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"The Cult of the Clitoris": Anatomy of a National Scandal

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 9, Number 1, January 2002
pp. 21-49 | 10.1353/mod.2002.0015

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Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002) 21-49


In Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, Cecil Graham insists, "I never talk scandal. I only talk gossip." When asked what the difference is between the two, Cecil replies, "Oh! Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality." Wilde would most likely have agreed that media publicity often accompanies -- indeed, amplifies -- the tedium of morality as a defining property of scandal. The scandal I want to consider, perhaps the most sensational scandal in Britain during World War I, suitably began with an announcement for a play by Wilde that appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper in February 1918:

MAUD ALLAN in private performances by
April next.
Terms of membership from Miss Valetta, 9, Duke Street.

This unassuming notice accompanies other advertisements that evoke Britain's charged cultural atmosphere as it entered its fourth year of war. In the paper's "Social and Personal" section, several personal detectives advertise their services for managing the contemporary misfortunes of "Blackmail, Divorce, Libel or anonymous letters" and for assisting "if you require relief from an embarrassing entanglement, or any delicate matter." The paper also boasts an array of treatments for such modern conditions as shell shock and war neurosis, with cures ranging from hypnotic suggestion to "Hindu Treatment." In the entertainment notices Madame Taussaud advertises a wax exhibition of "Celebrities of the PAST and PRESENT and HEROES of the WAR." The advertisement for Wilde's play, printed just above Madame Taussaud's announcement, would become the first document in a remarkable legal event which the press ultimately deemed "an unprecedented orgy of scandal and disorder." Indeed, as the scandal over Salomé unfolded, it encompassed the peculiar realms invoked by the other advertisements: detected secrets, blackmail and libel, "delicate situations," the nervous disorders of war, hypnotic suggestion, the mysteries of the East, and celebrity exhibitions.

In addition to tedious morality and media publicity, a scandal also requires colorful public personalities, a condition satisfied by the above names. In 1918 the name "Oscar Wilde" was synonymous with infamy; Salomé, written in 1891, was his only drama to be banned from public performance in England, and its 1894 English publication with Aubrey Beardsley's naughty illustrations kindled a minor literary scandal of its own. Maud Allan was a dancer who had become one of London's most famous and eroticized performers a decade earlier with her scantily-clad and sexually suggestive modern dance, "The Vision of Salome" (fig. 1). Meanwhile, her "intimate yet undefinable" relationship with Margot Asquith, who was rumoured to be a "sapphist," had provoked society gossip. J. T. Grein, the play's producer and the owner of the Independent Theatre, was a businessman and dramatic critic of the Sunday Times. Active in the production of modern and often controversial drama, Grein was the first to bring Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw to the London stage. In 1918, Wilde, Salomé, Allan, and Grein were all widely recognized, ideologically charged proper names, ripe for scandalous deployment.

Within less than a week of Grein's advertisement, the front page of a small right wing radical newspaper called The Vigilante displayed the following cryptic paragraph:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan's performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9, Duke Street. . . . If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000.

The "Cult of the Clitoris" paragraph then launched the sort of enticing narrative that a scandal requires and also made its publisher, Noel Pemberton-Billing, a public sensation. In a few weeks, Allan, the play's star, and Grein, its producer, began legal proceedings against Billing on a charge of obscene and criminal libel.

An independent member of Parliament, Billing led the Vigilante Society, whose mission was to promote "purity" in public life. The Society was particularly dedicated to rooting out that "'mysterious influence'"--the invisible German presence spreading moral degeneracy in England itself--"which was responsible...

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