Robert Ross

Oscar’s Ghost Discussion

I’ve had a lot of requests to share this talk that I did a couple of weeks ago.

I apologize that it was recorded in grid mode, so I’m not as central on the screen as I probably should be. I have uploaded it to Youtube for easier posting, but it is an unlisted link, which means it will not turn up in the search, but people who have the link can share it.

After I did the talk, I listened through and wrote down some things I wanted to expand upon before sharing it, but I then lost the notebook in which I wrote it. Not having the gumption to watch it all again, (I don’t love watching myself) I’ll have to leave it as it is.

There are a couple of things that I do remember I had wanted to share.

One has to do with the part involving T.W.H. Crosland and Maurice Schwabe, which comes in the second half somewhere. I mention Crosland visiting Maurice Schwabe’s flat. The actual details of those associations are actually a bit more complicated. Crosland didnt spend time at Schwabe’s flat, but he and the friend Bosie was hanging out with at Schwabe’s flat were spending time together and went on a vacation together where a lot of debauchery allegedly happened and Crosland was part of that trip. All of this is to be detailed one day in my forthcoming book on Maurice Schwabe. (Really, I keep promising, but it is on the way.)

In the second part, around the 27 minute mark, as I recall, I realized that I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the seemingly endless series of trials between our combatants.  It is hard to keep all the details in one’s mind.  When Oscar’s Ghost was still being put together, I wrote a primer on the trials with the idea that it would be an appendix. In the end, it wasn’t included. I don’t know if I have ever posted it here, but I thought it might clarify some of my wobbling in the middle.

The Trials

The Wilde Trials

Oscar Wilde was famously ‘three times tried’. He filed the first action for criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. This backfired and led to two criminal prosecutions.

1. Regina vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry). March-April 1895.

In the preliminary hearing in the magistrates’ court, before R. M. Newton, Mr C. O. Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Sir George Lewis for Queensberry. In a further preliminary Lewis was replaced, because of a conflict of interest, with Edward Carson and Mr. Charles Frederick Gill. The libel trial was heard by Justice Richard Henn Collins with Sir Edward Clarke, Charles W. Mathews and Travers Humphreys acting for the prosecution (Wilde) and Edward Carson, C.F. Gill and A. E. Gill acting for the defendant (Queensberry). Wilde withdrew his case against Queensberry before all the evidence had been heard, supposeddly on a gentlemen’s agreement that if he did there would be no criminal prosecution.

2. Regina v. Oscar Wilde. April 1895.

Wilde was arrested for a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 based on evidence Queensberry had collected for the libel case. Wilde was tried with a co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. They were charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecency, procuring and conspiracy to procure. Edward Clarke represented Wilde pro bono. Taylor was represented by Arthur Newton. (Lord Alfred Douglas contributed towards the costs of Taylor’s defense.) In the preliminary hearings C.F. Gill prosecuted. Travers Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Newton for Taylor. The Old Bailey trial opened on 22 April 1895 before Justice Arthur Charles. C.F. Gill and Horace Avory prosecuted. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys defended. The jury was not able to reach a verdict and the case was postponed until the next session. The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of jury vote. If their account is accurate, the jury was divided 10-2 on most questions, with the majority in favor of a guilty verdict.

3. Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Regina v. Alfred Taylor

Upon a joint application by counsel to the defendants Wilde and Taylor were tried separately before Justice Alfred Wills. The solicitor general Sir Frank Lockwood (uncle of Douglas and Wilde’s friend Maurice Salis-Schwabe) prosecuted with C.F. Gill and Horace Avory. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys again appeared for Wilde and J.P. Grain for Taylor. Taylor was tried first and was found guilty of gross indecency but acquitted of procuring as no evidence had been presented that Taylor took money for the introductions he made. Wilde’s trial followed and he was found guilty. Both defendants were sentenced to two years’ hard labor. J.P. Grain would go on to represent Wilde in his bankruptcy.

Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W. H. Crosland

In the early 20th Century Lord Alfred Douglas became associated with writer and notorious litigant T.W.H. Crosland and joined in his particular brand of sport. One of their many courtroom adventures is relevant to our story.

Henry Frederick Walpole Manners-Sutton v. T.W.H. Crosland December 1909-February 1910

The son of Viscount Canterbury (and later the next holder of that title) had been one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s best friends until he said he would only invest in Douglas and Crosland’s literary journal if Douglas agreed to take a pay cut. In retaliation, Crosland published a series of critical articles that hinted at Sutton’s identity. Sutton was reluctantly all but forced to sue for libel. Solicitor Arthur Newton (who had once acted for Sutton to extract him from an attempt at blackmail) initially acted for Crosland. After the preliminaries he stopped working for Crosland and testified for the prosecution (Sutton) in the trial. The case was heard before Sir F. A Bosanquet (whose nickname, coincidentally, was ‘Old Bosie’.) Marshall Hall, George Elliott and Storry Deans prosecuted. J.P. Valetta and Mr Rich defended. Crosland was found not guilty of libeling Sutton. Although it had no clear connection to the case at hand, Marshall Hall cross-examined Lord Alfred Douglas on his relationship with Oscar Wilde, giving him his first opportunity to tell his story on the stand. He interpreted the verdict as affirmation that he was an excellent witness. Robert Ross, who had fallen out with Douglas, was offended by what he read about the case. Particularly, he was offended by Douglas presenting himself as a reformed character. It was a catalyst that convinced him to ‘set the record straight’ about his former friend.

The Proxy Wars

Ross and Douglas sparred indirectly a number of times before they actually faced off in court.

Douglas v. Ransome and Others April 1913

Douglas sued author Arthur Ransome and the Times Book Club for writing and distributing respectively a biography called Oscar Wilde A Critical Study. This case was the hub around which the battle between Ross and Douglas turned. Ross had assisted Ransome with his biography and gave him select access to Wilde’s personal letters, including unpublished portions of De Profundis. Douglas was upset by the depiction of his role in Wilde’s downfall and sued for libel. Ross bankrolled the defense and provided personal letters that Douglas had written both to Oscar Wilde and to himself as evidence. The letters from Douglas to Ross were some of the most damning as they showed that Douglas was attracted to his own sex. Paradoxically, in a case where the actual libel was that Douglas had abandoned Wilde, the defense argued that a death bed message that Douglas had sent to Wilde through Ross, which contained the line “send him my undying love,” proved that Douglas had prevented Wilde from being reformed after he left prison, which made him responsible for Wilde’s downfall. (Note that this is different argument than the later understanding of Douglas as responsible for Wilde’s downfall because he involved him with rent boys. It was the fact that they were reunited, and continued to love each other in an “unnatural” way, that outraged the court.)

The trial was heard before Justice Charles Darling. Cecil Hayes acted for the plaintiff (Douglas). Hayes was a personal friend who had been a member of the Bar for less than two years. He probably worked pro bono. Ransome was represented by J.H. Capbell and H.A. McCardie. The Times Book Club by F.E. Smith. The jury found that the passage at issue was libelous, but also true. They also found that the Times Book Club had not been negligent in circulating it. Douglas filed an appeal, but was forced to withdraw it because he had been declared bankrupt and was unable to give security for the costs of the trial. Infuriated by what had happened in the case, Douglas and his friend Crosland began a campaign of libel against Robert Ross.

Ross v. Crosland April-June 1914

Following a long campaign of harassment, Ross finally went to court. He was well advised by Sir George Lewis not to file any libel actions that touched on the issue of his sexuality. Ross found an opportunity, however, to sue for conspiring to induce a witness to file a false police statement.  (The witness was a young man who claimed to have been kissed and fondled by Ross.) Douglas was out of the country, so Ross filed his lawsuit against Crosland alone. It was clear that Crosland and Douglas were on a vendetta against Ross. But Ross had the misfortune of drawing Justice Horace Avory, who had acted for the prosecution in Wilde’s criminal trials. Not only was Avory prejudiced against anyone associated with Wilde, he had an apparent dislike of F.E. Smith who led the prosecution. Crosland was defended by Cecil Hayes, and supported financially by Douglas’s mother. At issue was whether or not Crosland believed the boy was lying. Crosland was found not guilty. Bolstered by his success, Crosland went on to sue Ross for wrongful prosecution. This time Crosland lost.

Ross and Douglas

Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas only confronted each other directly in court once.

Rex v. Douglas November 1914

Robert Ross finally was harassed into charging Lord Alfred Douglas with criminal libel for pamphlets accusing him of gross indecency and blackmail. The case was heard by Justice Coleridge. Ross was represented by Ernest Wild and Eustace Fulton and the defense by Comyns Carr. The trial was turning against Ross, and both were running out of money. The solicitors negotiated a settlement in which Ross agreed to drop the charges and pay court costs, and Douglas agreed to stop libeling Ross. Douglas found a loophole and had a sporting publication publish a libelous article on Ross’s lover, Freddie Smith. The dossier of compromising letters that Ross had assembled for the defense in the Ransome case continued to haunt Douglas well after Ross’s death. It was used against him in legal proceedings until the early 1920s.

 

Douglas v Ransome and Others

I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who attended my Zoom talk on “Oscar’s Ghost” yesterday. It was fun, and I do plan to make the recording available when I’ve had  chance to edit out some of the zoom awkwardness at the beginning.

In the meantime, I thought I would share this video highlighting an artifact from the trial at the heart of the story, the libel case between Lord Alfred Douglas and Arthur Ransome, which was more of a proxy battle between Douglas and Robert Ross.

This is the document from which the prosecution read in court. You will notice that on the first page of the typescript the salutation “Dear Bosie” is hand written. I believe that a typescript copy, sent to Douglas in discovery before the case, did not have this handwritten salutation.

Early on in the case, Douglas tried to deny that De Profundis was addressed to him. He only admitted it was when he saw the handwritten copy for the first time on the witness stand. He would only have done this if the document he had seen lacked the salutation. The lawyer for the Times Book Club even argued in his closing, based presumably on a similar copy of the typescript he had been given to prepare his case, that “Wilde in the De Profundis letter had not mentioned the plaintiff’s name.”

This video reflects the widely held belief that the reading of De Profundis caused Lord Alfred Douglas to lose his case. In fact, after taking up two days of the court’s time with it, the judge instructed the jury that it should not give it much weight. As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

Ransome Trial PhotoThe reading of De Profundis, however, as dramatic as it was, did not cause him to lose his case. Justice Charles Darling, in his summation urged the jury not to take the prison letter at face value. He called it a “most remarkable and interesting document.” He said it should be taken as a study of what a bad man of genius had gone through in prison and its effect upon him. “It would be a great mistake to take all that he said as Gospel truth. The document was an excuse and an apology.” If De Profundis had been the only evidence, Douglas would probably have won the case. As we shall soon see, what swayed the judge, and caused him to direct the jury as he did, were damning personal letters provided by Robert Ross that proved beyond a doubt Douglas was guilty of the same crimes as Wilde. The defence team had strategically held back the letters, saving them as to use as rebuttal evidence in cross-examination. This meant that they did not have to include them in the initial plea of justification. In a statement for a later legal case, Ross would claim that he had produced the letters “under subpoena.” This is unlikely because if he had not made the decision to show them to the Ransome legal team, they would have had no way of knowing of their existence in the first place.

As the judge said in his summation, Douglas had been badly advised when he brought the case, but he had not known that these letters still existed until he was confronted with them in court. If he had known what was about to be unleashed on him, even the litigious Bosie might have thought twice about bringing the action.

The prosecution, financed and instructed by Ross, had used a carefully curated selection of letters to tell a story that Oscar Wilde came out of jail a reformed man only to be dragged back into a shameful life by Lord Alfred Douglas, who left him as soon as the money ran out.

I won’t go into the specifics of the letters here, and how well they represented the truth, but if you have an interest in that, it’s in the book.

Christopher Millard (Wilde bibliographer and editor of Three Times Tried) called Darling’s summation “a brilliant speech for the defence.”

Darling defended Ross’s decision to cut out the unpublished parts of De Profundis while publishing the rest.

The fact that the trustees of the British Museum agreed to take it proved that it was a valuable document. After bringing the case, Douglas could not now complain that the defence had produced De Profundis to show what Wilde’s view was of their relations. Nor, he said, could Douglas complain that his old letters had been produced. “He apparently did not know that those letters had been kept.”

It was on those letters that Darling put the greatest importance. He read one that Douglas had written to Wilde in 1899. The press declined to print it, but Darling described it as containing a “conversation which a decent pagan of the time of Pericles would not have referred to.”

Darling spoke of the attempts that had been made after Wilde’s release from prison “to enable him to redeem his past, and perhaps to still again become a great literary man if only he would give up his evil life. The plaintiff had referred to Oscar Wilde as a ‘devil incarnate.’ If it was true that Wilde was trying to lead a better life, what term might he not well apply to the man who had written that letter?”

He said that it had been proved that Lord Alfred Douglas was the subject of the text in Ransome’s book, and that De Profundis proved that Wilde did hold Douglas responsible for his downfall, and that further letters showed that he did believe Douglas behaved badly after he left prison and that Wilde feared his influence. His final thought before putting the case in the hands of the jury was devoted to De Profundis. “Oscar Wilde was writing this, and it is plain that he was writing it for his own glorification, whether it is true or not. That is quite plain.”

…It took the jury only 45 minutes to find that the words in Ransome’s book were libellous, but also true. They found that the Times Book Club was not negligent in making the book available. From then on there was no more talk of Wilde being driven to excess by “admirers” in the plural. Douglas was now the only suspect in Wilde’s ruin. The only question his supporters and detractors would fight over was just how culpable he was.

Why Wasn’t Wilde’s De Profundis Sent to Lord Alfred Douglas?

One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.

Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals.  I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)

I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.

But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from.  As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.

It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.

I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.

In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again.  (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)

According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away.  Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.

According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.

Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.

If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Ross Celebration Dinner

On May 24, the Oscar Wilde Society is holding a dinner to celebrate Robert Ross‘s 150th birthday. (The sound you just heard was Lord Alfred Douglas screaming in his grave.)

I happen to have recently come across a report originally printed the Boston Transcript on the first celebratory dinner in recognition of Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate.  (These excerpts are actually from the Nebraska State Journal, which on January 14, 1909, printed the wire piece.)

The 1909 dinner celebrating Ross was the spark that finally exploded the friendship between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. When we see such a bitter feud, we instinctively look for a profound cause. Often, in life, a small thing is enough. In this case, it was Douglas’s ungraciousness when Ross finally achieved his goal of putting out Wilde’s complete works and paying off his bankruptcy.

Douglas was frustrated that Robert Ross was increasingly celebrated for his friendship with Wilde, while he was still viewed as a scandalous figure for his own friendship with him. Douglas had always been proud of how he stood by Wilde, and he was jealous at how people were now talking about Ross as if he was Wilde’s only true friend. (This seems to have been mutual. It always rubbed Ross the wrong way when Douglas claimed to be Wilde’s truest friend.) He was frustrated that Ross was able to remain respectable in society while maintaining the type of secret life that Douglas had renounced and gotten no credit for. The celebratory dinner brought out all of these unpleasant emotions. Douglas became peevish and unpleasant.

He publicly criticized Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate in his literary journal The Academy. Ross might have been able to put up with that, but Douglas’s decision not to attend the celebratory dinner at all (and to grumble to mutual friends about it) was the final straw.  Knowing this context, you can read between the lines and see that the slight was still bothering Ross on his big night.

It was the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful evening. There were about 200 luminaries in attendance.

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Thu__Jan_14__1909_

Ross gave a gracious speech full of self-depreciating humor.

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Thu__Jan_14__1909_2.jpg

The friend that Ross is about to mention in this next passage is undoubtedly Lord Alfred Douglas.

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Thu__Jan_14__1909_3

After a brief discussion of the work he did, and making it clear that he did not pay off Wilde’s debts from his own pocket (and a long defense of German art and culture) he went on to clarify that he was not the only person who had stood by Wilde in his hour of need. A perceptive and prophetic line here is “…it is only an accident which made me the symbol of their friendship…”

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Thu__Jan_14__1909_4
Finally, the Boston Transcript reporter spoke to Ross after the event.

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Thu__Jan_14__1909_5

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.

 

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.”