Historians are notorious for overlooking homosexual relationships in history, especially in cases of famous figures. For example, two people could write love letters to each other, give each other intimate gifts, or even directly admit in writings of same sex love. Yet, historians have continued to deny their sexuality. In the past couple of decades, modern-day historians recovered a lot of undocumented information, mainly through secret love letters. It’s now becoming more common to see acceptance and recognition of authors with queer lovers. Now, let us take a look at three of the previously hidden intimacies of famous authors.
Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –From the poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is a famous American poet. She is best known for her work “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, ranked one of the greatest poems in the English language. Literary critics estimate she wrote over 1800 poems, the vast majority without titles. Her poems involved themes of nature, identity, death and love. Her love poems, that historians once stated were about an unknown man, are now known to be written about her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.
Gilbert married Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin Dickinson, because he was in love with her. However, we now understand Emily Dickinson was also in love with Gilbert. Yes, dear readers, this was a real-life love triangle. Dickinson herself never married or had any children. Instead, she reserved this time to write Gilbert over 250 love poems embedded into innumerable letters.
To own a Susan of my own,
Is of itself a bliss –
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
Continue me in this!In a letter to Susan Gilbert from Emily Dickinson
The Master Letters are a collection of love letters written to the anonymous “Master.” Scholars believe “Master” was a judge named Otis Phillips Lord. Yet, after the discovery of the correspondence between Susan Gilbert and Emily Dickinson, historians found themselves confounded. Historians also discovered earlier letters written to female friends and teachers professing love. These further created a rift in the academic community. Whereas before Dickinson received the complementary label of “heterosexual,” some historians now argue she was actually bisexual with a preference for women.
Unfortunately, we do not have anymore information on Dickinson’s romantic pursuits. Presently, you can keep up on any published information regarding the matter by referring to the Emily Dickinson’s Love Life page on the Emily Dickinson museum website.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
Love, the poet said, is woman’s whole existence.From Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Two authors who were more than good colleagues were Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf is known for her novels The Edwardians and All Passion Spent. Vita Sackville-West sparked controversy with the first every transgender novel Orlando. Both women receive great acclaim for their work and were each other’s biggest fans. After continuing to meet each other at dinner parties, Woolf and Sackville-West became friends and then lovers.
Unlike the other two couples in this article, Woolf and Sackville-West were open about their relationship. This was because in England at the time, homosexual relationships were strictly forbidden by law. But, this only applied to male homosexual relationships. Lesbian relationships had no legislation against them, so the authors were free to be less secretive.
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia…It is incredible how essential to me you have become.In a letter to Virginia Woolf from Vita Sackville-West
Still, both of these women married and had children. Sackville-West married a diplomat named Harold Nicholson, rumored to also participate in same-sex relationships outside of the marriage. Their relationship was an open one. Sackville-West often slept with men and women alike aside from Nicholson. Woolf married Leonard Woolf, a liberal politician who would regularly drive her to Sackville-West’s home. Modern historians expect their marriage was something more of mutual dependence rather than romantics.
Sackville-West and Woolf had such a picture-perfect relationship that the story made it to today’s media. There is both a West End play and a movie capturing their love, both entitled Vita and Virginia.
Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover
in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was
happy.From “When I Heard at the Close of Day” in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s most famous collection of poetry Leaves of Grass features musings about democracy, love, and friendship. But did you know the original drafts also encouraged the acceptance of same-sex relationships? After the poems received negative press, Whitman revised the collection by swapping male for female pronouns. Also, he redacted certain excerpts about homosexuality. The collection of the erased poems, saved and recovered now, Whitman entitled Calamus. Within this original text, Whitman hints at sleeping with multiple men- including his longest lover, Peter Doyle.
Peter Doyle was only a transit worker when he met Whitman on a stormy night by the train tracks. Doyle recounts placing his hand on the other man’s knee and finding a mutual understanding in each other. Doyle was in his mid-twenties and Whitman was in his 40s when they began their relationship. For over seven years, there are accounts seeing them strolling the river under the moonlight together. They saw each other at least once a week, either in public or at Whitman’s home.
My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room or two in some quiet place, and we will live together and devote ourselves altogether to the job of curing you.In a letter to Peter Doyle from Walt Whitman
Like the other two relationships, historians found hundreds of letters sent back and forth between the two men. The letters show a deep connection between Doyle and Whitman, resulting in a great impact on the writer’s life. Doyle and Whitman remained close almost until the latter’s death less than a decade after their first encounter.
As more never-before-seen writings reach the surface, we will find more information about authors. Undoubtedly, history contains other LGBTQ authors that society forced into silence about their sexuality. Modern day historians hopefully will no longer make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Instead, we wish they learn to decipher friendship from lovers. If you want to read other classic authors who might have been LGBTQ, read our article 20 Queer Authors from History Who You Need to Know.