When is a paedophile not a paedophile? When, among many other possibilities, he is a fell-walker.
The fells, for the uninitiated, are the high hills and low mountains of northern England, where hiking, unlike in the Alps of Europe, or the world’s even higher ranges, is on a human scale: delightfully, the proud walker may “conquer” several peaks in a single day merely through modest exertion rather than perilous adventure. Having just returned from a week spent hiking in the Cumbrian fells, or The Lakes as the mountains are perversely known in a collective way, I feel immensely refreshed, not least because the vacation has allowed me to take a break from my usual self: instead of being a writer, or an activist, or a sexual dissident, I have been enjoying a bit of an identity makeover as an outdoor type – and emerging as one who turns out to be still quite a fit old feller, if you will excuse the pun, for someone not far off three score years and ten.
That makes me feel extremely fortunate: it’s great to have some sort of positive identity in addition to negatively feeling part of an oppressed minority, and I would urge others to nurture their own more positive sides.
My trip to The Lakes – where there is indeed a wealth of beautiful lakes as well as mountains – also reminded me that I may be far from the only “paedo” who has found it possible to express other aspects of their identity here, including several prominent figures who are known mainly for their poetry, philosophy and love of the region’s natural beauty rather than their sexuality. Famously celebrating that beauty in verse at the turn of the 19th century were the romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, names which are closely associated with two others of particular concern here: Hartley Coleridge, son of Samuel, and Thomas De Quincey, best known these days for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
What is a great deal less well known about De Quincey than his opium addiction (apparently he took the drug medicinally to start with, for the relief of neuralgia), is his love affair with a toddler. An author, journalist and poet himself, De Quincey had “sleepovers” with little Catherine Wordsworth, William’s daughter. She was just a toddler and sadly died at the age of three. De Quincey recorded his grief over her death, writing of his love for her and saying “as it happened that little Kate Wordsworth returned my love, she in a manner lived with me at my solitary cottage; as often as I could entice her from home, [she] walked with me, slept with me, and was my sole companion.” By implication the whole “affair”, written about openly, was conducted with parental permission and was held to be as “innocent” as Wordsworth’s famous daffodils. Perhaps it was, but the language suggests a degree of attachment to the child that would be considered highly suspect today in an adult who was not her parent.
For a while, De Quincey was the tenant of Nab Cottage, a lovely dwelling at the edge of Rydal Water – it being another peculiarity that the mountain area is called The Lakes but almost all of the lakes are called either waters, meres or tarns! Hartley Coleridge succeeded him there as the tenant. His childhood was celebrated frequently in his doting father’s poetry and that of Wordsworth. Whereas Michael Jackson arguably missed out on childhood, Hartley Coleridge in a sense never ceased to be a child. Small in stature as an adult, he continued to look childlike and dressed as a schoolboy. His tastes, too, were largely those of a child. The childish dressing, especially, suggests autopaedophilia – autopaedophiles being those who continue to conceive of themselves as a child long after childhood, and who have a sexual attraction to themselves in that role alongside being attracted to actual children whom they regard as their peers. I have personally known a number of autopaedophilic men (and one woman), so I am sure this is not just an invention of the psychiatric imagination. There is no evidence of any paedophilic behavior by Hartley, so far as I am aware, but it may be significant that he became a school teacher, never married, and showed signs of troubled feelings in his poetry (see Long Time A Child…) and alcoholism.
Not far from Rydal Water is Coniston Water, on the shores of which the more or less all purpose public intellectual John Ruskin set up home in a mansion called Brantwood in 1871. I’ve been there. It’s a splendid place, open to the public, with numerous fine exhibits on show demonstrating the great man’s pioneering environmentalism, his interest in art and art history, his philosophy, politics and much else. Tolstoy described him as, “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”, which give some idea of his status in Victorian England.
What I could not find openly displayed, though, was evidence relating to his sexuality. What we know is that his marriage to Effie Gray ended disastrously, annulled after six years on grounds of non-consummation. Effie, in a letter to her parents, claimed that he found her “person” repugnant. She wrote that finally, after long giving many excuses “this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April .” The cause of Ruskin’s disgust, according to his biographer, Mary Lutyens, was his revulsion at the sight of her pubic hair.
This is a very familiar story in the literary world, and there have been numerous attempts to explain away Ruskin’s feelings as having nothing to do with paedophilia: as with other child-oriented intellectuals, such as Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Benjamin Britten and Vladimir Nabokov, the dread diagnosis is always the one that admiring commentators are desperate to avoid.
But can they realistically avoid it in Ruskin’s case? I don’t think so: not when further evidence is taken into account, such as his relationship with Rose La Touche whom he fell in love with after meeting her when she was aged nine. Writing about Rose to Georgiana, wife of his artist friend Edward Burne-Jones, he confessed, “Do I want to keep her from growing up? Of course I do.” As another biographer, Joan Abse, wrote, “No idle remark this for he was well aware by now that the older girls became, the more their attractions diminished in his eyes. He liked them best, as he was to tell his friend, Lady Naesmith two years later, when they were ‘just in the very rose of dawn’.” He also admitted his feelings for young girls from aged 10 upwards n a letter of 1886 to his doctor, John Simon. And in letters to the artist Kate Greenaway he asked her to draw her “girlies” (as he called her child figures) naked.
Like Hartley Coleridge, Ruskin served as a teacher. Unsurprisingly, given his interests, this was at a girls’ school, Winnington Hall. He even had his own room there, which became a semi-permanent residence – shades of Jimmy Savile in more recent times! On his numerous visits he never failed to spend time romping, dancing, and playing hide-and-seek with the girl pupils.
Later on, he also enjoyed the company of children at the nearby Coniston school. “It is almost impossible in Coniston to meet a child whom it is not a sorrow to lose sight of,” he once said. Children from Coniston came to him for lessons, and for tea on Saturday afternoons. He even wanted to adopt one of the little girls of Coniston, a proposal which so alarmed his cousin Joan that she attempted to end the Saturday afternoon sessions – much to his fury. All in the all, the paedophilic pattern of Ruskin’s interests seems patently obvious, does it not?
Fortunately for Ruskin and the rest, though, it was not that difficult to avoid suspicion and scandal in those days. For one thing, Richard von Krafft-Ebing did not come up with the term paedophilia erotica until 1886, and the subject has only become a media and political obsession in the last few decades. People were a lot less aware of sexual attraction to children in Victorian times. Besides, in those innocent days it would have been generously assumed that the lofty minds of gentlemen and scholars were above the “depravity” (or whatever word they might have used) to which the wretched poor might fall prey. No, sir, they were poets, not paedophiles, two mutually exclusive categories!
These days, with celebrity paedophiles being exposed on an almost daily basis, and the internet buzzing with conspiracy theories of alleged covers ups of scandals “in high places”, the situation has been turned completely on its head: whereas at one time the more educated and wealthier classes were cut a lot of slack, they are now targeted for the highest levels of suspicion. Poets per se are far more marginal figures than they used to be, so no one is particularly targeting them for suspicion. On the other hand, when they are thought about at all it tends to be as oddballs: the male poet is simply assumed to be rather peculiar and pathetic, rather than prestigious as in the days of the dashing Lord Byron – who may have been famously “mad, bad and dangerous to know” but in an enviable way, not a despised one, even though he too chased a lot of very young tail, of both sexes.
Mercifully, though, the outdoorsman, the fell-walker, is still regarded as a healthy sort of cove, and what I understand Americans would call a regular guy. So in the hills I find myself agreeably average, a veritable Norman Normal, invariably greeted amiably by occasional fellow wanderers, as is the tradition: each of us recognizes in the other a kindred spirit as another lover of nature. To paraphrase Keats, that is all we know and all we need to know.
So, to those racked with angst in an identity crisis, whether of the much talked about mid-life variety, or their problematic sexual identity, or whatever, I say stop worrying: come up into the hills and seize an identity opportunity!