In sexuality, Peter Gay began to argue some years ago, the Victorians were not at all as they represented themselves. In 1984, on the first page of his five-volume work, The Bourgeois Experience, Gay explained that the reserve and moral earnestness of the Victorians had "seduced" (a carefully chosen verb) us into believing their erotic lives were extremely limited and almost comically proper. By bringing a Freudian curiosity to everything from public sculpture to private diaries, Gay demonstrated otherwise.
The Victorian bedroom has since become a favourite research site for students of sexual history, but in all the material they've uncovered there's probably no story odder than the one Susan Chitty tells in Playing the Game: A Biography of Sir Henry Newbolt (Quartet).
What makes Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) especially notable in this context is that he was famously, gloriously, even flagrantly Victorian--more Victorian, certainly, than the queen. A totally respectable figure, Newbolt was a lawyer, a novelist, a playwright, and a magazine editor. Above all, he was a poet who sang the virtues of chivalry and sportsmanship combined in the service of the British Empire.
In 1897 his reputation took form around a poem about a schoolboy cricketer who grows up to fight in Africa. There, in the panic of battle ("The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead"), he's stirred to heroic action by a school days memory: "his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote - / Play up! play up! and play the game!" Those last eight words became famous as the expression of Newbolt's belief that war should be fought in the spirit taught by games masters in good English schools. One critic said Newbolt could lift hearts like Tennyson. Another called his work "eminently virile" (which, at the time, was praise).
Susan Chitty, the biographer of Edward Lear and Charles Kingsley, is married to Sir Henry Newbolt's great nephew. She pays homage to Newbolt's verse, and notes that poets such as John Betjeman and Kingsley Amis admired it. But clearly she's more interested in his life, for reasons that soon become obvious.
As a 25-year-old lawyer, Henry fell in love with Margaret Duckworth, a woman of great charm who had many qualities associated with young men. She rode to hounds at a furious clip (much faster than Henry) and she was as interested in science as in music; she defied her hyper-religious mother by studying Darwinian biology. Henry liked her mannish side (and would begin letters to her with "Dear Lad") but when he started to court her an impediment emerged. Margaret was already in love with someone else, her cousin, a beautiful young woman named Ella Coltman. They were both members of the Grecians, a club of women who studied Greek poetry, disdained the company of men, and privately gave each other male names drawn from the classics. Margaret announced she would marry Henry only if Ella became part of their intimate life together, and Henry agreed.
For years, Henry went to the law courts every day while Margaret went over to visit Ella at her family's mansion. All three spent evenings together, and Newbolt's friends understood that when they invited Henry and Margaret for the weekend, they invited Ella as well. Even so, Ella began complaining to Henry that she felt left out, an unwanted third party.
Chitty explains that Newbolt solved that problem by making Ella his mistress. Margaret understood. The women were not precisely equal (Margaret had the children, Ella played aunt), but they appear not to have been jealous of each other. Newbolt scrupulously divided his sexual attention. He left among his papers a ledger page showing columns of figures which, Chitty tells us, "represent the number of times he slept with each of his women each month between 1904 and 1917, averaging as much as 12 per head per month."
In middle age they reached a new arrangement, with Ella in a London house (now marked with a plaque in Newbolt's honour) and Margaret in the country. But there were complications. Henry fell in love with a third woman whom neither Margaret nor Ella liked; since she complained a lot, they named her Lydia Languish. And Margaret found another man, the sculptor Henry Furse, in whose house Margaret and Newbolt lived for a time. So Newbolt at that point had two wives and a girlfriend, Margaret two husbands. Nevertheless, the original triangle was still in place at Newbolt's death.
His literary reputation, on the other hand, withered. In England the moral squalor of the First World War made his boyish verses feel grotesquely obsolete, as he acknowledged. Elsewhere in the empire, his sensibility had a longer life. In 1923 he made a cross-country lecture tour of Canada and discovered to his dismay that wherever he went, audiences loudly demanded he recite "Play up," apparently the only Newbolt poem they knew. "It's a kind of Frankenstein's Monster that I created thirty years ago," he complained. And its status in Canada lasted for at least another generation. When I went to public school in the early 1940s it was still in our poetry anthology, a perfect example of imperial tradition surviving at the extremities of empire long after becoming unfashionable at the centre.