David M. Bergeron. King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire. Iowa City: University of Iowa P, 1999. viii+251pp. ISBN 0 774 56690.
Arizona State University
Perry, Curtis. "Review of David M. Bergeron, King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 11.1-7<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-1/perrev.htm>.
David Bergeron's King James & Letters of Homoerotic Desire contains five sections. The first of these is an introduction that discusses renaissance letters as vehicles for the expression of desire. Desires discussed in this section include but are not limited to the erotic variety. The last portion of the book offers a number of primary texts: seventy five letters exchanged between King James and George Villiers (all previously published and here re-edited), and James's allegorical poem "The Phoenix," published by the king in 1584. The heart of the book, though, consists of a series of chapters describing the relationships between King James and his three most prominent court favourites: Esmé Stuart d'Aubigny, Duke of Lennox, the king's older French cousin who briefly dominated the Scottish court; Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; and George Villiers, the great Duke of Buckingham. Each of these chapters offers a narrative of the relationship between king and favourite contextualized by discussion of such personal letters as survive to document it.
One of Bergeron's main tasks here is to invert the long-standing and basically homophobic historiographical tradition that has seen these relationships as homosexual and then associated them with James's other supposed flaws: moral weakness, effeminacy, and political ineffectiveness. Bergeron, as his title implies, also treats these relationships as erotic. But, in a welcome revision of a tired old story, he offers a sympathetic account of James as both companion and king. Bergeron in fact makes rather coy use of homophobic accounts of James by older historians like David Harris Willson, quoting them to introduce the question of James's homoerotic desire before justly criticizing their handling of it.
Among the most compelling aspects of Bergeron's narrative is the way he is able to see multiple bases for the king's intense relationships with his favourites: erotic desires dovetail with James's life-long yearning for familial intimacy, and at the same time these relationships also involve various political expediencies. In this regard, the book might be thought of as a continuation of the work done in Bergeron's 1991 book Royal Family, Royal Lovers, which discussed similar kinds of affective overlap within James's various relationships. Some of the extant letters are indeed quite extraordinary when read in this context: there is something moving, for example, about the human dilemmas James faced in his late dealings with Robert Carr. The well-known letter, from 1615, in which James admonishes Carr for withholding his affection (80-84), is quite striking as an attempt to balance personal attachment and annoyance with a sense of royal authority and the decorum that entails. Freeing James from the homophobic historiography that has tended to see such letters as signs of personal and political ineffectiveness makes it possible to reread them as remarkable documentary evidence of the lived experience of kingship.
At their best, then, Bergeron's narratives make it possible to see what is compelling in such letters. But Bergeron's eagerness to treat letters as transparent evidence of authentic personal feeling makes his handling of them seem quite naïve at times. Letters are treated throughout as portals into "that private space that we may recognize as a human heart" (31). Isn't it possible, one wonders, for letters to be unreliable guides to their authors' feelings for any number of reasons? What if the author is writing something formulaic? Or is being less than forthcoming? Or imagines that the letter may be read by others? Or employs a secretary? Such possibilities raise all kinds of questions about the basic methodological assumptions of this book, but they are either brushed aside or ignored altogether.
In some cases, these concerns are raised by the semi-public nature of the documents Bergeron draws upon. Twenty-six of the seventy-five Buckingham/James letters reprinted as the book's final section, for example, are also addressed to or from a third party. Can they then be assumed to display transparently the private relationship of two men? Presumably, such letters are in a sense public, and so using them as evidence of private feelings must at least entail figuring out what effect the third party has on their expression. Even more problematic is the book's handling of James's allegorical poem "The Phoenix," which Bergeron treats as a personal letter to Esmé Stuart written by the king after the favourite's death: "this poem takes us into the king's private space through allegory and gives voice to James's desire" (33). I am persuaded that the poem contains elements of personal expression, but since James chose to have it printed in his collection The Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Arte of Poesie (1584) it seems deeply problematic to treat it exclusively as an expression of private feeling.
More broadly, I found myself wondering how James and his favourites conceived of the privacy of these letters. Did they imagine that they would be destroyed or that they would remain unread forever? Presumably these letters have been preserved because of the political importance of the men involved. Might James or his favourites have expected such preservation and assumed that other eyes might some day be cast over the lines they wrote to each other? Since the letters exchanged between James and Robert Cecil in the years leading up to Queen Elizabeth's death employed a rudimentary code, it seems clear that James at least was fully aware of the possibility that even personal letters might be read by the wrong people. In the absence of any satisfactory discussion of such issues, the book's argument takes on a kind of circularity: these letters are authentic because letters are authentic.
Toward the end of his introductory chapter, Bergeron sketches three specific claims that he wants to pursue. First, that the letters under discussion open up "the interior space of the king's private life in unparalleled ways" (30). Second, that the letters are vehicles for expressing all kinds of desire. And third, that each of the collections of letters exchanged between King James and his favourites can be studied as a collaborative expression of a homoerotic bond. Each of these claims, though, depends upon the assumption that epistolary expression offers an authentic glimpse of private feeling. The failure to examine this assumption critically gets in the way of the book's important larger project: using the letters sent between James and his favorites to shed light upon the relationships within which they were produced.
- Bergeron, David. Royal Family, Royal Lovers: King James of England and Scotland. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 1991.
- Willson, David Harris.King James VI and I. 1956. Rpt., New York: Oxford UP, 1967.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).