By Professor Lisa Kasmer
This past summer, the study abroad program Advanced Studies in England (ASE) in Bath, England chose my seminar Queer Victorians to be part of their course offerings. It was exciting to teach Queer Victorians, which explores the way in which Victorian writers address queer sexuality and marginalized gender identities, in the country where many of the authors we studied lived; it was especially intriguing to think of Oscar Wilde as a student at Magdalen College in Oxford developing his views of aestheticism or Christina Rossetti volunteering at the St. Mary Magdalene house in London, both upholding and transgressing the model of the retiring young woman. In Queer Victorians, the course’s texts, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which emphasize kinship, matrimony, desire, and gender norms, act as a rich resource for analyses of same-sex desire, gendered and sexual subjectivities, queer communities, and homophobia both in the nineteenth century and today. To provide historical and cultural contexts for the course texts, we read nineteenth-century medical and legal opinions and theory from contemporary gender and sexuality studies, such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, which highlights the ways in which literature can envision hope and possibility for queer communities. To broaden the course’s themes, I invited Phoebe Kemp, a disability and queer activist, who had directed a production of the contemporary play Dorian, which plays with aspects of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s life, and queer culture, to speak about casting and staging the production.
Study at ASE includes trips to explore course themes more deeply. Our course-connected trips to Oxford and London included a visit to the Oscar Wilde archive at University College and to Queer Britain, the UK’s first LGBTQ+ museum. When we visited Oxford University, we had the thrill of looking at some of Wilde’s manuscripts and letters. At Queer Britain, we experienced an incredible range of exhibits speaking to LGBTQ+ history. In the museum, we saw on display Oscar Wilde’s prison cell door, a powerful reminder of the devastating late nineteenth-century legislation against “gross indecency,” under which Wilde had been charged and imprisoned. Other exhibits highlighted Anne Lister, who, in the nineteenth century, detailed her same-sex desire in a coded diary, and artifacts from the LGBTQ+ Muslim organization, Imaan. During our trip to London, we also had the chance to see a thought-provoking production of Carolina Román’s Broken Toys (translated by L Finch), which follows the thriving queer community during the repressive Franco regime in 1970s Spain. Overall, the experience of teaching Queer Victorians for ASE highlighted the transhistorical, global, and ever-evolving nature of queer studies and queer communities.