Naomi Wolf’s Outrages establishes the context for [John Addington] Symonds’s desperate efforts to justify his own sexual feelings... With intelligence and flair, Wolf uses the various responses to Whitman to show the levels of intense need in the decades after the publication of Leaves of Grass for images and books that would rescue homosexuality from increasing public disapproval... The value of Outrages comes from Wolf’s constant placing of the brutal response to homosexuality in context. She studies the repression of homosexuality in relation to attitudes towards divorce and prostitution, and also in relation to the censorship of books. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 was a landmark piece of legislation that not only allowed the courts to seize books on suspicion that they were obscene, without defining obscenity, but was also part of the climate of Victorian oppression that Wolf surveys... While concealment may have nourished the work of James and Wilde, it did nothing for most other gay people in these years, as the story of Symonds makes abundantly clear.
Naomi Wolf has acknowledged her error over her imaginary death sentences, and has said that a new and improved version of her book will soon be in the shops. While that cleaned-up edition will undoubtedly remove at least the most headline-grabbing of her blunders, the larger problem of why she thinks history must be over-cooked in order to inspire will remain. And her publishers might want to think again about that blurb from Larry Kramer.
Given that the book is holed below the waterline, is it still worth reading? Well, Wolf certainly writes a sprightly sentence and knows how to leaven the statistical stodge with interesting vignettes. I enjoyed her account of the Boulton/Park case of 1871, about two men calling themselves Fanny and Stella who liked going out dressed as women. But they overdid it when they went to the theatre and kept waving to people from their box till the police arrested them on suspicion of being tarts. Made to undress in the police station, they were soon revealed to be men, but they turned up for their trial again dressed as women, and the papers hailed them as ‘the funny He-She Ladies’. Eventually, they were acquitted because, after all, what crime had they committed? They said their cross-dressing was a ‘frolic’, and even the Victorian courts had not yet invented a way of making frolicking illegal.
Wolf postulates in the book that Symonds lived his life in fear of the possibility of penal servitude or execution. However within days of publication, Wolf had to admit that she was completely wrong in asserting that dozens of executions for sodomy were carried out at the Old Bailey during the second half of the 19th century... Wolf and her publishers have promised to correct these specific errors, but Sweet believes her entire use of the Old Bailey records is now flawed... A blend of the personal and the political, the legal and the literary, Outrages blazes with passion for those who found a way to express forbidden love despite the risks they ran. It is a real pity that Wolf’s serious research errors will inevitably raise further questions. Readers may be best advised to wait for the next edition. The tale Wolf tells is a compelling one, but if her goal is to set the record straight on the origins of modern homophobia she needs to get it right.
I slogged through Outrages, a book that is nothing if not ambitious, and – at a moment when both freedom of speech and LBGTQ+ rights are at issue in countries across the world – timely. Having made her name in 1990 with feminist classic The Beauty Myth, she has had a long career as smart and righteous campaigner, willing to tackle big topics head on across her eight, often controversial, books... Queer history – tracing the ways in which social discourses around non-heterosexual behaviours and identities – is valuable, valiant stuff, and precisely the kind of turf, on which Wolf should be most at home, and where she has the visibilty to reach a wide audience. Which is why I wanted, despite the viral error, to find things to like here. But there is very little to like, and so much wrong, sloppy, or simply inelegant, that by the end of it I felt like Sweet’s correction was almost the least of its problems. Part of the blame lies with Virago, who have managed to see into a print a text apparently neither fact-checked nor proof-read... Copy-editors and proof-readers sleeping on the job is one thing; major errors, conflations and confusions are another. It is certainly hard to imagine many queer historians relishing the moments here in which Wolf fails to distinguish between homosexuality and paedophilia, or abuse of power between teachers and students.
These new readers are addressed in the introduction to Outrages, and Wolf is as nervous about causing offence as Symonds was himself. “Not being identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” she feels “some trepidation” in “undertaking to tell this story”, and defends herself, as a straight woman, for doing so. It might seem as if one kind of censorship has been replaced by another. Outrages closes with an equally defensive Afterword by Anna Camilleri, who plugs the “enduring importance” of Wolf’s research. The research in these pages is indeed important; Wolf makes an excellent connection between the aims of the Obscene Publications Act and those of the Matrimonial Causes Act in the same year, in which some of the only grounds on which a husband could be divorced by his wife were if he had enjoyed relations with an animal or another man. Both pieces of legislation, Wolf argues, protected the behaviour of heterosexual men by demonising that of homosexual men.But the strength of the argument is undermined by the self-preoccupation of the author, who describes the “journey” she has undertaken on the reader’s behalf. Added to which the narrative is disorganised, the paragraphs are repetitive, some sentences make no sense at all [...] and the index gets us nowhere. Had the book been better written, there would be more cause for Wolf to celebrate herself.
In the latter part of 1894, A E Housman drafted a poem in which he complained about the state’s interference in the private lives of men such as himself. ‘Let God and man decree/Laws for themselves and not for me,’ he wrote. ‘Their deeds I judge and much condemn,/Yet when did I make laws for them?’ Naomi Wolf’s aptly titled Outrages shows how several such laws were introduced in Britain in the second half of the 19th century in a flurry of parliamentary acts intended to regulate people’s personal conduct... Wolf’s unravelling and reconstructing of these ‘sodomitical’ poems provides one of the most fascinating elements of her wide-ranging book... Whitman provides a useful transatlantic perspective in Outrages, but a more important figure here is the British writer John Addington Symonds, one of the subjects of the doctoral thesis Wolf wrote at Oxford... Alongside her two principals, Wolf draws numerous other people, books and institutions into her story, including Boulton and Park, Simeon Solomon, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Dr Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum... Imaginatively researched, entertainingly written and enjoyably indignant, Outrages is a sobering and timely book.