CORVO, CULTURE AND GAY
FIN DE SIÈCLE IN VENICE
More gracefully, perhaps though, how can one avoid being possibly or rather rudely intrusive in terms of all the exquisite gay biographies and papers of literary men fascinated by the Baroness Corvo— without at least taking a brief glance at this gay biographical gem— LIFE ON THE LAGOONS by Horatio Brown?
It is Miss Brown who the Baroness Corvo despised and hated—basically because he was a man of means who could afford to take little for his writing and so spoil the market for the needy professionals. The long years in Venice financed by his fortune gave him an unrivalled sense of the place and its chicken, of the harmony and concord between the Venetians, their city, and the boys of the lagoons, of their perfect accommodation to each other.
It’s not surprising that Miss Brown came to history through literature—in his Oxford days the Chairs of History and English Literature were often held by the same professor.
Was Horatio Brown like J. Alfred Prufrock—not Prince Hamlet but merely a subservient attendant to the Venetian Queen Bees? Merely an assistant to John Addington Smonds—merely an entertainer, impresario and landlord of the great and eccentric? An object of Miss Corvo’s scorn and a subject for the casual allusions of other men’s biographers?
Venice was notorious for discouraging hard work, as Henry James observed. The seductive ambience of young handsome gondoliers and romance there on the lovely lagoons was much too much for many gay closeted writers like Symonds.
Symonds saw himself as profoundly abnormal, even monstrous and dreadful. Unlike the Baroness, Miss Symonds hid his inner self—rather than flaunt his faggotry like grandiose queen bee Miss Corvo.
Not so with Miss Horatio Brown. It is Miss Brown who sends Robert Louis Stevenson gay translations from ‘old Venetian boat-songs’ and brightens Miss Stevenson’s sick room in Davos with his own lovely LAGOON LULLABY.
It is Miss Brown who waits with a gondola at the station when Havelock Ellis, fresh from a medical convention in Rome in 1894 takes a trip to Venice.
To Miss Brown, the bitchy resentful destitute Baron Corvo was a sublime example of Venice’s self-portraiture beaming forth like a rainbow into new gay literature and thoroughly gay gauche gondolier romance.
It was during that decade which consigned Wilde to Reading Gaol that many gay writers viewed their gay gift as an’incrable malady’—a deeply rooted perversion of the sexual instinct, uncontrollable, ineradicable, amounting to the Vatican-esque monomania of the Baroness who exposed all the more reticent closet cases to the rebuke and scorn of most society.
But then over time more and more homosexual intellectuals came to Venice, staying there either on a permanent basis or for short periods—including the aesthetes Jean Lorrain and Jean Cocteau, the poets
August von Platen and Alfred Edward Housman, the
Renaissance historian Miss Symonds and many others.
Some like the English writer Frederick Rolfe the Baroness lived on the lagoons leaving vivid descriptions of ow widespread and organized this gay tourism was. Not only were the Italian youths willing to satisfy foreigners’ desires with the prospect of earning some money, but in an illegal brothel where tourists could always find unemployed youths and hustlers “ready to be had” with everybody knowing about his lovely lagoon romance and business.