WHAT DO WE LOOK FOR when we look back in time? Do we look for ourselves, and the historical echo of our identities and concerns; or do we look for something else — for other ways of thinking and living that might reframe our understanding of who we are and who we could be? Dustin Friedman’s study of a group of late-19th-century British writers and aesthetes insists on the latter. Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self is timely and clear-sighted in its intervention in both content and method — an engaging study that enriches our understanding of the aesthetic movement and also enables new perspectives on our own moment.

The aim of the study is to carve out a distinctive approach to the historical study of queer identity formation. Rather than uncovering previously undiscovered historical narratives that reflect back to us our own contemporary understandings of non-normative erotic identity, the book chooses another method. It seeks to explore what queer might look like if we attend to it through the conceptual resources of another age. It attempts, in other words, to trace a theory of queer identity before “queer theory.” For this reason, “queer” is defined here as non-normative sexuality rather than as a predetermined synonym for gay and/or lesbian. The book, then, is focused not so much on the genealogy of current categories of sexuality, but what might be seen more as a moment of pushback against a process central to the formation of those categories at the time when the study of human sexuality through a new science (known as “sexology”) was in the ascendant (and when, therefore, the distinction between what is “normal” and what is not was coming into particular focus). While sexology sought to define and identify, by offering new classificatory and diagnostic criteria, the aesthetes in Friedman’s book sought instead to evade this taxonomical effort in favor of crafting an identity that was often outside of, or beyond, or between, categories.

Late Victorian aestheticism refers to an “art for art’s sake” philosophy: crudely put, it values the aesthetic in its own right rather seeing it as a means to an end — for moral persuasion, for example, or conveying a narrative. The writers explored in this study were all central to the aesthetic movement, and all combine writing about art with an articulation of non-normative erotic identity. Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde might be the best-known queer scholars and writers Friedman considers here, but Vernon Lee (a.k.a. Violet Paget) and Michael Field (a.k.a. the aunt and niece couple, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) are just as fascinating, and their work has been rapidly gaining ever more attention over the past couple of decades. These writers all knew each other and knew each other’s work, and collectively present a relevant and coherent focus for the book’s concerns.

The reception of Hegel’s philosophy is at the heart of Friedman’s attempt to recognize the conceptual resources of this late-19th-century theory of queerness. Hegel provides the catalyst or the method for a way of thinking about the potentiality of queer erotic energy that took hold within this community, and gave a way to articulate the value of non-normative perspectives. The argument starts from an understanding of Hegelian “negativity” in which consciousness is destroyed and remade in response to encountering an obstacle. When thinking about this in relation to the erotic (“Erotic negativity” as Friedman terms it), this enabled value to be found in non-normative sexuality, Friedman argues, by identifying a position of resistance to social norms that ultimately strengthened rather than broke the self. Crucially for this study of aestheticism, it is through art that this transformation can take place, and it is through engagement with art that a kind of self-determination can be found; art is a space where those outside of the dominant categories of identification can find a sense of self. This transformative potential, the book argues, is at the heart of late-19th-century aestheticism’s preoccupation with art and with aesthetic perception.

One of the key questions for the book, and for any reader of this book, is what counts as evidence for a theory of queer identity long before the rise of “queer theory” in the later 20th century, and how will we know when we’ve found it? The connections between Hegel’s work and the writers explored in this study range from the very direct, to the more distant. Walter Pater, the primary subject for the book, provides the tightest connection, and the book’s argument is anchored, in the first two chapters, in an analysis of his writing. The other figures explored here engaged with the Hegelian notion of erotic negativity in large part through Pater’s work, whether Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, or the two women who wrote jointly under the name Michael Field. Even in the case of Pater, the aesthete most directly influenced by Hegel, the move between the Hegelian conceptual infrastructure and the reading of Pater’s work is one made up of connective tissue rather than direct connection. This gives the book a flexibility and an agility that enables it to make bigger gestures and to operate in a broad conceptual field. As the book goes on, the connection with Hegel’s thought grows less direct, but a powerful case is made for the influence of the idea of erotic negativity through the uptake of Pater’s work. By the time we get to Michael Field, for example, the connection to Hegel is made through a letter from John Addington Symonds recommending Bradley and Cooper read Hegel, and reference to the education Cooper received while a student at University College, Bristol. Bradley and Cooper did, however, read Pater avidly, and that trail of influence is at the heart of the book’s argument.

Hegel’s work provides a contemporaneous language for the phenomenon the author (rightly, in my view) sees developing among the aesthetes as much as its source; how much is correlation and how much causation in a sense ceases to matter — the appeal to Hegel serves its purpose by anchoring and giving a voice to the dynamic central to the study. Indeed, one of the most pleasing aspects of the book is the way it treats creative writing and “poetic” texts as themselves the primary locus for the creation of a theory of queerness, rather than making an appeal to a separate contemporaneous discourse through which to read literature. While literary studies has now for a long time been invested in reading literature in relation to its historical context, this book helps to build up a fresh, and broader, perspective on what might “count” as historical evidence.

Before Queer Theory identifies its own central achievement accurately: its innovation lies in its systematic analysis of the connection between art and sexuality that underpins aestheticism. In identifying specifically the transformation and freeing of the self that is possible through a combination of erotics and aesthetic perception, Friedman traces a mutually informing connection between aesthetics and sexuality. Yet, more than this, it is surely the legacy of sexology that enables us today to understand sexuality as something intrinsic to identity but yet potentially bracketed off from our understanding of aesthetic perception. It was through sexology’s taxonomization of queer desire that it became isolatable in a way that enabled it to become not just identified, but also regulated. The more that sensuality or the erotic is recognized to exist outside of this taxonomy — to be inherent in things as a dynamic force, or a mode of perception — the more difficult it is to police. The story of aestheticism is, then, in part, the story of a political pushback against a new reality that was in formation at the end of the century. Sexology rendered queerness visible in new ways, but in its mania for definition this scientific project also threatened, or ignored (depending on your perspective), all manner of erotic self-identification that had found its true place in more labile, and aesthetic, modes.

The story that Before Queer Theory tells has, then, particular importance for an age in which concerns around how we name, identify, and classify sexuality have become pressing in new ways and in new contexts. To inhabit vicariously a different way of thinking might give, perhaps, fresh perspectives on current concerns. If a previous theorization of the value of queerness lay in a refusal to commit to essentialist positions, a refusal to identify in relation to scientific categories, and a lability that finds happiness in an oscillation between being subject and object, what questions does that pose to our current discourses that frequently rail against objectification, that often find strength and power in categorical self-identification, and that are perhaps weighing afresh against one another the authorities of science and “poetry”? If the aesthete’s discourse of queerness was struggling with the dawn of an age of sexual categorization, are we perhaps currently working out how to deal with the decadence of that age?

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Marion Thain is professor of Literature and Culture at King’s College London, and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.