Extracts from letters between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears have gone on display at the Red House in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk home which Britten, one of Britain’s greatest composers, shared with the tenor.
Although Britten and Pears look and sound like two upper class boarding school teachers in their tweeds and tank tops, the letters reveal a different picture.
“Much much love to you dear honey,” says one letter. “I love you with my whole being, solemnly and seriously,” says another. “I live for Friday, & you. My man – my beloved man,” writes Britten. “My most beautiful of all little blue grey, mouse catching, pearly bottomed, creamy-thighed, soft-waisted mewing rat-pursuers! How are you? My beauty!” Pears writes in 1941.
The letters are part of an exhibition that is one of a number marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, when homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales were decriminalised.
Pears was Britten’s muse, collaborator and lover for 39 years, but for most of that time it was a desperately dangerous life to live.
In public, they were not a gay couple. In private, the letters, first published last year, appear to reveal an ardent and joyful love.
“The letters are very sweet and moving,” said curator Lucy Walker. “There is this huge volume of correspondence in which they just pour out all this unbelievably lovey-dovey stuff.
“They saw each other like any other married couple. All the letters are like it, they are all ‘my darling’, ‘my love’, ‘my honeybunch’.”
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the 1960s. Photograph: Britten-Pears Foundation
Britten never spoke publicly about his sexuality and was far more careful about displays of affection than Pears. The photographs on display are testament to this; only one, of them getting off a plane, shows them arm in arm.
But aside from the letters, there are many clues to their relationship, including Britten’s Canticle I: ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’, written for Pears in 1947.
“All their friends knew and it was obvious really, if you knew what you were looking for,” said Walker.
The exhibition contrasts the experience of Britten and Pears with other high-profile figures of the time, such as Noël Coward and his partner, Graham Payn – a couple who avoided writing letters that would have given away their relationship.
Given the climate, that was a sensible approach. After the war, arrests and prosecutions for homosexual acts increased, with more than 1,000 men in prison in England and Wales. Thousands were posthumously pardoned this year.
The exhibition includes a letter written by the codebreaker Alan Turing, who pleaded guilty to gross indecency in 1952 and, given the choice between jail and probation, accepted chemical castration.
Elsewhere, there are manuscripts of the homoerotic novel Maurice, by EM Forster, who, with Eric Crozier, wrote the libretto for Britten’s all-male opera Billy Budd.
In one letter on display, Forster complains about an aria in which John Claggart expresses his feelings for Billy Budd: “I want passion – love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil. Not soggy depression or growling remorse.”
The two men fell out as a result, but Britten refused to make the aria more overt.
The exhibition also tells the story of the 1967 act, which followed a recommendation by a committee led by Sir John Wolfenden, set up in 1954, to consider homosexual offences and prostitution.
Alongside the exhibition, Aldeburgh cinema will screen Victim and My Beautiful Launderette, and in the Red House, art works from the couple’s collection, by gay artists including David Hockney, John Craxton and Duncan Grant, will be on display.
There was also a plan for a public reading of the relevant sections of the Wolfenden report on the first Sunday of the Aldeburgh festival in June, which will take four or five hours, said Walker.
Walker said Britten and Pears were fortunate to live in Aldeburgh, where the tolerant atmosphere enabled them to become pillars of the community and where they set up the festival in 1948.
The summer of 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act came into being, was also the time when the Queen came to lunch with Britten and Pears to open Snape Maltings. “You can’t help but wonder if there is a significance there,” said Walker.
Queer Talk: Homosexuality in Britten’s Britain runs until 28 October 2017.