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“Goading a Man to His Doom”

“There is all the difference in the world between ‘goading a man to his doom’ and advising him to bring an action for libel.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

“This is a story about stories,” begins Oscar’s Ghost. The book is, on its surface, an account of a great literary feud. More significantly, it is the story of how a certain understanding of the life of Oscar Wilde became orthodoxy. Today I was reading a review of Nicholas Frankel’s Oscar Wilde: The Unprepentant Years by John Banville, writing in The Financial Review:

The first of the “two disastrous and fateful actions” that Bosie took was to persuade Wilde to institute a libel case against his father…Wilde, in defiance of the advice of many of his friends, went ahead and instituted proceedings for libel, which, as we know, proved a horrible miscalculation, and led to his being charged with acts of gross indecency and sent to jail.

Bosie was to blame. Not even Queensberry is as consistently labeled as causing Wilde’s downfall. Wilde is certainly not.

As it has been immortalized in the grossly unfair but still amusing “Lord Alfred Douglas, Dirtbag” in The Toast:

what are you doing like right now
I’m trying to finish The Importance of Being Earnest
okay well
stop doing that and sue my dad
what?
you should sue my dad
why would I do that?
he’s been telling everyone you’re gay
I am gay
well but he’s being really shitty about it
everyone’s shitty about it
okay
fine
well then just sue him because he sucks and I hate him
that doesn’t seem like much of a basis for a legal case
oh my god
are you going to sue him or not
all I want is a boyfriend who will sue my dad

The quote at the top of this article is from Douglas’s correspondence with the writer and lawyer Elmer Gertz. Douglas was frustrated by the increasingly commonplace the story that he, and he alone, pushed Oscar to his doom. He did not think this was fair for a number of reasons. One was that Oscar was a man with a strong will and was 16 years older than him. Surely he could make his own decisions? It also frustrated him because Robert Ross had given the same advice and had even taken him to his solicitor. “Why am I always the one who is blamed?” he whined.

One of the things that I discovered in researching my book was that there were two common ways of thinking about the case early on that have all but disappeared from view. One was that there was a feeling among the members of the Wilde circle that Oscar was going to win. And, in fact, on the first day of the trial the newspapers were largely on Wilde’s side. The knowledge that it would be disastrous is only available to us with 20/20 hindsight.

For the first decade after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to blame Wilde’s friends in the plural. A number of people, including Frank Harris, who wrote one of his first biographies, believed that it was all of the hangers-on who were to blame and this, not incidentally, included Robert Ross.

Wilde’s fame (and Queensberry’s tenacity) were such that Wilde’s case would be anything but usual. Everyone’s experience of how these things normally played out worked against them. Had any of a series of particular circumstances failed to line up just as they did, things might have ended entirely differently.

One of the main threads in Oscar’s Ghost is the story of how a complex, confusing and messy set of circumstances evolved– with some help from Wilde’s literary executor– into the story we all now know: that everyone but the reckless Bosie could see that Wilde was heading towards his doom. (“I was doomed from the start. Why does one run towards ruin?” begins the U.S. trailer for The Happy Prince.)

Bosie did urge Oscar to fight his father. He was also guilty of the crime of being unable to see the future. He was not the only one.

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Bosie’s Birthday

PhotoFunia-1540219502 Another year has gone by. Another anniversary of Lord Alfred Douglas’s birth. Time once again for the “I am the love that dares not speak its name” tweets and the blog posts about mad, bad Bosie– “Oscar Wilde’s downfall” and “the original evil queen.”

I didn’t know what to get him, especially as he is long gone.  If he got his wish he is a child in heaven. So instead, a little something for you. An excerpt from a French interview conducted by George Docquois published in Le Journal the day before Wilde and Alfred Taylor were found guilty of gross indecency. It is one of those sources that annoyingly comes up after you’ve put a book to bed.

Some of the language here is a bit clunky. This is because it is Lord Alfred Douglas speaking in French, which is probably imperfect, and this author translates it back into English. (Consult the part of Oscar’s Ghost that talks about Douglas’s translation of Salome for more on this sort of thing.)

Docquois spoke to the young exile at the Hotel de La Poste. He was 25 years old, but appeared to the reporter to be about twenty. “He is tall,” Docquois wrote, “At first sight, from head to toe, he appears to me to be blond: blond of hair, blond of skin, blond of habits. Very much in harmony with this general blond impression, three soft hues: the celestial blue of his eyes, the pink in the thread of his linen tie, the mauve of a small, fine handkerchief at the edge of his jacket pocket.”

One of the most notable parts of Docquois’ description of Douglas, is that the writer was most impressed by his “gentleness and sense of absolute calm.” With the exception of his nose, which made his face appear long, his face was “that of a mystic.” Something that didn’t quite go with “the ecstasy of his eyes.”

Douglas told Doquois that he had been in Paris for three days, and had been trying to avoid journalists, although he had just published a letter in the Temps the previous day. It is interesting that he told Doquois that he’d come to Paris because Wilde’s lawyers had told him he might be called to testify and he didn’t want to do that.  (Everything I came across in my research seemed to suggest that he made a nuisance of himself insisting he be given the chance to testify, which the lawyers were against.)

Much of the interview was taken up with questions about Douglas’s relationship with his father.  “You are ignoring what an entirely abominable man the Marquis of Queensberry is,” he said.  He said that until the age of 12 he’d seen his father maybe 20 times, and from what he observed of his manners towards his son, he wondered if he was his son at all. (He and his father often grumbled that they could not be related to each other, no one else in the world had any doubt.) He corrected by saying that of course he knew he was his son, as his mother was a saint. After more of the familiar complaints, he looped his brother Percy into the argument: “My brother detests the marquis as much as I do.” Douquis tried to find a way to broach the sensitive subject of the young man’s relationship with Oscar Wilde.

Douglas said that Wilde did not have the “anti-physical passions” that people believed. “It is only that he is an original being and a fantastic artist. He is always searching out emotions but it is only for ‘moral singularity.’*  So he would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”

Asked whether The Picture of Dorian Grey proved that Wilde engaged in “unnatural acts” he replied that Balzac had described in Un Passion du Desert the love of a soldier for a panther. “And I don’t believe that Balzac has ever slept with a panther.”

(This observation pre-dates Wilde’s famous line about “feasting with panthers” from De Profundis.)

Finally, Douglas was asked to describe his friendship with Wilde from his perspective. At this Douglas became suddenly animated. “I am not saying that it did not have an exceptional dimension. I admit the affection I have for him is extraordinary. Let’s call it romantic. There is no greater joy for me than dining with Oscar Wilde when he is in good form. Our two souls truly communicate it is like something extra-terrestrial. Here, that might seem suspicious, but it is nothing but angelic. And it is now, as we have suffered for one another, that we are most determined not to be separated from one another. Before, I was connected to him for a kind of unique pleasure of a dilettante. Now I am tied to him even more by the persecution.”

 

*This is a literal translation of the text, and I’m sure there must be a better expression, but I couldn’t come up with it in the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Des Moines July 28: The Battle Over Oscar Wilde’s Legacy Discussion and Book Signing

If you live in the Des Moines, IA area, I hope that you will stop by and say hello on July 28. I will be discussing Oscar’s Ghost and signing copies beginning at 3 PM at Beaverdale Books, a great independent book store with a commitment to supporting authors.

Years after Oscar Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and his literary executor Robert Ross ‒ both former lovers ‒ engaged in a bitter battle over Wilde’s legacy and who was to blame for his downfall and early death. The centerpiece of the conflict was Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison manuscript, De Profundis. The furious struggle led to stalking, witness tampering, prison, and a series of dramatic lawsuits. The feud had long-lasting repercussions, not only for the two men, but also for how we remember Oscar Wilde today.

See you there?

Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy – Laura Lee (Amberley Publishing)

Thank you to Out in Print for the first review of Oscar’s Ghost.

Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews

Buy from Amberley Publishing

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

So begins Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee. Ostensibly, Lee’s book is about how Oscar Wilde came to write De Profundis, and the subsequent feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. While…

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Just One More Fact…

I can relate to this from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.”

At some point you just have to declare a book done.

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.

Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

Almost four years ago now, I wrote a post about a response I received in my twitter feed from a success coach who believed one should not say you “can’t afford” something but should frame it in terms of personal choice saying “it’s not in my budget now.” I haven’t thought about it in quite a while.

One of the things that bothered me in the success coach’s response (beyond the general annoyance at the idea of coaching for “success” without the specifics of “at what?”) as I think about it now, was that when there are things that you would really like to do, but you are thwarted because you don’t have money, it is annoying to have someone else tell you that you are actually just making a choice. It minimizes your experience.

Let’s say all your money is gone the day your paycheck arrives, spent on rent and groceries. Then the furnace breaks down and you have to wait two weeks, wrapping yourself in blankets and warming yourself over the stove, because you can’t pay a repair man. Well, I suppose “not in my budget right now” is true, but it doesn’t really describe the difficulty of not being able to get what you need or want.

I was reminded of this old experience when I was watching Meet The Press Daily this evening. The subject was the new GOP health care legislation. Rep. Kevin Brady was not concerned that thousands of people would lose health insurance because, he explained, it would be their choice. “This is health care they can’t afford,” he said, “so they are choosing [to]… wash their hands and say no thank you.”

Think about that. Because they cannot afford it, they choose not to have it. This logic can apply to almost anything. There is no reason to be concerned that 1.5 million people or so are homeless. You see, the reason they are homeless is that they have chosen not to have a home because they can’t afford one.

If you have only enough income that you can either pay your rent or pay for your health insurance premium, I suppose you can look at that as a choice. If you don’t have health insurance in that situation, you’ve chosen housing over health insurance You have, as Kevin Brady calls it “freedom.”