Someone really ought to tell the life story of Lord Alfred Douglas as a comedy. The poet is remembered as a player in that grand drama, the downfall of Oscar Wilde. It would be a dark comedy, of course, comedy and tragedy are closely linked. I have been reading some contemporary newspaper accounts of the Lord’s life following Wilde’s imprisonment and it is tremendously entertaining. We find Lord Alfred, an aristocrat just a bit out of his time, living in the dawning of the best age to be an English Lord. He struts into every story, impeccably dressed, sometimes in a top hat. Justices address him as “your lordship” while telling him off for believing himself to be above court rules. He is haughty, entitled, sharp tongued when angered, and perfectly well mannered and charming when he is not. So often, when reading contemporary accounts of him, one cannot help but laugh.
His life was full of the most insane episodes. His marriage was reported this way:
Then there was the time in 1907, as editor of a literary journal called The Academy, he managed to offend the American literary establishment by implying– well, saying really, he was not the type to make subtle implications– that the United States had no literary taste. This led to a flurry of rebuttal articles on this side of the Atlantic.
The article describes The Academy prior to Douglas’s arrival as a journal with “an unblemished record of respectability and dullness.” It goes on to pillory Douglas for daring to act as a moralizer given his rather dubious history.:
“Lord Alfred enjoys the unassailable position of the man who has no reputation to lose. He can’t hurt himself by anything he says or writes.”
There was the time, in 1909, when he appeared in court to bring charges against a “turf agent” who had assaulted his lordship in his office “by kicking him on the legs.” The issue at hand was an unpaid gambling debt.
Prisoner: “He owed £25 for six months. I sent the account for thirteen weeks to his club-White’s Club-where he went for the cheque when he won. When he lost, he never went there for the losing account”
Lord Alfred Douglas: “I paid him before I had this bet, and he said he would accept further commissions.”
Prisoner: “True-after thirteen applications. On the fourteenth week he backed a winner, and he then left off,and applied for his cheque. I pointed out that he had kept me waiting thirteen weeks for my money.”
Lord Alfred Douglas: “I told him I had been frightfully busy, and had not been to the club.”
Prisoner : “No, he doesn’t go there when he has a losing account… I tried for thirteen weeks to collect £25 from this so-called swell.”
Much later a newspaper printed Douglas’s obituary summing up his life essentially by saying that he had squandered his good name and would be remembered, if at all, for nothing but scandal. The only problem was Douglas wasn’t quite dead yet. Instead of issuing a big, fat apology, the newspaper decided to plead justification. That is, “OK, so you’re not really dead. Our bad. But we stand by our assessment that you’ve lead a lousy life and should be quickly forgotten after you die. Have a nice day.”
Finally I came to an interview with his lordship as he was promoting his soon to be released book Oscar Wilde and Myself. The large feature assured readers that the truth about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde would be told for the first time! Oops. Oscar Wilde and Myself, largely ghostwritten, was the product of a period in which Douglas felt betrayed by Wilde. This came after he had sued an author for libel over a biography of Wilde that painted him in a negative light. The author had claimed that Douglas had been responsible for Wilde’s downfall and that the younger man had abandoned the playwright after he was released from prison. In court, the defense produced the full text of Wilde’s prison letter, now known as “De Profundis.” It was the first time Douglas had heard his former lover’s painful criticisms of him. This episode led to a brief period in which a wounded Douglas hated Wilde. It was in this state that Oscar Wilde was written. The book was not only rough and angry in its treatment of Wilde, it was full of lies. Its author would later say that he regretted it had ever been written.
“Lord Alfred has been mixed up in one litigation another—generally in connection with the Wilde scandal and one confidently expected to find him an embodiment of fussiness and petulance with the most insecurely balanced chip on his shoulder. He proved however, to be just a tall, clean-shaven, well-dressed, pink-skinned, simple and good-humored ‘ boy,’ who looks the runner and skillful : horseman that he was before he took to literary work and who generally gives the impression of having lived out-of doors most of his life and of having less than his share of the worries of this existence… Lord Alfred s forthcoming book will not be a confession, he declares that he has nothing to confess. ‘When
questioned as to his motive, after so many years of silence, of at last making public the story of his association with Wilde, he lost his expression of tolerant good humor, and there -was a hard look in his eyes and bitterness in his tone as he replied: ‘To clear my name.”
Douglas insisted that he had known nothing of Wilde’s proclivities and would not have approved had he known. The two were good friends who collaborated as fellow writers.
This version of the “facts” served two purposes. The first, of course, was that at the time Douglas could not admit to having engaged in any homosexual activities himself. But the lie served a second purpose. One of the great accusations against Douglas was that he had abandoned Oscar Wilde after the latter left prison. (Which was, in any case, not true)
This charge may have offended him more than any other. As I read the interview about his later discredited book, I wondered what it would mean if this version of things had been true, if Douglas had only been Wilde’s good friend, student and fellow writer. If you imagine this to be true, a certain expectation vanishes about Douglas’s post-prison responsibility to care for his friend. As a purely platonic friend, you would expect kindness and visits, if such a friend chose to support him and help him financially it would be a plus, but the idea that he would have any moral obligation to be sure Wilde was cared for the rest of his years would vanish. That is beyond what would be expected of a simple friendship.
Which leads me to this: The attitude of outrage towards Lord Alfred Douglas for abandoning Wilde depends on the premise that the men were lovers. What interests me about this the most is that the very society that would call such a union perverse and do everything in its power to separate and condemn them also seemed to paradoxically expect that two such men would have the same obligations to one another as other couples. It was an abomination if they stayed together and an affront if they abandoned one another.
That is a crazy tightrope to have to walk. A farce really. Someone ought to tell Lord Alfred Douglas’s story as a comedy.