In the third of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s parliamentary reputation as the ‘beautiful boy’ of the Commons, and his increasing disaffection with conventional aristocratic society during the 1868 parliamentary session.
In May 1868 the twenty-two-year-old MP for Sutherlandshire, Ronald Gower (1845-1916), made his maiden parliamentary speech. When reporting on the speech the Leeds Mercury shared some unexpected Westminster gossip. The paper informed its readers that Gower had
the reputation of being the handsomest man in the House of Commons, and when he first entered it a year ago he obtained the name of ‘the beautiful boy’, which has clung to him ever since.Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1868.
MPs were regularly given nicknames by their colleagues, but in our research for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes, Gower’s designation as ‘the beautiful boy’ stands alone as an example of the objectification and sexualisation of a young MP by his older colleagues.
Gower was not the only MP to be labelled as ‘the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. Seeking re-election for Hull in 1868, Charles Norwood was commended to the electors with the observation that ‘the ladies, so many of whom now grace us with their presence, say that he is the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. However, the use of the nickname the ‘beautiful boy’ for Gower carried rather different connotations. A Commons full of classically trained MPs could surely not have failed to note the association of such a moniker with notions of the ‘beautiful boy’ (or erômenos) of ancient Greek culture, a figure synonymous with sexual desire between an older man and a younger male.
At first glance, then, the existence of such a nickname suggests a level of openness in attitudes towards same-sex desire in the homosocial private club culture of the nineteenth-century Commons. This would be surprising, however, given Ben Griffin’s insightful research into masculine identity at Westminster during the period. As Griffin astutely notes, mid-Victorian MPs ‘could not abandon heterosexuality, domestic responsibilities, domestic authority, independence or self control without abandoning one’s claim to be a “real” man’.
What seems more likely is that in calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’ MPs were referencing, and adding to, Westminster gossip and innuendo surrounding his sexuality. Following his arrival in the Commons in May 1867 it is conceivable that MPs came up with the nickname to marginalise a colleague who they perceived as unmanly or effete. Certainly, reports in the Elgin Courant suggest some perception of what would now be termed Gower’s camp aesthetic. In reporting on his parliamentary nickname, the paper couldn’t resist the play on words of calling Gower ‘his Grace’s graceful brother’, ‘his grace’ being Gower’s brother and fellow parliamentarian, the 3rd duke of Sutherland (1828-1892).
As his first year in Parliament wore on, though, it is highly plausible that MPs started to link Gower’s nickname to rumours about his sexuality. As discussed in my previous blog, Gower’s private diaries indicate that he spent most of the 1867 parliamentary session mixing London’s conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer West End nightlife. Covent Garden’s theatres and drinking establishments were a stone’s throw from Parliament and were very public spaces. It is not hard to conceive that reports of Gower’s regular attendance in the area, and apparent relationships with other men, got back to his colleagues.
By calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’, then, MPs may at best have been offering a coded warning to Gower to ensure that his extra-parliamentary activities were in keeping with the expected norms for a figure in public life. Alternatively the nickname was simply deployed as a form of bullying.
A distinct change in Gower’s social habits during the 1868 parliamentary session suggests that he was more than aware that questions were being raised about his extra-parliamentary nightlife. His diary for 1868 indicates that he stopped his regular trips to Covent Garden’s theatres and Evans’s Supper Rooms of the previous year. In their place were visits to the more respectable, and private, Mayfair gentleman’s ‘night clubs’ (as Gower called them) of Pratt’s Club House, 14 Park Place, and Egerton’s, 87 St James’s St.
As 1868 progressed, Gower’s diary also suggests his increasing disaffection with parliamentary life and the social expectations of conventional aristocratic society. In March 1868, Gower’s nephew and close friend, John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), was returned to Parliament. Lorne’s constant presence in London over the following months came as a great relief to Gower:
What a difference his being in the House [of Commons] makes to me I cannot say, it only wanted such a company to take away the feeling of loneliness that I formerly felt among so many older people than myself; and our walks or drives to and from the House are charming.SRO, D6578/15/22, 5 Mar. 1868
Although his friendship with Lorne provided some respite from the ‘loneliness’ of the Commons, by the summer of 1868 Gower complained increasingly in his diary of the ‘pain and boresomeness’ of much of London society. In doing so he began pining for a more selective social set that shared his love of art and literature.
In July 1868 he was inspired by a visit to the Holland Park residence of the artist, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896):
If only I could see more and live more with the people (and society in general of those) with whom Ian and I breakfasted this morning (Thursday 2nd) life would be intensely more enjoyable and interesting. We broke fast nearly at 12 with F. Leighton and a far greater brother artist [George] Watts; with these was also young [Valentine] Prinsep, a rising artist and I do not think I have ever spent two pleasanter hours.SRO, D6578/15/22, 2 July 1868
His disdain for conventional aristocratic society was compounded that autumn after enduring a fortnight at his family’s estate in Dunrobin in the company of the future Edward VII, the Prince of Wales. He complained that ‘I do not enjoy the society (if it can be called such) which the Wales’s bring’. Regretting that ‘the more I am here [Dunrobin] the greater I feel the change from old times’, he went on to imagine an alternative future life in an idealised ‘Spanish Castle’ in Kilmarnock:
My “Spanish Castle” is a wee house at Kilmarnock. It’s large enough for me or two friends where I can feel and be perfectly free; with my books and myself. All this may sound and perhaps is selfish. If so I cannot help it; surely, we all may follow unnatural tendencies (if right and honourable) and mine is to be utterly independent and not obliged to live at all with a set of people utterly and wholly uncongenial and unsympathetic to myself.SRO, D6578/15/22, 4 Oct. 1868
As well as foreseeing his future bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge (which as John Potvin has demonstrated became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s), Gower’s statement presents as a remarkably frank admission of his sexuality and disillusionment with the conventions of aristocratic society.
As with the multiple meanings inherent in his parliamentary nickname of the ‘beautiful boy’, it is hard to escape the notion that in privately admitting his ‘unnatural tendencies’ Gower was coming to terms with his sexuality. ‘Unnatural’ was nineteenth-century shorthand for same-sex desire and ‘unnatural offences’ was the principal legal term used to categorise an array of criminal sexual offences enacted by men such as ‘sodomy’, ‘indecent assault’ or ‘carnal knowledge’.
Within eighteen months of entering public life as a member of Parliament, Gower had clearly come to realise that a career at Westminster was not for him. While he would be returned again to Parliament at the November 1868 general election, his position of immense privilege as a member of one of Britain’s leading aristocratic families allowed him to devote the next few years of his life to forging an alternative career as a sculptor and writer…
H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003)
K. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (first published 1978, most recent edition 2016)
B. Griffin, The politics of gender in Victorian Britain: masculinity, political culture and the struggle for women’s rights (2012)
J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort: Queer Aesthetics, Material Culture and the Modern Interior in Britain (2014)
R. Scruton, Beauty (2009)
S. Sontag, Notes on “Camp” (first published 1964, most recent edition 2018)
C. Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009)