Blackford Links Homosexual Stereotype With Victorian-Era Sexology, Dorian Gray and Peter Pan

The stereotype that contemporary gay culture is “youth-obsessed” may have its roots in Victorian-era sexology, Dorian Gray, and Peter Pan.

Holly Blackford

Holly Blackford

So posits Rutgers–Camden researcher Holly Blackford in a new article, “Childhood and Greek Love: Dorian Gray and Peter Pan,” recently published in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.

In J. M. Barrie’s classic novel, Peter Pan, the mischievous Peter spends his perpetual childhood seeking adventures on the island of Neverland. “All children, except one, grow up,” writes Barry in the opening line of the book, setting the stage for the many innocent, uninhibited experiences to follow. Meanwhile, in Oscar Wilde’s classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the narcissistic Dorian fears that his beauty will diminish with age. He wishes for his portrait to age in his place, which then enables him to preserve his youthful beauty while his every misdeed is revealed in the painting.

On the surface, these novels explore the wonders, joys, and pitfalls of seeking eternal youth. They also reflect late Victorian, child-studies notions of “inversion”– homosexuality characterized by an inborn reversal of gender traits – and a refusal to grow up, suggests Blackford, an associate professor of English at Rutgers–Camden.

According to Blackford, late Victorian sexology responded to and helped to shape child study, while, during the same period, theories of evolution and childhood came to inform studies of homosexuality. “My work on these novels explains that pioneering sexologists construed the child as developmentally queer – not yet committed to a love object – and the queer as arrested in development – trapped in a developmental time before the ‘proper’ love object was chosen,” says Blackford, a resident of Sicklerville, N.J. She explains that a coalescence of three late Victorian fields – developmental psychology (formerly known as child study), sexology, and Greek studies – provides an opportunity to understand how Wilde and Barrie offer case studies of youths conceived as psychologically queer and almost passively trapped in infantile worlds of pure hedonism.


Peter Pan

Blackford argues that, although Peter Pan disregards sexuality entirely, there is evidence of Barrie’s appropriation of an explicitly gay text, titled Tim: A Story of School Life, written by Howard Overing Sturgis in 1891. Blackford notes that Sturgis’ text features a boy’s desire for an older boy. Furthermore, she affirms, Barrie would have been familiar with the account of Tim’s perennial childhood, as well as with Sturgis’ implication that the character’s homosexuality makes it impossible for him to grow up.

The Rutgers–Camden scholar maintains that Wilde’s novel, written in 1891, and Barrie’s novel, written in 1911, provide approximate endpoints for a period that “increasingly queered the child and infantilized the queer.” She notes that, during this period, children were increasingly viewed as foreign to the adult population, both physically, through their removal from the work force, and logically, with the advent of developmental psychology. “The period was marked by the exchange of ideas between writers and psychologists, both of whom began to focus on child consciousness and perception as the principal difference between children and adults,” Blackford writes.

Through a series of well-researched examples, Blackford demonstrates how these novels are indicative of this interplay between psychology and literature of the period. She notes that both Dorian and Peter take vows of eternal youth which, within the context of the Victorian era, would cause the characters to “become seductive forces, luring others to their hedonistic worlds, not because they have pernicious motivations but because they are queer, precivilized objects for others to play with in their games of pursuing pleasure.”

Pioneering in its focus, Blackford’s research forms the foundation for a chapter in her forthcoming book, Alice to Algernon: Child Consciousness in the Novel. This ambitious monograph traces the intersection between childhood and intellectual history in literature and culture by showing how the birth of developmental psychology in the late Victorian period influenced theories of human cognition and perception in 19th and 20th century novels.

Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray

In addition to her focus on male sexuality in classic literature, she devotes a chapter to demonstrating how the pioneering lesbian novel of 1928, The Well of Loneliness, which includes a long study of a lesbian’s childhood and adolescence, was actually inspired by Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables. “I do a long study of their similarities and explore implications,” says Blackford. “This work on the history of childhood in lesbian representations nicely dovetails with the work I’ve done on why developmental psychology became important in the late Victorian period and how gay men started to be seen as perpetual boys. Lesbianism has a very different history in literature about childhood.”

Blackford teaches and publishes literary criticism on American and children’s literature. A prolific author, her books include Out of this World: Why Literature Matters to Girls (2004), Mockingbird Passing: Closeted Traditions and Sexual Curiosities in Harper Lee’s Novel (2011), The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (2011), and the edited volume 100 years of Anne with an ‘e’: The Centennial Study of “Anne of Green Gables” (2009). Blackford earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies and Psychology and a master’s degree in English, from Northwestern University, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.

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