Lord Alfred Douglas

Bosie the Birthday Boy

The_Age_Sat__Oct_15__1938_2It’s October 22, and being the anniversary of Lord Alfred Douglas’s birth, it is the traditional time to post about his awfulness.  “Evil queen” and “a dick” are a couple of the memorials that flashed through my twitter feed today.

I usually try to find a little something of interest to share on the day. (Last year it was an obscure interview Douglas did about Oscar Wilde for a French journal.)

In 1938, around the time of Douglas’s birthday, The Age, published an article on the old poet’s self regard. Here are a couple of excerpts.

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Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?

 

 

Bosie: The Case for the Defense

On February 26, the Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum hosted a theatrical event, “The Trial of Lord Alfred Douglas,” the mock trial staged at the Oscar Wilde Temple, to determine whether Douglas was guilty of the physical and artistic murder of Oscar Wilde. The case for the prosecution was handled author and activist Peter Scott-Presland, who argued that Bosie was a horrible little reckless rat and but for him Wilde would have lived to be 95, would have written things far greater than he did in his life and would have a statue on horseback. (That is my paraphrase.) Counsel for the defense Andrew Lumsden, a member of the Gay Liberation Front argued that Bosie was a gay rights pioneer and that England, not he, was guilty of Wilde’s murder. Listening I had something of the sense of what would happen if you set Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” up against Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” and the two books started to argue with each other.

The event was recorded, so you can listen for yourself and play your own part as a juror.

 

I don’t find myself in sympathy with either of these arguments. If you will indulge me, le me play the part of the defense for a moment:

As fun as it is to argue over whether Lord Alfred Douglas was a reckless little rat or admirable in his boldness for the cause of gay rights, it’s not actually all that relevant to the question of whether he is guilty of Wilde’s downfall. The question before the jury is whether Douglas knew or should have known that his actions would likely lead to Wilde’s downfall and early death.

To ask would Wilde have suffered an early death but for Douglas is to ask whether the outcome was inevitable. Looking back it sure seems that way. Looking forward, as they were, there were many possible paths.

For many reasons Wilde’s case was a-typical. Because of this, all of Wilde’s friends’ experience worked against them. As the prosecution points out, the circle of activists surrounding Wilde (Douglas was not the only champion of “the cause”) did know of the fallen martyrs, the people who were sent to jail. They also knew of many, many men who had their cases brushed under the rug because they were too publicly embarrassing. Or who paid the blackmail to the right renters and solicitors to make things go away. There were even cases of people they knew to be homosexual who sued over the libel of being called homosexual and won. It was perfectly reasonable to believe Wilde was going to win his libel suit or after that to win his criminal trials.

If we are to decide whether or not Wilde would have gone to prison but for Douglas, do we not need to also have trials for all the other “but fors” that had to line up just right to produce this historical outcome?

Douglas did urge Wilde to press on with his libel suit, and of course he had special influence, but he was not alone in this. Until years after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to talk about Wilde being urged on by his friends in the plural. None of these friends pushed him in that direction because they wanted Wilde dead, or didn’t care if he was destroyed. They believed he would triumph. Until the second day of Wilde’s libel trial, when things took a shocking turn for the worse, the press largely agreed. If there was that much public sentiment that the case would be ruinous–for Queensberry– can we expect Douglas or anyone else to be certain they were wrong?

 

 

A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.

Robert Ross Celebration Dinner

On May 24, the Oscar Wilde Society is holding a dinner to celebrate Robert Ross‘s 150th birthday. (The sound you just heard was Lord Alfred Douglas screaming in his grave.)

I happen to have recently come across a report originally printed the Boston Transcript on the first celebratory dinner in recognition of Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate.  (These excerpts are actually from the Nebraska State Journal, which on January 14, 1909, printed the wire piece.)

The 1909 dinner celebrating Ross was the spark that finally exploded the friendship between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. When we see such a bitter feud, we instinctively look for a profound cause. Often, in life, a small thing is enough. In this case, it was Douglas’s ungraciousness when Ross finally achieved his goal of putting out Wilde’s complete works and paying off his bankruptcy.

Douglas was frustrated that Robert Ross was increasingly celebrated for his friendship with Wilde, while he was still viewed as a scandalous figure for his own friendship with him. Douglas had always been proud of how he stood by Wilde, and he was jealous at how people were now talking about Ross as if he was Wilde’s only true friend. (This seems to have been mutual. It always rubbed Ross the wrong way when Douglas claimed to be Wilde’s truest friend.) He was frustrated that Ross was able to remain respectable in society while maintaining the type of secret life that Douglas had renounced and gotten no credit for. The celebratory dinner brought out all of these unpleasant emotions. Douglas became peevish and unpleasant.

He publicly criticized Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate in his literary journal The Academy. Ross might have been able to put up with that, but Douglas’s decision not to attend the celebratory dinner at all (and to grumble to mutual friends about it) was the final straw.  Knowing this context, you can read between the lines and see that the slight was still bothering Ross on his big night.

It was the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful evening. There were about 200 luminaries in attendance.

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Ross gave a gracious speech full of self-depreciating humor.

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The friend that Ross is about to mention in this next passage is undoubtedly Lord Alfred Douglas.

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After a brief discussion of the work he did, and making it clear that he did not pay off Wilde’s debts from his own pocket (and a long defense of German art and culture) he went on to clarify that he was not the only person who had stood by Wilde in his hour of need. A perceptive and prophetic line here is “…it is only an accident which made me the symbol of their friendship…”

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Finally, the Boston Transcript reporter spoke to Ross after the event.

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Oscar and Bosie’s Sex Life

PhotoFunia-1553098252Let’s talk about sex, baby…

Oscar Wilde never spoke publicly about the nature of his physical relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas– except to deny in court that one existed. Therefore the only account we have comes from Bosie. For want of any other information, biographers have generally accepted his version of things.

Bosie’s story is that Oscar pursued him, and after a long, ardent seduction, Bosie finally gave in to him but never really liked sex with him. The sex, he says, did not consist of much anyway– certainly not anything that would amount to sodomy. After a short time they stopped and never continued after Wilde got out of prison. What interests me is that this story has been largely accepted even among people who are inclined to view Douglas as a liar.

I don’t know if Bosie’s story is true, and neither does anyone else. In Oscar’s Ghost, I explain how Bosie’s account of his sex life with Wilde corresponds to a Platonic ideal of love that was current at the time. The ideal love that Wilde described was between an older man and a younger. (In an era of strict gender roles, all relationships were expected to be asymmetrical, with a strong man in the role of protector.) The older man would act as a mentor to the younger. The younger was expected to have little sexual interest in the older and if the relationship truly blossomed it transcended its sexual beginning and led to a creative partnership and “pregnancy of the soul.” This ideal is exactly what Bosie described and it would, in those terms, be an ideal love story. Maybe that alone is a reason to take it with a grain of salt.

To our way of thinking, a sexless relationship is a loveless one. I’ve been wondering lately how this story about Oscar and Bosie’s sex life might affect how we as modern readers feel about their relationship and what other assumptions it might lead to.

In Richard Ellmann’s biography (the source material for the movie Wilde, where most people with casual interest probably get their information on the Wilde/Douglas relationship) the fact that Douglas was lukewarm about sex with Oscar is used to bolster the premise that Douglas was only attracted to Wilde for his money and fame.

Was Bosie lying about the nature of his relationship with Wilde? It is certainly possible. He had a great deal of incentive to do so. Gay men of the era could be counted upon to lie about their sex lives when they became public knowledge. Bosie initially tried to claim that nothing of the sort had happened between him and Oscar. No one believed him. After Frank Harris persuaded him that no one would listen to anything he said until he came clean, he told the story that is generally accepted today. Yes, there were “familiarities” but very little of that, and not for long. There is no one who can prove anything different.

In recent years a number of depositions taken for Wilde’s trials and not used in court came to light. One of the interesting tid bits was the testimony of a housekeeper who found a letter from Douglas to Wilde in which Bosie signed off “your darling boy to do whatever you like with.” Maybe Bosie wasn’t quite as ambivalent about sex with Wilde as he would have people believe.

In De Profundis, Wilde remembers how Bosie’s cheeks would flush “with wine or pleasure,” which implies that Wilde had a certain, fond familiarity with how Bosie looked on occasions in which he was experiencing the kind of pleasure that gets the blood pumping.

We never really know what goes on with anyone behind closed doors. In the long run it isn’t very important. But it is an interesting exercise to think about how our feelings about that relationship might shift if we imagine them as having a full active sex life.

Thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Christmas 1895: An Outtake from Oscar’s Ghost

I was looking back through some of the material that was cut from the final version of Oscar’s Ghost and discovered this timely fragment: a look back at Christmas 1895, the first Christmas that Oscar Wilde was in jail.

The Douglas family Christmas in 1895 was not a shining example of peace on earth, goodwill to men. Bosie’s gift to his father was a copy of a poem he had written about him the previous year and published anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was called “A Ballad of Hate” and began:

Here’s short life t the man I hate!
(Never a shroud or a coffin board)
Wait and watch and watch and wait
He shall pay the half and the whole
Now or then or soon or late
(Steel or lead or hempen cord
And the devil take his soul!)

The cover letter said “I hated you then I hate you a thousand times more now & will be even with you some day wishing you every curse & misery & speedy death with eternal damnation.”

Queensberry made a copy of the poem, scribbled his own comments on it and sent it not to Bosie but to [his brother] Percy. His letter promised that if Bosie came back to England he would “instantly get him put under restraint this last letter will be quite sufficient to get this done as I have already shown it to a doctor anyone will see it is the letter of a lunatic.”