Before Homosexuality: Same-Sex Desire from Smollett to Dickens

Module code: EN3140

Module coordinator: Dr Holly Furneaux

This module examines the many ways in which the love that famously 'dare not speak its name' does receive articulation in a wide range of texts produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students are invited to explore and complicate Foucault's momentous statement that homosexuality, as an identity, came into being in the late nineteenth century with the sexological coinage of the term. 

Sensitive to competing histories of sexuality and to modern queer and gender theories, we will explore the representation of both male and female same-sex desire in the period 1750-1850. While discussing sexuality in a historical context, we will also address issues that continue to be of urgent importance today: homophobia, bodily practice, the possibility of the queer family, and the significance of class, race, and nationality in the experience and representation of sexuality.

In demonstrating the diversity of treatments of same-sex desire in this period, the course takes in material from the canonical to the obscene. You will read novels from such 'respectable' authors as Tobias Smollett (The Adventures of Roderick Random and extracts from The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle) and Charles Dickens (David Copperfield and Little Dorrit) alongside pornographic writing, including John Cleland's erotic classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill.

We will explore the idea of 'canonicity' and how generic distinctions are drawn and policed. As well as novels such as Maria Edgeworth's Belinda, we will consider novelas and poetry (for example, short works by Daniel Defoe and extracts from Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam), anonymous tracts, diaries (such as the one kept by Anne Lister), autobiography, and recent critical writing.


The modules will be delivered in weekly two-hour seminars in which students' directed individual reading will be supported through structured debate and large- and small-group discussion. Each student will be asked to make a short (five- to ten-minute) unassessed oral presentation on one of the course texts. By the end of the module students will be able to...

  • Discuss sexuality and gender within a historical context, sensitive to issues of class, race, and nationality
  • Demonstrate familiarity with a range of recent queer and gender theory as well as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of sexuality
  • Bring that historical and critical understanding to bear on texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, novels and journalism
  • Accurately use and distinguish between complex terms including queer, gay, lesbian, gender, masculinity, femininity, transgender, transvestite, and pornography


  • One 5,000-essay