frivolous require no elucidation since the events of the novel provide repeated illustrations of both. The charge of lacking “solidity,” however, is peculiar enough to raise questions about the purport of Saunders’s warning, and the portentous repetition of this word—“he has little solidity, Alan, little solidity”—only further invites us to speculate on some meaning that either defies or should avoid explicit articulation. “Solidity” at one register certainly denotes a lack of good judgement, but the comment also seems to suggest a want of firmness in this young man, especially since this observation follows hard upon the charge of being “light in the upper story.” Darsie is, we may presume, too soft, too unmanly, an equivocal being.

Darsie, having been raised in the Fairford household, seems to have imbibed and to some extent accepted this characterization of himself. He validates it, if a bit passive aggressively, in a letter to Alan entreating him to follow his father’s advice since the elder man’s “opinion must be sounder than that of your wandering damoselle” (76). This self-characterization serves at one level to foreshadow the novel’s most overt challenge to Darsie’s masculine self-sufficiency: his being kidnapped by the Jacobite Lord Redgauntlet and being obliged to travel side-saddle while wearing a woman’s riding outfit. But at a different level, his use of the term damoselle further serves to manifest another of Darsie’s prominent qualities: his painful self-consciousness regarding his unmanliness. That condition and its inherently self-defeating momentum surface as he meditates on his captivity:

I have read of men who, immured as I am, have surprised the world by the address with which they have successfully overcome the most formidable obstacles to their escape; and when I have heard such anecdotes, I have said to myself, that no one who is possessed only of a fragment of freestone, or a rusty nail, to grind down rivets and to pick locks, having his full leisure to employ in the task, need continue the inhabitant of a prison. Yet here I sit, day after day, without a single effort to effect my liberation.


Darsie’s critical self-estimation is well justified by the events of the novel—and one can imagine a frustrated William Hazlitt reading this passage in full agreement—but Darsie’s reflections also provide insight into a self-defeating psychology, one ascribing to contradictory assumptions that inevitably feed his painful sense of inadequacy. He believes at once that a suitable escape would be one that “surprised the world,” yet at the same time, he holds that no one with access to the most rudimentary materials should fail in accomplishing this end. True masculine action is at once what no one expects, yet what everyone but himself manages to achieve. It is this aspect of his character that Scott associates most explicitly with his fixation on those men who do embody the resolve and self-command that he covets so desperately. The strong sense of personal lapse, as Scott represents it, explains why Darsie is typically smitten with men who function as protectors.

This connection between a sense of inadequacy and a proclivity for emotional bonds with dauntless men reveals itself in a scene in which Darsie, still a captive dressed in his woman’s riding outfit, falls from his horse upon getting tangled up in his skirt. Just before hitting the ground in his precipitous fall, he finds himself in the timely embrace of none other than Alan Fairford, who had been long searching for his captive schoolmate through the border country. Darsie’s response upon seeing his friend and rescuer is not, as we might expect, embarrassment upon having just fallen from a horse in women’s apparel. Rather, as Judith Wilt aptly describes the scene, “Darsie [. . .] falls with feminine helplessness and more than feminine excitement into Alan’s arms” (147). He writes in his later recounting of the event, “How did my heart throb at this information, dearest Alan! Thou art near me then, and I well know with what kind purpose; thou hast abandoned all to fly to my assistance” (177). Besides being maudlin, Darsie’s language in this account reveals the way his affection grows out of his own lack of self-sufficiency, his need for reinforcement. Darsie’s commentary does not express any hope of soon being liberated from his captivity. Rather, his heart throbs merely for the validating nearness of his friend, and Alan’s arrival strikes Darsie as significant in the main because it stands as a testament to his commitment to their relationship: “thou hast abandoned all to fly to my assistance.” In this unlikely hero, Scott depicts a character who, being insecure about his own claims to masculinity, desperately desires the validation of other men, and in this scene, the prospect of such validation entirely eclipses all concern for his own safety and liberation. Suitably, Darsie concludes his passionate apostrophe to Alan with the self-reassuring remark, “my bosom’s lord should now sit lightly in his throne,” a line from Romeo and Juliet (177).

This fixation on rescuers and other strong men assumes a more physical nature following a scene noted earlier in which the salmon-fisher retrieves Darsie, who remains oblivious to the tides rising around him. After this incident, Darsie gives a descriptive account to Alan of this man, who unbeknownst to him is actually his Jacobite uncle, Lord Redgauntlet. That account, which is too lengthy to quote in full, suggests arousal at this masculine subject. “He had now thrown off his rough riding cap, and his coarse jockey-coat,” writes Darsie, “and stood before me in a grey jerkin trimmed with black, which sat close to, and set off his large and sinewy frame, and a pair of trowsers of a lighter colour, cut as close to the body as they are used by Highlandmen” (27). The description goes on to recount his “small well-formed ears,” his “sparkling grey eye, aquiline nose, [. . .] well-formed mouth,” and his “chestnut locks, curling close to his head, like those of an antique statue” (27). Having just been saved by this man, Darsie seems predisposed to idealize his physical beauty, evoking the masculine contours of Greek statuary and emphasizing the strength, virility, and command that he feels himself lacking. Interposing the self-complementary remark “so minute was my observation,” even he seems struck by the details he is able to recall in painting this admiring portrait (27).

Not every subject for Darsie warrants such minute attention. Later in the same letter to Alan, we find that account of a young woman attending a dinner at his rescuers residence. About this character, whom he later learns is his sister, Lilias, Darsie writes, “having said she seemed very pretty, and that she was a sweet and flexible creature, I have said all concerning her that I can tell thee” (29). We might conjecture from this response that the sweetness and flexibility that Darsie finds in Lilias are the very qualities that cause his attention to wane; his gaze, as we have seen, gravitates to signs of strength, command, and masculine features more generally. A similarly revealing predicament appears later in the novel when Darsie once again finds himself in the company of Lilias. Desiring to be the heroic figure of his novelistic imagination, he feels compelled to address her in a gallant manner, yet he also undergoes some anxiety at the prospect of inviting affections that he would fail to reciprocate because, as the narrator explains, his notion of romantic love thrived more on the presence of boundaries than on the achievement of his object. This conundrum finds a welcome resolution when Darsie learns that Lilias is his sister. Upon this news, the novel’s hero is “relieved, by getting quit of the embarrassments of the last half hour, during which he conceived himself in danger of being persecuted by the attachment of a forward girl” (297).

One further indicator of Darsie’s homosexual character appears in Redgauntlet’s conclusion in which Scott modifies a device that he used without fail to resolve each of the earlier novels concerning the Jacobite uprisings—that is, the marriage of the main character. In Waverley, Edward marries Rose Bradwardine in the closing chapters; Old Mortality concludes with the long-awaited nuptials of Henry Morton and Edith Bellenden; Earnscliff and Isabella overcome the impediments to marriage in the closing pages of The Black Dwarf; and Rob Roy concludes with the matrimony of Frank Osbaldestone and Diana Vernon. Darsie, then, is unique among these heroes in never marrying, or at least such an event eludes the efforts of the fastidious Dr. Dryasdust, who in a closing letter to the author of Redgauntlet, reports on his efforts to track down all known reference to the principal figures in the narrative. The one marriage contract he does find from his searches “in the family repositories” is, predictably, that uniting Alan and Lilias, Darsie’s sister, thus linking the friends together conjugally and perpetuating the homoerotic bonds that pervade the story (378). Insofar as Darsie achieves something of the union he had been pursuing through the narrative, we can see this hero as following the form of the previous novels. Further, in being linked by a sister, Darsie and Alan follow a pattern set by Darsie’s exemplars, Orestes and Pylades, the latter of whom marries Orestes’s sister, Elektra, in a gesture meant to solidify their privileged bond.

2. The Case for a Historicized Sexual Identity

A number of features that Scott invokes in establishing Darsie’s character invite separate consideration because of the strong correlation they suggest between the protagonist’s identity and the particular cultural context in which he finds himself, a correlation that Scott gestures toward in his subtitle, “A Tale of the Eighteenth-Century.” In the following discussion, then, my intent is both to marshal further evidence establishing the homosexuality of Scott’s main character and to identify those points in the text where the author’s historicist methodology intersects with his depiction of Darsie’s distinctive orientation.

Right from the first letter, Scott establishes an institutional influence on the novel’s romantic friendship and Darsie’s marked dependence within that relationship by having his hero summon up the schoolyard experiences that shaped the young men’s interactions. In that letter, he recalls to Alan,

When I was brought [. . .] into the tumult of the Gaits’ Class at the High School—when I was mocked for my English accent—salted with snow as an English pig—rolled in the gutter for a Saxon pock-pudding,—who, with stout arguments, and stouter blows, stood forth my defender?—why, Alan Fairford.


Establishing early on Darsie’s pattern of dependence on other men, this list of protective feats actually continues at some length (albeit with some professions of independence learned from his protector’s example), finally extending into college where Darsie attributes his own diligence to Alan’s influence. “Yes,” he writes, “rather than part with you, Alan, I attended a weary season at the Scotch Law Class” (3). Darsie’s dependence is shaped by the pecking order that forms in the all-male environment of the schoolroom, and it is worth noting that such institutions had been associated, by the eighteenth century, with same-sex experimentation. Boarding schools were, of course, notorious as possible hotbeds of sexual congress between young men: Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jeremy Bentham all singled out such institutions as encouraging this behaviour. But even day schools like the one Darsie and Alan attended created an artificially single-sexed environment and did so, it was argued, at the very point in a young man’s development when sexual inclinations began to surface. “In those institutions packed with hot-blooded youth” writes the legal reformer Cesare Beccaria in his essay Of Crimes and Punishments (1764), “natural vigour [. . .] is faced with insurmountable obstacles to every other kind of relationship” (102).

While the dynamics of this friendship owe much to the British schoolyard, its vocabulary and its conventions bear all the marks of the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, though, as Hewitt notes, the frequency with which the young men use the words “dear” and “dearest” even outstrips what one would expect in communications between two such youths under the influence of this culture (xxvii). Darsie’s allusions in particular evoke the literature of that tradition—presumably the “idle trash” that Alan’s father claims was “never out of his hand” (77)—and Scott’s use of the epistolary and diary forms also suggests that these two mates are firmly under Samuel Richardson’s spell in their exchanges. Darsie, in fact, explicitly casts his relationship with Alan in that mould, at one point referring to Clarissa in order to excuse the frankness of his confidant’s earlier letter: “It is well for thee Alan Fairford that, Lovelace and Belford like, we came under a convention to pardon every species of liberty which we may take with each other” (14). Neither Darsie nor Alan bears the slightest resemblance to Richardson’s libertines, but Darsie does not invoke the comparison to suggest such a parallel. For him, these characters mainly provide a sanction for the kind of familiarity that he so eagerly pursues. Letter writing is, after all, the device that will allow him and Alan to supersede David and Jonathan, Orestes and Pylades.

The feature of the mid-eighteenth century that most concerned Scott, however, was the erosion of hereditary authority and the rise of commerce; indeed, it was this development that he described in the postscript to Waverley as rendering “the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers as the existing English are from those of Queen Elizabeth’s time” (476). The defeat of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and the subsequent legislation undermining hereditary entitlements constituted, for Scott, the milestones that drew attention to these inevitable developments. Consequently, it should not escape our notice that Redgauntlet’s hero is nearly twenty in 1765, that he is raised as an orphan, unaware for much of the novel of his family history, and that he is, as far as the events of the novel show, completely uncommitted to the claims of his pedigree. Darsie Latimer is, in more ways than one, the child of 1745.

Darsie’s irresolution and insecurities owe much to his truncated sense of origins. Indeed, the role of such ancestral narratives in the constitution of character is laid out so clearly among the principle figures in this novel that it cannot be overlooked. Redgauntlet remains deeply beholden to ancestral obligations regardless of their futility and puts so much stock in lineage that, according to Lilias, he laments that she and Darsie “are but half Redgauntlets, and that the metal of which our father’s family was made, has been softened to effeminacy in our mother’s offspring” (297). As a result of his own uncompromising devotion to his forefathers, Redgauntlet is violent, peremptory, physically strong, and resolute to a fault. Both Alan and his father, who descend from much humbler stock and represent family distinction derived from application and industry, occupy a masculine middle ground; they obey the call to public responsibility while remaining willing to disobey those duties in the name of compassion. And as for the orphan Darsie, about whose character much has been said, he shows little interest in such considerations, is almost baffled by them. This quality frustrates Redgauntlet to no end as the continuation of his line, we learn, rests solely on the shoulders of this unusual young man: “[Your father’s] skull,” exclaims the desperate Redgauntlet, “is yet standing over the Rikargate and even its bleak and mouldered jaws command you to be a man” (317).

There can be no doubt that Scott designedly depicted Darsie as a singularly effeminate young man, an unmanly hero for a relentlessly farcical adventure. Even if we as readers failed to identify the tenor of his character from his own inactivity and preoccupations, we would have the judgements of both Saunders Fairford and Hugh Redgauntlet to guide us to this unmistakable conclusion. Less overt but still available upon careful reading are the signs that this lack of solidity partakes of an emotional and erotic predisposition toward his own sex and, further, that a variety of historically specific cultural forces have conspired to give these predispositions their distinctive shape. Redgauntlet is in these respects a provocative work, one which proves further illuminating when we turn to historicizing its singular features within its late-Romantic-period context.

3. Scott, Sodomy, and Homosexuality

Of the two features I have thus far detailed in Redgauntlet, the historicity of Scott’s treatment is the least problematic to situate in the epistemic climate of the early nineteenth century, the shift toward a historicist paradigm during the Romantic period having been identified by critics from R. G. Collingwood to James Chandler. [3] Indeed, even in its application of these principles to human sexuality, Scott’s novel is not, I will argue, entirely without precedent. To get some sense of how this penchant for historicism shaped Scott’s consideration of sexuality, it may be useful first to consider two prominent late-eighteenth-century treatments of sodomy: one by Jeremy Bentham, who takes up the subject in his posthumously published essay “Offences against One’s Self: Paederasty” (1785), and another by Edward Gibbon, who addresses the topic in the fourth volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788). Both of these texts bear the hallmarks of Enlightenment history with the authors addressing the sexual practices of antiquity under the assumption that the universal laws of human nature inform such actions, rendering them of a piece with latter-day practices. Bentham, accordingly, freely uses instances of Greek pederasty to refute arguments condemning eighteenth-century forms of sodomy, and Gibbon goes so far as to insert himself into a Roman context in order to prescribe an appropriate response for the lawmakers who dealt with such breaches of masculinity: “I wish to believe, that at Rome, as in Athens, the voluntary and effeminate deserter of his sex was degraded from the honors and the rights of a citizen. But the practice of vice was not discouraged by the severity of opinion: the indelible stain of manhood was confounded with the more venial transgressions of fornication and adultery” (4: 504). For Gibbon, historical context is of negligible concern as he construes as confounded those views that fail to square with an eighteenth-century assessment of such acts.

For Scott, human desires and practices demand contextualization. Understanding Darsie’s predisposition requires knowledge of sentimental fiction as well as of romantic friendships, epistolary conventions, and the erosion of hereditary authority. The sophistication of Scott’s historicism warrants the voluminous critical attention it has received, but it is not unique for its period, even in matters of human sexuality. A very similar attention to context marks Percy Shelley’s “Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love” (1818), which makes sharp distinctions between Roman and Greek love and implores his reader to avoid measuring “the Greeks of the age to which I refer, with our own feeble conceptions of the intensity of disinterested love” (411). The significance and character of past practices, Shelley assumes, must be understood as part of a broader network of historically variable meanings and values. Of course, neither Shelley nor Scott provide anything that might be considered a developed history of sexuality, but what their works do demonstrate is how the epistemic preconditions of later contributions like John Addington Symonds’s A Problem in Greek Ethics (1873)—as well as much subsequent work carried on up to the present era—took shape during the Romantic period when the relation between the historian and his or her subject underwent a far-reaching transformation.

While Scott’s historicizing of sexual character may fit neatly into a well-established narrative of Romantic era developments, situating the emergence of a homosexual type within this period poses a few more complications, not the least of which entails explaining how a character like Darsie could take the central role in a work of popular fiction during a time when sodomy remained a capital offence and the cause of extreme and nearly universal disgust. How is it, in other words, that Scott—who, as I will show, entertained no favourable opinions of sodomy—would use one of his novels to investigate a character marked by his desire for other men? The likely answer to this question requires our recognition that early-nineteenth-century Britons maintained a strong distinction between an act and an inclination. In fact, what Redgauntlet reveals about the early nineteenth century is that the distinction between the sodomite and the homosexual was profound.

In the examples that follow, it is clear that the prospect of sexual contact between two men was the specific site of moral opprobrium. Indeed, I want to suggest that so thoroughgoing was the assumed impact of such events on one’s character that it may be wrong, to borrow Foucault’s vocabulary, to view sodomy as merely a crime or a “temporary aberration” that eventually gives way to a species in the later nineteenth century (43). The sodomite in the Romantic era was a species, one defined not by the desires that propelled him to his gratification but by his engagement in the crime itself. His condition, like that of the fallen Eve, took its origin in a decisive act. Under this logic, then, Darsie could, without severe repercussions, manifest a marked homosexuality so long as he remained distinct from the type of character who indulged in proscribed sexual pleasures. Darsie’s character takes its hallmarks from a permissible, albeit undesirable, orientation toward his own sex, but it does not imbibe of the ghastly and identity-transforming crime of sodomy.

Shelley’s essay on Greek love provides particularly useful evidence for the decisive value attributed to physical consummation since in that work the poet assumes the role of the apologist, attempting to justify what will inevitably inspire revulsion in his readers. In the process, Shelley’s text makes clear that the sharpest revulsion lies not with the inclination to take young men as an object; that, Shelley explains, may be attributed to the superior cultivation afforded young men and the beauty and suppleness that attend youth. Rather, the real abomination lies in the prospect of physical contact between males, and in a strained effort to erase the image of just such contact in his reader’s (and perhaps his own) mind, Shelley offers the possibility that, in a culture so thoroughly informed by idealism, physical contact may have been unnecessary to achieve the gratification that Plato speaks of. Something on the order of a nocturnal emission may have been accomplished in a peculiarly Greek state of altered consciousness. Shelley writes,

If we consider the facility with which certain phenomena connected with sleep, at the age of puberty, associate themselves with those images which are the objects of our waking desires; and even that in some persons of an exalted state of sensibility, that a similar process may take in reveries, it will not be difficult to concieve [sic] the almost involuntary consequences of a state of abandonment in the society of a person of surpassing attractions, when the sexual connection cannot exist, to be such as to preclude the necessity of so operose and diabolical a machination as that usually described.


The disgust which Shelley ascribes to the act of sodomy in his closing phrases echoes any number of references to this act from the early nineteenth century. More revealing in this passage, however, is Shelley’s willingness to withhold such expressions of opprobrium as he considers all the possibilities of sexual pleasure that might fall just short of physical contact. Moral condemnation and righteous outrage are here singularly assigned to an act rather than an inclination.

This sharp differentiation between inclination and act, then, likely provided Scott with the requisite latitude to include his ruminations on a homosexual type in Redgauntlet. As long as sexual contact remained unthinkable, not only was the most ardent of romantic friendships permissible, but being predisposed to one’s own sex (and ill-suited for marriage) seems to have been tolerable, much as it seems to have been understandable for Shelley under particular circumstances. Both this latitude for considering a disposition for same-sex affection and the inclination for doing so are evidenced in Scott’s own visit to the home of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby in the year following the publication of Redgauntlet. The two ladies, collectively known as the Ladies of Llangollen after the name of the vale where they resided, had famously “eloped” (to use their own word) in 1780 and subsequently shared a fifty-year “marriage” marked by days spent studying languages, walking the gardens, entertaining, and showering affection on each other (Eleanor typically refers to Sarah as “my beloved,” “my sweet love,” and “my better half” in her journals [4]). According to John Gibson Lockhart, who accompanied the novelist on his visit and who provides an account in his Life of Sir Walter Scott, he and Scott had indulged a curiosity about this same-sex marriage, having before their visit “read histories and descriptions enough of these romantic spinsters” (8: 35). But Lockhart’s account also makes clear that the interest in this relationship was contingent upon the purely emotional nature of their bonds, carefully noting their “time-honored virginity” (8: 35). The comment implies that the superaddition of physical pleasure would have utterly transformed the nature of the relationship, the character of the ladies, and the advisability of the visit.

Regardless of his willingness to entertain the most ardent of friendships, the available evidence leaves no question that Scott considered sodomy an act of abhorrent degradation. In his 1821 novel of Elizabethan-era intrigue, Kenilworth, he establishes the belligerent and coarse character of the drunken Michael Lambourne by filling his dialogue with a barrage of offensive barbs, and when an associate attempts to turn his raillery in a less caustic direction by proposing a toast, Lambourne responds, with a cryptic comment that Scott clearly intended only select readers to understand: “I would kiss thee, mine honest infractor of the Lex Julia (as they said at Leyden), didst thou not flavour so damnably of sulphur, and such fiendish apothecary’s stuff” (246). The reference to “Lex Julia” concerns a body of marriage and adultery laws strengthened by Justinian in 538 CE to include the death penalty for sodomy. In this scene, Scott uses an oblique reference to the infamous sexual act in order to depict the shocking vulgarity of Lambourne, and he reinforces that offensiveness by implying that such acts are utterly un-English, a disgusting foreign import: not only is the law a Roman one but the saying that Lambourne borrows has a Dutch origin.

Such disgust and revulsion became more personal in 1826 when Richard Heber, one of Scott’s collaborators on Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) and the dedicatee of the sixth canto of Marmion (1808), was apprehended in compromising circumstances with the antiquary Charles Henry Hartshorne. Heber, a renowned book collector and Member of Parliament for Oxford, received advance notice of a coming indictment from the sympathetic John Cam Hobhouse, the one-time Cambridge schoolmate and confidant of Lord Byron. Upon this warning, Heber left his much-sought-after post in Parliament and his native country only to return after the clouds of his infamy had sufficiently dissipated in 1831. The intimacy and mutual admiration that characterized Scott’s friendship with Heber only added to his shock when his law school friend, William Clerk, informed him of these events, and in his 25 June journal entry, Scott recorded reflections that demonstrate not only the strength of his feelings but also the important distinction that the age maintained between inclination and action: “Here is learning, with gaiety of temper, high station in society and compleat reception every where all at once debased and lost by such a degrading bestiality” (Journal 162). The spectre of the physical gratification informs both his use of the term “bestiality” and his estimation that Heber’s degradation happened “all at once.” The corruption as characterized here was not an insipient part of Heber’s character that had always been lurking; rather it was the failure to manage his passions in the moment of his fall. This marked attachment of opprobrium to the act as distinct from the inclinations informs the reflection that immediately follows, in which the uniquely degraded condition of Heber gives way to the universal condition of humanity: “Our passions are wild beasts,” Scott writes, “God grant us power to muzzle them” (162). No sooner does he turn from acts to feelings than his language becomes inclusive. Scott depicts the passions as a common human inheritance, but sexual action constitutes a reprehensible and identity-transforming lapse in control.

Five months later, Scott once more repaired to his journal in order to register his response to Heber’s act of sodomy, and the result is an entry notable for demonstrating yet again the careful discrimination that Scott maintains between actions and inclinations. In this November 1826 reflection, he imagines a “social table [where] we could see what passes in each bosom.” If, under such conditions, we could recognize “the voluptuary ruing the events of his debauchery,” he writes, “we should not need to go to the hall of the Caliph Vathek to see men’s hearts broiling under their black veils” (236-7). What causes the inner turmoil is not the desire to partake in further indiscretions, but the regret over the already committed “events of his debauchery.” The apt reference to Vathek (1786), a novel about the excesses of sensuous enjoyment, also serves to locate the source of depravity on the indulgence, as does the implied reference to the novel’s author, William Beckford, who in 1785 was forced into exile, like Heber, by reports about his sexual indiscretions and who, also like Heber, sacrificed a seat in the House of Commons in the process. Having expressed his sense of betrayal that such men should exist even among his own dinner guests, Scott once again turns to a reflection on the human condition and the shared inclinations that must be restrained before they result in such character-defining acts: “Lord Keep us from all temptation for we cannot be our own shepherd” (237). While sodomy is the act of a “voluptuary,” the passions and inclinations to be mastered call for the inclusive language of we, us, and our. Beckford, Beckford’s Caliph, and Heber himself are, for Scott, all marked by their capitulation to dangerous yet universal passions.

The inclusiveness of Scott’s observations bears remark because Redgauntlet itself has an oft-noted autobiographical component. Lockhart was the first to make this observation about the novel, noting the parallels between the Darsie-Alan friendship and Scott’s own lifelong camaraderie with fellow law student Clerk. To be sure, the mysterious Green Mantle with whom Alan becomes enamoured overtly refers to the green mantle worn by Scott’s first love, Williamina Belsches, about whom he repeatedly corresponded with Clerk. [5] But as relevant as such references may be, the autobiographical reading can be overextended here. Scott’s correspondence with Clerk, for example, shares little of the emotional extravagance of the novel’s letters, and the affinities between Darsie and the self-assured Clerk are quickly exhausted. Scott’s mining of personal experiences does suggest, however, a willingness to look inward in order to understand a character like Darsie—that is, a willingness to see his protagonist’s inclinations as a common human inheritance and sufficiently free of stigma to allow for autobiographical association.

To the extent that Darsie Latimer fulfills the condition of the homosexual, his presence in popular fiction is enabled, I have argued, by a Romantic-period proclivity to fixate on the physical act of sexual gratification as the site of moral corruption. I have also proposed that the sharp distinction maintained between acts and inclinations may have allowed for a homosexual type like Darsie to exist contemporaneously with the sodomite, all the while remaining largely distinct from that type in terms of its moral stigma. Though such conclusions remain tentative, it is worth speculating about the impact of such a condition on the history of sexuality. Indeed, it may be that we should see Victorian sexologists not so much as creating the homosexual species as marrying the already extant types of the sodomite and the homosexual. The consequence of bringing these types together is that it renders the presence or absence of the sexual act a far more negligible consideration than it had been during the early nineteenth century. The chasm that once separated the likes of Darsie from the likes of Heber would be bridged by the privileging of internal experience that the emergence of psychology brought to considerations of human sexuality.

Grander speculations aside, this reading of Redgauntlet may still go some way in redressing the oft-noted marginality of the Romantic period in the history of sexuality as it is typically written. [6] The emergent historicism so thoroughly present in Scott’s novel rather dramatically marks the proliferation of assumptions that continue to shape our understanding of sexuality, and to the extent that Redgauntlet depicts a character whose traits are intimately involved in the orientation of his desire, we have some cause to consider the second generation of the Romantic period as a moment when sexuality could be imagined as a defining feature of a personality type. Scott’s unusual novel also invites us to reconsider the upsurge in the 1820s of texts concerning effeminacy, including Byron’s Sardanapalus (1821), Hazlitt’s “On Effeminacy of Character” (1822), and James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). It is clear that these writers were attempting to delineate a type of character markedly different from the eighteenth-century fop, but the precise nature of this Romantic-era effeminacy and its possible bearing on later nineteenth-century formulations of sexual orientation require further investigation.

Parties annexes