Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (I)

by Emily Rutherford

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. (Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling, 131)

When I travelled to Cambridge at the start of this summer, there were three things I knew about Oscar Browning’s personal papers: 1. like the personal papers of many former fellows, they were in the archives of King’s College; 2. there were a lot of them, mostly correspondence; 3. midway through his professional career, Browning had been dismissed from his teaching job at Eton College under suspicious circumstances.

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

Browning, as his ODNB heading informs us, lived from 1837 to 1923 and was a “teacher and historian.” He spent his life caught in the Eton-King’s revolving door (until 1861, only Old Etonians could become members of King’s): educated at both institutions, he washed up at King’s after he lost his job at Eton. He wrote popular accounts of political and military history, helped to found the modern history course at Cambridge, and particularly devoted himself to the cause of teacher-training. His career could not be said to be successful—he was more of a comic stock character—but I was drawn to him for what he might tell me about the world of elite education in the late nineteenth century: his archive includes letters from hundreds of correspondents, many of whom taught in schools and universities, some of whom were prominent in public life, and some of whom were schoolboys, trainee teachers, and other more anonymous figures on whom I would be unlikely to land in a less focused trawl through the archives of an educational institution.

But when you have three weeks to get through tens of thousands of documents, you make certain choices that influence your reading practices, and there I was led astray. The finding aid lists series of letters in alphabetical order by correspondent, with other miscellaneous papers coming at the end. I went through in order, making a note of familiar names: headmasters, future politicians who had been Browning’s students at Eton, Cambridge dons—and prominent figures in the history of homosexuality, such as George Ives, G.L. Dickinson, Robbie Ross, J.A. Symonds, and Oscar Wilde. Thanks to the gossipy tone of Ian Anstruther’s biography of Browning, as well as other sources that assume Browning’s homosexuality, I was primed for scandals and secrets. In my head, I placed ironic scare quotes around the finding aid’s identification of certain young male correspondents as “protégé” or “secretary.” I started calling up letters that had nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with homosexuality, hoping that they might show that Browning had let slip a confidence confirming his sexuality or shedding light on his dismissal from Eton.

Spoiler alert: dear reader, this is exactly not how you should read the archive of someone who lived in the nineteenth century. In her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve Sedgwick criticizes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a Freudian diagnostic mechanism as applied to texts, an analytic frame that fixates above all else on sexual difference. Following Freud and then Foucault, historians of nineteenth-century sexuality have often worked in this vein, seeking to uncover the homosexuality or other forms of deviance lurking under the covers of Victorian propriety. Particularly in the literature on education, they have been joined in their suspicions by school chronicles and biographies written by old boys, the sorts of books that are able to rely on uncited but intimate background knowledge and that allude to gossip with winks and nudges. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell unwittingly into a suspicious approach when I entered the world of Oscar Browning’s archive. But while some pioneers (such as Symonds or Wilde) eventually made sense of their desire for men by making it part of a countercultural identity, so many other men’s intense same-sex friendships, or their unfulfilled longing for the beauty of youth they saw all round them in their teaching jobs, was part and parcel of an elite culture that enjoyed powerful official sanction as the forge of imperial masculinity. Which category applied to Browning, if either? The answer wasn’t as conclusive or as interesting as I had expected, and I ultimately came to understand that I was misreading everything.


The first clue that I was doing it wrong appeared five days in, when it started to dawn on me that none of the men whom I expected would talk to Browning about homosexuality were doing so. Browning was around the same age and moved in the same social circle as John Addington Symonds, who had been writing and talking with his friends about what it meant to be a man who desired men since the mid-1860s, before the word “homosexual” existed. But Browning’s archive doesn’t suggest him to have had the same self-consciousness or sense of membership in a group of men united around a label such as “Uranian” that generated dialogue in other correspondence I’ve encountered. Even if this kind of commonality might have helped to initiate his friendship with men such as G.L. Dickinson, George Ives, or Robbie Ross, it didn’t sustain it. With his old Eton tutor William Johnson, about whose erotic interest in students the record is not so ambiguous, Browning discusses pedagogy and the academic abilities of pupils. With Dickinson, a colleague at King’s, Browning discusses reforms to the Modern History Tripos and college politics. Ives was one of the most visible activists for queer men’s rights in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but his letters discuss cricket and give Browning fashion advice, which only the most suspicious reader could regard as some kind of clue. A certain Hellenic homoeroticism preoccupied many men who were passionately devoted to single-sex educational institutions: even my research subject Arthur Sidgwick, who grew up to record in his diary a passionate relationship with his wife, spoke as a young man in an idiom that praised “beautiful boys”: all his friends were doing it. But Browning’s papers never quite go there. Oscar Wilde’s correspondence with him is about whether he will write an essay on “the women benefactors of Cambridge” for Woman’s World. When Symonds writes to Browning, as he did to many men, asking for data about the place of “sexual inversion” in Britain that he can use in a new research project, he asks Browning whether he thinks studying the Greek and Latin classics in school inclines boys towards homoeroticism, and whether there is any link between school dormitories, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies. He’s asking Browning’s opinion as a professional educator, who was once a housemaster at the country’s most famous public school—not necessarily as a homosexual himself. Folder after folder of letters caused me to reevaluate the picture of Browning as a flamboyant, effeminate queer man offered by the secondary literature, seeing the gossipy insinuation in works such as Anstruther’s biography as homophobic stereotyping rather than honest uncovering.

The mechanism of paranoia explains how, when there is a gap in a particular narrative, our imaginations will rush to fill it with such intensity as to overwhelm the information we actually have to work with—perhaps especially when it comes to repressed homosexuality, which Freud associated with paranoia. Browning’s archive, which contains over 10,000 letters, gives the illusion of completion because it is so vast. But stop to think, and you realize that most runs of letters from a given correspondent—even those Browning knew since childhood—begin in 1875 or ’76. 1875 was the year that Browning was fired from Eton and had to start his life anew, suggesting a bonfire of paper at some stage: perhaps a perfectly innocent one, meant to clear up waste when Browning closed up his Eton house and moved into smaller quarters in King’s College, Cambridge; perhaps one specifically designed to hide secrets that could cloud Browning’s righteous outrage at having been unfairly sacked. Our brains don’t like gaps: simple optical-illusion tricks show that when we are shown half of a familiar type of image such as a human face, our brains will automatically fill in the other half. Our paranoid minds rush, perhaps, to ascribe the interpretation that would offer conclusive proof of repressed homosexuality, instead of the more mundane one. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of both situations among men in Browning’s milieu. It’s Schroedinger’s archive: both are equally possible.

Throughout the entire vast archive, too, we only have one side of the story: aside from copies of a few letters, Browning’s voice itself doesn’t come through. We have teenage boys who thank him for lavish presents; we have Symonds’ requests for data; we have Robbie Ross’s appeals to a fund in support of Wilde and his family during Wilde’s imprisonment. But we don’t know what Browning might have said, if anything, to suggest that he was receptive to such letters. Perhaps, if such conversations ever existed, Browning would have been too nervous to put them in writing. My status as a professional researcher allows me access to archives; my knowledge of foreign languages dead and living allows me to read documents whose creators originally tried to hide them from the eyes of anyone not an elite man. But I’ll never know what, if anything, was said behind closed doors, perhaps with the aid of Browning’s prodigious personal wine cellar, when like-minded men could be fully frank with one another.

Still, as Brooke Palmieri has wisely reminded us, all archives are constructs that are necessarily subjective and incomplete: how, then, can we work with what we have? Next week, in part two of this essay, I will suggest that we might start by asking different questions.


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