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.