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The Trials of Eric Mareo

Chapter Five — The Lesbian Accusation

page 75

Chapter Five
The Lesbian Accusation

If Christianity does not destroy this doctrine [of homosexuality], then this doctrine will destroy it, together with the civilization it has built on the ruins of paganism.… I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.

—James Douglas, editor of the London Sunday Express, on Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928)

We can Now Be reasonably sure that Mareo was not lying about his wife's sexual preferences. For at least the last two decades of the last century Stark was 'out' as a lesbian, during which time she frequently stated or implied that she and Thelma were more than 'bosom friends'. It is possible, of course, that the Mareos did have sexual intercourse. Nomenclature was rather uncertain at the time and perhaps by 'lesbian' Mareo meant 'bisexual'. However, it is more likely that their marriage was principally one of convenience and that Mareo was telling the police the truth when he said that they had 'agreed before we were married that we would not have sexual intercourse and I have not broken that promise'.1 Mareo was newly arrived in the country, in debt and in need of money for his various theatrical projects. In addition to her vulnerable psychological condition, Thelma's professional life was inherently precarious. Thus, with his musical talent and entrepreneurial energy, Mareo would have promised some degree of job security. Besides, as many witnesses and even Stark on one occasion testified, it is also quite likely that they did get on reasonably well together. Marriages of convenience were, of course, not uncommon; in later years Stark would herself marry the homosexual dancer Harold Robinson.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, it seems most unlikely that the juries and the wider public (as opposed to their close circle of friends) believed that Thelma and Stark were 'lesbians'. page 76How could the juries have found Mareo guilty if they had believed that his wife was a 'lesbian' and therefore according to prevailing 'wisdom' a person with every reason to kill herself? How could the juries have believed the Crown's very speculative and shaky medical case if, by the admission of its own medical experts, it rested almost entirely on the testimony of someone who enjoyed, in the words of Mr Justice Fair, 'sexual perversion' of 'such a gross nature'?2 And surely, if the all-male juries had believed that Stark and Thelma were 'lesbians', they would have felt enough sympathy for the accused to have found some 'reasonable doubt' in the Crown's case. Significantly, it was never suggested at the time in court, the newspapers or, to the best of our knowledge, anywhere else, that Mareo might have killed his wife because he was furious or jealous that she was having an affair with a woman. Clearly, while Thelma and Stark's close circle of friends might have believed that they were lovers, virtually no one else did.3 Thus, since the Crown made so much of his attempt to 'blacken' his wife's name, it seems that his 'accusation' did reflect very badly on his character. If we can explain why the juries did not believe Mareo then perhaps we can in part account for why they believed he was guilty.

Part of the reason that Mareo's 'accusation' did not stick was that his counsel, O'Leary, was reluctant to make it do so. O'Leary never asked Stark directly whether she had been having a sexual relationship with Thelma. In his summing-up at the first trial, O'Leary 'would only say she was an abnormal girl', according to Truth.4 The Herald merely reported that he 'hoped he was not doing her an injustice when he referred to her as a subject for commercial photographs' (about which more shortly).5 At the second trial, according to the Auckland Star, O'Leary would only say that Stark had 'formed a particular attachment to Mrs Mareo' and that they had 'the extraordinary habit… of getting into bed together at times'.6 By contrast, as we have seen, Meredith for the Crown chose to add even greater emphasis to the vileness of Mareo's accusation than his predecessor at the first trial, on the assumption of course that it would not be believed.

page 77

There was also Thelma's phobia about pregnancy. To our mind this might indicate that she feared or didn't like one or more of the following: sex with men, pregnancy, childbirth, children, or parenthood with all its responsibilities. However, such logic could be reversed. As Johnstone for the Crown argued at the first trial,

Mareo had said they never lived as man and wife… and had further stated that his wife's desires were met by association with women, there being an agreement not to associate as man and wife.

'And yet,' continued Mr Johnstone, 'according to Mareo, his wife had a great dread of having children.'7

Moreover, there was the undisputed fact that, just before she died, Thelma feared that she might actually be pregnant. If it is rather unlikely that she had had sex both with Stark and either Mareo or another man that month, we can only assume that Thelma was indeed in a bad psychological state to believe such a thing. Indeed, taken together with her well-recorded history of recurring trouble with her appendix (and assuming that that was not some other undiagnosed medical condition such as endometriosis), it seems reasonable to assume that she was suffering from one or several psychosomatic or 'hysterical' disorders that were not uncommon amongst certain 'types' of women at the time. The medical historian Edward Shorter has chronicled how 'chronic appendicitis' was an affliction that 'acquired a lively medical following between the 1880s, when appendectomies in general started to be performed, and the 1930s, when the great medical authorities decreed it a non- disease'. Shorter records the tendency of the medical profession during this period to treat the appendix as the 'scapegoat of the abdomen' and as the deemed cause of most, if not all, abdominal discomfort, be it 'troublesome gas in the bowels', constipation or simple indigestion. The surgeons' consequent readiness to remove perfectly healthy organs needlessly perhaps gives Thelma's otherwise apparently neurotic fear of 'an operation' a page 78more rational footing. Nonetheless, the fact that she was plainly susceptible to a diagnosis of 'chronic appendicitis' in the first place perhaps says something about her. For example, a leading London physician in the 1920s noted:

[T]he subject of the chronic abdomen is usually a woman, generally a spinster, or, if married, childless, and belonging to what are commonly termed - rather ironically nowadays - the 'comfortable' classes. To such a degree, moreover, do her abdominal troubles colour her life and personality that we may conveniently speak of her as an 'abdominal woman'.8

Given Thelma's own reported tendency to speak of her great fear both of operations and of pregnancy in the same breath, we can perhaps speculate that the latter was merely symptomatic of her wider 'abdominal neuroses' rather than of a rational belief that she might actually be pregnant.

As for the actual evidence that might indicate that Thelma and Stark were not just sleeping and chatting together in bed, this was rather vague. When Graham was asked at the first trial whether there 'was anything noticeable about' his stepmother and Stark when he discovered them in bed, he replied

[t]hey were lying close together. Q. Did Mrs Mareo remain calm or appear embarrassed? - She was a bit embarrassed. Q. I think you also felt a bit embarrassed? – Yes. Q. What did you do? - I said I wanted a book and went out. Q. Do you recollect on that occasion you told Mrs Mareo your father would not be home until late? – Yes. Q. Did your father come home late or earlier than he expected? – He came home about ten.… Q. When your father came home was everything quiet or was there a row? He went into the bedroom did he not? - Yes. Q. There was a row was there not? - It wasn't a loud one. I didn't hear it. They were talking but I don't know if it was a row or not.9

Two days later, according to Dr Walton (whom she saw for a 'nervous condition'), Thelma said that page 79

[h]er husband had made to her some unjust charges — untrue charges — of some kind of perversion. She denied it. Q. She told you did she not that her husband had come home and caught her in bed, undressed, with some other woman? – She told me that. Q. She told you, did she not, that that had happened, but she gave you an explanation of how it happened? X — Yes. Q. What was her explanation? – Her explanation was that she was going to bed with this friend of hers — that this friend of hers used to go to bed with her in the late afternoon or early evening. Her explanation was that she had heard her husband and had popped into bed with nothing on.10

Although there may have been something in both Graham's and Dr Walton's testimony to incite prurient imaginations, there was not clear evidence of 'lesbianism'. The testimony of a 17-year-old boy was hardly reliable on the subject of female 'perversion', and his embarrassment upon entering the bedroom of a stepmother he had known for only a few months and her 'bosom friend', both only a few years older than him, was hardly surprising. Similarly, the fact that Thelma had raised Mareo's accusation with Dr Walton could have easily been seen as the kind of confession an actual 'lesbian' would be unlikely to make.

Furthermore, Stark's testimony contradicted both Graham's and Dr Walton's. According to her, Thelma was wearing a black robe and she could not remember Graham coming into the room.11 Besides, the fact that Thelma and Stark often went to bed together would not necessarily indicate anything other than great friendship. After all, even in the 1930s it was still common for those of the same gender to sleep together, particularly in cramped living conditions. And apparently this was not necessarily restricted to members of the working class. When Betty Mareo testified that Stark and Thelma often shared the same bed, she also said, 'I thought all theatricals were like that.'12 Since they would often have gone to bed very late, it is hardly surprising that they slept so often during the day. Stark's claim that her 'habit of getting into bed with many of [her] girl friends' was 'nothing unusual' could have been taken at face value.13

The Defence also raised what it no doubt hoped might be page 80some other incriminating facts. Both Betty and Graham remembered seeing some photographs of Stark naked and Graham also remembered seeing 'Thelma looking at them with Freda Stark in her bedroom. I saw them through the door. I wasn't in the room'.14 However, Stark said at the first trial that these photographs had been 'taken by a well known photographer in Auckland in the presence of his wife' and 'sent to London for exhibition purposes'.15 Since Truth was able to caption photos it reproduced of Stark wearing very little or nothing as 'art studies', it is possible that the association of these photos with some kind of morally elevating notion of Art or Culture would have been a mitigating factor.

But the strongest evidence that Thelma was a 'lesbian' were the three letters given to the police by Mareo to support his accusation. It is quite clear that the author of these letters, a Frenchwoman called Billy who knew Thelma when she lived in Sydney, was a person who, like some of her friends, 'practice [d] the gentle art of Lesbos in [a] modern setting'. In these letters Billy refers to translation by Thelma of Pierre Louys' Les Chansons de Bilitis, a softly pornographic fin de siècle imitation of Sappho. However, neither Thelma's translations (which were never found) nor any other were read out in court to enlighten the jurymen about a writer who was obviously not a 'lesbian' in any case. Billy does finish one of her letters by declaring

[w]hat a terrible, crushing thing this antagonism of sex is. It is something that only the strongest or those who love lightly and gently can escape.

I shall never forget that I have held you close in my arms and that I have been proud to think myself Your lover,


But if this indicates that Thelma and Billy may once have had a sexual relationship (and that is uncertain), it is clear that by the time this letter was written (c.1931) it was over. As Billy also confesses, '[f]or the first time in my life I built dreams around page break
Eric Mareo as he first appeared in the newspapers. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Eric Mareo as he first appeared in the newspapers. Independent News Auckland Ltd

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Thelma Mareo as the Duchess of Danzig. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Thelma Mareo as the Duchess of Danzig. Independent News Auckland Ltd

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Above: The Mareo SymphonyOrchestra. E.A. Aspey

Above: The Mareo Symphony
Orchestra. E.A. Aspey

Below: Thelma Trott, c.l930.Allan Brownlee

Below: Thelma Trott, c.l930.
Allan Brownlee

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Police shot of Mareo on his arrest. Eric Mareo Papers

Police shot of Mareo on his arrest. Eric Mareo Papers

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Above: Truth, 26 February 1936. The picture on the right shows the three women in Mareo's life: Eleanor Brownlee (at the back), Freda Stark (front left), and Thelma Mareo. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Above: Truth, 26 February 1936. The picture on the right shows the three women in Mareo's life: Eleanor Brownlee (at the back), Freda Stark (front left), and Thelma Mareo. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Right: Freda Stark, also from Truth, 26 February 1936. Independent News. Auckland Ltd

Right: Freda Stark, also from Truth, 26 February 1936. Independent News. Auckland Ltd

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Truth, 18 March 1936. One of the 'art studies' of Freda Stark, referred to in the trials, is in the top right hand corner. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Truth, 18 March 1936. One of the 'art studies' of Freda Stark, referred to in the trials, is in the top right hand corner. Independent News Auckland Ltd

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Above: Twelve Angry Men: the first jury, Truth, 26 February 1936. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Above: Twelve Angry Men: the first jury, Truth, 26 February 1936. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Below: Freda Stark's epitaph to Thelma. Truth, 24 June 1936 Independent News Auckland Ltd

Below: Freda Stark's epitaph to Thelma. Truth, 24 June 1936 Independent News Auckland Ltd

page break
Left: Mareo leaving Mt Eden gaol. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Left: Mareo leaving Mt Eden gaol. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Below: His new dentures. Independent News Auckland Ltd

Below: His new dentures. Independent News Auckland Ltd

page 81a woman; and it would seem I have made a very proper fool of myself… I do not blame you for the fact that you cannot love me.' Perhaps Thelma could not love Billy because of her own inhibitions about lesbianism. After all, Billy notes that while the charges of obscenity against the Australian writer Norman Lindsay had just been 'dropped', '[t]here is a breeze of Puritanism blowing all over Australia' and in another letter that Thelma had been '[s]urprised' that she had written about
'forbidden' subjects with her. Of course in the English conception of life they are tabu, sinful, unclean; if I think them healthy and fascinating, you must show me I am wrong, and don't think it is a lack of respect I have for you, not at all, if I write to you about painting, literature, poetry, you will think I try to insult you, if you want to understand me take off you monalistic [sic] glasses and look at with your intellectual and esthetignes [sic] ones; of course you can answer, put the monalistic glasses on yourself, well I tried, and everything became ugly… I was surprised at the excessive popularity of Freud in English-speaking countries; it is because there is an unhealthy amount of sex repression which manifests itself by an exaggerated sentimentalism before. Do you know how D. H. Lawrence gave a definition of chastity: Purity, with a dirty little secret.… In France, it is quite different, exactly the opposite, that is why very few French women and girls are neurotic, if you ask me why.16

Thus, even allowing for the fact that a rejected lover is not a very reliable judge of such matters, Thelma is represented as someone hardly at ease with the 'vice' of 'lesbianism'. Billy might castigate Thelma for her 'Puritanism', but presumably the jurymen would have thought that in such circumstances this was a commendable trait.

Moreover, while it might be clear to us what Billy means by 'the gentle art of Lesbos', this is never spelled out in the letters, and we can assume that these jurymen might have been somewhat mystified. After all, at the first trial the Crown Prosecutor asked Thelma's GP, Dr Walton, '[i]s it not a fact that page 82Lesbianism is not a precise term? Is it a precise term or a general term referring to relations between women which may be innocuous?', and Dr Walton replied rather tentatively that 'I think it refers really to gratification of sexual feelings between women'.17 However, a doctor could be expected to know about something which was, as we shall soon see, commonly regarded as a medical condition. In contrast, the senior police officer involved with the investigation testified that until this case he had 'not know[n] the word "Lesbian" or its meaning',18 and Stark claimed that she 'did not know what the term "Lesbian" meant' when she first heard Mareo use the word.19 This is quite plausible since at the first trial she never used the word 'lesbian', whereas at the second, after she had become acquainted with the term, she used it on several occasions.

Julie Glamuzina and Alison Laurie recount the anecdote about Sonja Davies in the mid-1940s overhearing a New Zealand nurse asking another, '[W]hat are lesbians?' and another wondering, '[I]s it a political party?'20 As they observe, '[fjor some lesbians the reports of the Parker-Hulme case [the sensa- tional trial of two female teenagers for the murder of one of their mothers in Christchurch in 1954] were their first affirma- tion that there were other lesbians'.21

But neither had the term 'lesbian' become common currency outside New Zealand. It was not until the late nineteenth century that 'lesbian' referred to anyone other than an inhabitant of the Greek island of Lesbos, about half of whom in recent times have been men. Even the so called 'sexologists' of the late nine- teenth and early twentieth centuries, men such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany, and Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter in Britain, preferred to call male and female 'homosexuals' (itself a word first used only in 1869), 'inverts' or 'Uranians', and their gender an 'intermediate' or 'third' sex. Female homosexuals were also sometimes called 'sapphists'. And in her letter to O'Leary (but not in her testimony), Mrs Irene Riano wrote that it 'was fairly well known in the company and other theatrical circles' in Australia that Thelma was a 'bi-sexual subject'.22 Then as now,page 83nomenclature was clearly in a process of change.

Nevertheless, despite such terminological uncertainty, it seems that a reasonably simple concept of male and female homosexual identity was widespread in most European countries by the latter part of the nineteenth century. Before then, as Jeffrey Weeks explains,

[t]he law was directed [in Britain as in most other countries] against a series of sexual acts, not a particular type of person. There was no concept of the homosexual in law, and homosexuality was regarded not as a particular attribute of a certain type of person but as a potential in all sinful creatures.23

But by the end of the nineteenth century a 'homosexual' was generally defined not as someone who engaged in sexual acts with someone of the same gender but as someone who adopted the gender role or behaviour of the opposite 'sex'. For example, a study of American sailors just before the First World War has established that the men who committed various sexual acts with effeminate male prostitutes did not think of themselves as homosexual.24 The concept of homosexuality as a form of gender inversion is usually accredited to the late nineteenth-century sexologists but this study suggests that the medical model of homosexuality may have been derived from popular conceptions of homosexuality, rather than the other way around. In any case, the concept of gender inversion also applied to female homosexuals, even though lesbianism was ignored by the criminal codes.25

Of course, such a narrow concept could hardly describe the actual lives of non-heterosexual men and women. Nevertheless, the nature of Stark and Thelma's relationship, or for that matter the actual lives of other 'lesbians' during the 1930s, is not our concern. What is at issue is the public perception of 'lesbianism'. Although little is known about either popular conceptions or the medical model of homosexuality in New Zealand during the first decades of the century, there is no reason to suppose that New Zealand was much different from page 84any other Western country. The work of the sexologists was certainly widely available: Stevan Eldred-Grigg records that in 1908 the Attorney-General recommended that other Members of Parliament read The Evolution of Sex, one of the more influential works of sexology, and in 1911 a Legislative Counsellor described Havelock Ellis as 'an authority which cannot be disputed'.26

As far as the trials are concerned, it seems that 'lesbianism' was certainly considered to be some kind of medical condition. Although Thelma was visiting Dr Walton because of her 'nerves', the fact that she raised the issue with him (if only to deny it emphatically) indicates that she might have believed that it was the kind of 'condition' about which a doctor should be informed. Certainly, it was assumed during the trials that Dr Walton could be asked about lesbianism simply because he was a doctor. Furthermore, only five years after the trials, Sir William Willcox, who had been asked to give an opinion on the medical evidence presented at the trial, came to the conclusion that Thelma had administered the veronal to herself and that she 'was suffering from abnormal sexuality (homosexuality or lesbianism). This condition is commonly associated with addiction to drugs like Barbitone [or veronal] and to alcoholic excess.'27 Although Dr P.P. Lynch, a consulting pathologist to the Wellington Hospital and an Examiner in Pathology at the University of New Zealand, disagreed with Sir William's conclusions and in particular his 'statement that Thelma Mareo's abnormal sexual life was one which is commonly associated with addiction to drugs', he did not deny that there was a causal connection between 'lesbianism' and drug addiction, merely saying that Sir William's statement was 'a generalisation which is comparable to a declaration that many criminals are either drug addicts or alcoholics'.28 (In fact, the association of lesbianism with alcoholism can be traced back to Ellis's Sexual Inversion, published in 1897, where the case history of an unnamed woman usually assumed to be his wife, Edith Lees, begins by mentioning that '[h]er grandfather drank; her father was eccentric and hypochondriacal, and suffered from obsessions'.29 Even as late as the early 1960s, a New Zealand page 85menntal health specialist referring to 'sociopathic personality disturbance' could mention in the same phrase 'alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual deviations'.30)

However, the strongest evidence that at least some of the protagonists were thinking about lesbianism in ways similar to the sexologists was the testimony of Mrs Irene Riano. She remembered a discussion with Thelma in Melbourne

regarding certain books. One was the Unlit Lamp, another The Well of Loneliness, and there was a third one but I can't remember its name. The two I have mentioned are by Radclyffe Hall. These books dealt with the life of a Lesbian. I had discussed these books with Thelma.31

Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness had been the object of a sensational British censorship trial in 1928, subsequently becoming the world's best-known 'lesbian novel' and a byword for female 'perversion'. The fact that Irene Riano could mention The Well of Loneliness in a New Zealand courtroom (perhaps as a more subtle way of suggesting that Thelma was a 'bi-sexual subject') suggests that she believed that those present would at least have heard about the trial, even though the novel had been banned in New Zealand. Significantly, the novel's representation of female homosexuals accorded closely with the medical model disseminated by the sexologists. Hall's lesbian characters or 'inverts', including its heroine, the aristocratic and mannish Stephen Gordon, were in part modelled on some of the case studies in Ellis's Sexual Inversion, Ellis himself wrote an introduction to the book; and its author defended the novel with the claim that her conception of 'inversion' had behind it 'the weight of most of the finest psychological opinion'.32 Although they were not convinced of the book's literary value, writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster wrote in support of The Well of Loneliness on the assumption that the putative artistic merits of the novel would make the public more tolerant of its subject matter. Although she was no literary critic, this was also the tactic adopted by Irene Riano at the second Mareo page 86trial. As she told the Auckland courtroom, Hall's two novels were

fine works well written and not in any way indecent or vulgar. They were almost classical. I had myself read them right through with an appreciation of the tragedy. I would not think anything of anybody who had also read them with appreciation.33

But neither Thelma nor Stark resembled an 'invert', a type defined by Hall and the sexologists as a genitally female person who adopted the male gender role. Stark was about five feet tall and Thelma only one or two inches taller; they were both physically light, and conventionally feminine in appearance — as one might expect of a chorus girl and an actress. Photographs of both women were reproduced in nearly all the newspapers, particular favourites being a publicity portrait of Thelma resplendent in evening dress and jewels when she was the leading lady of The Duchess of Danzig, and various 'art' shots of Stark thinly clad or naked. Thelma was habitually described as 'beautiful' and 'glamorous' while the more athletic Stark appeared '[t]o the inquisitive who crowded the court… what she is in person — petite, lissome, and possessed of a poise developed largely from her training as a dancer and her experience on the stage'.34

The contrast between these women and Hall — who often appeared in the English papers posed like a gentleman, wearing a monocle, short hair and black tie, and with a cigarette lodged between the knuckles rather than the tips of the fingers — could not have been more striking. Nor would Thelma and Freda have resembled home-grown 'inverts' such as 'Boy' Bertha from Hokitika (who was arrested in 1906 in Sydney while dressed as a man), or Amy Bock (imprisoned for fraud in 1909 for marrying a woman who thought she was a man), or the cross-dressing Wellingtonian Eugenia Falleni (who was arrested in the 1920s for the murder of 'his' wife), or Deresley Morton (who married a woman and died in California in 1929).35 Of course, there were many more women who might today be considered 'homosexual' or 'lesbian' (even assuming that such terms can be page 87defined), but, again, it is only the largely heterosexual public's perception of 'lesbians' that is relevant. Perhaps the juries and some members of the public interested in the case did think it possible that Thelma and Stark were involved in some kind of sexual relationship, but this would not necessarily have meant that they believed they were 'lesbians'. If 'lesbians' were 'inverts' then the sexual partner of an 'invert' would not strictly be a 'lesbian' and two 'femmes' (to use an anachronistic term) who engaged in some kind of sexual activity would simply be 'normal', or heterosexual, women committing 'immoral' acts. In D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, for example, which was largely written just before the First World War, one of the heroines, Ursula, has a brief sexual relationship with her female teacher, and yet Lawrence seems in no doubt that both women are essentially heterosexual.

But if the juries did not believe that Thelma and Stark's relationship corresponded with the medical model of 'lesbianism', what might they have thought about their friendship? According to the American historian Lillian Faderman,

[i]t was still possible in the early twentieth century for some women to vow great love for each other, sleep together, see themselves as life mates, perhaps even make love, and yet have no idea that their relationship was what the sexologists were now considering 'inverted' and 'abnormal.' Such naivete was possible for women who came out of the nineteenth-century tradition of romantic friendship and were steeped in its literature. Even had they been exposed to the writings of the sexologists, which were by now being slowly disseminated in America, they might have been unable to recognise themselves and their relationships in those medical descriptions.36

These 'romantic friendships' – which included schoolgirl 'crushes' in England, 'smashing' between American college students, and 'Boston marriages' between mature women - were not only tolerated by men but in many cases strongly valorised. For example, Faderman begins her history of twentieth-century American lesbianism by citing the following description of a page 88'female friendship' between 'maiden ladies' by the mid- nineteenth-century author William Cullen Bryant:

[I]n their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for 40 years, during which they have shared each others' occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness.… They slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other's relations, and… I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses,… and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbours, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them.37

Such romantic friendships reached their heyday around the turn of the century, partly because of increased educational opportunities for women. Faderman records that over a third of the American college population in 1880 were women and between 1880 and 1900 fifty per cent of these women remained single compared to ten per cent for the general population.38

There is no reason to suspect that such romantic friendships did not exist in New Zealand as well as in Britain. Although much research is still to be done on the institution of romantic friendship in New Zealand, it seems writers such as Jane Mander, Margaret Escott, Ngaio Marsh and Ursula Bethell, the expatriate painter Frances Hodgkins, and the mountain climber Freda Du Faur, were involved in such friendships. Whether or not these relationships were also sexual does not concern us because they were all perceived at the time as socially acceptable. Although Du Faur and her partner would now be described as a 'lesbian' couple, for example, they were comfortable with the public perception of their relationship as a kind of romantic friendship, but were later made extremely uncomfortable by the impact of the work of the sexologists.39

Certainly it is the case that Truth represented Thelma and Stark's relationship in accordance with the conventions of a romantic friendship. An interview Stark gave to that paper after page 89the first trial, for example, has all the classic features of popular romance. It begins with Stark at home, '[a] hint of wistfulness frequently shading her eyes', remembering how she first met Thelma after being employed as a replacement for an injured dancer. The scene — Hamilton, a place nostalgically revisited by Freda after Thelma's death — and the action — a dancer being 'thrown above her partner's head into a [badly executed] splits on the floor' – may not sound particularly romantic, but Truth insists that it is one of the 'almost unbelievable strands' of 'a story that seems to have sprung from out of the covers of fiction'. Stark then remembers the life and accomplishments of her beloved: the youngest of a family of six from Queensland, Thelma was

educated at the Gympie Convent.… won her junior and senior national scholarships… became a B.A. at the age of twenty.… was a brilliant musician, being able to play the piano, violin and mandolin.… possessed a beautiful voice… was a talented actress.… painted many beautiful landscape scenes and studies of people, and executed some excellent pastel drawings.… designed and made all her own clothes.… was a good stenographer.… earned good money while she was on the stage, being always one of the principals in whatever company she was in.… [kept] herself well dressed and [sent] money home to her mother every fortnight the eight or nine years that she worked on the stage.

Despite these accomplishments, Stark confesses, 'I was her only close friend'. She concludes her interview by explaining

that she ascertained the address of Thelma's parents after her friend's death through finding a letter from Gympie in the lining of Thelma's coat.

It was some time before she could bring herself to write to her dead friend's mother, but at last she did and she had never regretted doing it.40

From Milton's 'Lycidas' through Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' page 90to the contemporary elegies of popular romance, the conventions remain much the same: a friend or lover grieves for a remarkable person tragically brought down in the prime of life, remembers the miraculous circumstances of their meeting and brief life together, and then vows to perpetuate their memory. And the mourning lover is a less remarkable person than the beloved. Stark is a chorus girl and the daughter of a bootmaker and therefore someone with whom ordinary New Zealanders can empathise, whereas Thelma the leading lady was a BA and from the unfortunately named but nevertheless suitably distant town of Gympie, Queensland. Theirs was a romance that spanned not only the classes but the Tasman Sea. It was soon after this interview that Stark had inscribed on Thelma's headstone the words 'Waiting Till We Meet Again… Freda'.

The fact that Truth represented the women's relationship in romantic rather than medical terms might suggest that New Zealand lagged somewhat behind the United States and Britain in terms of sexual mores. As Faderman argues,

[w]ith the growing popularity of sexology in the 1920s (particularly through the fashionableness of Freud and psychoanalysis), as well as the publication of Radclyffe Hall's succès de scandale, The Well of Loneliness in 1928, and the emergence in the 1920s of a somewhat visible homosexual subculture in both Europe and America, it became virtually impossible for two women to enjoy intensely close relationships and not be suspected of lesbianism.41

However, one imagines that even amongst the intelligentsias of Boston, New York, Paris and London there was a period of transition. And if amongst such people it had become 'virtually impossible' by the mid-1930s to believe in romantic friendships between women, presumably that was not the case everywhere else and amongst those who were not from either the intelligentsia or bohemia. Presumably in places where there was at most a barely 'visible homosexual subculture', such as Auckland, people were becoming increasingly aware of 'medical' page 91notions of 'sexual inversion' but could still believe that women such as Stark and Thelma were 'merely' 'bosom friends'. A guilty verdict would therefore have told a reassuring story about the absence of sexual 'deviancy' in New Zealand while confirming what had always been suspected of people such as the French. By pronouncing Mareo guilty the juries were in a sense attempting to arrest what, from their point of view, would have been a troubling process of historical change. Given how ideologically charged concepts of sexuality must have been at this time (or for that matter anywhere and at any time), it is not surprising that the all-male juries chose to find Mareo guilty and therefore tell a reassuring story about virtuous women physically and spiritually assaulted by a man of uncertain background and profession. The alternative would have implied that 'lesbians' were 'here' rather than 'elsewhere'.

However, it is also possible that the jurymen knew at some level that Thelma and Stark were not just friends but were able to ignore or suppress such knowledge. No doubt many people did suspect that women involved in romantic friendships did indulge in 'immoral' activities of one kind or another but such women did not, at least publicly, challenge conventional notions of femininity or conventional gender roles. On the other hand, women such as Radclyffe Hall did. As long as 'lesbian' love does not dare to speak its name - to adapt Oscar Wilde - it remains socially unthreatening. Thus, while even Billy uses the word 'sex' on several occasions when she writes about sexual love between women, it is always in euphemistic terms and accompanied by a barrage of literary and artistic references:

Our Christian morality is so opposite to the Greek morality, and, I must say, the morality of the people who built the Acropale, wrote Oedipus rex and scupt the Parthenon freize, who give Socrate and Plato to the world, is good for me.42

If most people knew what such references to the Greeks really meant they could hardly object since, to use Matthew Arnold's terms, Culture was Hellenic as well as Hebraic. By not resorting page 92to euphemism or ambiguous references to the Greeks, Mareo was attempting, as a much later generation would say, to 'out' Thelma. By pronouncing him guilty the juries were in a sense either denying the existence of lesbianism in New Zealand or keeping it safely closeted.