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.
The two men had met only once—at the Café Royal, at a lunch where Harris tried to persuade Wilde not to take action against Queensberry—and apart from a brush in the correspondence columns of the Academy there had been no contact between them since then. Nevertheless Shaw replied at some length, partly justifying himself, partly trying to dispel the fumes and set the whole Wilde affair in common-sense perspective. His letter marked the beginning of a correspondence which was to continue until shortly before Douglas’s death in 1945, fitfully at first, but at fairly regular intervals from 1937, the year in which Shaw started making arrangements for a tidied-up British edition of Harris’s book on Wilde (undertaken primarily to raise money for Harris’s widow—but Shaw also added a preface in which he made amends to Douglas for past distortions).
The contrast between Shaw and Douglas scarcely needs to be labored. They were very different men, with plenty to quarrel about, worlds apart in temperament, background, and beliefs, and by the 1930s, in public standing too. All of which is naturally reflected in their letters—Douglas emotional and aggressive, quickly moved to self-pity or resentment, Shaw responding with that cold geniality of which he was such a master. But they were also drawn to each other, and in its hammer-and-tongs way their correspondence is essentially the record of a friendship.
From the outset Shaw decided to take a brisk line whenever Douglas turned querulous: “Dear Lord Alfred Douglas, Why has Heaven afflicted me with this infantile complex of yours which keeps you making ‘a low-spirited noise,’ like Mrs. MacStinger’s baby, down the ages because somebody has been unkind to you….” (Mrs. MacStinger is a character in Dombey and Son.) Douglas was unabashed. “All real poets,” he retorted, “have an infantile complex. Also, there is the best authority for believing that the possession of an infantile complex is the only way to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” But if he refused to let himself be bludgeoned, he also derived increasing comfort from the interest that the older man took in him; while Shaw for his part relished a role that enabled him to dole out sound advice and moral support. Practical support, too, since at a critical moment in Douglas’s affairs he came to the rescue and guaranteed his overdraft at the bank.
Douglas was overwhelmed (“Beautiful actions, like beautiful music, always make me inclined to cry”) and insisted that they mark the occasion by getting away from the formalities of “Dear Mr. Shaw” and “Dear Lord Alfred” which they had observed up till then. From now on he was going to address Shaw as “St. Christopher”—and couldn’t Shaw call him “Alfred” or perhaps “Bosie”? A small comic misunderstanding followed when Shaw, after rejecting plain Alfred as too cockneyfied (“it has been appropriated by the costermongers”), went on to say that being called Bosie had been the source of half Douglas’s misfortunes, and that the name always set an absurd jingle running in his head:
If boozy be bosie, as some folks miscall it
Then Bosie is boozy, whatever be- fall it.
The couplet is actually a parody of an ancient piece of doggerel (“if lousie is Lucy…”) about Sir Thomas Lucy, in whose deer park Shakespeare was caught poaching, but Douglas missed the reference—how many people would have got it?—and took offense: he assumed that Frank Harris-like aspersions were being cast on his drinking habits. However, Shaw saved the day by coming up with the soubriquet of “Childe Alfred,” which neatly combined the idea of knight errantry with the infantile complex, and “St. Christopher” and “Childe Alfred” the two correspondents remained.
They spent a good deal of their time discussing Wilde. Shaw claimed the privilege of an Irishman in analyzing Wilde’s ruthless exploitation of his Irish charm; he maintained that Wilde had died of an attempt to live on alconol because of the power it gave him as an actor; he had an opinion ready for anything and everything—until one begins to sympathize with Douglas’s cry that “as to the Wilde business, the trouble with you is that you don’t know the facts and I do.” It is hard, too, not to suspect Shaw of a streak of professional jealousy when he clings to the strange view, which he had taken when the play first appeared, that The Importance of Being Earnest is a mere “mechanical farce.” Still, many of his comments are extremely shrewd, and on one thing at least he and Douglas could agree—on the “ferocious will” which had kept Wilde going, and without which it was impossible to understand his career.
Frank Harris was a more contentious topic. So was Robert Ross: Douglas simply ignored Shaw’s observation that Ross “did not get his testimonial for nothing”—the testimonial which he had received after losing his libel case, bearing the signatures of Asquith, H.G. Wells, Shaw himself, and many other well-known figures. (“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him.”) But while old themes crop up, and old ground is covered, it would be wrong to suppose that the correspondence is nothing more than a kind of prolonged footnote to the Nineties. Shaw and Douglas exchanged views on literature at large, and Shakespeare in particular; they discussed the business of the day; and Shaw, always happy to play the instructor, took it upon himself to introduce Douglas to twentieth-century thought.
The method he chose was an unexpected one: he sent him a copy of Einstein and Infeld’s The Evolution of Physics, with a note adding that “Einstein is a poet.” When Douglas finally got round to it, he was indignant. The book meant nothing to him, and if Einstein wrote poetry he evidently belonged to the school of T.S. Eliot and Auden and other contemporary shams. Eliot was a pet abomination of Douglas’s, and Shaw eventually had to counsel him not to be too disrespectful, pointing out the virtues of Murder in the Cathedral and saying that it was in any case foolish (“a bit too Victorian and pre-Shavian”) to talk about Eliot as though he were a moral delinquent.
Meanwhile the two of them had had to cope with a younger generation still. When Douglas’s memoirs, Without Apology, were published in 1938, he was upset by a review that appeared in the weekly paper Time and Tide. In Shaw’s opinion, “as a warning to us old uns that we are obsolete, it was a good article,” although he was less well disposed toward the reviewer: “Muggeridge is another Crosland. His father is a Fabian whom I knew of old.” In fact Muggeridge’s review, to judge by the extract from it that Mary Hyde quotes, seems to have been fairly amiable and quite un-Crosland-like. “Lord Alfred Douglas’s entertaining volume of reminiscences,” he wrote, gave him the sensation “of rustling through fallen leaves of a remote past, another world in which ‘genius,’ ‘artist’ and ‘beauty’ had as rich a content as, now, words like ‘proletariat,’ ‘class-war,’ ‘Communism’ and ‘Fascism.’ “
Which is true enough as far as it goes; but if Douglas’s first allegiance (outside the Church) was to an antiquated literary ideal, he had some decided views on contemporary politics as well, views which partly drew him still closer to Shaw. Only partly, because Shaw distinguished himself, even in a dictator-worshipping decade, by kowtowing to Hitler and Stalin simultaneously, and Douglas had always been as hostile to communism as one would expect. But he applauded Shaw’s sympathetic presentation of Hitler and Mussolini in Geneva, and he was pleased to read a newspaper interview in which Shaw was quoted as saying that “few people realize what a marvellous job Hitler has done.” (This was just after the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia.) Shaw in turn assured him that “of course the war scare is all nonsense,” and Douglas kept Shaw informed about a letter on the political situation which he had sent to The Times (“Mr. Roosevelt’s telegram to the dictators is excessively childish,” etc.), and which eventually appeared, after The Times had rejected it, in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in Berlin.
When the war scare proved more than a scare, they went their separate political ways. Douglas circulated a broad-sheet claiming that “the Left-Wing and Communist element were getting control of the Government,” Shaw remonstrated with him that he had been to Russia and “it is a paradise: no ladies and gentlemen there.” Only after Hitler’s invasion of Russia were they able to edge somewhat closer together again. Douglas had just published a patriotic sonnet in the Daily Mail praising the man he had once libeled so relentlessly, Churchill (“Not that of old I loved you over-much…”). When he told Shaw about it, Shaw replied that he himself was at work on a “prose sonnet,” which he was writing at the request of Fadeyev of the Union of Soviet Writers—and a curious affair it was:
It is as the champion of an idea that Adolf Hitler has flung down his glove to Russia. Russia picks it up as the champion of a far mightier idea. When she strikes down Adolf’s idea she will become the spiritual centre of the world….
In another letter a few days later he told Douglas that he was confident that Russia would triumph because Stalin had “shot the right people whilst we have given them peerages.”
Disagreeable stuff. Still, politics takes up a relatively minor part of the correspondence, and politics apart it leaves an agreeable impression. There is something rather engaging about Douglas in spite of himself, something to do with his mixture of helplessness and pertinacity. One gradually grows to see—from a safe distance, admittedly—why Shaw was fond of him. And Shaw himself has rarely shown up better than he does in these pages, not only as witty and energetic and all the things he is supposed to be, but as outstandingly thoughtful and kind. It was a double act of kindness, indeed, for him to write to Douglas, since in addition to the pleasure they gave his letters had considerable cash value, and he was quite happy to think of Douglas disposing of them to book dealers and auctioneers. After his wife’s death, while sorting out his papers, he went further, returning Douglas’s letters to him on the pretext that they were “recklessly outspoken” and he should have destroyed them years ago, but that now it seemed the best course to send them back. As Mary Hyde says, “This was dramatizing a generous gesture; Shaw knew that Douglas was very hard up and that having both sides of the correspondence added to its value.”
In fact Douglas kept both sets of letters, and after his death they passed into the possession of his literary executor. Permission to publish them was withheld for many years, but when it was eventually given to Mrs. Hyde they were in safe hands. She has edited them impeccably, adding Shaw and Douglas letters from other sources, supplying helpful footnotes, contributing a long introduction and appendices which fill in the background and tie up the loose ends with admirable skill. There is only one tiny gap: she fails to explain the role of Adrian Earle, a young man who had ingratiated himself with Douglas in his last years, beyond commenting darkly in her postscript that “he was a friend who had failed on every count.” This is mysterious, and there is no reference to Earle in Rupert Croft-Cooke’s biography of Douglas or any other book about him that I have come across. But perhaps it is only right that we should take our leave of Bosie’s troubled spirit with one final whiff of sulphur.
December 16, 1982