Sunday, 26 May 2013

Penguin no. 1369: Thin Ice
by Compton Mackenzie

I began to study the phenomenon of homosexuality and was amazed to discover that so far from being the sign of a decadent society it was conspicuously prevalent in England during the first quarter of the eighteenth century when the national vigour was at its height. If the penalty of death was no deterrent then, what effective deterrent could the law devise to-day? ... One day at my club I heard a top-notch Treasury counsel aver his belief that three-quarters of the male suicides in England were due to blackmail for homosexual offences. I was appalled. Yet I have to confess with shame that I remained silent because I fancied that if I showed too much interest I should be suspected of habits that exposed me to the possibility of being blackmailed myself.

In the context of the time it was written, this story probably provides a fairly sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality. Henry Fortescue is certainly an appealing character: he is forthright, capable and determined, and exceptionally attractive to women, but they hold no interest for him, as his inclinations are the other way.

Apart from some distaste expressed for those with an exaggeratedly effeminate manner, there is never any criticism of the inclination itself nor of the associated behaviours, but nonetheless homosexuality is being presented as an affliction, comparable with a propensity to alcoholism. The idea is that both are degenerate tendencies which could and should be fought, both for the benefit of the individual and for those who know them and, in this story, for the benefit of the country as well. As alluded to by the title, indulging in such behaviours carried risks which could have long-reaching consequences at a time when the commission of homosexual acts was still a criminal offence. Abstention from homosexual activity, or at the very least discretion in this regard, is therefore being presented as a moral choice.

But it is clear from the passage quoted above that the author is also arguing that it should be nothing other than a matter of private morality. He suggests that the criminal sanctions which applied at the time were ineffective and inappropriate, and encouraged the commission of far more serious crimes including blackmail and corruption. Moreover he implies that such laws could impose risks for men who were not homosexual as well, as suspicion alone could sully a reputation. An unknowing visit to the wrong club, or an unfortunate choice of companion, and anyone could find themselves the inadvertent victim of gossip and innuendo, and therefore potentially of blackmail. These were subjects of public interest at the time this book was published in 1956, as the Montagu case of a few years earlier had led to the establishment of the Wolfenden committee which was contemporaneously considering aspects of legislation which regulated sexual activity.

We know from the beginning that Henry Fortescue will be killed in the Blitz at the age of 62, having failed to reach the level of success predicted for him in his youth. It had always seemed evident that Henry was destined for great things, and perhaps no one was more certain of his vocation and assured future than Henry himself, for he had charm and talent, and very definite views on how to maintain Britain's position in the world and avoid war in Europe. He had his career mapped in advance: a few notable speeches while at Balliol to ensure his election  as President of the Union, followed by a good showing on behalf of the Unionist party in an unwinnable seat, and then the reward of a safe constituency, with the interim years spent travelling widely in order to build up his knowledge and expertise. He was aiming for a position in the Cabinet, and ultimately the Prime Ministership, and nothing was to be allowed to interfere with his progress. He was determined to sublimate his homosexual inclinations, and practise absolute self denial.

And it is never clear exactly what goes wrong. Perhaps he had made enemies, or perhaps he had been aligned with the wrong faction within his party, but by middle-age he found himself overlooked for promotion with his career stalled, and this makes him bitter about the experiences he had denied himself on account of his ambition. Failure induces a recklessness in his behaviour which the narrator finds shocking. But a middle-aged homosexual is also being presented as a rather tragic figure, for he admits himself that a man in his position must pay for attention. It is being suggested that the same factors which drive other men to drink, drive Henry to imprudently seek the company of younger men.

The aspect I enjoyed most was the detail sketched out in the background to this story of the impact of Henry's homosexuality upon his family and friends. Compton Mackenzie provides a survey of the political events of the final years of the 19th Century and the first forty years of the 20th, focusing both on England and on the Empire, with the scene shifting between London, Morocco, Kenya and the Seychelles. The passage of time is conveyed through the rhythms of political life, with specific references to general elections, the political personalities of those years, and questions in the House on contemporary topics of interest such as Irish Home Rule and tariff reform, providing some perspective on the times in which his story is set.


  1. So sad.

    All those people dying of shame.


  2. What an excellent summary of a book I read some years ago.

  3. What an excellent summary of a book I read some years ago.



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