Oscar’s Ghost

Treppenwitz

The clever rejoinder that comes too late…

Thank you to the Ann Arbor District Library for inviting me to come and speak this evening– my first speaking engagement on Oscar’s Ghost. I was pleased that there were a number of questions about the book, and inevitably, I spent most of my ride home thinking of better answers to them.

That’s what blogs are for.

The first question was whether Oscar Wilde lived in a circle of artists where homosexuality was not a problem and whether or not Victorian and Edwardian homosexuals used the laws against same sex love as a club against one another.

I replied that Oscar Wilde did inhabit a particular Bohemian subculture– much of it of his making, as he had disciples who imitated him–where being a man who loved men was not a problem. In the wider culture, it was also true that there was something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There was an understanding of a lot of the vices that went on behind closed doors, but the rule was that it was better not to know about it, and as long as everyone kept quiet and did not make a scandal no one would make an issue of it. In that situation, it was not uncommon for gay men who had bitter disputes to use this vulnerability against each other.

And that is where I left things, but that is not really a full answer. England of the late 19th and early 20th century was not a monolith. No culture is. So while it is fair to say that there were elements of society that embraced alternative sexualities, and there were elements that tolerated them as long as they were kept under wraps, there were also elements that were disgusted and appalled by the very notion.  One of the big problems for a homoerotically inclined individual was that he didn’t know with certainty, in any given situation, whether his “eccentricity” (this is what Robbie Ross’s family called it) would be accepted, tolerated, shunned, mocked or punished.

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross used the courts a number of times to fight their battles. They faced a series of judges, some of whom were even handed and fair, others who were outraged by their sexuality. It was impossible to know in advance how fair or how prejudiced a judge or jury would be. It was always a gamble.

In our time the balance has shifted more towards acceptance, but the same situation remains. There are comfortable, welcoming parts of society; parts that are more concerned about their own lives– live and let live; and parts that are opposed–sometimes violently opposed–to same sex love. In Oscar’s time the percentages, not the actual categories differed and those who were opposed had the backing of the government.

Oscar Wilde sometimes inhabited a world of artists where he sexuality was not a problem. He sometimes inhabited a world where people who admired him as an artist gossiped and whispered behind his back, but looked the other way. And he sometimes wandered through a world where it was necessary to hide that part of his life or to face serious repercussions. Until he was exposed in court, he lived a double life.

My partial answer, I think, might have made it seem like being homosexual in Victorian England was less fraught than it really was. But it would not be fair to say either that the life of a gay man of that era was only fear, hiding and strife. To quote the Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

There was one other question that I re-answered on my ride home. I finished my lecture by noting that while no one won the battle between Ross and Douglas, Ross did a better job of shaping the narrative about Oscar Wilde.  In most cases his view of things won out. I was asked what Bosie’s view was. I mentioned a number of cases where Bosie’s version of event was less believed, but better documented.

But a better answer may be this, if Bosie were to tell the story of Oscar Wilde’s life and he were able to speak freely about their relationship, I believe he would have said that it was a great tale of love overcoming all odds.

At least, that is what he would have said before he read the unedited De Profundis.

 

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Oscar’s Mother

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

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

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

Oh! give me truths,

For I am weary of the surfaces,

And die of inanition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jury Vote from Oscar Wilde’s First Criminal Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Who Won?

Ross Douglas

When you start doing interviews to promote a book, you have no idea what people are going to ask you. The more you do it, the more patterns emerge. You get an idea of what your own book is from the way people respond to it. You also get better at talking about you work as this process focuses you.

Oscar’s Ghost is about the long-simmering feud between Oscar Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after Wilde’s death. In the few interviews that I have done so far, one question has been consistent, and it’s strange that I never anticipated it.

What people want to know about the feud is: Who won?

For a short time after he was released from jail, Oscar lived with Bosie in Naples. During this interlude, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Bosie was understandably curious about the refrain, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

The first time he asked, Oscar brushed the question aside. That did not satisfy Bosie, and so he asked again. “What did you mean by ‘Each man kills the thing he loves?'”

You ought to know,” was his reply.

Bosie did not ask again.

But he did not know. The line cut both ways. Was he the killer or the killed in the metaphor? The destroyer or the destroyed? Had Oscar written an expression of blame or of regret?

Bosie spent many years trying to answer that question in his own mind.

He eventually found his path to absolution in strict Catholicism. Oscar’s deathbed conversion was central. Bosie wrote:

The difference it makes in the way I am able to think of Oscar is, of course, tremendous; chiefly because the fact of his wishing to die a Catholic implies a certain state of mind which connotes a number of other things. For example, a man becoming a Catholic must ipso facto, if his conversion be genuine, “forgive all those who have injured him and ask pardon of all whom he has injured…”

Christ was the solution. Bosie became devoted to a strict form of religion to absolve himself of his guilt and shame. Bosie’s transformation from Bohemian to religious moralist never sit well with Robbie. Thus the very thing that gave Bosie a level of peace and satisfaction drove a wedge between the friends that laid the groundwork for Robbie to circulate unpublished portions of De Profundis.

Who won?

De Profundis was Wilde’s victory over incarceration and public humiliation. It was part catharsis, part personal letter and a large part artistry. Using the events of his own life as material he told a story that expanded on a motif that had always fascinated him as an artist. He had dramatized it in Salome and the Picture of Dorian Gray before he and Bosie ever met: Love destroys its object.

In De Profundis, he took this idea a step further by demonstrating the even greater passion of continuing to love the object of your own destruction.  By writing, he transcended the depths of despair and created an enduring literary work.

Today they mount art installations in Wilde’s former jail cell and poets gather to read De Profundis aloud– a powerful rebuke of the Philistines, Wilde triumphant. But that same artistic statement tore Bosie apart when he finally read it, years after his lover’s death.

Who won?

In 1912, Robert Ross, now a noted art critic as well as Wilde’s literary executor, weighed in on one of the artistic controversies of his day.  The Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt was going to be flooded in order to build the Assuan Dam. A letter to the Times defended the destruction because of the economic development a dam promised. The writer said he was sure that if an art lover, a baby and the Dresden Madonna were in a burning tower, the art lover would save the baby rather than the picture.

Ross wrote to reply that he hoped that he would save the picture rather than the baby.

Indeed, there are many other works of art for which, sitting beside a patent fire extinguisher, I find it easy to think that I would lay down my life; there are few adults or babies for whom I would make any such sacrifice.

Ross was, indeed, faced with such a choice when it came to De Profundis. To make the contents of the document known was to sacrifice Bosie. It would ruin him with polite society with its evidence that Bosie was homosexual. It would also ruin him in the counterculture of men who worshiped Wilde because it presented him as the sole cause of Wilde’s downfall.

When I was asked “who won” the second time I answered that perhaps it was Ross as he was the one who accomplished what he set out to do. He had preserved a document that Wilde had once told him was the most important thing he had ever written. He amplified its message by gently guiding biographers. It was through Ross that Wilde was able to make his own life story into a work of art.

But did Ross win?

De Profundis, that beautiful essay, left a lot of pain in its wake. Its text attacked all of the pillars of Bosie’s self-esteem. It denied what had been Bosie’s proudest accomplishment– the way he had stood by Wilde through thick and thin. It claimed that Bosie interfered with Oscar’s work, and stole Bosie’s pride at being his mentor’s muse. It even mocked Bosie’s poetry as “undergraduate verse.” To have everything he was most proud of denied by the man he loved most was emotionally overwhelming.

By the time Bosie read the full version of De Profundis, Oscar was dead. He could not ask him again what he meant by “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He could not understand why Oscar had not told him about these resentments when they were living together or in all of the time they spent together afterwards. If he hadn’t said anything while sober, why hadn’t he blurted something out when he was drunk? He pondered this question in one of his autobiographical books. In each of his books he wrestled with the question of De Profundis, Oscar’s silence about it, and how it contradicted his own memory of their love affair.

Unable to confront Oscar, an increasingly bitter and unstable Bosie attacked Robbie with every means at his disposal. Robbie spent his last years consumed by legal trials, bothered by stress, paranoia and ill-health. Perhaps we could say that he did, in the end, live up to his ideals and lay down his own life to save a work of art.

Who won?

 

 

 

 

The Oscar Wilde Shrine and The Acts of the Apostles

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”-Acts 3:15, English Standard Version

00-story-image-oscar-wilde-temple If you pay attention to things Oscar Wilde, you’ve probably seen the stories about the Oscar Wilde Shrine in the Church of the Village.  (The link is to a story in Vogue, of all places, but the installation has been widely featured.)

I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the idea of a shrine to the man Max Beerbohm once jokingly referred to as “the Divinity.”

As I mused on this, it occurred to me that if Wilde is “the divinity” then the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost is The Acts of the Apostles.

A martyr needs a resurrection, and in our story this was provided by Robert Ross acting, like St. Paul, as the most devoted evangelist of the good news of the meaning of the man’s life, his early death, and his rebirth as an artistic, literary and cultural symbol.

As with the Biblical apostles, Oscar’s apostles were divided on the meaning of the events they had experienced. Paul’s letters chronicle his split with “the elders” on the issue. By the time Acts was written, a more cohesive narrative was starting to emerge– but then again maybe it wasn’t as Luke said he was only writing to set the record straight. In Acts, Paul and the Elders seem much more on the same page.

Incidentally, this is what Paul and the Elders agree as the most important commands to the gentile converts to their young religion:

“Abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled and from blood.”

This is important, as it is repeated quite a bit in Acts.

But I digress…

Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, was responsible for many of the aspects of modern mythology of Wilde.  In this he performed a delicate balancing act. He edited Wilde’s works to make them more cohesive, at times cutting passages that could be interpreted as homoerotic. He wrote critically about Wilde in the voice of the respectable “us” not the marginalized “them” to persuade polite society that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he tacitly encouraged some of the underground uses of Oscar Wilde as a symbol within the homosexual community. He nudged biographers to see Wilde’s story as a classic tragedy, an operatic fall with a tragic end.

His efforts to tell the story and to resurrect Wilde were colored by his own misgivings about his part in the affair, as were Lord Alfred Douglas’s attempts to put an end to a narrative that held him entirely responsible.

I found in the course of my research that in the early years after Wilde’s death it was common for people to blame his downfall on “the quality of his admirers”– in the plural– who encouraged his follies. Robert Ross was largely responsible for shifting the focus from “admirers” to one “admirer”– Douglas.

Over the years people have looked at the bitter rivalry between Ross and Douglas in their middle years and assumed that only romantic jealousy could fuel a conflict so heated. I see something else at work.

New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote of the apostles:

The much beloved teacher of the disciples— the one for whom they had given up everything and to whom they had devoted their lives— was suddenly and brutally taken away from them, publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified. According to our early records, the disciples had plenty of reasons for feeling guilt and shame over how they had failed Jesus both during his life and at his greatest time of need. Soon thereafter— and for some time to come?— some of them believed they had encountered him after his death. They were deeply comforted by his presence and felt his forgiveness. They had not expected to have these experiences, which had come upon them suddenly and with a vividness that made them believe that their beloved teacher was still alive.

Ross and Douglas shared the same deep wound. Could they have done more (or less)and saved their friend from his fate? Had they, paraphrasing Oscar, killed the thing they loved? The skirmishes can seem petty to outsiders, but to them these were not minor points. They were the kinds of regrets that keep people up at night. Each man had to reassure himself, as much as he wanted to tell the world, that it was not his fault. Given who they were, and the circumstances they were in, they had done the best they could.

 

 

Curiosity Gets Out of Control

When I was given a Kindle for Christmas and looked for a public domain (free) title to download, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey that would swallow up my attention for years.

Booklovers Book Review has the story today of how this simple act resulted in the biography Oscar’s Ghost.

A fair-minded person reading the personal parts of De Profundis naturally wonders what the other guy has to say about it all. Lord Alfred Douglas, it turns out, had a lot to say. He wrote a series of autobiographical works that all, in one way or another, responded to De Profundis. He also engaged in a heated battle with Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross over ownership and interpretation of the document. After reading Douglas’s account of the feud with Ross, a fair-minded person has to wonder, once again, what the other guy has to say about it. So I read biographies of Ross.

Follow the link above to read the entire feature.