This book explores the hidden sexuality in the lines of 59 of Wilfred Owen’s poems. These lines being witnesses to his nature repressed and suppressed.
The years of Wilfred Owen’s life ‘coincided’ with yet another rather conflicted ‘era’; that of the Oscar Wilde scandal and the pioneering work of Havelock Ellis.Ellis was born on 2 February 1859. He died on 8 July 1939. He was a British physician, writer and social reformer who studied human sexuality. He was co-author of the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality in 1897 – his fundamental assertion was that homosexuality was neither a disease nor in any way immoral.
But, notwithstanding, society, at the time, placed homosexuals at the extremest margins of society – they were utterly condemned and criminalised by society and the Law; although there was some current of general ‘toleration’, so long as the person concerned was neither seen nor heard of as blatantly homosexual.
Whatever, the atmosphere must have been one of imminent persecution and prosecution; most especially for Robbie Ross and his circle.
In 1918, matters could hardly have been worse. For, early 1918 was also the time of some scandalous ‘homosexual’ litigation.
This was purposely brought about by the demagogic, right-wing, self-important and self-aggrandising, independent MP, and inventor of useless inventions, Noel Pemberton Billing.
His weekly journal called The Imperialist, later re-named Vigilante, had as its extremist platforms, attacks on, variously, Jews, German music, Pacifism, Fabianism, Aliens, Financiers, Internationalism, the Brotherhood of Man and, of course, a militant attitude of obsessive homophobia, regaling its readers with references to imaginary subversive cliques of Sodoms and Lesbias.
His campaigning and trouble-making culminated in early 1918, when, during the Kaiserslacht Offensive of March 1918, when the Allies had ‘their backs to the wall’, and the whole country was in a state of extreme dread, he published a scandalous article titled ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’.
In it, he accused Ross and his circle of being among 47,000 men and women, named in a ‘Black Book’, all alleged homosexuals, whom, he asserted, were being blackmailed into being spies for the Kaiser.
Billing even hinted that Margot Asquith – the wife of the former Prime Minister – was named in the ‘Black Book’.
The famous dancer and actress, Maud Allan, was singled out by name, as she had played Salome in Wilde’s play, in performances which had been authorised by Robbie Ross, as Wilde’s executor.
In Billing’s article, she was attacked as a lesbian and identified and named as being a member of this ‘Cult of the Clitoris’ – with all his invented insinuations associated with it.
She sued for libel.
The case caused a sensation in Britain.
The trial went on for some months being pruriently reported by the Press.
Doubtless, in addition to her giving lying evidence, he called her also for the purpose of proving his heterosexuality. Yet he never married – her or anyone else – and had no children.
This trial ended, in June 1918, with Maud Allan losing her action. Billing (scandalously) won the case, representing himself.
The ‘Black Book’ has never actually seen any ‘light of day’, before or since, and no-one was prosecuted for perjury; it must be pure fiction.
This was catastrophic for Ross and his circle.
All this prurient and ‘persecuting’ publicity would have, without doubt, powerfully influenced the Owen family into destroying so much of Wilfred’s correspondence and papers after his death, so far as any such might have implied that he was homosexual.
Bringing together, with the Poems currently well known, the previously ‘unseen’ poetry of Wilfred Owen, (with its ‘lines hidden in plain sight’), it could be useful to consider sexuality, and its relevance, in such context and in the general context of the time.