‘The Power to Convey the Unuttered’

Style and Sexuality in the Work of Ronald Firbank
  • Paul Davies
Part of the Insights book series (ISI)


The phrase ‘gay sensibility’ has hampered much discussion of work by homosexual artists. The problem with such a term is that, as with any unifying concept, it blurs finer distinctions and diminishes difference, as it seeks similarity in the work of artists as diverse as Michelangelo and John Rechy. As Susan Sontag has written: ‘To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble.’1 Unfortunately, most attempts to snare the ‘gay sensibility’ have been rather clumsy. Thus Michael Bronski in his full-length study of ‘the making of gay sensibility’ writes: ‘During the 19th and 20th centuries, homosexual writers and artists created a distinct political, artistic, and social identity. This sensibility has a history, an evolving set of definitions and a future.’2 Here the separate notions of ‘identity’ and ‘sensibility’ are elided as Bronski seeks to place Ronald Firbank, Edward Carpenter, Walt Whitman and others within a single tradition, whereby the essential defining factor of their shared sexual orientation excludes the range of cultural, political and artistic differences that separate them. Bronski ignores the differing individual responses of artists to their homosexuality, seeing only a group identity: ‘Homosexuals have created a separate culture that reflects their attitudes, moods, and emotions as an oppressed group.’3


Unify Concept Aesthetic Aspect Oppressed Group Artistic Difference Homosexual Feeling 
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  1. 1.
    Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp”’, in A Susan Sontag Reader (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1983) p. 106.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Michael Bronski, Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility (Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1984) p. 10.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 11.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist: A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank (London: Macmillan, 1973) p. 171.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Philip Core, Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (London: Plexus, 1984) p. 9.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Brian Reade (ed.), Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) p. 8.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    David Hilliard, ‘UnEnglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality’, in Victorian Studies, vol. 25, no. 2 (Winter 1982) p. 207.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 184.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 190.Google Scholar
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    Francis Kingsley (ed.), Charles Kingsley: His Letters and Memories of his Life (London: C. Kegan Paul and Co., 1881) vol. 1, p. 201; cited in Hilliard, ‘UnEnglish and Unmanly’, p. 188.Google Scholar
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    Mervyn Horder (ed.), Ronald Firbank: Memoirs and Critiques (London: Duckworth, 1977) p. 85.Google Scholar
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    Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 1966) p. 17.Google Scholar
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    Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987) p. 424.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Rollo St Clair Talboys to Ronald Firbank, Crowthorne, 15 April 1904; quoted in Miriam J. Benkovitz, Ronald Firbank: A Biography (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1970) p. 48.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    Margaret Walters, The Nude Male: A New Perspective (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1979) p. 82.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Firbank, Preface to The Flower Beneath the Foot (New York: Brentano’s, 1924); reprinted in Brophy, Prancing Novelist, p. 569.Google Scholar
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    Jocelyn Brooke, Ronald Firbank (London: Arthur Baker, 1951) p. 57.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Editorial Board, Lumiere (Co-operative) Press Ltd 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Davies

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