Oscar’s Ghost Outtakes

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.”

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The Times They are A Changin’

I’d like to thank Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed for the interview for The New Books Network. It is always a pleasure to be interviewed by someone who took the time to read your book and to prepare thoughtful questions.

I was especially pleased that Nataliya touched on some of the larger themes in Oscar’s Ghost, the social context in which the feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robbie Ross took place. In the early 20th Century London society had an entirely different feel depending on whether you were of Douglas’s social class or of Ross’s. For people like Robbie, the expanding middle class opened up a wealth of possibilities. For Douglas the decline of aristocratic power and fortunes felt like social collapse.

In the interview I touched briefly on how Lord Alfred Douglas moved from being generally conservative to being a proponent of right-wing conspiracies.  The fear that emerged of outside forces and cultural change among the elite of that era has a lot of echoes of our own.

Here in the United States, the conventional wisdom that Trump rode to victory on a wave of anger from displaced workers who were motivated by economic hardship. Researchers who have studied the data have found that this is not true. In fact, Trump voters were better off economically than most Americans, and the poor, white working class was actually slightly more likely to vote for Clinton.  What motivated Trump voters was fear of cultural displacement.  That is, it was people who could always count on being considered the “default” Americans, and know that public policy would be based on what was best for them. Slowly that sense of security has been eroding. They see a future where instead of requiring everyone to learn English they may have to learn Spanish, where the law might not support one’s aversion to two dudes kissing. In short, a world where people who have always had others adapt to them might have to do the adapting. In the UK the Brexit vote was likewise propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was a similar fierce overcorrection to cultural change in the 20th Century.  Here is a passage that I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost but cut to get the word count down:

The year marked another milestone in the loss of status of the aristocracy. Historian David Cannadine called the 1911 Parliament Bill “the instrument of [the Lords’] permanent emasculation.” It was a blow from which their power and prestige never recovered, ‘the citadel of patrician pre-eminence had finally fallen.’ The bill had come about as the result of proposed budget changes in 1909, which had outraged the Lords. Lloyd George effectively portrayed them idle and self-interested labeling them ‘ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.’ The Lords veto of the budget activated the Liberals, and an emboldened Asquith brought a series of resolutions to the Commons to limit the power of the peers, giving Lord Alfred Douglas yet another grudge against him.

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, ‘in a scrap heap instead of a social class.’ This caused many of these former masters of all creation to seek scapegoats and to embrace extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also to the far left. The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by (Oscar Wilde’s friend) Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice.

Freddie Manners-Sutton (a close friend of Lord Alfred Douglas) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Bosie’s social circle and its forces were priming his imagination, although it would be a number of years before he would be taken in by the conspiracy theories.

In the long run, these reactions failed to turn back the clock on social change.  I will hazard a guess that the current wave of reactionary politics will not take America back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days either.

Oscar’s Mother

In honor of Oscar Wilde’s birthday, October 16, here is another outtake from Oscar’s Ghost. It seemed appropriate day to share a piece about Oscar’s mother. Before Oscar Wilde’s second criminal trial, he was released on bail, and many of his friends (including Lord Alfred Douglas) were urging him to flee the country. But his mother and brother urged him to stay and stand trial. They were optimistic about his chances in court. A section of Oscar’s Ghost that talked about Lady Wilde’s own experience with the courts did not make it into the final version, but here it is:

Oscar’s… mother Lady Jane Wilde…had made herself known with a bold act of defiance. In 1848, the editor of The Nation, Gavan Duffy was being tried for treason for printing a subversive article “Jacta Alea Est” (The Die is Cast) published under the pen name Speranza. When the attorney general read an excerpt of the article, Lady Wilde, who had been watching from the gallery, sprung to her feet and announced, “I am the criminal who, as the author of the article that has just been read, should be in the dock. Any blame in respect of it belongs to me.”

Like Bosie, Lady Wilde believed in Truth with a capital “T.” Her 1864 collection Poems, dedicated to her two sons, had as its theme “The Freedman is he whom the Truth makes free.” In the introduction she cited Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Oh! give me truths,

For I am weary of the surfaces,

And die of inanition.

She was no stranger to legal battles over the family’s reputation. Three decades before, Lady Wilde had, herself, been involved in a bitter and highly publicized libel case full of sexual intrigue. Oscar’s father, William Wilde, had earned himself a reputation as a womanizer and it was an open secret that he had fathered a number of illegitimate children. In the late 1850s, he formed an intimate friendship with a young patient named Mary Travers. The exact nature of that friendship was never proved, but it was undoubtedly more than professional, as Wilde sent the teenager letters “of an extraordinary character…a dangerous character to subsist between a girl of her age and attractions and a man, whether married or single…”

Initially, Mrs. Wilde had been friendly with the girl, even allowing Travers to take the boys out on outings. Eventually, however, things took a bad turn and Wilde tried to end the relationship. After that Travers embarked on a campaign of harrassment that made the Marquess of Queensberry look like a paragon of restraint. She would appear at the Wilde home and at Dr. Wilde’s office demanding money, a turn of events that may have let to the family decision to send the children from Dublin to Portora School as boarders.

Once she appeared in Wilde’s study holding a bottle of laudanum, a common Victorian medicine made up of alcohol and opium. She poured the full bottle into a wine glass and drank it. Wilde rushed her to the nearest apothecary’s for an antidote. He believed she was trying to make the world believe he had poisoned her. A few days later she wrote to him in the role of patient, seeking an appointment to examine a corn on her foot This unconventional request for a consultation ended with an ominous warning: “I will keep your nose to the grindstone while your wife is away, and when she returns I will see her.”

Wilde agreed to see her, and she would later claim that in the course of the visit he strangled and raped her. After that her behavior became even more bizarre. She had her own obituary printed up in the newspaper and sent a copy to Mrs. Wilde with a drawing of a coffin underneath it. Whatever result she had been hoping for with the stunt failed to materialize, and so she printed up a pamphlet featuring an anti-Wilde poem and hired five newsboys to sell them on the street. She also had them delivered to the Wilde’s home. There Jane Wilde had an altercation with the newsboy who had been sent to try to sell the pamphlet. She kept it without paying for it.

She had finally had enough and she fired off a letter to her tormentor’s father, Dr. Robert Travers:

Sir – You may not be aware of the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray, where she consorts with all the low newsboys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde. If she chooses to disgrace herself that is not my affair; but as her object in insulting me is the hope of extorting money, for which she has several times applied to Sir William Wilde, with threats of more annoyance if not given, I think it right to inform you that no threat or additional insult shall ever extort money for her from our hands. The wages of disgrace she has so loosely treated for and demanded shall never be given her. Jane F. Wilde

Travers took exception to the letter, especially to the phrase “the wages of disgrace,” which implied his daughter was a prostitute. He filed a writ for libel seeking damages of £2,000. Lady Wilde entered a plea of justification. The trial was certain to be a sensation with Isaac Butt, the nationalist MP acting as Traverse’s counsel and Speranza herself speaking for the defense. It was certain to shine a spotlight on Wilde’s indiscrete letters, and Traverse’s claim that she had been seduced as a teenager and then raped. This was all potentially devastating to the family. If the public believed her, William Wilde would be personally and professionally destroyed. The matter could have been handled out of court, but, biographer Gerard Hanberry wrote, “Jane would not countenance such surrender.”

The courtroom was packed for the four days of the trial and William Wilde’s private letters were quoted in the newspapers, but Speranza made a much better impression on the stand than the anxious girl did. She refused to admit Traverse had been her husband’s lover, instead she made it appear that the entire affair had been the product of a frenzied imagination. On December 19, 1864 the jury found in Travers’ favor, but awarded her only a farthing in damages. Because she had won the case, the substantial court costs fell to the Wildes. This was hardly a stunning legal victory. It was, however, a moral victory. Public sympathy was clearly with William Wilde and his wife, almost all of the newspapers sided with them and their social calendar remained full. Early in the year, Lady Wilde wrote to a friend in Sweden:

It was very annoying, but of course no one believed her story. All Dublin has called on us to offer their sympathy, and all the medical Profession here and in London have sent letters expressing their entire disbelief of the (in fact) impossible charge. Sir Wm. will not be injured by it, and the best proof is that his professional hours never were so occupied as now.

The Jury Vote from Oscar Wilde’s First Criminal Trial

The original version of Oscar’s Ghost was 100,000 words longer than its final incarnation. To put that into perspective, that is about two De Profundises (De Profundi?) worth of material researched, written and left on the cutting room floor.

So this blog will have to serve as the literary version of the DVD extras. Tune in regularly for Oscar’s Ghost outtakes.

Today’s little nugget is the results of the voting of the jury in Wilde’s fist criminal trial.

After the case ended in a hung jury The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of their voting. This story was picked up by regional newspapers throughout Britain. According to The Morning the results were:

1. Did Wilde commit indecent acts with Shelley- 10 for, 2 against; with Wood– 8 for, 4 against; two persons at the Savoy– 10 for, 2 against; Charlie Parker – 10 for, 2 against.

2. Did Taylor procure, or attempt to procure, the commission of the acts, or any of them?– 10 for, 2 against.

3. Did Wilde or Taylor, or either of them, attempt to get Atkins to commit indecency with Wilde?–Agreed, not guilty.

4. Did Taylor commit indecent acts, first, with Charles Parker; secondly with W. Parker? 2 for, 10 against.

If a newspaper today were to print such results, showing that the majority of the jurors found Wilde guilty, it would be considered so prejudicial it would lead to a change of venue if not an abandonment of the case.

One newspaper more sympathetic to Wilde recoiled at the printing of the jury results while Wilde was still waiting to stand trial. “Anything more cruel, heartless, and reckless than the publications of these details we are happy to say is rare in the journalism of to-day.”

 

The source of these results is “The Wilde Case: Voting in the Jury Room.” Portsmouth Evening News, May 9, 1895. The critical response was quoted in Oscar Wilde Three Times Tried written by Christopher Millard under the pen name Stuart Mason.