Oscar’s Ghost

Why Wasn’t Wilde’s De Profundis Sent to Lord Alfred Douglas?

One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.

Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals.  I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)

I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.

But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from.  As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.

It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.

I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.

In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again.  (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)

According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away.  Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.

According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.

Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.

If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Ross Celebration Dinner

On May 24, the Oscar Wilde Society is holding a dinner to celebrate Robert Ross‘s 150th birthday. (The sound you just heard was Lord Alfred Douglas screaming in his grave.)

I happen to have recently come across a report originally printed the Boston Transcript on the first celebratory dinner in recognition of Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate.  (These excerpts are actually from the Nebraska State Journal, which on January 14, 1909, printed the wire piece.)

The 1909 dinner celebrating Ross was the spark that finally exploded the friendship between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. When we see such a bitter feud, we instinctively look for a profound cause. Often, in life, a small thing is enough. In this case, it was Douglas’s ungraciousness when Ross finally achieved his goal of putting out Wilde’s complete works and paying off his bankruptcy.

Douglas was frustrated that Robert Ross was increasingly celebrated for his friendship with Wilde, while he was still viewed as a scandalous figure for his own friendship with him. Douglas had always been proud of how he stood by Wilde, and he was jealous at how people were now talking about Ross as if he was Wilde’s only true friend. (This seems to have been mutual. It always rubbed Ross the wrong way when Douglas claimed to be Wilde’s truest friend.) He was frustrated that Ross was able to remain respectable in society while maintaining the type of secret life that Douglas had renounced and gotten no credit for. The celebratory dinner brought out all of these unpleasant emotions. Douglas became peevish and unpleasant.

He publicly criticized Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate in his literary journal The Academy. Ross might have been able to put up with that, but Douglas’s decision not to attend the celebratory dinner at all (and to grumble to mutual friends about it) was the final straw.  Knowing this context, you can read between the lines and see that the slight was still bothering Ross on his big night.

It was the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful evening. There were about 200 luminaries in attendance.

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Ross gave a gracious speech full of self-depreciating humor.

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The friend that Ross is about to mention in this next passage is undoubtedly Lord Alfred Douglas.

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After a brief discussion of the work he did, and making it clear that he did not pay off Wilde’s debts from his own pocket (and a long defense of German art and culture) he went on to clarify that he was not the only person who had stood by Wilde in his hour of need. A perceptive and prophetic line here is “…it is only an accident which made me the symbol of their friendship…”

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Finally, the Boston Transcript reporter spoke to Ross after the event.

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Oscar and Bosie’s Sex Life

PhotoFunia-1553098252Let’s talk about sex, baby…

Oscar Wilde never spoke publicly about the nature of his physical relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas– except to deny in court that one existed. Therefore the only account we have comes from Bosie. For want of any other information, biographers have generally accepted his version of things.

Bosie’s story is that Oscar pursued him, and after a long, ardent seduction, Bosie finally gave in to him but never really liked sex with him. The sex, he says, did not consist of much anyway– certainly not anything that would amount to sodomy. After a short time they stopped and never continued after Wilde got out of prison. What interests me is that this story has been largely accepted even among people who are inclined to view Douglas as a liar.

I don’t know if Bosie’s story is true, and neither does anyone else. In Oscar’s Ghost, I explain how Bosie’s account of his sex life with Wilde corresponds to a Platonic ideal of love that was current at the time. The ideal love that Wilde described was between an older man and a younger. (In an era of strict gender roles, all relationships were expected to be asymmetrical, with a strong man in the role of protector.) The older man would act as a mentor to the younger. The younger was expected to have little sexual interest in the older and if the relationship truly blossomed it transcended its sexual beginning and led to a creative partnership and “pregnancy of the soul.” This ideal is exactly what Bosie described and it would, in those terms, be an ideal love story. Maybe that alone is a reason to take it with a grain of salt.

To our way of thinking, a sexless relationship is a loveless one. I’ve been wondering lately how this story about Oscar and Bosie’s sex life might affect how we as modern readers feel about their relationship and what other assumptions it might lead to.

In Richard Ellmann’s biography (the source material for the movie Wilde, where most people with casual interest probably get their information on the Wilde/Douglas relationship) the fact that Douglas was lukewarm about sex with Oscar is used to bolster the premise that Douglas was only attracted to Wilde for his money and fame.

Was Bosie lying about the nature of his relationship with Wilde? It is certainly possible. He had a great deal of incentive to do so. Gay men of the era could be counted upon to lie about their sex lives when they became public knowledge. Bosie initially tried to claim that nothing of the sort had happened between him and Oscar. No one believed him. After Frank Harris persuaded him that no one would listen to anything he said until he came clean, he told the story that is generally accepted today. Yes, there were “familiarities” but very little of that, and not for long. There is no one who can prove anything different.

In recent years a number of depositions taken for Wilde’s trials and not used in court came to light. One of the interesting tid bits was the testimony of a housekeeper who found a letter from Douglas to Wilde in which Bosie signed off “your darling boy to do whatever you like with.” Maybe Bosie wasn’t quite as ambivalent about sex with Wilde as he would have people believe.

In De Profundis, Wilde remembers how Bosie’s cheeks would flush “with wine or pleasure,” which implies that Wilde had a certain, fond familiarity with how Bosie looked on occasions in which he was experiencing the kind of pleasure that gets the blood pumping.

We never really know what goes on with anyone behind closed doors. In the long run it isn’t very important. But it is an interesting exercise to think about how our feelings about that relationship might shift if we imagine them as having a full active sex life.

Thoughts?

 

 

 

 

“Not Being Talked About”

31742378An article in Book Riot summarizing the recent spate of books on Oscar Wilde ended with a footnote.

*Two more books related to Wilde came out in 2018, Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee and In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, an anthology edited by Neil Bartlett. I do not know enough about them to discuss them.

The article began with the old Wilde chestnut “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

It has got me thinking about what makes a book worth talking about and what makes one worth mentioning in a footnote. It can’t be the quality or contents. You have to read a book to dismiss it for that. Is it the status of the publisher or the author? Is it the promotion budget? It’s a nut I haven’t been able to crack.

Let me just take a moment to tell you why I thought the story in Oscar’s Ghost was fascinating enough to spend a number of years on. One of the great literary feuds in history took place in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s disgrace and early death. By following the events in the bitter conflict over his prison work De Profundis you see how a writer who had a confusing public image and professional reputation in his time was transformed into the mythic figure we know today.

Put another way, it charts how Wilde came to enjoy “a wonderful posthumous life, portrayed as a tragic hero who fell victim of Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws and sentiments.” (To quote the Book Riot article.)

Also, some of the things that happened in the course of the feud are hard to believe.

Anyway, that’s why I thought it was worth writing, and that’s all I can say on why it might be worth reading.

 

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?

“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
what?
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
okay
fine
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.