A “Destructive” Love Affair: Empathy for Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageLately I find I am  fascinated by Lord Alfred Douglas.  (This may be the only thing I will ever have in common with Oscar Wilde.)

It began when I read his correspondence with George Bernard Shaw.  Douglas was in his 60s at the time, his beauty faded, his infamous temper cooled a bit.  Yet I have rarely encountered a personality that asserts itself with such force from beyond the grave.

Bosie (as he was called) has a Peter Pan quality which Shaw dubs his “infantile complex,” a term that Bosie embraced.

He has tantrums, he flatters, he is vain and easily hurt, he begs to be loved and appreciated as much as he appreciates his own worth.  Although he is self-aggrandizing, he is also witty and self-aware.  He has a sense of humor about his prodigious character flaws.

What I loved most about the correspondence between the far right Douglas and the far left Shaw is that it is a story you don’t hear much these days, the story of two people who disagree on everything and who continue to hold great affection for one another.  I found the correspondence to be uplifting for this reason.

Recently I was driving, and in front of me was an SUV covered in bumper stickers espousing the opposite of everything I believe to be moral and good.  My first thought was “I hate that person.”  After a moment’s reflection I realized that I probably would really like the person if I met him.  There are a lot of people who I love who have views that oppose my own.

Arlo Guthrie put it this way: “I came out of that whole time (the 1960s) thinking I’d only met two kinds of people, that’s people who give a damn and people that don’t.  And the truth is you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue, and in the long run I thought you might even have more in common with people who care about stuff than you have with people who side with you on an issue or two as they’re going through time.”

Douglas and Shaw were two people who were bonded in affection as a pair of souls who gave a damn about stuff.

Without falling into complete fuzzy moral relativism, the triumph of love over ideology is an important and compelling story, as compelling as the triumph of the right over the wrong.  If we were reminded of this more often, maybe the world would be a better place.

After I wolfed down the Shaw/Douglas book like a bag of cookies, I wanted to know more about Bosie.  As I read more I found myself in a love/hate relationship with him.  There are sides of him that are distasteful and sides that are noble, romantic and beautiful.  He seems to be everything at once and all of it in the extreme.

He had a fierce judgmental streak which is easier to recognize when he is arguing from the conservative side, but it was always there even in his youth when he was proclaiming, to the extent that Victorian society allowed, the beauty of same sex love and carnal pleasure.

His most notable flaws are his vanity and arrogance.  It was easy to get on his good side, just complement his poetry and he would be impressed by your wisdom.  I can’t tell you why, but I find his arrogance amusing and charming.

In his day, there were those who detested Oscar Wilde for his pretension, vanity and arrogance.  We love him for saying “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

Bosie does not get off so easy.

Wilde must have had a certain wink, a certain tone, that made these boasts seem charming.  Contemporary accounts before the trial that brought Wilde down seem to suggest that Bosie had a similar vain charm.  Many people describe them as being mirror images of each other.

This is from The Green Carnation, a novel that satirized Bosie as Lord Reggie and Wilde as Mr. Amarinth:

“I want you to tell me which is original, Mr. Amarinth or Lord Reggie?” “Oh! they both are.” “No, they are too much alike. When we meet with the Tweedledum and Tweedledee in mind, one of them is always a copy, an echo of the other.” “Do you think so? Well, of course Mr. Amarinth has been original longer than Lord Reggie, because he is nearly twenty years older.”

Together the two men partook of the illicit pleasures of London’s seamy underworld of male prostitutes. If it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to this risky pass time, there is no reason to suppose Wilde went kicking and screaming.

Wilde often wrote about how he wanted to experience everything in life, that all experiences were material for his art.  If Bosie was more reckless and bold (all evidence suggests he was, as he was protected by his social class) that had to be a big part of the attraction.

I have to admit that the more I read, the more of a love/hate relationship I have with Oscar Wilde as well.  His character flaws are dismissed much more easily because of his literary ability.  Every artist may be driven, on some level, to become appreciated enough for his art that his sins are forgiven in time.

In case you are not familiar with what happened to Oscar Wilde, here is a quick summation.  Lord Alfred Douglas’s father was known for his violent temper and his vindictiveness.  He was so incensed at the relationship between his son and Oscar Wilde, who had long been whispered to be a sodomite, that he made it his mission to keep Bosie away from the playwright.  He basically stalked Wilde and his son until Wilde made the disastrous decision to sue him for libel for calling him a sodomite, something that in this time was considered a horrible crime punishable by a long prison term.  It seems obvious in retrospect that it was insane to sue him for libel over something that was true.  But this was the only thing they thought would get him to leave them alone, and they seem to have believed that Wilde’s wit and charm could win over any jury and that social class would protect them.  Nothing could be proven about Douglas and Wilde’s relationship and the prostitutes were without power and status and speaking about what they did would implicate themselves.  They counted on a code of silence, and underestimated Bosie’s father’s determination to turn up evidence.  The Douglas family squabble set this all in motion, but Wilde was not imprisoned for his relationship with Bosie but for his activities with prostitutes.

People always describe the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas as a “destructive love affair.”  The implication is that the love affair itself was at fault.  That it was Wilde’s weakness for his young lover, an obsession, that led him into this snare.  I don’t believe this is a fair way of looking at things.

It is certainly possible to believe that Bosie was not a good match for Wilde and that he could have done much better for himself.  They fought and broke up and came back together time and time again, but many couples relate this way.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Wilde to say, “Your father is making my life hell and this relationship is not worth it.”  He wasn’t willing to do that.  Through all sorts of external pressure and private conflicts of their own, they were determined to stick together.  With Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas we call this destructive obsession.  Yet in a straight couple wouldn’t we call it something else?  Wouldn’t we call that commitment?


  1. Wow, my thoughts on this man exactly!

    Much has been given to his beauty and social status to explain Oscar’s great love for him, but isn’t it insulting to Oscar that he would fall so hard for a mere pretty face? After all, he did have a lot of good-looking young men throwing themselves at him. Apparently younger Bosie Douglas was also a pretty good singer and athlete. Kinda a golden boy with it all but with some terrible character flaws.

    I think he is such a fascinating character to explore; you either love him or love to hate him.

    PS: Apparently his eldest brother Francis (also quite beautiful), Viscount Drumlanrig, supposedly killed himself to protect his lover, the Prime Minister, from destruction by his father. This combined with the Douglas family mental history, just makes this whole thing even juicier.

    1. If I have time, I’ll probably write more on Bosie. The De Profundis letter, its effect on him, and the various copyright issues that complicated the whole thing are quite interesting, as well as the fact that the angry book that Douglas wrote in response to De Profundis is in the public domain and widely available while his later books recanting it are protected by copyright, yet not deemed commercial enough to print and are therefore very hard to come by. There are so many things in this story that interest me.

  2. Bosie is certainly a fascinating character in his own right and it’s a shame that he’s been unfairly demonized. The destruction of most of their letters to one another, by Robbie Ross and Bosie himself, was a dreadful loss to biographers. His post-Wilde career as anti-Semite, homophobe and litigious crackpot didn’t help either, although few people seem to realize that towards the end of his life Bosie managed to overcome his bitterness and thought of Oscar with love and sympathy.

    Incidentally, my interest in Oscar’s life and work was rekindled when I discovered that I have a very remote family link with Bosie – his aunt married the brother of my great-great aunt’s mother-in-law! (Well, I did say it was remote…)

    1. I figure that Bosie would be the perfect tragic figure if he had had the decency to go crazy in a more operatic way. Unfortunately for him, he went mad in an unattractive way.

      1. Absolutely! His litigious frenzy in later life was quite bizarre – I can’t help thinking it was fuelled by the denial of his true sexuality. And the (admittedly genteel) poverty of his old age must have been deeply humiliating for him. I find it desperately sad that it took six months in Wormwood Scrubs to reawaken Bosie’s love and sympathy for Oscar, but at least he didn’t take his bitterness to the grave.

        On a totally unrelated note, do you find the mental image of Oscar and Bosie playing golf hilariously funny? The first time I read about this I laughed out loud!

  3. Doesn’t surprise me about Bosie, but Oscar strikes me as an indoor guy. I find the pictures of them standing next to each other in general kind of funny– the difference in their sizes.

  4. I’m fairly sure that Oscar was 6’2″ and Bosie 5’9″, which might explain why Bosie was so keen to add a few inches by keeping his straw boater on when they were photographed standing together.

    Another thing we tend to forget is the fact that there was more to their relationship than Bosie’s psychotic rages and their subsequent tearful reconciliations – they had FUN together. I love the account of their stay at Babbacombe with Bosie’s tutor, which according to Oscar combined the best aspects of a public school and a lunatic asylum. When I was waiting for a train at Salisbury station a few years ago I couldn’t help thinking of the tutor’s description of how Bosie drove them there from his mother’s house, very recklessly and at top speed, in a pony and trap overloaded with luggage and Bosie’s dog.

  5. I hope something comes of this proposal – I’d certainly read your book!

    May I ask your opinion of the letter from Bosie to Maurice Schwabe discovered in Australia quite recently? Press reports at the time expressed surprise that Bosie was romantically involved with another man at the same time as his affair with Oscar, even though it’s fairly well-known that the couple had a very open relationship. I was amused by Bosie’s description of himself as Maurice’s “loving boy-wife, or your little bitch if you prefer”.

    1. My take is that most people don’t know a great deal about Wilde and Douglas, except what they may have seen in the movie Wilde. (Which I thought made Oscar Wilde a bit more of a sheep being led to the slaughter than I think he was.)

      When it comes to same sex relationships and relationships in general, come to that, we do a lot of projecting about what they are supposed to be. Nowadays the model for same sex love is a monogamous one that is the same as what we call heterosexual marriage (as if every heterosexual marriage were the same). I don’t think their relationship fit any of the nice clear categories we create. I find that intriguing, largely because I am not sure how well anybody fits into the nice clear categories.

      1. I completely agree that Oscar wasn’t quite the helpless victim he’s often portrayed as. Bosie must bear much of the blame for introducing Oscar to the gay underworld, but at the end of the day Wilde was sixteen years his senior and had so much more to lose – a brilliant career, a literary reputation, a wife and children. I do get the impression that Wilde had a self-destructive streak and his incredibly reckless behaviour after meeting Bosie was a form of folie a deux.

        I sometimes find myself speculating about what would have happened had Queensbury died before 1891 or taken no interest whatever in the lives of his children. Would Oscar still have ended up in jail? I’m inclined to think that one of Oscar’s many creditors and a private detective could have done just as much damage as the Marquess, or even that an unsophisticated cast-off casual boyfriend like Edward Shelley might have been foolish enough to punish Oscar by turning him in to the police and hoping that the court would regard his own role as that of an innocent victim. In any case, I can’t visualize Oscar keeping up a facade of heterosexuality and dying as the rich and respected Sir Oscar Wilde in the the 1930s!

    2. Caspar Wintermans bio of Bosie is one of the few that is pro-Lord Alfred. It also has a selection of his best poems. The English translation is o/p but easily findable on Amazon or Abe I imagine.

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