The nineteenth century was a great period for both the closeting and the uncloseting of sexual themes. We like to suppose that the reaction against Victorianism was a phenomenon of this century, not of that one. But it was of course well under way before Victoria died. In those days writers could make their slight breakthroughs with considerable subtlety. Today writers have to content themselves with bare forked creatures for characters, but then a penumbra surrounded erotic events, and writers of fiction could manipulate that penumbra like a figleaf.
What needed to be disclosed in literature about sexual appetites and maneuvers had in fact been presented in the writings of the Marquis de Sade at the end of the eighteenth century. But these were not widely circulated, and they confused the case for candor and for what Sade called nature by insisting on the need for cruelty. Swinburne and Wilde were among those who had read Sade, and recognized his value as an extreme pole of human expression. When in De Profundis Wilde wished to characterize his future reputation, he said that posterity would place him somewhere between the Marquis de Sade and the celebrated killer of boys Gilles de Retz. This grim prediction was composed out of self-pity, since a sadist was what Wilde was not. He really wrote De Profundis with the object of placing himself somewhere between Sacher-Masoch and Jesus Christ.
Wilde’s temperament was not in fact flagrant, even if his behavior may have been. His personal pageantry was different from that of the great confessional writers, Rousseau or Henry Miller for example; he ranked himself rather with Gautier and Swinburne. These writers and others like them taunted the world by suggesting that the sunset hues of decadence were more noble than the black and white of moral uplift. They hinted also at the possibility that the future lay in their hands rather than in the hands of conventional people. Their method was to offer tantalizing bits. Gautier took the whole of his novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, to undress his hero and make it clear that he was she. (Sade practiced no such patience.) Halfway houses suited Swinburne as well. The defense used by writers of this persuasion, especially from Gautier on, was that they were espousing the freedom of art to deal with whatever it chose. Wilde had in mind not only Gautier and Swinburne, but also Balzac, who took up homosexuality in La Fille aux yeux d’or, and in Illusions perdues, without bothering to give it a name. That is, Vautrin, the archcriminal, seduces the ingenuous Lucien de Rubempré as they sit in a coach bound for Paris, although nothing is said beyond the repeated offer of a cigar and Lucien’s eventual acceptance of it.
Lucien de Rubempré became in fact the nineteenth-century type of the homosexual beloved, as Antinoös, Hadrian’s lover, was for classical times. Such figures function in the à rebours tradition as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra do in the more conventional one. So a character in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying declares, “The greatest tragedy of my life was the death of Lucien de Rubempre.” This sentence in turn aroused the indignation of Proust, for whom it was bookridden aestheticism, duly punished in Wilde’s case outside the covers of a book. But it was really part of Wilde’s subtle effort to bring to light and so gain countenance for sexual feelings like his own, an effort that involved small yet continual affronts to conventional moral expectations. Under cover of aestheticism, Wilde was claiming that there could be a homosexual as well as a heterosexual gallery of lovers.
Wilde was in a line of succession that in the nineteenth century had its principal spokesman in Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass, published forty-five years before Wilde’s dialogue, had a language and style grand enough to pass off homosexual friendship as just male bonding. When the first edition found favor, Whitman went a few steps farther in his Calamus poems. But when asked by John Addington Symonds if his proclivities were not in fact homosexual, Whitman denied the idea vigorously, as Wilde was to do at his trial a few years later, and to prove his case said he had begotten ten illegitimate children. The reply shows at least the relative acceptability of fornication and sodomy. None of Whitman’s illegitimate offspring has ever surfaced.
Although in the late nineteenth century homosexuality remained largely undiscussable in England and the United States, there was pressure to acknowledge its existence not only from such writers as Whitman and Wilde but also from French writers. The affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud had led spectacularly to a pistol shot and a prison sentence, but that was in another country, and didn’t prevent Verlaine from being invited to lecture at Oxford and London in 1892. French poets were too exotic to be corrupting. In England, during the 1870s and 1880s, that is, when Wilde was beginning to find his theme, the most overt expressions of homosexual feeling were those shrouded in the folds of Walter Pater’s prose. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance described Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Winckelmann in such a way as to seduce young readers by the wiles of culture and the nuances of style. When his underlying intention threatened to become too clear, he modified parts of the book for a second edition. Yet having done so he dared to write Marius the Epicurean, in which Marius and Flavian attain a summit of idealized friendship, consecrated by Flavian’s death. And in the book he was writing at the time he died, in 1894, Gaston de Latour, the surviving manuscript (much of it still unpublished) is known to offer a much more open account of homoerotic friendship.
The gathering pressure of this subject led to many near misses of disclosure, yet also provoked countermeasures from the authorities. There was no lack of laws against buggery, but lesser infractions could still go scot-free until the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885. Henry Labouchère proposed a seven-year maximum prison sentence, but the government reduced it to two. Queen Victoria, being asked whether the law should not apply also to women, made her famous Victorian pronouncement that no woman could or would do that sort of thing.
The widespread uneasiness about homosexuality needs no better testimony than this official attempt to stop it. The stage had been set. More than any other writer of his time in England, Wilde recognized that homosexuality was the great undercover subject. He relished belonging to an illegal confederation. He enjoyed its connections with aestheticism, which offered to liberate literature by cultivating unusual feelings, and with socialism, which in his version offered to liberate politics by a kind of self-indulgent generosity. To express his point of view as directly as he could, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian, like Mademoiselle de Maupin, does not limit himself to one sex. He ruins young men offstage, and a young woman onstage. He kills the painter who loves him, and then blackmails a friend, presumably by threatening to disclose homosexual offenses, into disposing of the corpse, and thereby he causes that friend’s suicide, he has a seducer, Lord Henry Wotton, whose very name suggests, among other things, Balzac’s Vautrin as the name Dorian suggests Lucien. Wilde was attacked for immorality, but he had cagily left Dorian’s sin unspecified, while clearly implying involvements with both sexes; and he could point to Dorian’s punishment as evidence of moral retribution. The morality is exceedingly pat, and the punishment meted out to Dorian is so grandly symbolic as almost to lend the offenses themselves an additional savor.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has as part of its importance in history the fact that it comes closer than any other English novel of its time (apart from pornographic ones) to treating homosexuality overtly. (Today it seems muted enough.) Its daring led others to boldness, some being satellites of Wilde such as John Gray, Alfred Douglas, Olive Custance, others being French friends of his such as Pierre Louÿs and André Gide. Wilde had an immediate effect, beyond the vaguer ones of Whitman and Pater, on the exploitation of this literary theme. Dorian Gray was matched by only two works written in English in the Nineties that deal with the same theme just as indirectly (but more adroitly), one being Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896), and the other The Turn of the Screw (1897) by Henry James. Housman’s poems all have to do with lads, though lasses are thrown in for the sake of decorum. He sent a copy of the book to Wilde in prison, no doubt in recognition of their shared proclivity, and in sympathy for the man who had been forced to take the blame for it.
The Turn of the Screw veils and unveils sins like Dorian’s, but makes them much more monstrous by involving children in them. Like Dorian, the two children, Miles and Flora, are represented as perfectly beautiful; they look like angels even though they are totally corrupt. As if to point up the homosexual theme, rather than to offer a round robin of sexuality, James has Miles go off for hours with Peter Quint, and Flora with Miss Jessel. Miles corrupts other boys at his school just as Dorian corrupts other men. It is as the governess realizes something “against nature.” The preternatural theme is operated not through a magical portrait, but through equally magical ghosts, who at last manifest themselves as pure evil, like the portrait of Dorian and then Dorian himself, just as Miles is dying. (James dispenses with the artistic parable, that life and art cannot ultimately be severed from each other, as irrelevant.) Wilde read James’s story after he came out of prison, and thought it “a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale like an Elizabethan tragedy.” He complained, however, that James lacked passion, a complaint he had made also about Pater, and one which was perhaps his accustomed comment on repressed homosexuals. It did not fit Henry James.
Wilde did not lack passion; his characters are overwhelmed by it. He wanted a consuming passion, he got it and was consumed by it. Wilde and Alfred Douglas met in 1891. At the time Dorian Gray had only recently been published in book form, and Douglas’s astonishing youthfulness of expression made some suspect that he was the model for Dorian. Douglas specifically disclaimed being so in later letters to Rachilde: “Je ne suis pas un Dorian Gray pour avoir un portrait sur lequel se masqueraient les signes d’une âme corrompue…. Si à 27 ans j’ai la figure d’un enfant de 18 ans, c’est que mon âme est simple belle et serène, quoi’-qu’un peu fatiguée et martyrisée.” Wilde had written the book by the time they first met, and he had no need of models for Dorian, who was a stereo-type of desirable youth, but one that young men were glad to fit into. So John Gray signed himself Dorian, and Douglas did not mind Wilde’s nicknaming him Dorian. But Douglas had no need of literary prototypes to enhance his quite astonishing male beauty, his golden hair and deep blue eyes against a pale face.
Their own accounts of what happened next are at variance. Douglas says that Wilde laid siege to him and finally in about six months won him. Wilde’s nature, however, was to court everyone, so Douglas may have mistaken for wooing what was meant only as benevolent flattery. Wilde at any rate denied that the initiative lay with him. Instead he maintained in De Profundis that they had had only a slight acquaintance until the spring of 1892, when Douglas suddenly came or wrote to him for help. The reason was blackmail. Wilde went to Oxford and stayed the weekend in Douglas’s rooms in the High Street. He resolved the crisis airily enough by having a London solicitor pay the black-mailer a hundred pounds and recover whatever was incriminating.
The love affair began then under the threat of blackmail, and under this threat it flourished. Douglas wrote an act or two of a play to be entitled The Blackmailers. The affair seems fully developed by the late spring of 1892, when Wilde presented a book “To the gilt-mailed Boy at Oxford, in the heart of June.” Douglas went to stay with the Wildes at Cromer in Norfolk in September 1892, after which the Wildes went to stay with Lady Queensberry at Bracknell. The visit had the embarrassment associated with meeting one’s beloved’s mother. Lady Queensberry was anxious about her son; she knew she could not force an immediate rupture in his friendship with Wilde, but she appealed to Wilde for advice and help, and in so doing insinuated the potential difficulties of the relationship. She spoke frankly and warningly of Bosie’s vanity and spendthrift habits. Wilde, vain and spendthrift himself, was too enamored to do more than smile at these alleged defects in his friend.
Notwithstanding her indirection, the admonitory element was still present enough for Wilde to give the name Lady Bracknell to the dominating and proper mother in The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Queensberry’s efforts with Wilde failed, but within a month he was to discover what a spendthrift was. His letters to Douglas became declarations of increasing financial embarrassment and concomitantly of increasing love. The combination had its own luster as paired abandonments of control.
Douglas, for his part, delighted in dependence, itself an exercise of power. He had no need to importune his friend, who was generous to a fault, and it would have taken considerable restraint not to spend Wilde’s money as freely as his own. He wrote later to Robert Ross when Wilde was in in prison, July 15, 1896: “I remember very well the sweetness of asking Oscar for money. It was a sweet humiliation and exquisite pleasure to both of us.” Being kept was part of the pleasure of being loved. Wilde’s pleasure in the arrangement was perhaps a little less exquisite. When the Marquess of Queensberry threatened to cut off Bosie’s allowance, Bosie encouraged him to do so. He thereby threw himself upon Wilde’s generosity. Since neither Wilde nor Douglas practiced or expected sexual fidelity, money could seem to be the stamp and seal of their blinding affection.
Douglas, as Wilde conceded even when he was uttering recriminations against him later, had the saving grace of being really in love with Wilde. He sent him poems, the first of which was dated November 1892, a month which was also the month when Wilde first experienced the effects of Bosie’s extravagance. It is likely that in this month they became genuinely committed to each other. The poem Douglas wrote was entitled “De Profundis,” a proleptic irony: its tenor is that he has a love but cannot say, because of its nature, who his love is. This was part of that mixed disclosure and concealment of homosexuality that I have described. It underlay Douglas’s poem “The Two Loves,” written a bit later, which contained his famous line, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” In fact Douglas spoke about it a good deal. To flaunt their role as “nature’s stepsons,” as he called them, Douglas always insisted that their relationship be as obvious as possible. Although Wilde had his own effrontery, he did venture as their relationship became notorious to suggest that, so as to create less talk, they should slip into the Savoy Hotel restaurant by a side entrance. But Douglas insisted, “I want everyone to say, ‘There goes Oscar Wilde and his boy,”‘ so they had to march in the front door.
Alfred Douglas is perhaps best understood in relation to his father, John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry. The impression that has been given of Queensberry is that he was a simple brute. In fact he was a complex one. In so far as he was brutal, he practiced a rule-bound brutality. That was why he had at the age of twenty-four changed the nature of boxing by persuading England and America to agree to the Marquess of Queensberry rules, and also by securing adoption of weight differences, so that boxers might be evenly matched. In his campaign against Wilde, whom he goaded into suing him for libel, he was careful not to go beyond the law himself, and his famous visiting card, inscribed “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic],” carefully refrained from deciding whether or not the pose was real.
But it is not generally known that besides being a good boxer, and an excellent hunter, Queensberry was also a poet. In the Spirit Lamp, an Oxford publication of which Alfred Douglas was editor, Queensberry published “Lines Suggested by Fred Leslie’s Death 3 Feb. 1893,” which were perhaps suggested also by a poem of Christina Rossetti, and began, “When I am dead, cremate me.” In 1880 he published in pamphlet form his most ambitious poem, The Spirit of the Matterhorn. In it he expressed certain views which he thought might placate the Scottish nobility. The Scottish lords had just voted not to re-elect him as one of their representatives to the British House of Lords, as they had customarily done with him and his ancestors because of their ancient line, on the grounds that he had publicly repudiated the existence of God. This rebuff wounded Queensberry deeply. He said he did not deny the existence of God, but preferred to call him the Inscrutable.
His poem was mostly a versification of a further theory that the soul is not distinct from the body, but is the actual result of the body itself. Consequently, the poem urged, one must choose one’s mate carefully so that the descent will be as eugenic as possible, for we reproduce not only our children’s bodies but their souls. “Go, tell mankind, see that thy blood be pure….” The Scottish lords were not mollified.
Unfortunately, Queensberry’s children disappointed him, and some of his famous capriciousness seems to have derived from dismay over their lives and disgust with his own. In 1887 his wife divorced him on grounds of adultery. His son and heir, Lord Drumlanrig, became private secretary to Lord Rosebery, then foreign minister but in 1894 prime minister. Apparently Queensberry suspected that Rosebery was homosexual and was turning Drumlanrig in the same direction. In 1893 he followed Rosebery to Bad Homburg and went after him with a dogwhip. The Prince of Wales had to intervene. Then Queensberry’s younger son Percy married the daughter of a Cornish clergyman, an alliance opposed by Queensberry because he considered the family both too paltry and too pious. To the author of The Spirit of the Matterhorn, the prospective descendants could scarcely be less promising.
The following month (November 1893) Queensberry married again, but his wife left him within a short time, and had the marriage annulled a few months later. The humiliation of being made to seem impotent, though he denied being so, seven years after having been publicly declared adulterous, must have been considerable for this active man of only fifty years. He had been alerted for some time to the peculiar behavior of his third son, Alfred Douglas, and had cautioned him about his friendship with Wilde. Then Douglas had gone to Egypt for four months and all seemed well. But in April 1894, Queensberry saw his son, just returned, with Wilde in the Café Royal, and was revolted by the impression he thought he got. He tried to break them up; he contemplated giving Wilde a beating, but was outfaced; he wrote letters to his son instead, but received replies of a particularly defiant kind. Then, to cap all this, on October 18, 1894 his son Drumlanrig shot himself, the rumor being that he feared exposure of his relationship with Rosebery, then just become prime minister. Though his death was explained as a hunting accident, his father knew what must have happened.
Consider the Marquess’s situation then. One son was dead, allegedly over a homosexual scandal, one had dreadfully mismarried, one was still carrying on homosexually. He was himself on record as presumably impotent. Under such provocation men of better disposition have behaved worse. He seems to have wanted to do well for his children, but essentially they were all hitting him below the belt. His own letters to Douglas were misguided in tone but always animated by concern, whereas Douglas’s letters were hotly intended to give further offense: “What a funny little man you are.” Douglas must have had some unconscious pleasure in being the center of his father’s scene as he was the center of Wilde’s Moreover, like his father, he loved a public quarrel.
What Queensberry objected to was as much the appearance as the fact of homosexuality. He was not entirely certain that it wasn’t all some aesthetic posturing, but it was not less revolting for that reason. As he wrote to Bosie, “With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathesome 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 must be said for Queensberry that the Wilde-Douglas presentation of themselves was distasteful to others as well as to him. Lionel Johnson and John Gray, though homosexual themselves, broke with Wilde over it, and so did Pierre Louÿs. What made it unpleasant? Not, I think, its amorous nature, and not only public displays of intimacy. But something else, which can be glimpsed in Robert Hichens’s book The Green Carnation. This is often described as a parody, but I suspect it was rather a near-documentary.
Hichens uses a fictional framework, so thin that the characters seem too close for invention. His principals are Mr. Amarinth and Lord Reggie, and the moral of the book—for like Dorian Gray it has too much moral—is that Lord Reggie slavishly follows Amarinth’s conversational leads, and in the process ceases to be himself or in fact to be anyone. What Queensberry saw, like Hichens, was that Wilde was taking Bosie over, swallowing him up as in some of Max Beerbohm’s caricatures of the two men together. Douglas knew Dorian Gray by heart, and slipped enthusiastically into pastiche of the Wilde manner, sometimes serious, sometimes ironical.
The main imitation was in the stance taken toward experience. Solemnity was something for other people; triviality was its antidote. Wilde said later that he had made literature out of brilliant triviality: his triviality could, however, be penetrating. Such a remark as “I can resist anything but temptation” is as destructive of hypocrisy as St. Augustine’s recollection of his youthful prayer, “Make me a good man, but not now.” But this could degenerate rapidly. Hichens appears for example to be reproducing Douglas’s actual remark about having laughed at a relative’s funeral, when Lord Reggie says, “I forced my grief beyond tears, and then my relations said that I was heartless!” Or he says, “We always return to our first hates.” It is all a languid patina over appetites which are energetic enough, as Hichens demonstrates by showing Lord Reggie chasing a boy. Hichens, perhaps with James’s disappearing aesthete Gabriel Nash from The Tragic Muse in mind, makes Douglas a wraith of a man.
Douglas could of course be a most articulate wraith, and he had as much emotional power over Wilde as Wilde had intellectual power over him. Their rival domains clashed first over the translation which Wilde had Douglas make of Salome. When it was done, Wilde pronounced it inadequate. If Wilde disliked the translation, Douglas said, the flaws were in the original. In the quarrel that ensued, Douglas assured Wilde that he was in no sense intellectualy dependent upon him. He must have had in mind his independent ability as a poet. Eventually Wilde had to smooth his friend down and, as he said in De Profundis, to take back both him and the translation. The incident nevertheless shook Douglas profoundly, because he had become accustomed to Wilde’s effusive praise of his poetry. (He was later furious to read Wilde’s low estimate of that poetry in De Profundis.) Douglas prided himself especially on his sonnets, but Wilde assured him he was better at ballads. The sonnets have lasted a little better, however. They are contained expressions of his violent feelings, oratorical in their self-justification. Though undeniably deft, and often resonant, they read today as exercises in an outworn mode. To a modern poet like Auden they could only be subjects of parody.
The two lovers had many difficulties during the next year and a half, but they were united in common detestation of the Marquess of Queensberry, whose efforts to pull them apart had the opposite effect of bringing them together. “The emotion of the great crisis fanned the waning fires of our devotion to each other,” Douglas was to write in his Autobiography. The possibility of a recourse to law had been in Wilde’s mind for some months before Queensberry himself precipitated the lawsuit. But his almost habitual attitude to criticism had been to dismiss it as absurd, and it was this attitude which Douglas, scenting a revenge plot in which the greatest writer of the Nineties, wearing his beloved’s colors, would bring low the champion-rulemaker of the ring, urged him not to take.
And so Wilde went to prison as a scapegoat to society, but also as a martyr to love. The letters he wrote to Douglas just before his conviction are of a different kind from those he had written before, which were high-flown and made frequent mention of Narcissus and other mythical models. He is still prodigal of phrases: “None of God’s created beings, and you are the Morning Star to me, have been so wildly worshipped, so madly adored.” But beneath the purple alliteration was real feeling. At this point Wilde felt his entrapment by love had something of the helplessness of Greek tragedy: “Let destiny, Nemesis, or the unjust gods alone receive the blame for everything that has happened.”
In prison Wilde’s attitude changed. He was less inclined to blame Nemesis and more inclined to blame Douglas. He might well ask himself why he had been brought to sue Queensberry. The quality of love that he and Douglas had for each other was of sacrificial intensity, though the sacrifices were necessarily Wilde’s. Douglas’s own recklessness had at least the buttress of a residual share in the ample family fortune, while his own lacked any such props. Although he had urged his beloved to leave the country, the news that reached him of Douglas’s sojourns in places like Capri and Sorrento, usually with a young friend in tow, argued a certain geographical sportiveness at odds with the anchored gloom that Douglas himself communicated to mutual friends. There was some difficulty in direct communication, because Wilde was forbidden to receive letters from more than one correspondent, and was anxious to hear about his children. Douglas could not believe that a family letter from Mrs. Wilde might be preferred to a love letter from himself. He wrote to Ada Leverson of his despair, wishing that “Oscar and I were both dead.”
Understandably, he could not sit still. He informed Wilde, through intermediaries, in August 1895 that he was publishing in a French review a defense of their love, and would include in it the love letters Wilde had written him at the time of the trial. But he misjudged his man. Neither now nor afterward had Wilde any desire to plead publicly guilty to a charge of which he had pleaded publicly not guilty. Confession, if it ever took place, would be on his own terms, not another’s. Then too, the love letters no longer expressed his attitude to Bosie. As he wryly explained in De Profundis, he had written them not because Douglas merited them, but because he was trying to keep love as the dominant theme of his own life. This was narcissism of the most selfless kind. In the face of his absolute refusal to allow his letters to be published, the article was withdrawn. Douglas’s next step, the following spring, was to ask permission to dedicate to Wilde a forthcoming edition of his poems. Wilde refused again, and, to emphasize his disaffection, demanded that Douglas return all Wilde’s letters and gifts. It was Douglas’s turn to refuse. He offered to die instead, this time by himself.
To Wilde’s denunciation, he replied at first meekly, “I know I have ruined his life, although in the process I have also ruined my own. What I did is what I can never forgive myself for, but perhaps he can forgive me.” Forgiveness was slow. Douglas’s mood changed. He felt excluded from Wilde’s life, and what particularly exasperated him was that Robert Ross and others had the access which he was denied. Soon he was complaining that Ross made no allowance for jealousy, “the most terrible of all sufferings.” But in a brisker mood he warned that when Wilde got out of prison, all would be changed. “Nothing in the world can keep us apart. All the friends and relations, all their plots and their plans, will go to the winds when once I am alone with him again and holding his hand.”
He knew his man. Wilde expressed his indignation in De Profundis, yet even this took the form of a letter to Douglas and ended with the expectation that after his release they would meet. They did, in Rouen, and Douglas’s prediction proved true; there was weeping and holding of hands, and total forgiveness. Douglas begged Wilde to come and live with him in Naples, and Wilde agreed to do so, knowing that it would make for further trouble with his wife and with Douglas’s parents. It then became clear that Douglas had little money, and that ways of obtaining more would have to be devised. Mutually dependent, and both improvident, they did not get along so well. Douglas attributed a change in Wilde’s disposition toward him to the fact that Douglas no longer looked like a boy and had lost some of his attractiveness. He underestimated the degree to which Wilde had felt, and at times could still feel, alienated from him. In the absence of companionable Englishmen, they were thrown entirely upon each other’s company. Wilde was finishing The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and later on he would tell Ross that the ballad was not really about prison at all, but about life in Naples with Bosie. Eventually Lady Queensberry insisted that Douglas leave Wilde on pain of losing his allowance. They parted with some relief on both sides.
Wilde still had three years to live, Douglas forty-eight. The two men met from time to time in Paris, but by mutual consent, as well as by submission to interdict, they did not live together. Then in January 1900 the Marquess of Queensberry died. Douglas was to receive something like £25,000 and Wilde proposed to him that a portion of this money be settled on an old and indigent friend. Douglas refused. The same suggestion was made to Douglas by others on Wilde’s behalf, and again refused. Douglas did not acknowledge responsibility for Wilde’s misfortunes. He liked to point out that Wilde had been much older and could have taken any decision he liked. This was true. But of course Wilde’s age made him more rather than less vulnerable. At certain points he probably did wish to temporize, but Douglas felt no such urge. Wilde brought himself to the battle point, and came to envisage vindication either in victory or defeat, the first by a not-guilty verdict, the second by a condemnation so patently unjust as to link him with the noblest victims. The latter occurred.
Douglas was not heartless. Though he felt he needed his money to splurge on a racing stable at Chantilly, he made handouts to Wilde from 1897 to 1900, and paid for his friend’s funeral. But he came increasingly to feel that love for Wilde had ruined his own life, so that the burden of guilt was subtly shifted. When Wilde died, the relations between the two men would have been expected to terminate. But in fact there was now a posthumous connection as tumultuous as any in life. This came about through De Profundis. Ross felt bound to publish it, at first in abridged form so that the initial edition, in 1905, omitted all reference to Douglas. But Ross had no doubt that Douglas was mostly responsible for what had happened, and seems to have conveyed this point of view to several biographers of Wilde. A vague reference to this effect in Arthur Ransome’s life of Wilde in 1913 made Douglas see for libel. (He had already begun to have some success in forcing apologies and out-of-court settlements.)
Ross now felt he must produce De Profundis in its entirety, and at the request of Douglas’s counsel, this was read out in open court. Douglas was on the witness stand at the time, but to the judge’s intense displeasure, mysteriously disappeared during the reading. Understandably he could not bear to listen to Wilde’s reference to his verse as undergraduate, to his stature as low, to his disposition as sponging. Within months Douglas had got ready his reply, Oscar Wilde and Myself. He said later that T.W.H. Crosland, a journalist accustomed to slaughter, had written most of it, though he acknowledged his own ultimate responsibility.
Since Douglas afterward declared that he had forsworn this work, it must be noted that he reaffirmed it in another unpublished manuscript, The Wilde Myth, in 1916—and that he republished Oscar Wilde and Myself in 1919 with a new preface, saying among other things that he had been “born into this world chiefly to be the instrument, whether I would or no, of exposing and smashing Wilde’s cult and the Wilde myth…” and that he was a poet and an honest man. Douglas was capable of long-drawn-out fury, and no doubt his general sense of being innocent, and of being abused from beyond the grave, made him ruthless in absolving himself and indicting Wilde. The book insists that he himself had never participated in any homosexual practices. Homer tells us that Helen, once back from Troy, blamed Venus for having made her run off with Paris, and insisted that all during her stay with him, she had longed to be back with her husband.
Douglas now began to write, in his father’s manner, letters attacking Ross to Ross’s friends, until the pressure became so great that Ross, like Wilde, had to sue for libel. On the witness stand Douglas proved too much for him, and Ross, though he escaped prosecution, continued to feel harried until he died in 1918. After that, he could no longer fill the role of target, but Douglas found another in Winston Churchill. He alleged in print and in public speeches that Churchill had conspired to present the Battle of Jutland as a defeat, when it was really a victory, so that he could profiteer from stocks. Of this and other political maneuvers of Douglas, it can be said that they were no more reasonable than Cleopatra’s. For this criminal libel he was flung into prison for six months, and during that time he composed his sonnet sequence, In Excelsis, as a riposte to Wilde’s De Profundis. He said in it that England was being led by Wilde, as the lord of abominations, to black night.
He was to change his view of Churchill during the Second World War, and he began in the late 1920s to change his views about Wilde, too. By the time he wrote his Autobiography, he had become ardently Catholic, and while his marriage had ended in a predictable divorce, he had not resumed homosexual practices. He attempted to achieve detachment and forgiveness, though the name of Ross could still rouse him to battle. His later years were not affluent. The racing stable had taken most of his funds. He obtained a small Civil List pension, and various friends helped him out. Even on limited means he managed a daily bet on the races, and on his deathday he placed two bets instead of one, and lost both.
It cannot be said that either Wilde or Douglas profited from their love affair. It had lamentable effects for both. Douglas’s love had a fierceness that prevented Wilde from throwing him off, and yet precluded any possibility of calm or content. That Wilde should have been able to write The Importance of Being Earnest in the agitated state in which Douglas kept him is a great testimony to his will and his power of detachment. That play pretends that love need not be feverish, that it can be carried on without distress. It is a record of these emotions only in that it excludes them, pretends they are excludable. Douglas left a record too, in his Autobiography, written in 1928. It is a grimly intent book in many ways, but unconsciously funny too. The claim of honesty, which he makes repeatedly, shows his propensity to deceive himself. So does the claim of celibacy, which he says he has practiced for more than fourteen years; he allows, with no sense of anticlimax, that there was a lapse at the beginning and two further lapses during the first year. He insists that he has through abstinence recaptured his innocence. The book is overtly opposed to homosexuality, but Douglas feels that God led him to “a most beautiful little boy with an angelic face and smile,” who told him where he could find a homosexual willing to testify against Ross. He himself looks forward to being a boy again in Paradise, where one can be any age one likes. Throughout the book there is a sense that inexplicable forces are at work against him: he fails to win a school prize, being “done out of it” by favoritism; he fails to win a race because a doctor has insisted on plastering his knee; he feels that his life is always being thwarted by someone: “English friend after English friend has betrayed me and deserted me and played me false after getting all he could out of me.” All—his father, Wilde, Ross, Churchill—form a kind of many-faced villain, betraying his innocence and candor, forcing him into conduct utterly alien to his unmalicious nature.
Reading this book, one feels how a talent greater than Douglas’s could turn it into a great comic novel, and in fact, I suspect that this has been done by Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire. Nabokov would lead us off the scent by making his homosexual narrator, Kinbote, a giant of a man, that is, someone resembling Wilde; but in character Kinbote is close to Douglas. He claims royal blood as Douglas boasts of his lineage; he too has married a woman who like Douglas’s wife (Olive Custance) calls herself his page. Kinbote too shows tremendous excitement every time a boy is mentioned; he is as vain of his scholarship as Douglas is of his verse. And for Kinbote there is always one classic enemy, Gradus, who assumes a multitude of disguises and is forever out to get him. In the meantime Kinbote himself behaves badly toward a writer-friend who, like Wilde, has left a posthumous work. Kinbote is a more accurate picture of Douglas than that provided by Graham Greene’s play, The Return of A.J. Raffles, where Douglas under his own name, but with an effeminacy that he did not have, persuades the Victorian crook Raffles to burgle the house of the Marquess of Queensberry. So Douglas, if taken by himself, belongs essentially to the annals of comedy, and only when conjoined with Wilde to more somber drama. Perhaps Wilde, more than Yeats or Dowson or Housman, each of whom spent the Nineties in a hopeless love affair, provides the best example of Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée.
It seems that Wilde’s love affair could have occurred only in the atmosphere of partial disclosure, of blackmail and libel suits, that I have described. In a way, he was obliged by the trial to broadcast his love to the world; but he pleaded not guilty, denied everything, and refused to let Douglas disclose their real relations, or to disclose them himself in De Profundis or in any public way. Douglas, after first meditating total confession, fell into the same mode, and held back for years before finally telling, if not all, all but all, but from the stance of a reformed character. His interest lies in his never having really changed, in his having been always the same fallible, fierce, and self-justifying Bosie. That for twenty-seven years he was also Bosie the irresistible, and that he was the beloved in an anguishing love affair with a great writer, preserves in amber his beauty, and his imperfections.
August 4, 1977