Research

The Wildean and Credit Where It’s Due

img_0203 The new edition of The Wildean is coming out this week. I’m pleased to have an article in it. (It’s on the relationship between some of the solicitors involved in the Wilde case and the blackmailers.)

There will also be a joint review of my Oscar’s Ghost along with Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years by Matthew Sturgis. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t say much about my article or the review right now.

There was one small thing in the review that I did want to address because I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

In talking about my research Sturgis mentioned that one of the sidelights that I “opened up” was “the extraordinary transformation of Ross’s one-time lover and ‘secretary,’ Freddie Smith, into a novelist of independent means…..”

I feel compelled to say that I cannot take credit for unearthing the story of this fascinating transformation. It was Maria Roberts who spent the hours at the British Library in the challenging task of trying to document the life of a closeted gay man named Smith (if you will excuse the anachronistic phrase). She was the one who discovered Smith’s second career as a novelist. She even tracked down all of his books and wrote summaries of them. I just bought a copy of her Let Them Say and passed along what I learned from it.

Because it is an independently published book on a niche topic it is not well known or widely reviewed, but Roberts is an excellent researcher and if you are fascinated by the Wilde circle, especially how Ross and his friends carried on Wilde’s legacy after his death, you will find a great deal of interesting detail in two of Roberts books. I gained a great deal of insight into the Robert Ross circle through Roberts book on Smith and her biography of Christopher Millard, Yours Loyally.

I was also fortunate enough to have the benefit of Roberts insights through a regular correspondence. Maria Roberts is also the first person listed in the acknowledgments in Oscar’s Ghost because she was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge and her research help allowed me to see many more primary sources than I would have been able to otherwise. It was one of my greatest fortunes in researching Oscar’s Ghost that I met Roberts when I did. I am glad to have another opportunity to publicly say “thank you.”

If you’re not already a subscriber, I recommend The Wildean to anyone who can’t get enough information on Oscar Wilde. I hope you will also check out Maria Roberts’ books.

Seeking Treasure and the Joy of Not Knowing

One of the greatest moments in historical research is when you discover there is a file of documents in an archive that relates to some aspect of the story you’re trying to uncover. You don’t yet know what is in it, but from the moment you learn that the file exists you begin to dream about what secrets may found there. Perhaps there is a key that will unlock an entire new path.

Getting to that material is not always– or even usually– easy.  If the archive is in another state or country–and isn’t it always?– you either have to travel, to find a local researcher to help or to pay the institution to make scans. All of these are time consuming and sometimes cost prohibitive. The very difficulty of the task makes the file seem indispensable.

I am enjoying a moment of anticipation at the moment, as I wait for a 91 page document to be scanned and sent to me from the UK. Will it provide the missing piece of the puzzle that will answer all of my remaining questions about that enigmatic con artists from the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe? Or will it be a big nothing?

In the course of researching Oscar’s Ghost, and in my continuing search for Schwabe, I’ve driven across states to read rare books that had nothing particularly relevant in them. On the other hand, there was a wonderful moment when a bankruptcy file provided the only example I have of Schwabe telling his own story in his own handwriting.

Early on in my research I learned (through a note in a review of a book on Gilbert and Sullivan) that Lucas D’Oyly Carte, the son of the impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte, had kept a diary during his time at the Winchester school. I knew that he and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas had been students at the same time and that Bosie and Lucas had had a relationship throughout their school days that Neil McKenna described as “a tortured love affair.” Love letters from young Lucas had been stolen by blackmailers and used against Bosie.

Bosie wrote a poem inspired by Lucas:

To L —
Thou that wast once my loved and loving friend,
A friend no more, I had forgot thee quite,
Why hast thou come to trouble my delight
With memories ? Oh ! I had clean made end
Of all that time, I had made haste to send
My soul into red places, and to light
A torch of pleasure to burn up my night.
What I have woven hast thou come to rend ?

In silent acres of forgetful flowers,
Crowned as of old with happy daffodils,
Long time my wounded soul has been a-straying,
Alas! it has chanced now on sombre hours
Of hard remembrances and sad delaying,
Leaving green valleys for the bitter hills

A diary could be very revealing indeed. So where was it?

As it happened, I could not get my hands on a copy of the Gilbert and Sullivan book, or track down its author. So I wrote to the author of the review who contacted the author and asked about the diary. He said it was in the British Library, so I contacted them. They told me that it was not, and they directed me to another institution in New York with a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. That institution directed me back to the British Library. By now a year had passed, and I wrote back to the author of the original review explaining my troubles and asking if he had any more information for me. He went back to the author who said that he had interviewed the man who had owned the diary and that he was certain he had donated it to to the British Library but that it was part of a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection which had not been cataloged yet.

Armed with this information, I went back to the British Library (through e-mail), and the very helpful librarian there confirmed that they had received a collection which was not yet cataloged but she couldn’t give me any idea of when that might happen.

A couple of years had gone by and I wrote back to the original reviewer to tell him about my lack of progress. He finally put me in touch, directly, with the Gilbert and Sullivan book’s author. He told me that while the diary was still in a private collection, he’d had a chance to scan it. He confirmed that the diary did mention Bosie, and he offered to send the scan to me.

At long last, after three years of searching, I would finally have the diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte and I could read for myself what he had to say about Bosie…

Which was, as it happened, not much.

Lucas D’Oyly Carte liked to report on the weather and the time he took breakfast (usually 9:30). When Bosie appears it is usually in reference to sport. For example, “Very showery all the afternoon…Bosie made 50 odd runs, I made 7…”

What I learned from all of that searching was that it sometimes rained when the boys were students and they sometimes played sports.

Yet somehow experiences like these have failed to dim my excitement over archives and the documents they contain– cataloged and not yet cataloged.