Oscar’s Ghost

The Best of Friends to Oscar Wilde

robert-baldwin-ross-4Robert Baldwin Ross was a man of wide artistic interests, and an even wider circle of friends. Someday someone will write a fantastic book that uses him as a central focus to highlight the greatest characters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He was an art critic, a promoter of literary and artistic talents and a writer. He is, however, remembered for one thing above all else–he was Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor.

This last identity, it appears, came with a certain ambivalence. I just discovered a poem Ross wrote as the dedication to a copy of his Masques and Phases which he gave to the critic and book collector Clement King Shorter, who used the initials “C.K.S.” when he wrote in The Sphere.

To “C.K.S.”

Of things I do not know the names,

For words I’m at a loss.

You know I am not Henry James,

I cannot write like Edmund Gosse,

No Granville Barker’s buskin mine

To tread upon the corns of law;

It is not mine with Max to shine,

I cannot dazzle Bernard Shaw.

Not mine Corelli’s glowing page

Nor yet the periods of Hall Caine,

Not mine a William Watson’s rage,

I am not Lucas come again,

Only for me the cap and bells,

The motley of a jester’s stock:

Alas I am not H.G. Wells,

I am not even H. Belloc.

Oh call me childish or inept,

Untaught, untrained, untiled.

Oh call me anything except

“The best of friends to Oscar Wilde.”

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.

“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

Doomed to Repeat It?


If you noticed that the frequency of my blog posts has gone down substantially this past year, it is because I was working on a labor-intensive bit of historical research for a forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost.  (The photos above show only a small portion of the books and notes I used. These are the ones I lugged on “vacation.”) Oscar’s Ghost tells the story of a bitter posthumous feud over Oscar Wilde’s legacy between two of his closest friends. It covers a period from the late 19th Century, leading up to Oscar Wilde’s arrest and death in 1900 and the inter-war years. (Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the two main characters lived from 1870 to 1945.)

When you delve into another era like that you inevitably find resonances between their time and our own. In the 1890s when Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s eventual literary executor Robert Ross were young men London was at the center of the world. The British Empire was nearly at its peak when it would span 14 million square miles of the globe and include more than a quarter of the planet’s population. It’s absolute peak came in 1914. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen. It so dominated commerce that it could effectively control the economies of countries that were not officially colonies. Young British aristocrats had the world for a playground. They commonly set out on adventures seeking their fortunes in South African and Australian mining colonies or in the timberlands of Canada. They set out to India and North Africa for exotic vacations. London was also becoming a hub of activity for the working class as industrialization moved many young men from farms to the city. The prosperity also attracted immigrants. From 1800 to 1890 the population of London soared from less than a million to more than four million.

It was in this very period, when they should have been celebrating their unprecedented power and prestige, that England began to experience an undercurrent of anxiety and a sense that they were losing ground. “Decay” became a buzzword. There was a fear that old values were eroding, that unchecked effeminancy was dissipating the soldiers, that England was losing its cultural treasures and its cohesive sense of Britishness. (Robert Ross, in the early 20th century wrote an essay with the title “There is No Decay” arguing against the notion.)

In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Human beings are more motivated by the fear of loss than by dreams of gain. When they were the masters of all they could see, there were few more worlds to conquer and nothing to do but look back with nostalgia and to worry about all they now had to lose.

Thus I am repeatedly struck by the off-hand remarks we see regularly in the news about how awful things are in America at this moment in history. As Klaus Brinkbaumer wrote in Der Spiegel, “The fact that the United States, a nuclear superpower that has dominated the world economically, militarily and culturally for decades, is now presenting itself as the victim, calling in all seriousness for ‘America first’ and trying to force the rest of the world into humiliating concessions is absurd. But precisely because this nonsense is coming from the world’s most powerful man, it is getting trapped by him.”

In England, a Century ago, the rhetoric of “decay” was driven by those with the most to lose; the very people who had been granted the most– the aristocracy. Industrialization had changed the economy, the landed estates were no longer supporting the Lords and Ladies as they used to. The middle class was ascendant. The upper classes, however, still had a big microphone and the ability to shape public discourse. They were some of the loudest voices promoting the notion of “decay.”

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.” They knew they were not to blame for this state of affairs. So they sought scapegoats and embraced extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also sometimes to the far left.

The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by Oscar Wilde’s old 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. (See Holms, Colin. Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939. New York: Holms & Meier Publishers, 1979.) A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice. The period of history I examined is rife with anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe. In France there was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer became a convenient scapegoat in an espionage scandal. (Oscar Wilde was then living in France and he and a number of members of his circle got caught up in the hysteria. Wilde befriended the real spy Esterhazy.)

Lord Alfred Douglas’s good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton (the 5th Viscount of Canterbury) 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 Lord Alfred Douglas’s social circle and were increasingly shaping his worldview to the point that he eventually became editor of a journal known more for its anti-semitism than its poetry. This would forever tarnish his legacy. He had been convinced there was a broad Jewish banking conspiracy by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of fabricated anti-Jewish propaganda that was widely disseminated prior to the Second World War. It was the early 20th Century version of “fake news.” (A good book on this subject is Paranoid Apocalypse by Steven Katz.)

Homosexuals were another convenient scapegoat. One of the last volleys in the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was a bizarre libel trial in which a conservative MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing, used the courts to promote conspiracy theories about British soldiers losing the Great War because they were being seduced by German Jewish men and women on the homefront were becoming lesbians. He claimed he knew of a“Black Book” in which the Germans kept a list of 47,000 sex perverts so they could blackmail prominent English politicians and generals into committing espionage and treason.

Billing was a curious purity crusader. Tall and handsome with strong cheekbones and a confident charisma, he was “an archetypal playboy” and womanizer. He was wealthy and flashy, doing his political campaigning from an impressive yellow Rolls-Royce. The trial had a circus-like atmosphere. It played like a modern reality TV drama and included such sideshows as Lord Alfred Douglas calling his former lover, Oscar Wilde, “the greatest force for evil in the last 350 years.” The ridiculous spectacle distracted many people from the dangerous undercurrent of homophobia, xenophobia, and racism that Billing was peddling.

Today I read George Takei’s excellent article on Japanese Internment Remembrance Day. The actor, who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp because of his ethnicity, writes:

I cannot help but hear in these words terrible echoes from the past. The internment happened because of three things: fear, prejudice and a failure of political leadership… The false narrative — that there are those who belong here and those who do not — is designed precisely to divorce us from the truth that we are all here and in this together. We are an interdependent people, sharing a common bond of humanity…

The question before us, then, on Remembrance Day is a simple one: Will America remember? The internment is not a “precedent,” it is a stark and painful lesson. We will only learn from the past if we know, understand and remember it. For if we fail, we most assuredly are doomed to repeat it.