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On trying to get it right, even though I can't

06 Jan 2016

Edward Samuel Wesley De Cobain entered the Antrim Court dock in March 1893 believing, at least outwardly, that he was innocent.

He was, right up until he was expelled in 1892, a well-liked representative for East Belfast in the House of Commons. His ardent defense of Protestantism, Unionism, organized labour, and Belfast’s working-classes was hardly spotless during his tenure (1886-1892), but it set him aside from the rest and it nevertheless earned him respect from his constituents and fellow Unionists. He must have thought that his marital status would work against him, but he would have put his own mind at ease, for after all, he was a member of multiple all-male clubs, the Orange-Order and Parliament being among the most worthy of note. Not least, he was a zealous Methodist evangelical; his character witnesses made sure to stress this last bit. So as De Cobain made his way to the dock, shackled, he must have surely thought that if anyone could parry a buggery charge, it would be him. He could not will the jury into agreement.

Over the last year or so I’ve focused on articulating De Cobain’s story, and that process finally culminated with the submission of a manuscript a few weeks back. Before I stumbled over these skeletons, I was considering writing a publishing history of two Victorian working-class periodicals, The British Workman and Workwoman. I was dejected when I found out that someone else had written a lengthy thesis on the very same topic sometime in the late 2000s (kuddos). It’s difficult to put that moment into words. That moment when you realize that an idea that you had been shaping and refining in your mind, convinced by (relying on?) its originality, had already been put into words is trying. If nothing else, I learned an important lesson about thorough preliminary research.

So I went back to what I knew best: the Victorian periodical press. By then I had developed an interest in the history of Victorian sexuality, and the popular homosexual scandals of the late 19th century (Dublin Castle, Cleveland Street, and Wilde) were fresh in my mind. When I first read of De Cobain’s trial in The Times, I thought nothing of it, not because it wasn’t interesting, but because I assumed that other historians had already told (and re-told) his story. I was right, but mostly wrong. Indeed, historians have spilled ink on De Cobain, but all together their efforts total to about five pages of printed text. How many pages have been dedicated to Lord Somerset or Wilde, I wonder?

As I continued to explore De Cobain’s antics I began to periodize the scandal differently. How did him absconding from England in 1891 affect the trial? How did Westminster react? How did the press paint De Cobain? What was he up to whilst in Spain, France, Belgium, and in the United States? What did his family think? Why did he return to face his accusers? Not least, what if the actual trial in March 1893 wasn’t the most important part of this whole thing? I learned very quickly that I was telling a more complete story about De Cobain. But more importantly, I learned that I was using De Cobain’s experiences to tell a story about reactions and tolerances. This was to be a story about voices in the press and otherwise that frothed with self-righteous male indignation against an alleged sexual deviant. This was to be a story about timid voices calling for candor and judicial integrity. This was to be a story about a troubled man searching for answers, both from his brother and from God. This was to be my historiographical contribution.

I write all this because today I received in the mail a number of documents that, I hope, will allow me to write a definitive account of what happened in that courtroom. As fate would have it (or my own incompetence, the jury is out), I discovered these documents after finishing and submitting the final manuscript, so I’m not entirely sure if I’ll have to revise or add to the story that I was trying to tell there. But even if these documents turn out to be a waste of cash, they’ve already reminded me of something that I’d forgotten after I pressed “send” weeks ago: definitive accounts of anything are impossible to craft, but we can try.