by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Bobbs-Merrill, 416 pp., $7.50
By calling his biography Bosie, a nickname derived from Boysie, Mr. Croft-Cooke implies both his friendship for Lord Alfred Douglas and his indulgent recognition of a lifelong callousness in behavior. The very indefensibility of so much of Douglas’s conduct has drawn defenders to him, and Mr. Croft-Cooke’s book is the most informed and ambitious attempt at partial habilitation. He has had the aid of the fine Rupert Hart-Davis edition of Wilde’s letters, and has seen a good deal of Douglas’s own correspondence, most of which he mercifully refrains from quoting. As a result he is able to give a more circumstantial account of the friendship of Douglas and Wilde than has previously been possible.
A principal theme of this book is that Wilde’s famous De Profundis letters, which Mr. Hart-Davis first published in its entirety last year, was an act of injustice prompted by prison misunderstandings and imaginings. Since this is the most important of Wilde’s recriminations against Douglas, Mr. Croft-Cooke is at great pains to show where it is implausible or unfair. On particular points he must be right. For example, Wilde’s pathetic assumption that Douglas’s mother was on his side rather than her son’s will not wash, and there are letters which show she was well in advance of the English public in hating Wilde. But in other places Mr. Croft-Cook resorts to special pleading. He is brusque with Wilde’s complaint that, after nursing Douglas during an attack of influenza, he contracted the disease himself and was immediately deserted by the friend he had helped to cure. Mr. Croft-Cooke says that “Oscar had influenza, or believed he had, and care and attention were not so easily obtained or so necessary” as when Douglas was ill. Why the care of Wilde should be less necessary than the care of Douglas is a medical conundrum. Similarly, Mr. Croft-Cooke argues that the question of whether or not Douglas egged Wilde on to the libel suit against Queensberry is “largely irrelevant,” since Douglas was twenty-four and irresponsible. Irresponsibility is a curious defense, and twenty-four, even in Bosie, is not so very young. Wilde was of course older (a doddering forty) and had to make his own decisions, but one can sympathize with his desire to avoid incurring more of the ferocious scenes with which Douglas, whenever thwarted, made life intolerable.
Mr. Croft-Cooke is more convincing when he insists that Douglas never received the De Profundis letter from Robert Ross, who was supposed to send it to him. He knows his man, and says rightly that Douglas, if he had seen the letter, would have talked of nothing else at Posilippo. On the other hand, Mr. Croft-Cooke is hard on Ross for withholding the letter, but Ross must have wanted to avoid subjecting Wild to fresh agonies by stirring Douglas up. Ross is treated here with as much severity as Douglas is treated with indulgence.
From this account it is clear that the …