Robert Ross

Robbie and Constance

I’ve been thinking a bit about Rupert Everett’s “Happy Prince” since I wrote my review. (In which, incidentally, I incorrectly said Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince was used in both this film and the 1997 film Wilde starting Stephen Fry. In that film the story The Selfish Giant was used. Pardon my memory lapse.)

As I mentioned, one scene that struck a chord with me was the one between Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. More precisely, I was taken by a scene between Robbie and Oscar, in which Robbie chides his friend for trying to smooth things over with his wife with one kind letter (as he tried to smooth things over with Robbie) juxtaposed with the scene between Constance and Robbie, in which Constance makes the realization that she and Robbie both love Oscar. I suppose, if one were being strict, in a film that is so much from Wilde’s point of view, the scene shouldn’t exist because Wilde would not have seen it, but that would be a shame. The sense of identification between these characters was touching. It is the way I would like it to have been.

I’m afraid I’m not sure it was. Robbie had always been willing to help Oscar’s wife, and after a period of distrust, she came to value his assistance, but he never seemed to respect her as an intellectual or social equal. More Adey, who was his partner in trying to negotiate with the Wilde family, didn’t like her. Their insistence in bidding against Constance Wilde on her life interest while Oscar was in jail– against Oscar’s direct instructions and nearly everyone’s advice, doesn’t suggest that they were particularly empathetic to her or adept at considering her point of view.

Robbie’s paternalistic view is best summed up with the anecdote he chose to relate to Hesketh Pearson in a rare interview.

One day, when I was with them at Tite Street, she asked him if he would come in for lunch on the following day, as some old Dublin friends (a clergyman among them) were coming to see her and very much wanted to meet him. Oscar, to whom this sort of thing was the reverse of attractive said: ‘All right, my dear, if Bobbie can come as well.’ Of course she asked me, though I knew she didn’t want to, and it was then and there arranged. We found his wife’s friends the typical provincial sort, full of their own local news and not much else. Oscar talked during lunch as I never heard him talk before—divinely. Had the company included the Queen and all the Royal Family, he couldn’t have surpassed himself. Humour, tale, epigram, flowed from his lips, and his listeners sat spellbound under the influence. Suddenly in the midst of one of his most entrancing stories– his audience with wide eyes and parted mouths, their food untasted– his wife broke in: ‘Oh, Oscar did you remember to call for Cyril’s boots?

One of Robbie’s less admirable traits was that he often spoke kindly to a person to his or her face, and then gossiped and complained about them behind their back. Robbie’s anecdote probably reflects how Wilde’s homosexual/artist circle viewed his wife. (Interestingly, Lord Alfred Douglas always wrote kind things about her publicly, and insisted they were good friends.) So I don’t think Robbie identified with her, but he did feel for her. He did believe she was mistreated by her husband and he was protective of her.

One of the lasting effects of witnessing what happened to Constance was that Robbie, for the rest of his life, discouraged the marriages of many men in his circle– often at the risk of ending friendships. Some of these men were known to be “homosexualists” others were sometimes suspected of it. He was against Lord Alfred Douglas’s marriage to Olive Custance, although he did nothing to stand in its way.

He tried to intervene in Max Beerbohm’s long, passionless engagement with the actress Grace “Kilseen” Conover. Max described her in a letter to Reggie Turner as “a dark Irish girl of twenty, very blunt and rude who hates affectation and rather likes me.” After describing his love for her, and his intentions to woo her in rather lukewarm terms he implored Reggie “Do be sympathetic.”

Max’s family had mixed feelings about the union. While they disliked her abrasive personality and considered her common, they were pleased that she put to rest rumors about Max’s sexuality and “diverted” him from “an unfortunate set– dangerous friends.” About the only thing they did like about Conover’s bluntness is that she’d told Max directly that his relationship with members of the Wilde circle was harming him.

Max’s infatuation with Kilseen was short-lived. They were great friends, and would be so for the rest of their lives, but there was no real passion on Max’s part. He was in no hurry to close the deal but was also unwilling to break it off.

In 1901 Robbie invited Kisleen to lunch to address the “difficult subject” of her engagement. Kilseen wrote later saying that she appreciated the kindness in his concern. “I won’t say any more about it. I feel mean discussing it even. Mean to Max, for either I should not discuss it, or I should break it off. But all the arguments on the earth cannot undo the last six years. All I ask Max’s friends is not to judge him too unkindly…I don’t want the added unhappiness of thinking that Max has lost any of his friends through me.”

In spite of Ross’s intervention, the engagement dragged on until 1903 when Max fell in love with another woman, Constance Collier, and finally freed Kilseen.

An entire chapter of Oscar’s Ghost is devoted to one of Robbie’s romantic interventions. This time he worked to prevent the marriage of Coleridge Kennard and a married woman named Yoi Buckley. In this case, Robbie did not act to protect Buckley– but to protect Kennard from a scandal involving her. Even so, there are a few things about Kennard that bear mentioning.

Maria Roberts, who wrote a biography of Ross’s lover Freddie Smith, while acknowledging Kennard’s many heterosexual affairs, calls the rumor that he was bisexual “at least plausible…and rumors of this occasionally seem to have emerged.”

Kennard was a dandy and a friend to many in the Oscar Wilde circle. The French artist Jacques Emile Blanche had captured this side of his personality in a 1904 portrait “Sir Coleridge Kennard sitting of a sofa.” The portrait, in the style of Gainsborough, shows Kennard as a luxuriating aristocrat, with elongated fingers, crossed legs, and a dandy’s bearing. His mother, the Wilde benefactor Helen Carew, would not allow the painting to be exhibited between 1908 and 1924. When it was finally shown in Paris that year, she would not allow it to include her son’s name. The effect created by the image can be surmised by the title the exhibitor gave it: “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

In addition to this, Roberts cites Kennard’s posthumously published Olympia which contained a homoerotic romance between an older man, Mirza and a beautiful boy named Alizdel with eyes “as languorous as the/ eyes of a gazelle in springtime;/ his lips as luscious/ as a ripe fruit.”Throughout 1912, Freddie Smith spent a lot of time abroad and Roberts suggests that he spent this time with Kennard at his villa in Antibes.

One last example comes from the the war years when soldier/poets on leave found refuge at Ross’s rooms in Half Moon Street. One of the poets who sometimes stayed was Robert Graves, a young man with thick dark hair and a homosexual past, who was out on leave recovering from shell shock. He had met Ross through Siegfried Sassoon. Robbie advised him on his poetry and on his personal life. In January 1918, Ross, continuing a long tradition of discouraging matrimony, told Graves he should not marry the eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson because they were too young and neither had any money. His letter did not mention Graves homosexual history, but it was undoubtedly a major factor in his disapproval. Like most of Ross’s friends, Graves ignored his marital advice. The marriage lasted only a few years.

(He was more successful in turning Graves against Scott Moncrieff. Robbie disapproved of the way Moncrieff was making advances to the poet Wilfred Owen–who was in love with Siegfried Sassoon. He shared his views with Graves, and he abruptly cut off his heretofore warm correspondence in May 1918.)

Maybe Robbie’s interventions in these marriages dates back to his memory of Constance Wilde, or maybe they were just symptoms of a larger habit of involving himself in the personal dramas of his friends.

In any case, we, the audience, recognize the pain that connected Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. The film presents that effectively as a good story should.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Viewing Oscar Through a Triangular Lens

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The protracted feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death created its own mythology. When two people who had both been the lovers of the same man engage in a bitter fight, the natural assumption is that it is the result of a love triangle. Lord Alfred Douglas sometimes put jealousy forward as an explanation for their feud, but not as often as you might think. Douglas’s early biographer Montgomery Hyde believed it, and framed his story that way. The idea captured the imagination, and it stuck. In fact, both Ross and Douglas–Douglas especially– tended to clash with friends, and they were perfectly capable of a bitter falling out without a love triangle.

Today I read two reviews, one of Matthew Sturgis’s biography of Oscar Wilde and one of Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, and both talked about Bosie being put aside as Wilde’s great love and Robert Ross emerging as Wilde’s “real love.” The problem that I find with this is not that Ross was not a hero of the story, and not that Ross and Wilde did not love one another. The problem is that it sets up the same false choice between Ross and Douglas. Douglas and Ross died a long time ago, we no longer have to be soldiers in their war. We no longer need to take sides. Wilde had close relationships with both of these men, and they served different roles in his life.

You’re certainly free to believe that Wilde would have been better off had he chosen to put Ross in the role that he gave to Douglas, but that is a different question. This is assuming even that Ross really wanted to play that role. I’m not sure this is the case. They had a sexual relationship early on, but Ross was soon off pursuing his own interests. Robbie and Bosie were good friends at this time.

When Ross admired someone’s art he became a devoted promoter of the work, and supporter of the artist, as witnessed by his relationship with Aubrey Beardsley and many others. That Ross was the friend and protector of Oscar the artist, while someone else was his lover, was not necessarily only Oscar’s choice.

I have already elaborated on this, so if you’d like a long form version of this argument go to your library and pick up a copy of “Oscar’s Ghost.”

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Film “The Happy Prince”

IMG_0683 Finally, “The Happy Prince” has come to Michigan.

First, I must congratulate Rupert Everett for taking this project on in the first place. Oscar Wilde has inspired an entire industry of books, journals, scholarly works, and films. That means there are a lot of people out there who are experts on the subject and who have a sense of ownership in one way or another in the story and how it is told. When you tackle such a well-known figure you open yourself up to criticism in a way you don’t when you are telling a fictional tale.

If the film has a motif is is the line that appears in the trailer: “Why does one run towards ruin?” Everett’s Wilde is a man who seems to revel in his own self-destruction to the dismay of the loyal friends who are at a loss of how to help him and who all seem to be pulled down into his wake.

I was especially impressed by the amount of nuance was brought to the characters of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas played by Colin Morgan and Robert “Robbie” Ross played by Edwin Thomas even though neither relationship had a huge amount of screen time. It was refreshing to see Wilde and Douglas depicted as a real couple, not just figures in an operatic drama. They clearly have a history, love for each other, and a level of comfort with one another. They enjoy one another’s company.

It was refreshing as well to see a Robert Ross who was loyal and helpful to his friend, but who also got fed up with him at times. In the 1997 film “Wilde” Robbie Ross is entirely selfless. He doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body. He is depicted comforting the poet John Gray after he’s been pushed aside in Oscar’s affections by Bosie. (In life, Ross disliked Gray.) Edwin Thomas’s Ross is a caregiver, but he does not possess infinite patience. There is a subtle moment in the film where Robbie has been in Paris, where the exiled Oscar lives, and it is clear that he has been avoiding him. Who could blame him?

That leads to one of the greatest strengths of the film. Oscar is the central focus of the drama, but he is by no means a hero. He is often unfair to his friends and careless of their feelings, and yet it is also clear that there is something in him that made so many people love him.

In many ways, Stephen Fry, from the 1997 biopic is a more ideal Wilde. He has a physical resemblance and his background as a comedian makes him a natural as a wit. It is hard to imagine better casting. I enjoyed that performance very much,but Rupert Everett’s late period Wilde gives a haunting performance. He is a complex, suffering, frustrating character. It is like comparing apples and oranges.

If there is one flaw in the 1997 film’s version of Oscar it is that Oscar has no flaws, except, perhaps a weakness for beautiful, spoiled Bosie. He is dragged to a brothel to please Bosie, but he is uncomfortable and passive. Bosie screams and rails at him, and he is patient and calls him “darling boy.”

I always prefer stories where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, where there are messes and people are trying to deal with them as best they can; where people’s own personalities and shortcomings are part of the challenge.

In “The Happy Prince,” Oscar’s flaws are front and center. He is hurt, but he also wounds. He revels in the underworld and he finds humanity there. Both films use Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince” as a narrative device. In the 1997 film it is used to show the tragedy of Wilde’s estrangement from his sons. In Everett’s film it takes on additional poignancy showing what a human place “the gutter” is.

The film is dizzying– quite literally at times– it uses a spinning camera effect a bit too much, but it does give the disoriented feel of a man in failing health, drinking too much, and looking back on his life, which is what Everett was going for. That choice means that some of the subtle moments of the supporting cast go by in a blur.

There was a lovely scene between Emily Watson, as Oscar’s wife Constance, and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. Robbie has scolded Oscar for how he is treating his wife, expecting her to support him financially while he lives with the lover who brought ruin on his family. He says something like “you write her one beautiful letter and you think everything will be ok.” It is clear that he is talking as much about his relationship with Oscar, who treated him badly and then tried to win him back with beautifully-written letters. This is followed by a scene with Constance and Robbie in which Constance asks why Robbie is trying to help her. In that moment Constance realizes Robbie, too, understands what it means to love Oscar and what a terrible price comes with it. It would have been interesting to see the relationship between those characters play out more, but it would have been a different film. “The Happy Prince” is a story about Oscar, and Oscar’s isolation.

The film works well for someone like me, who knows a lot about the Wilde story already.  I was not thrown by the constant moving backwards and forwards in time. The same could not be said for the person who came to the film with me. She knew a bit more than some audience members would, because she read my book, but was still disoriented by some of the brief flashbacks that for her lacked context. There are quick references to Wilde’s prison manuscript “De Profundis,” but if you didn’t already know, the significance of this would be lost. Does it matter? I’m far too seeped in the story to be able to view it that way at this point.

It is also, given the constraints of the medium, quite good history. There are people out there who can say exactly what happened here or there and what color socks Oscar was wearing at the moment. I, myself, could tell you Oscar’s standing breakfast order at the Paris hotel where he died, but I won’t. That would just be annoying. There was little that I bumped on factually.

There were places where Everett filled things in and made choices where the truth can’t be known. For example, Oscar and Bosie lived together for a time in Naples, Italy. They parted because people on both sides cut off their allowances. In order to get the tap back on, they had to agree not to live together any more. They probably had an argument about this. No one else was in the room, so we can only guess what was said. I found Everett’s idea of how this went to be compelling, although I fill it in differently in my own imagination.

There is another scene that I would probably not bring up at all, except that I have been asked about it. I am not sure what counts as a spoiler in a film where the history is known and it jumps about in time, but this is towards the end of the film so: spoiler alert: Oscar Wilde dies.

At Oscar’s funeral, Bosie and Robbie get into an argument. This didn’t happen. In fact, Bosie and Robbie were at something like a high point in their friendship at this time. Even though they had clashed a bit when Robbie was negotiating between Oscar and his wife over the allowance, that argument had blown over quickly. (Both Robbie and Bosie often argued with friends.) Between that time and Oscar’s death, Bosie had stayed in London where he “practically lived” at Robbie’s house. At the time Bosie was grateful for Robbie’s help with logistics and Robbie said nothing negative about Bosie regarding the funeral. The friends wrote each other intimate letters about boys before and after. There were little fault lines in their friendship that would eventually crack into chasms, but that had not yet happened. Even so, I was not bothered by this in the movie. Given the dreamlike nature of the film, I think it can be interpreted as addressing the subtext of the relationship, and some of that, like the break up at Naples, falls into the category of what can’t really be entirely known.

 

 

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.

Happy 162nd George Bernard Shaw

Shaw Gifts One of the things that set me off on the journey that became the book “Oscar’s Ghost” was reading George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas edited by Mary Hyde.

It is a book that fascinated me, not only for how vividly the letters revealed the characters of their writers, but also for what seemed to me to be an uplifting message about friendship between people who have nothing in common. Shaw and Douglas sparred over the editing of Frank Harris’s “Oscar Wilde.” Oscar was a topic that tended to bring out Douglas’s defensiveness and prickliness. But they always came back to treating each other with affection.

Shaw called Douglas “Childe Alfred” and coined one of my favorite descriptions of an aspect of Douglas’s personality that remained into his senior years: “blazing boyishness.”  He wrote to Mrs. Alfred Douglas “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning. But you know this a thousand times better than I do.”

Shaw, who also had a difficult relationship with his father, was sympathetic to Douglas’s familial bitterness, but he did not have patience for the grudge Douglas continued to hold against Robert Ross.

“Ross did not get his testimonial for nothing,” he wrote, referring to a public letter of support signed by hundreds of luminaries, including Shaw after Douglas had tried to expose Ross’s homosexuality in a libel action. The testimonial had always stuck in Douglas’s craw.

“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him. A passage in one of my prefaces on the influence of artistically cultivated men on youths who have been starved in that respect…was founded on a conversation I had with Ross one afternoon at Chartres in which he described the effect produced on him by Wilde, who, in the matter of style, always sailed with all his canvas stretched. Let Ross alone: the world has had enough of that squabble.”

He later wrote to Douglas, “The one thing that no man can afford, and that nobody but a fool insists on carrying is a grievance. Besides, what claim had Oscar on you or anyone else that it should be a reproach to us that we did not spend the rest of our lives holding his hand after he disgraced himself?”

(Of course they did have claims on one another which could not be acknowledged in that era.)

If you have not seen it, George Bernard Shaw wrote a very interesting letter in 1889 in the wake of the Cleveland Street scandal. It was sent to the editor of Truth, but was not published. He argued that “we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted…[on those] whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted right as individuals.”

After the familiar discussion of the ancient Greeks and the culture in schools, which always came up in such conversations in the era, Shaw appealed to the champions of individual rights “to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone.”

Being Shaw, he brought his argument around to socialism and women’s rights. “My friend, Mr. Parke… is menaced with proceedings which would never have been dreamt of had he advanced charges–socially much ore serious–of polluting rivers with factory refuse, or paying women wages that needed to be eked out to subsistence point by prostitution.”

It is fascinating then to read Shaw’s discussions with Lord Alfred Douglas– who was the conservative of the pair–a believer in sin and the evils of liberalism and women’s suffrage–debating the events of Oscar Wilde’s life and their meaning, among other topics. (Shaw had the chutzpah to believe he understood Wilde much better that Douglas did.)

So again, I recommend the book, and raise a glass to Shaw this evening, won’t you?

 

 

 

 

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?