Oscar’s Ghost

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?

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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

Bosie’s “Hopeless Debt”

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. In commemoration of the anniversary, some people have posted Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’s best-known poem to Wilde. It’s called “The Dead Poet,” recited here by a weirdly animated photo of its author.

 

This was not the only poem Douglas wrote as he tried to come to terms with what he described, in 1940, as “the strange posture of affairs which forced me into the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend…”

My personal favorite poem that Douglas wrote for Wilde was one that was intended to be the dedication of his first book of poetry, but Wilde, then in prison refused to allow it:

TO OSCAR WILDE

What shall I say, what word, what cry recall,
What god invoke, what charm, what amulet,
To make a sonnet pay a hopeless debt,
Or heal a bruised soul with a madrigal?
O vanity of words! my cup of gall
O’erflows with this, I have no phrase to set,
And all my agony and bloody sweat
Comes to this issue of no words at all.

This is my book, and in my book my soul
With its two woven threads of joy and pain,
And both were yours before they were begun.
Oh! that this dream would like a mist unroll,
That I might look upon your face again,
And hear your kind voice say: ‘This was well done.’

Although he would for years shout down (or sue for libel) anyone who claimed Wilde’s downfall was his fault, letters he wrote to friends and family at the time reveal that he did feel responsible. It is one thing to blame yourself, quite another to have others blame you.

Three months after Oscar went to prison, Bosie wrote a poem called Rondeau:

If he were here, this glorious sky,
This sweet blue sea, these ships that lie
On the bay’s bosom, like white sheep
On English fields, these hours that creep
Golden in summer’s panoply,
This wind that seems a lover’s sigh,
Would make a heaven of peace as high
As God’s great love, a bliss as deep,
If he were here.

This great peace does but magnify
My great unrest that will not die,
My deep despair that may not reap
One poppy, one poor hour of sleep,
Nor aught but pain to wake and cry,
‘If he were here!’

“Perhaps if I were in prison myself I should be infinitely happier,” he wrote to the journalist W.T. Stead that November. “What makes me more unhappy than anything else is the feeling that my friend is bearing nearly all the burden and I so comparatively little. People look upon me as the victim of his superior age and wisdom and therefore an object of pity, while they reserve their execration for him. All this is so utterly wide of the real truth. So far from his leading me astray it was I that (unwittingly) pushed him over the precipice. He lived 36 years without seeing me and then I came and dragged into his life all the influences of our morbid half insane heritage which reaches its highest point in that terrible father of mine…”

A few years later, when his mother was intent on separating Douglas from Wilde after their post-prison reunion, he wrote to her asking if she expected him to say of Oscar “I cannot come and live with you now. I lived with you before and stayed with you and lived on you, but that was when you were rich, famous, honoured and at the summit of your position as an artist, now I am very sorry of course, but you are ruined, you have no money, you have hardly any friends, you have been in prison (chiefly, I admit, on my account and through my fault), you are an ex-convict, it will do me a great deal of harm to be seen about with you, and besides that my mother naturally object to it very strongly, and so I’m afraid I must leave you to get on as best you can by yourself… Sincerely and frankly, is this what you would have had me write?”

In 1900, shortly after Oscar Wilde’s death, Douglas wrote to his brother, Percy, “I was afraid you might think I had changed my mind about him in later life. I never did and he was the same to me, always my dearest and best friend, although I found it absolutely impossible to see him as much as formerly in the face of the avalanche of slander and grief of relations etc. both on his side and mine.”

Bosie said he remained in love with Oscar until well after his death when he read the unpublished parts of De Profundis in 1912. He did not start looking for a bride until after Wilde’s death, which suggests he could not move on while Wilde was alive.

Years later, after a falling out with his friend and co-editor T.W.S. Crosland, Douglas would write that Crosland had no excuse for treating him as he did because unlike Wilde, Douglas had done no harm to him. He really had, he said, unintentionally caused Wilde to suffer.

The Dead Poet was not Douglas’s favorite.  He preferred a sonnet he wrote three years after Wilde’s death on the subject of emerging from grief.

Forgetfulness

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow’s gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea’s intemperate wilderness.

But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.

Arguments for Oscar: The Director’s Cut

A silver cigarette case that Lord Alfred Douglas gave to Oscar Wilde when they were reunited after Wilde got out of prison is coming up for auction again. I knew about this gift from Bosie to Oscar from a description of it from the last time it was sold.

Etched into the case is a piece of a poem by John Donne:

The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one are it
So to one neutral thing both sexes fit
We die and rise the same and prove
Mysterious by this love.

What I don’t think I realized (or assimilated) when I first read about this object was that it was one of the things left behind at the hotel where Oscar Wilde died. (Others being some shirts that were at the laundry, some books, and a set of false teeth.) That Oscar carried this object with him until he died, rather than, say pawning it, re-gifting it, or using it to pay a prostitute, is at least a little bit telling.

The subject of Wilde and prison got me to thinking about a bit of Oscar’s Ghost that didn’t make it into the final cut. While Wilde was in prison both Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross wrote defenses of him that were not published at the time. In the outtake that follows, I compared their approaches:

 

To correct the prevailing narrative, Bosie would have to make the world understand the depth of Wilde’s love for him, and the sacrifices he was willing to make for it. He wrote impassioned pleas in Wilde’s defense and bold declarations of the beauty of same sex love. His tone was idealistic, romantic and often melodramatic.

Douglas had, for some time, lived in such a protected world of like-minded people he had little sense of how his professions of devotion to Oscar Wilde, and excerpts from his love letters, would sound to the general public. To Douglas they were pure beauty. To the world they were either humorous or sickening. Because Douglas was seen either as Wilde’s unwitting victim, or as a fellow deviant who had escaped jail only because of his title, no one was inclined to listen to what he had to say.

Bosie was not the only one to write a spirited defense of Wilde. Early in 1896, Ross read a report on the New Year’s sermon of Rev. John Clifford, a prominent Baptist preacher who had used the opportunity to pronounce the death of aestheticism which he said had been exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of Wilde.

The two then-unpublished arguments are remarkable both for what they have in common, and how they differ. Like Douglas, Ross made a point of expressing pride in his relationship with Wilde. Douglas had written “While I am still young and bold, let me put myself once and for all on the side of honesty and declare that I am proud to be what I am, proud to have been so much loved by a great man, and proud to have suffered so much for him.”

In his letter to Rev. John Clifford, Ross wrote: “I rejoice to say that I am one of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s greatest friends.”

Douglas never learned the skill that Wilde had in spades, that of tailoring a message to a particular audience. Wilde once famously said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The masks he put on for the press, for the parlor, for the theater audience, for the reader did a better job of expressing the truth than they would have if they were unmitigated. Bosie was always unmasked. (“Unpoliced” as Shaw would write.) He did not self-censor. He did not consider context. His truth was his truth and he would speak it.

So Bosie’s article contains all of the arguments he had pent up inside– in addition to a bold defense of same sex love came his unvarnished bitterness for his father, his outspoken criticism of the trials, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the English people. The result was an article that argued both that Wilde was innocent of the charges against him and that anyway there was nothing wrong with love between men.

Ross, on the other hand, was well aware of the biases of his audience. Instead of trying to justify homosexuality, he made a case for charity for the condemned, pointing out that Christ came to save the sinners not “to redeem the moral from the contamination of wicked people” adding that it was very uncharitable of a minister to attack someone who was suffering during the holiday season. (Bosie, incidentally, had also published an article for the British public that used this “fair play” line. Wilde would criticize it as insincere and formal in De Profundis.)

Ross had been moved to write by the minister’s condemnation of Wilde’s art. In answer to Clifford’s statement that “art for art’s sake was exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of the high priest of aestheticism” Ross listed Christian martyrs whose ideas had not been “exposed and condemned” by their prosecution and deaths. He then offered to send Clifford copies of Wilde’s works.

Some years ago after the appearance of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray in Protestant and puritan Scotland it was my good fortune to hear a Presbyterian minister preach on the moral of that wonderful story. More than one Non-conformist paper praised the novel on moral grounds…At all events I would ask you to judge for yourself & then give your unbiased opinion not on Mr. Wilde but on his works.

Where Ross wrote as an admirer of the artist, Douglas wrote as one who loved the man:

I, for my part, love him for the uniform sweetness of his character, the extraordinary goodness of his heart, and his eternal and inexhaustible tenderness for me. I love him for his magnificent intellect, his genius and his verve. He had taught me everything that is worth knowing. He has given me a little of the secret of his infallible instinct, which never overlooked what was fine and which was never taken in by what was bad (I am speaking of art and not of morals, of course). He diverted my attention from what was vulgar and tedious in life, to lead it towards what was beautiful. He showed me the strength and might of the intellect, its superior emotive force, he taught me to know the good works form the bad. He armed me against cant, gave me a philosophy of life, he made my life worth living…

Ross’s editorial was the earliest example of what would become his main technique in his life-long quest to get Oscar’s works accepted again in society. He would separate the artist from the man, promote the art, and try to downplay and conceal the more “unsavory” aspects of the Wilde story. In order to do this successfully, it became increasingly important for him to conceal his own sexuality. If he did not, his efforts on Wilde’s behalf would be seen as special pleading.

Whether he had made a conscious decision or not, Ross’s own literary ambitions were put on hold when Wilde was arrested. Wilde’s fate had been sealed as much by his writings and his literary success as by his sexual peccadillos and this had a profound effect on the friend whose conversations had shaped The Portrait of Mr. W.H. He had become wary of revealing the erotic energy that had been behind his youthful creativity, but he found that he had trouble writing anything “in which the heroine is not a beautiful boy.”

“I do not write now,” he told Max Beerbohm. When he finally did return to writing, he focused almost entirely on satire and criticism, forms that revealed little about their authors. Although he would gain some prominence in this field, most of his real creative energy would be devoted to advancing the careers of other artists.

Does Art Belong to Its Audience or Its Creator?

…For many other artists, however, the arts network proves an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes it’s just that the freewheeling thought patterns that lead to artmaking don’t lead as gracefully to tidy record keeping. More often, though, the same artists who diligently follow a self-imposed discipline (like writing in iambic pentameter, or composing for solo piano) prove singularly ill-equipped to handle constraints imposed by others… Ideally (at least from the artist’s viewpoint), the arts network is there to handle all those details not central to the artmaking process… If all this evidence of the reach of today’s arts network still fails to impress you, consider the sobering corollary: once you’re dead, all your art is handled by this network.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

As the artist works away, creating, revising, failing and starting again, she never knows if her work will live beyond her, if it will be cherished or forgotten; if it will be deemed classic or garbage. Much of this has little to do with the artist or the quality of her work at all. To become “a classic” a work has to have a champion who is determined to share it after the artist is gone. It has to have teachers who present it to students. It has to have archivists who deem it worthy of preservation. These are the artist-makers. Their passionate enthusiasm transforms a struggling artist, who may have died penniless, into a vital part of our culture. Sometimes these executors carry on in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Sometimes they do so in spite of the artist.

The Atlantic today featured a review of Benjamin Balint’s forthcoming Kafka’s Last Trial, a book about the posthumous legal battle over Kafka’s manuscripts. In his review Adam Kirsch wrote:

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer…

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

Does art belong more to its audience than its creator?

Put another way: Is the life of the work of art more valuable than the human considerations of the artist and his relations?

Robert Baldwin Ross, who became Oscar Wilde’s literary executor a number of years after his death, was one who placed a high value on the life of works of art. In response to an editorial that said in a burning museum anyone would save a child over an old master, Ross wrote that he hoped he’d have the courage to save the art.

One of the great debates in Wilde circles is how closely Ross’s actions on behalf of Wilde’s estate followed Wilde’s wishes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in his handling of the manuscript of Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis. Ross was determined that the work was important, and he went to great lengths to preserve it. His efforts proved painful and detrimental to Douglas, and ultimately to himself as Douglas battled against them.

We, the modern-day readers and researchers who benefit from the continued existence of De Profundis, are grateful for Ross’s choice and therefore there is a strong bias in favor of the idea that Ross did act in accordance with Wilde’s wishes. We would like the ghost of Wilde to be pleased at his literary resurrection and our interest in his life.

There is reason to doubt that Ross did follow Wilde’s instructions when it comes to the manuscript. He did not follow the only written instructions that were preserved– they said to send the handwritten original to Lord Alfred Douglas, which did not happen. He claimed to have received different verbal instructions. Of course, the only evidence for this is Ross’s own statement.

Ross did not always follow Wilde’s instructions when he disagreed with them while he was alive.  After Wilde was released from prison, they had a minor falling out over how The Ballad of Reading Gaol should be published. Ross felt, for artistic reasons, that it should only be put out as a book. Wilde’s concerns at that point were more down to earth and human. He’d lost everything when he went to jail and he wanted the biggest, fastest paycheck. That meant serial publication.

Unable to persuade Wilde to think long-term, he went behind Wilde’s back and tried to enlist Leonard Smithers in preventing serial publication. “I hope you will refuse to publish [the ballad] at all if the market is going to be spoiled by having it published in an English newspaper.” Ross wrote. When Wilde learned of this he was understandably annoyed with Ross.

One thing that I found interesting in Kirsch’s article on Kafka was the speculation that Kafka chose his literary executor precisely because they disagreed.

And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so… Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Wilde’s reliance on Ross’s contrary advice and his decision to name him as his literary executor? Did he chose someone who he instinctively knew would value the art over even his own point of view about it?

Or would Ross’s handling of De Profundis have, in the words of their mutual friend Reggie Turner, “pained its author.”

Even Wilde’s desire to have Ross as his executor is contentious– a fact that has largely been forgotten. Ross’s position as executor was only won after lengthy litigation. His success in court was based on a single line in one of Wilde’s prison letters, the same one in which he instructs Ross to send De Profundis to Douglas.  The exact line is “If you’re going to be my executor you should have [De Profundis].” Ross used this letter in court to prove that he had the authority to be Wilde’s executor and also that De Profundis was his personal property. My personal theory is that Ross may have destroyed letters that contained more of Wilde’s instructions regarding the manuscript, but he had to retain the letter that called him Wilde’s executor. It was easier for him to make the claim that Wilde had given him verbal instructions that contradicted his first written ones than to support the claim that he had any right to act on Wilde’s behalf without it.

If he did edit the record to make his actions on the estate’s behalf clearer should we care? What if he took actions that went counter to Wilde’s own wishes? Should we care about that or is Wilde’s own view ultimately less important than ours as the audience?

I believe three things: First, I believe (though I cannot prove) that Wilde’s desires for De Profundis changed after he reunited with Douglas after his release from jail. Second, I believe (and also cannot prove) that Ross disregarded at least some of Wilde’s instructions for what he thought was the greater good.  Finally, I believe that the preservation of De Profundis was, in fact, a greater good.

What do you think?

The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.