I’ve recently been working my way through a pile of books I bought over the years but haven’t yet got around to reading. The latest is Britten’s Children by John Bridcut which I think I bought shortly after it was published in 2006 but have only just finished. I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book, but with this year being the centenary of the composer Benjamin Britten’s birth I felt I shouldn’t make any more subconscious excuses.
This book is quite a scholarly work (completely with musicological references, etc) that describes Britten’s life in music alongside the story of the numerous friendships with adolescent boys which were a constant theme in his life. I won’t go through a list of these because the wikipedia page about this book contains such an inventory, but it is worth noting that most of these friendships involved good-looking boys around 13/14 and that there certainly was at least an aesthetic element to Britten’s interest; the man himself certainly didn’t attempt to disguise this physical aspect of the attraction. However, it is quite clear from the often passionate letters exchanged between himself and the various boys concerned that these relationships were not exploitative, but based on a strong mutual affection.
In fact only one of the boys Britten befriended, Harry Morris, ever claimed that Britten had made sexual advances to him. Britten often invited his young friends to come with him on holiday, which they did with full parental permission. That in itself seems strange in the light of the reaction the mere suspicion of paedophilia is likely to provoke nowadays. One would have thought it was much worse in Britten’s day when homosexual behaviour between adults was illegal, never mind between adults and young boys. As it happens, though, Britten was never even investigated for any form of indecent behaviour. His friendship with Harry Morris ended after the abrupt termination of a trip to Cornwall during which, Morris later claimed, Britten made some sort of approach to him. However, there are quite a few inconsistencies in Morris’ telling of the story, so there is considerable doubt over exactly what happened there. Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to discuss whether the composer may have made overtures to this particular young man, and move on.
Reading the many excerpts from letters and transcriptions of interviews held with a number of the protagonists in later life, I think that Britten’s motivations were fundamentally benign. He just liked to be surrounded by beautiful youths, an attitude likely to be demonized today but actually not so much in the past. Many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, are addressed to a “fair youth” from an older man. They talk of male beauty, passionate mutual attraction in such a way that it is easy to assume that they describe sexual desire. They may do that, of course, but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the case; there are many kinds of love, including those that do not need to be physically consummated.
This brings me to the origin of the phrase ”the love that dare not speak its name” which most take to refer to homosexual desire. In fact it’s not as simple as that. The phrase was coined by Oscar Wilde in the following excerpt taken from the transcript of his criminal trial for gross indecency in 1895:
‘The love that dare not speak its name’, in this century, is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Johnathan. Such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you may find in the sonnets of Michelangelo or Shakespeare. It is, in this century, misunderstood. So much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual. And it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts someone in the pillory for it.
Anyway, as you can imagine if you haven’t read the book, this is very delicate ground, but John Bridcut is both tactful and direct in the way he presents it. Britten was a complicated man who could be very difficult, so this is no hagiography, but neither does it pander to prurience. He must have done a good job because even the reviewer in the Daily Telegraph wrote:
Nowadays a known homosexual who sought out the company and affection of small boys would probably end up on a police register or behind bars. In treating Britten’s fondness for the young of his own sex as something more than lipsmacking paedophilia, this book does him a service both as a man and an artist.
In many ways the most interesting things to emerge from the book for me (as a non-expert on Britten) are things that are quite separate from the central theme. I hadn’t realized, for example, that Britten was a fine sportsman: he was an accomplished cricketer, swimmer and tennis player and was in fact Victor Ludorum at his school. That contrasts with the somewhat bookish persona I’ve always associated with him based on photographs. I was also fascinated to read that he composed music sitting at a desk. Only when he’d finished a piece (or at least a substantial fraction thereof) would he play it through on the piano. That may be common practice among composers, actually. I don’t know.
The other strand that’s woven into this story is Britten’s relationship with his life partner, Peter Pears. I hadn’t realized that Pears and Britten were actually pretty close friends for a couple of years before their relationship became a physical one. Pears apparently wasn’t always comfortable with Britten’s younger house guests – and their relationship had its ups and downs for other reasons too – but they stayed together until Britten died in 1976. I think the bond between them was all the stronger because it incorporated a mutual love of music. Earlier in his life, Britten was on the periphery of a Bohemian clique that included Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, but both he and Pears decided that wasn’t for them; they settled down to a life of fogeyish conventionality, a marriage in all but name. When Britten passed away, Her Majesty the Queen sent Peter Pears a telegram expressing her condolences. I look forward to the, hopefully near, future when all same-sex relationships are afforded the same level of respect.Follow @telescoper