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).
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