The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.





  1. It feels a bit like I’m stalking this blog at the moment but the subject of Wilde’s legacy and his impact on the people he left behind is endlessly fascinating.

    You don’t have to ‘admire’ Douglas or condone his behaviour to feel some sympathy for him and his troubled life (granted he brought a lot of that trouble on himself). His own description of how (during the height of his litigious period) he imagined himself on the road to persecuted sainthood, along with accompanying visions, indicates that his mental health was, at best, fragile. At least in his burnt out old age he learnt some humility, depending, a little like Blanche DuBois, on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

    As for what Colm Tóibín calls ‘the fierce attachment’ between him and Wilde – it remains unknowable to the outsider, and researchers can only use their imaginations and, inevitably, value judgements to fill in the mysterious spaces between the lines. Nowadays certain dubious narratives seem to be generally accepted as truth, and the idea that he betrayed Wilde has become an element in Oscar’s reincarnation as a secular saint (with Douglas in the role of Judas and maybe Ross as John, or at least one of the evangelists and gospel writers).

    A recent debate at Liverpool Museum as part of ‘Outing the Past’ shows how much Douglas divides opinion, though there are likely to be more people on the side of the prosecution than the defence.

    1. It is a shame that Douglas burned Wilde’s letters to him. If he had not, more of their relationship would have been “knowable.” He painted a romantic picture of himself in a mood of despair casting them into the fire one after the other. It has great pathos and dark poetry. But then in another of his writings, he said that he burned them based on some quasi-legal advice. I suspect that in the period of the Ransome case, after being confronted with De Profundis, he wanted to destroy the evidence of his sexual relationship with Wilde, but that it was also his despair over what he perceived as a great betrayal that put him in the emotional space that he was able to do it. What a crime against future research, and another casualty of the Ross/Douglas feud.

      The suggestion that Douglas might have suffered from mental illness is controversial. John D. Stratford, the co-executor of the Lord Alfred Douglas estate, disagrees with me on the point. Of course, I have no formal qualifications to diagnose anyone, much less someone who died long before I was born. This is valid point. That said, I was struck as you were by Douglas’s description of his spiritual state during his darkest period, his mystic experiences and visions as well as other people’s descriptions of his emotional outbursts and how they reacted to him.

      Oscar Wilde wrote about how Douglas’s friends thought that when he went into one of his tempers he was not really in control of it, and he wrote in De Profundis that he “felt sorry” for those tempers to which he thought Douglas was really a prey. Two of the people who Douglas treated badly: Freddie Manners-Sutton and Reggie Turner (who he dragged into his quest to find homosexual dirt on Ross) talked about him in sympathetic ways in spite of all that. They said, in essence, that they knew he couldn’t control this aspect of himself. Reggie Turner didn’t explain his comment that he thought Douglas should not be treated “like other people.” But it is clear that he remained sympathetic to Douglas and blamed Ross for what happened. As unpleasant as the whole court episode was for Freddie Manners-Sutton, and as much as he wanted to make Douglas stop attacking him, he placed more blame on Crosland for getting Douglas riled up than on Douglas for his extreme behavior. The people who knew Douglas well recognized that his moods came over him like storms, and they were beyond his control. This sounds a lot to me like something we’d call a mood disorder today, and something his friends recognized and tried to manage.

      I think one of the things that fascinates me about Douglas is that he is not a sympathetic character. It is easy to be empathetic to someone who is kind and lovely. It is more interesting to me, anyway, to examine the case of someone who was both wronged and wrong. Who was both the victim of circumstances and the creator of his own troubles, whose personality caused him to sabotage his own attempts to be a sympathetic character.

      So, yeah, “admiration” isn’t the right word.

  2. The blog is interesting both for the Wilde related stuff and focus on story-telling, and for its insights into what it means to be a writer trying to get work out there.

    Just to add that it’s instructive that even the most balanced of discussions about Douglas in relation to Wilde become evidence of ‘admiration’ or, to paraphrase a review of Frankel’s book, a ‘controversial’ attempt to rehabilitate him – as if in his case there’s no room for grey areas. Oscar’s beautifully crafted prison letter has certainly had devastating consequences, whether this was his intention or not.

    In his wonderful pastiche ‘The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde’ Peter Ackroyd has Wilde recalling how he encouraged Douglas to act out the role of hedonistic poet for whom nothing was taboo, heedless of the consequences to him and others, and how through the writing of what was to become De Profundis the older man absolved himself by placing the entire and terrible burden of guilt for what had happened on his young lover. The letter is described as something that an individual with the strength of Atlas would find difficult to bear, never mind someone with Douglas’s emotional and psychological make up. Of course it’s a novel, a work of fiction, yet another of the many stories inspired by Wilde, but there’s something compelling in its analysis of a relationship whose essence remains elusive.

    1. You may be on to something there. Maybe the reason some people are so invested in Bosie being horrible is that the alternative (or one of the alternatives) that Wilde had a huge influence on him and then was willing to let him take the blame is unpleasant. I don’t see them as clear cut good and bad guys, more like chemicals that when put together have unpredictable reactions.

      I am glad to hear that you appreciate the blog. It is nice not to be speaking to the void.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s