It was a surprisingly cordial interaction, however. Wolf took the news on the chin, and later expressed her gratitude: “It’s such an important story and I welcome the chance to correct these two out of hundreds of citations and make it perfect.” Her publishers regretted the error but stated they believed the overall thesis still held.
[ Read more about the interview and Wolf’s response to the errors. ]
Does it? In a very general sense. The book grew out of Wolf’s 2015 doctoral dissertation at Oxford, on the poet John Addington Symonds. She argues that 1857, the year Symonds turned 17, was one of the pivotal years of history, when a confluence of social factors — ideas about disease and contagion, a nascent women’s rights movement — whipped up a storm of “hysterical moral aversion” to homosexuality, culminating in the state’s encroachment on private life, those arrests and the executions that Sweet contested.
Symonds, a lifelong invalid, wrote relentlessly about the naturalness of same-sex desire. He circulated explicit poems among his friends, corresponded with Walt Whitman, collaborated with the sexologist Havelock Ellis and wrote a memoir that he left to be published posthumously. He was a great reformer, according to Henry James, and, to Wolf, one of the first modern gay activists.
Even if Symonds did not write under the threat of execution, there was still, at the time, the risk of blackmail, imprisonment, disgrace. His fear, and his bravery, is not in doubt. Henry James’s great story “The Beast in the Jungle” is often read as an allegory for the silences of gay lives in history, the secrecy, loneliness and negations (not least those of James’s own life). How fully Symonds lived in contrast; he was open with his wife, who seems to have accepted him, and his daughters. He sought out sex and love, and found a lifelong companion in Angelo Fusato, a gondelier.
But Wolf’s errors matter. She has backpedaled since the scandal, insisting that hers is not meant to be a “social investigation” but the analysis of a “mood” — never mind how explicitly her book argues that one year — 1857 — saw the birth of state-created homophobia, as she sees it, with ramifications that continue to this day. The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts; a long, lavish opening sequence reveals the ritual one must undertake before handling Symonds’s manuscripts. They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed — there is a hint of A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” as Wolf plays literary detective in the archives, puzzling over Symonds’s codes and concealments — I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain might be capable of such wonders as turning a rogue breech baby right side up, but it can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.