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Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: A Correspondence

edited by Mary Hyde
Ticknor & Fields, 237 pp., $25.00

Oscar Wilde was only two years older than Bernard Shaw, but time and longevity play strange tricks: it is odd to reflect that if Wilde had lived as long as Shaw he would still have been around in the days of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift, that in principle he could have read the Kinsey Report or The Naked and the Dead. As it is, however, his death in 1900 meant that his whole career lay firmly encased in the Victorian age. Within a few years the Wilde era was already receding into the history books, and by the 1920s, from the other side of the great 1914-1918 divide, it must have begun to look as remote as the Twenties do today.

Even so, many of Wilde’s close acquaintances were still alive and active at the end of that decade, among them Lord Alfred Douglas. A very different Douglas, though, from the young Apollo who had first captivated Wilde forty years before. He had lost his looks; he had lost his money (much of it squandered on a racing stable); and by and large he had lost his way. This last he would no doubt have hotly disputed, since he was sustained by his religion—he had become a Catholic in 1911—and by a truculent insistence on his own high, extremely high rank among writers. (“After all, I am the best living English poet. Or don’t you agree?”) But even the friendliest observer could hardly have described his outward career as a success, riddled as it had been with quarrels and troubles, treacheries and illusions.

Wilde’s death came as a heavy blow to Douglas—whatever their merits as poetry, the two sonnets which it subsequently moved him to write, “The Dead Poet” and “Forgetfulness,” carry an undeniable emotional charge; but it also forced him to recognize that he had to arrange a new life for himself. The most important decision he took was to get married. An unsentimental decision, to start with, since even after he had fallen in love with a young Englishwoman, Olive Custance, he set out for the States on a calculated hunt for an heiress. But when he returned to find Olive engaged to somebody else “the blood of a hundred Douglas ancestors surged up” (his own words—he was not averse to seeing himself as a young Lochinvar) and the couple eloped and got married by special license, much to the consternation of the Custance family (and the disapproval of their friend, that stern moralist King Edward VII).

Olive Custance already had some reputation as a writer herself when she sent Douglas the fan letter through which they first met. She had published poems in the Yellow Book and knew many of its contributors; Ernest Dowson had helped correct the proofs of her first volume of verse, Opals; Aubrey Beardsley had designed her bookplate. Beardsley also referred to her, in private, as “silly little O.,” and certainly she was not without her affectations: she was capable of some very fey touches in her correspondence, and given to signing herself “Opal” or even “Wild Olive.”

But all this seems to have been part of her appeal for Douglas. They addressed each other as “Prince” or “Boy Prince” and “Princess” or “Page”; in the early stages of their romance, as Mary Hyde says in her introduction to the letters between Douglas and Shaw, they were like children, “pretty, playful and totally impractical.” And if a certain willful Peter Pannishness was one of the bonds between them, another must surely have been a degree of sexual ambiguity. The one piece of the jigsaw which Mrs. Hyde fails to supply in her excellent account of the affair is that Olive had what her contemporaries would have called a sapphic side to her nature, or at any rate went through a sapphic phase. For a time she was on ardently affectionate terms with Natalie Clifford Barney, while Mario Praz awards her a mention in The Romantic Agony as one of the poets of the period specializing in “perverse” themes.

Whatever it was that had drawn Olive and “Bosie” together (like almost everyone else, she called him by his nursery nickname), their marriage began well. They were happy, her parents resigned themselves to the situation with a good grace, they had a son. But then things slowly began to deteriorate, until Douglas’s conversion to Catholicism led to a breach with old Colonel Custance, which led on in turn to open feuding and fights over custody of their child. In 1913 Douglas lost a libel suit which he had more or less compelled his father-in-law to bring against him, in the course of which Olive left him. (They soon patched up their friendship, but never lived together again.) In the same year he was declared bankrupt, and lost another libel action—this time one he had brought himself, against Arthur Ransome, a young writer whose book on Oscar Wilde (dedicated to Robert Ross, and partly inspired by him) carried the plain implication that Douglas had been responsible for Wilde’s downfall.

Douglas had become an increasingly familiar figure in the law courts ever since he had taken over the editorship of a weekly magazine, the Academy, and fallen under the baleful influence of his assistant editor, T.W.H. Crosland. “Thersites” Crosland, Bernard Shaw called him, a clever, embittered, wheezy, drink-sodden literary drudge, with a taste for litigation and a talent for unprincipled abuse. Life is short, but anyone who manages to get hold of a copy of The Life and Genius of T.W.H. Crosland by W. Sorley Brown (1928) will find in it one of the most grimly absorbing chronicles of Grub Street ever written, to say nothing of some wonderfully scowling photographs of the old villain and the full text, all six hundred lines of it, of the horrible poem with which he assailed Wilde’s memory after the Ransome libel case. It was Crosland who wrote the greater part of Oscar Wilde and Myself, the shameful book which appeared under Douglas’s name in 1914, Crosland who egged Douglas on and did much of the dirty work in the campaign which drove Robert Ross to sue him for criminal libel—which is not, of course, to absolve Douglas, any more than he can be excused because (unlike Crosland, who was simply spreading venom for venom’s sake) he did have some genuine grievances. The hounding of Ross for his homosexuality was meant to get him sent to jail, and although the jury failed to agree on a verdict the case put an end to his public career and may well have hastened his death.

In any case, being influenced is partly a question of who you choose to be influenced by. Douglas and Crosland eventually fell out, and Douglas (who on the whole did rather better with hate poems than great poems) gave vent to his feelings of betrayal in a sonnet:

You were a brute and more than half a knave,
Your mind was seamed with laby- rinthine tracks
Wherein walked crazy moods bend- ing their backs
Under grim loads….

But this did not stop him indulging his own crazy moods, or pursuing the Wilde vendetta unaided. Early in 1918 he gave evidence in a libel case on behalf of Pemberton Billing, an MP notorious for his claim that the German Secret Service had a “Black Book” containing the names of 47,000 prominent men and women whose sexual tastes laid them open to blackmail; the case had been occasioned by an attack on a production of Salome, and under questioning by Billing, Douglas described Wilde as “the greatest force for evil in Europe for the last 350 years.” After the war he moved still further into a murky world of little magazines—Plain English, Plain Speech—which attracted such readers as they had by retailing “fearless” scurrilities and ultra-right-wing conspiracy theories. In particular he became obsessed with the idea that Churchill had deliberately held back reports of the final outcome of the Battle of Jutland to enable a group of Jewish financiers to make a killing on the Stock Exchange—an ugly and empty canard, but he kept plugging away at it until he could no longer be ignored. Once again he was taken to court, and this time he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

One effect of prison was a mellowing in his attitude toward Wilde. While he was provoking and persecuting Ross, he had been a true son of his father, the “screaming scarlet Marquess”; now, a prisoner himself, he thought with renewed sympathy of the friend who had undergone the same ordeal a quarter of a century earlier. Indeed, in some moods he came close to identifying himself with Wilde. Oscar had written De Profundis in jail, Bosie wrote a sonnet-sequence entitled In Excelsis; and there was no more than a touch of whimsy when he commented, years later, that once Wilde had been sent to prison it “became the obvious goal for any self-respecting English poet, and I never rested till I got there.”

Yet however much he may have come to regret his excesses, or the worst of them, the record still stands: Ross was a civilized, gifted, generous man, and Douglas played an ignoble part against him. And even without the Ross imbroglio, he would have been bound to get a bad press. The legend of Wilde’s martyrdom demanded a Judas, and Wilde himself saw to it, through De Profundis, that it got one. In popular tradition—in the films about Wilde, for instance—Bosie has remained firmly cast as Wilde’s slim gilt evil genius. But this is altogether too simple a version of some highly complicated events. If Douglas was at fault in urging Wilde, for reasons of his own, to proceed with the ill-fated action against his father, we should also bear in mind Richard Ellmann’s view of Wilde as a man who “enticed the age to crucify him.” Douglas’s behavior to Wilde during and after his imprisonment was much better than is commonly supposed. Some aspects of Ross’s conduct as Wilde’s literary executor are certainly open to question. And a moment’s thought should convince anyone how naïve it would be, given the circumstances, to take everything Wilde had to say about Douglas in De Profundis at face value.

Small wonder, then, that even after his attitude had softened Douglas could easily be touched on the raw. A particular grievance, which would have tried the temper of a far more patient man, was the continuing currency of Frank Harris’s lurid account of him in Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions—an account substantially if more temperately endorsed by Shaw in a memoir of Wilde which he allowed Harris to include as an appendix. The threat of legal action was enough to prevent Harris’s book from being published in Britain, but it went through several editions in America, with Shaw’s name prominently featured on the cover, until in 1931 a new printing finally prompted Douglas to send Shaw a letter of complaint.

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