John Mortimer

Nothing So Decadent as Pemberton Billing

Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the First World War

By Philip Hoare

Duckworth 256pp £16.95 order from our bookshop

Among the many dotty and hilarious trials which have enlivened our legal history, the Pemberton Billing libel action in the closing year of the 1914-18 war must rank among the Top Ten. Reference was made throughout the proceedings to a mysterious German ‘Black Book’, which was said to contain the names of 47,000 prominent British homosexuals, lesbians and secret agents working for the enemy. The names included, it was said, Asquith, Margot Asquith, Lord Haldane and many others of the great and good. When a Mrs Villiers-Stuart (later imprisoned for bigamy) shouted, from the witness box, that the judge’s name was in the book, the proceedings reached a level of insanity beyond anything achieved by Mr Justice Cocklecarrot.

The story of the Pemberton Billing trial is hugely entertaining and Philip Hoare has resurrected it in all its bizarre detail. He has unearthed the shady characters who played on xenophobia and sexual prejudice to sow the seeds of that unhealthy and short-lived plant, British fascism. He is on less certain ground when he seeks to show a tide of decadence flowing from Oscar Wilde and embracing not only Lytton Strachey but W H Auden, Noel Coward, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. You might as well, travelling back in history, call Michelangelo, Leonardo and perhaps Shakespeare ‘decadent’. I would argue that the author of The Soul of Man Under Socialism, An Ideal Husband and The Ballad of Reading Gaol was a man of robust humanity and common sense. Decadence, however that pejorative word is defined, is by no means synonymous with homosexuality.

Noel Pemberton Billing MP, of course, was sure that it was. He had been an actor, a barrister, the inventor of a ‘self-calculating pencil’ and a ‘flying boat’ which failed to take off. He had founded the Vigilante Society with an Admiral’s son called Henry Hamilton Beamish who believed that Britain was ruined by ‘Jewalisation’ and that the Jews were responsible for a quarter of the casualties in the war. The Vigilantes published a paper called the Imperialist, which announced ‘the existence in the “Cabinet Noir” of a certain German prince, a book which contains reports from the agents ‘who have infested this country for over twenty years’, agents spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute’.

Billing was anxious to spread his beliefs, not only to Parliament and the Press, but in the Courts of Law. His opportunity came when a private production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play banned from the public by the Lord Chamberlain, was proposed. The Vigilante carried a paragraph mysteriously worded ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ and went on: ‘To be a member of Maud Allan’s performances of Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9, Duke Street, Adelphi, WC. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of members, I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000 [in the Black Book].’ Maud Allan charged Billing with criminal libel and he decided to defend himself at the Old Bailey.

Mr Justice Darling, a small, dandified figure, much given to flippant little jokes at which the Court was expected to laugh heartily, was caricatured by Max Beerbohm wearing a black cap with bells on it. He allowed the loud-voiced Billing, who stood with his monocle fixed in his eye and his arms crossed, to dominate the proceedings. Hours were spent discussing the contents of the Black Book which probably only existed in the fertile imaginations of Billing, his mistress Mrs Villiers-Stuart, and some other dubious witnesses.

The crowded court and public opinion were on Billing’s side. He was even supported by the Christian Scientists, who sent a serious lady in their movement, reportedly ‘extremely plain’, to bear him a child in case he was sent to prison and couldn’t carry on his great work. Although in the midst of legal proceedings, Billing performed this unattractive duty.

The tone of the trial was further lowered by the evidence of the loathsome Lord Alfred Douglas, who attacked Wilde in general and Salome in particular. He also said that prime ministers, judges and ‘greasy advocates’ all conspired to ‘support perverts’. The judge and lawyers seemed too innocent for any such task. They had great difficulty in understanding the word ‘clitoris’ and the QC for the dancer-actress Maud Allan, apparently hearing the word ‘orgasm’ for the first time, asked if it meant some sort of unnatural vice.

At the end of these sensational proceedings, the incompetent Darling told the jury that all the evidence, which he had allowed them to hear about the Black Book, was irrelevant. In his final speech, Billing proudly announced that he was a libeller who had been libeling public men for two and a half years. ‘Do you think I’m going to keep quiet while nine men die in a minute to make a sodomite’s holiday?’ he finally boomed. Naturally, he was triumphantly acquitted and the courtroom rang to the cheers of the wounded soldiers he had introduced into the public gallery.

In the years after the war, Henry Hamilton Beamish became the Vice President of the Imperial Fascist League and said that Hitler was a great man because he had ‘Named the Enemy’. Douglas, in his magazine Plain English, suggested that Lord Kitchener had been killed by Churchill and the Jews, a libel for which he was sent to prison. It is they who- represented the decadence which Philip Hoare seems to attribute to such great writers as Wilde and Wilfred Owen.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter