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Dark Venus: Maud Allan and the Myth of the Femme Fatale by Wendy Buonaventura

The dancer Maud Allan is all but forgotten today, but she was one of the greatest female celebrities of the early twentieth century. She rose to fame in the role of Salome, the Bibles’ most infamous temptress. “Dancer wears nothing but her jewellery!” and “Dancer sheds clothing and puts on ideas!” reported the gentlemen of the press, beside themselves with excitement.

This postcard is title 'Miss Maud Allan as "Salome".' Maud made extra money by posing for photographs that were turned into postcards and offered for sale to her fans. Her direct stare would have been considered provocative in her era. (Dark Venus, Amberley Publishing)

It was a period when female performers in the West were the most socially liberated women of their day. They had replaced the goddesses of mythology, who had once been worshipped for holding the secrets of life, to become the secular goddesses of their age. And so they have remained. Yet dancers, exhibiting their bodies on stage in sensuous movement, also belonged to a demi-monde of independent women who were suspected of leading immoral lives and were no different, in many people’s minds, to prostitutes.

During the late nineteenth century women in Europe and America began making valiant efforts to climb down from the pedestals of domestic virtue where they had languished during the nineteenth century. Where, they asked themselves, was the satisfaction in being visible symbols of public and private morality? Where was the fun in being virtuous at home while their menfolk went out at night, dining with their male friends and (whisper it) female companions?

New Women is what the press labelled those pesky females who were looking for the same freedoms that men took for granted. New Women wanted a place in public life and deliverance from clothes that hampered their movement; they wanted access to serious education and they wanted to be able to vote. By the first decade of the twentieth century their demands were beginning to bear fruit and some people were getting jumpy.

In 1908 a report on the Ladies Page of the Illustrated London News announced that one out of every two men enlisting for the army was rejected as physically unfit, at the same time that women were growing stronger and taller. The idea that women were the cause of men’s increasingly weak condition gained momentum when war broke out in 1914. The question was posed as to how such a disaster could have been set in motion and, soon enough, the search for culprits alighted on the dreaded New Woman. Before long she had seamlessly metamorphosed into War Woman, who was said to find a source of erotic excitement in the death of soldiers at the Front. It was whispered in the press that this kind of woman had caused the war in the first place, with her demands for a freer life.

Edith La Sylphe, c 1900, shows the distorted female figure that was considered the height of beauty and eroticism at the turn of the last century. (Dark Venus, Amberley Publishing)

In 1918, the independent MP Noel Billing decided to do his bit in defence of the realm by leading a campaign against homosexuality and lesbianism, which posed a clear challenge to the status quo. In his privately-funded newspaper The Vigilante Billing claimed that lesbianism was threatening society and sabotaging the war effort. He followed up by giving the go-ahead for a small paragraph, The Cult of the Clitoris, to appear in his newspaper, an obscure little piece that indirectly suggested the celebrated Maud Allan was a lesbian. When Billing’s article appeared, Maud sued for libel. But in the minds of the public she was already damned for embodying the archetypal femme fatale, through her stage Salome.

The belief that women are naturally dangerous, wild and rapacious, was not born during the nineteenth century. Myth, religion and history are full of alluring women who cast a spell over men and cause their ruin: from Helen of Troy to the Bible’s Delilah. Yet it is not women who offer themselves up as femme fatales; it is society that labels them, and even into the late 20th century gleefully continued to label them.

In 1963 Britain was on the cusp of a sexual revolution. Ideas about relationships couldn’t have been more different than in Maud Allan’s day when twenty one year old Christine Keeler stepped into the dock at the Old Bailey. Christine was appearing at the Old Bailey as a witness in the trial of her Svengali, Stephen Ward. The unsavoury Ward had encouraged the teenage Christine to have an affair with War Minister Jack Profumo, with the intention of using her to prise information out of him that would be useful to the Soviet Union. At the same time, she became involved with the Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov. The Old Bailey trial ended with the suicide of Ward, Profumo’s political career in tatters and Christine heading for gaol.

The Profumo Affair begs the question of why powerful men risk their lives and careers for the dangerous sport of tangling with a femme fatale. To be sure, they don’t see it as dangerous sport and only discover that they have put themselves in danger when they have been seduced, they say, by an irresistible woman. Does the element of self-destruction in human nature or, at the very least, the need to court danger, give certain men at some deep level the need also to be discovered and ruined? Do they assume that their position makes them invulnerable, and relish the risk of it all?

Whatever the case, belief in the dangerous power of woman the temptress continues to haunt the plotlines of human morality tales. Meanwhile, we see that the idea of the femme fatale is still surprisingly relevant today, when we look at modern women’s attempts to conform to received ideals about their sex that were especially powerful a hundred and fifty years ago. DARK VENUS looks at those ideas in all their strangeness, and at Maud Allan’s life, lived in bold defiance during a crucial period in the history of feminism.

Wendy Buonaventura's new book Dark Venus: Maud Allan and the Myth of the Femme Fatale is available for purchase now.