Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Trials of Salomé: The Maud Allan Libel Case

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Professor Ruth Robbins
Photo: Richard Wilcocks
Ruth Robbins from Leeds Beckett University fascinated her audience in the historic Leeds Library yesterday evening with the story of how, in 1918, an oddball, anti-semitic, homophobic conspiracy theorist of a Tory MP managed to wreck the career of Maud Allan, the beautiful dancer who had made a name for herself performing as Salomé. Her show, given in private because public performances were banned by the Lord Chamberlain of the day, was based on the play written in French by Oscar Wilde, who had been hounded and jailed a couple of decades previously. Noel Pemberton-Billing MP wrote an article entitled 'The Cult of the Clitoris' in the far-right conservative magazine The Vigilante which implied that Allan, along with Margot Asquith, wife of former prime minister Herbert Asquith, were members of an enemy intelligence network run from Berlin, very efficiently of course, to undermine morale in Britain. This was at a time when enormous numbers of extra troops from the Central Powers, liberated from commitments on the Eastern Front after a peace treaty with the Bolsheviks, had been deployed against the Allies on the Western Front. Paris was under threat, because the Americans had yet to reach full strength. Defeat was possible.

According to Pemberton-Billing in a previous demented article, 'There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute.' Supposedly, the German Secret Service had a 'Black Book' containing the names of no less than 47,000 people, mostly in high places, who could be blackmailed because of their sexual inclinations.
Allan sued for criminal libel, which was probably what men at The Vigilante wanted, and the case became official, because there was a general consensus across the parties at Westminster that Pemberton-Billing was a blackguard.

The trial was a fiasco, one of the most botched libel trials in legal history, or so Ruth Robbins caused me to believe, with a pathetic prosecutor and an ineffective presiding judge who was either daydreaming or full of port most of the time, allowing all sorts of irrelevant information to be brought in. The defence was very active, and unscrupulous,  drawing on the likes of Lord Alfred Douglas to give evidence. He was no longer an 'exploited' boy, Wilde's beloved 'Bosie', the translator of his play from French, but a vindictive and cynical upholder of 'purity' (beware that word) in public life, who twisted facts and smeared the opposition as required. Pemberton-Billing got off, and Allan's career was finished, though she was able to live off the substantial amounts she had earned - and Margot Asquith did pay her rent for years afterwards.

There is a lesson for us in all this, Ruth Robbins told us, because conspiracy 'theorists' are plentiful, operating not just in small magazines but online, on YouTube for example. Characters like Pemberton-Billing still exist, though nowadays they might not stick to well-established anti-semitic tropes, but deal in islamophobia, all of them proud upholders of national sovereignty and defenders of borders of course. Their views are tied in with homophobia. They select facts, or ignore them. They tell straight lies. Criticise them and risk being accused of a lack of patriotism, or of consorting with the impure.

Audience Comments

Informative and interesting links to modern times.  Important to learn the lessons to not repeat.

Interesting and informative and I like the way she made the links/connections with current politics/news

A fascinating talk about an important but little-known episode in British literary history.  Well told and illustrated with wider resonance drawn out; especially contemporary references.

Excellent presentation in an excellent venue.  Give us more!

Fascinating talk about a subject which despite being over 100 years ago has huge parallels today.  Well informed presenter.

Intriguing and thoughtful

Great venue and the speaker was very animated and brought the subject to life.  Very enjoyable and interesting.  Thank you.

Entertaining as well as informative.  Ruth was a great speaker as well as being an accomplished researcher who explained the topic well.

A fascinating story engagingly told, drawing in many threads – feeding our appetite to read more on the topic

Well-researched, entertainingly delivered and thought-provoking.  Very good all round.  Thank you

Fantastic, well organised and presented/  Thought- provoking and very relevant!

I liked the reference to the present day.  I also like a good personal opinion.

Very informative account of this sensational trial of literature.

Excellent, detailed, fascinating well presented talk.

A masterclass in the practice of cultural history – funny and engaging while demonstrating familiarity with a wealth of sources & showing the importance of scrupulous textual and archival analysis.

Well presented talk.  Informative and lively.  Interesting subject.

Valuable insight into a historical event that I knew little about.  I enjoyed the speaker highlighting the resonance with personalities and events today.  It has me made reflect on issues such as media reliability and gender politics

Informative, thought provoking talk.  Very enjoyable and very worthwhile.

Fascinating, entertaining talk with sobering resonance for today's world of unverified sensationalist

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