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In Lord Alfred’s Camp

Bosie

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 relationship of Wilde and Douglas was not at all like that of Lord Henry and Dorian Gray. When they met in 1891, Douglas, then only twenty, was already the accustomed, casual homosexual, a familiar patron of male brothels, and already being blackmailed. Wilde was still relatively timid, not because of moral scruple so much as because of his being married and famous. Douglas made him more reckless. Their own sexual relationship, as Mr. Croft-Cooke convincingly argues, was probably short-lived, but the emotions generated by it persisted. Wilde seems to have astonished Douglas by his good nature and by his vulnerability. Instead of corrupting the younger man, he sporadically improved him. As Douglas wrote to his mother, denying that Wilde had ruined his soul, “Why, I tell you I don’t believe I had a soul before I met him.” But Wilde could not achieve such moral ascendancy without paying for it. Douglas envied him his larger talent, and disliked serving Wilde as muse. His underlying feelings emerged very strongly later. He had enormous reserves of rancor to match Wilde’s good humor.

One surprising and disheartening element in this book is its evidence that Douglas followed patterns of conduct set by the father whom he affected to despise. In the De Profundis letter Wilde painfully noted that father and son alike would break off a conversation and dash away to write a nasty letter to the persons they had just been with. But there were other resemblances as well, a taste for horses, a tireless love of scenes, a sense of being mistreated by everyone. They shared a kind of legalism in pugnacity, marked by the Queensberry rules, by litigiousness, by, it may be, the ostentatiously Petrarchan form of Douglas’s sonnets against “traitors” and “betrayers.” The parallel became more striking later, when Douglas sent defamatory letters attacking Robert Ross as a homosexual just as his father had done for Wilde. Then, like his father, he went to court to defend himself against libel charges. As if to perfect the resemblance, Douglas even came round to his father’s position about Wilde in his book, Oscar Wilde and Myself (1914), and in his sonnet sequence, In Excelsis (1924), written in prison and intended as an answer to Wilde’s De Profundis. Here he accuses Wilde still of having led him to “the serpent-cinctured tree,” laments his fame, and calls him “perversions priest” and “lord of lies.” Douglas’s hatred of his father was a kind of love, as his love for Wilde had at bottom a good deal of hatred. But in his last years, his ferocity flagging, he became more tranquil and generous.

Apart from his relationship with Wilde, Douglas managed to be in fairly frequent trouble with most of his relations and with several of his friends. He had a notion of a plot against him, the dimensions of which were always increasing; these gradually encompassed lawyers, reviewers, the Jews, Asquith and Balfour, and even Winston Churchill, for libeling whom (by saying that he had profited out of the Battle of Jutlaud) he was imprisoned in 1924. His life was a series of rages interrupted by periods of good manners and wan gentlemanliness. There are moments when even Mr. Croft-Cooke throws up his hands at Bosie’s behavior, but generally he makes as good a case as he can. It is refreshing to have the case argued by someone besides Douglas himself, but the reader feels increasingly like a juryman at a Douglas trial, obliged in spite of persuasive pleading to render an unfavorable verdict.

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