One of the things that set me off on the journey that became the book “Oscar’s Ghost” was reading George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas edited by Mary Hyde.
It is a book that fascinated me, not only for how vividly the letters revealed the characters of their writers, but also for what seemed to me to be an uplifting message about friendship between people who have nothing in common. Shaw and Douglas sparred over the editing of Frank Harris’s “Oscar Wilde.” Oscar was a topic that tended to bring out Douglas’s defensiveness and prickliness. But they always came back to treating each other with affection.
Shaw called Douglas “Childe Alfred” and coined one of my favorite descriptions of an aspect of Douglas’s personality that remained into his senior years: “blazing boyishness.” He wrote to Mrs. Alfred Douglas “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning. But you know this a thousand times better than I do.”
Shaw, who also had a difficult relationship with his father, was sympathetic to Douglas’s familial bitterness, but he did not have patience for the grudge Douglas continued to hold against Robert Ross.
“Ross did not get his testimonial for nothing,” he wrote, referring to a public letter of support signed by hundreds of luminaries, including Shaw after Douglas had tried to expose Ross’s homosexuality in a libel action. The testimonial had always stuck in Douglas’s craw.
“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him. A passage in one of my prefaces on the influence of artistically cultivated men on youths who have been starved in that respect…was founded on a conversation I had with Ross one afternoon at Chartres in which he described the effect produced on him by Wilde, who, in the matter of style, always sailed with all his canvas stretched. Let Ross alone: the world has had enough of that squabble.”
He later wrote to Douglas, “The one thing that no man can afford, and that nobody but a fool insists on carrying is a grievance. Besides, what claim had Oscar on you or anyone else that it should be a reproach to us that we did not spend the rest of our lives holding his hand after he disgraced himself?”
(Of course they did have claims on one another which could not be acknowledged in that era.)
If you have not seen it, George Bernard Shaw wrote a very interesting letter in 1889 in the wake of the Cleveland Street scandal. It was sent to the editor of Truth, but was not published. He argued that “we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted…[on those] whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted right as individuals.”
After the familiar discussion of the ancient Greeks and the culture in schools, which always came up in such conversations in the era, Shaw appealed to the champions of individual rights “to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone.”
Being Shaw, he brought his argument around to socialism and women’s rights. “My friend, Mr. Parke… is menaced with proceedings which would never have been dreamt of had he advanced charges–socially much ore serious–of polluting rivers with factory refuse, or paying women wages that needed to be eked out to subsistence point by prostitution.”
It is fascinating then to read Shaw’s discussions with Lord Alfred Douglas– who was the conservative of the pair–a believer in sin and the evils of liberalism and women’s suffrage–debating the events of Oscar Wilde’s life and their meaning, among other topics. (Shaw had the chutzpah to believe he understood Wilde much better that Douglas did.)
So again, I recommend the book, and raise a glass to Shaw this evening, won’t you?