Friday, April 15, 2011


I think I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of Oscar Wilde.  I think he was a damned fool.  While I was reading Richard Ellmann's biography of him, I kept wondering, "What's Bosie's side of the story?"  Finally I sought out a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas.  In fact, I ended up reading two of them, both very partial to their subject, and I have to say it's a sad state of affairs when reading a biography by an author who is totally on the person's side leaves you disliking that person even more than you did formerly.

The two biographies I read are the ones by H. Montgomery Hyde and Douglas Murray.  They don't actually spend much time discussing Douglas' relationship with Wilde, and so in a sense I don't entirely feel as if I got Bosie's side of the story after all.  These books devote most of their pages to Douglas' life after Wilde . . . but in a very real way there never was an "after."  Wilde haunted Douglas all his life.

Well, I figured that since I read those two books I might as well get a blog post out of it.  And in order to keep this post to a reasonable length I decided to focus exclusively, despite extensive temptation, on the trials with which Douglas was involved. I'm not going to tell you about his early gay activism, his eventual marriage (to a woman who may well have been bisexual), his rather dubious poetry, or the habit his rich friends had of buying magazines for him to edit and use as a vehicle for his politics, even when they completely disagreed with said politics.  Nope.  Just the trials. Well, most of the trials.  I don't think I have room for the fake obituary trial.

Fortunately he was a litigious bastard, just like his father, so this should give a good overview of his life and attitudes.

Wilde vs. Queensberry, 1895

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas met in 1891.  By 1895 they had become inseparable companions and Douglas' father, the Marquis of Queensberry, was bothered by this.  Ostensibly he wanted to save his son from the depraved influence of an older homosexual man; and by the standards of his time he was justified in doing anything that might achieve this end. This is a crucial point.  It doesn't matter that Queensberry was violent, abusive, and quite possibly insane.  It doesn't matter that he believed himself to be surrounded by homosexuals:  his father-in-law, at least two of his sons, and the patron of his older son Francis.  It doesn't matter that he wrote letters to his son Alfred such as the following:
If you are my son, it is only confirming proof to me, if I needed any, how right I was to face every horror and misery I have done rather than run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself, and that was the entire and only reason of my breaking with your mother as a wife, so intensely was I dissatisfied with her as the mother of you children, and particularly yourself, whom, when quite a baby, I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed, that I had brought such a creature into this world, and unwittingly had committed such a crime.
The only thing that matters is that homosexuality was "the worst of all crimes" - a phrase which is used over and over again during the Wilde trials.  Or, as Queensberry put it in another letter to his son:
With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression.  Never, in my experience, have I seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. It is no wonder people are talking as they are.
To the modern mind (at least, to mine) both of those quotes are the ravings of a madman.  Queensberry goes on to say that if he knew for sure that Wilde was a practicing sodomite, he would be "quite justified in shooting him on sight."  He was fond of making such threats, but in this case he probably spoke the absolute truth:  society considered death to be an appropriate punishment for homosexuality.  (In fact, in England it was the legal punishment for sodomy until 1861.)

After harassing Wilde for several months, Queensberry finally left a card for him at his club with the words "For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic]" written on it, and Wilde decided to sue him for libel.  For those who don't already know, this was an incredibly stupid thing to do.  Wilde was a practicing sodomite; so first of all, that meant that Queensberry's statement was not libel.  And second of all, if Wilde's sexual activity became publicly known, he would go to jail for it.  Which he did.  What was he thinking?

Lord Alfred Douglas was eager to testify against his father, but he never really seems to have understood the nature of the case, or indeed the meaning of the term "libel."  (It strikes me as strange that the abusive letters quoted above, from a father to his son, don't count as libel but the two words "posing sodomite" do.)  What could he have said to help Wilde win his case?  "My father is a horrible person" would have done no good, even if it were true.  "Oscar Wilde and I love each other" would not have been helpful either.

There is no doubt that he saw this trial as an attack on his father, that he hoped it would provide him with some sort of vengeance, and so he egged Wilde on.  But he was not allowed to testify - in fact, his name was barely mentioned at the trial, even though there's no question that the trial was all about him, and logic would suggest that he was just as guilty of sodomy as Wilde.  Wilde and Douglas were inseparable companions; Wilde spent a great deal of time associating with rent boys; therefore, wouldn't Douglas have been present at many of these encounters?  (Some of the rent boys did in fact testify that he participated.) Nonetheless, the magistrates all agreed that Douglas was an innocent victim who had been introduced to homosexuality by Wilde and could still be saved, if only he were removed from that pernicious influence. Douglas insisted that this was not the case, but no one wanted to listen to him.  Only to his father.

Judging by Douglas' subsequent career, he believed that the courts are an appropriate venue in which to fight your personal conflicts.  I gather that many people feel this way. But it is not a likeable trait.

De Profundis and Ransome 1913, Ross 1914

While he was in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote a long letter to Douglas, which he entitled De Profundis ("out of the depths.")  I haven't read it, but apparently it consists of complaints and reproaches, mixed in with a sort of Christian forgiveness and sanctification of suffering.  Wilde never sent this letter to Douglas; instead he gave it to Robert Ross, his friend and literary executor, with instructions that the original manuscript be sent to Douglas and a copy be retained.

In 1905, five years after Wilde's death, Ross published an abridged version of De Profundis with all references to Douglas removed.  Ironically, Douglas reviewed this edition (for the magazine Motorist and Traveller, of all things) without realizing that it originated in a letter written to him.  The height of irony appears in this comment:
He says that if he had been released a year sooner, as in fact he very nearly was, he would have left his prison full of rage and bitterness, and without the treasure of his new-found "Humility." I am unregenerate enough to wish that he had brought his rage and bitterness with him out of prison.
It seems that Douglas was an admirer of rage and bitterness - and in this case he did not realize how much of that rage and bitterness had been directed at him.  At some point, however, he found out that De Profundis had been a letter addressed to him, which he had never seen in its entirety.  He went after Robert Ross with a fury, accusing him of never sending the letter.  Ross stated that he had sent Douglas a copy (not the original.)  Douglas replied that he once received a letter, forwarded by Ross from Wilde, which he read a little of and then destroyed (presumably because it contained complaints about him.)  Some Douglas partisans insist that this letter was not De Profundis at all.  I suppose we will never know.

But in any case Douglas began an obsessive vendetta against Ross - or, to put it in his terms, he was being mistreated by Ross, partly because of their long-standing rivalry over Wilde, and partly because Ross was still a practicing homosexual, whereas Douglas had renounced homosexuality.  It's interesting to note that both Douglas and his father believed they were being persecuted by a homosexual conspiracy, but Douglas was explicit about the fact that "Ross and his friends hate me because I used to be gay but now I've seen the light."

In 1913 Arthur Ransome (later to become known as the author of a charming series of children's books, Swallows and Amazons) published a book about Oscar Wilde.  He received quite a bit of assistance from Ross, and described the full contents of De Profundis - without naming Douglas, merely saying that it referred to a friend whom Wilde felt had betrayed him.

Douglas sued Ransome for libel.  He was caught between a rock and a hard place.  He was upset because De Profundis portrayed him as the man who had destroyed Oscar Wilde.  He wanted to assert that he loved Wilde and Wilde loved him - but unfortunately, he couldn't prove that without opening himself up to accusations of homosexuality. He lost the libel case against Ransome and redoubled his attacks on Robert Ross.  To make matters worse, Ross had donated the original manuscript of De Profundis to the British Museum, and when Douglas tried to get them to hand it over to him, on the grounds that it was a letter to him and therefore his property, they would not play.

Douglas had begun channeling his father, harassing Ross the same way Queensbury had harassed Wilde, threatening to "horsewhip" him (an expression his father loved to use) and telling everyone that Ross was a sodomite and child molester.  Ross finally sued him for libel in 1914. But, like Wilde, he could not convincingly deny that he really was a practicing homosexual, and he lost the libel case.  Douglas was jubilant; but there were a few clouds on his happiness.  For one thing, Ross, unlike Wilde, did not get sent to prison, even though sodomy was still illegal.  For another thing, Ross' friends and admirers rallied around him, paying his court costs (in England the loser of a libel suit usually has to pay the winner's costs as well as his own) and presenting him with a testimonial prize of £700.  Douglas was incensed by this example of the homosexual mafia protecting one of their own.  (Despite his friends' support, Ross died in 1918 at the early age of 49.)

The Trial that Wasn't:  Aleister Crowley, 1913

 I do have to mention one trial that didn't happen.  Douglas found out that the notorious Aleister Crowley had written a fairly explicit poem about his relationship with Wilde.  He wanted to sue him for libel but was dissuaded.  Douglas' nephew later wrote, "In this he was well advised.  Aleister Crowley was a rich man and an experienced litigant, with a power of invective that left nothing to be desired."  Crowley and Douglas had a lot in common:  they were poets, bisexuals, full of invective, and eager to sue people.  Furthermore, both of them inherited large amounts of money, spent it all in a relatively short period of time, and spent the rest of their lives scrambling for a source of income which didn't involve doing any actual work.

Salomé, 1918

When Oscar Wilde was first sent to prison, Douglas defended their love in many letters written to public figures and newspapers.  He stood by him . . . in his own way.  But later on, as I've mentioned, he renounced homosexuality and gradually came to hate Wilde.  De Profundis must have had a lot to do with it.  Never one to do things by halves, Douglas began denouncing Wilde and unnatural sexual practices at every possible opportunity, even testifying in a trial that had nothing to do with him personally.

Unfortunately I can't take the time to go into detail about the case of Maud Allan vs. Noel Pemberton Billing.  I really regret this, because it's a fascinating story, combining wartime propaganda, homophobia, and outright lies of the sort so dear to today's homophobic, jingoistic conservatives.  Suffice it to say that Billing accused Allan of sexual perversion, based on the fact that she was performing in Oscar Wilde's Salomé, and she sued him for libel.

Douglas turned up to testify as an expert witness that yes, anyone who admired Wilde or his work was a pervert.  Then he announced:
I think he had a diabolical influence on everyone he met.  I think he is the greatest force of evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years.  He was the agent of the devil in every possible way.
 He also published a book called Oscar Wilde and Myself, his reply to De Profundis, which was filled with insults and contumely.

Winston Churchill vs. Douglas, 1923

Lord Alfred Douglas had other things to worry about besides the Lavender Menace.  He also fought bravely against that equally devious and malevolent foe, the Jews.  (It's interesting to note that his two biographers express different levels of condemnation for his anti-Semitism.  Hyde, who was born in 1907, writes that Douglas was not anti-Semitic "in the sense that the term is commonly understood today. . . . [it was] a belief in financial conspiracies, and not a rabidly racial matter as under the Nazis."  Meanwhile, Murray, who appears to have been born around 1980, flatly states that "one particular aspect of Douglas's [writing] shocks today far more than it did then and that is its anti-Semitism.  Douglas was convinced by such stories as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion . . .")

In any case, Douglas believed that certain high-ranking government figures were in the pay of the Jews.  One of the people he accused of being a Zionist patsy was Winston Churchill, and he repeated his conspiracy theories until Churchill finally sued him for libel.  Douglas lost the case and the legal system appears to have lost patience with him. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

When he went to prison, Douglas was 53 years old.  Oscar Wilde had been 41 when he served two years in prison.  They both were sentenced to hard labor, and both found their health severely damaged by the experience.  Wilde lived for only two years after he was released, but Douglas stuck around for another 20 years.  He was a changed man though, much less combative (which does not mean "not combative at all.")  Like Wilde, Douglas wrote a long piece of work in prison, but he named his composition In Excelsis - "in the highest" - a counterpoint to Wilde's De Profundis.

At the end of his life, Douglas' feelings about Wilde softened again.  In his last book on the subject,  Oscar Wilde,  A Summing-Up, published in 1940, he returned to the 1895 trial and stated that "if he had had the courage he and Wilde should have stood up together in the box, openly witnessing to what they believed in:  homosexual passion."  (This is Murray's paraphrase; I have not been able to read the book myself.)  It is a touching declaration of loyalty.  But it demonstrates that Douglas still, despite all his experience, had not the faintest idea of what a libel trial was about.  He thought only of the tragic theatrical gesture.  Or, as he put it:
Between the two of us, neither of us being without brains and courage, we might have made a certain amount of history.  I don't believe he would have got off even so, but we would have at least "put up a terrific show," and the result could not possibly have been worse than it was.

In this book Douglas also argued that homosexuality should be decriminalized (this did not happen in England until 1967), and he closed the book with a sonnet he had written to Wilde in 1903, three years after his death:

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow's gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea's intemperate wilderness.

But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.

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