Tag Archives: LGBT

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting thing to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanaroma, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.

The Top 10 Posts of 1918

Just two days to go in My Year in 1918! After spending 2018 reading books, magazines, and the news as if I were living a century ago, I’m excited but also nervous about returning to the modern world.

Before that, though, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 (well, really 11 because there’s a tie at #10)

Illustration from Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster captioned Judy Wins the Fifty Yard Dash.

Illustration from Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

10 (tie). Dear Daddy-Long-Legs, Drop dead! In this February post, I reread the Jean Webster classic, in which an orphan writes to the benefactor who’s putting her through college. An aspect of the story that seemed charming to 12-year-old me struck me as creepy this time around. (No spoilers here, but I spoil away in the post itself.)

July 1918 George Lepape Vanity Fair cover showing startled flapper looking at caterpiller on wallpaper.

10 (tie). The best and worst of June and July 1918: Insanity, proto-flappers, and octopus eyes. This post, featuring one of my favorite magazine finds of the year, the American Journal of Insanity, the worst New York Times editorial I read all year, which is saying a lot, and Murad cigarette art, probably benefited from sitting at the top of the blog for two weeks while I was in D.C. being lazy.

Hugo Geller March 1918 Liberator cover illustration, cutout of bearded man.

9. My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point. In which I ruminate about life as a literary time traveler, and about how checking out of the 2018 news has affected me.

Headline of March 1918 Ladies' Home Journal article titled If You are 40 or Over, How You Can Keep the Silhouette of Youth

8. Wish me luck on my 1918 diet! Surprise surprise—people like reading about diets. My Year in 1918 had its best week ever with this October post on how I tried to regain the silhouette of youth by going on a 1918 diet, spurred on by a group DietBet.

Photo portrait of novelist Marie Corelli, 1909.

Marie Corelli

7. The bonkers world of Marie Corelli. During my very first week, I read a New York Times article about how British novelist Corelli, whom I’d never heard of,* had been arrested for hoarding sugar. A little digging turned up an article in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping in which she rants about modern horrors like Cubism and Debussy and ruminates insanely on who should be shot like a mad dog and who should be involuntarily sterilized—my first, but by no means last, encounter with 1918 eugenic thinking.

Good Housekeeping January 1918 cover showing swaddled baby in front of starry sky.

6. The journey begins! My January 1 post, in which I announce my project and make several promises I will fail to keep.

Photograph of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap with rainbow flag tint.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

5. The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute. One of the biggest surprises of my project was how many lesbian women I came across, either out (The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson), closeted (Willa Cather), or closeted except that it’s totally obvious if you read their poetry so it’s mind-boggling to a modern reader that people didn’t get it (Amy Lowell).

January 1918 The Crisis cover, black and white drawing of African-American woman with daisies in front of her face.

3 (tie). The best and worst of January 1918: Magazines, stories, thinkers, and jokes. The biggest head-scratcher on the list. I mean, I stand by it—it has W.E.B. Du Bois’s wonderful magazine The Crisis, and T.S. Eliot, and a G.K. Chesterton drinking game, and bad jokes—but I’m not sure what propelled it into the tied-for-#3 spot. The internet is a mystery sometimes.

Headline of Ladies' Home Journal June 1918 article titled What Shall I Do After I Graduate? It Isn't Safe to Trust to War Jobs.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

3 (tie). What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? Take This Quiz and Find Out! Don’t count on keeping your “war job” when peace comes, the Ladies’ Home Journal (correctly) warns. Set your sights on a realistic career, like teacher, saleswoman, office girl, or dressmaker. Take this quiz to find YOUR 1918 girl job!

Postcard of Maud Allan as Salome, ca. 1906, showing Salomé recoiling from severed head.

Maud Allan as Salomé, c. 1906

2. Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century. This is the craziest story I came across all year, and that’s saying a lot. It’s about a dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a libel trial spurred by an item about it in Member of Parliament Noel Pemberton-Billing’s right-wing newspaper, headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Oh, and there’s (allegedly) a 47,000-member German-lesbian cabal. Except that the New York Times couldn’t say “clitoris” or “lesbian” so I had a terrible time figuring out what was going on.

And the winner

Photograph of cameo of girl holding out hand surrounded by pink gems.

1. Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out! This post didn’t do all that well when it was published in February, but its continuing popularity over the year won it the top spot. You, too, can find out whether you’re a superior adult (as opposed to, say, feeble-minded or deficient) by taking this 100-word vocabulary test from Literary Digest. Which is totally accurate, the magazine assures us, because being able to identify a cameo or a parterre or shagreen has NOTHING to do with your socioeconomic status.

Honorable Mentions

Close-up of bride and groom's hands.

My Sad Search for 1918 Love. This post, in which I search in vain for a nice 1918 boyfriend, came in 13th despite having been published in mid-December.

Tinted photograph of poet George Sterling in robe and turban, illustration in The Rubaiyat.

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet. Almost as crazy as the Unmentionable Vice story, this tale of a bad poet, scandalous goings-on in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and much taking of cyanide performed spectacularly when first posted, but then faded and didn’t even make the top 20.

Dishonorable Mention

1918 advertisement for Alabastine showing disembodied faces on walls.

Thursday Miscellany: Mauvais français, trippy Kewpies, and loud loos. Don’t you always wonder what people’s worst-performing posts are? I do! My bottom ten were all Miscellanies or very early, kind of earnest, posts. The nadir, with TWO views,** is this one. It’s a pretty typical Miscellany, so I’m not sure why the hate. Although on second thought it IS kind of creepy, with kewpies, which always freak me out, and scary wall faces, and a toilet. You can click on the link if you feel sorry for it.

So What Does it All Mean?

Some takeaways: people like reading about loony bohemian goings-on and diets and lesbians and bests and worsts and explanations of what people’s blogs are about. And they love quizzes!

Well, all of you quiz lovers are in luck, because there’s one going on right now: a test of your Year-in-1918 knowledge. Enter by 1 a.m. EST on January 4 for a chance to win a book of your choice from the Book List!***

*Which seems inconceivable to steeped-in-1918 December me, since she was hugely famous.

**But you don’t have to feel TOO sorry for it, because numbers of views are kind of misleading. If you look at a post on the home page and don’t click on it, it counts as a view for the home page. So, to make a blogger happy, click on the link.

***For you people who say the quiz is hard—YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE—it’s not! It’s an open-book test, and with judicious use of the search bar a perfect score can easily be yours. One of the answers is right here on this post!

New reviews on the Book List:

December 28: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)

December 29: The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, edited by Sara Teasdale (1917)

The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute

When I started my reading-in-1918 project, one of the first things that struck me was that just about every woman I came across was, or appeared to be, a lesbian. Of course, this being 1918, they weren’t waving rainbow flags or announcing their nuptials in the New York Times. Still, they were everywhere. Here are the stories of some of the women I’ve run into along the way.

Marie Corelli

Portrait of Marie Corelli, artist and date unknown

Corelli, who was Britain’s best-selling novelist in her heyday (which was waning by 1918), didn’t self-identify as gay. A number of writers, though, have claimed her for Team Lesbian, pointing to the eroticized depictions of women in her writing, which strikes me as pretty flimsy evidence, and, more convincingly, to her decades-long cohabitation with her companion, Bertha Vyver. Their initials were carved, intertwined, on their mantlepiece alongside the words “amor vincit,” and they exchanged rings.*

If Corelli was in fact a lesbian, she’s an awfully sorry example—as I’ve noted, she advocated forced sterilization and was the source for the homophobic “Cult of the Clitoris” article I wrote about in my last post. Also, she was a pretty bad writer. But, as I’ve also noted, it can’t have been easy to be Corelli, who was the illegitimate daughter of Charles McKay, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and a household servant. Growing up with both your parentage and your sexuality treated as sources of shame would be enough to warp any mind.

Maria Thompson Daviess

Portrait of Maria Thompson Daviess by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, date unknown

Daviess, the author of the Bridget Jones-like 1912 bestseller The Melting of Molly, is a more inspiring, though also ambiguous, example. She’s not famous enough today to have sparked much speculation about her sexuality, but just take a look at her writing. The Melting of Molly, which is narrated by 25-year-old widow Molly, is full of passages like this:

With [Molly’s aunt] came a long, tall, lovely vision of a woman in the most wonderful close clingy dress and hat that you wanted to eat on sight. I hated her instantly with the most intense adoration that made me want to lie down at her feet.

And this:

Miss Chester [the aforementioned tall, lovely vision] and I exchanged little laughs and scraps of conversation in between time and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her.

And especially this:

First I went to see Madam Courtier for corsets. I had heard about her and I knew it meant a fortune. But that didn’t matter! She came in and looked at me for about five minutes without saying a word and then she ran her hands down and down over me until I could feel the flesh just crawling off of me. It was delicious!

I’d really, really like to know what 1918 readers made of this. More on Daviess later.

Margaret Anderson

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

All this digging into people’s private lives was making me feel kind of creepy, so it was a relief to turn to Margaret Anderson, the editor of the ground-breaking modernist journal The Little Review, which published the first chapter of Ulysses in March 1918. She and Jean Heap, her partner in work as well as life, lived openly as a couple. Heap wore men’s clothing and sported a short haircut. “I am no man’s wife, no man’s delightful mistress, and I will never, never, never, be a mother,” Anderson wrote proudly.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, 1926

Cather, the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, was fiercely private about her personal life, but she and editor Edith Lewis lived together for decades. The only letter from Cather to Lewis that is known to have survived—Cather burned most of them—begins, “My Darling.”

Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell (Bachrach, ca. 1916)

Poet Amy Lowell (the much younger sister of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the academically progressive but homophobic Harvard president I wrote about here) didn’t self-identify as a lesbian, but that seems like a mere technicality if you read her work. Here’s “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” which was published in the North American Review in February 1918 and appeared in the 1919 collection Pictures of the Floating World.

North American Review, February 1918

The subject of this and Lowell’s other love poems is Ada Dwyer Russell. The two lived together from 1914 until Lowell’s death in 1925. (Cohabiting relationships like this, sexual or not, were known—appropriately, in this case—as “Boston marriages.”) Russell’s father, by the way, deserves a place in the PFLAG hall of fame—he was kicked out of the Mormon church in 1913 for arguing that sex between people of the same sex was not a sin.

Maud Allan

Maud Allan

And, of course, there’s dancer Maud Allan, the performer in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, who, as I wrote in my last post, sued British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing for supposedly accusing her, in an article headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris,” of engaging in unspeakable vice. Allan lived for three decades with Verna Aldrich, her secretary and partner.

…And the rest

These are only a few of the many women I came across who were not married and are not known to have had serious relationships with men. Others include writer Edna Ferber, first woman member of congress Jeannette Rankin, short story writer Elizabeth Jordan, portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, and actress Emily Stevens, who played the single-mother-by-choice in Alan Dale’s controversial play The Madonna of the Future.**

Emily Stevens

As I read about these women’s lives, certain patterns started to emerge. One is the “fell so deeply in love as an adolescent that no man could ever measure up” trope. Stevens’ Wikipedia entry says that she developed a girlhood crush on theatrical producer Harrison Fiske, her cousin’s husband, and “seems to have stayed true to her feelings for [him] as she did not pursue relationships with other men.” Maria Thompson Daviess fell at age 13 for her pervy male camp counselor, with whom, according to her autobiography, Seven Times Sevenshe exchanged the

profoundest kiss kiss ever bartered between two of the human race…That exchange, my first, also set standards for me and I am dimly afraid that is one of the reasons I write myself spinster today.***

Or something like that! Seven Times Seven is still under copyright, and the snippet Google Books displays begins, infuriatingly, with “profoundest kiss.” In any case, Daviess told a friend that this infatuation was not as “glamorous”—which seems to be 1918-speak for “passionate”—as her crush on a woman teacher.

Do you have friends who have gone on to live a life of celibacy because they never got over their high school crush? If so, fine, feel free to buy this.****

Annette Abbott Adams, date unknown

Then there are the marriages of convenience. Groundbreaking California lawyer Annette Abbott Adams got married, according to friends, only because she wanted a “Mrs.” in front of her name, having found that professional doors were more open to married women. She and her husband lived apart for most or all of their marriage but never divorced.

There’s a reason, obviously, why lesbians and women without a (visible) man in their lives are found so often on the 1918 political and cultural scene. For most women, it was a choice of one or the other—marry, or have a career. Lesbians were, of course, more likely to opt against marriage than heterosexual women (although many lesbians, including Ada Dwyer Russell, did marry). But there must have been lots of heterosexual women, as well, who opted for a career over marriage and a family.

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons, ca. 1920

Judging from the lives of the relatively few married women I’ve come across, career over marriage seems like the sensible choice. Edith Wharton’s husband suffered from crippling depression, and she divorced him after 28 years of marriage. E. Nesbit’s husband kept having children with other women. Artist Elizabeth Gardner endured a 17-year engagement because her lover and mentor William-Adolphe Bouguereau didn’t want to upset his mother by marrying her. Julia Clark Hallam wrote about how deadening the work of a wife and mother was. Suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley married food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley when she was 34 and he was 67. Married Love author Marie Carmichael Stopes’ first marriage was unconsummated. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster’s marriage was apparently happy, but she had to wait for years for her husband’s divorce from his first wife to come through. Also, her husband was an alcoholic. Webster died in childbirth the year after their marriage.*****

So here’s to the lesbian women of 1918—and to all the women, gay and straight, who were forced by an intolerant society to hide or suppress important parts of who they were.

[UPDATE 9/25/2019: I wrote about Swedish lesbian writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, here.]

*There are two schools of thought on how to interpret this type of thing. They can be summarized as, on the one hand, “Duh,” and, on the other hand, “But romanticized, non-sexual relationships between women were a thing.”

**Dale—who was married—made LGBT history himself by writing the first-ever gay-themed novel in English, A Marriage Below Zero, in 1889.

***This reminds me of an anecdote I read decades ago in a memoir by screenwriter Anita Loos, best known today as the author of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. George Gershwin’s buddies have noticed that he never has a girl, and one day she asks him why. He spins a tragic tale of the one who got away. Loos asks him what happened. “She moved to Detroit,” he says. Loos marvels at the spinelessness of a guy who couldn’t overcome such a minor obstacle. A modern reader might interpret this differently.

****Of course, there could be other reasons for claiming to be off the dating market, like a long affair with a married man.

*****A more fun fact about Jean Webster and her husband: Theodore Roosevelt invited himself along on their honeymoon at their camp in Canada, saying, “We can put up a partition in the cabin.” No word on whether he actually showed.

Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

 As I was catching up on the 1918 news over breakfast at a Cambridge, Massachusetts B&B during my recent vacation, I came across the following headline in the May 31 New York Times, right below a humongous banner headline about the German offensive:

I was confused.

I read the article, and I was still confused. British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, apparently, was on trial for defaming dancer Maud Allan, who had appeared in a private dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and the play’s producer, Jack Grien of the Independent Theatre. (Grien was also the drama critic for the Sunday Times, because no one cared about conflict of interest in 1918.) According to prosecutor Travers Humphreys, Pemberton-Billing had made an attack on Allan in his right-wing magazine The Vigilante that was “unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.” Humphreys said that

the coupling of the name of Miss Allan, or any woman, with the heading of the paragraph could only mean one thing—that the lady, either in her private or professional capacity, was associated with something that could not be regarded as otherwise than disreputable.

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

What heading? What paragraph? The Times isn’t telling. Humphreys goes on to say that, if Allan had failed to challenge this mysterious allegation,

some of those persons whose mental food was garbage might be able to say hereafter, ‘You have this said of you, and you took no steps to stop it, and therefore, there must be something in it.’

Have what said? This was getting frustrating.

Portrait of Maud Allan by Alexander Bassano, 1913

Oh, and there was a list. Which the Times does explain. (Well, the British Telegraph does—the Times, as was its habit, quotes large chunks of the Telegraph’s reporting verbatim.) In an earlier article, the Vigilante had reported that

there exists in the cabinet noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the secret service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive.*

Okay, so there’s an evil German plot to perversify English society. But what does it have to do with Maud Allan et al.? Humphreys explains that the other Vigilante article, the one with the mysterious headline, made

a cryptic suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre there was no doubt they would secure the names of several thousands of the first 47,000.

Captain Harold Spencer (date unknown)

No one had actually managed to produce a copy of this book. But a lot of people had seen it. Or said they had. Including the author of the article, former American navy captain Harold Spencer. Spencer was the aide-de-camp to Prince William of Wied**, who he said had shown him the book in Albania. Another witness, Mrs. Villiers Stewart, said that she had seen former Prime Minister Asquith’s name in the book.*** Spencer said he hadn’t, but he had seen Asquith’s wife’s name.

Guess who else Mrs. Villiers Stewart said she saw in the book? Justice Darling, who was presiding over the case! Sensation in the court. But it apparently didn’t occur to him to stop the trial and recuse himself, because, like I said, conflict of interest.

Noel Pemberton-Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

Spencer testified that the Vigilante had been tipped off about the Salome production by—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—Marie Corelli, the purple-prose novelist who was last seen here espousing forced sterilization in Good Housekeeping and hoarding sugar. (And who, by the way, was almost certainly a lesbian herself.)

Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover-turned-nemesis, also testified for the defense, although I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he had to do with anything, and was later kicked out of the courtroom for heckling.

And there was a camarilla! A word that, despite my superior-adult score on a 1918 vocabulary-based intelligence test, I had to look up. It turns out to mean a secret group of plotting courtiers. This particular camarilla, allegedly, was aimed at getting Asquith back into power and making peace with Germany. (Which was seen as a bad thing–right-thinking people wanted to beat them.)

Margot Asquith, date unknown

The pieces were starting to fall together, but I still wasn’t clear on the unspeakable vice. Oscar Wilde + vice, I figured, had to = something about homosexuality. But what exactly?

As I sipped my tea and reflected on the situation, I had an inspiration. “You know who will be all over this story?” I said to myself. “My fellow 100-years-ago blogger, Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” And I was right! As WIIIAI explains here and here, the crux of the matter is the title of the Vigilante article, which the Times was too delicate to reprint: “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Aha! The insinuation, then, was that Allan was at the heart of a giant pro-German lesbian cabal.****

Now I was up to speed on why the Times was skirting around the headline. Armed with this information, I was able to track down the full text of the Vigilante article:

The Cult of the Clitoris

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

That’s it!

London’s Palace Theater, where Salome was performed, date unknown

Fast forward a few days, to a June 5 piece in the Times. As Humphreys was making his closing arguments, Pemberton-Billings interrupted him to say that he’d never accused Allan of engaging in vice herself, only of pandering to it. He was acquitted.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote that the good guys lost. And it’s true that I’ll root for scandalous lesbian dancers (Allan was in fact a lesbian, which was the only true allegation in the whole trial as far as I can tell) and cutting-edge theater producers over homophobic right-wing politicians and conspiracy-peddling ex-military officers any time. But, even by the standards of British defamation law, which is much stricter than its American equivalent, the penning of the Vigilante story doesn’t seem like a criminal act. It’s just a piece of vague, sloppy insinuation. Not something that people should go to jail for, however despicable they might be.

The real crime here—twenty-three years after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail for homosexual acts, and eighteen years after he died, impoverished and disgraced, in Paris—is that homophobia was still so deeply rooted in British society that it was fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theories (the book of 47,000, of course, never surfaced), scurrilous newspaper reporting, and farcical trials.

Not a very inspiring way to commemorate Pride Month. But there are positive LGBTQ stories as well. (Mostly L, actually.) I’ll get to them in an upcoming post.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

* Because everyone knows that Germans and hot-bloodedness are virtually synonymous.

**Arguably the best name in a story full of great ones.

***Mrs. Villiers Stewart was subsequently jailed for bigamy, but that’s another story.

****Because, you know, there’s nothing lesbians like so much as living under right-wing militaristic rule.