Untold lives blog

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08 February 2022

LGBTQ Histories in the Archives

As LGBT+ History month gets underway this February, here at the British Library we have published our LGBTQ+ Histories collection guide.  This guide highlights some amazing archives and manuscripts within the Modern Archives collections that relate to LGBTQ+ histories in the UK.  Exploring collections through the 17th to 21st centuries, it encompasses records relating to the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals, archives from theorists of sexuality and gender, archives relating to LGBTQ+ activism, as well as creative works that explore LGBTQ+ themes.  The guide outlines some of the difficulties and complexities that arise in both identifying and researching such collections, but it also offers insight into the significant research possibilities these collections offer to readers.  These collections shine a light on histories of oppression, of hidden love, of divergent interpretations of Queer sexualities and genders, and offer first-hand accounts of LGBTQ+ lives through the ages.  This blog highlights just a few of the collections noted in the LGBTQ+ Histories guide.

17th Century collection items that reference same-sex relations are predominately available as records of prosecution, such as the confession and punishment of Bishop John Atherton (1598-1640) recorded in Sloane manuscripts.

Confession and punishment of Bishop John Atherton recorded in Sloane manuscripts.Sloane MS 1818, f.177. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Allusions to same-sex relations also appear in manuscript-circulated poetry of the 17th century.  Manuscript production offered more opportunities to make such references as their content would not have to pass through the Stationers' Company for approval to publish and reproduce.  Poets such as John Donne could circulate their poetry away from the eyes of the censor and might have been emboldened to make reference to same-sex relations more directly.  In ‘Sapho to Philanis’, Donne explores the Sappho’s yearning for her lesbian love interest, Philaenis.

Manuscript of 'Sapho to Philanis’Egerton MS 3884, f.86.v. © British Library Board.

Many of the 17th century manuscripts explore LGBTQ+ lives from the outside through articles of persecution or satirical works.  However, as we travel through the centuries one can find items of personal correspondence or creativity that offer personal experiences of LGBTQ+ lives.  One example is the correspondence between Lord Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, and Stephen Fox-Strangways, 1st Earl of Ilchester.  These affectionate letters capture some of the emotion that infused their decade long relationship.

Letter from Lord Hervey to Stephen Fox  15 October 1737Add MS 51345, f.80. Letter from Lord Hervey to Stephen Fox, 15 October 1737 - ‘ I have loved you ever since I knew you, which is now many years, so much better than most people are capable of loving anything…’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The papers of The Chevalier D’Eon shed light on the life of one of the most fascinating figures of the 18th century.  The Chevalier assumed different genders at different periods of their life.  Their life as a spy, diplomat, author, collector and soldier is recounted through letters, journals, papers and ephemera.  D’Eon would later provide inspiration for theorist Havelock Ellis who explored sexuality and gender in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.  The British Library holds the papers of Ellis and these are a rich resource for those exploring the emergence of categories of sexual and gender orientation.

Mademoiselle de Beaumont or the Chevalier D’Eon dressed in a costume which is female on the left and male on the rightMademoiselle de Beaumont or the Chevalier D’Eon, portrait from London Magazine, September 1777, Add MS 11340. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These are just a few of the many diverse and fascinating collections mentioned in the guide.  We hope that readers will reach further into these collections and discover more themselves, so that they may bring to life more of these hidden histories.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Collection Guide: LGBTQ+ histories: archives and manuscripts: 1600 to present 
BL LGBTQ Histories

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