Old edition of Salome by Oscar Wilde

The curse of Salome

Femme fatale Salomé may have claimed John the Baptist’s life, but she returned from the dead to ruin Aubrey Beardsley’s career and create another scandal in 1918, too.

Photographs: My copy of the 1907 Bodley Head edition of Salomé, the first to feature all 16 drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. (The original version was written and published in French; this 1907 version was the second edition in English.)

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan. I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood …?” From the final scene of Salomé by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé has had a vexed publishing and performance history. The play created bitterness and quarrels for Wilde, maimed Aubrey Beardsley’s short career and created a scandal years after the author’s death.

Sarah Bernhardt by Félix Nadar
Sarah Bernhardt by Félix Nadar

Wilde wrote Salomé in French and Sarah Bernhardt, the internationally revered French actress, agreed to take the title role, just as Wilde had hoped. Wilde’s ambitions for a London production came to nothing when the Lord Chamberlain banned Salomé’s performance, bringing rehearsals to an end.

The official justification for the censorship was that the depiction of biblical characters upon the stage was not allowed, but it is more likely that people objected to the portrayal of an assertive, murderous and—worse still—sexually demanding young woman. As a femme fatale, Salomé embodied Victorian fears about the ‘New Woman’.

Incensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s decision, Wilde threatened to become a French citizen. The dissident author of The Soul of Man Under Socialism and The Portrait of Mr W.H. admired and identified with Baudelaire, Flaubert, Gautier and Mallarmé, and Salomé revealed his ambitions as a Symbolist. The English thought of Wilde the Irishman as a showman and writer of society comedies; the French knew Wilde for his essays and respected him as an intellectual. Wilde felt that the French had more respect for the autonomy of the artist.

“There is not a single real poet or prose-writer of this century, for instance, on whom the British public have not solemnly conferred diplomas of immorality, and these diplomas practically take the place, with us, of what in France, is the formal recognition of an Academy of Letters, and fortunately make the establishment of such an institution quite unnecessary in England”. Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891

Wilde’s troubles with Salomé did not end with the banning of performances in England; publication in English proved difficult as well. Wilde came to regret his choice of translator and illustrator.

Wilde entrusted his lover, the poet Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, to translate the play into English. Bosie did such a poor job that it led to a falling-out. Wilde took over the translation and removed the translator’s title-page credit, enraging the notoriously petulant Bosie.

Aubrey Beardsley in 1895
Aubrey Beardsley in 1895

Wilde also commissioned Aubrey Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of Salomé after seeing the young artist’s interpretation of Salomé’s final scene in The Studio. Beardsley’s illustrations, as brilliant and provocative as they are, bear little relation to Wilde’s play. Wilde set his story in ancient Judaea; Beardsley set his illustrations in a sinister and erotic dreamland that sometimes resembles Victorian England. Beardsley’s illustrations threatened to upstage the text, and, adding insult to injury, also caricatured Wilde as a fat court jester and a voyeuristic face in the moon.

Beardsley went on to become the art editor for the Bodley Head’s The Yellow Book, a hardcover avant-garde journal. Yellow was associated with the Decadent movement and the wrappers used for French literature, and The Yellow Book capitalised on this.

Although Wilde had not contributed to The Yellow Book and Beardsley was not part of Wilde’s inner circle, in the public mind “Daubaway Weirdsley” and “Mr Maudle” as Punch called them, were a two-headed creature because Beardsley’s ‘obscene’ pictures had featured in Wilde’s scandalous Salomé. Beardsley’s ambivalent stance towards Wilde was irrelevant. Both men were seen as degenerates, and their shared association with ‘yellow’ Decadence cost the consumptive young artist his much-needed regular income.

Cover of the literary journal The Yellow Book
Cover of the literary journal The Yellow Book

When Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’, the headlines proclaimed that Wilde had been “arrested with a yellow book under his arm”. This morphed into “arrested with The Yellow Book under his arm”. Wilde was probably reading a yellow-wrapped French novel, but a crowd gathered at the Bodley Head’s Vigo Street shop and smashed the windows.

Beardsley was sacked as The Yellow Book’s art editor and had to turn to patrons and friends for work. He died from tuberculosis at 25, or as Wilde put it, “at the age of a flower”.

The curse of Salomé struck again 18 years after Wilde’s death, when a production of the play became the focus of a libel trial during the Great War. The Imperialist newspaper claimed in 1918 that Salomé threatened public morals and that its star (Maud Allan) and producers were part of a homosexual and lesbian ring of 47,000 influential people who were being blackmailed into spying for Germany, undermining England’s war effort. As bizarre and hysterical as they may seem now, fascist MP Noel Pemberton Billing’s claims about “the Wilde cult” and “the Cult of the Clitoris” (allegedly cultivated by Maud Allen and Salomé) gripped the nation.

During the Pemberton Billing trial, Bosie took the stand to denounce his dead lover, Wilde, as “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years”. In the years since Wilde’s death, Bosie had rejected homosexuality, converted to Catholicism and married a woman. He devoted much of his time to persecuting homosexuals, including former friends and lovers. The opportunity to condemn Wilde in court was irresistible.

In court, others lined up to blame Oscar Wilde for corrupting England’s youth from beyond the grave. For Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross, it was traumatic that “kicking the corpse of Wilde has been a pleasure to the English people”. It brings to mind the image of Salomé demanding John the Baptist’s head on a silver charger, because he did not share her desires.


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