Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

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7 comments

  1. Bosie attracts such ire from academic, political and cultural elites that it sometimes feels as if everything they find unacceptable about Wilde has been projected onto this despised figure, enabling them to appropriate and de-fang the great writer who was destroyed or rejected by their ilk back in the day. The fact that Bosie completely lost it in his middle years, like some wounded creature caught in a trap, desperately lashing out at everyone and everything, doesn’t help (such is the contempt for the man that a letter to the New York Times once complained that it was a slur on people with mental health problems to suggest that Bosie’s behaviour at this stage of his life might be explained by this).

    The balance has been slightly redressed by books like your own and that of Nicolas Frankel but only because they are so determinedly even-handed – anything that hints at advocacy is treated as slightly deranged and subject to patronising remarks such as ‘a valiant effort to rehabilitate’ with no recognition that stories are always multi-faceted and open to interpretation and editing.

    Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince largely conforms to the established perspective but it’s also an impressionistic film which, in spite of limited screen time (it appears to have been heavily edited so a lot of the scenes that appear in the trailers are not present in the final film – at least the English language version), allows its supporting characters to breathe a little and take on a life of their own. I think many people find it difficult to separate Bosie from the sexy, spoilt and beautiful monster played so effectively by Jude Law. In The Happy Prince the performance is pitched on a more subtle and human scale – as well as being presented as indulged, immature and subject to petulant and often cruel outbursts, you can see the man had intelligence, charm and wit and believe that this was someone capable of writing poetry and being seduced as much by Wilde’s work as his personality and fame.

    I wonder if you’ve ever been tempted to write a novel about this era. Novels require as much research as biographies, are honest about their fictions, never claiming to be the ‘authorised version’, and more often than not get closer to capturing the essence of the people they are writing about.

    1. I like your description of Bosie in his middle years as “some wounded creature caught in a trap, desperately lashing out at everyone and everything.” I agree with you that Wilde shared many of the faults that Bosie is blamed for and that by attributing them only to Bosie, it makes it easier to see Wilde as the unproblematic “Christ figure” that both Stephen Fry and Rupert Everett refer to him as at times.

      I think Bosie’s cardinal sin was his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years, If he had never gone this direction, I think his other sins would have been largely forgiven by now.

      I considered novelizing the story of Maurice Schwabe so that I could fill in some of the blanks and mysteries about his life. But I find that I am more interested in telling that particular story through the constraints of the historical record. It’s just a different kind of challenge.

      1. Yes the anti-Semitism is difficult. The only excuse on offer being that it was part and parcel of his madness at that time.

        Maurice Schwabe features as an intimate of Bosie and Wilde in the fictionalised account of their relationship by the French author Isaure de Saint-Pierre that I’m currently reading (some play is made of the similarity between his name and that of the French Jewish writer Marcel Schwob).

        It’s an idiosyncratic work, which depicts a weak and feverish Bosie lying in his hospital bed in Wormwood Scrubs, haunted by the spirit of Wilde, impelled to relive the course of their relationship and trying to come to terms with what he regards as the ‘betrayal’ of De Profundis. Schwabe is described as one of his dearest friends; someone he loved to have around because he was great fun and an amusing storyteller. Had Schwabe lived I wonder what he would have made of his former friend/lover’s conspiracy theories.

        Good luck with your research. I look forward to reading the book when it comes out.

  2. I don’t know that I can excuse Bosie’s anti-Semitism on the basis of madness. (It’s not my job to excuse his bad behavior.) I think, rather, that he embraced some terrible sentiments that were current at the time. That era had a lot of parallels to our own where a lot of people in conservative politics have slid into anti-immigrant sentiment and fear and blame of outsiders and the enemy within. Bosie lived in a similar time and that kind of rhetoric was quite popular among some members of his class as an explanation for aristocratic decline. (I wrote a bit more on this social context for the book, but I had to cut most of it.) Bosie’s friend Freddie Manners-Sutton (who he treated so badly) also tried to publish some horrible anti-Jewish propaganda in that period.

    My sense of it is that during his vendetta against Ross, Bosie found a way to turn his homosexual past to his advantage by positioning himself as someone who was an expert because he had escaped the Wilde cult. The people who were willing to embrace him in that role were right-wing extremists, and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories were part of their particular sub-culture. Being accepted by these moralists made him feel like had had gotten some of his power back. It seems like this was a product of a particularly low and fevered part of his life that culminated with him landing in jail, after which he chilled out. It is understandable, but not laudable. But it is fair to have sympathy for him in some areas, and not in others.

    Is the Isaure de Saint-Pierre novel in English? I can read French, but it’s more work. Maurice Schwabe was a conman all of his life. Some of his criminal adventures and associates were quite amazing. He had his hand in a lot of pies.

  3. As you say we live in similar times and unfortunately you don’t have to look very far to encounter anti-Semitism and Jewish conspiracy theories in today’s Europe.

    The book is in French and while it’s an interesting read there’s not enough of substance about Schwabe for it to be worth your while.

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