Robert Ross

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.”

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“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.