Lord Alfred Douglas

Curiosity Gets Out of Control

When I was given a Kindle for Christmas and looked for a public domain (free) title to download, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey that would swallow up my attention for years.

Booklovers Book Review has the story today of how this simple act resulted in the biography Oscar’s Ghost.

A fair-minded person reading the personal parts of De Profundis naturally wonders what the other guy has to say about it all. Lord Alfred Douglas, it turns out, had a lot to say. He wrote a series of autobiographical works that all, in one way or another, responded to De Profundis. He also engaged in a heated battle with Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross over ownership and interpretation of the document. After reading Douglas’s account of the feud with Ross, a fair-minded person has to wonder, once again, what the other guy has to say about it. So I read biographies of Ross.

Follow the link above to read the entire feature.

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George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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From the Crewe Collection: The Rossiad, by Lord Alfred Douglas

Trinity College Library posted an article on an artifact of the feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas tried to deliver a copy of his scathing satire of Ross, The Rossiad, to Lord Crewe.

Lord Alfred’s reputation was such that a civil servant sent a note to the marquess on official paper saying:

“Lord Crewe – I suppose it would be dangerous to send any form of acknowledgement”

To which Lord Crewe replied

“No reply, of course”

Trinity College Library, Cambridge

Oscar Wilde; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas by Gillman & Co, May 1893, NPG P1122
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Crewe collection contains a number of early editions of works by Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900). Wilde was known to the 1st marquess of Crewe when he was Lord Houghton and a fellow member of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s Crabbet Club. The collection also contains works about, and relating to, Wilde published after his death.

Robbie Ross by Elliott & Fry, circa 1914 Robbie Ross by Elliott & Fry, circa 1914, NPG x12885
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Lord Alfred Douglas (1870 –1945), a cousin of Blunt, was an author and poet but is better known as the friend, lover and instigator of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. Following Wilde’s death Lord Alfred’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and led to his involvement in several libel actions and much public controversy. His relations with Robert Ross (1869 –1918), an art critic, art…

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The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Extraordinary Tales About Ordinary People

“…both Oscar and myself are merely ordinary people who are very fond of one another and very anxious to live peacefully joyously and happily, and without scenes and tragedies and reproaches and all that sort of thing.”-Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his mother 1894

wilde-douglas

Lord Alfred Douglas’s mother was worried. In 1894 she read Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and it struck a little too close to home. Given her son’s relationship with the older Oscar Wilde, the tale of an older man manipulating a younger to depravity disturbed her and she wrote to both Wilde and her son urging them to end their association.

Bosie responded with two long letters defending his relationship. He explained that Dorian was fiction.

There is not one real point in common after that between Lord Henry with his bitter cynicism, his cruelty, his heartlessness and his selfishness, and Oscar Wilde with his humour, an his loyal kind and forgiving nature which make him altogether more like a grown up boy than the sort of cynical subtle and morbid creature which you want to make him out…Lord Henry is an artificial waxwork figure of what Oscar might be, without his enthusiasm, his humanness, his sympathy and his kind sweet nature…

The fact is that no such person as Lord Henry Wotton ever existed…Nobody wants to murder anyone else’s soul…Oscar has no desire to ruin my soul in order that he may have the pleasure of getting a morbid satisfaction from the contemplation of its ruin, he is merely a very brilliant and very irresponsible and very impulsive creature who is very fond of me, and who enjoys life thoroughly, and who wishes to be as happy as he can under the circumstances in which he finds himself placed. I am extraordinarily fond of him, and he is extraordinarily fond of me, and he wishes me to be successful and happy. He always encourages me as much as he possibly can to work and to do something, and so far from wishing to ruin my soul, or ruin anything else, he doesn’t think of such nonsense at all, and he and I can afford to laugh at all this hysterical twaddle and at the same time to regret that it is able to be a great annoyance a great hindrance and a great discomfort…

The notion that one person could mesmerize another and take control of his soul was not Wilde’s invention. It was found in much of the era’s popular literature. George du Marier turned these anxieties into the most popular novel of the era, Trilby, with its manipulative character Svengali. These stories influenced how people interpreted the world around them. When they looked at Wilde and Douglas the story was clear.

Bosie tried to convince his mother that Wilde did not have undue influence over him, in fact he had more influence over Wilde than the other way around. In truth, like any couple, they influenced each other. This would not be the finding of the courts, however. The legal actions that sent Wilde to jail began when the playwright sued Bosie’s father, Lord Queensberry, for libel for the claim that he was “posing” as a sodomite. To defend Queensberry his legal team had to prove that he had made his statement in the public interest. They did this by arguing that Wilde’s “pose” and his position as a famous writer influenced young men to practice the real vices. This framing persisted throughout Wilde’s criminal trials and beyond.

One of Robert Ross’s challenges as he tried to restore Wilde’s posthumous reputation was to counter the Svengali narrative. The best tools he had in his arsenal were Wilde’s own writings.

Wilde had been playing with the theme of the passionate, destructive love affair in his writing long before he met Douglas. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome appears three times in the New Testament. It is, as most biblical narratives are, sparse. The longest account is found in Mark 6:14-29. In this account Harod has John arrested at the request of his wife Herodias. Herodias had married Harod after divorcing his half brother Philip and John had decried this as contrary to Jewish law. Herodias would have had John killed but Harod feared him. The opportunity to act came at Herod’s birthday celebration. Herodias’s daughter Salome performed a dance for Herod that pleased him so much he told her he would give her whatever she wanted ‘unto the half of my kingdom.’ Salome went to her mother and consulted with her about what she should ask. Herodias said, ‘the head of John the Baptist.’ Salome did as she was told and Herod, who was less averse to murder than to going back on his word, had no choice but to have John executed and to deliver his head in a charger to the young woman.

In the traditional account, then, Salome is a passive instrument of her mother’s desire for revenge. By the nineteenth century, however, artists had become intrigued with the figure of Salome herself. She was featured in the works of such Romantics as Flaubert, Mallarme and Symons. Two paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau appear in J.K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours, a book that was highly influential to Wilde. In his play, Wilde used Flaubert’s Greek naming of John, Iokanaan, alternatively spelled Jokanaan.

In Wilde’s conception, Salome is no pawn. She is the one who wants Jokanaan’s head, and not because of his view of her mother’s marriage, but because her desire for him knew no limits. Her lust for him was so strong that she would kiss his mouth even if she had to cut off his head to do it. For Salome Wilde uses language inspired by the Song of Songs while for Jokannan, he draws from Revelation. Thus the language of love is merged with the language of apocalypse. Love destroys its object.

This anihalistic view of love was not inspired by his passionate relationship with Bosie, who he had not yet met when he began composing. It was an artistic myth he already believed, and into which he would write his own love. The concept would find expression again in the Ballad of Reading Gaol as “each man kills the thing he loves” and in De Profundis with Douglas in the role of Salome, the homme fatale whose appetites knew no bounds and whose love was destructive.

De Profundis was Wilde’s response to the notion that he was Lord Henry Wotton. It took the story of Svengali and inverted it. “Dear Bosie” of the letter was based on the emotionally difficult Alfred Douglas– there is no denying he was a difficult man. But the character of Bosie was dramatized and manipulated for literary effect.

Douglas, of course, did not see his relationship in these terms. In his 1894 letter to his mother he wrote, “Surely there is nothing but what is fine and beautiful in such a love as that of two people for one another, the love of the disciple and the philosopher. I think when Oscar’s life comes to be written, as the life of a man of genius and a man who has stamped his age it will be remembered and written about as one of the most beautiful things in the world, as beautiful as the love of Shakespeare and the unknown Mr. W.H… There is no good saying any more except that while I perhaps have no right to say that Oscar Wilde is a good man, neither you nor anyone else has the right to say he is a bad man… Please try and like my friend who is so dear to me.”

He continued to view his relationship in those terms until he was confronted with the unpublished parts of De Profundis years after Wilde’s death.

Late in his life, Bosie told his friend Rupert Croft-Cooke that the thing that bothered him most about De Profundis was the overall tone of the thing, which made his relationship with Oscar into a “solemn sort of thing, crossed with terrible quarrels. But we were laughing most of the time — often at one another.”

The story of the “destructive love affair,” however, has ruled the day. Ideas can spread because they are true or useful. But sometimes an idea retains power not because it is true, but because there is something about it that aids in its transmission. In this case, it is the bias towards drama. De Profundis is a compelling story well-told. When the ancients wanted to preserve their histories through oral folktales they mythologized them. In modern times, a book proposal that is full of drama and conflict will always find an easier path to publication than a book that de-mythologizes.

So Mysterious By This Love

Oscar Wilde trivia of the day:

The Times of London today ran an obituary of David Gainsborough Roberts, described as an eccentric collector. Among his treasures were:

…Queen Victoria’s embroidered drawers, keys and coats from the Titanic, Napoleon’s leather wallet, Charlie Chaplin’s violin and a card case bearing the inscription “so mysterious by this love” and given to Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas. “It came up in auction years ago,” Gainsborough Roberts recalled of its acquisition. “The under-bidder was Stephen Fry.”

Love and Bravery

“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.