Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: A Correspondence
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.