- Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the First World War by Philip Hoare
Duckworth, 250 pp, £16.95, July 1997, ISBN 0 7156 2737 6
The years between the death of Queen Victoria and the beginning of the First World War seem now to have been leisure’s golden age. Recalling the summers of 1913-14, Osbert Sitwell noted that ‘one band in a house was no longer enough, there must be two, three even.’ House parties were distinguished by an abundance of exotic flowers, and mounds of peaches, figs, nectarines and strawberries ripening in ‘steamy tents of glass’. Champagne bottles stood stacked on sideboards. Electric fans were positioned on huge blocks of ice, hidden by banks of hydrangeas. It’s hard to believe, but people were taking it in turns to recite Swinburne.
Philip Hoare’s Wilde’s Last Stand is concerned with a more energetic strain of hedonism. By the end of 1915 it was estimated that there were 150 nightclubs in Soho alone: haunts such as the Cave of the Golden Calf, where aristocratic bohemians like Diana Manners and her ‘Corrupt Coterie’ could drink vodka and absinthe, snack on avocados, terrapin and soft-shell crabs, and dance to the furiously modern rhythms of jazz. War, Hoare implies, was no more than a minor obstacle to the metropolitan pursuit of pleasure – an inconvenience. In The Sexual History of the World War, Magnus Hirshfeld, ‘a Jewish physician with literary interests’, refers to London’s ‘orgiastic outgrowths’, its nudist clubs and ‘playgrounds for narcotic addicts’. Opium, heroin and cocaine were available over chemists’ counters: newspapers were aghast at the antics of ‘Snow Snifters’. Much later, dining with pop stars in Cheyne Walk, Lady Diana Cooper would mention that, in her day, post-prandial cocaine was served in salt-cellars.
Hoare’s wartime London is a stage across which a troupe of affluent, cosmopolitan hipsters parade their unorthodoxy: the artist, drug addict, bisexual and sometime boxer Alvaro ‘Chile’ Guevara; Reginald de Vaulle, ‘a cross-dressing women’s fashion designer who had picked up a coke habit in New York’; Captain Ernest Schiff, ‘a man-about-town with a suspiciously German surname and a Teutonic habit of filing his fingernails to a point’; Antonio Gandarillas, ‘the opium-addicted bisexual aristocrat’; Brilliant Chang, ‘the emblematic Dope King and white slaver, corrupter of British maidenhood’; the Marchesa Casati, who appeared at parties surrounded by ‘albino blackbirds, mauve monkeys, a leopard, a boa constrictor, and, among Englishmen, Lord Berners’.
The presiding spirit was Oscar Wilde. Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, was the keeper of the flame and the still centre of London’s homosexual subculture. When, in Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, the bisexual Billy Prior is introduced to Ross, the first thing he registers is ‘the connection with Wilde’. Wilde’s influence was felt, too, in the continuing notoriety of Salome, given a new lease of life by the success of The Vision of Salome, a titillating dance entertainment starring the voluptuous Maud Allan, herself an icon for homosexuals and a focus for stories of sexual debauchery that included manifold lesbian liaisons and affairs with the King and the Duke of Westminster.
Such ‘degeneracy’ was too much for conservatives to swallow, and in the bleak context of early 1918 a backlash was inevitable. Among the most vociferous of the conservatives was someone else whose name was indelibly associated with Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas was by now the spitting image of his father: splenetic, reactionary, petulant and shrill. He had told Ross: ‘I no longer care to associate with persons like yourself who are engaged in the active performance and propaganda of every kind of wickedness, from Socialism to Sodomy.’ Bosie spoke for many when he argued for a moral crusade: ‘It is just as important to civilisation that Literary England should be cleansed of sex-mongers and pedlars of the perverse, as that Flanders should be cleared of Germans.’
Since decadence was so conspicuously a German trait, any disapproval of libertine activity could easily masquerade as a contribution to the war effort. Berlin was the world capital of decadence. When, in 1928, Auden asked ‘Is Berlin very wicked?’ his question was impishly rhetorical. Germans were commonly assumed to be sexual perverts, like the villain of John Buchan’s Greenmantle, the ‘huge, brutal’ Ulrich von Stumm with his ‘perverted taste for soft delicate things’. ‘Do you speak German?’ was among the most familiar graffiti in the public conveniences of Paris. Signs of Teutonic deviation at home had already caused some alarm at the beginning of the war. Edmund Gosse had drawn attention to Britain’s ‘national decay’ in 1914 and hoped that war would be ‘the sovereign disinfectant’ to wash away ‘the miserable poltroonery’ of the decadent lifestyle. Oscar Wilde was the arch poltroon.
Moderate conservatives had a point. Wilde’s green carnations did not have quite the same éclat after the red poppies of Flanders. In The Eye in the Door, Pat Barker’s Charles Manning is bored by a performance of Salome: ‘It was not that he thought the theme trivial or unworthy or out of date – certainly not that – but the language was impossible for him. France had made it impossible.’ You did not need to be a puritan to consider the Cave of the Golden Calf inappropriate, given what was happening on the Somme. It was time for a Malvolio to interrupt the revels.
The role was taken on by Noel Pemberton Billing, playwright, inventor, protofascist and musical-comedy star, a man of prodigious energies who turned his hand to everything except tolerance. By the age of 21 Billing had left his first job in the City after throwing ink at ‘a peculiarly offensive German clerk’, fought in the Boer War, begun a career on the stage, invented a new gun carriage ‘and various other items of military equipment’, and gone back to South Africa to publish a magazine, the British South Africa Auto-car. There were as yet no cars in South Africa.
That was the beginning of a career as perverse as anything on show in the Soho caverns. Billing became manager of the Richmond Theatre, invented a machine for making ‘self-lighting’ cigarettes, wrote plays, built his own bungalow in Crawley (it even had a well and some ‘little brick dairies’) and had a go at amateur farming. He flew planes. He trained as a barrister. Trying to cross the Solent to the Isle of Wight in his steam yacht Violet, Billing ended up somewhere near Le Havre. In photographs this dark genius has the leanness and meticulous parting of T.S. Eliot, the milky eyes of Enoch Powell, and a monocle that is his signature affectation; the lens of his probity.
In March 1916, he became Independent MP for East Hertfordshire, touting protofascist policies: Jewish ghettos and yellow stars; anti-German and anti-alien strictures; moves against internal corruption. It was not only for his lemon Rolls-Royce and ‘unusual clothes’ that Lloyd George considered him ‘dangerous’. In June 1917, Billing founded the Vigilante Society, dedicated to ‘the promotion of purity in public life’, and published a newspaper, the Imperialist, in whose pages he was determined ‘to expose the decadent spirit sapping Britain’s strength’. It was the beginning, as Samuel Hynes has written, of ‘a home-front war against sex, and especially what one might call dissenting sex – that is, homosexuality’. In Billing the reactionaries had found their champion.
The campaign gathered steam. Foremost among the Imperialist’s contributors was the anti-semitic conspiracy theorist Arnold White, author of The Modern Jew. White’s articles suggested that the decadent tendencies of Robert Ross and his followers were not merely evils in themselves, but also the symptoms of a sinister German plot ‘to infect clean nations with Hunnish erotomania’. The spread of decadence, so plainly visible in London’s flourishing homosexual subculture, was a deliberate attempt ‘to abolish civilisation as we know it’. White’s suggestion of a conspiracy was elaborated in January 1918, when Billing’s paper published its wildest article of all: a piece written by a ‘disaffected and mentally-disturbed’ American called Harold Spencer under the headline, ‘The Forty-Seven Thousand’.
Spencer declared that he had seen a book, kept in ‘the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince’, containing a list of names compiled by German agents: 47,000 eminent English men and women all engaged in ‘the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia’. All of those named in the book were ‘prevented from putting their full strength into the war by corruption and blackmail and fear of exposure’. In this way, Spencer continued, ‘the stamina of British sailors was undermined ... Wives of men in supreme position were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed. The sexual peculiarities of members of the peerage were used as a leverage to open fruitful fields for espionage.’ With these bizarre revelations the whole affair entered its endgame.
Oscar Wilde, again, was the catalyst. Hunnish erotomania was just about tolerable: Wilde was not. Jack Grein, the Sunday Times drama critic, a ‘bohemian of progressive, socialist outlook’, had suggested to Maud Allan that she play the title role in Salome. Here was Grein (a foreigner) producing a decadent play by Oscar Wilde, starring a woman famous for her rumoured lesbian affairs, including one with Margot Asquith, wife of the Liberal leader and a good friend of the pro-German, homosexual and conspicuously Wildean Robert Ross. An article promptly appeared in Billing’s paper, now rechristened the Vigilante, describing Grein’s production under the headline, ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’. The article clearly implied that Maud Allan was a lesbian. She and Jack Grein initiated proceedings against Billing for both criminal and obscene libel.
By now Wilde’s Last Stand is a pretty rich mix of conspiracy theories, paranoia and political machinations. Charles Repington, military correspondent on the Morning Post, urged Billing to use the ‘Black Book’ to ‘smear’ guilty politicians and wreck Lloyd George’s authority. Meanwhile, Lloyd George and Conservative Central Office were sending a female agent to lure Billing to a male brothel, where he could be photographed ‘or otherwise fatally compromised’. In true comic style, they picked the wrong person: Eileen Villiers-Stuart, the daughter of a travelling toothpaste salesman, was an ‘amateur, slightly podgy femme fatale opportunist’ who immediately fell in love with Billing, told him everything, and became his mistress.
Eileen was not the only one. There was something about the monocle, the lemon Rolls, the infallible bisection of his hair. As soon as the trial got under way at the Old Bailey in May 1918, Billing attracted the support of the Christian Scientists, who believed him to be ‘the Saviour, Christ the King, come to redeem them in this moment of national peril’. Concerned that he would not be able to continue his work if imprisoned, ‘a senior lady in the movement’ was sent to bear his child, which in due course she did.
The Billing affair became more grotesque as each day passed. The trial itself was at once a festival of prejudice, a cause célèbre and a black farce. Under the fogey-ish jurisdiction of Lord Chief Justice Darling, the meaning of the words clitoris, orgasm and sadism were debated at considerable length. Witness after witness contributed eccentric amateur exegeses of Wilde’s Salome: the trial transcripts contain some of the worst literary criticism on record. Eileen Villiers-Stuart caused an uproar by claiming that Darling’s name appeared in Spencer’s ‘Black Book’. From the gallery came heckles, interpolations, shouts of ‘Bravo!’, the hisses of a pantomime audience. ‘Laughter in court’ appears in the trial transcripts with the frequency of a refrain. The country was transfixed: Pat Barker’s William Rivers notes that consideration of the awful events in France was ‘pushed into second place by the orgy of irrational prejudice that was taking place at the Old Bailey’. And for the litigants it was all for nothing. Billing was found not guilty. He had Darling on his side. When a witness quoted Herod’s line, ‘Kill that woman,’ Darling remarked: ‘That is the best thing in the play.’
For all its detail, Hoare’s account lacks the nuance and amplitude of Barker’s fictional evocation of the trial and its context. His is a London story, confined to a ritzy, rarefied caste: the rest of the country is a grey hinterland in which nothing interesting seems to be happening. He has none of Paul Fussell’s concern, in The Great War and Modern Memory, to know ‘what the ordinary man has to say about it all’. Seduced by the flamboyance of the Billings and the Rosses, Hoare has little time for the world of Pat Barker’s Billy Prior, the working-class, provincial bisexual terrified of being arrested as a result of ‘the utterly disgusting Pemberton Billing affair’, a paranoia for which Barker’s eye in the door is a neat figure. Her careful ambivalences make Hoare’s contest of libertines and reactionaries seem far too schematic. And where Fussell researched ‘the scores of amateur memoirs lodged in the collections of the Imperial War Museum’, Hoare relies heavily on secondary sources, so that when, for example, he quotes Edmund Gosse, or John Buchan, it’s evident that he has taken his quotations not from the original texts but from Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined.
The Billing trial was not Wilde’s last stand. It would take more than a ham actor and a man called Darling to put an end to the influence of a writer whose wit, as Richard Ellmann has said, was itself ‘an agent of renewal’. As for the Black Book, Spencer’s mysterious compendium of licentiousness remains the MacGuffin of Wilde’s Last Stand, the existence of which, as Hitchcock would explain to Truffaut, is ‘beside the point’: all that matters is that the secret document ‘must seem to be of vital importance to the characters’. Darling himself declared the book to be a red herring, instructing the jury that it was ‘absolutely irrelevant and immaterial in these proceedings’. But then again, he would say that.