The First World War poet who experienced the ‘creative, intellectual and sexual freedom’ of the Bloomsbury set.
Joy Porter discusses a new book that explores how – as the 1918-20 pandemic ebbed – the bisexual poet lover of Siegfried Sassoon lived life to the max amongst society’s elite.
* Join the British Library book launch of Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War by Professor Joy Porter on Tuesday 15 June 2021, 7.30-8.30pm.
The discussion will be chaired by Man Booker and Orange Prize judge Erica Wagner. The event includes babelised film footage from the period and actor readings of Prewett’s poems. Follow the event @treatiedspaces and @britishlibrary.
Sexual license post-pandemic
What can the past teach us about living through the aftermath of pandemic? New research on the sexual abandon of the literary élite as the 1918-20 pandemic retreated suggests that as we emerge into a post-pandemic world, we should brace ourselves for the onset of another burst of sexual freedom.
History suggests that when pandemics end, populations feel an exceptional sense of pressure release. In the past this has moved the dial on cultural norms and prompted shifts with long-term implications. The effect of not having to wear masks and of once again being able to socialise in businesses, theatres and shops is so intoxicating it has the capacity to affect behaviours across the social spectrum.
During 1918-20 the sense of pressure release was acute. The British had lived through two of the deadliest events in history. The First World War had killed 10 million worldwide and over 700,000 British servicemen, while the “Spanish” flu had killed 20-50 million and infected a third of the planet.
The flu attacked the young and healthy – men like 27-year-old Canadian veteran Frank Prewett fresh from service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He had survived being buried alive by fallout from an exploding shell at the Front and the experience had left him only half-convinced that he had in fact made it out alive. He contracted influenza but survived, emerging determined to live life to the full.
Adopting a new self while recovering from shell shock
Amidst the fear, confusion and social vertigo of the final stages of the war, Prewett fell in with glamourous, exceptionally rich fellow poet and aristocrat Siegfried Sassoon. The two met near Edinburgh while receiving treatment for shell shock in hospital. Almost immediately, Sassoon was completely smitten by his handsome friend, who claimed his smouldering good looks were due to his Indigenous American ancestry. Sassoon introduced him to the sexual freedoms on offer at Garsington Manor, Oxfordshire, frequented by everyone who mattered – from Thomas Hardy to W.B Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, – and at 40, Half Moon Street, Piccadilly, the London salon of Robbie Ross, the lover of the late Oscar Wilde.
Sassoon and homosexual freedom during and after the war
Prior to introducing Prewett, Sassoon had also introduced fellow poet Wilfred Owen to the homosexually welcoming context of Half Moon Street and prior to his death, Owen had rented a flat of his own above Ross’s.
Prewett made only oblique reference to homosexuality in his poems, but did publish ‘Lark Song’ in 1922 which contained the lines:
I feel I never shall express
This love, this love of mine,
Only the birds this dear excess
Can free-heart round make shine.
Sassoon’s thinking, in contrast, was much more advanced. He had read Edward Carpenter’s 1906 book The Intermediate Sex and had thrilled at its suggestion that homosexual love was unique, superior to the more functional heterosexuality, and linked to an artistic or philosophical nature. Sassoon had already had a very loving relationship with a fellow soldier who died in combat, Lieutenant David Thomas. Afterwards, he wrote in his diary “I lay under the smooth bole of a beech-tree, wondering, and longing for the bodily presence that was so fair”.
Sexual freedom post-pandemic
The mix of creative, intellectual and sexual freedom Prewett experienced post-pandemic and post-war was symptomatic of larger, pent-up changes within the Anglosphere that societies would find hard to repress.
German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld learned that transvestites had been in the trenches with ball gowns in their back packs, and drug and nudist clubs had sprung up during the war in Paris, London and Berlin. 1918 saw both the first mention of lesbianism in a British court as well as the publication of Marie Stopes’ Married Love, a text giving British women advice on how to control reproduction.
Another seemingly small but telling change that solidified in this period was people using first names when introduced and buying sofas as items of household furniture – both indicators of new levels of intimacy across gender divides. The impulse to pursue pleasure in the wake of the threat of death worldwide was a tangible historic force that kept growing as the twenties began to roar and more people moved from the country to the towns.
Joy Porter is Professor of Indigenous & Environmental History at the University of Hull, Leverhulme Major Research Fellow 2019-2022 and Co-Principal Investigator of the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster (treatiedspaces.com). Catch her at the launch of her new book on Tuesday 15 June 2021, 7.30-8.30pm.