When Mata Hari emerged in Paris claiming to be an exotic dancer from the mysterious east, instead of what she was, a Dutch housewife, she cultivated a persona that embodied her own highly sexual nature. She was described as ‘feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms’. All of this should have merely been a prelude to life as a great courtesan, a member of La Grande Horizontale. But then The Great War broke out and the titillating world of the courtesan became embroiled in the murky world of espionage.
The problem for Mata Hari was that the sexuality of the courtesan was now no longer a matter for middle class morality, policed by the church, but had become the concern of science and medicine. From the late nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth, scientists had been increasingly looking at human behaviour and the links between mental illness and criminality. There were ‘natural forces’ that shaped crime and mental disorders. Ordinary healthy women were thought to not like sex. A woman like Mata Hari who enjoyed sex was classed as depraved and depravity was linked to criminal behaviour.
When Mata Hari was arrested by the British authorities they found ‘nothing incriminating’ but she was noted to be a ‘bold sort of woman’ and thus suspect. The French authorities observed that at one point her lovers included ‘one Montenegrin officer, one Italian, one Irish, three or four English and five French officers’. Mata Hari became a person of interest for the authorities.
By 1917, Britain and France were reeling from the losses of World War I. Morale was at an all-time low and defeats were blamed on spies and saboteurs. Spy mania swept across France and the authorities needed to catch a spy. Mata Hari, the fantasist who loved sex, the depraved criminal, the famous celebrity of the Belle Époque, was the obvious suspect. Condemned out of her own mouth with statements such as, ‘I like to make comparisons among the different nationalities’, when talking about her lovers, was the verdict of her military trial a foregone conclusion?
By Mary W. Craig