Robert Ross

Oscar Christ?

Around the time I was writing the novel Angel, I started a project of reading the New Testament with the books in the order that scholars believe they were written. (This was before the late Marcus Borg released his Evolution of the Word, which does this very thing for you.)

Reading chronologically you start to see how the idea of Jesus expanded over time as he moved from a more human figure in Mark to a thoroughly mystical Christ in John. One of the things that made an impression on me was how Jesus’s response to his arrest and execution evolved.  What was, in Mark, deeply traumatic was transformed over time so that in John, Jesus was aware of his destiny, nearly choreographing his own destruction, walking with a sense of the larger meaning this event would one day have for the world.

I was reminded of this while watching this interview with Rupert Everett about his new film The Happy Prince. Everett describes Wilde as stage managing his own ruin.

The tendency to cast Oscar Wilde as the gay Christ is something I have talked about occasionally here, particularly in the context of the Oscar Wilde shrine that was created by two artists in New York a while back. Stephen Fry is another actor who has portrayed Wilde and spoken of him in the same terms.

I have some reservations about this comparison. It depends a great deal on what you take a “Christ figure” to be.

The most obvious parallel is that Wilde was punished by society, he died as a reviled figure but was resurrected by his apostles, in particular by Robbie Ross and friends of his like Christopher Millard who preserved Wilde’s work and tried to bring it to new audiences.

This common refrain of Wilde as Christ figure certainly speaks to a need for a symbol to make the sufferings that gay men have enured meaningful, to spiritualize the pain and make it transcendent. A Christ figure is not just resurrected, the story of his rebirth is cleansing for those who identify with him.

This is easier to do, I think, with a symbolic Wilde than with Wilde as a man. But perhaps this was also true of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to us as both fully human and fully divine, yet not quite so human that he could make mistakes. (Whereas for Everett being “an idiot” sometimes is part of the humanity of his gay Christ figure.)

When I read the first chronological gospel, Mark, I was surprised by one episode I found there. (Also by the naked guy who went streaking through Mark 14:51-52.)

I am talking about the story of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:24-29 (the story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28).

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus. I am not informed enough to understand all of the ancient cultural politics between Syrophonecians and Jews. In any case, the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Maybe he is tired and his nerves are frayed after the constant barrage of his own people asking him to heal them, now he is supposed to heal Syrophonecians too? He refuses and compares her to a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus dismisses the woman because of her social status. He doesn’t see her suffering as his problem. He speaks to her in a rude manner. What should a reader make of that?

The way Mark depicts Jesus at this point is like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi. Jesus was getting tired, he wanted to be off the clock, and he snapped at this woman in an inappropriate way and she called him on it. He changed his mind and healed the woman’s daughter.

So perhaps Jesus was once seen as someone human enough to make mistakes too. But today Christ is not a man who makes mistakes, but a man who was too good for the world and was thus destroyed by it.

For someone like Oscar Wilde to be Christlike in this sense means he is a symbol of the best of humanity being destroyed by the worst of society. To make that case, it helps to make good and evil a bit neater and clearer.  Oscar Wilde has often been polished to enhance the tragedy of his downfall, a process that I wrote about in detail in Oscar’s Ghost.

An interesting question, one which came up in the comments on my previous article on The Happy Prince, is whether Lord Alfred Douglas became a scapegoat for some of Wilde’s own sins. Both men were snobbish, but Wilde’s snobbishness is often read as charming. Both were promiscuous, but Douglas has been depicted as the driving force in their amorous adventures. Both were careless with money, but Douglas has often been blamed for making Wilde overspend.

Because of his erratic behavior, his attacks on people like Robert Ross, his litigation, Douglas made himself an easy target for those who would try to find a vessel for some of Wilde’s sins.

I believe that today we might be inclined to forgive some of Douglas’s emotional extremes were it not for his cardinal sin, his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years. The views that are so rightfully distasteful to us today were unfortunately common in his time. (And in fact, we seem to be in a similar era today with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment becoming increasingly accepted.)

One of the aspects of the story that I explored briefly, and wished I was able to explore in more depth was the time Wilde spent in the company of Ferdinand Waslin Esterhazy during his exile in Paris. At the time the Dreyfus trials had polarized French culture.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was found guilty on questionable evidence and, before a howling mob shouting anti-Semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Zola took up his cause, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak.

In February 1898, Wilde and Douglas’s friend, the journalist Rowland Strong, was in Paris covering the trial of the author Emile Zola who had been accused of defaming the high command of the French army with an open letter that alleged the Dreyfus affair was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the wake of Zola’s article, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines as to who was the real traitor. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word ‘intellectual’ was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

One might expect Wilde, who had so recently suffered public prejudice and a painful jail term, would be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Instead he spent a number of evenings in the company of the real culprit, Esterhazy.

There were a number of reasons he might have made this choice. One may have been his personal feelings about Zola. Zola, whose works were also frequent targets of censorship, had fathered two children with his live-in seamstress under the nose of his wife, but had refused to sign a petition calling for clemency in Wilde’s conviction.

Most of the people in Wilde’s circle at the time were anti-Dreyfusards including Douglas, Strong, and journalists Frank Harris and Robert Sherard. Was Wilde the singular standout among his circle? As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

What Wilde actually thought of the Dreyfus affair is hard to discern. Douglas was an anti-Dreyfusard, although he in September 1898, admitted in a letter to Wilde that things looked rather bad for his side. It is not clear from the letter whether he believed Wilde agreed with him or not. At the very least, he did not think Wilde would be shocked by his opinion. Sherard was not much better at defending his friend against the charge of anti-Semitism than he was against homosexuality. He explained that Wilde’s sympathies were, of course, with Dreyfus. He liked Jews. “’The Jews,’ he used to say, ‘are the only people who lend money.’”

Could Oscar Wilde have been, at the same time, the victim of prejudice and on the side of those who perpetrated it against others?

I was quite interested to read a review in the Guardian of Michèle Mendelssohn’s new book on Oscar Wilde, which I am looking forward to reading. According to the Guardian’s review, Mendelssohn presents Wilde during his famous American lecture tour as someone who was sensitive to being marginalized both as an Irishman and as a homosexual whose feminine mannerisms made his difference apparent. (Max Beerbohm described Wilde as “Effeminate but vitality of twenty men.”) She describes some of the public pillorying he endured in post-Civil War America.

One episode that bookends quite nicely with his socializing with Esterhazy was his visit to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He publicly identified with white Southern farmers, the former slave owners, and told stories that connected him to the most manly of men.

The story, for instance, about the miners he met in Leadville, Colorado – one he loved to tell audiences at his Personal Impressions of America lectures on his return home – was almost entirely made up to make himself seem more masculine.

Wilde would be far from the first or last marginalized person to seek protection by identifying with the oppressors. This tendency could help explain his snobbishness, his attraction to a young man with a title, and his fateful decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  He expected to be able to win over the legal authorities as he had done with so many other establishment figures. It is understandable, but it certainly complicates him as a pioneer of gay rights or a gay Christ. As the Guardian’s article concludes:

Wilde returned from the US in 1883. By 1892, he was London’s leading theatrical phenomenon, the writer of Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. What impact did his American adventures have on his comedy? Mendelssohn links these early hits to the influence of the Christy Minstrels show, an American blackface group that went in for much witty repartee and which always placed a dandy centre stage. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour (he must have known about them; these troupes were attracting audiences far greater than his own). Wilde’s most successful characters often wear masks; he had created, Mendelssohn writes, “his own kind of white face theatre”, one that used the sweetening effect of comedy to expose hierarchy and social prejudice.

Why are these influences largely forgotten today? In his own time, after all, the critics were certainly aware of them. Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars. But the thought also occurs that, perhaps, there is something willed at play here, too. In the 21st century, the good and the bad, the tolerant and bigoted, the free and the closed, are simply not allowed to snuggle up together. Our understanding of what it means to be human – by which I mean to be flawed – grows ever more limited. As we all surely know, Wilde’s extended afterlife has been every bit as extraordinary as his corporeal one. He has long since become a saint, gay history’s Christ figure. It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.

Together these episodes from two ends of his life show how successful Wilde was in crafting his own biography.  The 1997 film Wilde opens with the playwright’s visit to Leadville. Lord Alfred Douglas is depicted in the film (as he was in Richard Ellman’s biography on which it was based) as the alluring but sinister influence he was in Wilde’s De Profundis. The film ends before the story has a chance to get too messy.

With the help of Robert Ross, the story of Oscar Wilde’s operatic downfall and resurrection has endured and continues to intrigue. The biography of Oscar Wilde may be Wilde’s greatest work.

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Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

An Oscar Wilde Ballet in Grand Rapids

IMG_9969I am grateful to the Grand Rapids Ballet for inviting me to come and sign copies of Oscar’s Ghost during the May 11 performance of their new ballet The Happy Prince.

It was an ambitiously original performance in an era when even many larger companies often rely on old standards to attract a guaranteed audience. (Swan Lake anyone?)

Choreographer Penny Saunders was inspired by the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, which she found “haunting and beautiful.”

 

That “haunting” tone was evident throughout the ballet in the musical selections, lighting, and choreography.  It had a surreal quality especially as the light tone and colors of the first act shifted into darkness as the story progressed. I was a bit surprised when I arrived at the theater and looked at the program to see that the ballet was less the stories of Wilde than the story of Wilde.

The underlying drama was Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall with The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and other tales used as narration as metaphors for the playwright’s own life much as the 1997 film Wilde used The Selfish Giant as a metaphor for Wilde’s relationship with his sons.

IMG_9972

Of course, as the author of Oscar’s Ghost, I have some opinions about the depiction of Robert Ross and Bosie Douglas in the production. The Happy Prince depicts the De Profundis/Robert Ross narrative about Wilde, which presents Ross as Wilde’s constant, ever-loyal good influence set against Bosie as Wilde’s passion and bad influence. The program describes Ross as “the helpful swallow to Oscar’s Happy Prince, offering him support and compassion, throughout his life.” Choreographically, Ross appeared, in the form of dancer Nigel Tau, as a calming presence, with a hand on the shoulder of Isaac Aoki as Wilde, after scenes of chaos.

Bosie, danced by Matt Wenckowski, by contrast, was described as someone who Wilde could not satisfy.  “Bosie does little to repay him, dragging Wilde deeper into an illicit world, acting incredibly rude towards Constance, and antagonizing those who disapprove of the two men’s relationship.”

You can see how the illicit world looks in ballet in this clip.

Bosie was a man of moods, and he did clash with a number of people, especially in his later years. There is little evidence, however, that Constance and Bosie were at odds before Wilde went to jail or that he was rude to her.  In fact, Bosie wrote of her in his autobiography in complementary terms.  It does not appear that Constance was aware of her husband’s sexual orientation or habits until it all came pouring out in court.

If you have read Oscar’s Ghost you will know that Oscar did not need to be dragged into the red light district by Bosie or anyone, that some of his other friends were as instrumental or more, in introducing Wilde to “the gutter.” Also Wilde had been playing with the idea of a passion that burns so bright it destroys its object in his writing long before Bosie appeared on the scene. For example in his play Salome, in which Salome wants to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter not for theological or political reasons, but because she loves him and is so determined to kiss his lips she is willing to have him decapitated to do it. It was as much artistic fashioning as actual history and the prison context that made Wilde depict Bosie as a fatal passion in De Profundis and in letters to Robbie Ross.

The entire feud between Ross and Douglas after Wilde’s death was sparked by another question: whether Bosie abandoned Wilde when the money ran out. Bosie sued the author Arthur Ransome for libel for making such a claim. He prepared to go into court to show that he had not abandoned Wilde at all. In fact, he had lived with him, supported him financially and had only separated from him because of insurmountable outside pressure from families on both sides. (At one point when they were living together in Naples, a representative of the British consulate actually came to their house to let the couple know that England disapproved of their living arrangement.)

In court, Bosie did prove that he had not abandoned Wilde, which was supposed to be the whole point. But a strange thing happened. Thanks to personal letters that Bosie had written to Ross when they were close friends, which described events that left little doubt to his sexuality, as well as a dramatic reading of previously unpublished parts of Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis (through which Bosie sat pale, emotionally overwhelmed, and flipping through pages of the Bible for comfort) the trial became less about whether Bosie had abandoned Wilde than whether he had been his lover.

The lawyer for Ransome asked the jury to put aside the question of abandonment and not to reward a person who was as guilty as Wilde of homosexual crimes. The judge instructed the jury in the same vein. The jury found in favor of Ransome, not because Bosie had abandoned Wilde, but because he had not and this disgusted them.  Even so, the opposite impression was passed down through history.  In fact, Bosie and Oscar remained close until Wilde’s early death in 1900. “Somehow he is my life,” Wilde told Reggie Turner.

These historical quibbles, however, are small matters when it comes to the performance. I can’t say, for example, that the idea that Bosie abandoned Wilde was clear to me in the staging of the ballet, and in choreography Bosie and Constance being in conflict can be as much a depiction of the tension of the whole social situation rather than a specific episode of historical rudeness. The stories of ballets exist as a frame on which to hang choreography more than the ballet exists to tell a story.  As George Balanchine said, “In ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell. We can’t dance synonyms.”

The choreography had substantial modern influence, a tone which I found most effective in the third act after Wilde’s downfall. Unfortunately, during Friday night’s performance there were problems with the sound system which caused the dancers to perform passages in silence. This is impressive in its own way. (One of the reviews of a performance of my partner Valery Lantratov’s tour with Rudolf Nureyev mentioned the sound going out and Valery dancing his entire variation without music, which garnered him a standing ovation.) But in the second act, after a loud pop, the curtain closed to deal with the technical difficulty which did interfere with the momentum of that bit of the show. Once the act resumed, however, the pause was quickly forgotten.

Congratulations to all involved, and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of the evening.

 

 

On This Day in 1900: Oscar Wilde Died in Paris

On November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde drew his last breath in Paris. His friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner were at his side.  Robert Ross had sent Lord Alfred Douglas, in Scotland, word that Wilde was dying just the day before.  As he made his plans to return to France, Douglas wrote a letter to Wilde through Ross that said, “Give him my undying love.” This message, and word that Wilde had died, crossed in the mail.

The end of Oscar Wilde’s life is only the beginning of the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost. Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross would spend most of their lives wrestling with the roles they played in Wilde’s downfall, and fighting over the mansucript Wilde wrote in prison, a long essay in the form of a letter to Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis.

Would you like to know more?

Read some reviews and interviews here.

Or order an autographed copy.

 

The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy

oscar-bosie

Thank you to Jacke Wilson for having me on the wonderful History of Literature Podcast.  Really an excellent interview and great to speak to someone so knowledgeable about literature. You can stream or download the interview, and I hope you will! Here is the description:

In Episode 87, we looked at the trials of Oscar Wilde and how they led to his eventual imprisonment and tragically early death. This episode picks up where that one left off, as the incarcerated Wilde writes a manuscript, De Profundis, that eventually leads to a bitter feud between two of his former friends and lovers. Laura Lee, author of Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, joins Jacke to discuss De Profundis, the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, and how Wilde’s legacy grew out of a web of blackmail, revenge, jealousy, resentment, and high courtroom drama.

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.

 

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?