“The average woman is far braver than the average man. The common kind of courage-that of the soldier who disregards the danger of death-belongs to the majority of men in the last resort. I mean that if it has to be exercised they exercise it without making a fuss about it. But when you come to moral courage it hardly exists at all among men. There is only one man in ten thousand who will brave the full violence of public opinion. Women, on the other hand, will often do it, if they are in love or to defend their children… The bravest men are those who have a good deal of woman about them.”― Lord Alfred Douglas
My great-grandmother was known in family circles as “St. Clara.” She was canonized in family lore for a long life married to a difficult husband. He was a frustrated actor, whose (childless) sister had become a vaudeville star, while he worked as an advertising salesman who got people to buy him drinks for recitations he performed in bars. The whispers are that he was alcoholic, he had a violent temper and he ended his life in the Eloise mental hospital. He did, however, possess a charm and charisma that even his children, who all seem to have had difficult relationships with him, admired. My grandmother, a radio actress, memorized some of his recitations and recorded them in order to preserve them.
One of the things that interests me in the story of Oscar Wilde and his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas is the very different way people often talk about a romantic relationship between two men and a relationship between a man and a woman. I’ve written a number of articles on the subject here.
One of my most popular posts here is the article I wrote on Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and its refrain “Each man kills the thing he loves.” The article talked about the effect of Wilde’s incarceration on some of the people in his life, including his wife Constance. I was somewhat surprised to find one day among the comments a post from someone who was mildly critical of Oscar’s wife for not standing by him. In fact, Constance was more loyal to Oscar than I think anyone could have the right to expect. After all, he was a serial adulterer with male prostitutes and others, and his actions tore the family apart, sent him to jail, and caused the family to lose all of their possessions. When he was released from jail she continued to support him financially, and was considering reuniting with him. He was of the opinion that she should continue to give him an allowance so he could live with his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas. This is what put an end to any talk of reunion. She did, however, continue to take an interest in his work and to support him financially until she died.
The idea that anyone could fault Constance Wilde for not supporting her husband enough points to a great difference in our expectations of women and men in relationships. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that women had more courage than men because wives and mothers routinely stood by difficult or bad men no matter what society thought of them, whereas men usually did not. Part of this can be chalked up to how society views the woman who stands by her jailed or difficult husband or son. It is considered noble and good for her to do so, and she is rarely painted with the same brush. Stories of long-suffering wives of difficult artist husbands are legion and they are spoken of (when they are acknowledged) with some admiration.
Douglas had quite a different experience. The thing he was proudest of in his life was how he had stood by Oscar Wilde and so when he read himself in Arthur Ransome’s Critical Study of Oscar Wilde as a young man who had used the playwright and abandoned him when the money ran out he sued for libel. He was prepared to prove that he had not abandoned Wilde at all, in fact he had given him a home and shared expenses with him. What he had not been counting on was that the court would not concern itself with the real matter of the case– whether he’d abandoned Wilde– but with the question of whether he was homosexual himself. All of his evidence of devotion and loyalty was turned against him.
Many years later, Douglas would write that Justice Darling “literally trembled with outraged propriety when I admitted I had invited Wilde to my villa at Naples. ‘How could you?’ he said, ‘How could you, knowing what he was?’ This, be it observed, although the case of my opponents was precisely that I had ‘abandoned’ Wilde and was responsible for his ruin. One would have thought that even Mr. Justice Darling would have reflected that he could hardly have it both ways. You cannot logically at one and the same time accuse a man of ‘abandoning’ his friend and of receiving him as a guest in his villa!”
Today we take a different view of Douglas’s desire to live with Wilde, but there are still gender differences at play. The expectation of Constance Wilde is that she fulfills the role of wife by sticking with the difficult artist no matter what the circumstances. Douglas was brave in these terms. While Wilde was in jail Douglas had little thought for his own safety. Yet he could not be accepted on the same terms as a wife in his society. When he tried to make the claim that he was Wilde’s other person it was greeted as sickening or humorous by the culture at large. I believe many of his actions while Wilde was in prison would have been interpreted much more sympathetically had he been a young woman rather than a young man.
More interesting to me is the question of how Oscar Wilde’s tempestuous relationship with Alfred Douglas is viewed. Where Constance is admired for staying with a difficult husband who so often put his own needs and desires above hers, Wilde is not admired for staying with the difficult Alfred Douglas. If it was admirable for Constance to remain loyal to her husband as he spent all their money on lavish meals, gifts for rent boys, hotels and entertainment, it should be as admirable for Wilde to remain loyal to Douglas as he was reckless and emotionally volatile. Yet I have rarely heard the relationship described in those terms.
It may be, as Lord Alfred Douglas said, that women are braver than men because they will face the violence of public opinion. On the other hand, it can also be said that women do not need to brave the violence of public opinion because we are expected to make the difficult choice to support a man with all of his faults.