The scandalous history of 8 Royal College Street revealed
PUBLISHED: 16:00 26 July 2017 | UPDATED: 16:40 26 July 2017
Home of the French poets and lovers who inspired Leonardo di Caprio and Bob Dylan singled out to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality
In order the mark half a century since the decriminalisation of homosexuality Historic England have listed or re-listed places that played a part in England’s Queer history.
“England has a rich and colourful history and yet there’s a gap when it comes to recording our LGBTQ heritage,” said Deborah Williams, Historic England’s listing team leader for the west.
“That’s why we want to uncover and share the untold stories of these buildings and places. They have a rightful place in our nation’s history.”
One of the 14 re-listed places is 8 Royal College Street in Camden Town, a building that hosted a particularly colourful chapter of Queer history.
The Grade II listed Regency property was briefly called home by French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud during their tempestuous love affair.
Verlaine is most associated with the Decadent movement, an artistic and literary movement that flourished in the late 19th century and, as the name suggests, was concerned with excess, perversity, moral decay and the attractions and ultimate disappointment of pleasure with a sprinkling of Satanic horror.
Inspired by Baudelaire, Rimbaud developed a symbolism style of poetry whose form and themes would inspire the Symbolism, Surrealist and Dadaist movements. His work was concerned with love, suffering, madness and the tortured soul of the poet.
The lovers relocated to London in September 1872 after scandalising the whole of Paris with their absinthe and hashish fuelled affair, eventually taking up lodgings on Royal College Street in May 1973.
Verlaine, then 27, had left his wife and son for the 17 year old Rimbaud after the younger man had sent him a series of love letters.
Whilst living in London they wrote some of their most important works. Rimbaud completed his collected work ‘Romances sans paroles’ (Songs without words), and Verlaine wrote ‘Une saison en enfer’ (A season in hell) one of his most celebrated extended prose poems.
But the hard-living pair were as famed for their wild behaviour as much as they were their art.
At 16 Rimbaud had written: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet”. According to his biographer Graham Robb so great was the young poets’ commitment to the lifestyle he rarely bathed, spiked one friend’s drink with sulphuric acid and defecated under the pillow of another.
Verlaine meanwhile was an alcoholic who became abusive when he drank. He was particularly taken with idiosyncrasies of Victorian London, noting that it was “prudish, but with every vice on offer”, and Londoners to be “permanently sozzled, despite ridiculous bills on drunkenness.”
Together with Rimbaud he loved to explore the streets of London and haunt the absinthe bars of Soho, then known as the French Quarter.
If creatively fertile the relationship was by all accounts toxic. After getting on the gin and the absinthe the couple would fight, sometimes mutilating each other with knives.
Everything came to a head a few months after they moved in to their Camden Town lodgings. Hanging out of an upstairs window Rimbaud observed his lover coming back from Camden market with a bottle of cooking oil and a herring held between thumb and forefinger, presumably with the intention of a fish supper.
The younger man called out a rude comment on the ridiculous figure Verlaine was cutting, and here accounts diverge. Some say the offended Frenchman slapped his boyfriend around the face with the offending fish.
According to another report Verlaine simply stormed into the house, put the food down, packed his bags without a word and jumped in a taxi to the docks and caught the next boat to Belgium.
Rimbaud chased him down but he refused to return to London, and it was in Belgium that their ultimately doomed love affair concluded. In a hotel in Brussels the pair had a drunken row that ended in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the arm with a revolver. A second bullet ricocheted off the wall and into chimney. The 7mm six-shooter was auctioned by Christie’s last year for £54,000.
After seeking medical attention Rimbaud begged Verlaine not to leave him once more, upon which the latter pulled out his gun again in the middle of the street. Rimbaud begged a passing policeman to arrest Verlaine, who spent two years in jail where he wrote 32 poems and converted to Catholicism. During the trial the nature of their relationship was the subject of intense and humiliating scrutiny.
The pair met for the final time upon Verlaine’s release in 1875, by which time Rimbaud had given up his life as a poet. The next year he joined the Dutch Colonial Army, deserting four months later by hiding in the Javan jungle before stowing away on a ship back to France. He later became a coffee merchant in Harar, Ethiopia, before dying of bone cancer in 1991 aged just 37.
Verlaine went back to England, teaching at a grammar school in Lincolnshire. He returned to France in 1877 where he found renewed fame for his poetry as he simultaneously descended into drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty, spending his days in the absinthe cafes of Paris and sleeping in the slums before dying aged 51 in 1896.
Their poetry lived on in the 20th century, inspiring the work of Patti Smith, Jim Morrison and Pete Doherty. In his 1974, seven years after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, Bob Dylan sang:
“Situations have ended sad/ Relationships have all been bad/ Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud./ But there’s no way I can compare/ All those scenes to this affair / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
In 1955 Lionardo di Caprio starred as Rimbaud opposite David Thewlis as Verlaine in Total Eclipse, a cinematic account of the passionate affair between the two poets.
The 1967 Act only legalised homosexual acts between consenting adult males over the age of 21 in strict privacy. It took years for full equality before the law to be achieved and the fight for LGBTQ rights continues half a century later.
Today if you pass by the modern, sanitised incarnation of Camden Market and walk down Royal College Street you’ll see only a simple sign saying: “The French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud lived here May-July 1873”. It’s a sober marker of what was in fact a thrilling and tragic tale of a fraught love affair that begun in poetry and romance and ended with a wet fish and a smoking revolver in a Brussels hotel room.