An extract from ‘A Wo/Man of No Importance’ by Juliet Jacques
Posted by Juliet Jacques
In her debut collection of short fiction Variations, Juliet Jacques boldly brings to life the untold stories of transgender Britain. Inspired by archive materials and real historical events, Jacques frames each story as found text – in this case, an unpublished pamphlet recounting the events around Oscar Wilde’s trial and London's literary and artistic circles centred around The Yellow Book journal.
I first met Arthur Parr on a winter afternoon in December 1894 or January 1895. Brought to me at a lavish dinner in Bloomsbury, I momentarily mistook him for someone else. The same long, flowing, dark hair, that cannot have curled so much without artifice; the same debonair mannerisms, even holding his cigarette in a similar fashion; the same style of frock-coat and velvet blazer. As soon as I realised that he must be nearly twenty years younger, I wondered if Parr had modelled himself on photographs of Oscar Wilde. The first thing he asked, in a broad Mancunian accent that offended the sensibilities of our more refined diners, was if anyone could introduce him to Oscar. It still pains me to admit that my next thought, as I listened to his long list of people with whom he hoped to become acquainted, was that this young man almost certainly meant trouble. The ease with which the names left his tongue – Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis amongst them – left little doubt about which topics he wished to discuss, and his tone made me feel that he wouldn’t be doing so with much discretion. Such an impetuous youth, barely twenty-three, demanding an audience with some of the best minds of his generation – and insistent that he would become the brightest of their company!
All evening, Parr told anyone who would listen that he was ‘a writer’ whose plays, prose and poetry would eclipse even those of Shakespeare, ‘and also an artist’ whose drawings and paintings would scandalise Paris, let alone London. Such things may be a little way ahead of him, publisher Elkin Matthews told me a few days later, but Parr had submitted a handful of poems to The Yellow Book and whilst the editor, Henry Harland, had not felt them fit for publication, he liked them, seeing the influence of Rimbaud in their youthful idealism, Mallarmé in their dense symbolism, and Huysmans in their sordid self-disgust. So, they encouraged Parr to keep writing, and to meet his contemporaries; he asked me to introduce Parr to Aubrey Beardsley – a young man of his age. Beardsley and he soon became close, but Parr was more interested in sexual scientists like Ellis than artists. It took him some time to realise that the two were not so distinct; and rather longer to learn the need to be careful about which elements to bring into his work.
Parr had already read everything that Wilde had published and was soon introduced to his idol – via Beardsley, who had illustrated Salomé, rather than the publishers of The Yellow Book, which Wilde had dismissed as ‘dull and loathsome’. Intrepid, Parr quizzed Oscar extensively about his work on their very first meeting, over a meal in Soho that deserved a far larger audience. (A shame, maybe, that Parr’s questions didn’t prepare Wilde for court.) Parr was so pleased with himself for identifying what he said was a brilliant allusion in The Importance of Being Earnest, then in its final rehearsals, to the trial of Ernest ‘Stella’ Boulton and Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park.1 ‘If Boulton is “Ernest” then he walks free; if she’s “Stella” then she goes to gaol,’ he declared to the guests at a dinner near The Yellow Book offices on Vigo Street a few days later. That the dandyish Cecil Graham in Lady Windermere’s Fan took his name from the one that Boulton gave to the police on his arrest, said Parr, was proof that his theory was correct, although Oscar was too shrewd to offer anything so vulgar as clarification.
Within a few weeks, Parr had met The Yellow Book’s leading lights, and it seemed inevitable that he would appear within its pages. He had also met Carpenter and Ellis, who showed him a passage in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, about a woman with a morbid aversion to female attire, who wanted nothing more than to live as her beloved’s husband. Parr was excited by this, and by a scurrilous novel by ‘Viscount Ladywood’ about a young man forced into cross-sexed servitude by a house of ladies, though I never heard him talk about women – just their clothing. When I read The Intermediate Sex by Edward Carpenter, on its publication six years ago, there was one passage that instantly struck me as a perfect description of Parr: ‘A distinctly effeminate type, sentimental, lackadaisical, mincing in gait and manners, something of a chatter-box, skilful at the needle and in women’s work, sometimes taking pleasure in dressing in women’s clothes; his figure not unfrequently betraying a tendency towards the feminine … while his dwelling-room is orderly in the extreme, even natty, and choice of decoration and perfume. His affection, too, is often feminine in character, clinging, dependent and jealous, as of one desiring to be loved almost more than to love.’
Parr spent as much time as he could with the two scientists, and naturally, he soon offered to help them with their research. There were many ways he could have done this, I am sure; but he was determined that the best was to find people to attend a men-only fancy-dress ball, to be held at a secret location in London, and along the way, introduce them to Carpenter and Ellis.
Immediately, people tried to persuade Parr of the folly of this. He was convinced, though, that his party could evade the law; and that even should it fail, that the defences of the past would protect him in the present. At another Yellow Book dinner, attended by many of the journal’s greatest poets and painters, authors and illustrators, the subject was the matter of considerable debate. In truth, most of the guests – particularly Lane and Mathews – would have preferred not to discuss it at all, anxious about the possibility of word reaching the wrong ears, but Parr, as usual, would not be derailed. Bringing up the most famous legal precedent, Parr reminded everyone that Boulton and Park won their freedom by arguing that their female personas were extensions of their theatrical roles, while laughing at the very idea that a ‘medical inspection’ could prove anything. Then, he spoke at length about a ball held at the Temperance Hall in Hulme, Manchester, in September 1880. He said that he had known one of its participants. There had been fifty people there, Parr recited; they had made sure that nothing ‘unnameable’ was visible, covering all windows that could be seen into from the street or neighbouring buildings, with entry only by password. They had even hired a blind organist to play The Can-Can.
‘That didn’t stop them getting raided, did it?’ said Ernest Dowson, dismissively.
‘Perhaps not,’ Parr replied, smiling. ‘Although they put up a hell of a fight, given their dress. I wouldn’t be so complacent as to leave any window without blinds, no matter how hard it might be to peer through. Anyway, their lawyers said that to convict them for ‘a vice so hateful that it could not be named amongst Christians’ would ‘bring shame to all of Manchester’. And of course, the court couldn’t have that.’
‘They got off?’ asked Beardsley.
‘Twenty-five pounds in fines, and an order to be of good behaviour for a year.’ (At this point, I wondered if Parr might be capable of such behaviour for a week, let alone a year; and given his lack of any discernible occupation, a twenty-five-pound fine would be ruinous.)
‘And their names in all the newspapers,’ added Harland. ‘What happened to your friend after he handed over his money?’ Parr fell silent. ‘Did he just become some ne’er-do-well?’
‘He moved from Salford to Fallowfield. He worked under an assumed name but seemed happy enough to me. Anyway, one is always allowed more freedom if one is a great artist.’
‘You didn’t hear about Luke Limner, then?’ said John Lane. ‘They found him on the highway and made him stand in the dock in a ridiculous hat and high-heels. He said that he was an artist, writing a book on female attire, and needed personal experience to treat the subject properly. They still fined him five pounds.’
‘Perhaps they fined him for making such terrible work,’ Parr retorted, his face dropping as he saw nobody else laughing. ‘Besides, five pounds is nothing!’ he insisted. ‘We can cover that.’
‘We?’ asked Lane.
‘What about Edward Hamblar?’ interjected Walter Sickert, breaking Parr’s silence. ‘The police caught him in Bromley Street, dressed as a woman. The crowd were going to tear him to pieces – they thought he was the Ripper. He was lucky to escape with a £10 fine!’
‘Whoever Jack was, it’s over now,’ replied Parr. ‘And both of your subjects made the mistake of going out in public. I would keep things behind closed doors.’
‘Things have changed,’ replied Sickert. ‘That’s no longer sufficient!’
Before Parr could answer, in walked Max Beerbohm. He broke the news that the Marquess of Queensberry, furious about Wilde’s relationship with his son Alfred Douglas (or ‘Bosie’), had been barred from the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. Undeterred, he had sought out Wilde at the Albemarle Club. After being refused entry, he had left a card for ‘Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’ [sic]. We did not yet know what would arise, but shortly afterwards, Wilde had consulted a solicitor, and Queensberry was arrested for criminal libel.
If Parr’s fancy-dress ball had been a bad idea before, it was a terrible one now. What little of the night was not spent discussing Wilde’s wisdom in pursuing Queensberry through the courts was used on talking Parr out of his scheme. That effort, at least, was not wasted. He decided, instead, to pen a short story about just such an occasion, basing his work on what he had heard about the Temperance Hall. He promised to write under a pseudonym, aware that publishing his piece in this way could still draw people to him; by doing so, he claimed, his work would help ‘inverts’, and thus fulfil a similar function to that of Carpenter or Ellis.
Even this idea met with considerable scepticism, but Parr went on with his manuscript anyway. Two weeks later, he came back with five thousand words, which began with a beautiful young man who planned to escape his overwhelming feelings of disgust and detachment by organising a magnificent festival, where men became women and women became men, first by adopting the clothing of the opposite sex, and then, through a fantastical process only known to occur in this ‘sacred’ space, transforming their bodies for one heavenly night. He was much encouraged by Beardsley, whose fantastical romantic novel Under the Hill had a protagonist who wore silk stockings and garters (and whose escapades were severely curtailed when Lane eventually published the unfinished manuscript, nearly ten years later). Parr told anyone within earshot that his work was quite unique. In this, he was right. Harland, Lane and Mathews read his story and instantly feared a greater scandal than the one caused by The Picture of Dorian Gray. Sounding more surprised than they probably should, given Parr’s earlier declaration that his work would generate exactly that, they said they could not possibly include it within The Yellow Book’s pages – or, at least, not without him completely rewriting it.
Furious, Parr asked the worth of editors who ‘butcher their meat so badly that they only ever serve offal’; their suggestion that he use their press to print and distribute it anonymously only enraged him further. He had not, he said, written ‘some two-bit titillation like The Sins of the Cities of the Plain’2; in France, he yelled, ‘even such a philistine as [Maurice] Barrès’3 would recognise his story as a work of genius’. They told him that their friends were advising Wilde against prosecuting Queensberry, and instead to move to Paris. Knowingly or not, Parr then echoed Oscar’s line about learning who one’s true friends are at such moments; I felt Lane and Mathews generous in telling him to tread carefully, and then making their excuses. When I asked him about it the next day, Lane was far more forgiving than I might have been, saying only that similar arguments had occurred before with other authors, and doubtless would again.
1 Ernest ‘Stella’ Boulton (1847-1904) and Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park (1846-1881) were cross-dressers, arrested in London in April 1870 under suspicion of being part of a cross-class sodomite ring. They were tried for ‘inciting others to commit unnatural offences’, amidst great public interest; after six days, they were acquitted.
2 The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or, The Recollections of a Mary-Ann, with Short Essays on Sodomy and Tribadism was an erotic novel about a rent boy’s experiences, published by ‘Jack Saul’ in 1881.
3 Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) was a right-wing French poet, journalist and politician, associated with Symbolism, especially Italian proto-Fascist author Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Variations is published by Influx Press, priced £9.99. Order your copy here.