The special collections at King’s include rare editions of literary output of some noteworthy LGBT 20th-century writers—Kingsman E.M. Forster and war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—and one surprise, Alan Turing. King’s Archives and Library were pleased to mark LGBT+ History Month by showcasing this material, along with a display of borrowable LGBT-themed books, in an exhibition in King’s Library. We are delighted to be able to share the exhibition here.
Probably while undergoing therapy in the 1950s, Turing began a near-autobiographical short story called ‘Pryce’s Buoy’. The story is about an interplanetary travel scientist, Alec Pryce, who resembles Alan in several ways. Just as Alan devised the idea that came to be known as the Turing machine, Alec, at the same age, comes up with ‘the idea which is now commonly known as ‘Pryce’s buoy’. ‘Alec always felt a glow of pride when this phrase was used. The rather obvious double-entendre rather pleased him too. He always liked to parade his homosexuality…’
The love interest in ‘Pryce’s Buoy’ is called Ron[ald] Miller, not a million miles from Arnold Murray, the other party involved when Alan was prosecuted for homosexuality.
A Trinity physicist named Maurice Pryce (1913–2003) was a Cambridge colleague of Turing. Maurice Pryce and Turing seem to have met at Cambridge but would no doubt quickly have discovered they shared a history in Guildford. Turing visited his parents there during school holidays from 1927, even into his College days, and in Guildford he indulged his interest in astronomy. Maurice Pryce attended the Royal Grammar School in Guildford from 1923 to 1929. The fictional Alec Pryce was an astronomical scientist.
‘Pryce’s Buoy’ describes Alec picking up Ron, a small-time criminal (including male prostitution), while Christmas shopping. The notion of the bourgeois professional picking up a working-class man was common in the years before homosexuality was partially legalised in Britain in 1967. It is one of the similarities between ‘Pryce’s Buoy’ and E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel of homosexual love Maurice, first drafted in 1913.
It is possible that Turing learned of the Maurice manuscript from P.N. Furbank, a good friend of both Forster and Turing. He was Forster’s authorised biographer and one of Turing’s executors. Furbank came up to Emmanuel College in 1939.
If Turing had seen or heard of the Maurice manuscript, that might subconsciously have informed the choice of his hero’s name: Pryce for the real-life Maurice Pryce and Alec because in Forster’s novel the second of Maurice’s lovers is a working-class gamekeeper called Alec.
Another parallel between the fictional stories and real life was the threat of blackmail faced by gay men. Turing met Murray outside a cinema in 1952, took him to lunch (just as Alec took Ron to lunch in Turing’s story), eventually entertained him at home and loaned him money. They wrangled over the money with Murray threatening to ‘do his worst’. In Maurice, Alec tells Maurice ‘you reckernize it wouldn’t very well suit you if certain things came out’.
Siegfried Sassoon came up to Clare College in 1905, a few years after Forster had left King’s. They knew of each other, had several aborted attempts at meeting and finally did so in 1919, soon after which Sassoon declared his homosexuality to Forster. Sassoon was one of the first people with whom Forster shared his short story ‘The Life to Come’, also published posthumously.
The story begins with Paul Pinmay, a missionary, going to bed with a great South Seas prince, Vithobai. For this he carries a great deal of guilt. Vithobai becomes Christian, taking the name Barnabas, and on the eve of both their weddings comes to Paul with a gift and confession of love.
Sassoon gave Forster several inscribed copies of his books of poetry and prose which are now in the Forster collection at King’s. The most affectionate inscription is on his 1950 book of poems, Common Chords, one of 107 copies printed on hand-made paper.
One cannot skip past Sassoon without mentioning his protégé Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) who died in World War I.
Owen and Sassoon met at Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh for the treatment of shell-shocked officers. It is believed that Owen, like Sassoon and other literary friends such as Robert Ross (Oscar Wilde’s literary executor, who was briefly a student at King’s), was also homosexual. As the Dictionary of National Biography says: ‘What is certain, however, is that Owen and Sassoon wrote more eloquently than other poets of the tragedy of boys killed in battle because they felt that tragedy more acutely, more personally.’ This year is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of this early edition of Owen’s poems, which includes an introduction by Sassoon.