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Queer Lives: Men’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France

Eight gay men wrote their autobiographies in French between 1845 and 1905: some of them reflected on their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; others provided brief impressions of their loves and desires. A few of them dramatized their lives following contemporary theatrical and fictional models, while others wrote for medical doctors, who used the men’s writings as case studies to illustrate their theories on sexual deviance. In some instances the doctors’ extensive interpretations cannot be separated from the men’s own stories, but in others the authors speak for themselves.

The first autobiography in this collection is by Arthur W… – the pseudonym of Arthur Belorget. Known as “the Countess” in the Paris of the Second Empire, he was the son of a coachman and a dressmaker. As a young man he become the lover of a nobleman who abandoned him after a few years, and thereafter, he earned a living as a cross-dressing singer, using a feminine pseudonym and performing in the cafés-concerts of Paris. In 1861 he was arrested not for his practice of female impersonation or his liaisons with other men but for desertion and theft. He was tried and condemned to ten years in prison. There he met the man whom he deemed the love of his life – a fellow prisoner named Gustave Engel. In his autobiography Belorget recounts his childhood attachment to his mother, his adolescent experimentations with other boys, and his seduction by the son of a marquis, as well as his career as a performer and his love affairs in and outside of prison. His narrative includes a first-person view on aspects of working-class life in Paris, the social atmosphere of the demimonde, the male homosexual subculture, and the underground world of men’s prisons during the Second Empire.

Other autobiographies were presented as medical case studies, and they have been included in this collection, along with the commentaries written by the doctors who collected them. Dr. Ambroise Tardieu, the leading expert on “pederasty” in France in the middle years of the nineteenth century, inserted one such case study in the fifth edition of his magnus opus. The subject of this study described his feelings for four young men, but the doctor used his words to support his contention that pederastic men had exaggerated notions of love, sex, and desire. Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot and Dr. Valentin Magnan, two of the most influential theoreticians of the new generation of psychiatrists, examined the autobiography of an effeminate professor in their important study on “sexual inversion” in 1882. This man explained that he had desired men and boys both emotionally and physically ever since his childhood. Two other case studies were elicited by Dr. Paul Garnier, who wrote on fetishisms. Gustave L… described his overwhelming desire and admiration for workers’ clothing (and the men who wore them) and Louis X…recounted the pleasure that he took in the sight and feel of varnished shoes (and the men who wore them). Two other autobiographies/case studies were from a troubled adolescent who had attempted suicide and a middle-aged man who had killed his mother.

This collection ends with “The Novel of an Invert” – an autobiography that was sent by an Italian man to Emile Zola, the well-known naturalist author. Hoping that his life story would provide material for Zola to use in one of his novels, the anonymous writer had composed his autobiography voluntarily. His first letter focused on his heredity, upbringing, and sexual initiation. He then described two significant love affairs – one in which he had engaged during his military service and another that he had experience in his youth when he was seduced by one of his father’s business associates. In his third letter he presented a character sketch, much like the ones that Zola and other authors were known to have made in the process of writing their novels. In between

The remarkable autobiographies in Queer Lives, translated into English for the first time, give present-day readers a rare glimpse into otherwise shrouded existences. They will interest a wide audience today at a time when readers are seeking new views on the lives of ordinary men and women from the past, when gay people are looking for the roots of their communities, and when scholars are trying to understand the formation of sexual identities at a crucial moment in the history of modern Europe.

William A. Peniston is the librarian at the Newark Museum and author of Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Nancy Erber is professor emeritus of linguistics and modern languages at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. She is co-editor of Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century.