HISTORIC HOMO With Tim Warrington
Spoiled, brattish aristocrat or tortured soul and misunderstood lover? Lord Alfred Douglas continues to divide opinion more than a century after his infamous love affair with Oscar Wilde.
It’s often tricky separating famous couples. Where would Dolce be without Gabbana, or Thelma without Louise? Yet other duos shine just as brightly when flying solo, George Michael and what’s-his-name from Wham! or Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. Douglas achieved far more post-Wilde than he did when romantically entwined with him. 110 DNA
Yet still he is viewed by many as nothing more than an interesting historical adjunct to the Wilde affair whose sole achievement in life was to help topple the genius, Irish dramatist. Lord Alfred Douglas was born in 1870. He was known by the diminutive “Bosie,” which originated as “Boysie”. He was the third son in one of the richest, most important and
infamously unbalanced families in Scotland: the Clan Douglas. Opinion is almost universal: the family was raving mad. Max Beerbohm, a friend of both Wilde and Bosie, explained that the latter could be “very charming” and “nearly brilliant” but was “obviously mad (like all his family)”. According to one of Bosie’s descendants, Lord Gawain Douglas, “All poets are mad and most of the Douglases are mad.” The Douglases were so unhinged, anecdotal evidence of their madness is profusive and the family history is awash with tragedies and scandals. The third Marquess Of Queensberry known as “The Idiot” was imprisoned in Holyrood Palace on account of his violent outbursts. In 1707, he escaped, impaled a kitchen boy on a spit roast and cooked the unfortunate youth. Some accounts even suggest the boy was partly consumed. Cannibalism aside, other unfortunate members of the family have been shot, stabbed, fallen to their death or suffered unfortunate shooting “accidents”. Suicide was very Douglas. A disproportionate number of Douglases expired by their own hand, reported in the press at the time as an “accident while cleaning their gun” or a “hunting mishap”. One of Bosie’s predecessors even slit his own throat – a “shaving accident”. The young Bosie was an aesthete – something for which he and his clique were to become famous. He adored art, music, fine clothes, superlative cuisine and convivial surroundings. His artistic temperament endeared him to his mother, Sybil, Marchioness Of Queensberry and alienated him from his father, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess Of Queensberry, who was more interested in his heir, Viscount Drumlanrig, and had little time for Bosie. (Drumlanrig died in a “shooting accident” in 1894.) Queensberry was a man’s man. The Queensberry Rules in boxing are named after him. His cruelty shaped Bosie’s character as wary and self-piteous. His mother’s indulgence softened his already delicate temperament, accentuating his spoilt nature. According to Bosie’s biographer, Douglas Murray, “she helped him, pampered him, flattered him and perhaps damaged him, too.” Despite this, he was quite a robust child and an accomplished athlete – a far cry from the sickly and enfeebled man into which he matured. Bosie’s father was belligerent, famous for beating his wife. Whether he beat his
“It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But… it is better to be good than to be ugly.” Oscar Wilde
children is not recorded, but at best they were ignored. Sybil scandalised Victorian society by divorcing him in 1887. Bosie was despatched to Winchester College; he was 13. Queensberry vetoed Eton and Harrow fearing his son would become a “Belgravian loafer”. They were too exclusive, too English. Such objections made Winchester an odd choice as it was barely a full rung down the ladder; it boasted numerous peers and princes, including several of Queen Victoria’s grandsons. In 1889 Bosie entered Magdalen College, Oxford. Although he didn’t earn a degree, he edited a short-lived literary magazine called The Spirit Lamp and contributed to the Oxford magazine, providing an early outlet for his poetry. According to one biographer, GA Cevasco, “He applied himself more to writing verse than his studies.” His impeccable manners together with his engagingly youthful looks ensured he was never short of male company. In his memoirs called Autobiography, written in 1929, he says of his time at school and university, “I had many fine friendships, perfectly normal, wholesome and not in the least sentimental … I had others [relationships] again, which were neither pure nor innocent.” Murray describes him as, “The most prominent
homosexual in the university, among those in the know.” Bosie described himself at this time, as “a finished young blackguard, ripe for any kind of wickedness”. Enter Oscar Wilde. During the summer of 1891, Bosie and Wilde met at the house of Lionel Johnson, an aspiring poet and Bosie’s
The chaps and freely – a steady French bubbles and earthy, English rent boys. cousin, where, in the words of WH Auden, “the Overloved met the Underloved”. Bosie departed the first meeting with a signed, deluxe copy of Dorian Gray; he had recently read the novel (legend has it a dozen times consecutively). And as life imitates art, he
recognised himself in the story of a young man enchanted by his own beauty. Wilde recognised him, too. Bosie was the incarnation of the fictional Dorian Gray. His fresh face and lithe body were infinitely more appealing than his wife’s; she had sacrificed her figure and looks bearing Wilde two children, Cyril and Vyvyan, or so Wilde believed. Wilde offered to tutor Bosie and soon the two became lovers. Bosie made some minor protestations; he did not find Wilde attractive but he fell victim to his charms, as so many others did. Several years after Wilde died, Bosie declared emphatically, “Sodomy never took place between us.” According to him, Wilde only “sucked” him. Still, they tumbled into an intense and passionate love affair, which was more infatuation than attraction and although the relationship was intensely volatile, neither was able to escape. Working together probably didn’t harmonise their togetherness. In 1892 Bosie was involved in the French production of Wilde’s play, Salomé. They quarreled bitterly and were unsuccessful in bringing the production to London as it had been banned, deemed “blasphemous”. The pair took a cottage on the river Thames where they entertained their friends and seduced their lovers. The chaps and champagne flowed freely – a steady stream of fine, French bubbles and earthy, English rent boys. It wasn’t long before their flirting and fornicating began to attract attention. And when it did, they became even more indiscreet – they had a totally carefree attitude to discovery. But this was Victorian England and homosexuality was still illegal; it had been punishable by death only 30 years before. But Bosie didn’t care; he was a lord. He once remarked that he wanted people to say, “There goes Oscar Wilde and his boy.” The two men stayed at the finest hotels and were a common sight sailing through the lobby in a cloud of perfume, gigolos in tow. It wasn’t long before gossip about Bosie’s philandering reached his father’s ears. In June 1894, he received a letter from Queensberry who was full of prejudice and used to being in control. It read, “I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him on sight.” Bosie replied with a brief telegram, “What a funny little man you are.” Queensberry was furious. Father and son then exchanged a barrage of nasty letters and when Queensberry threatened not to open them, Bosie sent postcards. The dispute escalated until Queensberry famously left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, inscribed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” In April 1895, the 40-year-old Oscar >> DNA 111
HISTORIC HOMO With Tim Warrington
In his early twenties, Bosie was considered one of the most beautiful men in Europe.
>> Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. Although Bosie was in favour, Wilde’s other friend’s were not. But Wilde, buoyed by the success of his plays and immeasurable popularity, went ahead. Queensberry was acquitted. Immediately after the trial, Wilde was charged with sodomy and gross indecency. This time Wilde’s performance in the witness box failed to entertain the legal fraternity. When asked by the prosecution about a particular boy at Oxford University he replied, “No I didn’t kiss him, he was a particularly ugly boy.” This and similar comments he made during his trial earned him a conviction and two years hard labour in prison. In jail, with time his only luxury, Wilde penned a long, angry letter (50,000 words in poem form) to Bosie called De Profundis. In it, he cast himself as Christ and his former lover as Judas, condemning him as the source of all his ruination. It’s from this poem that much of the criticism for Bosie stems. Always powerful and persuasive, Wilde’s words successfully cast Bosie as the villain; it would take almost half a century before feeling toward him became more sympathetic. Today, critics are more inclined to see De Profundis as the highly-emotional lashing out of a ruined, broken man than a factual account on which to base a man’s legacy. Despite De Profundis, neither man was able 112 DNA
to escape his ruinous infatuation with the other. On his release in 1897, Wilde fled to the Continent; Bosie soon went to join him. But jail had changed Wilde and the decadent lifestyle the two had once enjoyed was gone. The pair were reunited but began to squabble almost immediately and parted ways for good. Wilde was broke and Bosie continued to support him until his death. Oscar Wilde died on 30 November 1900 of cerebral meningitis in a Paris hotel room. For a while, England tried to forget Oscar Wilde and so did Bosie. His name was erased from his plays; there were no more performances. Bosie married poet and heiress Olive Custance. Yet despite successfully banishing Wilde to his past, Bosie’s homosexuality was still very much a part of the present. According to Douglas Murray, “It would be a mistake to assume that Bosie’s marriage led him to some kind of Damascus-style conversion from his previous lifestyle to a settled family one. When he met Olive his homosexual activities were suspended.” Nevertheless, the early years of Bosie’s marriage and the birth of his child were among the happiest of his life.” He settled down to a life of rural domesticity, hunting and fishing and writing poetry. And he was content for a while.
As the years passed, Wilde was afforded some forgiveness; his works became popular and found a receptive audience. People began to seek out Bosie, but rarely for his own talents. “Only yesterday I was being lectured (by a Frenchman) and told that unless I ‘did something’ I would go down to posterity as an appendage of the Wilde affair! It is true that he never read my poetry.” Although Bosie’s poetry has been described as “cringe-worthy” and “overly sentimental,” between the self-indulgence and flights of rhetoric, there are flashes of brilliance. Ignoring the end-of-century decadence, the City Of The Soul (1899) and Sonnets (1900) contain his most graceful writing. In his sonnet To Olive, he writes of, “Love that weaves the years on time’s slow loom” and in the The City Of The Soul, “To clutch life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase like a lean knife through the ribs of time”. From the poem Two Loves, comes “the love that dare not speak its name,” the euphemistic turn of phrase, which has become synonymous with homosexuality. Even those unfamiliar with the finer nuances of great poetry tend to acknowledge the evocative and powerful nature of these particular lines. According to Murray, “Bosie’s finest achievement and rebuttal to his critics was his poetry.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English literature at Cambridge University, asked Bosie for permission to include some of his sonnets in his Anthology Of Sonnets (1500-1935). Only three living poets were honoured with their inclusion. It helped prevent Bosie’s work from disappearing in the deserts of academic publishing. Like Wilde, Bosie spent time in prison – six months in Wormwood Scrubs for libeling Winston Churchill. But although it took an enormous physical toll on him, unlike Wilde it didn’t break his spirit. In many ways, Bosie’s time in jail cleansed him of some of his demons. It laundered the brattish sense of entitlement from his character. Author Rupert Croft-Cooke wrote, after a chance meeting with Bosie, “prison seems to have liberated him from tense chords of self-pity and resentment. The outcast licking his wounds was forgotten – here was a man who seemed firmly balanced and contented.” Bosie and Olive separated but remained friends for the rest of their lives. Bosie struggled with his homosexuality, but struggled harder with celibacy. He converted to Catholicism in 1911 in a desperate attempt to overcome “the love that dare not speak its name”. Bosie died on 20 March 1945. He was 74. Posterity has slowly revised the branding of the profligate homme fatale in favour of the poet and dedicated (if unorthodox) family man whose romantic entanglement with Oscar Wilde was more a blip than a marker that defined the rest of his life. ★