Literature

George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

The Best of Friends to Oscar Wilde

robert-baldwin-ross-4Robert Baldwin Ross was a man of wide artistic interests, and an even wider circle of friends. Someday someone will write a fantastic book that uses him as a central focus to highlight the greatest characters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He was an art critic, a promoter of literary and artistic talents and a writer. He is, however, remembered for one thing above all else–he was Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor.

This last identity, it appears, came with a certain ambivalence. I just discovered a poem Ross wrote as the dedication to a copy of his Masques and Phases which he gave to the critic and book collector Clement King Shorter, who used the initials “C.K.S.” when he wrote in The Sphere.

To “C.K.S.”

Of things I do not know the names,

For words I’m at a loss.

You know I am not Henry James,

I cannot write like Edmund Gosse,

No Granville Barker’s buskin mine

To tread upon the corns of law;

It is not mine with Max to shine,

I cannot dazzle Bernard Shaw.

Not mine Corelli’s glowing page

Nor yet the periods of Hall Caine,

Not mine a William Watson’s rage,

I am not Lucas come again,

Only for me the cap and bells,

The motley of a jester’s stock:

Alas I am not H.G. Wells,

I am not even H. Belloc.

Oh call me childish or inept,

Untaught, untrained, untiled.

Oh call me anything except

“The best of friends to Oscar Wilde.”

Is Jake Gyllenhaal the Reincarnation of Marcel Proust?

The Guardian today featured an article on an upcoming auction of documents related to French literature. One of the notable letters is from Marcel Proust who was taking time away from contemplating lost time to complain about his neighbors:

The most amusing letter in the collection, Bonna said, was from Proust to the son of his landlord…In the letter, Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbours’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: “Beyond the partition, the neighbours make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.”

As they brought up the subject of Proust, there is another historical resemblance in my continuing series I thought I might mention:

Vanishing Women

Buckley 1911I was writing yesterday about Yoi Pawloska, also known as Yoi Maraini, a travel writer and free spirit who I became aware of because of a brief connection to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s literary executor and one of the main characters in my forthcoming Oscar’s Ghost.

Her connection to my story is a society scandal in which the young woman, then known as Edith Buckley, left her husband and two children after she fell in love with Coleridge Kennard. Robert Ross was one of the people who tried to intervene to prevent a larger scandal.

The young lovers did not marry, and after her divorce a broken-hearted Yoi traveled Europe and wrote the first of many books.  They received mostly positive reviews, albeit reviews that used feminine adjectives like “charming” which denote something other than seriousness. Was her work really more lightweight than that of the many male poets who populate the edges of Oscar Wilde’s narrative? She was more prolific than many, and also worked as a journalist interviewing Mussolini for the Saturday Review.

Her granddaughter, the Italian novelist Dacia Maraini, would one day write, “…after two generations, the silence about her was more tenacious than the desire to remember her. She was surrounded by an aura of scandal– a solitary traveller, and adulteress abandoning husband and children to follow the man she loved, but with whom she wasn’t able to build a family, remarried later to a man ten years her junior. Things our family did not speak much about. Actually, to tell the truth, we did not speak of them at all.”

There was no great desire to remember Yoi.

Today I was reading a book and a reference came up to Dame Hariette Chick. She lived from 1875 to 1977.  One of the leading microbiologists of her day, she was instrumental in finding a cure for rickets. I had that moment of surprise, that I always do, to learn of an accomplished professional woman from another era. Each time I discover a woman like this she stands out as exceptional and singular.

Why is that? A few weeks ago, I watched a program on our local PBS station about the Van Hoosen farm, near my home, and the sisters who eventually ran it. One of them was Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, a pioneering obstetrician.

I find myself wondering, how many “exceptions to the rule” do I have to encounter before I start to question whether “the rule” accurately reflects history?

10 Great Literary Impostors

Cross-eyed Nerd ManIn honor of the release of the novel “Identity Theft,” which tells the story of a young employee who plays the role of his rock star boss in order to seduce a fan, I have compiled a list of some of the great impostors in literature. Impostors and mistaken identity have captured the imaginations of writers, readers and theater-goers for generations.

1. The Comedy of Errors- William Shakespeare (ca. 1590)

Mistaken identity drove the action in two of Shakespeare’s comedies. In The Comedy of Errors a pair of identical twins are separated at birth and by great coincidence the estranged twins each hire the second pair of twins to be their servants. Both sets of mismatched twins arrive in Ephesus on the same day causing all manner of confusion and rollicking farce. Shakespeare was not the first to write on this theme. His plot was borrowed and embellished from from the play The Menaechmi, written by the Roman dramatist, Plautus. In The Menaechmi only the masters were confused with one another, but Shakespeare one-upped his source by giving the identical twins identical servants who could also be confused with one another.

Shakespeare returned to the theme of separated twins in Twelfth Night. In this play the twins are male and female. They are separated in a shipwreck. The female twin, Viola, believes her brother is dead. So she disguises herself as a man, the obvious thing to do, and becomes employed as a servant to a duke. She falls for the Duke, but can’t tell him. The Duke is in love with a woman named Olivia, and he sends his man to court her. Olivia, instead falls in love with the messenger. It becomes even more confusing when Viola’s lost brother, Sebastian arrives and is confused for her male alter ego. All of this would have had an extra layer of humor for contemporary audiences because in Shakespeare’s day all roles were played by males. So Viola would have been a boy, pretending to be a girl, dressed as a boy.

Shakespeare also used mistaken identity to much more dramatic effect in Henry V. Before leading the men into a battle in which they are vastly outnumbered, the King goes out among the men in disguise and has the opportunity to hear what they really feel about the campaign and their king.

2. Tartuffe- Moliere (1664)

300px-Tartuffe1739EnglishEditionTartuffe is actually subtitled “the impostor.” It is the story of a vagrant who poses as a pious man in order to gain entrance into the home of a prominent man and to break up his family and gain the estate.  Thanks to Moliere’s play, the word “tartuffe” is used in France to denote a hypocrite who fakes religious piety. (It is reputed to be used this way in English as well, but I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word, have you?)

Tis a mighty stroke at any vice to make it the laughing stock of everybody; for men will easily suffer reproof; but they can by no means endure mockery. They will consent to be wicked but not ridiculous,” Moliere once said.

If you like foreign language films, by the way, I would recommend a creative modern telling of the story, the 2007 film Moliere. The film imagines the playwright living a fictional scenario that resembles his famous play. He poses as a priest named Tartuffe and the events that follow inspire him to write a new kind of comedy.

3. The Government Inspector-Nikolai Gogol (1836)

41DA13ELubL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this play, corrupt officials in a provincial Russian town start to panic when they hear a government inspector is to arrive and report on their behavior. As they rush to cover up their mis-deeds, they learn that a stranger has recently arrived in town and assume that this is the dreaded inspector. The supposed inspector is actually a civil servant named Khlestakov. Initially he does not know why he is being invited to important people’s homes, being offered food, drinks and bribes and even the daughter of the mayor’s hand in marriage. The play ends when Khlestakov’s real identity is exposed and a letter arrives from the real inspector general, who wants a meeting with the mayor.

4. A Tale of Two Cities- Charles Dickens (1859)

brucetale-1r0q6v2If you know nothing else about Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, you probably know two lines, its opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Rarely has mistaken identity been so noble. Charles Daray is a good-natured aristocrat. He bears a striking physical resemblance to a barrister named Sydney Carton whose life has not amounted to much. Carton suffers from un-requited love for Darnay’s wife Lucie. It is the time of the French revolution, and as an aristocrat, Darnay is in danger. Lucie’s devoted pursuit of him puts her and her father at risk as well. Carton decides that the only way to save Lucie is to sacrifice himself and allow Darnay to marry her with a new identity. Carton visits Darnay in prison, drugs him and has an accomplice carry him out of prison so Carton can take his place at the guillotine.  The words spoken by Carton as he goes to his death (quoted above) are some of the most famous in literature.

5. The Prince and the Pauper- Mark Twain (1881)

220px-PrinceAndThePauperTom Canty lives as a beggar in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. He is beaten by his father if he does not come back with enough money. He escapes from this hard life by daydreams about the aristocracy. One day Tom wanders over to Westminster and spots Edward Tudor playing on the other side of the fence. When a soldier roughly pulls Tom away, Edward sees it and rebukes the soldier. He invites Tom into the palace. Each envies the life of the other. Tom would like to live a life of comfort and luxury, Edward would like to live a life unconstrained by upper-class social convention. They play dress up in each other’s clothes. A guard, mistaking Edward for the beggar, throws him out and the prince and the pauper change position. After a series of adventures with Tom learning to behave as someone of royal birth and Edward trying to convince the outside world that he is a prince and not a pauper, the tale ends happily. Just as Tom is about to be crowned king, Edward steps forward and Tom, feeling guilty for his charade, confirms his identity. Tom is made the “King’s Ward” and Edward, because he has had the experience of poverty, grows into a just ruler.

6. Cyrano De Bergerac-Edmond Rostand (1897)

Cyrano-De-Bergerac-09-12Rostand’s 1897 play was written in verse. It was loosely based on a real person, but the love story it recounts is fiction. Cyrano is a gifted soldier with a keen wit an great charisma. He also has a huge nose. He worships the lovely Roxanne from afar certain she would reject someone with such a face. Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian. Christian has a beautiful face, but he is lacking in verbal wit. Cyrano agrees to write letters to Roxanne on his behalf. The beautiful letters express Cyrano’s own love and they work. Roxanne falls in love– with Christian. When Steve Martin adapted this as a film comedy, he gave it a happy ending. Roxanne discovers the secret and realizes she was in love with Cyrano, not Christian all along. In the original, Roxanne only discovers the truth about the letters when Cyrano has been mortally wounded, and he denies having written them to his death.

7. The Importance of Being Earnest- Oscar Wilde (1895)

theimportanceofbeingearnestThe Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled “A trivial comedy for serious people,” contains a rare double dip of mistaken identity when Jack, who has been posing as someone named Earnest for years discovers his real name actually was Earnest and therefore his pose has been a pose. Jack (or is it Ernest?) apologizes for this turn of events by saying, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”

8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz-L.Frank Baum (1900)

Dorothy and her friends, the cowardly lion, the scarecrow and tin man, go on a long adventure to find a magical wizard who they are told has the power to grant all of their wishes. After getting on the wrong side of a wicked witch, battling wolves, crows sent to peck their eyes out and winged monkeys, they finally get an audience with the man himself only to discover that he is not a wizard at all but a guy from Nebraska who was blown off course in a hot air balloon. The ersatz wizard’s real name, incidentally, is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. He doesn’t want to play the role of the Great and Powerful Oz any more. He just wants to go home to Nebraska and work in a circus. The moral of the story is not to put faith in powerful authority figures, but to trust that you have the power to make your own dreams come true. It is a thoroughly American tale. 

9. Pygmalion-George Barnard Shaw (1913)

Cover-play1913Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can take a poor London flower girl, Eliza Doolitte, and pass her off as a society lady by teaching her proper diction and manners. Eliza successfully pulls off the act, passing as a swell at a garden party. But she is left wondering what is to become of her now that she does not entirely fit in with either class. The play was a commentary on the rigid British class system of the time. It was adapted into the musical play and film My Fair Lady.

10. Superman-Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (1938)

action_comics_222_by_superman8193-d4gcfhzThere are many more traditionally literary examples I could have included. In the 1930s no one yet thought to call a comic book a graphic novel. But the popular masked characters of the era represent, I believe, a cultural transition in our depiction of the hero from someone whose good deeds remain unrewarded and unknown (as in A Tale of Two Cities and Cyrano De Bergerac) to the modern hero who saves the world and is celebrated for it. In between we had, in the early 20th Century, the emergence of the masked hero who preformed good deeds using a secret identity. This allowed him to be both celebrated and anonymous. There was no greater example of this than Clark Kent/Superman.

Do you have a favorite literary example of mistaken identity? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves

In one of his trials for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was asked to comment on a phrase he had written in an Oxford publication edited by his friend Lord Alfred Douglas.

“If one tells the truth one is sure sooner or later to be found out.”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I think that is a very pleasing paradox, but I don’t set any high store on that as an axiom.”

This drew a laugh from the crowd.

I think of this when I reflect on the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad, written after Wilde’s release from the jail, vividly recalled the execution by hanging of a fellow prisoner who had been convicted of murdering his wife. In the poem Wilde reflects upon the nature of guilt and innocence. The difference between the free and the prisoner, the prisoner and the condemned are matters of degree not of character. Each man is capable, under the right circumstances, of the same crime.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

The most famous stanza of the poem is this one:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The line was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reversed in typical Wildean fashion. In the play, Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?”  “Each man kills the thing he loves” is beautiful and affecting as poetry, but I am not sure I set any high store on it as an axiom. There are contexts, certainly, in which it is true, but I do not think it to be a general truism about the nature of love.

It was, however, all too true of Wilde’s life. No one who loved him emerged unscathed, just as he had been damaged by the one he most loved. It all began when a young man fell in love. His outraged father did everything in his power to stop what he saw as the unnatural and deviant influence of Wilde over him.

Years later that young man, Lord Alfred Douglas would remember his role in in Wilde’s imprisonment as “the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend.”

The ballad was written during a brief post-prison period when Wilde and Douglas were sharing a house in Naples. The reunion had infuriated the friends and families of both men. It definitively ended any hope that Wilde would reunite with his wife, Constance, who had seen her family and her way of life torn apart by the trials.

By his own account, Douglas repeatedly asked Wilde what “each man kills the thing he loves” meant. The line cut both ways, and Douglas must have been trying to figure out whether Wilde regretted the damage he had done to his young love or the damage that his young love had done to him.

Wilde’s reply was “you ought to know.”

ConstancelloydAlthough Constance was deeply wounded by her husband’s return to the infamous aristocrat, she loved The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“[Oscar] says that he loved too much and that that is better than hate!” she wrote to a friend.  “This is true abstractedly, but his was an unnatural love, a madness that I think is worse than hate. I have no hatred for him, but I confess that I am afraid of him.”

A few days later she wrote to the same friend and asked “… Have you see Arthur Symons’ review of the Ballad in the last Saturday Review? I think it I excellent and the best that has appeared and I would like to know what you think of it when you have seen it.”

Franny Moyle, who wrote the biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, found this a bit contradictory. “Quite why Constance continued to show pride in her husband’s work, in spite of his condemnation of her, and quite why she continued to provide for him are difficult questions,” Moyle wrote.

I doesn’t seem mysterious at all to me. “Each man kills the thing he loves.”  It was as closest thing to a confession and an apology as she was to receive after her husband reunited with Douglas. She died in April, 1898.  Wilde died two years later.

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

There was still a tragic third act to come. After Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends would spend years locked in furious conflict. Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, was also his former lover, perhaps his first male lover. Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde makes the case that Wilde already had some experience in this arena, but Wilde certainly led Ross to believe he was the first whether it was true or not. (Wilde was always less concerned with the veracity of a story than the effect it had on its listener.)  In any case, it was Ross who introduced Wilde to London’s underground world of men who loved men. When Alfred Douglas entered the picture, he and Ross became fairly good friends. (McKenna even suggests that Douglas and Ross may have been lovers.)

Years after Wilde’s death, Ross and Douglas would do battle over Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis. The drama is too long to recount here in detail, but if you want the whole story I recommend Caspar Wintermans’ Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work. The short version is that Douglas had been unaware that the personal parts of Wilde’s letter to him existed until they were provided to a biographer by Ross and later used in a court case defending the biography against Douglas’s libel suit. Ross donated the manuscript to the British Museum to be published after Douglas’s death. Douglas wanted to write his own answer to the letter, but Ross, as Wilde’s executor, would not allow Douglas to publish quotes from it. Douglas felt that as the letter was addressed to him, he was legally and morally its owner. The letter, written when Wilde was in great turmoil in prison and with the mistaken belief that Douglas had abandoned him, painted an unflattering portrait.

Reading the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, it becomes clear that Wilde often created edited versions of his persona for different friends. In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in Lord Alfred Douglas to Ross. It is understandable that he would do this. Ross was not only Wilde’s sometime lover (McKenna believes they renewed their sexual relationship after Wilde’s release and before Douglas came back into the picture) but also the liaison between the playwright and his estranged family and the man who controlled Wilde’s finances.

Ross truly believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer in the relationship with Wilde, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him. Douglas knew what Ross could not: That after his release from prison, as Wilde was writing to Ross saying that Douglas’s persistent letters“terrified” him, Wilde was actually encouraging Douglas, making plans for a reunion and could not resist writing to him every single day. Ross believed the De Profundis account with few reservations. Wilde had never given him any cause not to.

Lord Alfred Douglas was self-centered enough to believe that anyone who did anything that affected him negatively had done it to him. We should not make the same mistake. Although Robert Ross’s actions with regards to De Profundis were quite unfair to Douglas, it is wrong to assume that this was his intent. Those sympathetic to Douglas tend to paint Ross as driven by romantic jealousy, and the battle that would erupt between the two men is presented as a fight over possession of Oscar Wilde’s ghost.

If Ross harbored bitter jealousy towards Douglas, there is little evidence of it. The two friends occasionally quarreled–friends of Douglas inevitably did– but none of the arguments leading up to his revealing of De Profundis to biographers was enough to make Ross want to destroy his former friend or start a war with him. What was really at stake for Ross was not posthumous ownership of Oscar Wilde, it was absolution. Ross believed he had been the one who introduced Wilde to homosexual practices. Although Ross did not share Wilde’s attraction to danger and “rough trade,” it may have been Ross who introduced Wilde to Maruice Schwabe, who in turn introduced Wilde to the panderer Alfred Taylor, which was the ultimate cause of Wilde’s imprisonment. (Contrary to popular belief, he was not actually jailed for his relationship with Douglas.) Ross feared that he had sent Wilde down the path to his ruin. Ross told Wilde’s biographer Christopher Millard that the reason he was so driven to restore Wilde’s literary reputation and to help his family was because he felt responsible for what had happened.

According to letters he wrote to friends and family at the time, Douglas, too, felt guilt and remorse over his role in Wilde’s downfall. He had been assured by Wilde’s own letters, however, that the playwright did not blame him but “the unjust gods alone.”

Ross had his own comforting document– De Profundis. There was the proof that Wilde did not blame Ross for leading him down that path. Ross was not culpable– it was Bosie who ruined Wilde. Ross needed to make this known, not because he hated Bosie, but because it was the only version of the narrative that allowed him to remain entirely innocent of Wilde’s downfall. The battle that was to follow between Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was not a fight between jealous romantic rivals. It was a fight over who history would blame for the tragic loss. Which one of them had killed the thing he loved?

Douglas may have won his battle–he defeated Ross in the legal arena–but Ross was the clear winner of the war. The term “faithful friend” is applied to him so consistently it is as if it were his official title. The 1997 film Wilde depicts Ross as Wilde’s good angel to Bosie’s bad angel. Wilde is depicted as having no interest in London’s rough underbelly until Bosie introduces him to Alfred Taylor. Wilde goes along reluctantly, to please Bosie. Real history was much more messy. There is no hint in the movie that Wilde had always been so attracted to the seedy side of life that he had snuck out on his own honeymoon to tour the red light district. The audience would never suspect that Ross himself (along with Bosie) was involved in a scandal only shortly before the trials which, had it not been covered up, could have ruined Wilde just as surely and completely.

Ross, who was not in the best of health, could not stand up to the stress of Bosie’s lawsuits and harassment. Most people believe that he was essentially hounded to death by Douglas. Douglas spent most of his middle years in an unsuccessful quest to reclaim the narrative through a series of lawsuits. His mental health eroded and he succeeded mostly in alienating friends and making new enemies.

Each man kills the thing he loves may not be a general truism. But it was certainly true of the life of Oscar Wilde.