Image: Algernon Swinburne (front row, second from left) with nine of his peers at Oxford in 1860. Photograph National Portrait Gallery, London / photographer unknown. Reproduced with permission.
Balliol was the epicentre of an intellectual revolution in the 19th century, one that had a major impact on understandings of human eroticism. It is no overstatement to say that the spiritual origins of the British gay rights movement can be found within the intellectual, eroticised culture of Victorian Oxford. A detailed account of this fascinating period of LGBTQ history is given in Linda Dowling’s excellent book Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994).
The force behind this significant development was the great scholar and theologian Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) who sought to establish the study of ancient Greece as a viable alternative to Christian theology at Oxford. From a queer perspective, Jowett is particularly noted for his translations of Plato’s erotic dialogues, his investigations of Greek love, and his influence on a generation of writers including Matthew Arnold, John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and EM Forster. However, given that his translations bowdlerised Plato and obscured the homoerotic relationships in Greek literature, Jowett’s contribution to the queer literary tradition is mixed. He might best be remembered as a poignant example of the hypocrisy and embattled relationships that resulted from the institutional sexual prejudice of the Victorian age.
Of all the significant figures who were influenced by Jowett at Balliol, three stand out for their unique contributions to queer literature and beyond—Algernon Charles Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and John Addington Symonds.
John Addington Symonds (1807-1871)—nicknamed ‘Mr Soddington Symonds’ by Swinburne—was one of Benjamin Jowett’s protégés at Balliol. Later, Symonds also studied, somewhat unhappily, at Magdalen. Symonds was integral in establishing classical ideas about same-sex love in an overtly emancipatory context. He is now regarded as the first modern historian of queer eroticism and the first British advocate of gay liberation. A reader of classics, Symonds discovered in his study of Plato’s Symposium an illustrious history of the homoerotic activity that he had witnessed during his schooldays at Harrow, activity that he had struggled to understand. He became convinced that erotic love between men had the potential to regain its idealism and beauty and dedicated several works to the task. His history of Greek love, A Problem in Greek Ethics, written in 1873 and published with limited circulation in 1883, was followed by an important defence of male love in modern society. A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891) now stands as a landmark work in the development of a new erotic sensibility based on same-sex love.
Another Balliol graduate, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the great characters in English literature. His Poems and Ballads (1865) scandalised Victorian critical and moral opinion and was withdrawn from circulation by its publisher. The volume included Doloresy (which glorified masochism), Hermaphroditus (which exhibited Swinburne’s lasting interest in bisexuality), and Anactoria (which glorified lesbianism in an address of Sappho to her lover). Swinburne was a masochist and a flagellant who enjoyed visits to the flagellation brothels of London, particularly the Verbena Lodge. He was fascinated by lesbianism and bisexuality, not only for their eroticism, but also because he interpreted them as gestures of social and cultural rebellion.
Poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) also studied under Benjamin Jowett at Balliol. In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian era, Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine. The closest that Hopkins seems to have come to indulging his undoubted homoerotic passions at Oxford was his crush on Digby Mackworth Dolben, a religious flamboyant. Hopkins’ biographer Robert Bernard Martin asserts that Hopkins’ meeting with Dolben—on the occasion of the latter’s 17th birthday—at Oxford in February 1865, ‘was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [Hopkins’] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life.’ Before Dolben’s tragic death at the age of nineteen, he had encouraged Hopkins to embrace Catholicism—one of the few acceptable routes that erotically nonconforming men could take to avoid marriage in the 19th century. Hopkins’ choice of the religious rule of the Jesuits seems to have been a deliberate attempt to discipline what he feared were his dangerously sensuous passions.
Balliol can boast of innumerable other LGBTQ alumni with pride. They include:
Poet and author of macabre fiction, Count Eric Stenbock (1860-1895), attended Balliol but never completed his studies. Whilst at Oxford Stenbock was deeply influenced by the man-loving Pre-Raphaelite artist and illustrator Simeon Solomon. Among others, Stenbock is also thought to have had an affair with the composer Norman O’Neill. Stenbock’s key works include Love, Sleep, and Dreams (1881) and The Shadow of Death (1894). Marc Almond’s 2008 CD Gabriel & The Lunatic Lover contains two songs based on Stenbock’s poems.
Diplomat, author, and politician Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) went to Balliol. Among several posts, Nicolson served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Information in Churchill’s war-time government. He was knighted in 1953 as a reward for writing the official biography of George V. Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, practiced an open marriage, each conducting a number of extra-marital same-sex romances. Their son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote candidly about his parents’ relationship in Portrait of a Marriage (1973).
Prolific author and composer Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) read Modern History at Balliol from 1917-1921. He was President of the Oxford Union for a time, an editor of Isis, and also a founder and editor of the Oxford Outlook. His is not a name that has retained its fame yet Nichols was one of the most popular personalities of his day. His good looks also made him one of the most photographed men of his generation.
Two significant gay-identified British film directors both began pursuing their interest in film-making at Balliol. After graduating in 1925 Anthony Asquith (1902-1968)—son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith—became a founding member of the Oxford Film Society. His subsequent films include Pygmalion (1938) and screen adaptations of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).
John Schlesinger CBE (1926-2003) first became involved in acting and film-making whilst studying at Balliol. Subsequently, Schlesinger was integral in introducing homoerotic themes into cinema. His numerous credits include many queer classics such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), and The Next Best Thing (1999). Midnight Cowboy was internationally acclaimed and won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
The first British rabbi to come out publicly, Lionel Blue (1930-2016), read History at Balliol. Blue was an occasional guest speaker of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group and a patron of Centred (formerly Kairos). He was widely known for his frequent appearances on the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot in Radio 4’s Today programme. Blue wrote of his life at Oxford in his autobiography Hitchhiking to Heaven (2004). On 19 January 2008 he appeared at the Oxford Playhouse with his one-man show An Evening With Rabbi Lionel Blue.
Labour Co-operative politician Stephen Twigg MP (b. 1966) is another Balliol graduate. He studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the College. Twigg became the youngest and first openly gay-identified President of the National Union of Students in 1990. He was subsequently elected to Parliament for Enfield Southgate in 1997, famously taking the seat from Michael Portillo. Twigg was made the Minister for School Standards in 2004, a job he held until he lost his seat in 2005. He was re-elected to Parliament for Liverpool West Derby in the 2010 general election.