QUEENSBERRY, MARQUESS OF

   QUEENSBERRY, MARQUESS OF (1844-1900)


The unstable John Sholto Douglas was the 8th Marquess of Queensberry (after the Second World War, the 10th Marquess was ruled to be the 11th Marquess, a previous heir to the title having been passed over because he was "an idiot from birth," hence the ensuing confusion in biographical accounts citing John Sholto Douglas as the 9th Marquess, whereas during his lifetime he was referred to, of course, as the 8th Marquess). The father of Lord Alfred Douglas, he played the role of nemesis in the disaster of Wilde's life and career. Douglas's vilification of his father as "an inhuman brute" presents one aspect of Queensberry's enigmatic personality, but Brian Roberts (whose composite biography of the Douglas family borrows the phrase from Wilde's
De Profundis for the title of his book, The Mad Bad Line) reveals other aspects of Queensberry that have often been overlooked.

At the age of 21, for example, he was disturbed by the report of the disappearance of his younger brother Francis (1847-65), who was in the party that first scaled the Matterhorn. He rushed off to Switzerland, but once there, he refused to wait for a search party but trudged into the snow-laden foothills of the Matterhorn at night without any previous experience of mountain climbing and without proper clothing or equipment; as a result, he was found early the next morning half frozen in the snow. For years, he brooded over his brother's loss: out of this tragedy emerged a long blankverse poem titled The Spirit of the Matterhorn (privately printed in 1881), which expressed his vision of nature's "eternal cycle."

A free-thinker, Queensberry served as president of the British Secular Union while pursuing his lifelong interest in boxing and in horse racing. With an old Cambridge friend, John Graham Chambers, a founder of the Amateur Athletic Club, he travelled to America to study the rules of boxing. When Chambers subsequently drew up new rules and submitted them to Queensberry for his approval, Chambers, "it seems, insisted on [the rules] being known simply as 'The Queensberry Rules'.... From the outset the intention had been to make boxing more respectable and what, in Victorian England, could be more respectable than a nobleman's name?". To his credit, Queensberry never pretended to have had a hand in their actual formulation. Many of Queensberry's supporters contended that honesty - brutal though its expression may have been - was one of his admirable traits.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a series of disturbing events undoubtedly contributed to Queensberry's increasingly erratic behaviour. In 1887, he wife divorced him on the grounds of adultery (he was a notorious philanderer). His eldest son Francis (1867-94), who had taken a position as secretary to Lord Rosebery, the foreign minister, whom Queensberry suspected (with apparent cause) of being a homosexual, was killed in what was reported to be a hunting accident though rumoured to be a suicide. Another son, Percy (1868-1920), later the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, married the daughter of an impoverished. clergyman, to whom the 8th Marquess characteristically wrote abusive letters. Queensberry himself had remarried, but the girl was thought to be only 16; an annulment followed. On 1 April 1894, Queensberry, determined either to save or destroy his son and humiliate Wilde, sent Alfred a lengthy letter, which called his relationship with Wilde "loathsome and and various family disasters - which go back at least to the 7th Marquess of Queensberry (1818-58), who was found shot on the grounds of his Scottish estate, again under suspicious circumstances. In a notable public embarrassment that occurred during the Wilde trials, Queensberry attacked his son Percy on the street, resulting in both their arrests. So notorious were certain members of the family that a newspaper remarked that they "enjoy an almost unique reputation for eccentricity."

Queensberry's most eccentric action was planned but never executed: at the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest on 14 February 1895, he appeared at the St. James's Theatre clutching vegetables in what Wilde referred to as a "grotesque bouquet" - possibly carrots and turnips to suggest Wilde's sexual preference. Presumably, Queensberry was planning to fling the bouquet on stage when Wilde appeared before the curtain at the end of the play. What else he had in mind is unknown but possibly a charge that Wilde was a sodomite. Disrupting a theatrical performance was nothing new to Queensberry, for on 14 November 1882, Queensberry had shouted during a performance of Tennyson's play The Promise of May, charging that it distorted freethinking views.

Having heard of Queensberry's intent to disrupt the premiere, Wilde had the theatre surrounded by 20 policemen to prevent his entrance. Wilde later told Alfred Douglas that Queensberry "prowled about for three hours, then left chattering like a monstrous ape". On 18 February, Queensberry left the famous calling card with the porter of the Albemarle Club (who handed it to Wilde 10 days later), charging that Wilde was "posing" as a sodomite. Wilde's agony and fall had begun: see entries on Douglas and The Trials, 1895.

Reference: Brian Roberts, The Mad Bad Line: The Family of Lord Alfred Douglas (1981).