More Supernatural Adventures of the Wilde Circle

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. So I thought I would share a few snippets found in the archive.

Maurice Salis-Schwabe’s mother, Mary, was an associate of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and wrote articles on fire walking and the psychic visions of her maid. The visions were usually of Mary’s children and her reports, along with confirmation from the children of their accuracy at times provided insight in my research as to where the Schwabe siblings were and what they were doing. Maurice’s grandparents Salis and Julia Schwabe appear in the journals in a description of a hypnotism party they held with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.

In 1885, an account of a meeting of a Psychical Research group elicited the following response:

A correspondent of Truth—‘‘ Whats in a name?” asks Juliet—writes that the ladies at a Psychical Research meeting “seemed to be in that semi-dazed state which is half-way between hysteria and lunacy,” and the men ‘‘ more or less in tho same condition as the weaker vessels.” Then, why weaker? ‘‘ The only celebrity present was Oscar Wilde ”—-as if that would account for the condition alike of the men and women. If there are men capable of writing such stuff to newspapers, we must still wonder that there are editors stupid enough to print it.

There was also an 1890 account of Oscar Wilde attending a demonstration by a psychic.

The archives reveal a seemingly endless desire for conversations with the dead poet. Tales of Wilde speaking through seances and Ouija boards abound. There were even tales of Oscar’s ghost wandering among us, like this one published in The Light in 1935.

And finally, as promised, O.L. Holland sent this letter to The Light in 1938 describing a spiritual encounter with his sister just before her death.

Lord Alfred Douglas: Modern Mystic

The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals archives its collection at the Internet Archive.

One of the surprising discoveries is a 1937 article by Catholic convert Lord Alfred Douglas in a publication called Modern Mystic.

“Lord Alfred Douglas, who contributes an article to this issue,” wrote the editor, “is perhaps the finest living poet in the sonnet form. Some of his work is being set to music by Havergal Brian, a composer whose real stature is by no means fully appraised. The work is being scored on Brian’s usual massive lines; an orchestra of Berliozian proportions and full chorus. The same composers Gothic symphony, the last movement of which is a magnificent setting of the Te Deum, has not yet been heard. The cost of the unusually large orchestra and chorus would be prohibitive, although many attempts by America’s leading conductors to secure a performance of the work have been made.”

The story that Douglas relates in his article “A Daniel Come to Judgment” is familiar. He recounted an episode of what he considered divine intervention in his feud with Robert Ross in his Autobiography. Douglas, searching for evidence to back him his claim that Ross was “a sodomite” had gone to meet a man who claimed something had happened between Ross and his son. As I summed up the episode in Oscar’s Ghost:

The account in Douglas’s Autobiography embellishes a rather ordinary episode of showing up at the wrong door with prayers to St. Anthony of Padua and an angelic child appearing to guide him to the right address. He believed it to be “a supernatural experience…mysterious and wonderful.” The boy “had an angelic face and smile. And how did he disappear inn the space of time, a few seconds, between when I let go of his hand and when I looked round again?”

In retrospect this is, perhaps, a bit of a flip way to describe what seems to have been a meaningful experience for him, one he sincerely believed was mystical even if its effect was the ability to gather ammunition in an ongoing feud that was not a stellar example of Christian forgiveness.

The Modern Mystic article was written eight years after the Autobiography. The tone it takes towards the feud with Ross, who at this point had been dead for nearly 20 years, is relatively subdued. This may have been an editorial decision on the part of the publication rather than a reflection of Douglas’s own attitudes towards Ross.

“I will not mention the name of the man whom I libelled (he has been dead for more than fifteen years),” he wrote, “nor will I give any details as to the nature of the accusations I had made against him, in self-defence, and in the last desperate resort, to protect myself against a cruel enemy in a life-and-death struggle in which he was the aggressor and the chooser of the weapons employed.”

Douglas alludes to an argument he was having in print regarding Oscar Wilde’s work, although he refrains from naming the playwright.

I have recently been engaged in a newspaper controversy with a certain dramatic critic who differed with me over the merits or demerits of a play. I admired the play and he did not admire it, and in fact scoffed at it, although it had stood the test of triumphant production and several revivals, and was written by a man whose name is celebrated all over the world as a dramatist and a poet, and who, if he were alive to-day (he has been dead for nearly forty years), would only have to write a new play to find a dozen London managers or producers anxious and eager to compete for the privilege of producing it and paying the highest price for that privilege.

The dramatic critic in question complained that the play (a comedy) which I admired was “melodramatic.” Well, I have found in my own experience, and to my cost sometimes, that Life, of which a play is, or ought to be, the mirror, is melodramatic. The history of my own life is quite as fantastic and melodramatic as any novel by Balzac, and if it had been turned into a novel or a play it would no doubt have been condemned as wildly absurd and improbable by the type of critic who judges the worth of a work of art in literature (poem, play, or novel) by its relation to his own workaday experiences and limited imagination.

Reproduction of Hester Traverse Smith’s automatic writing.

In this period the medium Hester Traverse Smith’s supposed conversations with Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave were a constant subject of discussion, and the spiritualist journals were full of accounts from her and others who claimed to be in communication with the dead poet. (The first thing Oscar supposedly said to Traverse Smith was “Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.”) The same issue of Modern Mystic contained an article by Robert Sherard debunking these communications and at the same time revealing many of his impressions of his friend and of the crime for which he was convicted.

But who that knew anything about Wilde could imagine him asking for pity ? The most extreme superbia, bordering almost on arrogance, was one of his strongest characteristics. Dr. Fodor, I see, quotes from the first script the words “Pity Oscar Wilde” as having been said by the man himself…

I was very glad to see that Dr. Nandor Fodor nowhere quotes from the Psychic Messages the passages in which Oscar Wilde speaks of himself as a criminal. He had never any sense of doing wrong in what he did, and for which he was punished. This is one of the characteristics of the dementia from which many homosexualists suffer. Sir (later Mr.) Roger Casement is a case in point, as also that unfortunate Stuart Mason, one of the most scholarly of men and a worker if ever there was one. Neither of these two men had any idea that they were criminals as the world sees them. They kept careful diaries of their horrible performances. Roger Casement’s diary helped to send him to the gallows, and Stuart Mason’s to prison on more than one occasion. Wilde certainly had no idea he was doing wrong or had done wrong. This is why I have always represented him as irresponsible and therefore free from criminality. On the first night of his third trial I was with him in Oakley Street and he was telling me that what was most painful to him during that painful day was seeing the gang of witnesses whom the prosecution had collected against him. He said: “And they jeered at me when they saw me, but I never did them any harm. I never tried to be anything but kind to them.” And really at that moment his eyes were dimmed with tears. He imagined that his extraordinary love for these boys was nothing but a sisterly or motherly affection, It was the most complete case of biological introversion. The apologetic and whining admissions of criminality which stud the pages of Psychic Messages are as obviously inauthentic as the alleged “ confessions” which Frank Harris professes to have received from Oscar’s own lips on earth…

Sherard did not entirely discount the idea of psychic communication. In fact, what seemed to bother him most about Traverse Smith’s book was plagiarism. Sherard had published his own account of posthumous communication with Wilde’s spirit, an episode involving Andre Gide, in his own book.

“This account, which I gave in my book, The Real Oscar Wilde, seems vaguely to have inspired the automatist or the ouija board in some of the remarks passed through them by Wilde to the world at Mrs. Travers Smith’s séances, though the lady declares that although she knew the book she had not read the passages which I fancy have inspired her subconsciousness.”

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. Next time I’ll report on a few more gems from the occult publications, including a report from O.L. Holland of a vision he had of his sister, Mrs. Oscar Wilde, just before her death.

Positively

On Good Friday morning, I was driving in my car and I saw the purple cloth draped over a cross at a local Catholic church. It reminded me that it was Easter. I keep a notebook in my car, to jot down thoughts and phrases that come into my head. “It is a time of resurrection, of life returning,” I wrote. “Relearning the habits of being alive.”

Pandemics do not end. They fade into the background. There is no declaration, no celebration in Time’s Square. It’s a process of reorienting yourself, relearning the habits of being alive. Two years ago, my family and I, in our separate houses, watched a livestream of Andrea Bocelli singing in Milan’s empty cathedral, as drone footage showed all of the deserted city centers. I feel a strange nostalgia for those early days, when we were all in lockdown, dazed and confused and recognizing that everyone– everyone on earth– was experiencing the same thing. Today the suffering is diffuse. The big collective efforts happened back then. Picking up the pieces, we’re much more on our own.

A short time after I wrote these thoughts, I tested positive for COVID. (Before you ask, I am vaccinated.) What came as a surprise to me was how emotionally light I felt. After two years of disruption, of constant mitigation and anxiety, the undercurrent of danger, suddenly here was something concrete. For the first time in two years I was not in limbo. There was a floor under me. I had forgotten how certainty felt. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing the right things or how anyone was judging my actions. I just need to be sick and get over it. That I know how to do.

In March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I read an article in the New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt called “What Shakespeare Actually Wrote about the Plague.” Greenblatt wrote, “It is… striking… that in his plays and poems Shakespeare almost never directly represents the plague…In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone…”

I remember making a note to myself that I should give some thought to why this might be. Pandemics, I decided, made for poor drama. We like stories of human heroes and villains, where people’s actions produce results. Contagion is too indiscriminate. Perhaps audiences, confronted with so much death, wanted escapism not more of what was already around them.

But as time wore on, the idea of the plague being a “steady low-level undertone” became entirely understandable. Unless you are a doctor or nurse, illness is not the main experience of living through a pandemic. The vast majority of people, even before vaccines, survived their infections. So for most people the overarching pandemic experience is disruption.

Illness recedes, but does not disappear. Life fades in, and then back out. Plans are made, and plans break down. Everything is uncertain and difficult and just a bit of a mess. Viruses are impersonal. They make for unsatisfying villains. Because we can’t go to war with them, we battle each other instead.

Greenblatt noted that only one of Shakespeare’s plays directly references the plague. It is Romeo and Juliet. The plague is the context that keeps a messenger from conveying the important information to exiled Romeo that Juliet is not dead she just appears to be. The messenger is forced to quarantine, can’t get word to Romeo, he arrives and finds Juliet dead and the scene is set for the final tragedy.

We usually talk about Romeo and Juliet as a great love story. But it is not a story of love conquering anything. Romeo, as the play opens, is infatuated with another woman, also a Capulet. What Romeo and Juliet have is not great love, but youthful love. It is passionate, innocent and foolish. Romeo and Juliet are not wordly-wise enough to accept the social constraints of the feuding families. In Romeo and Juliet, the insignificant plot device of the plague reminds us that this is a world where nothing is certain, any plans can be disrupted, and the one thing people feel they have control over is their hatred for “the other.” That is, until the innocent young people remind them of the high price of their foolishness. It is a world a lot like our own.

Yucky Framing: Connecting With People in Tough Times is Good for Your Brand

It is hard to write about depression on social media. First of all, you are depressed, and that is not a state that is famously good for creative output. Beyond that, there is an unwritten rule of social media that thou shalt be positive.

I did a quick search today for advice on how to talk about going through hard times on social media and the first thing I stumbled upon was an article that belongs squarely in the “Yucky Framing” series. It’s from something called the Search Engine Journal and the headline is “How to Use Social Media to Survive & Thrive in Tough Times.” Sounded promising, but the opening line was not at all what I had in mind: “Connecting with people can create strong brand loyalty that stands the test of time.”

After a bit of talk about the “challenges” of these “uncertain times” the article proposes that social media can be used to foster long-lasting relationships with one’s “user base.” Gentle readers, when I imagine who I am speaking to in these posts I am not picturing a “user base.” The article suggests using the 50/50 rule, half your content should be connection building and the other half promotional. Wanna buy a book?

I am not one for a lot of self-disclosure in my posts generally, but if you have been a close reader you might have come across references to my Russian partner. Valery is a ballet dancer and we spend half of the year touring the country teaching ballet master classes. He is my partner in both the business and personal senses of the word. A little more than 15 years ago we started the project in a couple of cities and little by little it grew to 47 states. When 2020 started we were booking two years out and between the tours and writing projects, I was on course to have a very good year.

2021 was to have been our 15th anniversary tour, but embassy staffing issues due to the pandemic meant that although we had visa approval we could not get him a visa. A year went by, the approval expired, we have applied for a renewal. In the meantime, in the political tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the Kremlin is not allowing the U.S. to staff its embassies and they are not processing any visas except for a few emergency cases.

Having your personal relationship and business all tied up together is not for everyone, but it has worked well for us. The problem I have now discovered is that a disruption can leave you without your meaningful work, your income and your relationship all at once. It has been hard, and I don’t know how long we will be in this limbo.

We tend to talk about depression as something akin to a physical disease, a chemical imbalance. It can be. But that answer is also dissatisfying. It doesn’t really say much about the particular experience. Nor does it invite much in the way of reflection or community. I have written here in the past about Van Gogh’s Blues, and the idea that artists are prone to a certain kind of ennui that derives from having a drive to put out creative products that may or may not find an audience at all, which may or may not earn money to survive. The author of Van Gogh’s Blues called it a “meaning crisis,” and that resonated with me, but it is not what I am experiencing now.

John Hari, author of “Lost Connections” said, in the podcast Upstream, that we have been taught to think of depression as an individual problem. “We’ve been told these extraordinarily simplistic stories… Depression is purely a result of a biological malfunction… This thing you think of as an individual problem is largely a response to big changes in the way we live. Think about depression. Depression has doubled in the last 18 months. No one hearing that has any difficulty understanding why. We all know what we’ve just lived through… But what happened in the last 18 months is not some spontaneous chemical imbalance in everyone’s brains. What happened was a huge imbalance in the way we live… If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, you’re not weak, you’re not crazy, you’re not, in the main, biologically broken, a machine with broken parts. In the main you’re a human being with unmet needs.”

Sometimes things just suck, and you burn out your ability to be resilient for a while. I suspect I am not the only person who has fallen into this state of numbness after a year, two years, of disruption and crisis after disruption and crisis. The scale of the problem defies the “6 things to do today to improve your life” tone of much of our public discourse.

This is by way of apologizing that I have not been a prolific blogger. I have had a lot of thoughts of things I wanted to write about, but no momentum to write them. I hope to share some of them with you in the future. I also apologize that I have been unable to quite pull off the “positive & supportive brand voice” in my post. Maybe next time.

Pandemic Villanelle

I look across an empty space

The tables have been pushed away

I smile but you can’t see my face

Warning signs are everyplace

The children can’t come out to play

I look across an empty space

You turn away, just in case

How long must we survive and wait?

I smile but you can’t see my face

Such an empty form of grace,

The church where no one congregates

I look across an empty space

Ceremonies were replaced

The best laid plans have been undone

I smile but you can’t see my face

When will we finally embrace?

The future has refused to come

I look across an empty space

I smile, but you can’t see my face

Semi-Leagues Further

Well, I have finished a book I was working on for the past eight years or so. I am not sure yet how I am going to get it into the world, but I will keep you posted. One aspect of the research was that it involved a lot of sources in other languages, and I would often go to Google Translate to make sense of them, which provided me with a great deal of mirth if not quotable translation. So while the wait continues for the new book I have decided to pass the time by creating a little quiz. Each of the following is a famous English text, most are poems, but one or two are prose. I have translated them into another language using Google Translate and then back into English. Can you name them? Answers at the end.

1.

How do I like you? Let me count the ways.

I love you in depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when you feel invisible

For Human Conclusions and Appropriate Grace.

I love you to the everyday level

Need for great peace, sunshine and candlelight.

I love you freely, as people fight for what is right;

I truly love you, as they turn to Psalm.

2.

I deliberately went to the woods with the desire to live, bringing only the essential facts of life to the fore and seeing if I could learn what it had to teach. I didn’t want to live something that wasn’t life. Living is very important. I also didn’t want to practice resigning unless I needed to. I wanted to live deeply, suck out all the bone marrow of my life, and live like a Spartan, sturdy enough to rout everything that isn’t life.

3.

Everyone kills his loved one

Let everyone hear;

Some make him look bitter,

Someone with a comforting word,

The fearful man works with a kiss,

The warrior with the sword!

4.

Die, fall asleep;

Sleep, perhaps, will dream – yes, that’s the problem:

For in that death dream there may be dreams,

When we shuffle this death coil

Gotta give us a break – that’s respect

It turns such a long life into trouble.

5.

But Musi, you are not your lane.

To prove foresight can be ineffective:

The best Mice an ‘Men plan.

Aft gang

‘lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,

For happiness worth it!

6.

You can write me in history

With your bitter and complicated lies,

You can trample me on the ground a lot

But still, like dust, I get up.

7.

Semi-leagues, semi-leagues

Semi-leagues furhter,

All in the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

“Forward, light brigade!

Charge for weapons!” he said.

In the valley of death

We went for six hundred.

8.

Because I could not stop dying –

He lovingly stopped me –

The car was held, but we:

And immortality.

9.

Oh, somewhere in this lovely earth the sun is shining,

Somewhere the band is playing, and somewhere the hearts are light;

And where men are laughing, and where children are screaming,

But there is no happiness in Mudville – the mighty Casey has begun to come forward.

10.

There was a time of good, a time of evil, a time of wisdom, a time of stupidity, a time of faith, a time of distrust, a season of Light, a season of Darkness, a spring of hope, a winter of despair, a winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing to go to, we all went straight to Heaven. , we were all moving in the other direction – In short, the times were like the present, so that the most noisy authorities demanded that they be taken only for a higher or worse level at a comparative level.

11.

I say this by sighing

Somewhere in age and age thus:

Two roads parted from a tree, and I –

I took less transported,

And it has made all the difference.

12.

Twas brillig, and sleek toes

Or girona and gymnastics wabe;

All the mimics were borogoves,

And mom is skillful

13.

Then this black bird makes my sad fantasy smile,

Judging by the serious and stern expression on his face,

“Although your coat of arms is shaved and shaved,” I said, “you are certainly not faint-hearted,

Terribly dark and ancient Raven, wandering from the Nightshore –

Tell me what your name is on the Pluto Night Coast! “

The Raven said “Never.”

14.

What is your name? He said, “My name is Love.”

Then the first straightforward turned himself to me

And he cried, “Go, for his name is Sword,

But I love, and I do not want to marry

Alone in a nice garden, until he came

Dark at night; I am True Love, I write

Hearts of boys and girls with mutual respect.”

Then sigh, saying to another, “Have your will,

I am a lover who does not want to say his name. “

15.

I saw the best insanity of my generation destroyed, hysterical bare hungers,

dragging themselves down the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry solution,

angel-headed hipsters burn in ancient celestial connection with a star dynamo in a night machine…

16.

Come live with me and love me,

And we will have all the fun to prove,

That valley, grove, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steep mountain yields.

17.

What happens to a postponed dream?

It dries

like a raisin in the sun?

Ή refresh like a wound—

And then run?

Does it smell like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar on top—

like a sweet syrup?

Maybe it just hangs

like a heavy load.

Or is it exploding?

18.

In Exadu did Kubla Khan

Outstanding entertainment setting:

Where Alph, the holy river, fled

With caves that cannot be measured by man

Under the sunless sea.

Then twice five miles of fertile land

The walls and towers were plastered all around;

And there are gardens that sparkle with lilies,

Where the incense tree flourishes;

And here are the ancient forests like the hills,

Increasing areas with green sun.

19.

Old age will graze age

You will stay, and you will be in another woe

Our friend, who is yours,

“Beauty is true, true beauty, – that’s all

You know the earth, and all you need to know. “

20.

Can I compare you to a summer day?

You are more charming and more angry:

Strong winds shake the sweet buds of May,

Summer rent is too short;

The eyes of heaven are overheated,

Often its golden color fades;

Fair trade will ever decline,

Untrimm’d random or natural changing trends;

But your eternal summer will not go away,

Don’t lose the fairgrounds you have to get;

You will not boast of death in his shadow.

As you grow up in the eternal line:

As long as men can breathe or see with their eyes

It lasts so long and it gives you life.

 

 

Answers:

1. “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning translated into Zulu and back

2. “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau translated into Japanese and back

3. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde translated into Hawaiian and back

4. “To Be or Not to Be” speech from Hamlet by William Shakespeare translated into Russian and back

5. “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns translated into Thai and back

6. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou translated into Tajik and back

7. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson translated into Ukranian and back

8. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson translated into Armenian and back

9. “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer translated into Punjabi and back

10. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens translated into Turkmen and back

11. “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost translated into Finnish and back

12. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll translated into Latvian and back

13. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe translated into Russian and back

14. “Two Loves” by Lord Alfred Douglas translated into Hmong and back

15. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg translated into Estonian and back

16. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe translated into Hatian Creole and back

17. “Harlem (Dream Deferred)” by Langston Hughes translated into Greek and back

18. “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge translated into Xhosa and back

19. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats translated into Somali and back

20. “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare translated into Mongolian and back

 

How did you do?

Oscar Wilde’s Tomb: Another Oscar’s Ghost Outtake

I have done a number of book signing and speaking events for Oscar’s Ghost, and invariably someone will tell me “I went to Oscar Wilde’s tomb in France.”

There was a little skirmish surrounding the sculpture that took place in Lord Alfred Douglas’s most litigious period. I had to leave it out of the book for space. It is tangential to the book I’m working on now as well, so having no book in which it quite fits, I will share it with you here.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been trying to get a picture of Wilde’s controversial tomb, the work of sculptor Jacob Epstein, for his book Oscar Wilde and Myself.

His innocent protestations to the contrary, as Robert Ross was behind it, Douglas undoubtedly meant to to show how inappropriate and immoral the monument was. Douglas had been successfully getting books banned and pulped, and Epstein did not want a noisy campaign against his work.

Douglas had the sculptor arrested for sending him a threatening letter which said, “If you attack my monument to ‘O.W.’ in any way derogatory to me in England I shall have you in the Courts. Should you disregard this warning I shall spoil the remains of your beauty double quick.”

Given the tone of the letter, and the fact that Douglas seems to have been stalking Ross at that very moment, the court appearance was surprisingly amicable. Epstein represented himself.

“Are you willing to be bound over?” asked the judge.

“What is that?” Epstein asked.

“That you undertake to pay the King any amount I may think fit that you conduct yourself and keep the peace. Will you undertake to pay £100 and to do that?”

“I will be satisfied with that.”

“What about costs?”

Douglas’s counsel said he believed they were entitled to costs.

“I wish to say that I only received the summons last night and I should like an adjourment until Monday,” Epstein said.

“Because of the question of costs?” asked the judge.

“Yes.”

The judge turned to Douglas, “You will be satisfied if he is bound over?”

“Yes,” Douglas said. “There need be no trouble about costs.”

And so Epstein paid his fine and they went their separate ways.

An Oscar’s Ghost Outtake

As I was going through some of what I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost as I research my follow up book (coming soon) I came across a bit that ended up on the cutting room floor. As it doesn’t fit into the next book either, I thought I’d share the snippet with you. It talks about some events that occurred in 1912 in the period after Lord Alfred Douglas read Arthur Ransome’s book on Oscar Wilde, discovered that De Profundis had been a letter to him, decided to sue, and received the unpublished parts of De Profundis as part of the discovery for his libel case. This segment came after that but before the trial itself.

Both the First Stone (Crosland’s attack on De Profundis) and Crosland’s Sonnets were published in time for Christmas, 1912. They were the first two books by a new publishing firm, John Richmond. The masculine name was a cover for a wealthy American socialite, Irene Osgood, recently and acrimoniously divorced from Robert Sherard, her third husband.

Osgood had rented offices over a Rolls-Royce showroom off Regent Street and created her own publishing house with one goal in mind– to disprove Sherard’s claim that he had been the real author of her books. Osgood had met Sherard in 1892 when she was married to a Colorado coal baron who had started a publishing firm “Cleveland Press” in order to put his wife’s books on the market. The Cleveland Press published one of Sherard’s anonymous novels. (He wrote fourteen novels in his lifetime, mostly mysteries, and mostly flops.) Sherard and Osgood may have had an affair at this time, and Sherard would later claim that he was the co-author of Osgood’s first, and most famous book, The Shadow of Desire. The sensual autobiographical novel was published in 1893.

The Osgood marriage did not last, and Irene received a highly favorable settlement in her divorce. (He divorced her claiming desertion.) Her second husband, an English squire named Charles Pigott Harvey, died in 1904 leaving Osgood two-thirds of his estate which provided her with a small fortune of £12,000 a year and all of the independence and power that came with it.

Sherard, meanwhile, had been on a downward trajectory. After a successful expose, The White Slaves of England, published in 1897, his drinking made him unreliable. He was fired by The Bookman and The Author, was separated from his wife Marthe in 1901, and was living in the back of a dingy grocer’s shop. His fortunes improved somewhat in 1902 with the publication of the first Oscar Wilde biography, Oscar Wilde the Story of an Unhappy Friendship. A well-regarded book of memoirs, Twenty Years in Paris, followed in 1905.

After reading Twenty Years in Paris, Osgood got back in touch with Sherard. She hired him as her “literary secretary” and gave him £100 to divorce his wife. In 1906, he helped her revise her first book in nine years, To A Nun Confess’d. They married two years later in Paris. In the fighting surrounding their bitter divorce three years later, in spite of the fact that he was living off £250 a month in alimony from Osgood, Sherard would file a suit claiming that he authored all of his wife works from 1906 to 1910. He became misty-eyed on the stand over her attempts to gain custody of “the only friend he had” a cat named Gainsborough. The spectacular divorce was covered in the press with headlines like “Writer Sues Wife for MSS. And A Cat.”i

Sherard made the bold declaration that “Everything published by my wife under the name of Irene Osgood during the last five years, except the novel To a Nun Confess’d had been written by me. I, Robert Sherard, am Irene Osgood.”ii

It is worth noting that the one title for which Sherard did not take credit, To A Nun Confess’d, was the story of an unhappily married woman who writes confessional letters to a Catholic sister about her “struggle between love and honor.” The main character has fallen passionately in love with an Irish aesthetic playwright and poet by the name of “Mr. Savage,” a character clearly based on Oscar Wilde.iii

In order to refute Sherard’s claims, Osgood sought the help of Charles Sisley, who had published both To A Nun Confess’d and Servitude. She asked him if he had ever seen an original manuscript of Servitude in her own writing. He had not, but they discussed the idea of launching a publishing company so she could put out new works and prove she had the ability to write. She liked the idea and created a male persona to act as publisher to avoid any accusations of “vanity publishing.” Her next step was to find what Sisley called a “tame manager.” She found it in the person of T.W.H. Crosland. One of Osgood’s first acts as publisher was to put out a list of forthcoming John Richmond Limited books. In this, and every list the company every put out, Servitude was listed, although there is no evidence it was ever put out.

The next John Richmond project was a short-lived version of The Academy, called The Antidote. The magazine reunited the Crossland/Douglas editorial team. It was a modest production, sixteen pages, and existed primarily to make John Richmond seem like an established publisher. The Antidote ran no ads except for John Richmond’s forthcoming (or supposedly forthcoming) titles. It had a regular column of pithy sayings written by Irene Osgood, many containing barbed references to her ex-husband, for example, this reference to Sherard’s suit in 1911, in which he had cried on the stand, “A tearless woman scares the gods, a weeping man makes them laugh.” The Antidote carried on the Douglas-era Academy’s proud tradition of attacking everybody. Articles of interest include an unsigned article ridiculing Frank Harris for being a flatterer, a moralistic article by Crosland that attacked Arthur Symons, poet laureate John Masefield and the Jews, and an unsigned scolding of The English Review for publishing phallic verse through which “the mind of English youth is debauched and corrupted.”

In this iteration, Crosland seems to have taken on most of the editorial duties, with the alternately raging and suicidal Douglas focusing only on the main editorials and contributing poetry while Crosland did everything else. In a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Crosland called The Antidote “my paper.”iv

iNew York Times, March 23, 1911.

ii“Wrote his Wife’s Books,” New York Times, April 9, 1911.

iiiAdvertisement for To A Nun Confess’d from p273 of Sherard, Robert. After the Fault. London, Sistley’s LTD., 1906.

ivO’Brien, Kevin, “Irene Osgood, John Richmond Limited and the Wilde Circle,” Publishing History. 1987.

Oscar’s Ghost Discussion

I’ve had a lot of requests to share this talk that I did a couple of weeks ago.

I apologize that it was recorded in grid mode, so I’m not as central on the screen as I probably should be. I have uploaded it to Youtube for easier posting, but it is an unlisted link, which means it will not turn up in the search, but people who have the link can share it.

After I did the talk, I listened through and wrote down some things I wanted to expand upon before sharing it, but I then lost the notebook in which I wrote it. Not having the gumption to watch it all again, (I don’t love watching myself) I’ll have to leave it as it is.

There are a couple of things that I do remember I had wanted to share.

One has to do with the part involving T.W.H. Crosland and Maurice Schwabe, which comes in the second half somewhere. I mention Crosland visiting Maurice Schwabe’s flat. The actual details of those associations are actually a bit more complicated. Crosland didnt spend time at Schwabe’s flat, but he and the friend Bosie was hanging out with at Schwabe’s flat were spending time together and went on a vacation together where a lot of debauchery allegedly happened and Crosland was part of that trip. All of this is to be detailed one day in my forthcoming book on Maurice Schwabe. (Really, I keep promising, but it is on the way.)

In the second part, around the 27 minute mark, as I recall, I realized that I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the seemingly endless series of trials between our combatants.  It is hard to keep all the details in one’s mind.  When Oscar’s Ghost was still being put together, I wrote a primer on the trials with the idea that it would be an appendix. In the end, it wasn’t included. I don’t know if I have ever posted it here, but I thought it might clarify some of my wobbling in the middle.

The Trials

The Wilde Trials

Oscar Wilde was famously ‘three times tried’. He filed the first action for criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. This backfired and led to two criminal prosecutions.

1. Regina vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry). March-April 1895.

In the preliminary hearing in the magistrates’ court, before R. M. Newton, Mr C. O. Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Sir George Lewis for Queensberry. In a further preliminary Lewis was replaced, because of a conflict of interest, with Edward Carson and Mr. Charles Frederick Gill. The libel trial was heard by Justice Richard Henn Collins with Sir Edward Clarke, Charles W. Mathews and Travers Humphreys acting for the prosecution (Wilde) and Edward Carson, C.F. Gill and A. E. Gill acting for the defendant (Queensberry). Wilde withdrew his case against Queensberry before all the evidence had been heard, supposeddly on a gentlemen’s agreement that if he did there would be no criminal prosecution.

2. Regina v. Oscar Wilde. April 1895.

Wilde was arrested for a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 based on evidence Queensberry had collected for the libel case. Wilde was tried with a co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. They were charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecency, procuring and conspiracy to procure. Edward Clarke represented Wilde pro bono. Taylor was represented by Arthur Newton. (Lord Alfred Douglas contributed towards the costs of Taylor’s defense.) In the preliminary hearings C.F. Gill prosecuted. Travers Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Newton for Taylor. The Old Bailey trial opened on 22 April 1895 before Justice Arthur Charles. C.F. Gill and Horace Avory prosecuted. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys defended. The jury was not able to reach a verdict and the case was postponed until the next session. The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of jury vote. If their account is accurate, the jury was divided 10-2 on most questions, with the majority in favor of a guilty verdict.

3. Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Regina v. Alfred Taylor

Upon a joint application by counsel to the defendants Wilde and Taylor were tried separately before Justice Alfred Wills. The solicitor general Sir Frank Lockwood (uncle of Douglas and Wilde’s friend Maurice Salis-Schwabe) prosecuted with C.F. Gill and Horace Avory. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys again appeared for Wilde and J.P. Grain for Taylor. Taylor was tried first and was found guilty of gross indecency but acquitted of procuring as no evidence had been presented that Taylor took money for the introductions he made. Wilde’s trial followed and he was found guilty. Both defendants were sentenced to two years’ hard labor. J.P. Grain would go on to represent Wilde in his bankruptcy.

Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W. H. Crosland

In the early 20th Century Lord Alfred Douglas became associated with writer and notorious litigant T.W.H. Crosland and joined in his particular brand of sport. One of their many courtroom adventures is relevant to our story.

Henry Frederick Walpole Manners-Sutton v. T.W.H. Crosland December 1909-February 1910

The son of Viscount Canterbury (and later the next holder of that title) had been one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s best friends until he said he would only invest in Douglas and Crosland’s literary journal if Douglas agreed to take a pay cut. In retaliation, Crosland published a series of critical articles that hinted at Sutton’s identity. Sutton was reluctantly all but forced to sue for libel. Solicitor Arthur Newton (who had once acted for Sutton to extract him from an attempt at blackmail) initially acted for Crosland. After the preliminaries he stopped working for Crosland and testified for the prosecution (Sutton) in the trial. The case was heard before Sir F. A Bosanquet (whose nickname, coincidentally, was ‘Old Bosie’.) Marshall Hall, George Elliott and Storry Deans prosecuted. J.P. Valetta and Mr Rich defended. Crosland was found not guilty of libeling Sutton. Although it had no clear connection to the case at hand, Marshall Hall cross-examined Lord Alfred Douglas on his relationship with Oscar Wilde, giving him his first opportunity to tell his story on the stand. He interpreted the verdict as affirmation that he was an excellent witness. Robert Ross, who had fallen out with Douglas, was offended by what he read about the case. Particularly, he was offended by Douglas presenting himself as a reformed character. It was a catalyst that convinced him to ‘set the record straight’ about his former friend.

The Proxy Wars

Ross and Douglas sparred indirectly a number of times before they actually faced off in court.

Douglas v. Ransome and Others April 1913

Douglas sued author Arthur Ransome and the Times Book Club for writing and distributing respectively a biography called Oscar Wilde A Critical Study. This case was the hub around which the battle between Ross and Douglas turned. Ross had assisted Ransome with his biography and gave him select access to Wilde’s personal letters, including unpublished portions of De Profundis. Douglas was upset by the depiction of his role in Wilde’s downfall and sued for libel. Ross bankrolled the defense and provided personal letters that Douglas had written both to Oscar Wilde and to himself as evidence. The letters from Douglas to Ross were some of the most damning as they showed that Douglas was attracted to his own sex. Paradoxically, in a case where the actual libel was that Douglas had abandoned Wilde, the defense argued that a death bed message that Douglas had sent to Wilde through Ross, which contained the line “send him my undying love,” proved that Douglas had prevented Wilde from being reformed after he left prison, which made him responsible for Wilde’s downfall. (Note that this is different argument than the later understanding of Douglas as responsible for Wilde’s downfall because he involved him with rent boys. It was the fact that they were reunited, and continued to love each other in an “unnatural” way, that outraged the court.)

The trial was heard before Justice Charles Darling. Cecil Hayes acted for the plaintiff (Douglas). Hayes was a personal friend who had been a member of the Bar for less than two years. He probably worked pro bono. Ransome was represented by J.H. Capbell and H.A. McCardie. The Times Book Club by F.E. Smith. The jury found that the passage at issue was libelous, but also true. They also found that the Times Book Club had not been negligent in circulating it. Douglas filed an appeal, but was forced to withdraw it because he had been declared bankrupt and was unable to give security for the costs of the trial. Infuriated by what had happened in the case, Douglas and his friend Crosland began a campaign of libel against Robert Ross.

Ross v. Crosland April-June 1914

Following a long campaign of harassment, Ross finally went to court. He was well advised by Sir George Lewis not to file any libel actions that touched on the issue of his sexuality. Ross found an opportunity, however, to sue for conspiring to induce a witness to file a false police statement.  (The witness was a young man who claimed to have been kissed and fondled by Ross.) Douglas was out of the country, so Ross filed his lawsuit against Crosland alone. It was clear that Crosland and Douglas were on a vendetta against Ross. But Ross had the misfortune of drawing Justice Horace Avory, who had acted for the prosecution in Wilde’s criminal trials. Not only was Avory prejudiced against anyone associated with Wilde, he had an apparent dislike of F.E. Smith who led the prosecution. Crosland was defended by Cecil Hayes, and supported financially by Douglas’s mother. At issue was whether or not Crosland believed the boy was lying. Crosland was found not guilty. Bolstered by his success, Crosland went on to sue Ross for wrongful prosecution. This time Crosland lost.

Ross and Douglas

Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas only confronted each other directly in court once.

Rex v. Douglas November 1914

Robert Ross finally was harassed into charging Lord Alfred Douglas with criminal libel for pamphlets accusing him of gross indecency and blackmail. The case was heard by Justice Coleridge. Ross was represented by Ernest Wild and Eustace Fulton and the defense by Comyns Carr. The trial was turning against Ross, and both were running out of money. The solicitors negotiated a settlement in which Ross agreed to drop the charges and pay court costs, and Douglas agreed to stop libeling Ross. Douglas found a loophole and had a sporting publication publish a libelous article on Ross’s lover, Freddie Smith. The dossier of compromising letters that Ross had assembled for the defense in the Ransome case continued to haunt Douglas well after Ross’s death. It was used against him in legal proceedings until the early 1920s.

 

Douglas v Ransome and Others

I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who attended my Zoom talk on “Oscar’s Ghost” yesterday. It was fun, and I do plan to make the recording available when I’ve had  chance to edit out some of the zoom awkwardness at the beginning.

In the meantime, I thought I would share this video highlighting an artifact from the trial at the heart of the story, the libel case between Lord Alfred Douglas and Arthur Ransome, which was more of a proxy battle between Douglas and Robert Ross.

This is the document from which the prosecution read in court. You will notice that on the first page of the typescript the salutation “Dear Bosie” is hand written. I believe that a typescript copy, sent to Douglas in discovery before the case, did not have this handwritten salutation.

Early on in the case, Douglas tried to deny that De Profundis was addressed to him. He only admitted it was when he saw the handwritten copy for the first time on the witness stand. He would only have done this if the document he had seen lacked the salutation. The lawyer for the Times Book Club even argued in his closing, based presumably on a similar copy of the typescript he had been given to prepare his case, that “Wilde in the De Profundis letter had not mentioned the plaintiff’s name.”

This video reflects the widely held belief that the reading of De Profundis caused Lord Alfred Douglas to lose his case. In fact, after taking up two days of the court’s time with it, the judge instructed the jury that it should not give it much weight. As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

Ransome Trial PhotoThe reading of De Profundis, however, as dramatic as it was, did not cause him to lose his case. Justice Charles Darling, in his summation urged the jury not to take the prison letter at face value. He called it a “most remarkable and interesting document.” He said it should be taken as a study of what a bad man of genius had gone through in prison and its effect upon him. “It would be a great mistake to take all that he said as Gospel truth. The document was an excuse and an apology.” If De Profundis had been the only evidence, Douglas would probably have won the case. As we shall soon see, what swayed the judge, and caused him to direct the jury as he did, were damning personal letters provided by Robert Ross that proved beyond a doubt Douglas was guilty of the same crimes as Wilde. The defence team had strategically held back the letters, saving them as to use as rebuttal evidence in cross-examination. This meant that they did not have to include them in the initial plea of justification. In a statement for a later legal case, Ross would claim that he had produced the letters “under subpoena.” This is unlikely because if he had not made the decision to show them to the Ransome legal team, they would have had no way of knowing of their existence in the first place.

As the judge said in his summation, Douglas had been badly advised when he brought the case, but he had not known that these letters still existed until he was confronted with them in court. If he had known what was about to be unleashed on him, even the litigious Bosie might have thought twice about bringing the action.

The prosecution, financed and instructed by Ross, had used a carefully curated selection of letters to tell a story that Oscar Wilde came out of jail a reformed man only to be dragged back into a shameful life by Lord Alfred Douglas, who left him as soon as the money ran out.

I won’t go into the specifics of the letters here, and how well they represented the truth, but if you have an interest in that, it’s in the book.

Christopher Millard (Wilde bibliographer and editor of Three Times Tried) called Darling’s summation “a brilliant speech for the defence.”

Darling defended Ross’s decision to cut out the unpublished parts of De Profundis while publishing the rest.

The fact that the trustees of the British Museum agreed to take it proved that it was a valuable document. After bringing the case, Douglas could not now complain that the defence had produced De Profundis to show what Wilde’s view was of their relations. Nor, he said, could Douglas complain that his old letters had been produced. “He apparently did not know that those letters had been kept.”

It was on those letters that Darling put the greatest importance. He read one that Douglas had written to Wilde in 1899. The press declined to print it, but Darling described it as containing a “conversation which a decent pagan of the time of Pericles would not have referred to.”

Darling spoke of the attempts that had been made after Wilde’s release from prison “to enable him to redeem his past, and perhaps to still again become a great literary man if only he would give up his evil life. The plaintiff had referred to Oscar Wilde as a ‘devil incarnate.’ If it was true that Wilde was trying to lead a better life, what term might he not well apply to the man who had written that letter?”

He said that it had been proved that Lord Alfred Douglas was the subject of the text in Ransome’s book, and that De Profundis proved that Wilde did hold Douglas responsible for his downfall, and that further letters showed that he did believe Douglas behaved badly after he left prison and that Wilde feared his influence. His final thought before putting the case in the hands of the jury was devoted to De Profundis. “Oscar Wilde was writing this, and it is plain that he was writing it for his own glorification, whether it is true or not. That is quite plain.”

…It took the jury only 45 minutes to find that the words in Ransome’s book were libellous, but also true. They found that the Times Book Club was not negligent in making the book available. From then on there was no more talk of Wilde being driven to excess by “admirers” in the plural. Douglas was now the only suspect in Wilde’s ruin. The only question his supporters and detractors would fight over was just how culpable he was.