Think Piece

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (II)

by Emily Rutherford

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

Last week, I wrote about how easy it is to become paranoid in the Victorian archive—that is, how reading against the grain in search of sexuality can overwhelm other routes to understanding and, perhaps, more interesting and important questions. This week, I turn to the different questions we might ask, and what we might find when we ask them.

Take, for instance, the thousands of letters in Oscar Browning’s archive from boys and young men. Browning took an interest in all sorts and conditions of boys: from Eton pupils and King’s College choristers, to the sons of college servants whom he recommended as valets to his friends, to the succession of boys in their late teens who spent summers as his secretary, sorting through the mail at his seaside house in Sussex. Browning seems to have gone to great trouble to help boys financially: funding their education; working all his connections to find them employment in wealthy households or the India Office; sending them lavish but tasteful presents such as furniture, china, or writing implements. Browning stayed in touch with many—especially those who became powerful—throughout their lives, whereupon he would ask them to get him admitted to such-and-such a club or try to influence their political decisions.

What did it mean to be Browning’s “protégé,” to quote King’s College’s finding aid? Given only one side of the correspondence, it is hard to see anything lascivious in it. It can be very difficult, sometimes, to know what to do with the affections of Victorian men for children, which we could never tolerate today—but we can say, at least, that Browning’s protégés do not send him love-letters. One Charles Copeman sent Browning 240 letters, most focusing on the period 1884-89. Browning had met Copeman when the latter was a chorister at King’s, but his father had been unable to afford to send him to school, so Browning undertook to pay for his education at Norwich Grammar School and Selwyn College, Cambridge. At school, Copeman sent Browning a letter at least once a week, describing his life in dense detail.

Copeman’s relationship with Browning is largely transactional, if not unaffectionate—and yet that doesn’t absolve it of suspicion. Browning, like many similar educators, would have used the classical Greek model of a relationship between an older and a younger man with some pedagogical content to describe any attraction he felt toward students and other young men. A naïve schoolboy, whose access to any classical texts likely to let him in on this secret was carefully guarded, would have been unlikely to catch on. Indeed, if the pederastic model is any clue, that may have been part of the point: well-behaved ancient Greek boys were supposed to play the innocent. A suspicious reader might find herself drawn to the many letters that begin, “My dear Mr Browning, Many thanks for the [book, writing-table, holiday, cheque]…,” imagining Browning going to the British Museum in search of Attic red-figure kylixes that depicted a bearded man wooing a youth with a gift of a hare or a cock.

But instead of focusing on what we can’t know, why not think about what we can? For this is where Copeman’s letters get interesting. This teenager—probably fifteen or sixteen when he starts at Norwich—is not so articulate or self-aware as to ask Browning the reason the man who used to watch him sing in chapel is paying his tuition, but he gives us something at least as exciting: thick detail about the daily life of a regional grammar school towards the end of the nineteenth century. This kind of writing by and large just doesn’t exist: boys’ ephemera was not usually saved by schools, and most of what we have are romanticized recollections that appear in memoirs and novels as older men look back upon their salad days. But Copeman’s letters pile on the minutiae of what late-Victorian schoolboys did and cared about. They show us a school that—perhaps influenced by the Tom Brown’s Schooldays craze that swept the nation after the novel’s publication in 1857—is trying very hard indeed to be like a public school, and one that seems to have met with success in regularly sending students to Cambridge. Amid more detail than I, certainly, ever wanted or needed to know about inter-house rugby matches and Copeman’s lack of talent at rowing, the boy tells us with startling specificity what he is reading and about what he is thinking:

As for work, besides the work stated on Sunday we do a chapter or two (today the VIIth) of the Acts in Greek & say it from 9-10 tomorrow & from 10-12 we do Latin verses. Tuesday we do about 60 lines of Horace (Book 1 of the Satires) tho IX is the next. Wednesday. Homers iliad Book XVI by I. Pratt & Walter Leaf (Fellow of Trinity) about 60 lines. Thursday Horace Friday Horace Saturday Latin Prose & Grammar Paper & Iambics which I am just beginning the afternoons either Greek Prose or Roman History from 2-3 & Euclid 1st Book Arithmetic & Algebra (Fractions) from 3 to 4. That is about all I think. I have joined (tho’ I am hardly fit for it) the Classical Society as I was asked by one of the masters, it really consists of only VIth Form chaps & masters. We are going to read the IIIrd (I think) Georgic twice a week I believe It is very good for me if I can manage it but I am such a dreadful drafter. I find the work hard but as I go to private tuition every evening I manage to get on all right. I do not do French nor Spensers Faerie Queen. I am very backward in Euclid, I do 3 books at a time. & yesterday I missed saying them for the 1st time. Last night we had a debate, subject Is the higher education of women desirable or no? I spoke a few maiden words after being elected We came to the conclusion after eloquent speeches on both sides that it is not desirable. (n.d. [1884], King’s College Archive Centre OB/1/395/A)

I was really drawn to Copeman’s juxtaposition of the contents of his intensely classical curriculum with his conclusion that “the higher education of women” is “not desirable.” You don’t have to take up questions of “who put what where”—of which the only interesting thing about them is that, never being written about, they are unanswerable—to arrive at sophisticated understandings of public-school masculinity, its inherence in texts and pedagogies as well as the playing field, and how these things might unite men like Browning and Copeman across generations.


This gives us a clue to how we might read the story of Browning’s dismissal from Eton, whose interpretation has previously rested on the presumption that a hidden sex scandal is there to be uncovered. J.J. Hornby, the headmaster, fired Browning because Browning had promised places in his House to more than the prescribed maximum of forty students. This was a small technicality, whose justification for Browning’s dismissal—a drastic action, highly unusual in Eton’s history—was swiftly challenged by Browning’s colleagues and by the parents of Browning’s students, some of them very powerful people, who mounted a public campaign in his defense. However, it stood in for a larger question of school governance: Eton was undergoing a period of reform that entailed centralizing its administration and standardizing rules about how it should be governed. Browning, who often did as he liked—including fostering an artistic atmosphere in his House that Hornby may have seen as an explicit countercultural objection to a more athletic ethos—posed a challenge to the headmaster’s authority.

A small packet of materials relating to Browning’s dismissal appear, suddenly and surprisingly, in the very last folder in his archive. If you read all the papers in order, this is an unexpected denouement to thousands of letters that obscure the events of 1875. From Browning’s correspondence with Hornby and with allies among his colleagues and his students’ parents, it seems as if Hornby made some statement to Eton’s Governing Body in which, seeking to justify his dismissal of Browning, he made a vague allusion to Browning’s want of moral character. The letters that follow give as good a demonstration as anything of how paranoia works: for in nineteenth-century boys’ boarding schools, there is only one want of moral character that is so vile as “not to be named among Christians.” Browning’s friends go into damage control mode, urging him to downplay all accusations and not to make a scene. They urge him not to sue Hornby for libel on the basis of that statement—eerily presaging Wilde’s hubristic decision, twenty years later, to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for mentioning Wilde in connection with sodomy. But Hornby’s comment was not nearly so specific: “I have made no charge of immorality against you in the sense of special vices generally denoted by that name,” he wrote to Browning on November 26, 1875, clarifying that he had instead been upset by a tendency Browning had to twist the truth when trying to represent himself in the most positive light in school disputes (KCAC OB/3/6).

Indeed, as he marshaled his defense, Browning constantly misrepresented the truth, changing his story about what he had actually told Hornby about how many boarders lived in his House, whether he broke any rules, and the substance of his objections to Hornby’s accusations. Throughout his life, Browning was a difficult man to work with, especially in disagreements about institutional policy and governance. Letters from colleagues at King’s display tense frustration with Browning’s tendency to assume that any action taken was designed specifically to offend him. Once, at King’s, finding that History students were underrepresented among those receiving college scholarships, Browning issued a formal printed circular alleging that this was a deliberate slight: it “transcends all decency and is tainted with injustice,” he wrote (OB/3/2).

To be sure, Hornby probably knew exactly the suspicions he was mobilizing when he referenced Browning’s character. There was also a prior context: just three years previous, Hornby had demanded the resignation of another master, William Johnson, Browning’s own teacher; the DNB records that “There is no question… that he [Johnson] was dangerously fond of a number of boys.” For all his self-righteousness, Browning wasn’t wrong when he wrote to Hornby, “You are inflicting upon me by your own irresponsible power the greatest injury short of death that one human being can inflict upon another” (OB/3/6). Still, when Browning put a team of lawyers on the case, they found that Eton’s statutes allowed a headmaster to dismiss an assistant master for any cause or none—and there were all sorts of reasons, none of them especially scandalous, why a headmaster might want to rid himself of a difficult, fractious, petty colleague.


To my surprise, this was where my thoughts had arrived at the end of my time with Oscar Browning’s papers. Despite some insights about the world of late-Victorian homoeroticism that emerged here and there—Symonds’ collection of data, Robbie Ross’s insights into Wilde’s trials and tribulations—Browning’s archive simply didn’t allow me to make homosexuality the story of his life. In her book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus has written that if we overcome our desire to read suspiciously, we can see the female, feminine friendships that were everywhere in Victorian England, instead of the lesbians who weren’t. “[M]ainstream femininity was not secretly lesbian, but openly homoerotic,” she argues (3). If we wanted to assess the masculinity of Browning’s archive (indeed, the relative absence of female voices among his correspondents is notable), we would have to draw similar conclusions.

If you step back to look at what is in an archive like Browning’s, you might see Eton and Cambridge exam papers, giving a rich record of the extent of boys’ and young men’s academic knowledge, or Charles Copeman’s hundreds of letters about rugby and rowing and fretting about his chances of getting into Cambridge. You might see conversations with colleagues about curriculum and institutional politics, requests to write articles for magazines, the fits and starts of establishing a teacher-training college for Cambridge men, and of making the university more accessible to non-public-school men. Browning doesn’t come off as a nice or good man, necessarily, but nor does he come off as a bitter, hysterical homophobic stereotype. We can’t excise homoeroticism from the picture of fin-de-siècle elite education, nor should we—and we should always be scrupulously responsible in how we deal with the problem of men who honestly believed that their desire for their young male students was entirely blameless. But through archives like Browning’s we can find a more appropriate place for homoeroticism within the world of elite single-sex education, one which can hardly be understood through the paradigms twentieth-century critical theory invented to account for sexual deviance. It may well have been that, for Browning, homoeroticism was such a normal and intrinsic part of his and his correspondents’ world as not to be worth remarking on.

4 replies on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (II)”

What a tough situation!

It reminds me of this: my favorite way to deal with “queer evidence” in the archive which comes from José Esteban Muñoz’s “Cruising Utopia”:
“Queerness has an especially vexed relationship to evidence. Historically, evidence of queerness has been used to penalize and discipline queer desires, connections, and acts. When the historian of queer experience attempts to document a queer past, there is often a gatekeeper, representing a straight present, who will labor to invalidate the historical fact of queer lives– present, past, and future. Queerness is rarely complemented by evidence, or at least by traditional understanding of the term. The key to queering evidence, and by that I mean the ways in which we prove queerness and read queerness, is by suturing it to the concept of ephemera. Think of ephemera as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor…Ephemeral evidence is rarely obvious because it is needed to stand against the harsh lights of mainstream visibility and the potential tyranny of the fact. (Not that all facts are harmful, but the discourse of the fact has often cast antinormative desire as the bad object.)”

What he goes on to talk about, however, are examples of his own reactions to performances and texts as a queer man, which he registers as evidence of their queerness.

Which would be very hard to get away with in a history department, although I would argue that it is an actual human strategy with a history, that it fits into a history of making symbols and making meaning: think of how Sappho has only become gayer with time. Ditto the Cult of Antinous. We know next to nothing about either of them, but by the late nineteenth and early 20th century lesbians and gay men would be pictured with them or present texts of them to one another as a sign of their preferences.

Either way, it’s very good of you to at least recover Browning from being a gay pariah, if he can’t be the next gay icon.

Thanks Brooke! And yes, I’d say that one of my goals is exactly to historicize the ways that people have made queer meanings out of symbols like that. What I really like about Sharon Marcus’s method for reading precisely the kind of ephemera that Muñoz talks about is how she finds queer ways of reading *normative* social and affective behaviors, allowing us to tell stories other than those of discipline and regulation and control.

Hi Emily.
Hearing about Oscar Browning is a revelation. You may be interested to know Jesse Hardwick my Grandfather was a protege of his. The years between 1909-1913 cannot be accounted for concerning Jesse’s whereabouts. 11 letters between Jesse and my Great Grandfather& Browning exsist. Can you help?

Hi Janet, wow, how fascinating! Yes, I see in the finding aid to Browning’s papers that there are 11 letters from S.H. Hardwick and his son Jesse, during 1911. I haven’t looked at those letters myself, but all the information is here: I’m sure that if you wrote to the archivists at King’s College, Cambridge they would be able to help you figure out what’s in those letters and whether it would help you to fill in the gaps in your grandfather’s story. Good luck!

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