There is something strange about money. The need for it is one of the main drivers in most people’s lives. With the exception of the incredibly wealthy, a very small minority, people need to do things in order to make a living. During their lifetimes most working artists struggle constantly to keep money coming in. Yet when we look at the works of artists of the past, money and marketplace concerns tend to fade from the picture.
This is why I enjoyed reading Guy and Small’s Oscar Wilde’s Profession which presented him as a working writer.
“Wilde never formed a permanent association with any theatre or company,” the authors wrote. “His basic problem, at least during the early part of his career, was that his books did not sell particularly well, and that successive publishers were understandably unwilling to continue to invest in an unsuccessful author. His problems with the theater were more basic: he found plays difficult to write, and some of the refusals he experienced were caused by his constitutional inability to meet contractual deadlines… Moreover, there is evidence that he was happy to tailor publications to the requirements of particular markets; Wilde was remarkably willing to take account of ‘public opinion,’ even if he was not always successful in pleasing it… Most importantly, we confirm the suspicions of some critics and theatre historians that Wilde’s career was substantially shaped by the hands of other professionals, from theatre managers, book designers and publishers to the new phenomenon of the literary agent.”
Although Wilde’s output was shaped by the need to make a living, when readers, biographers and scholars talk about his work, they discuss it as if he was entirely in charge of his literary destiny. He expressed what he wanted to as a writer and a thinker. The truth is more complex. He expressed what he wanted to and was able to as a writer within the context of what was possible in his world both culturally and financially.
Now let’s consider his younger friend Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a common perception that the tragedy of Douglas’s life was that he cheated the world out of his poetry because he became so obsessed with setting the record straight about his relationship with Oscar Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, all of which focused to one degree or another on his ill-fated relationship with the playwright.
Even Douglas’s published correspondence with George Bernard Shaw has an undercurrent of Wilde, but this is partly because they were working on revising an Oscar Wilde biography during the correspondence. All of this creates an impression, especially so many years later, that Douglas never focused on anything else.
Indeed, he did spend a great deal of energy fighting what he saw as misconceptions about this formative experience, and he might have been able to put that energy to better literary use. But the sense that Douglas had no life outside the memory of Wilde is created, in part, by our own focus as an audience.
Douglas didn’t need an insane obsession to inspire him to write about Wilde. He wrote four books that dealt with his relationship with Oscar Wilde for a straightforward reason– it was what the public wanted to hear from him and what he could sell. He was a lord without money. He needed to make a living. These books got more attention than the others he wrote, celebrity memoir always sells better than sonnets.
Although we may encounter them all at once, the various books Douglas wrote about the relationship with Wilde spanned a thirty year period. The first was written when he was in his early forties. The last when he was 70 years old. Over time the poetry faded away, as most poetry does, but the juicy gossip still interests readers.
In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific.
Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in an attempt to get some fast cash to fund his expensive habits and to give him enough leisure to produce a serious, edgy work that he thought was more artistic. (It was never finished.)
Lord Alfred Douglas thought he would be remembered to future generations for his poetry long after the scandals of his life were forgotten.