Oscar Wilde

Making and Remaking Oscar Wilde

I was reading a review today of Michele Mendelssohn’s Making Oscar Wilde in the New York Journal of Books. Paul Thomas Murphy writes:

Making Oscar Wilde focuses not upon the year-by-year existence of the person Oscar Wilde, but rather upon the persona: the unique, larger-than-life image of Wilde, as compelling today as it was in the 1890s. Specifically, Mendelssohn—meticulously, convincingly, and with great gusto—maps the creation of that image, largely forged in fire during one very tumultuous year of Wilde’s life: 1892, the year he toured America.

After his review of Mendelssohn’s “vivid account” Murphy concludes:

It’s also worth noting that the Oscar persona we now know and love is not exactly the same as the Oscar persona of the 1880s and early 1890s. As Mendelssohn writes, “Today, Wilde’s sainthood is secure. He has become gay history’s Christ figure.”

But that image of Wilde certainly did not exist in 1882. Our own iconographic sense of Oscar Wilde is nuanced by the knowledge of his passion: his suffering, exile, and death. A fuller exploration of what went into the creation of our icon, as opposed to the Victorians’, would be a valuable addition—or would make for a valuable sequel—to Making Oscar Wilde.

I hope you will not find it too self-serving of me to point out that there is such a book. Oscar’s Ghost chronicles how Wilde mourned the violent death of the “Oscar Wilde” persona that he had begun to create in America by writing De Profundis. In that long essay he told a story of an operatic tragedy, a love that destroyed its object, a great man brought down and his path to rebirth. This story became the template that Wilde’s later literary executor used to rehabilitate and mythologize the posthumous Wilde. This led to a feud between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas as they warred over Wilde’s legacy and their own places in it, a fight that itself had implications for how we understand Wilde today. If you have read Making Oscar Wilde, and have an interest in how the Wilde myth progressed, might I humbly suggest you pick up a copy of Oscar’s Ghost?


Oscar Wilde: It’s Complicated

A while back, the Oscar Wilde Literary Society posted a link on Facebook to an article arguing that it is time for “the left” to stop idolizing Oscar Wilde because “he is a pervert.” [I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any article that sets up a straw man of “the right” or “the left” and argues against the people to whom it ascribes a belief rather than the underlying ideas, but that is not the issue at the moment.] The thought-provoking article in The Federalist  argues that in the #MeToo era we should find Wilde’s behavior as distasteful as his contemporaries did.

The most common response to the Federalist article among those who appreciate Wilde was a variant of “I admire the art, but not the man.” But there is something unsatisfying in this answer, especially because Wilde’s biography, as much as his writing, has been a source of fascination, inspiration and social commentary.  No one is out there building a shrine to “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They are making shrines to Wilde the gay martyr, and that is based on an understanding of the man’s biography. The repeated attempts to canonize him points to a real need for such a figure, a man who takes on all of the abuse heaped upon gay men through the ages, and rises again. LGBT history has produced many tragic figures, but none has risen from the dead quite like Wilde. 

But Wilde was not a “gay man” as we understand it. He was not proponent of “gay liberation” but of “The New Chivalry,” a worldview that idealized the sexual mentorship of a younger man by an older, and by “younger” they often meant an age that would, today, make us shudder. I find the whole subject messy and complex. The tricky question is the issue of consent, something we conceptualize differently than Victorians did. 

In a previous article in which I broached this subject, I wrote about the age of consent in Wilde’s time. It was an era of shifting values in England. The age of consent had recently been raised for girls (male-male sexuality was strictly illegal) from 12 to 16. It was still 13 in France. Wilde was not uniquely “perverted” then in hiring prostitutes who had not yet seen 20 years. The Victorian era was notorious for its child labor and for sending children to prison to be treated as adults. Society as a whole seemed to view what we consider to be children (at least when they were working class) as laborers, criminals– people capable of making adult decisions and being punished accordingly. The age of Wilde’s partners (mostly teenagers), although noted, wasn’t much of an issue for the court. They were more concerned about their gender and social class.

Wilde was a product of his time and could not help but view these boys as capable of consent. While we cannot blame Wilde for lacking the wisdom of another age, we should question those values and show them for what they were.

Today, our ideal of love is a partnership between equals. This was not the case in the Victorian era.  Their view of love was hierarchical. The man was the head of the household. Women were viewed in child-like terms. They were virginal, innocent and vulnerable and thus needed to be shielded and protected. As women were supposed to be less worldly than men, men would guide them and keep them safe. The woman would be an object of beauty and inspiration and she would support the man in his endeavors. This was the nature of pure love.

Victorian men who were attracted to their own sex tried to find a way to superimpose their desire onto that model. They imagined a great love would be between a person of superior status who nurtured, protected and guided a beautiful, but less worldly person. Men of the educated classes like Oscar Wilde found in classical Greek texts a model for this– the love of the beautiful boy.  An older man would take the younger under his wing. He would write hymns to his beauty, and teach him about the world and, as in that other great love– betwixt man and maid– there would be a sexual element.

Both of these ideals are viewed as unhealthy today. In our ethics of love there should not be an imbalance of power. In theirs, this was assumed. In fact, it was considered part of love’s beauty. When Wilde gave a speech in court about the love of an older man for a younger, he received applause from the gallery.

We do not blame our great-grandfather, who lived in an era before women’s suffrage, for assuming the woman’s place was in the home, even as we condemn that point of view.  Likewise, if Wilde had been raised in our time we have to believe that he would have thought about, and acted upon, his attractions in an entirely different way.

Of course in any ideal, people fail to live up to it. Our supposedly equal relationships are not in many ways. Wilde used the concept of love with an ennobling asymmetry to justify a lot of questionable actions. His attempt to cast his relations with prostitutes as a noble example of man of higher class and education raising up the less fortunate can only be seen as a desperate excuse.

Maria Roberts, an excellent Wilde researcher, tracked down the records of one of Wilde’s blackmailers, Freddie Atkins, who appears to have been born in 1872. His partner in crime, was a man named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Their age-old con worked like this: Atkins would go to the public urinals and other notorious pick-up spots and get someone to take him home at which point Burton, claiming to be his uncle, would barge in and demand money for his silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.”

Atkins and Burton are usually described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had, for if Robert’s identification is correct, he started working for the thirty-six-year-old bookmaker when he was only nine years old. He may have been old enough to consent under law (had he been a girl) when Wilde met him, but his life had not put him in a place where he had many choices.

We sometimes become unwitting conspirators in objectifying Wilde’s partners. There is an expression that is often used by people writing about Oscar Wilde and his circle in his more promiscuous period.  I encountered it most recently in a review of Rupert Everett’s film Happy Prince in reference to Maurice Gilbert, a young man who was often in Wilde’s company in his final years.

The review described him as someone who had been “passed around” by Wilde and his friends. It was common for Wilde and his friends, Robert Ross, Alfred Douglas, and Reggie Turner to have the same sexual partners. Gilbert was one of these young men. Saying Gilbert was “passed around” makes the higher status men the actors and the person we know little about the one who is acted upon. We could equally describe Maurice Gilbert as someone who enjoyed sexual play with his circle of friends.

Even though Wilde was ultimately convicted based on what he did with prostitutes, that would not have been enough to bring him to trial in the first place. The world was prepared to look the other way. It was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas that brought everything to light. The whole thing happened because society felt that Douglas, and young men like him, needed to be protected from sodomy, even if the men loved each other and wanted to express their feelings that way.

But because Queensberry’s libel accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” rather than being one, he had a challenge proving that his slur was made in the public interest. Why does the public need to be alerted about how the writer seemed? His defense team argued that Wilde’s pose was dangerous because of his influence on innocent young men. He might be such an effective propagandist for vice that unsuspecting young men would be seduced into doing more than pose. We do not believe that anyone can be seduced into changing his sexual orientation. Wilde did not have the power to make anyone turn gay. That is, in effect, what his accusers believed he was capable of. A person could be persuaded to sin– enticed into deviancy. We see it differently, and the Wilde trials have become a symbol of how misguided, and damaging historic homophobia was. It was, indeed.

When we entertain the thought that some of the young men who hero-worshipped Wilde might have been confused or troubled by his advances, or encouraged to engage in activities they might not otherwise have, or that the immature undergraduate Alfred Douglas might have been heavily influenced by the older artist, we find we’re dangerously close to saying that the prosecution was right. So admirers of Wilde tend to avoid that.

Douglas was the symbol par excellence of the golden youth wilted by Wilde. In order to maintain any semblance of his position in society Wilde had to create an alternative to this narrative.

Over the past few years we’ve started to recognize the kind of stories that prominent men tell in order to defend themselves against charges of abuses of power: She was not as innocent as people think. She was promiscuous. She was the one who tempted me. My main fault was that I was too weak. She was only interested in my money and fame. Anyway, she is hysterical, emotionally unstable. It isn’t right that we should allow someone like that to bring a great man down.

Does this not sound a lot like the description of Lord Alfred Douglas in De Profundis?

In spite of Oscar’s vivid description of the young man as always being in pursuit, it is possible to see the story through another lens, one in which Oscar wants Bosie around, but always on his own terms. He resents him when he wants to do something Oscar does not, or wants Oscar’s attention when he doesn’t want to give it. Oscar is the one with all the power. Where does this leave us? Was Wilde wronged or in the wrong? It was, I fear, a combination of both.

So this is the heart of the problem: When you go back in history, the lawful and respectable often turns into the regretted immoral. The person who proved he was not a communist during the Red Scare avoided the blacklist, but was shunned years later for having named names, while the person whose career was left in shambles is lauded for his bravery.

One of the characters in the Wilde circle, who I have continued to research, was considered a problem because of his sexuality and the bad company he kept. To learn more about him, I delved into this family, and found that some of its highly esteemed members were involved in the coolie trade, and wrote about Chinese indentured laborers in ways that compared their efficiency to cattle. It is not until you read something like that that you’re confronted with how close to the slave years these people were and how much they took colonialism and rigid social hierarchy for granted.

Michele Mendelssohn, in Making Oscar Wilde, chronicles Wilde’s pilgrimage to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and the inspiration Wilde took from blackface minstrel shows. Years later when he and Lord Alfred Douglas sampled the sex tourism in Algiers their senses of entitlement and their views of the natives were on ugly display, if Andre Gide’s account is accurate. (Lord Alfred Douglas wrote to Gide complaining more about the betrayal of confidence than the context of what Gide wrote, so the broad outlines are most likely true, although probably heightened for literary effect.) Wilde was fascinated by criminality, Douglas said of him that he “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.” In this spirit he befriended Esterhazy, a spy who allowed an innocent Jewish man, Alfred Dreyfus, to take the blame in a show trial charged with anti-Semitism.

So when I read the sign at the Oscar Wilde shrine:

White Supremacy

Only Love Here

It doesn’t seem to fit. As much as we need Wilde as a symbol of a man who stood in opposition of the homophobic biases of his time, he also stood well within others of its biases. So he was in one sense exactly the gay martyr he is made out to be. He was convicted because his partners were male, not because they were young. He was stalked into bringing a disastrous libel suit in the first place because of fear and disgust at his love, not his intemperate lusts. We are justified in seeing him as the symbol of a profound tragedy– an era in which a kind of sexuality that we no longer disapprove of was criminalized and an artist was destroyed because he could not conform. That is what the Oscar Wilde shrine is all about. The dying and rising of a great man under an unjust law, and with him the dying of the old world and the birth of the new.

The other side of that coin is that there were things Wilde’s contemporaries did not disapprove of that we now find problematic. By making shrines to him, we run the risk of elevating them as well. (Whatever the opposite of that expression about babies and bathwater is.)

And that tells us something about our own time. Human relations are messy and complicated. Justice is never as neat or clear as we would like it to be. A century from now people will look back at some of the things we took for granted and find them appalling. We have no idea what they are. All we can do is stumble around, making our best efforts to be good to one another. I find it all incredibly complicated, and fascinating.


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.

Robbie and Constance

I’ve been thinking a bit about Rupert Everett’s “Happy Prince” since I wrote my review. (In which, incidentally, I incorrectly said Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince was used in both this film and the 1997 film Wilde starting Stephen Fry. In that film the story The Selfish Giant was used. Pardon my memory lapse.)

As I mentioned, one scene that struck a chord with me was the one between Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. More precisely, I was taken by a scene between Robbie and Oscar, in which Robbie chides his friend for trying to smooth things over with his wife with one kind letter (as he tried to smooth things over with Robbie) juxtaposed with the scene between Constance and Robbie, in which Constance makes the realization that she and Robbie both love Oscar. I suppose, if one were being strict, in a film that is so much from Wilde’s point of view, the scene shouldn’t exist because Wilde would not have seen it, but that would be a shame. The sense of identification between these characters was touching. It is the way I would like it to have been.

I’m afraid I’m not sure it was. Robbie had always been willing to help Oscar’s wife, and after a period of distrust, she came to value his assistance, but he never seemed to respect her as an intellectual or social equal. More Adey, who was his partner in trying to negotiate with the Wilde family, didn’t like her. Their insistence in bidding against Constance Wilde on her life interest while Oscar was in jail– against Oscar’s direct instructions and nearly everyone’s advice, doesn’t suggest that they were particularly empathetic to her or adept at considering her point of view.

Robbie’s paternalistic view is best summed up with the anecdote he chose to relate to Hesketh Pearson in a rare interview.

One day, when I was with them at Tite Street, she asked him if he would come in for lunch on the following day, as some old Dublin friends (a clergyman among them) were coming to see her and very much wanted to meet him. Oscar, to whom this sort of thing was the reverse of attractive said: ‘All right, my dear, if Bobbie can come as well.’ Of course she asked me, though I knew she didn’t want to, and it was then and there arranged. We found his wife’s friends the typical provincial sort, full of their own local news and not much else. Oscar talked during lunch as I never heard him talk before—divinely. Had the company included the Queen and all the Royal Family, he couldn’t have surpassed himself. Humour, tale, epigram, flowed from his lips, and his listeners sat spellbound under the influence. Suddenly in the midst of one of his most entrancing stories– his audience with wide eyes and parted mouths, their food untasted– his wife broke in: ‘Oh, Oscar did you remember to call for Cyril’s boots?

One of Robbie’s less admirable traits was that he often spoke kindly to a person to his or her face, and then gossiped and complained about them behind their back. Robbie’s anecdote probably reflects how Wilde’s homosexual/artist circle viewed his wife. (Interestingly, Lord Alfred Douglas always wrote kind things about her publicly, and insisted they were good friends.) So I don’t think Robbie identified with her, but he did feel for her. He did believe she was mistreated by her husband and he was protective of her.

One of the lasting effects of witnessing what happened to Constance was that Robbie, for the rest of his life, discouraged the marriages of many men in his circle– often at the risk of ending friendships. Some of these men were known to be “homosexualists” others were sometimes suspected of it. He was against Lord Alfred Douglas’s marriage to Olive Custance, although he did nothing to stand in its way.

He tried to intervene in Max Beerbohm’s long, passionless engagement with the actress Grace “Kilseen” Conover. Max described her in a letter to Reggie Turner as “a dark Irish girl of twenty, very blunt and rude who hates affectation and rather likes me.” After describing his love for her, and his intentions to woo her in rather lukewarm terms he implored Reggie “Do be sympathetic.”

Max’s family had mixed feelings about the union. While they disliked her abrasive personality and considered her common, they were pleased that she put to rest rumors about Max’s sexuality and “diverted” him from “an unfortunate set– dangerous friends.” About the only thing they did like about Conover’s bluntness is that she’d told Max directly that his relationship with members of the Wilde circle was harming him.

Max’s infatuation with Kilseen was short-lived. They were great friends, and would be so for the rest of their lives, but there was no real passion on Max’s part. He was in no hurry to close the deal but was also unwilling to break it off.

In 1901 Robbie invited Kisleen to lunch to address the “difficult subject” of her engagement. Kilseen wrote later saying that she appreciated the kindness in his concern. “I won’t say any more about it. I feel mean discussing it even. Mean to Max, for either I should not discuss it, or I should break it off. But all the arguments on the earth cannot undo the last six years. All I ask Max’s friends is not to judge him too unkindly…I don’t want the added unhappiness of thinking that Max has lost any of his friends through me.”

In spite of Ross’s intervention, the engagement dragged on until 1903 when Max fell in love with another woman, Constance Collier, and finally freed Kilseen.

An entire chapter of Oscar’s Ghost is devoted to one of Robbie’s romantic interventions. This time he worked to prevent the marriage of Coleridge Kennard and a married woman named Yoi Buckley. In this case, Robbie did not act to protect Buckley– but to protect Kennard from a scandal involving her. Even so, there are a few things about Kennard that bear mentioning.

Maria Roberts, who wrote a biography of Ross’s lover Freddie Smith, while acknowledging Kennard’s many heterosexual affairs, calls the rumor that he was bisexual “at least plausible…and rumors of this occasionally seem to have emerged.”

Kennard was a dandy and a friend to many in the Oscar Wilde circle. The French artist Jacques Emile Blanche had captured this side of his personality in a 1904 portrait “Sir Coleridge Kennard sitting of a sofa.” The portrait, in the style of Gainsborough, shows Kennard as a luxuriating aristocrat, with elongated fingers, crossed legs, and a dandy’s bearing. His mother, the Wilde benefactor Helen Carew, would not allow the painting to be exhibited between 1908 and 1924. When it was finally shown in Paris that year, she would not allow it to include her son’s name. The effect created by the image can be surmised by the title the exhibitor gave it: “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

In addition to this, Roberts cites Kennard’s posthumously published Olympia which contained a homoerotic romance between an older man, Mirza and a beautiful boy named Alizdel with eyes “as languorous as the/ eyes of a gazelle in springtime;/ his lips as luscious/ as a ripe fruit.”Throughout 1912, Freddie Smith spent a lot of time abroad and Roberts suggests that he spent this time with Kennard at his villa in Antibes.

One last example comes from the the war years when soldier/poets on leave found refuge at Ross’s rooms in Half Moon Street. One of the poets who sometimes stayed was Robert Graves, a young man with thick dark hair and a homosexual past, who was out on leave recovering from shell shock. He had met Ross through Siegfried Sassoon. Robbie advised him on his poetry and on his personal life. In January 1918, Ross, continuing a long tradition of discouraging matrimony, told Graves he should not marry the eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson because they were too young and neither had any money. His letter did not mention Graves homosexual history, but it was undoubtedly a major factor in his disapproval. Like most of Ross’s friends, Graves ignored his marital advice. The marriage lasted only a few years.

(He was more successful in turning Graves against Scott Moncrieff. Robbie disapproved of the way Moncrieff was making advances to the poet Wilfred Owen–who was in love with Siegfried Sassoon. He shared his views with Graves, and he abruptly cut off his heretofore warm correspondence in May 1918.)

Maybe Robbie’s interventions in these marriages dates back to his memory of Constance Wilde, or maybe they were just symptoms of a larger habit of involving himself in the personal dramas of his friends.

In any case, we, the audience, recognize the pain that connected Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. The film presents that effectively as a good story should.


“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
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
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.