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Book Review: Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963

9th November 2020

Christopher Wells, University of Sheffield

Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

Gemma Romain’s biography of Patrick Nelson, a queer Black migrant in interwar London, offers an extensive account of both Nelson’s childhood in Jamaica and the fascinating intersectional sites, spaces and subjectivities that Nelson experienced after his arrival into Britain in 1937. Romain’s archival research on letters, paintings, drawings and newspaper articles, including Nelson’s personal letters to his lifelong friend and lover Duncan Grant, sensitively portrays the fascinatingly intersectional experiences of Nelson in both Jamaica and Britain. Romain’s prodigious research is receptive to the multifaceted sites and spaces that Nelson inhabited: as an aristocrat’s valet in rural Wales, a Black queer man in 1930s London, an artist’s model, a law student, a recruit to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and as a Prisoner of War during the Second World War. These diverse experiences, particularly Nelson’s relationship with Bloomsbury artist Duncant Grant, offer a much-needed addition to known history of queer Black identities within both queer and global modernist studies. Romain’s attention to the various ‘queer and black social spaces’ (p. 77) that Nelson inhabited offers a refreshing study of same-sex intimacies because Nelson’s experiences capture those queer modernist histories undocumented by the medical institutions of sexology (the early twentieth-century study of human sexuality as a science). In doing so, Romain departs from an authorial inclination to frame homosexual histories in modernism within this sexological context, a critical framework deployed by other biographers such as Thomas Wirth. In his introduction to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance (2002), an edited collection of the works of Richard Bruce Nugent, Wirth is limited by an over-reliance on the influence of sexual science on Nugent’s literary aesthetic. He makes various references to German psychiatrist Richard von-Krafft Ebing to examine Ebing’s sexological influences on Nugent. In contrast, Romain’s focus on the intersectionality of the everyday reminds us that complex and fractured experiences of queerness, immigration and class-based limitations are crucial components that comprise the universal themes of love, community and belonging. In this context, Romain offers a biography of Nelson that ‘does not attempt to recreate Patrick’s life in its minute and complete detail but instead it focuses on what the archive tells us and what it does not tell us about Patrick’s experiences of life in Britain and contextualizes Patrick’s life experiences within its broader historical context’ (p.55).

In departing from a Euro-centric and sexological lens, Romain offers a narrative that showcases how the personal is intrinsically intertwined with the political. Romain shows us how Nelson’s father’s experience of cricket, for example, was both a ‘characteristic of British colonial life’ (p. 14) and a site of Black pride. In her focus on cricket, Romain demonstrates one of those wonderful moments of good biography writing in which a lot is extrapolated from a less obviously significant element of a person’s biography; less obviously significant, that is, than the more visible moments of ‘racial uplift ideology’ (an emancipatory movement propelled by sociologically-minded African-American writers such as Langston Hughes). Romain captures the essence of intersectionality in cricket, which engages with even those ‘Victorian values associated with cricket, such as obedience and submission to authority’ and even ‘white masculine performance’ (p.20).

Chapter four, which traces Nelson’s relationship with Duncan Grant, will be of particular interest to scholars working on race and sexuality studies, as well as those interested in Bloomsbury’s intimate networks. Romain highlights the disparities between Nelson (a working-class queer Jamaican man with no secured residence) and Grant (a white, privileged member of Bloomsbury). Romain frames Nelson’s ‘cross-racial’ intimacy against the backdrop of an uneasy site of tension within Bloomsbury as both a ‘space where many people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia studied’ and a hostile space of racist intolerance and ‘unfathomable depths of ignorance’in a post-war London (p.77). In doing so, she effectively enmeshes two uniquely different experiences of the same Black and queer space, to depict Nelson’s life as a valuable interesctional identity within modernist studies. Romain’s extensive archival research on London’s queer Black spaces, from lodging house and hostels in the East End to cosmopolitan night clubs (such as The Shim Sham Club that opened up in 1935), attends to intermediate spaces of queer history. Romain shows how Nelson navigated these spaces that enabled him to transgress ‘heteronormative mandates’ and to escape the hegemonic whiteness of other areas in London.[1]

For myself, Romain’s focus on the intersectionality of Nelson’s everyday experiences has inspired me to expand the parameters of my own research in sexuality and race. For example, her holistic approach to examining Nelson’s life manages to capture the influence of queer Black musicians on Nelson. Romain’s discussion of Leslie Hutchinson, a Grenadian bisexual musician and performer, has encouraged me to reflect more critically on how the music of the decade fuelled a resistance to monolithic modes of identifying as either hetero- or homosexually.

This biography, undoubtedly, is a significant intervention into scholarship on sexual histories and modernism, with its interest in a figure that warrants further research to diversify modernist studies. Biographies such as this, that foreground the intersectional experiences of their subject, have the potential to extend research in both global modernism and in queer studies. Ralf Dose’s biography of late nineteenth-century German physician Magnus Hirshfeld, Magnus Hirshfeld: The Orgins of the Gay Liberation Movement (2014), examines Hirschfeld’s life in a similar way by writing in the  intersections of science, discourses on homosexual emancipation in Germany, and literary representations of same-sex desire in a global context.[2] These crossovers and intersections of the everyday, in both Romain and Dose’s biographies, will inspire future scholarship on race, sexuality and class to be less restricted by dominant histories of sexuality (Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality [1976-2018] being a notable example). Ultimately, this biography of Nelson reminds us that those lives that matter should be captured authentically, and that personal letters are just as fruitful an avenue of exploring queer identities as are those more heavily documented case studies of ‘sexual aberration’ (in Sigmund Freud’s words), case studies which constitute the  more Euro-centric sexual sciences of modernism.[3] In this respect, the book successfully delivers on its aims of exploring ‘Patrick’s life experiences within its broader historical context’ (p.56).  Romain foregrounds the personal, discerning and recovering those Black queer histories that are essential for a critically-informed portrait of queer Black modernist lives


[1] Jonathan Alexander, ‘Introduction’, in Bisexuality and Queer Theory Intersections, Connections and Challenges (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2012), 1-20, p.1.

[2] Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).

[3] Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, in The Essentials of Psychoanalysis (London: Vintage, 2005 [1905]) pp. 277–299 (p. 278).


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