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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold"

One of my top three favorite writers, Diana Wynne Jones, died recently.  She was 76 years old and had been fighting lung cancer for over a year.  It's sad to think that we will have no more of her books, but at least her reputation is assured.  Aside from the slight problem of no one having heard of her.  I wrote about her books on my old blog.

For some reason the book that I found myself turning to is a favorite, but not the favorite of her works.  Maybe reading my favorite one (Fire and Hemlock) would be too sad.  Instead I picked up A Tale of Time City.

Time City exists outside of time.  The inhabitants can travel to any time period, and they keep records of all human history.  They also sell information to people who live 'in history," such as weather forecasts, and arrange family reunions in Time City, where you can meet your ancestors and your descendants.  For a fee, of course.

Time City is a peaceful place, but it has a problem.  The technology that keeps the city separate from the rest of time and space was created so long ago that nobody remembers how it works, and now it appears to be breaking down.  But that's not where the book starts:
The train journey was horrible.  There was a heat wave that September in 1939, and the railway authorities had fastened all the windows shut so that none of the children packed onto the train could fall out.  There were several hundred of them, and nearly all of them screamed when they saw a cow.  They were being sent away from London from the bombing, and most of them had no idea where milk came from.
One of the children on that train is eleven-year-old Vivian Smith.  Her parents are sending her to stay with a relative she's never met before. She's terrified . . . but she "had thought of every single thing that possibly could go wrong except the one that actually did."  Suddenly she finds herself in Time City, kidnapped by two boys who believe she's the key to repairing their technology. Vivian swears she knows nothing about it.  But does she?

I don't know why I like this book so much.  (Incidentally, Jones herself was only five when World War II broke out, but according to Wikipedia she was also evacuated from London.)  Probably it's the way she keeps the suspense going continually, while at the same time throwing in all kinds of little world-building details, like when the boys decide to give Vivian a bedroom that will make her feel at home, and put her in the Ancient Egyptian suite.  Her characters for the most part muddle through - I do enjoy books where nobody knows what they're doing.  Or maybe it's the fact that there are no cows in Time City or in London.

As a writer Diana Wynne Jones did have one flaw, and that was endings.  Even in her published works it took her a while to get the hang of an ending.  In this book it's not so much the ending itself that bothers me as the explanation.  I believe that I understand how it all worked, but the explanation given by the characters makes no sense at all.  (There's actually a typo near the end, which makes me think that whole passage was affected by an editing glitch.)  But that just goes to show what a good writer she was, in my opinion, that even with this flaw her books are still wonderful.

The title of this post is a quote from Milton; it doesn't appear in the book but it is definitely related.  Rest in peace, Diana.