Lord Alfred Douglas

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.”


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.