Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945)
In his prison letter, De Profundis, Wilde refers to Douglas (or "Bosie," a name derived from his childhood name "Boysie") as descending from the "mad, bad line" of an eccentric, dissolute, and sometimes self-destructive family. Some of Douglas's closest family members certainly give such an impression: For example, Alfred's uncle, Lord James Douglas, was a manic-depressive who slashed his throat in a hotel room; Alfred's grandfather, the 7th Marquess of Queensberry, was found dead with a double-barrelled gun at his side, probably a suicide; Alfred's eldest brother, Viscount Drumlanrig, was also a suspected suicide despite an inquest finding that he was the victim of an accidental explosion of his gun, which occurred at the time that he was facing exposure over a homosexual relationship with the future prime minister. Lord Rosebery, whose secretary he was. In his early years, Douglas suffered, he later wrote, because his father, the 8th Marquess of Queensberry, took little interest in his children:
My mother's spoiling would not have harmed me if my father had been a real father, and had ever taken half as much interest in his children as he did in his dogs and horses. As it was, I scarcely ever saw him.... All through my childhood and youth the shadow of my father lay over me, for though I loved him, and had indeed a quite absurd admiration for his supposed heroic qualities, I could not be blind to his infamous treatment of my mother, even long before she was driven to divorce him, which took place when I was sixteen.
At the age of 14, Douglas was sent to Winchester (he had preferred Eton, but his father decided otherwise); homesick, he sent letters to his mother addressed "My own Darling." After four years at Winchester (where, he said, he had lost his innocence), he proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford. There, he did little work towards a BA degree other than publishing his first serious poem, titled "Autumn Days," in the Oxford Magazine and editing the Spirit Lamp, an undergraduate periodical, between November 1892 and June 1893. Either in late June or early July 1891, Wilde (then 37) was introduced to Douglas (then 21) in Tite Street by Lionel Johnson, a mutual friend of Douglas at Oxford. In a second meeting, according to Douglas, Wilde made homosexual advances, which he resisted, as he did for the ensuing six or nine months before yielding to Wilde's desire. But looking back, Douglas did not charge Wilde with "corrupting" him:
Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that "sins of the flesh" were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confined by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said to have been the gospel of his life.... [A]t that time [I was] a frank and natural pagan, and he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure.... Inevitably, I assimilated his views to a great extent.
While at Oxford, Douglas indulged in homosexual acts with boys, which led to his being blackmailed in the spring of 1892. In De Profundis, Wilde alludes to Douglas's "begging" him "in a most pathetic and charming letter" to assist him in the matter. Douglas's father heard of the suppressed scandal from Sir George Lewis, a lawyer and personal friend, whom Wilde had turned to on behalf of Douglas. At the end of the summer term of 1893, Douglas left Oxford without a degree, a disappointment to his divorced parents.
In the fall of 1893, Douglas completed an English translation of Salomé, which displeased Wilde, who revised it. Douglas, however, disowned it in anger. By early 1894, in response to his mother's concern about his association with Wilde, Douglas wrote: "I am passionately fond of him and he of me. There is nothing I would not do for him and if he dies before I do I shall not care to live any longer". Douglas's association with Wilde had repercussions beyond his immediate family: Having learned of the association, Sir Philip Currie, the British ambassador in Constantinople, refused to accept Douglas as an honorary attaché.
At this time, as Wilde later said, the Marquess of Queensberry began his "first attack" on him. Wilde had been having lunch at the Café Royal with Douglas when Queensberry, who suddenly appeared as though to satisfy his curiosity, was invited to join them. The experience so provoked Queensberry that he wrote to his son that his "intimacy with this man Wilde" must either cease or his income would end: "I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad [as] to be it [the prelude to his famous card charging Wilde as a posing sodomite]. With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression. Never have I seen such a sight as in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are." Replying, Douglas sent his father a telegram: "WHAT A FUNNY LITTLE MAN YOU ARE" - to which Queensberry responded in his own manner: "You impertinent young jackanapes. I request that you will not send such messages to me by telegraph". Wilde later told Douglas that the "the commonest street-boy" would have been ashamed to have sent such a telegram.
While Douglas was in Algeria, his father attempted to disrupt the opening night's performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. On receiving a telegram from his brother Percy informing him of the incident, Douglas left immediately for London. By the end of February, when he arrived at his club, Wilde had been handed Queensberry's famous calling card. Wilde first turned to Robert Ross, who advised that he ignore the card, but Douglas urged Wilde to have his solicitor arrange for Queensberry's arrest on the charge of criminal libel. Thus began the process of Wilde's three trials: the first as prosecutor of Queensberry, the remaining two as defendant.
Douglas was determined to appear in the witness box against his father in order to expose the pretence that Queensberry was, as H. Montgomery Hyde remarks,
outwardly pretending to be a solicitous father trying to save his son, whereas in fact he had behaved like an inhuman brute towards every member of his family. Bosie did not appreciate - indeed he never grasped the point as long as he lived - that such evidence as this had nothing to do with the issue to be decided at the trial, and that, even if he did go into the witness box, he would never be permitted to give it.
As the trial proceeded, Wilde's counsel urged him to drop his suit against Queensberry, who sent a message to Wilde: "If the country allows you to leave, A the better for the country! But if you take my son with you I will follow you wherever you go and shoot you!". Meanwhile, Wilde wrote a letter to the editor of the Evening News explaining why he had agreed to drop the charges against Queensberry: "It would have been impossible for me to have proved my case without putting Lord Alfred Douglas in the witness-box against his father. Lord Alfred Douglas was extremely anxious to go into the box, but I would not let him do so".
During this time, when Wilde was at the Cadogen Hotel in Sloane Street with Ross and Reginald Turner, Douglas went to see his cousin George Wyndham, M.P., to ask whether Wilde's arrest was inevitable; Wyndham said it was. Then, when Bosie returned to the hotel to discover that Wilde had been taken into custody, he followed Wilde's directions to ask various people to post bail. George Alexander and Lewis Waller, at whose theatres Wilde's plays were being performed, both refused. Constance Wilde's cousin Adrian Hope also refused.
Douglas was not permitted to see Wilde that evening at the Bow Street jail. During the following days, a preliminary hearing was held and a trial date set. Though it was widely believed that Douglas would also be arrested, George Wyndham wrote to his father, the Hon. Percy Wyndham, that there was "no case against Bosie," and friends had urged him to go abroad for one or two years: "Bosie took it very well. He thought I was going to ask him to go at once, and began by saying that nothing on earth would make him leave London until the trial was over. You may be sure that nothing will: he is quite insane on the subject". Nevertheless, Wilde's counsel, Edward Clarke, urged Douglas to go abroad since his presence might prejudice Wilde's chance of an acquittal. Douglas agreed only if Wilde approved. Douglas's last visit to Wilde, in Newgate Prison adjoining the Old Bailey, occurred on 23 April. On the following morning, he left for France.
After Wilde's conviction and sentence to two years at hard labour, Douglas sent a petition to Queen Victoria, appealing to her to pardon Wilde, "unjustly convicted by the force of prejudice; a victim not to the righteous indignation of abstract justice but rather to the spite and unscrupulous cunning of another man, the Marquess of Queensberry, whose son I have the misfortune to be". At Windsor, the Queen's private secretary prevented the petition from reaching her and sent it to the Home Secretary, who replied with a formal letter of rejection to Douglas in Rouen.
Wilde's displeasure with Douglas occurred over an article that the Mercure de France had asked Douglas to write on the Wilde affair. In the article, he had planned to include some incriminating letters previously used in the trials. News of Douglas's intent reached Wilde, who was "much annoyed." Wilde then asked Robert Sherard to prevent the article's publication. When the periodical asked Douglas to omit the letters, he refused; hence, the article never appeared (the MS. is at Princeton).
In an attempt to reconcile himself with Wilde, Douglas wrote to More Adey, who was reportedly soon going to visit Reading Prison:
If only you could make him understand that though he is in prison he is still the court, the jury, the judge of my life and that I am waiting hoping for some sign that I have to go on living. There is nobody to play my cards in England, nobody to say anything for me, and Oscar depends entirely on what is said to him, and they all seem to be my enemies....
In this letter, Douglas protests that he has suffered more than Wilde: "The only thing that could make his life bearable is to think that he is suffering for me because he loved me, and if he doesn't love me I can't live and it is so utterly easy to die.... Tell him that I know I have ruined his life, that everything is my fault, if that pleases him." Adey, however, had seen Wilde before the letter arrived; hence, he urged Douglas "to show the love which I know you have for him by the most difficult of all things - waiting".
When Wilde's release from prison approached, Constance Wilde's solicitor wrote to More Adey on 10 May 1897, to inform Wilde
how absolutely fatal to him any further intercourse with Lord Alfred Douglas will be: apart from the fact that Lord Alfred Douglas is a "notoriously disreputable companion" Lord Queensberry has made arrangements for being informed if his son joins Mr. Wilde and has expressed his intention of shooting one or both.
Though Wilde's letters to Douglas after his release were subdued, by 4 June they were affectionate: "Of course I love you more than anyone else. But our lives are irreparably severed, as far as meeting goes. What is left to us is the knowedge that we love each other, and every day I think of you, and I know you are a poet, and that makes you doubly dear and wonderful." But their meeting was now out of the question since Queensberry represented a threat to both of them if he created a scandal: "...it would utterly destroy my possible future and alienate all my friends from me". Douglas, however, was accusing Ross and Adey of collusion with Constance Wilde so that she would withdraw her allowance of £150 if he and Wilde met. Ross urged Douglas to provide Wilde with the same amount and "then let Oscar choose which he likes".
At the end of August, Wilde and Douglas were finally reunited, though only briefly, in Rouen. Later, Douglas wrote: "Poor Oscar cried when I met him at the station. We walked about all day arm in arm, or hand in hand, and were perfectly happy". They agreed to meet again in Naples in six weeks. Meanwhile, Wilde wrote to him from Berneval: "Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don't understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world". When Constance received news of Wilde's meeting with Douglas, she cut off his weekly allowance, though she later restored it.
With his father's death, Douglas inherited £15,000 (the sum of 8,000 immediately). Ross suggested that Douglas give £2,000 to Wilde, but he refused; however, he sent Wilde regular checks for various sums - between £10 and £125 - as indicated in his pass-book for 1900. At the end of that year, when Wilde was near death, Douglas was shooting in Scotland; hence Turner, at Wilde's bedside, had no address; Ross, who had been in Menton, informed Douglas on I December, but it was too late. When he did arrive, he paid for the funeral expenses.
In the years following, Douglas's history includes a marriage in 1902 to the poet Olive Custance (1874-1944), a contributor to the Yellow Book and author of four volumes of verse. After ten years of their marriage, they separated (the result of her father's interference with respect to their only son), but they continued a friendly relationship. The memory of Wilde, however, was constant in his life.
In 1907, Douglas became the editor (and then proprietor) of the Academy, a literary publication, which he sold in 1910 after a series of legal problems in the courts (indeed, his life was filled with suits - generally on grounds of libel - either brought by him or against him; the most notable was a case of criminal libel involving Winston Churchill, resulting in Douglas's incarceration for six months).
When Arthur Ransome's Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912) appeared, Douglas sued the author for libel over certain passages in De Profundis, which had been omitted by Ross in the published version. The entire letter was read aloud in court when Douglas insisted that he had never received a copy despite Ross's assertion that one had been sent to him in 1897 (whatever was sent - whether the entire letter or excerpts - Ross, in a statement prepared for his solicitors, said that Douglas had told him and Wilde that he had thrown the typescript almost immediately into the fire). The jury found that the passages published from De Profundis were true. In the second edition, Ransome removed the passages out of consideration for Douglas.
In 1914, Douglas's Oscar Wilde and Myself, most of it written by his former assistant editor of the Academy, Thomas William Hodgson Crosland (1865-1924), was inspired by Douglas's defeat in the De Profundis trial, for much of the book expresses outrage over Wilde's "lies" in his prison letter and Ross's alleged role in failing to send Douglas a copy. Crosland's style is vituperative and insulting, as in his description of Wilde as "this big fat man" and in his denigration of Wilde as an artist. In later years, Douglas repudiated the book. In 1912, Crosland, who had a pathological hatred of Wilde, published The First Stone: On Reading the Unpublished Portions of Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis," a free verse diatribe, which begins: "Thou, /The complete mountebank, / The scented posturer, / The flabby Pharisee / ... The whining convict / And Prince of Hypocrites ..." In The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1929), which is principally about his relationship with Wilde, the tone is much less disparaging and the praise of Wilde as man and writer more abundant. Finally, in Oscar Wilde: The Summing Up (1940), Douglas's awareness that this work on the subject would be his final estimate of his friend subdued some of his lingering resentments, though he was also concerned with his self-image: "I have, as I hope is well known, nothing but abhorrence for homosexuality...".
Furthermore, he was not reluctant to make some harsh judgements: he calls Frank Harris's biography of Wilde, for example, "an ignoble and pornographic book". At the end of The Summing Up, Douglas pays his final tribute to Wilde: "He had, as Shaw truly says, an unconquerable gaiety of soul which ever sustained him, and, while he had lost the faculty of writing, he retained to the last his inimitable supremacy as a talker".
References: The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas, 2nd ed. (1931; rpt. 1970); H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath (1963); Brian Roberts, The Mad Bad Line: The Family of Lord Alfred Douglas (1981); Mary Hyde, ed., Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: A Correspondence (1982); H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Alfred Douglas: A Biography (1984); David Eakin, "In Excelsis: Wilde's Epistolary Relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas," Twilight of Dawn: Studies in English Literature in Transition, ed. 0 M Brack (1987).