Robert Ross

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

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Extraordinary Tales About Ordinary People

“…both Oscar and myself are merely ordinary people who are very fond of one another and very anxious to live peacefully joyously and happily, and without scenes and tragedies and reproaches and all that sort of thing.”-Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his mother 1894

wilde-douglas

Lord Alfred Douglas’s mother was worried. In 1894 she read Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and it struck a little too close to home. Given her son’s relationship with the older Oscar Wilde, the tale of an older man manipulating a younger to depravity disturbed her and she wrote to both Wilde and her son urging them to end their association.

Bosie responded with two long letters defending his relationship. He explained that Dorian was fiction.

There is not one real point in common after that between Lord Henry with his bitter cynicism, his cruelty, his heartlessness and his selfishness, and Oscar Wilde with his humour, an his loyal kind and forgiving nature which make him altogether more like a grown up boy than the sort of cynical subtle and morbid creature which you want to make him out…Lord Henry is an artificial waxwork figure of what Oscar might be, without his enthusiasm, his humanness, his sympathy and his kind sweet nature…

The fact is that no such person as Lord Henry Wotton ever existed…Nobody wants to murder anyone else’s soul…Oscar has no desire to ruin my soul in order that he may have the pleasure of getting a morbid satisfaction from the contemplation of its ruin, he is merely a very brilliant and very irresponsible and very impulsive creature who is very fond of me, and who enjoys life thoroughly, and who wishes to be as happy as he can under the circumstances in which he finds himself placed. I am extraordinarily fond of him, and he is extraordinarily fond of me, and he wishes me to be successful and happy. He always encourages me as much as he possibly can to work and to do something, and so far from wishing to ruin my soul, or ruin anything else, he doesn’t think of such nonsense at all, and he and I can afford to laugh at all this hysterical twaddle and at the same time to regret that it is able to be a great annoyance a great hindrance and a great discomfort…

The notion that one person could mesmerize another and take control of his soul was not Wilde’s invention. It was found in much of the era’s popular literature. George du Marier turned these anxieties into the most popular novel of the era, Trilby, with its manipulative character Svengali. These stories influenced how people interpreted the world around them. When they looked at Wilde and Douglas the story was clear.

Bosie tried to convince his mother that Wilde did not have undue influence over him, in fact he had more influence over Wilde than the other way around. In truth, like any couple, they influenced each other. This would not be the finding of the courts, however. The legal actions that sent Wilde to jail began when the playwright sued Bosie’s father, Lord Queensberry, for libel for the claim that he was “posing” as a sodomite. To defend Queensberry his legal team had to prove that he had made his statement in the public interest. They did this by arguing that Wilde’s “pose” and his position as a famous writer influenced young men to practice the real vices. This framing persisted throughout Wilde’s criminal trials and beyond.

One of Robert Ross’s challenges as he tried to restore Wilde’s posthumous reputation was to counter the Svengali narrative. The best tools he had in his arsenal were Wilde’s own writings.

Wilde had been playing with the theme of the passionate, destructive love affair in his writing long before he met Douglas. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome appears three times in the New Testament. It is, as most biblical narratives are, sparse. The longest account is found in Mark 6:14-29. In this account Harod has John arrested at the request of his wife Herodias. Herodias had married Harod after divorcing his half brother Philip and John had decried this as contrary to Jewish law. Herodias would have had John killed but Harod feared him. The opportunity to act came at Herod’s birthday celebration. Herodias’s daughter Salome performed a dance for Herod that pleased him so much he told her he would give her whatever she wanted ‘unto the half of my kingdom.’ Salome went to her mother and consulted with her about what she should ask. Herodias said, ‘the head of John the Baptist.’ Salome did as she was told and Herod, who was less averse to murder than to going back on his word, had no choice but to have John executed and to deliver his head in a charger to the young woman.

In the traditional account, then, Salome is a passive instrument of her mother’s desire for revenge. By the nineteenth century, however, artists had become intrigued with the figure of Salome herself. She was featured in the works of such Romantics as Flaubert, Mallarme and Symons. Two paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau appear in J.K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours, a book that was highly influential to Wilde. In his play, Wilde used Flaubert’s Greek naming of John, Iokanaan, alternatively spelled Jokanaan.

In Wilde’s conception, Salome is no pawn. She is the one who wants Jokanaan’s head, and not because of his view of her mother’s marriage, but because her desire for him knew no limits. Her lust for him was so strong that she would kiss his mouth even if she had to cut off his head to do it. For Salome Wilde uses language inspired by the Song of Songs while for Jokannan, he draws from Revelation. Thus the language of love is merged with the language of apocalypse. Love destroys its object.

This anihalistic view of love was not inspired by his passionate relationship with Bosie, who he had not yet met when he began composing. It was an artistic myth he already believed, and into which he would write his own love. The concept would find expression again in the Ballad of Reading Gaol as “each man kills the thing he loves” and in De Profundis with Douglas in the role of Salome, the homme fatale whose appetites knew no bounds and whose love was destructive.

De Profundis was Wilde’s response to the notion that he was Lord Henry Wotton. It took the story of Svengali and inverted it. “Dear Bosie” of the letter was based on the emotionally difficult Alfred Douglas– there is no denying he was a difficult man. But the character of Bosie was dramatized and manipulated for literary effect.

Douglas, of course, did not see his relationship in these terms. In his 1894 letter to his mother he wrote, “Surely there is nothing but what is fine and beautiful in such a love as that of two people for one another, the love of the disciple and the philosopher. I think when Oscar’s life comes to be written, as the life of a man of genius and a man who has stamped his age it will be remembered and written about as one of the most beautiful things in the world, as beautiful as the love of Shakespeare and the unknown Mr. W.H… There is no good saying any more except that while I perhaps have no right to say that Oscar Wilde is a good man, neither you nor anyone else has the right to say he is a bad man… Please try and like my friend who is so dear to me.”

He continued to view his relationship in those terms until he was confronted with the unpublished parts of De Profundis years after Wilde’s death.

Late in his life, Bosie told his friend Rupert Croft-Cooke that the thing that bothered him most about De Profundis was the overall tone of the thing, which made his relationship with Oscar into a “solemn sort of thing, crossed with terrible quarrels. But we were laughing most of the time — often at one another.”

The story of the “destructive love affair,” however, has ruled the day. Ideas can spread because they are true or useful. But sometimes an idea retains power not because it is true, but because there is something about it that aids in its transmission. In this case, it is the bias towards drama. De Profundis is a compelling story well-told. When the ancients wanted to preserve their histories through oral folktales they mythologized them. In modern times, a book proposal that is full of drama and conflict will always find an easier path to publication than a book that de-mythologizes.

Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Spin

In his 2014 book Wilde in America, David M. Friedman argued that Oscar Wilde invented modern celebrity.  He was the first of what is now a familiar type: the person who seeks fame in order to enable a career rather than as the result of a career. As he put it:

It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which “celebrity,” a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement—artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds—has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde’s greatest creation was arguably the persona of Oscar Wilde. After suffering the public shame of a trial for gross indecency, the document he wrote in prison De Profundis can be read as the author’s mourning process for the loss of that persona.

When he came out of jail he faced what we might today call a serious branding problem. Enter Robert Baldwin Ross. If Wilde was the first modern celebrity then his trusted friend, business advisor and later literary executor was something else. He was the first modern crisis PR manager.

Ross had a great challenge ahead of him. He had to overcome the popular notion that Wilde was a Svengali who lured young men to immoral practices. He had to convince the public at large that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he wanted to keep the symbol of Oscar Wilde available to the counter-cultural community of homosexual men, while keeping that aspect from interfering with his goal of a wider market for Wilde’s works. As a crisis PR manager, Ross was incredibly successful. Ross achieved something no one thought possible– he brought the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, created a growing market for his works, and with the release of an edited version of De Profundis, the British public started to reassess the man and the artist. If it weren’t for Ross’s efforts, it is entirely possible that Wilde would be a much more obscure figure than he is today.

But as a PR manager, Ross was not acting as an archivist or historian, he was practicing spin. Ross edited Wilde’s works in places to remove lines that might be read as dangerous innuendo. As he painstakingly compiled and edited works whose copyrights had been sold and scattered, he created a more unified Wildean literary style in the process.  Beyond that, he crafted a mythology about Wilde. The mythology of Wilde persists to this day.

One of the interesting documents I came across while researching Oscar’s Ghost was a dissertation on the artist Simeon Solomon by Carolyn Conroy.  (Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungoldly: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, With a Survey of the Extant Works. PH.D. Dissertation. University of York, December, 2009.)

Simeon Solomon was an artist whose work, which featured beautiful androgynous youths, was much admired in the Wlde circle. In 1873, at the height of his artistic career Solomon was arrested in a public urinal for attempting “feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”

Robert Ross wrote the most influential obituary of Solomon. As he told it, Solomon’s arrest was the beginning of a sad decline. After these events the artist was shunned by polite society, his work suffered until he was producing worthless copies of the subjects of his glory days. He ended his life as a poor, friendless alcoholic. If this tragic tale of the brilliant homosexual artist destroyed by the Philistines calls to mind the tragic last years of Oscar Wilde it is no coincidence.
The Ross obituary contains stories of Solomon breaking into a house to rob it while drunk and being admitted to an asylum by friends. Conroy investigated these claims and found that “much of this information is, simply either incorrect or unlikely.” In fact, Conroy found that Solomon was enjoying great popularity in America at the time Ross described him as a shadow of his former self.

The tragic narrative of society destroying its artists in a quest for moral purity served a purpose. It asked the public to consider whether such laws and policies were in the public interest. What is more, it created a compelling narrative at a time when the most popular fiction ended not with happy endings but with tragedy.

But to criticize Ross as a bad historian is to assume he intended to act as a historian. Ross agreed with Wilde that what was important about a story was not its basis in fact, but how it affected the reader. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” By crafting an enduring mythology, he was acting as a consummate and pioneering spin master, perhaps one of the finest ever to work in the field.

Interestingly, even Lord Alfred Douglas, at a time when he was at odds with Ross, wrote that he believed such mythologizing had probably been necessary.

But mythologizing does not exist in a vaccuum. In crafting the narrative to the best effect for Wilde, Ross was also impacting Douglas. In my next article, I will talk about that aspect of the story.

The Best of Friends to Oscar Wilde

robert-baldwin-ross-4Robert Baldwin Ross was a man of wide artistic interests, and an even wider circle of friends. Someday someone will write a fantastic book that uses him as a central focus to highlight the greatest characters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He was an art critic, a promoter of literary and artistic talents and a writer. He is, however, remembered for one thing above all else–he was Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor.

This last identity, it appears, came with a certain ambivalence. I just discovered a poem Ross wrote as the dedication to a copy of his Masques and Phases which he gave to the critic and book collector Clement King Shorter, who used the initials “C.K.S.” when he wrote in The Sphere.

To “C.K.S.”

Of things I do not know the names,

For words I’m at a loss.

You know I am not Henry James,

I cannot write like Edmund Gosse,

No Granville Barker’s buskin mine

To tread upon the corns of law;

It is not mine with Max to shine,

I cannot dazzle Bernard Shaw.

Not mine Corelli’s glowing page

Nor yet the periods of Hall Caine,

Not mine a William Watson’s rage,

I am not Lucas come again,

Only for me the cap and bells,

The motley of a jester’s stock:

Alas I am not H.G. Wells,

I am not even H. Belloc.

Oh call me childish or inept,

Untaught, untrained, untiled.

Oh call me anything except

“The best of friends to Oscar Wilde.”

“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves

In one of his trials for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was asked to comment on a phrase he had written in an Oxford publication edited by his friend Lord Alfred Douglas.

“If one tells the truth one is sure sooner or later to be found out.”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I think that is a very pleasing paradox, but I don’t set any high store on that as an axiom.”

This drew a laugh from the crowd.

I think of this when I reflect on the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad, written after Wilde’s release from the jail, vividly recalled the execution by hanging of a fellow prisoner who had been convicted of murdering his wife. In the poem Wilde reflects upon the nature of guilt and innocence. The difference between the free and the prisoner, the prisoner and the condemned are matters of degree not of character. Each man is capable, under the right circumstances, of the same crime.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

The most famous stanza of the poem is this one:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The line was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reversed in typical Wildean fashion. In the play, Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?”  “Each man kills the thing he loves” is beautiful and affecting as poetry, but I am not sure I set any high store on it as an axiom. There are contexts, certainly, in which it is true, but I do not think it to be a general truism about the nature of love.

It was, however, all too true of Wilde’s life. No one who loved him emerged unscathed, just as he had been damaged by the one he most loved. It all began when a young man fell in love. His outraged father did everything in his power to stop what he saw as the unnatural and deviant influence of Wilde over him.

Years later that young man, Lord Alfred Douglas would remember his role in in Wilde’s imprisonment as “the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend.”

The ballad was written during a brief post-prison period when Wilde and Douglas were sharing a house in Naples. The reunion had infuriated the friends and families of both men. It definitively ended any hope that Wilde would reunite with his wife, Constance, who had seen her family and her way of life torn apart by the trials.

By his own account, Douglas repeatedly asked Wilde what “each man kills the thing he loves” meant. The line cut both ways, and Douglas must have been trying to figure out whether Wilde regretted the damage he had done to his young love or the damage that his young love had done to him.

Wilde’s reply was “you ought to know.”

ConstancelloydAlthough Constance was deeply wounded by her husband’s return to the infamous aristocrat, she loved The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“[Oscar] says that he loved too much and that that is better than hate!” she wrote to a friend.  “This is true abstractedly, but his was an unnatural love, a madness that I think is worse than hate. I have no hatred for him, but I confess that I am afraid of him.”

A few days later she wrote to the same friend and asked “… Have you see Arthur Symons’ review of the Ballad in the last Saturday Review? I think it I excellent and the best that has appeared and I would like to know what you think of it when you have seen it.”

Franny Moyle, who wrote the biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, found this a bit contradictory. “Quite why Constance continued to show pride in her husband’s work, in spite of his condemnation of her, and quite why she continued to provide for him are difficult questions,” Moyle wrote.

I doesn’t seem mysterious at all to me. “Each man kills the thing he loves.”  It was as closest thing to a confession and an apology as she was to receive after her husband reunited with Douglas. She died in April, 1898.  Wilde died two years later.

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

There was still a tragic third act to come. After Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends would spend years locked in furious conflict. Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, was also his former lover, perhaps his first male lover. Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde makes the case that Wilde already had some experience in this arena, but Wilde certainly led Ross to believe he was the first whether it was true or not. (Wilde was always less concerned with the veracity of a story than the effect it had on its listener.)  In any case, it was Ross who introduced Wilde to London’s underground world of men who loved men. When Alfred Douglas entered the picture, he and Ross became fairly good friends. (McKenna even suggests that Douglas and Ross may have been lovers.)

Years after Wilde’s death, Ross and Douglas would do battle over Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis. The drama is too long to recount here in detail, but if you want the whole story I recommend Caspar Wintermans’ Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work. The short version is that Douglas had been unaware that the personal parts of Wilde’s letter to him existed until they were provided to a biographer by Ross and later used in a court case defending the biography against Douglas’s libel suit. Ross donated the manuscript to the British Museum to be published after Douglas’s death. Douglas wanted to write his own answer to the letter, but Ross, as Wilde’s executor, would not allow Douglas to publish quotes from it. Douglas felt that as the letter was addressed to him, he was legally and morally its owner. The letter, written when Wilde was in great turmoil in prison and with the mistaken belief that Douglas had abandoned him, painted an unflattering portrait.

Reading the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, it becomes clear that Wilde often created edited versions of his persona for different friends. In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in Lord Alfred Douglas to Ross. It is understandable that he would do this. Ross was not only Wilde’s sometime lover (McKenna believes they renewed their sexual relationship after Wilde’s release and before Douglas came back into the picture) but also the liaison between the playwright and his estranged family and the man who controlled Wilde’s finances.

Ross truly believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer in the relationship with Wilde, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him. Douglas knew what Ross could not: That after his release from prison, as Wilde was writing to Ross saying that Douglas’s persistent letters“terrified” him, Wilde was actually encouraging Douglas, making plans for a reunion and could not resist writing to him every single day. Ross believed the De Profundis account with few reservations. Wilde had never given him any cause not to.

Lord Alfred Douglas was self-centered enough to believe that anyone who did anything that affected him negatively had done it to him. We should not make the same mistake. Although Robert Ross’s actions with regards to De Profundis were quite unfair to Douglas, it is wrong to assume that this was his intent. Those sympathetic to Douglas tend to paint Ross as driven by romantic jealousy, and the battle that would erupt between the two men is presented as a fight over possession of Oscar Wilde’s ghost.

If Ross harbored bitter jealousy towards Douglas, there is little evidence of it. The two friends occasionally quarreled–friends of Douglas inevitably did– but none of the arguments leading up to his revealing of De Profundis to biographers was enough to make Ross want to destroy his former friend or start a war with him. What was really at stake for Ross was not posthumous ownership of Oscar Wilde, it was absolution. Ross believed he had been the one who introduced Wilde to homosexual practices. Although Ross did not share Wilde’s attraction to danger and “rough trade,” it may have been Ross who introduced Wilde to Maruice Schwabe, who in turn introduced Wilde to the panderer Alfred Taylor, which was the ultimate cause of Wilde’s imprisonment. (Contrary to popular belief, he was not actually jailed for his relationship with Douglas.) Ross feared that he had sent Wilde down the path to his ruin. Ross told Wilde’s biographer Christopher Millard that the reason he was so driven to restore Wilde’s literary reputation and to help his family was because he felt responsible for what had happened.

According to letters he wrote to friends and family at the time, Douglas, too, felt guilt and remorse over his role in Wilde’s downfall. He had been assured by Wilde’s own letters, however, that the playwright did not blame him but “the unjust gods alone.”

Ross had his own comforting document– De Profundis. There was the proof that Wilde did not blame Ross for leading him down that path. Ross was not culpable– it was Bosie who ruined Wilde. Ross needed to make this known, not because he hated Bosie, but because it was the only version of the narrative that allowed him to remain entirely innocent of Wilde’s downfall. The battle that was to follow between Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was not a fight between jealous romantic rivals. It was a fight over who history would blame for the tragic loss. Which one of them had killed the thing he loved?

Douglas may have won his battle–he defeated Ross in the legal arena–but Ross was the clear winner of the war. The term “faithful friend” is applied to him so consistently it is as if it were his official title. The 1997 film Wilde depicts Ross as Wilde’s good angel to Bosie’s bad angel. Wilde is depicted as having no interest in London’s rough underbelly until Bosie introduces him to Alfred Taylor. Wilde goes along reluctantly, to please Bosie. Real history was much more messy. There is no hint in the movie that Wilde had always been so attracted to the seedy side of life that he had snuck out on his own honeymoon to tour the red light district. The audience would never suspect that Ross himself (along with Bosie) was involved in a scandal only shortly before the trials which, had it not been covered up, could have ruined Wilde just as surely and completely.

Ross, who was not in the best of health, could not stand up to the stress of Bosie’s lawsuits and harassment. Most people believe that he was essentially hounded to death by Douglas. Douglas spent most of his middle years in an unsuccessful quest to reclaim the narrative through a series of lawsuits. His mental health eroded and he succeeded mostly in alienating friends and making new enemies.

Each man kills the thing he loves may not be a general truism. But it was certainly true of the life of Oscar Wilde.