Story Telling

The Oscar Wilde Shrine and The Acts of the Apostles

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”-Acts 3:15, English Standard Version

00-story-image-oscar-wilde-temple If you pay attention to things Oscar Wilde, you’ve probably seen the stories about the Oscar Wilde Shrine in the Church of the Village.  (The link is to a story in Vogue, of all places, but the installation has been widely featured.)

I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the idea of a shrine to the man Max Beerbohm once jokingly referred to as “the Divinity.”

As I mused on this, it occurred to me that if Wilde is “the divinity” then the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost is The Acts of the Apostles.

A martyr needs a resurrection, and in our story this was provided by Robert Ross acting, like St. Paul, as the most devoted evangelist of the good news of the meaning of the man’s life, his early death, and his rebirth as an artistic, literary and cultural symbol.

As with the Biblical apostles, Oscar’s apostles were divided on the meaning of the events they had experienced. Paul’s letters chronicle his split with “the elders” on the issue. By the time Acts was written, a more cohesive narrative was starting to emerge– but then again maybe it wasn’t as Luke said he was only writing to set the record straight. In Acts, Paul and the Elders seem much more on the same page.

Incidentally, this is what Paul and the Elders agree as the most important commands to the gentile converts to their young religion:

“Abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled and from blood.”

This is important, as it is repeated quite a bit in Acts.

But I digress…

Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, was responsible for many of the aspects of modern mythology of Wilde.  In this he performed a delicate balancing act. He edited Wilde’s works to make them more cohesive, at times cutting passages that could be interpreted as homoerotic. He wrote critically about Wilde in the voice of the respectable “us” not the marginalized “them” to persuade polite society that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he tacitly encouraged some of the underground uses of Oscar Wilde as a symbol within the homosexual community. He nudged biographers to see Wilde’s story as a classic tragedy, an operatic fall with a tragic end.

His efforts to tell the story and to resurrect Wilde were colored by his own misgivings about his part in the affair, as were Lord Alfred Douglas’s attempts to put an end to a narrative that held him entirely responsible.

I found in the course of my research that in the early years after Wilde’s death it was common for people to blame his downfall on “the quality of his admirers”– in the plural– who encouraged his follies. Robert Ross was largely responsible for shifting the focus from “admirers” to one “admirer”– Douglas.

Over the years people have looked at the bitter rivalry between Ross and Douglas in their middle years and assumed that only romantic jealousy could fuel a conflict so heated. I see something else at work.

New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote of the apostles:

The much beloved teacher of the disciples— the one for whom they had given up everything and to whom they had devoted their lives— was suddenly and brutally taken away from them, publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified. According to our early records, the disciples had plenty of reasons for feeling guilt and shame over how they had failed Jesus both during his life and at his greatest time of need. Soon thereafter— and for some time to come?— some of them believed they had encountered him after his death. They were deeply comforted by his presence and felt his forgiveness. They had not expected to have these experiences, which had come upon them suddenly and with a vividness that made them believe that their beloved teacher was still alive.

Ross and Douglas shared the same deep wound. Could they have done more (or less)and saved their friend from his fate? Had they, paraphrasing Oscar, killed the thing they loved? The skirmishes can seem petty to outsiders, but to them these were not minor points. They were the kinds of regrets that keep people up at night. Each man had to reassure himself, as much as he wanted to tell the world, that it was not his fault. Given who they were, and the circumstances they were in, they had done the best they could.

 

 

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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.

 

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 British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.

 

One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.

 

 

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.

Puzzle of Identity

Collage by Claire Pestaille

In the book Lewis & Lewis, John Juxon describes the solicitor Sir George Lewis’s approach to legal cases. He saw them as a puzzle, Juxon writes, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle they are puzzles in which the pieces can form different images.

This is equally true of writing a biography. The events of a person’s life can be arranged and contextualized in a way that makes her a hero or a villain, selfish or caring, powerful or powerless. In fact, we all have moments that could be used to tell the story of a saint or a sinner, a wise person or an idiot. We play all of these roles at different times.

It is not just lawsuits or biographies but our identities themselves that are puzzles with pieces that can be arranged to create different faces.