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In the days before the war there was growing in London, beyond any sort of question, that passion for excitement and for the latest novelty which is always the familiar beginning of a corrupt society ... If one of the consequences of the Billing case is to give new value to the ancient virtues ... then there may be some compensation after all for the work of a scandalous week.
The Times, 5 June 1918
The moral condition of the country was worrying. That much was clear to the respectable middle-class woman in her fur wrap and picture hat as she hurried along the Strand. Above the hoardings plastered with advertisements for the latest Olympia exhibition, the new six-hour boat to France, and the sensational Miss Maud Allan's Salome dance at the Pavilion, rose the facade of the British Medical Association. Adorned with Mr Epstein's stridently modern nude statues, their nether regions alarmingly explicit, this was not a sight for a decent lady. Modern London had become a strange place. Up in Regent Street young men wearing tight suits and nail varnish were sipping creme de menthe in the Cafe Royal, while down a dark cul-de-sac lurked a new and devilish sort of place where Futurists cavorted: a 'night club' profanely named 'The Cave of the Golden Calf'. Vague rumours had reached her that nowadays, the backstreets harboured all manner of such places, attended by members of the social elite. Such intimations confirmed all the suspicions of her class. At the root of these evils laythe name of Oscar Wilde, still unspoken in polite households. He may have been dead for more than a decade, but Wilde's decadence endured.
To the tabloid-reading middle class, for whom morality was paramount, the country needed saving, and the puritans and patriots of 1914 looked to the war to purge the country of this foreign influence. As Stephen McKenna's 1917 best-seller, Sonia, would remind them, pre-war Britain
... was a matter for considerable searching of heart. A spirit of unrest and lawlessness, a neurotic state not to be disassociated from the hectic, long-drawn Carnival that ... may be traced from the summer of the Coronation . It is too early to probe the cause or say how far the staggering ostentation of the wealthy fomented the sullen disaffection of the poor. It is as yet impossible to weigh the merits in any one of the hysterical controversies of the times ...
The first decades of the new century were an uncertain time. The violent struggle for Irish Home Rule, trade union disputes and the clamour of the Suffragette movement all threatened the 'ostensibly law-abiding country'. Many agreed with McKenna that the cause might be the sudden boom after ten years' post-Boer War depression:
The new money was spent in so much riotous living, and from end to end there settled on the country a mood of fretful, crapulous irritation. 'An unpopular law? Disregard it!' That seemed the rule of life with a people that had no object but successive pleasure and excitement and was fast becoming a law unto itself.
This was a new, modern world of aviation, wireless, automobiles and tabloid newspapers. Technology was reinventing society and the way people lived; soon it would revolutionise the way they died. In 1912 the year of Epstein's BMA facade, of Roger Fry's Post-Impressionism show, of Madame Strindberg's Futurist cabaret club the sinking of the Titanic was a vivid reminder of the speed of progress, and the dangers of placing too much faith in it. While some, like the aesthetic demagogue Marinetti and his Futurist rhetoric, celebrated the machine age, others felt more unsure. Much of the frenzy and apparent dissipation of the young century derived from the inconstancy of modern life and a new-born fear of the technological future. The world was no longer the stable place of the stolid nineteenth century, and no one could be sure of anything any more, not even the rich. The Edwardian era had seen the increasing visibility of the aristocracy, its wealth and privilege on display in the Season, spending the money that the generations of the Industrial Age had earned. It was, however, a last flowering. By 1914, they were rapidly losing their power. Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Liberal government, had campaigned against the power of the House of Lords, and the so-called 'Peers versus People' election of 1910 returned a mandate for the Liberals' reforms. Ironically, it was the Liberal establishment, led by H.H. Asquith, which Billing would accuse of decadence.
Political Liberalism was symptomatic of a general liberality; socially and culturally, a libertine spirit reigned in the houses of the rich and fashionable. 'Night by night, during the summers of 1913 and '14, the entertainments grew in number and magnificence,' wrote Osbert Sitwell. 'One band in a house was no longer enough, there must be two, three even. Electric fans whirled on the top of enormous blocks of ice, buried in banks of hydrangeas ... Never had there been such displays of flowers ... lolling roses and malmaisons, of gilded, musical-comedy baskets of carnations and sweet-peas ... huge bunches of orchids, bowls of gardenias and flat trays of stephanotis lent ... an air of exoticism ... mounds of peaches, figs, nectarines and strawberries at all seasons, [were] brought from their steamy tents of glass. Champagne bottles stood stacked on the sideboards ... And to the rich, the show was free.' Their London was enclosed in extravagance; sheltered from reality by the glass verandahs of Park Lane mansions, the pink-and-gold Ritz foyer, the marble cavern of the Royal Automobile Club swimming baths. Opulent Edwardian interiors reflected the overblown age, self-secure in its imperial evocation. While pessimists murmured that the 'historic calm' was too good to last and rumours of war were discussed in the salons of the rich or sung in the music halls, a degree of disbelieving fantasy or devil-may-care hedonism reigned. Morality was the preserve literally of the middle classes; those at either end of the social scale were not obsessed with the moral glue that gave a new class its sense of cohesion. The rich could afford to flaunt old conventions, and seemed to be dancing on the edge of doom. Even the slang of the time 'Isn't it killing' had an inbuilt and not entirely unconscious irony. The Titanic may have been a portent of disaster; but the dance went on.
Its backdrop was provided by modern art: Walter Sickert's dark chiaroscuro paintings with their vague sense of evil; the perfervid sick colours of Leon Bakst's designs for the Russian Ballet; Nijinsky's narcissistic sexuality, falling onanistically to the floor in the closing scene of L'Apres-midi d'un faune. Fashions, entertainments, manners still followed the decadent cue of the Nineties, a search for neurotic sensation. A foreign, European spirit invaded London. Roger Fry's Second Post-Impressionism show at the Grafton Galleries in 1912 had caused consternation, with its modern art from the Continent likened to that of lunatics. The new -isms espoused by rebellious young artists Cubism, Orphism, Vorticism were intimidatingly different, while the lavish gestures of the Russian Ballet heralded another escape from the Victorian century. The influence of Diaghilev almost impossible to exaggerate was at its height at the beginning of 1914. Harold Acton wrote: 'The great galas of colour organised by Diaghileff were being imitated even in private entertainments: fancy-dress balls and tableaux vivants became sumptuous and spectacular to a degree unrealised since ... "Persian" balls ... Venetian, Egyptian and Russian balls, with pierrots and black dominoes ... In some cases, as for the Marchesa Casati, Bakst himself designed the costumes.' Fabulously beautiful, attenuated, white-faced and kohl-eyed, Casati was a Beardsley illustration come to life, the visual embodiment and extremity of decadence, surrounded by 'albino blackbirds, mauve monkeys, a leopard, a boa constrictor, and, among Englishmen, Lord Berners ...'.
The Marchesa would have been at home in the newly-decorated rooms of Lady Drogheda, commissioned from the Omega apostate Wyndham Lewis. Silver-foil ceilings and matt black velvet walls were bordered by a Vorticist frieze; blue glass witch-balls stood on columns in the centre of the room; all bathed in the unnatural glow of yellow alabaster lamps. The effect was cultish and pagan, a room set for a seance; its tenant, like many society ladies of the time, dabbled in the occult. Guests invited to view the rooms in February 1914 included Mrs Keppel, Baroness d'Erlanger, Lady Ponsonby, Jacob Epstein, Sir Ernest Cassel, Augustus John, and Wyndham Lewis himself, subject of whispered rumours about his relationship with their hostess. The rebel artist, with his centre-parted hair, dark eyes and cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, shared with Lady Drogheda a passion for technology, aviation, speed and sensation. The spirit of modernity was upon their age; for Wyndham Lewis, identifier of 'the enemy within' whose art protest magazine, Blast, appeared that summer, war was 'anticipated in the militant mood of the avant-garde'. In July 1914, he declared his own hostilities: 'Kill John Bull with Art.'
For socialite bohemians such as Diana Manners, famously beautiful daughter of the Duke of Rutland, and her aristocratic friends this rebellious modernity was a clarion call. Their generation were the daughters and sons of Empire, end products of a century's history. Anthony Powell's classification of the 'third generation type' applies as much to them as to its subject, Ronald Firbank, last in 'that trio of descending individuals in which the grandfather makes the money, the son consolidates the social position, the grandson practises the arts (or sometimes merely patronises them) in some "decadent" manner, thus expressing the still-existent, yet by now failing and feverish energy that suddenly, unexpectedly, welled up in the race.' They were also, crucially, the heirs of Oscar Wilde, modern icon and exemplar for their age. Diana Manners' account of her 'Corrupt Coterie' is consciously Wildean, flagrantly toying with convention. 'There was among us a reverberation of the Yellow Book and Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Baudelaire and Max Beerbohm. Swinburne often got recited. Our pride was to be unafraid of words, unshocked by drink and unashamed of "decadence" and gambling Unlike-Other-People, I'm afraid.'
The spirit of Wilde seemed invested in this society; to outsiders, it was tainted with it. Members of Asquith's Liberal society had been, and continued to be, associated with Wilde, the avant-garde, and the foreign. They spoke French, holidayed in Venice and had German friends as a de Meyer photograph of Diana in a fancy dress group with Kuhlmann, the Counseller to the German Embassy firmly at its centre, confirms. The social elite of 1914 mixed with the likes of Kuhlman and rich German Jews like Sir Edgar Speyer and his American musician wife. The Asquiths were specifically pro-German, as were their friends: the Bavarian-educated Lord Haldane, Asquith's best friend and Foreign Secretary, had in 1912 visited Berlin in an abortive attempt to defuse antipathy between the two countries. Yet the sons of this group, Diana's young beaux, were among the first to die in the dirt of the trenches: the Tennants, the Charterises, the Grenfells, doomed members of the Corrupt Coterie. Serving officers such as Raymond Asquith (the Prime Minister's son, with whom Diana was hopelessly in love) and Duff Cooper (whom she would eventually marry) were often the first over the top: 'Our generation becomes history rather than growing up', wrote Cooper. These golden youth were exemplars of Aryan Britishness (many, like Diana, were unconsciously anti-semitic, or, in the case of the Grenfell brothers, actively so). Their male role models were the pre-war dandies: Raffles, Sherlock Holmes, Anthony Hope's 'charmingly bored young men', A.E. Housman's 'handsome young men in uniform', and the smart-talking wits of Saki's epicene stories. These young men looked forward to an abbreviated future: '... I really think that large numbers of people don't want to die ...' wrote Rupert Brooke, 'which is odd ... I've never been quite so happy in my life'. Where the decadents of the 1890s had celebrated romantic death, their modern inheritors faced the reality. The mauve opium poppy of Chelsea became the blood-red corn poppy of Flanders.
With the outbreak of war in August 1914, life turned upside-down. Diana Manners became a V.A.D. at Guy's Hospital. It was a schizophrenic life: dealing by day in death and disease, while at night, 'I would fly out of the ward ... Five minutes would see me painted and powdered and dressed (as I hoped) to kill, and into the arms of friends or friend.' They held parties dubbed the 'Dances of Death'. War turned the make-believe decadence of the Corrupt Coterie into the real thing. 'The young were dancing a tarantella frenziedly to combat any pause that would let death conquer their morale ... Wine helped and there was wine in plenty ...' Parties 'became more frequent as leave became regular from the training centres and the trenches of France and the Middle East ...' It was, perhaps, the beginnings of youth culture: 'Parents were excluded. We dined at any time. The long waits for the last-comers were enlivened by exciting, unusual drinks such as vodka or absinthe. The menu was composed of far-fetched American delicacies avocadoes, terrapin and soft-shell crabs. The table was purple with orchids.' It was a stark contrast to the ordinary lives around them; lives which had no access to American delicacies to assuage the pain of war and loss. 'The dancing, sometimes to two bands, negro and white (and once to the first Hawaiian), so that there might be no pause, started immediately before dinner.' Such nights presaged the dance-mad decade of the 1920s.
Their hedonism was not confined to private parties. In 1912, Madame Strindberg, the sexually-liberated former wife of the playwright, decided to create an alternative to the Wildean Cafe Royal. Taking her cue from Marinetti's Futurist performance art rhetoric and the Kaberett Fledermaus of her native Vienna, she leased a draper's basement in Heddon Street, a cul-de-sac behind Regent Street, and created the Cave of the Golden Calf. This 'low-ceilinged nightclub, appropriately sunk under the pavement', was decorated by Spencer Gore in Russian Ballet-inspired murals, with contributions by Jacob Epstein and Wyndham Lewis; Eric Gill designed the club's motif, a phallic Golden Calf, symbol of biblical dissipation and idolatry. Here the cult of Wilde could continue to worship. The club's self-advertised aim was to be 'a place given up to gaiety', its art-subversive interiors 'brazenly expressive of the libertarian pleasure principle ...' It was intentionally international and unEnglish, full of modern young artists and poets like Gaudier-Brzeska and Ezra Pound with their quiffed hair and razor-point sideboards, sipping anisette as they watched the Spanish dancers and fire-eaters. Osbert Sitwell witnessed bohemian artists drinking with Guards officers in a 'super-heated Vorticist garden of gesticulating figures, dancing and talking while the rhythm of the primitive forms of ragtime throbbed through the wide room'. 'Exotic gentlemen sang ballads,' noted another observer. 'A young actor with a beautiful voice recited Wilde's story of "The Happy Prince". Then a lank-haired, aquiline-featured youth with a Cockney accent strolled nonchalantly on to the stage and delivered a serio-comic homily on the Cave of the Golden Calf, its objects and reasons. He made very personal references to all the protagonists in this enterprise, not forgetting to remind his audience that Gore's uncle was a bishop.'
The Cave of the Golden Calf set the precedent for the modern night-club. 'London is in the midst of another new movement,' the Sketch announced in January 1914. 'It is evident she desires to keep later hours ... Hence the fact that there have risen three Supper Clubs ... the Four Hundred, Murray's, and the Lotus ... At all the clubs of course, members may sup as they please.' And more than just sup: 'A very bad fellow, Jack Mays, is the proprietor of "Murray's Club" in Beak Street quite an amusing place,' wrote one Captain Ernest Schiff to Sir John Simon. 'But for vice or money or both he induces girls to smoke opium in some foul place. He is an American, and does a good deal of harm.'
It was a startling new environment. First to strike a visitor was the raucous music: strident jerking jazz, faster than anything that had gone before; it was the sound of speed. Yet more striking were the dancers: thin young women, diaphanous short skirts showing their legs, their heads crowned with iridescent feathers twitching in time to the music. To those used to Strauss waltzes, these 'flappers' seemed to be suffering from some new nervous disorder. This was dancing from the hip as one visiting French diplomat remarked, never had the derriere been so prominent on the dancefloor. Girls made up in public, their encardined lips pursed in contemptuous social flagrancy, sipping newly-invented cocktails and smoking Turkish cigarettes held in languid hands, ostentatiously modern against a Futurist backdrop. The smoky, feverish, frenetic atmosphere was as unlike the genteel debutante balls of Mayfair as the mechanised war of the Western Front was removed from the cavalry charges of nineteenth-century stage-set battles.
That sexual roles and expectations were changing was evinced in the fashions of the time; people had begun to look recognisably modern as strict gender codes began to blur. Men wore lounge suits and soft collars, while women's mannish tailored suits with ties, shorter skirts and masculine hats were severe and practical, announcing fierce determination rather than acquiescent femininity. One member of the Corrupt Coterie epitomised the new woman more than any other. Nancy Cunard, wayward daughter of the socially-addicted Maud Cunard (wife of the shipping magnate), rebelled violently and publicly against her mother. When staying with the Asquiths, Nancy had joined in a Coterie game: who would they like most like to walk in the door? Nancy said, in her high voice, 'Lady Cunard dead.' Determined not to be defined as a debutante and mere marriage-fodder, she worked with the Sirwells on their modernistic journal, Wheels, and led a wild life in London. She and her friend Iris Tree were the truly bad girls to Diana Manners' Marie Antoinette naughtiness; renting a studio room in Fitzroy Place, the heart of Bohemian Fitzrovia, which Diana described as 'squalid'. Nancy wore men's clothes an evening waistcoat, her father's top hat and was pursued by Alvaro 'Chile' Guevara, the artist, drug addict, and bisexual, while being engaged to 'Bim' Tennant. In 1915, she married, unexpectedly, a respectable army officer named Sydney Fairbairn. At the wedding party, she snatched the gold flower wreath from her head and threw it on the floor, a prescient gesture to the next decade in which Nancy would become famous for her promiscuity, drinking and drug-taking.
As the war progressed, the mere fact of high society appeared decadent, especially in a world which was changing so quickly. The war introduced Britain to the notion of the state-organised society. The all-encompassing Defence of the Realm Act, passed by Parliament on 8 August 1914 and added to on successive occasions, restricted the liberty of British civilians in many ways, some still with us, such as the licensing laws, designed to keep munitions workers sober. DORA, as it was unaffectionately known, also installed newspaper censorship, enabling the government to quash anything 'calculated to jeopardise the success of the operations of any of His Majesty's forces or to assist the enemy'. Passports were introduced; for the first time, an individual's movements were to be controlled. Conscription, forced labour and other punitive measures soon followed. Britain was becoming a society not of individuals, but of units.
These measures most affected the lower orders, but soon the upper classes were feeling the changes: for them, as much as for the tenants of their estates, society would never be the same again. Reverence for the old went out with the new; the young were breaking the barriers of social class and re-establishing new demarcations of age. The Manchester Guardian commented on 'War Matches': 'Duke's daughters are marrying social nobodies and finding it a delightful innovation, and bewildered parents have given up all attempts to control their children's matrimonial careers.' As the war reduced the supply of eligible young men, there was a scramble for partners. Cynthia Asquith, daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister, attended a dance in Mayfair at which Society mothers were throwing their daughters at the Prince of Wales. 'Irene's ... "dash for the throne" we called it', wrote Cynthia, who told her hostess she did not dance, as her husband was at the front. Such rectitude was not observed by others, she noted, as she perched on a sofa like Jane Austen, watching the evening's proceedings. 'I do hate the teasing catastrophic music thrummed out by those leering Negroes, and I can't believe the stuttering, furtive, modern dances can be as much fun as our valses ... Certainly they aren't as becoming ... Just before leaving at 12.30, saw the Prince of Wales dancing round with Mrs Dudley-Ward, a pretty little fluff ... He is a dapper little fellow too small but really a pretty face ... I have never seen a man talk so fluently while dancing. He obviously means to have fun.'
As did the rest of young London. Despite DORA's strictures, night-clubs continued to grow, especially as the American imports of jazz and ragtime took hold. One of DORA's proscriptions in 1915 was to order clubs to close at 10.30 pm a ruling dubbed 'the beauty sleep order'. But as with any such regulation, prohibition merely sent the culture underground. By the end of the year it was estimated that there were 150 night-clubs in Soho alone. New regulations were constantly being applied, to the distress of their habitues. 'And after the Grafton the ban on Ciro's!' lamented a 1917 issue of the Tatler in a breathless, slangy text that pre-empts the coming decade,'... no khakied lad or cherub in gold and blue may now sup anywhere after 10 pm. Of course the result would have been a t'rific increase of home shows all the hostesses rushing in quick with little dances (and daughters) and lots of nice things to drink, to try and make up for that gorgeous dancing floor, and noisy niggers and top-hole ched, and free-and-easy ladies in Orange Street. But with the risk of being pilloried in Printing-House Square, it's hardly good enough.'
War stilled history. Everything, every resource and energy, was funnelled into its pursuit. Young lives were frozen as war overrode normal prospects. And yet, paradoxically, the war accelerated change. The role of women altered drastically, class barriers eroded, attitudes to age, race and culture changed. These effects, however, were less obvious than the fear of society for itself. For the first time, it seemed, war threatened civilisation as a whole (it was, after all, the Great War). But compared to the threat of decadence, it was the lesser of two evils. Edmund Gosse wrote, in his 1914 essay on 'War and Literature':
War is the great scavenger of thought. It is the sovereign disinfectant, and its red stream of blood is the Condy's Fluid that cleans out the stagnant pools and clotted channels of the intellect ... We have awakened from an opium-dream of comfort, of ease, of that miserable poltroonery of the 'sheltered life'. Our wish for indulgence of every sort, our laxity of manners, our wretched sensitiveness to personal inconvenience, these are suddenly lifted before us in their true guise as the spectres of national decay; and we have risen from the lethargy of our dilletantism to lay them, before it is too late, by the flashing of the unsheathed sword.
It is ironic that that very 'disinfectant' created the conditions for the sort of hedonism which represents decadence at its height.
Among the moralists, there was a call for a new purity in culture, and a move against the 'degeneracy' of modern art. The avant-gardists were inevitably seen as decadent, merely for having concerns other than the pursuit of war, or for criticising it. Indeed, it is difficult even for the dispassionate to know where the avant-garde and the decadent part company. Both pursued extremes and their social behaviour their recreation reflected such extremism, as was evident to any visitor to the Cave of the Golden Calf. The right-wing Morning Post approved of signs of patriotism in such a figure as Sickert, in whose painting, 'The Soldiers of King Albert the Ready' it discerned his arousal 'from the gloomy analysis of unsavoury types to the representation of nobler specimens of humanity.' The ironic ambivalence of Sickert's work painted from photographs escaped the critics of the Morning Post. Others looked to the war to save Britain from decadence. In A War, Imagined, Samuel Hynes quotes from a wartime lecture by the sculptor W.R. Colton:
... It was high time that war should come with its purifying fire ... A wave of diseased degeneracy had submerged Philosophy, Music, Literature, and Art to such a depth that, looking forward, I venture to prophesy that future centuries will gaze back with pity upon this period of mistaken morbidness.
We find, perhaps, in the German philosophers and musicians the first crystallised expression of this viciousness, but unfortunately we, with all other nations of Europe, cannot pretend that we are exempt. The morbid invention of the artistic mind is seen everywhere. We have Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and others. The futurists, the cubists, the whole school of decadent novelists.
The war would cut out the rotten core of culture, gone sour with the evil of Wilde. It would sweep away the Nineties decadents and the Edwardian hedonists. Rupert Brooke extolled English purity in his most famous poem 'Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/ And is there honey still for tea?', itself inspired by the worldly decadence of Berlin, where he wrote it. Brooke rejected the city's forced bohemia and young women in black satin carrying scarlet tulips; 'Modernist Berlin was the contrary that generated this classic example of fetishing the English past', writes Paul Delaney. Meanwhile, another doomed young poet was facing a similar transition. In 1914, Wilfred Owen was a long-haired, boyish faced English teacher in France, under the influence of the poet, pacifist and anarchist, Laurent Tailhade, decadent 'ornament of the Paris salons'. Instead of enlisting, he stayed in France, experimenting with poetry in Tailhade's style: Wildean verse on opium poppies, blood, sacrifice and sin, dreams and veiled sexual allusion. When he did return to England briefly in May the following year, it was not as a soldier, but as a sales representative for a scent manufacturer.
Having enlisted in 1916, his aesthetic hair cropped and his body made fit by military training, Owen was sent to France the following year. He returned to England months later, shellshocked. He was initially sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, the largest military hospital in Europe, boasting the first purpose-built military psychiatric wing where victims of 'war neurosis' were filmed as part of the therapeutic process, their ataxic walks and nervous tics resembling nothing so much as the frenetic dances of modern ragtime. Posted to another hospital, Craiglockhart, Owen stopped in London, calling at the Royal Academy, and taking tea at the Shamrock Rooms, 'perhaps the most eminently respectable and secluded in Town. There was the usual deaf old lady and her Companion holding forth upon the new curate. I happen to know that a few stories higher in the same building is an Opium Den. I have not investigated. But I know. That's London.'
At Craiglockhart, Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon, whom he found sat up in bed, bright sunlight falling on his purple dressing gown (Owen himself used a padded kimono). Lean-limbed with a delicately masculine face he resembled nothing so much as an aristocratic antelope Sassoon, scion of a famously wealthy Jewish banking family, had never needed to earn his living, a daunting provenance for someone as 'perceptibly provincial' as Owen. But the war had begun to change social structure and expectation; sudden death on the Western Front meant that middle-class upstarts like Owen could become officers, and the sense of change allowed him to describe his hero in admiring yet ever-so-slightly ironic tones as 'very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel'd (how's that?) head...'. At Craiglockhart, and under Sassoon's influence, Owen began to write the poems which would ensure his immortality, fusing his vague Uranian sensibilities and Decadent nightmares with the horrific reality of trench warfare; the aesthete's heartfelt reaction to the antithesis of beauty that war represented.
When Owen left Craiglockhart, Sassoon handed his disciple an envelope. Inside was a ten shilling note, Robert Ross's address, and a message: 'Why shouldn't you enjoy your leave? Don't mention this again or I'll be very angry.' Over lunch with Ross at the Reform Club, both Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells came over to the table. But it was Ross who would make the greatest mark on the young poet. Ross's aestheticism was announced by his large turquoise blue scarab ring and jade-green cigarette holder, and underlined by his reputation as Wilde's devoted friend and literary executor. By associating with Ross, Owen was allying himself with the cult of Oscar Wilde: hero, mentor and martyr to an entire culture.
By the time of the First World War, thirteen years after his death and nearly twenty years after his disgrace, Wilde was a mythic figure: to some, a demon; to others, a saint. It is a reputation which Wilde himself purposefully established and encouraged. As the first cultural figure of the modern era to invent himself through the new media, he believed his own publicity (albeit filtered through his very modern use of irony). That much is evident from his prison tract, De Profundis, a text which would both directly and indirectly contribute to the sensational Billing trial of 1918. 'I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age ... I felt it myself, and made others feel it ... I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me.' Such was Wilde's own view of himself: it was a legend taken and promoted with ceaseless energy by Robbie Ross, both in Wilde's lifetime, and beyond.
Grandson of the Governor General of Canada, Robbie Ross had come to England when his father died, and was at an Oxford crammer studying for Cambridge when Wilde met him in 1886; Ross, then aged seventeen, had recently been beaten for reading Wilde's poems. In Richard Ellman's account, 'What must have astonished Wilde was that Ross, so young and yet so knowing, was determined to seduce him.' Oscar 'acceded, perhaps out of curiosity or caprice. He was not attracted to anal coition, so Ross presumably introduced him to the oral and intercrural sex he later practised. First as lover then as friend, Ross was to keep a permanent place in Wilde's life.' Rupert Croft-Cooke, friend of Lord Alfred Douglas, portrays Ross as 'an amusing little queen when Wilde met him ... a small kittenish creature born in Canada but brought up in London by his widowed mother.' Ross boasted to Douglas that he was 'the first boy Oscar ever had'; it was rumoured that they had met in a public lavatory.
Talented, erudite and loyal, Ross worked at the friendship, flattering Wilde's ego with generous and shrewd praise. He had also befriended Aubrey Beardsley, and attempted to keep the peace between his two talented friends, persuading Wilde to allow Beardsley to illustrate his play Salome, and then pacifying the situation when the artist lampooned the author. He also introduced Wilde to William More Adey, Reggie Turner and Arthur Clifton, to Croft-Cooke, 'all young queers with enough money to be idle and give themselves up to admiration for Wilde. Ross was the most single-minded in this exhibitionistic devotion, and, until Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, the most successful.' Jealousy was the most potent source of the enmity between Ross and Douglas. Among Ross's other characteristics was a formidable tenacity and a sharp waspish wit. He would need both assets in the fight to come.
After Wilde's death, Ross refused, like his hero, to behave 'normally'; his homosexuality was well-known, especially to the authorities. His indiscretion laid the way open for the Billing trial and its disastrous consequences. In more ways than one it was a rerun of Wilde's trials: Ross presuming on his high-ranking friends to protect him from his own flagrant behaviour, just as Wilde had relied, fatally, on his own celebrity to protect him. To circumspect homosexuals, Wilde had been guilty of a transgression of an immutable rule; that of discretion. It is an accusation which would not have hurt Oscar deeply had he survived to hear it. He died in improverished exile in Paris as the century turned 'I am dying beyond my means' but his memory and the battle between his friends lived on.
In late middle-age, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's Bosie, retained the looks of a ravaged beautiful boy. His thick silky blond hair was barely touched with grey, his figure was slender, his skin pale and delicate with a tendency to 'flush rosily like a boy's. He dressed simply, with a liking for heavy boots rather than shoes and a habit of wearing battered hats.' But the physical portrait betrays a certain neuroticism. His voice was 'delightful when he laughed but shrill when he was angry'; and Douglas was often angry. To Croft-Cooke, who met him in 1922, 'he looked like a hurt boy. The eyes were brilliantly expressive, often merry but sometimes pained and resentful. The features which in boyhood were so delicately modelled had grown pronounced, the nose formidable, the corners of the mouth turning down petulantly.'
In the years after the Wilde trials, Douglas had sought domesticity, marrying Olive Custance in 1902, with whom he had a son, Raymond. Bosie's cousin and childhood friend, Pamela Tennant, and her husband Edward (Margot Asquith's brother) had offered the Douglases a house on their land at Wilsford in Wiltshire. Here Douglas enjoyed a rural existence, fishing the river Avon which ran through the quiet downland valley. But when Edward Tennant bought the literary weekly, The Academy in 1907, Pamela invited Douglas to become its editor. Robbie Ross, a regular contributor to the magazine, had already. suggested the post to the still-friendly Douglas, who professed himself to be bored with life. Edward Tennant did not suspect that Douglas would use the magazine as a means by which to attack not only his own politics (Tennant became Liberal MP for Salisbury, while Douglas was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory) but the policies and politics of Tennant's brother-in-law, H.H. Asquith, whom the Tennants helped finance in his progress to becoming Prime Minister the following year.
Douglas moved back to London, and set about campaigning. His right-hand man at The Academy was T.H. Crosland, a laddish and scruffy product of a Leeds suburb who looked as though he slept in his clothes; when Douglas took him to the Cafe Royal, he would have to do Crosland's tie for him. Douglas and Crosland were aware of a renaissance in Wilde's reputation. In the difficult years since Oscar's disgrace, his name had been kept alive by the faithful. Now, with Richard Strauss's acclaimed opera based on Salome, and Ross's social acceptance by the Asquiths, there was 'a new sense of sexual liberation in literature and the arts, and ... the reinstatement of Oscar Wilde as a cultural figure'. Ross's articles in The Academy did not mention Wilde, but they evoked his spirit in discursions on such subjects as anti-semitism and xenophobia, pertinent in the light of recent anti-immigration laws. Reviewing an exhibition of Jewish art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Ross noted: 'One of the greatest bores on earth is the Anti-Semite, and for him, at least, the show should be a liberal instruction. He will be disappointed to find no examples of those peculiar knives used in the ritual murders of young boys...'. Elsewhere he wrote, 'English criticism brings out a sort of unrepealed Aliens Act from the recesses of its hollow mind...'.
To the right-wing Crosland, with his instinctive distaste for all things decadent and homosexual, Ross was anathema. He told Douglas that he had heard that Ross was 'an unsavoury person' and ought not to be writing for the magazine; Pamela Tennant apparently agreed, and told Douglas so. As a married man drawn towards Roman Catholicism, Bosie had 'conceived a distaste (which later became ... a loathing) for his own homosexual past and those associated with it'. He attempted to drop Ross quietly. But Ross would not go quietly. The affair began to escalate when Douglas wrote in his accustomed intemperate manner his father's legacy telling 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.' On 1 December 1908 a public dinner was given in Ross's honour at the Ritz, to celebrate the solvency of the Wilde estate and the publication of Oscar's Collected Works. H.G. Wells, Sir William Rothenstein and Somerset Maugham numbered among the two hundred guests, whose celebrity irked Douglas greatly.
For the next five years, the spat between Ross and Douglas was a social skirmish for the upper hand. In 1913, it became open warfare. Arthur Ransome had published a biography of Wilde, written with Ross's help. Douglas, annoyed by the way he had been portrayed in it, took out a libel action against the book. Ross had recently resigned as art critic on the Morning Post, partly because his views on such subjects as Futurist art conflicted with those held by its reactionary new editor, H.A. Gwynne. He had however taken up a new job as Valuer of Pictures and Drawings for the Inland Revenue, as well as London director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Douglas and Crosland were infuriated by the public nature of such appointments, and the Ransome case allowed them to intensify their vendetta against Ross.
The case was tried by the perhaps inaptly named justice Darling (Max Beerbohm told Reggie Turner of a 'bogus telegram' which had been read out at the Chelsea Arts Club, 'from Mr. Justice Darling, "Regret dare not venture out. Much worried by letter from Lord A. Douglas beginning 'My dear Darling.'"') The judge made no secret of his dislike for the action and for Wilde, and seemed openly prejudiced against Douglas, directing all of his 'frequent and crushing' interventions against him. Douglas faced a formidable array of barristers, including F.E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead. Through Ross, the unpublished section of De Profundis, Wilde's open letter to Bosie, was produced, although it was supposed to be kept secret, at the British Library, until 1960. It destroyed Douglas's case, being clear evidence of his homosexual relationship with Wilde. Douglas felt posthumously betrayed by Wilde when he heard the new portions of De Profundis, and the trial had the effect of turning Douglas violently against Ross and Wilde just as his father had turned on Wilde.
Douglas would have been better advised not to have brought this action; as F.E. Smith noted, 'With regard to Oscar Wilde, years have passed since his fall, and men are beginning to think of the artist rather than the man's life. Now this legacy of infamy has been resurrected unnecessarily resurrected again.' Such would be the effect of the Billing trial, too. It was a difficult time for Douglas: his wife left him, and he was allowed only limited access to his son; he subsequently moved back to live with his mother at 19 Royal Avenue, Chelsea. Bosie was beaten down. Ross, victorious, went off to Moscow to see the first Russian production of Wilde's Salome by the Moscow Art Theatre, unaware that that play would soon see his downfall, too.
Douglas determined to turn the tables on Ross. He was 'the High Priest of all the sodomites in London', Douglas declared, '... held up to the world as the faithful friend of Wilde (out of the exploitation of whose cult he had made a fortune), the noble disinterested friend, the pure, the holy person, in contrast to the wicked and depraved Alfred Douglas who had "ruined" Oscar Wilde and "deserted" him. Flesh and blood couldn't stand it, and I swore the day after the Ransome trial that I would never rest till I had publicly exposed Ross in his true colours.' A publisher gave Douglas the opportunity to set the matter straight in print, along with a 500 [pounds sterling] advance. Bosie was in no position to write a book of 80,000 words, and Crosland offered to do the job in return for half the proceeds. But they reckoned without having to seek permission from Ross to quote from De Profundis. He obtained an injunction against them, and the book Oscar Wilde and Myself would not be published until 4 August 1914 the day war was declared.
Douglas's announcement that he was about to publish his memoirs created an impossible situation for Ross, obliging him to resign as London director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Returning his salary to Lady Phillips, who had founded the gallery, Ross wrote, 'My name being associated with what seems likely to become perpetually recurring scandal would eventually do the Gallery harm. So far, I am glad to think, no harm has been done, except that the stress and anxiety of eight months made it physically impossible for me to give that attention to the affairs of the Gallery which was required ...' The illness which would eventually kill him was a result of the pressure. And with the news that even in South Africa interviews with Douglas were appearing in the press, announcing the 'contents of his "Memoirs"', Ross knew that further trouble was in store.
In January 1914, Douglas encouraged Crosland to write a deliberately libellous letter to Ross, accusing him of 'villainy' and 'foulness' and demanding he resign his executorship of the Wilde estate, having created for Wilde 'a literary and general reputation which is to a great extent a fraudulent one'. Ross ignored it, so Crosland wrote again. 'A letter nailing you down has been sent by Lord Alfred Douglas to the following persons: Mr Justice Darling, Mr Justice Astbury, the Recorder of London, the Prime Minister, the Public Prosecutor, Mr Basil Thompson (Scotland Yard), Mr Gwynne (Morning Post), Mr John Lane, Sir George Lewis, and the Master of St Paul's School.' The exact contents of Douglas's letter are not known, but it did contain such Douglasean phrases as 'an unspeakable skunk', a 'filthy bugger', a 'notorious Sodomite', and 'habitual debaucher and corrupter of young boys right down to the present day', and a 'blackmailer'. The letters were not sent until Crosland and Douglas had evidence to substantiate their claims.
At the trial of Charles Garratt, a boy arrested for importuning, Christopher Millard had volunteered to speak for the prisoner. Millard, Wilde's bibliographer, had already served a prison sentence for gross indecency with a nineteen-year-old boy in Oxford. He had pleaded with Ross to help, and Robbie risked himself in giving it; Millard had since become his secretary. Crosland and Douglas assumed that the boy Garratt had been sexually involved with Ross, and went to see him in prison. Garratt, seeing a potential opening, said he did know Ross, but would give no more details until he came out of prison.
For the moment, Ross seemed secure. The Asquiths were firmly behind him; he stayed at their country house, the Wharf, and Margot professed herself dismayed by the way the police and Scotland Yard were treating Ross; she determined 'to have it out' with Charles Mathews, the Director of Public Prosecutions. But Ross was so apprehensive of Douglas's behaviour that, as he told Edmund Gosse, he had resorted to keeping a firearm. Gosse sought Lord Haldane's advice. As Lord Chancellor (and Asquith's close friend), Haldane who had visited Wilde in prison made it clear that, 'while he could not promise that any protective measures would be taken officially on my behalf ... he promised to do all he could for me in his personal capacity ...' Ross's solicitors issued various writs, and Crosland was arrested on a charge of having conspired, with Douglas, to accuse Ross of 'having committed certain acts with one Charles Garratt'. With Sir George Lewis Wilde's lawyer and friend acting both for Ross and for his father-in-law, Douglas saw little hope of winning. He escaped to Boulogne, and stayed out of the country and out of reach.
Ill-advisedly, Ross did not withdraw his libel charge against Douglas. When war was declared, Bosie returned to England, intending to join the army; in a brazen act reminiscent of Wilde's contemptuous attitude towards the law, he also informed the police exactly when he would be arriving. He was duly arrested on a charge of criminal libel and spent five nights in Brixton Prison. The row was now spilling out onto society's marble floors. At a party given by the Tennants (Edward was now ennobled as the first Baron Glenconner) at their palatial London house at Queen Anne's Gate, the Prime Minister, Asquith, was standing with the host and hostess, receiving guests; Marie Belloc Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc and family friend of Wilde's, was sitting with Robbie Ross near the door. Douglas made a loud entrance. Ross stood up, and the two men confronted each other. Douglas began to shout 'various violent terms of abuse'; witnesses heard him say, 'You have got to clear out of this: you are nothing but a bugger and a blackmailer'. Friends of Ross's rushed up to manoeuvre him into the next room, 'followed the while by the still shouting Lord Alfred Douglas'. Ross's friends got him behind a broad table, but Douglas lunged across, trying to get at him. It was an astonishing scene to be taking place in full view of London society. Douglas was pulled back, and Ross was ushered into the next room, 'leaving Lord Alfred shouting with rage at being baulked of his prey'. Lord Glenconner 'went from one lady to another', apologising to his guests. Douglas refused to leave until persuaded to do so by his mother, Pamela's aunt. Afterwards Marie Belloc Lowndes was asked to testify to the attack. 'Fortunately for me,' she wrote coyly, 'certain of the words which Lord Alfred had shouted were quite unknown to me.'
These two men who had loved Wilde now faced each other across the court room. The trial began on 19 November 1914 with the war in full swing. Despite the powers of DORA, 'the case could not be "kept out of the papers" altogether,' writes Croft-Cooke, 'but on the plea of patriotism, and to "conceal British decadence", a good deal was done and even The Times reported it scantily.' No details emerged of evidence almost as sensational as that heard at the Wilde trials. The court heard stories of Ross at a New Year's Eve party in 1911 'at which twenty or thirty men had danced together'. A soldier said he had confronted Ross at a bar in Copthall Avenue, Moorgate, over the disappearance of his sixteen-year-old brother from home. Another boy associated with Ross, named Smith, was a member of a dramatic society connected with a London parish; he admitted to 'painting and powdering his face'. Was this not usual for an actor? queried Ross's counsel, only to be told, 'Hardly, when they come to church.' The case went against Ross, and he abandoned it before the verdict could be reached, offering to pay Douglas's costs. Douglas accepted, but Ross had to resign the remainder of his posts and retire from public life.
Still Douglas continued to hound Ross. He thought it outrageous that Ross should be a regular visitor to Downing Street, and wrote to Asquith in January 1915, demanding he renounce Ross as a disreputable character. In response, Edmund Gosse prepared a testimonial for Ross, published in newspapers on 29 March 1915 and signed by three hundred supporters, including the Asquiths, confirming Ross as a respected 'man of letters' as well as presenting him with a 'purse' which Ross requested be used to set up a scholarship for boys at London University. Douglas noted that signatories included Bernard Shaw, More Adney, the Earl of Plymouth, William Rothenstein, Philip Morrell MP, Lady Ottoline Morrell, H.G. Wells, Sir George Lewis, Lady Lewis '(nee Marie Hirsch of Mannheim)', he added pointedly, the publishers Methuen and Heinemann, and the Bishop of Birmingham. It is not difficult to understand why the testimonial enraged Douglas; it was a public witness to his enemy's social position. Rather than convince Douglas to drop his vendetta, it had the more predictable effect of enraging him. He wrote again to Asquith, and then to the King, urging the latter to take action against his Prime Minister.
Douglas's campaign continued in a series of privately published poetic tirades. In April 1915, his satiric sonnet, 'All's Well With England', appeared, followed in May by 'To A Certain judge':
Blackness descends on England like a pall,
And in this obscene night, borne down and stoned,
Calling on God, lies Virtue. Brazen-toned
Through the shamed land rings out this trumpet call:
'Injustice shall be done though Heaven should fall.'
In the high places lo! they sit enthroned,
Lust unashamed and Filthiness condoned
And crowned and comforted. Thou whited wall!
The fact that the blackness of war had that month claimed Wilde's elder son Cyril Holland, killed at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle on 9 May 1915 did nothing to abate Douglas's spleen. His piece de resistance appeared in January 1916. The Rossiad was at once Douglas's response to Ross's testimonial, and to Wilde's De Profundis, which had been used against him in court, as well as being a narrative of the recent history of his country, which he considered to be threatened by decadence. The poem, which would appear in four editions to certain public acclaim, dwelt on the current miasma which allowed men like Ross to stay in the country:
But times have changed, the country's rife
With people of progressive views,
Nor are they 'mostly German Jews',
As some fool said not long ago,
We've seen them, and we ought to know.
True, Germany (like classic Rome
In its decline) is now the home
To which all cultured spirits soar
In spite of this unhappy war,
And you would doubtless find a 'pal' in
Our dear friend Haldane's friend, Herr Ballin,
But that is neither here nor there,
London's the place. How they would stare,
Those fellow-citizens of Lot's,
At some of our compatriots
Who've done their best to build again
Those grand old Cities of the Plain.
For London in the cultured sin
Can give points even to Berlin.
Running dyspeptically through his rage at the establishment figures ranged behind Ross, Douglas concluded his epic poem with exhortation against 'The foe without, the foe within':
He did not know, but may have suspected, that in the prejudiced climate of wartime, this would involve all society in a display of English justice and prejudice; a final nail in Oscar Wilde's coffin.
In 1914 Ross had moved to a first-floor flat at 40 Half Moon Street, an elegant street opening onto Piccadilly and Green Park. Ross's was an aesthete's lair: in a flagrant gesture against war economies, he had recently had his rooms redecorated in dull gold, reflecting their inhabitant's 'intense love of comfort and luxury' and 'natural inborn laziness...'. Ross kept open house into the early hours for his friends, most of whom were, in the parlance of the time, 'so'; the proximity of the cruising-grounds of Piccadilly and the park being an extra attraction. Here, in his gilded room, Ross entertained Wilfred Owen. A long table was laid with Turkish delight, biscuits, brandy and cigarettes; the host, in his black silk skull cap, presided over his guests' discussions. It wasn't until the early hours that Owen left Half Moon Street, in buoyant mood: 'I and my work are a success.' More personally, the meeting with Ross and his friends did much to open Owen up to his own sexuality; soon after, he admitted to his cousin, Leslie Gunston, that there was a secret 'key' to his poems.
Back with his regiment in Scarborough, in the turret room of his cliff-top hotel, Owen read De Profundis and Sherard's biography of Wilde; his poems also took on a new Wildean manner. He returned to London in January 1918 for Robert Graves' wedding at St James's, Piccadilly, where he was introduced to C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the Scottish poet and later translator of Proust, recently wounded on the Western Front; he still walked with a limp. He was also an Edwardian Uranian boy-lover, author of Evensong and Morewesong, a 'bravely obscene story of adolescent fellation', and had come directly from a police court, where he had been giving evidence at the trial of his sometime lover, Christopher Millard (about to receive his second jail sentence for sexual indecency). Owen was being drawn yet further into the Wildean circle at a dangerous time. These people were specific targets for Billing's attack, already being drawn up in the offices of the Imperialist. When Scott Moncrieff's closest friend, Philip Bainbrigge (an owlish schoolmaster who shared his Uranian tastes) told Owen in a Scarborough oyster bar that 'the whole of civilisation is extremely liable to collapse', it was a comment not only on the overwhelming German advance of that spring, but also a presentiment for his kind.
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