History

Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W.H. Crosland’s Monte Carlo Adventure

Manners Sutton Case

In 1905, T.W.H. Crosland, Lord Alfred Douglas and Freddie Manners-Sutton took a trip together to Monte Carlo. Recently, in the course of my continuing research into Maurice Schwabe and his criminal associates, I found some information that made me think about the Monte Carlo trip again. Could Schwabe’s criminal enterprise have been behind some of Crosland’s gambling woes? Crosland was a life-long gambler who went to Monte Carlo the moment he had some money to throw away and this trait would have been appealing to Schwabe.

We know about the Monte Carlo trip because it came up in a 1910 libel suit which recounted events that took place at Schwabe’s flat with the mysterious Rudolph Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig. Douglas also wrote about the trip in a special chapter that appeared in the French version of his autobiography. He did not mention whether Schwabe was with him. Although he was not shy about mentioning Schwabe’s name in court (Sutton had not mentioned it and only wrote it on a piece of paper), he became evasive when he was questioned about Schwabe’s association with the Wilde trials. This may suggest that Douglas and Schwabe were still lovers at this time.

In any case, if the Monte Carlo trip was a swindle arranged by Schwabe—as there is some reason to suspect– based on the jaunty way Douglas talks about the trip in his memoirs he did not suspect anything.

Crosland believed he had a fool-proof system to beat the house at roulette and he persuaded Douglas to give him 150 to play it. “He had a mania for laying down the law on matters which he did not understand,” Douglas told his friend Sorley Brown, “His ‘system’ and his methods of gambling where childish. I found also that such as his system was, he was quite incapable of sticking to it.”

Crosland may have been tricked into his belief that he had a winning system. In his book My Confessions, a Stallmann confederate, Montague Noel Newton, described how he conned a player into believing he had come up with a winning roulette system. He asked the player to explain his system, and as they had no roulette table, he would test it by dealing out cards one at a time which would represent the winning color, red or black. Then the player could make his calculations and figure out how much he would have won if they had been playing for real. Of course, Newton controlled the cards, and when the man made a big wager on red he would throw out a red card. If he bet big on black, a black card would come up. When the mark was pleased that he could make a fortune with his system, the swindler agreed to fund a trip to Monte Carlo. After which the overly confident mark was ripe for the picking.
If Crosland’s later court testimony is to be believed, the boys were up to no good in Monte Carlo. Sutton tried to secure the services of a young German prostitute from a woman, and was scratched when the girl turned out to be unwilling. He came back to Crosland, borrowed money from him saying “lucky at cards, unlucky in love.” Douglas had his wallet stolen, and does not seem to have reported it to the police, suggesting it was taken in compromising circumstances. The Monte Carlo trip was just the initial information-gathering gambit. It allowed the cons to see what types of temptations could be used to play up the Viscount of Canterbury’s son. (Schwabe was already well aware of Douglas’s appetites and weaknesses.) The big score was yet to come.

Shortly after this trip, Sutton was swindled by Baron von Koenig, who he had met at Schwabe’s flat. The episode is chronicled in Oscar’s Ghost.

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Seeking Treasure and the Joy of Not Knowing

One of the greatest moments in historical research is when you discover there is a file of documents in an archive that relates to some aspect of the story you’re trying to uncover. You don’t yet know what is in it, but from the moment you learn that the file exists you begin to dream about what secrets may found there. Perhaps there is a key that will unlock an entire new path.

Getting to that material is not always– or even usually– easy.  If the archive is in another state or country–and isn’t it always?– you either have to travel, to find a local researcher to help or to pay the institution to make scans. All of these are time consuming and sometimes cost prohibitive. The very difficulty of the task makes the file seem indispensable.

I am enjoying a moment of anticipation at the moment, as I wait for a 91 page document to be scanned and sent to me from the UK. Will it provide the missing piece of the puzzle that will answer all of my remaining questions about that enigmatic con artists from the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe? Or will it be a big nothing?

In the course of researching Oscar’s Ghost, and in my continuing search for Schwabe, I’ve driven across states to read rare books that had nothing particularly relevant in them. On the other hand, there was a wonderful moment when a bankruptcy file provided the only example I have of Schwabe telling his own story in his own handwriting.

Early on in my research I learned (through a note in a review of a book on Gilbert and Sullivan) that Lucas D’Oyly Carte, the son of the impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte, had kept a diary during his time at the Winchester school. I knew that he and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas had been students at the same time and that Bosie and Lucas had had a relationship throughout their school days that Neil McKenna described as “a tortured love affair.” Love letters from young Lucas had been stolen by blackmailers and used against Bosie.

Bosie wrote a poem inspired by Lucas:

To L —
Thou that wast once my loved and loving friend,
A friend no more, I had forgot thee quite,
Why hast thou come to trouble my delight
With memories ? Oh ! I had clean made end
Of all that time, I had made haste to send
My soul into red places, and to light
A torch of pleasure to burn up my night.
What I have woven hast thou come to rend ?

In silent acres of forgetful flowers,
Crowned as of old with happy daffodils,
Long time my wounded soul has been a-straying,
Alas! it has chanced now on sombre hours
Of hard remembrances and sad delaying,
Leaving green valleys for the bitter hills

A diary could be very revealing indeed. So where was it?

As it happened, I could not get my hands on a copy of the Gilbert and Sullivan book, or track down its author. So I wrote to the author of the review who contacted the author and asked about the diary. He said it was in the British Library, so I contacted them. They told me that it was not, and they directed me to another institution in New York with a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. That institution directed me back to the British Library. By now a year had passed, and I wrote back to the author of the original review explaining my troubles and asking if he had any more information for me. He went back to the author who said that he had interviewed the man who had owned the diary and that he was certain he had donated it to to the British Library but that it was part of a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection which had not been cataloged yet.

Armed with this information, I went back to the British Library (through e-mail), and the very helpful librarian there confirmed that they had received a collection which was not yet cataloged but she couldn’t give me any idea of when that might happen.

A couple of years had gone by and I wrote back to the original reviewer to tell him about my lack of progress. He finally put me in touch, directly, with the Gilbert and Sullivan book’s author. He told me that while the diary was still in a private collection, he’d had a chance to scan it. He confirmed that the diary did mention Bosie, and he offered to send the scan to me.

At long last, after three years of searching, I would finally have the diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte and I could read for myself what he had to say about Bosie…

Which was, as it happened, not much.

Lucas D’Oyly Carte liked to report on the weather and the time he took breakfast (usually 9:30). When Bosie appears it is usually in reference to sport. For example, “Very showery all the afternoon…Bosie made 50 odd runs, I made 7…”

What I learned from all of that searching was that it sometimes rained when the boys were students and they sometimes played sports.

Yet somehow experiences like these have failed to dim my excitement over archives and the documents they contain– cataloged and not yet cataloged.

The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?

 

A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’

Wilfred Owen is a minor character in Oscar’s Ghost’s third act (a bit more minor than he would have been had I not had to tighten the book as much as I did). He was one of many artists supported, encouraged and promoted by Robert Baldwin Ross, Oscar Wilde’s champion and literary executor.

Interesting Literature

A reading of a classic war poem

‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that…

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Humiliation: Contemplating Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

“I want to acknowledge the not-infrequent willingness of a viewer, a neighbor, a master, a lover, a friend, a host, a commentator, to treat someone else as garbage. The willingness to desubjectify the other person. And the willingness, as if in a nightmare, to lock the door of civilization against this outcast, and to hear the ruined beast cry in the cold.”

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From time to time I like to wander through the library and pick up random books that catch my eye. On my last walk, a couple of weeks ago, I checked out Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Humiliation.”

It is a small book, and odd. It reads to me like culled diary entries on a particular subject– more the notes for a book than the book itself. I think Danielle Stevens got it right in Hyperallergic when she wrote “Koestenbaum occupies a space between blatant exhibitionism and self-criticism.”

The book is made up of short numbered observations about humiliation.

When I read it, it brought to mind Oscar Wilde, and in fact Wilde is mentioned at one point in the book. In response to a thought numbered 14 I wrote “Does humiliation represent the core of the fascination with Wilde? Humiliation is the violent stripping away of pride. Part of the success of De Profundis is that, fearing humiliation, we’re drawn to the view of one whose humiliation is complete. We imagine you must come out the other side changed. We all have moments of crisis, perhaps less dramatic, when our identities seem to be wrenched from us.”

This is Koestenbaum’s thought number 14:

When I see a public figure humiliated, I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me. Even if the public figure did something wrong, I empathize. Even if Michael Jackson slept with children. Even if Roman Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old. When I see the famous figure brought to trial, even if only trial-by-media, especially if the crime is sexual, I’m seized by horror and fascination, by pity, by terror: here again, as if at the Acropolis or the Roman Colosseum, I see the dramatic onset of a familiar scene, an unveiling, a goring, a staining, a stripping away of privilege.

Something happened between the time I first recorded my thoughts on this little book, and when I went back to it. The passage stopped being about Wilde and became about Kevin Spacey. (Koestenbaum, we can assume, is feeling empathy for him today.)

Spacey is an actor I’ve always admired, although he is not a special favorite of mine. I became aware of allegations of misconduct against him by seeing my Twitter feed fill with posts blasting his apology for allegedly making a sexual overture to a 14-year-old boy 30 years ago.  Spacey confuses the real issue– that the boy was 14 and he was 26– with the non-issue (to most people in our age anyway) that he is attracted to his own sex. I have a theory that perhaps Spacey has worried for a long time that the public would discover the fact that he was gay, and that he’d rehearsed in his mind what he would say when he was eventually outed. When that moment came he failed to take the nuances of the moment into account in his statement. That, or it could just be cynical deflection, as pretty much everyone views it. I’m assuming you’ve heard the story by now. If not Inc had a good article on what was wrong with the apology.  What was wrong with the underlying behavior, if true, needs no explanation. Type “Kevin Spacey” into your favorite search engine (it’s DuckDuckGo right?) and you will be brought quickly up to speed if you’ve somehow missed it.

I have had a hard time getting this story out of my head, and I could not figure out why. I think it is because of the uncomfortable resonances with Oscar Wilde’s downfall. If you look at Spacey’s own Twitter feed as of this writing, there is something haunting about it. The stream is full of happy moments, successes, celebrations and plans for all sorts of upcoming projects. It ends with his statement about the allegations against him.  Then there is no more. Knowing that after this statement House of Cards was canceled, Spacey’s Emmy was revoked, his acting master class was canceled, it reads like the end of a life and a tumble into the void. As Matthew Arnold wrote:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

The cancellations remind me of how performances of Wilde’s plays were dropped, his name taken off of programs. In one case an artist even offered to paint Wilde out of a painting in a gallery, such was the desire to erase the memory him.

What makes these echoes particularly uncomfortable is that an honest observer has to admit that the there is some overlap in the accusations against them. Oscar Wilde was not advocating “gay liberation.” He was an advocate of Urianian culture, which held as an ideal the sexual mentorship of teenage boys by older men. The famous “Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name” speech that was a high point in the movie Wilde (and which got applause at his first criminal trial in real life) spoke about the beautiful love of “an older for a younger man.”

In Oscar’s Ghost I wrote, “To a Uranian poet, a perfect muse was a teenager maybe fourteen or sixteen years old. The boys were to some extent viewed as objects of longing because they were unobtainable, but it is clear that these ideals shaped the fantasies and views of the men who wrote raptures about their beauty…There is evidence that Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), Robbie (Ross) and Oscar all had sexual encounters with teenagers. (As, no doubt, did Reggie Turner if his nickname “the boy snatcher of Clements Inn” is anything to go by.)”

Lord Alfred Douglas, in his middle years, came to believe that he had been primed at school and finally seduced by Wilde into a dangerous culture. He blamed his education as much as Wilde, but he came to see “the cult of Wilde” as particularly dangerous for advocating this culture. He came to view it as his mission to warn the world against its dangers and to protect other young men from being seduced into it. At the time his nemesis, Robert Ross, was still an advocate of Greek sexual mentorship. Both he and his good friend Christopher Millard were romantically involved with young men they had met when they were still teens. Millard had once lost a teaching position apparently for something involving a student. Douglas wrote a book that was never published called The Wilde Myth in which he made his case against “the cult.”

The book concludes “The Wilde myth has devastated my life from every point of view. It devastated my life when I was a victim to its illusions, and it has devastated my life ever since I escaped from those illusions.”

Imagine him sitting down on Oprah’s couch and telling that story. The audience would be sympathetic, right? They might even chalk up his personality issues and bad behavior to trauma from the abuse. Is that the right way to look at the situation?

I don’t think so. You can’t judge historical figures by modern cultural standards and simply interview a historical figure on Oprah’s couch.  They have to be understood in their own context.  Here is how I explained the context in Oscar’s Ghost:

There was, of course, no age of consent for sex between males– it was strictly illegal. To get an idea of what age the larger society deemed a consenting adult we can look to the same law that had only recently criminalized ‘gross indecency between male persons.’ It also raised the age of consent for girls from 12 to 16. (In France the age of consent was still 13.)

Frank Harris, the American journalist and a good friend of Wilde’s, objected to the new law. He felt that it was ridiculous because it outlawed sexual activities with a girl under the age of 13 “even with her own consent” and girls under sixteen even if they “tempted.”…

During Wilde’s criminal trials, even though most of his partners were in their teens, their ages were never much of an issue for the court. It was only their gender and social class that provoked outrage. A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Just as we can’t judge Wilde and his friends by modern standards, we can’t judge Spacey by the views of the past.

I think it does give pause, though, when you realize that there is an actual Wilde shrine in New York as Kevin Spacey heads off for the obligatory “treatment” as a necessary first step to try to shed his new-found pariah status and gain re-entry into society.

For those of us who admire Oscar Wilde, a case like Kevin Spacey’s is an uncomfortable reminder of an aspect of his story that we don’t much like to think about. As he is increasingly beatified as the first gay martyr it’s important to remember that he was not a “gay man” in the modern sense. There are some important differences and some very deep shades of grey. If we fail to be honest about that we risk making the the same mistake that Kevin Spacey’s apology did– conflating modern gay culture with (Uranian) ephebophila (an erotic attraction to adolescents).

It is possible, however, to keep both of these ideas in your head: That Oscar Wilde was punished for something we no longer view as a crime– loving males– and this is a tragedy and bothers us as an injustice. But there are other aspects of his life that we would find troubling if they happened today. Then again, if he lived today, it is impossible to know if those aspects would have existed for he would have been socialized differently–part of our culture, not his.

One of my favorite passages from De Profundis, the work that set me off on this whole Wilde journey, was this:

Of course there are many things of which I was convicted that I had not done, but then there are many things of which I was convicted that I had done, and a still greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either. And if I then am not ashamed of my punishment, as I hope not to be, I shall be able to think, and walk, and live with freedom.

Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

The Times They are A Changin’

I’d like to thank Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed for the interview for The New Books Network. It is always a pleasure to be interviewed by someone who took the time to read your book and to prepare thoughtful questions.

I was especially pleased that Nataliya touched on some of the larger themes in Oscar’s Ghost, the social context in which the feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robbie Ross took place. In the early 20th Century London society had an entirely different feel depending on whether you were of Douglas’s social class or of Ross’s. For people like Robbie, the expanding middle class opened up a wealth of possibilities. For Douglas the decline of aristocratic power and fortunes felt like social collapse.

In the interview I touched briefly on how Lord Alfred Douglas moved from being generally conservative to being a proponent of right-wing conspiracies.  The fear that emerged of outside forces and cultural change among the elite of that era has a lot of echoes of our own.

Here in the United States, the conventional wisdom that Trump rode to victory on a wave of anger from displaced workers who were motivated by economic hardship. Researchers who have studied the data have found that this is not true. In fact, Trump voters were better off economically than most Americans, and the poor, white working class was actually slightly more likely to vote for Clinton.  What motivated Trump voters was fear of cultural displacement.  That is, it was people who could always count on being considered the “default” Americans, and know that public policy would be based on what was best for them. Slowly that sense of security has been eroding. They see a future where instead of requiring everyone to learn English they may have to learn Spanish, where the law might not support one’s aversion to two dudes kissing. In short, a world where people who have always had others adapt to them might have to do the adapting. In the UK the Brexit vote was likewise propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was a similar fierce overcorrection to cultural change in the 20th Century.  Here is a passage that I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost but cut to get the word count down:

The year marked another milestone in the loss of status of the aristocracy. Historian David Cannadine called the 1911 Parliament Bill “the instrument of [the Lords’] permanent emasculation.” It was a blow from which their power and prestige never recovered, ‘the citadel of patrician pre-eminence had finally fallen.’ The bill had come about as the result of proposed budget changes in 1909, which had outraged the Lords. Lloyd George effectively portrayed them idle and self-interested labeling them ‘ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.’ The Lords veto of the budget activated the Liberals, and an emboldened Asquith brought a series of resolutions to the Commons to limit the power of the peers, giving Lord Alfred Douglas yet another grudge against him.

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, ‘in a scrap heap instead of a social class.’ This caused many of these former masters of all creation to seek scapegoats and to embrace extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also to the far left. The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by (Oscar Wilde’s friend) Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice.

Freddie Manners-Sutton (a close friend of Lord Alfred Douglas) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Bosie’s social circle and its forces were priming his imagination, although it would be a number of years before he would be taken in by the conspiracy theories.

In the long run, these reactions failed to turn back the clock on social change.  I will hazard a guess that the current wave of reactionary politics will not take America back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days either.