Lord Alfred Douglas

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.”


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Oscar’s “Mistake”

06I was reading an interview with Rupert Everett about his film “The Happy Prince.”

“Wilde was a contrary character, and made many bad decisions: keeping in contact with Bosie after his release from jail was one of them, Everett says.”

Wilde’s reunion with Lord Alfred Douglas was not well-received. It drew attention to the fact that Wilde had not been cured of his unnatural attractions by prison. It ran the risk of re-igniting Queensberry’s vendetta. Society would never accept Wilde with Douglas, and the choice likely meant turning his back on social rehabilitation.

It was certainly a risk, but what do we mean when we say it was the wrong decision? Does this mean that we believe the best decision would have been for Wilde to give up living with the partner of his choice and renounce his sexuality in order to better fit in? In modern terms, to live a closeted life? Would that have been the good decision? Would it even have been possible?

Whether Douglas was part of his life or not, Wilde could never go back to balancing family with a secret homosexual life. He was too famous. Having been exposed, he was now forced to chose one life or the other. He might have had more people on his side, but would he have been happier and more artistically inspired had he chosen respectability?

In 1905, Lord Alfred Douglas (writing as A) explained how he saw Wilde’s post-prison creative slump:

Wilde's Last Years

If he is right about this: that Wilde reflected life and his life in Paris was not worth reflecting, would the alternative life we imagine for him have been more worthy of relfection? Would the smart society women who had once served as his sounding board have invited him back into their salons if not for Bosie? It’s doubtful.

The most tragic and wrenching aspect of choosing an outcast’s life was that it meant Wilde never saw his sons again. For this reason alone we might say that Wilde made a terrible choice. Yet we don’t know how it would have gone if Wilde had renounced his disreputable life. Would he have been allowed to have a relationship with his sons? This was the road not taken. When a historical choice leads to a poor outcome, we tend to assume that another course would have ended well.  Yet we can never know if this is true. Deciding never to speak to Bosie again could have led to a happy ending or another tragic one.

Wilde and his wife might have met and come to a happy agreement that included regular visits with his sons. On the other hand, Wilde tended to resent it when his wife made demands of him. Would he have balked under her conditions? Would she have faced too much pressure from her friends to allow that to happen? Constance Wilde did not have long to live after her husband was released from jail. It is unlikely there would have been enough time for a full reconciliation. So even if she were in favor of her husband having a relationship with the children, after her death it would have fallen to the guardians to make that decision. They were adamant that the boys should not have any relationship with or knowledge of their father. They went so far as to turn down royalties from his work to avoid any connection. It seems likely that whether Wilde reunited with Douglas or not, he would not have been able to be in his son’s lives after the scandal.

How might the story have gone? Oscar Wilde in order to protect Bosie and to avoid being separated from him, goes into jail vowing to test the bounds of love. He loses everything he values. In the horrible conditions of prison, he turns against his former love. He comes out of jail and never contacts Bosie again. He meets with his wife and she agrees, with some reservations, to allow her husband to see his sons again, but she dies before he has the opportunity and the guardians will not allow it. He renounces his indiscretions and starts to enjoy a few invitations back into society, but he is largely seen as a debauched and dangerous figure. He never regained his status before the ear infection that had gone untreated in prison killed him.

Oscar Wilde knew better than anyone just what a steep climb it would be to regain any semblance of his former life. Of course he was conflicted. To abandon any hope of returning to his old life, and to jettison his family along with it, was a frightening and wrenching prospect.

Did he want to make the herculean effort to win the conditional acceptance of a society that despised him? In time he might have regained some of his favor, but how much? Or should he cast his lot with the marginal people (and a few other courageous souls) who were willing to stand by him even in shame?

In the end, he chose not to try to go back to a life irretrievably ruined, but to go forward to something new and more authentic: as we would call it now, the life of an openly gay man. He would stay on the continent where (people often forget) homosexuality was looked down upon, but was not a crime. He would live out his days with the person he loved (with all of the difficulties that came with it). He would be an artist– maybe a better one, drawing inspiration from darkness as well as light.

“Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer…At the end of a month, when the June roses are in all their wanton opulence, I will, if I feel able, arrange through Robbie to meet you in some quiet foreign town,” Wilde wrote to Douglas from prison. “I hope that our meeting will be what a meeting between you and me should be, after everything that has occurred. In the old days there was always a wide chasm between us, the chasm of achieved art and acquired culture; there is a still wider chasm between us now, a chasm of sorrow; but to humility there is nothing impossible, and to love all things are easy…Remember also that I have yet to know you. Perhaps we have yet to know each other…And incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may still have much to gain. You came to me to learn the pleasure of life and the pleasure of art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful– the meaning of sorrow and its beauty.”

Was it a tragic mistake to reunite with Douglas or was it, as Nicholas Frankel argues, an act of defiant “unrepentance”? I think it was something much simpler. They wanted to be together. They’d chosen each other, and they were brave, foolish or besotted enough to risk society’s disapproval. It didn’t work out. To paraphrase John Mellencamp, they fought authority, authority always won. That doesn’t mean it was wrong to try.

 

 

 

 

Lord Alfred Douglas on De Profundis

From The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas:

All I can say with certainty is that on one occasion after I met Oscar again, after his release from prison, I reproached him about something or other in the course of a discussion we had, and he said words to the following effect: “Surely you are not bringing up against me what I wrote in prison when I was starving and half mad. You must know that I didn’t really mean a word of what I said.” It immediately, and naturally occurred to me that he was referring to this letter of Ross’s which was supposed to have contained extracts of things he had said or written against me in prison, and I replied to the effect that I had really not done more than glance at the letter, and that as soon as I saw what it was about I tore it in pieces and threw the pieces away and determined to put the letter out of my mind.

…Between the time when he wrote these [effusive love] letters… and the time when he wrote the De Profundis letter nothing whatever had happened between us. He went into prison vowing eternal devotion to me, and imploring me in the most pathetic and heartbreaking terms not to desert him, but to stick to him and wait for him till he came out (all of which and much more I faithfully did), and within a year he was writing this frightful farrago of abuse and vilification.

…I think it is quite possible…that when he made friends with me again… he put the thing out of his mind and thought no ore about it. As it contained what he no doubt regarded as a lot of fine writing, an author’s vanity would have prevented him from irrevocably destroying it, and he may have had a vague intention of rewriting or revising it… In view of all these facts, and the utter unreliability as witness of both Ross and Wilde himself, I do not see how it is possible that the real truth as to the De Profundis business can ever be known this side of the Day of Judgement. All I can say is that it is permissible to hope and believe that Wilde did not ultimately intend that his frantic abuse, and his ignoble laments..should be published after my death. it is even possible to take it for granted that as soon as he made friends with me again he was heartily ashamed of what he had written…

…How then can I pretend to feel gratitude to him for what he did? All I can truly say is that I was at one time absolutely devoted to him, as he undoubtedly was to me, and that in those days my greatest pleasure was to be with him. He had delightful gifts as a talker and as a friend. He was (before prison had smashed him and demoralized him) most kind and hospitable, and generally sweet-tempered. The appalling bad taste of his references in the unpublished part of De Profundis to the money he spent on entertaining the darling of his heart and soul would have been utterly impossible to the old Oscar Wilde as I first knew him…

He did succeed in weaving spells. One sat and listened to him enthralled. It all appeared to be Wisdom and Power and Beauty and Enchantment. It was indeed enchantment and nothing else. But a man who has broken loose from a spell cannot look back on the enchantment again and recapture the illusion of the shattered spell. He can only, as I do, remember that it was so, and wonder, and perhaps shudder a little.

“Goading a Man to His Doom”

“There is all the difference in the world between ‘goading a man to his doom’ and advising him to bring an action for libel.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

“This is a story about stories,” begins Oscar’s Ghost. The book is, on its surface, an account of a great literary feud. More significantly, it is the story of how a certain understanding of the life of Oscar Wilde became orthodoxy. Today I was reading a review of Nicholas Frankel’s Oscar Wilde: The Unprepentant Years by John Banville, writing in The Financial Review:

The first of the “two disastrous and fateful actions” that Bosie took was to persuade Wilde to institute a libel case against his father…Wilde, in defiance of the advice of many of his friends, went ahead and instituted proceedings for libel, which, as we know, proved a horrible miscalculation, and led to his being charged with acts of gross indecency and sent to jail.

Bosie was to blame. Not even Queensberry is as consistently labeled as causing Wilde’s downfall. Wilde is certainly not.

As it has been immortalized in the grossly unfair but still amusing “Lord Alfred Douglas, Dirtbag” in The Toast:

what are you doing like right now
I’m trying to finish The Importance of Being Earnest
okay well
stop doing that and sue my dad
what?
you should sue my dad
why would I do that?
he’s been telling everyone you’re gay
I am gay
well but he’s being really shitty about it
everyone’s shitty about it
okay
fine
well then just sue him because he sucks and I hate him
that doesn’t seem like much of a basis for a legal case
oh my god
are you going to sue him or not
all I want is a boyfriend who will sue my dad

The quote at the top of this article is from Douglas’s correspondence with the writer and lawyer Elmer Gertz. Douglas was frustrated by the increasingly commonplace the story that he, and he alone, pushed Oscar to his doom. He did not think this was fair for a number of reasons. One was that Oscar was a man with a strong will and was 16 years older than him. Surely he could make his own decisions? It also frustrated him because Robert Ross had given the same advice and had even taken him to his solicitor. “Why am I always the one who is blamed?” he whined.

One of the things that I discovered in researching my book was that there were two common ways of thinking about the case early on that have all but disappeared from view. One was that there was a feeling among the members of the Wilde circle that Oscar was going to win. And, in fact, on the first day of the trial the newspapers were largely on Wilde’s side. The knowledge that it would be disastrous is only available to us with 20/20 hindsight.

For the first decade after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to blame Wilde’s friends in the plural. A number of people, including Frank Harris, who wrote one of his first biographies, believed that it was all of the hangers-on who were to blame and this, not incidentally, included Robert Ross.

Wilde’s fame (and Queensberry’s tenacity) were such that Wilde’s case would be anything but usual. Everyone’s experience of how these things normally played out worked against them. Had any of a series of particular circumstances failed to line up just as they did, things might have ended entirely differently.

One of the main threads in Oscar’s Ghost is the story of how a complex, confusing and messy set of circumstances evolved– with some help from Wilde’s literary executor– into the story we all now know: that everyone but the reckless Bosie could see that Wilde was heading towards his doom. (“I was doomed from the start. Why does one run towards ruin?” begins the U.S. trailer for The Happy Prince.)

Bosie did urge Oscar to fight his father. He was also guilty of the crime of being unable to see the future. He was not the only one.

Biography and the Art of Interpretation

Lives don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Lives are made up of events, some connected, some random. Some possibilities are explored, some are averted. It is only in retrospect that a person can go back and make a story out of those events. This necessarily involves interpretation.

I was reading Matthew Sturgis’ “Oscar: A Life” today and I came across an interesting example. A single observation in a letter written by Robert Ross in Sturgis’s book is presented with an almost opposite meaning as it is in my own. The quote is from the period shortly after Wilde and Douglas were forced to give up living together in Naples after Wilde’s release from prison. Here is how it appears in Sturgis:

But the all-consuming intimacy of the past was not recovered. And without the distorting lens of love, Bosie’s selfishness became all too apparent. As Ross reported to Smithers, after a visit to Paris, Douglas ‘is less interested in other people than ever before, especially Oscar, so I really think that alliance will die a natural death’.

The fact that Douglas is said to be less interested in other people, especially Oscar, here is evidence of Douglas’s selfishness. I saw it, instead, as evidence that Douglas became depressed after being forced to separate from Oscar Wilde. After having weathered so much to be together, both suffered from depression when that period of their relationship came to an end. (Oscar Wilde told a friend he considered suicide at that time.) Clinical depression manifests in a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed. Depressed people often withdraw from social interaction. For a number of reasons, which I spell out in the book, I suspect that Lord Alfred Douglas suffered from mental illness and so “losing interest in other people” immediately appeared to me as a symptom of depression. You can follow my reasoning in the book and decide for yourself.

The reason I wanted to write about this quote is that I think it serves as an excellent example of the way a bit of biographical material is put into context, and the many layers of interpretation that go into understanding one line. There are many things a historian must decide. Is Robert Ross’s report accurate? Had Douglas indeed “lost interest in other people, especially Oscar”? Does the fact that the witness was Ross color how Douglas might have behaved? Could he have been specifically uninterested in talking to Robbie about other people (Oscar in particular)? (I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case.)

Of course a biographer doesn’t interpret one letter in isolation. He or she decides the answer to those questions based on other material uncovered. Sturgis has good reason to read the line as evidence of selfishness. Wilde often describes Douglas in that light in letters to Robert Ross. There is also the small matter of the story Wilde tells in De Profundis.

What are we to make of these sources? How historically accurate was De Profundis? How did the unique context of its creation effect what ended up on the page and how Wilde interpreted the events of his life at that moment?  Was his description of Douglas in his letters to Ross consistent with how he spoke about him in the period to others? Was there something about his relationship with Ross that might have colored how he spoke about Douglas to him specifically? I came to certain conclusions about this, but others will form different opinions.

Generally speaking, the only people who read about Lord Alfred Douglas do so because they have an interest in Oscar Wilde. This creates a certain framing. You can assume that anyone with an interest in Wilde would have read De Profundis before reading any of Douglas’s accounts of their relationship. De Profundis creates a powerful first impression. There have been a number of studies that show that once we form an idea about someone, it is very hard to change, even with new information.

Having read De Profundis, and then reading Douglas’s own accounts, you see the traits that Wilde described. “There’s that selfishness he was talking about.” “There’s that moodiness.”

Of course those traits were there. There is no denying that Douglas had a strong sense of entitlement. He was a snob and was often selfish. The De Profundis account may not have been totally accurate or fair, but neither was it entirely inaccurate or unfair. Would the traits that Wilde criticized in Douglas jump out as much as they do if we weren’t already primed to focus on them and see them as his defining traits?  It’s hard to know, but it is a bias that I think it is worth trying to correct for.

In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether Douglas “lost interest in people” at that moment because he was too full of himself to be bothered with them, or because he had just been forced to separate from his lover, had an argument with him over it, and was depressed. The latter explanation feels more right to me. Read it as you will.

 

 

 

 

 

Bosie’s “Hopeless Debt”

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. In commemoration of the anniversary, some people have posted Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’s best-known poem to Wilde. It’s called “The Dead Poet,” recited here by a weirdly animated photo of its author.

 

This was not the only poem Douglas wrote as he tried to come to terms with what he described, in 1940, as “the strange posture of affairs which forced me into the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend…”

My personal favorite poem that Douglas wrote for Wilde was one that was intended to be the dedication of his first book of poetry, but Wilde, then in prison refused to allow it:

TO OSCAR WILDE

What shall I say, what word, what cry recall,
What god invoke, what charm, what amulet,
To make a sonnet pay a hopeless debt,
Or heal a bruised soul with a madrigal?
O vanity of words! my cup of gall
O’erflows with this, I have no phrase to set,
And all my agony and bloody sweat
Comes to this issue of no words at all.

This is my book, and in my book my soul
With its two woven threads of joy and pain,
And both were yours before they were begun.
Oh! that this dream would like a mist unroll,
That I might look upon your face again,
And hear your kind voice say: ‘This was well done.’

Although he would for years shout down (or sue for libel) anyone who claimed Wilde’s downfall was his fault, letters he wrote to friends and family at the time reveal that he did feel responsible. It is one thing to blame yourself, quite another to have others blame you.

Three months after Oscar went to prison, Bosie wrote a poem called Rondeau:

If he were here, this glorious sky,
This sweet blue sea, these ships that lie
On the bay’s bosom, like white sheep
On English fields, these hours that creep
Golden in summer’s panoply,
This wind that seems a lover’s sigh,
Would make a heaven of peace as high
As God’s great love, a bliss as deep,
If he were here.

This great peace does but magnify
My great unrest that will not die,
My deep despair that may not reap
One poppy, one poor hour of sleep,
Nor aught but pain to wake and cry,
‘If he were here!’

“Perhaps if I were in prison myself I should be infinitely happier,” he wrote to the journalist W.T. Stead that November. “What makes me more unhappy than anything else is the feeling that my friend is bearing nearly all the burden and I so comparatively little. People look upon me as the victim of his superior age and wisdom and therefore an object of pity, while they reserve their execration for him. All this is so utterly wide of the real truth. So far from his leading me astray it was I that (unwittingly) pushed him over the precipice. He lived 36 years without seeing me and then I came and dragged into his life all the influences of our morbid half insane heritage which reaches its highest point in that terrible father of mine…”

A few years later, when his mother was intent on separating Douglas from Wilde after their post-prison reunion, he wrote to her asking if she expected him to say of Oscar “I cannot come and live with you now. I lived with you before and stayed with you and lived on you, but that was when you were rich, famous, honoured and at the summit of your position as an artist, now I am very sorry of course, but you are ruined, you have no money, you have hardly any friends, you have been in prison (chiefly, I admit, on my account and through my fault), you are an ex-convict, it will do me a great deal of harm to be seen about with you, and besides that my mother naturally object to it very strongly, and so I’m afraid I must leave you to get on as best you can by yourself… Sincerely and frankly, is this what you would have had me write?”

In 1900, shortly after Oscar Wilde’s death, Douglas wrote to his brother, Percy, “I was afraid you might think I had changed my mind about him in later life. I never did and he was the same to me, always my dearest and best friend, although I found it absolutely impossible to see him as much as formerly in the face of the avalanche of slander and grief of relations etc. both on his side and mine.”

Bosie said he remained in love with Oscar until well after his death when he read the unpublished parts of De Profundis in 1912. He did not start looking for a bride until after Wilde’s death, which suggests he could not move on while Wilde was alive.

Years later, after a falling out with his friend and co-editor T.W.S. Crosland, Douglas would write that Crosland had no excuse for treating him as he did because unlike Wilde, Douglas had done no harm to him. He really had, he said, unintentionally caused Wilde to suffer.

The Dead Poet was not Douglas’s favorite.  He preferred a sonnet he wrote three years after Wilde’s death on the subject of emerging from grief.

Forgetfulness

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow’s gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea’s intemperate wilderness.

But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.

Viewing Oscar Through a Triangular Lens

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The protracted feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death created its own mythology. When two people who had both been the lovers of the same man engage in a bitter fight, the natural assumption is that it is the result of a love triangle. Lord Alfred Douglas sometimes put jealousy forward as an explanation for their feud, but not as often as you might think. Douglas’s early biographer Montgomery Hyde believed it, and framed his story that way. The idea captured the imagination, and it stuck. In fact, both Ross and Douglas–Douglas especially– tended to clash with friends, and they were perfectly capable of a bitter falling out without a love triangle.

Today I read two reviews, one of Matthew Sturgis’s biography of Oscar Wilde and one of Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, and both talked about Bosie being put aside as Wilde’s great love and Robert Ross emerging as Wilde’s “real love.” The problem that I find with this is not that Ross was not a hero of the story, and not that Ross and Wilde did not love one another. The problem is that it sets up the same false choice between Ross and Douglas. Douglas and Ross died a long time ago, we no longer have to be soldiers in their war. We no longer need to take sides. Wilde had close relationships with both of these men, and they served different roles in his life.

You’re certainly free to believe that Wilde would have been better off had he chosen to put Ross in the role that he gave to Douglas, but that is a different question. This is assuming even that Ross really wanted to play that role. I’m not sure this is the case. They had a sexual relationship early on, but Ross was soon off pursuing his own interests. Robbie and Bosie were good friends at this time.

When Ross admired someone’s art he became a devoted promoter of the work, and supporter of the artist, as witnessed by his relationship with Aubrey Beardsley and many others. That Ross was the friend and protector of Oscar the artist, while someone else was his lover, was not necessarily only Oscar’s choice.

I have already elaborated on this, so if you’d like a long form version of this argument go to your library and pick up a copy of “Oscar’s Ghost.”