Lord Alfred Douglas

The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy

oscar-bosie

Thank you to Jacke Wilson for having me on the wonderful History of Literature Podcast.  Really an excellent interview and great to speak to someone so knowledgeable about literature. You can stream or download the interview, and I hope you will! Here is the description:

In Episode 87, we looked at the trials of Oscar Wilde and how they led to his eventual imprisonment and tragically early death. This episode picks up where that one left off, as the incarcerated Wilde writes a manuscript, De Profundis, that eventually leads to a bitter feud between two of his former friends and lovers. Laura Lee, author of Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, joins Jacke to discuss De Profundis, the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, and how Wilde’s legacy grew out of a web of blackmail, revenge, jealousy, resentment, and high courtroom drama.

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Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

Lord Alfred Douglas: Happy? Birthday

alfreddouglas_cropYesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Lord Alfred Douglas.

I looked up some of what was written on social media to commemorate the auspicious event. Some highlights:

“remembered as Oscar Wilde’s downfall…”

a “mean spirited mincing queen intent on self-destruction.”  In the end it was Wilde who was destroyed.

Lord Alfred Douglas will go down in gay history as the original “evil queen”.

On days like this it seems clear who the loser of the war over the Wilde narrative was.

Happy birthday, Bosie.

 

Treppenwitz

The clever rejoinder that comes too late…

Thank you to the Ann Arbor District Library for inviting me to come and speak this evening– my first speaking engagement on Oscar’s Ghost. I was pleased that there were a number of questions about the book, and inevitably, I spent most of my ride home thinking of better answers to them.

That’s what blogs are for.

The first question was whether Oscar Wilde lived in a circle of artists where homosexuality was not a problem and whether or not Victorian and Edwardian homosexuals used the laws against same sex love as a club against one another.

I replied that Oscar Wilde did inhabit a particular Bohemian subculture– much of it of his making, as he had disciples who imitated him–where being a man who loved men was not a problem. In the wider culture, it was also true that there was something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There was an understanding of a lot of the vices that went on behind closed doors, but the rule was that it was better not to know about it, and as long as everyone kept quiet and did not make a scandal no one would make an issue of it. In that situation, it was not uncommon for gay men who had bitter disputes to use this vulnerability against each other.

And that is where I left things, but that is not really a full answer. England of the late 19th and early 20th century was not a monolith. No culture is. So while it is fair to say that there were elements of society that embraced alternative sexualities, and there were elements that tolerated them as long as they were kept under wraps, there were also elements that were disgusted and appalled by the very notion.  One of the big problems for a homoerotically inclined individual was that he didn’t know with certainty, in any given situation, whether his “eccentricity” (this is what Robbie Ross’s family called it) would be accepted, tolerated, shunned, mocked or punished.

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross used the courts a number of times to fight their battles. They faced a series of judges, some of whom were even handed and fair, others who were outraged by their sexuality. It was impossible to know in advance how fair or how prejudiced a judge or jury would be. It was always a gamble.

In our time the balance has shifted more towards acceptance, but the same situation remains. There are comfortable, welcoming parts of society; parts that are more concerned about their own lives– live and let live; and parts that are opposed–sometimes violently opposed–to same sex love. In Oscar’s time the percentages, not the actual categories differed and those who were opposed had the backing of the government.

Oscar Wilde sometimes inhabited a world of artists where he sexuality was not a problem. He sometimes inhabited a world where people who admired him as an artist gossiped and whispered behind his back, but looked the other way. And he sometimes wandered through a world where it was necessary to hide that part of his life or to face serious repercussions. Until he was exposed in court, he lived a double life.

My partial answer, I think, might have made it seem like being homosexual in Victorian England was less fraught than it really was. But it would not be fair to say either that the life of a gay man of that era was only fear, hiding and strife. To quote the Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

There was one other question that I re-answered on my ride home. I finished my lecture by noting that while no one won the battle between Ross and Douglas, Ross did a better job of shaping the narrative about Oscar Wilde.  In most cases his view of things won out. I was asked what Bosie’s view was. I mentioned a number of cases where Bosie’s version of event was less believed, but better documented.

But a better answer may be this, if Bosie were to tell the story of Oscar Wilde’s life and he were able to speak freely about their relationship, I believe he would have said that it was a great tale of love overcoming all odds.

At least, that is what he would have said before he read the unedited De Profundis.

 

Who Won?

Ross Douglas

When you start doing interviews to promote a book, you have no idea what people are going to ask you. The more you do it, the more patterns emerge. You get an idea of what your own book is from the way people respond to it. You also get better at talking about you work as this process focuses you.

Oscar’s Ghost is about the long-simmering feud between Oscar Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after Wilde’s death. In the few interviews that I have done so far, one question has been consistent, and it’s strange that I never anticipated it.

What people want to know about the feud is: Who won?

For a short time after he was released from jail, Oscar lived with Bosie in Naples. During this interlude, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Bosie was understandably curious about the refrain, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

The first time he asked, Oscar brushed the question aside. That did not satisfy Bosie, and so he asked again. “What did you mean by ‘Each man kills the thing he loves?'”

You ought to know,” was his reply.

Bosie did not ask again.

But he did not know. The line cut both ways. Was he the killer or the killed in the metaphor? The destroyer or the destroyed? Had Oscar written an expression of blame or of regret?

Bosie spent many years trying to answer that question in his own mind.

He eventually found his path to absolution in strict Catholicism. Oscar’s deathbed conversion was central. Bosie wrote:

The difference it makes in the way I am able to think of Oscar is, of course, tremendous; chiefly because the fact of his wishing to die a Catholic implies a certain state of mind which connotes a number of other things. For example, a man becoming a Catholic must ipso facto, if his conversion be genuine, “forgive all those who have injured him and ask pardon of all whom he has injured…”

Christ was the solution. Bosie became devoted to a strict form of religion to absolve himself of his guilt and shame. Bosie’s transformation from Bohemian to religious moralist never sit well with Robbie. Thus the very thing that gave Bosie a level of peace and satisfaction drove a wedge between the friends that laid the groundwork for Robbie to circulate unpublished portions of De Profundis.

Who won?

De Profundis was Wilde’s victory over incarceration and public humiliation. It was part catharsis, part personal letter and a large part artistry. Using the events of his own life as material he told a story that expanded on a motif that had always fascinated him as an artist. He had dramatized it in Salome and the Picture of Dorian Gray before he and Bosie ever met: Love destroys its object.

In De Profundis, he took this idea a step further by demonstrating the even greater passion of continuing to love the object of your own destruction.  By writing, he transcended the depths of despair and created an enduring literary work.

Today they mount art installations in Wilde’s former jail cell and poets gather to read De Profundis aloud– a powerful rebuke of the Philistines, Wilde triumphant. But that same artistic statement tore Bosie apart when he finally read it, years after his lover’s death.

Who won?

In 1912, Robert Ross, now a noted art critic as well as Wilde’s literary executor, weighed in on one of the artistic controversies of his day.  The Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt was going to be flooded in order to build the Assuan Dam. A letter to the Times defended the destruction because of the economic development a dam promised. The writer said he was sure that if an art lover, a baby and the Dresden Madonna were in a burning tower, the art lover would save the baby rather than the picture.

Ross wrote to reply that he hoped that he would save the picture rather than the baby.

Indeed, there are many other works of art for which, sitting beside a patent fire extinguisher, I find it easy to think that I would lay down my life; there are few adults or babies for whom I would make any such sacrifice.

Ross was, indeed, faced with such a choice when it came to De Profundis. To make the contents of the document known was to sacrifice Bosie. It would ruin him with polite society with its evidence that Bosie was homosexual. It would also ruin him in the counterculture of men who worshiped Wilde because it presented him as the sole cause of Wilde’s downfall.

When I was asked “who won” the second time I answered that perhaps it was Ross as he was the one who accomplished what he set out to do. He had preserved a document that Wilde had once told him was the most important thing he had ever written. He amplified its message by gently guiding biographers. It was through Ross that Wilde was able to make his own life story into a work of art.

But did Ross win?

De Profundis, that beautiful essay, left a lot of pain in its wake. Its text attacked all of the pillars of Bosie’s self-esteem. It denied what had been Bosie’s proudest accomplishment– the way he had stood by Wilde through thick and thin. It claimed that Bosie interfered with Oscar’s work, and stole Bosie’s pride at being his mentor’s muse. It even mocked Bosie’s poetry as “undergraduate verse.” To have everything he was most proud of denied by the man he loved most was emotionally overwhelming.

By the time Bosie read the full version of De Profundis, Oscar was dead. He could not ask him again what he meant by “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He could not understand why Oscar had not told him about these resentments when they were living together or in all of the time they spent together afterwards. If he hadn’t said anything while sober, why hadn’t he blurted something out when he was drunk? He pondered this question in one of his autobiographical books. In each of his books he wrestled with the question of De Profundis, Oscar’s silence about it, and how it contradicted his own memory of their love affair.

Unable to confront Oscar, an increasingly bitter and unstable Bosie attacked Robbie with every means at his disposal. Robbie spent his last years consumed by legal trials, bothered by stress, paranoia and ill-health. Perhaps we could say that he did, in the end, live up to his ideals and lay down his own life to save a work of art.

Who won?

 

 

 

 

The Oscar Wilde Shrine and The Acts of the Apostles

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”-Acts 3:15, English Standard Version

00-story-image-oscar-wilde-temple If you pay attention to things Oscar Wilde, you’ve probably seen the stories about the Oscar Wilde Shrine in the Church of the Village.  (The link is to a story in Vogue, of all places, but the installation has been widely featured.)

I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the idea of a shrine to the man Max Beerbohm once jokingly referred to as “the Divinity.”

As I mused on this, it occurred to me that if Wilde is “the divinity” then the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost is The Acts of the Apostles.

A martyr needs a resurrection, and in our story this was provided by Robert Ross acting, like St. Paul, as the most devoted evangelist of the good news of the meaning of the man’s life, his early death, and his rebirth as an artistic, literary and cultural symbol.

As with the Biblical apostles, Oscar’s apostles were divided on the meaning of the events they had experienced. Paul’s letters chronicle his split with “the elders” on the issue. By the time Acts was written, a more cohesive narrative was starting to emerge– but then again maybe it wasn’t as Luke said he was only writing to set the record straight. In Acts, Paul and the Elders seem much more on the same page.

Incidentally, this is what Paul and the Elders agree as the most important commands to the gentile converts to their young religion:

“Abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled and from blood.”

This is important, as it is repeated quite a bit in Acts.

But I digress…

Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, was responsible for many of the aspects of modern mythology of Wilde.  In this he performed a delicate balancing act. He edited Wilde’s works to make them more cohesive, at times cutting passages that could be interpreted as homoerotic. He wrote critically about Wilde in the voice of the respectable “us” not the marginalized “them” to persuade polite society that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he tacitly encouraged some of the underground uses of Oscar Wilde as a symbol within the homosexual community. He nudged biographers to see Wilde’s story as a classic tragedy, an operatic fall with a tragic end.

His efforts to tell the story and to resurrect Wilde were colored by his own misgivings about his part in the affair, as were Lord Alfred Douglas’s attempts to put an end to a narrative that held him entirely responsible.

I found in the course of my research that in the early years after Wilde’s death it was common for people to blame his downfall on “the quality of his admirers”– in the plural– who encouraged his follies. Robert Ross was largely responsible for shifting the focus from “admirers” to one “admirer”– Douglas.

Over the years people have looked at the bitter rivalry between Ross and Douglas in their middle years and assumed that only romantic jealousy could fuel a conflict so heated. I see something else at work.

New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote of the apostles:

The much beloved teacher of the disciples— the one for whom they had given up everything and to whom they had devoted their lives— was suddenly and brutally taken away from them, publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified. According to our early records, the disciples had plenty of reasons for feeling guilt and shame over how they had failed Jesus both during his life and at his greatest time of need. Soon thereafter— and for some time to come?— some of them believed they had encountered him after his death. They were deeply comforted by his presence and felt his forgiveness. They had not expected to have these experiences, which had come upon them suddenly and with a vividness that made them believe that their beloved teacher was still alive.

Ross and Douglas shared the same deep wound. Could they have done more (or less)and saved their friend from his fate? Had they, paraphrasing Oscar, killed the thing they loved? The skirmishes can seem petty to outsiders, but to them these were not minor points. They were the kinds of regrets that keep people up at night. Each man had to reassure himself, as much as he wanted to tell the world, that it was not his fault. Given who they were, and the circumstances they were in, they had done the best they could.

 

 

Dawn Crush Thing Revisited: The Incidental Dear Lord of the Oscar Wilde’s Destruction

Ah Google Translate.

If you do not understand the title, see Dawn Crush Thing.

So I came across a Turkish article on Lord Alfred Douglas, and not speaking Turkish, I put it through a computer translation. I still don’t know what the article says (I assume it is not flattering about Douglas). In any case, it gave me a chuckle. Here are some highlights:

The Incidental Dear Lord of the Oscar Wilde’s Destruction: Lord Alfred Douglas…
 
The oxford spree is an extravagant lover who has not been able to draw into his lungs, but who has written poems that he can write, but that can come out of the excitement of a new teenager.
In the end, don’t we, all of us, write the things that we can write?
In the years when she was with Wilde, she responded by writing bluntly letters to Wilde in repellents, even after three months’ abandonment, Wilde in traveled to Europe by traveling through Europe as corpses. When Wilde again refused, he took pride in his feet…
In fairness, they are quite nice feet.
feet

[He] did not care about the waste of wildlife in the beginning because he is not a very savage in Wilde, but it is a mind-boggling figure that can do the accounting of expenses. Bosie is extravagant, the pleasure that his father lived – and the blessedness of the eyes of abundance, and he has not satisfied himself with the least, always asking for more... Wilde loves this poet who eats as much as a bird but feeds on the conversation.

Apparently birds eat more in Turkey than in England.

Bosie disturbs Wilde. Wilde comes out Bosie when she concentrates on writing the game in her office. They drink a coffee first. Bosie, jaws for two hours. then goes to lunch. Say a day like this. Wilde can only write when the ideal husband’s second and third curtains are separated from Bosie. He will not even finish the game, he writes two more games. Bosie, Wilde’s weakness.

This last one, I think, might go down well at a poetry slam somewhere. Say a day like this. Indeed. Say.