As summer approaches, I started to look for some light reading to take with me on the morning train. As usual, I turned to EF Benson. I sorted through my collection and found the wonderful 'Freaks of Mayfair', published in 1916. Being a big fan of Benson's 'Mapp and Lucia', I love finding prototypes of the characters who fill the six novels that comprise the series. Flicking through the pages, I was reminded of a fantastic illustration in 'Freaks of Mayfair', representing the subject of the short chapter called "Aunt Georgie".
'Aunt Georgie' is, of course, a prototype of Georgie, Lucia's close friend and ally. Benson is particularly cutting about 'Aunt Georgie' but he does make a fascinating character. Georgie is perhaps more recognisable today than he was to the public in 1916, though maybe I'm reading that with post-Stonewall eyes. In any event, the presence of the effeminate man in early 20th century literature (high or low) seems to be rare, yet I sifted through a few of my other books and found a handful of beautiful illustrations that I thought I'd share with you, grouped together.
I love the little details, his short moustache, long pointed fingers, jewellery. It is largely 'Aunt Georgie's' effeminancy that is the travesty in Benson's story, but I think the author goes a little further than that by letting us know of 'Aunt Georgie's' passion for an athletic priest. I understand that the public wouldn't necessarily have considered effeminancy as a sign of same-sex desire in 1916, being something which developed via the media and 'medical' studies during the 30s and taking its full shape during WWII and the 50s. So, to me, this illustration, in the context of the story, seems quite modern.
I love this book. Bohemian New York in the very early 20s with the handsome hero sent to the wicked city to test his moral fibre and finally rebelling by running away with a camp Duke. Ha!
Originally published in 1900 under the title 'Escal-Vigor', it is here published by that saucy publishing house, Panurge Press, New York, under the title 'A Strange Love'. Eekhoud was one of those decadent writers at the end of the 19th century and the publication of this novel caused a stir, and a court case, as it deals quite directly with a man's love for another. Not having re-read it recently, I recollect that it was written almost like a fable and, I understand, it was the least 'decadent' of his work, in terms of style, in any event. As you can see from the illustration, the young handsome one gets killed, matyred in fact, and his lover mourns his loss before getting killed by the angry mob himself.
What can I say! This book was part of the pansy craze of the early 30s. While its style is somewhat quaint, I actually think there's a lot of humour in this camp novel. The wonderful 'Fay' takes us through 'her' adventurous life and teaches us quite a lot about life in New York in the 30s for gay men. A great read. I love the illustration, the perfectly marcelled hair, plucked eyebrows and cupid's bow mouth - at home and easily recognisable in Greenwich Village or Piccadilly Circus before the war.
So here's to those brave, startling, subversive men and the illustrators who captured their souls.