It’s rare luck when in life we meet a person whose existence we come to loathe after several years together. Oscar Wilde died before finding himself in this position; thanks to friend/amateur editor Robert Ross, De Profundis survives as the profoundest dissection in literature of a poisoned relationship. In death Wilde got the last laugh, as the most memorable line in the distressingly second-rate poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” worked as portent rather than verse: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” Lord Alfred Douglas, whom we must unfortunately call by nickname “Bosie,” lived forty-three years after Wilde expired in a sordid Paris hotel room (pus oozing from every orifice, by Richard Ellmann’s account), determined to kill by word and deed the memories of his life with Wilde, triumphing finally with a succession of libel suits that adduced the truth of Gore Vidal’s truism: as one ages, litigation replaces sex.
Published in 2000, Douglas Murray’s Bosie itself demonstrates the attractiveness of precocity. The twenty-year-old scholar, ending his second year in Magdalen College, describes a man who retained the prejudices and temper of an adolescent to the end of his rather long life, expiring when Allied fortunes changed in World War II. Eschewing psychoanalytic analysis, Murray nevertheless is clear about the source of Douglas’ lifelong irrationality: a disgusting father as improbable in life as he would be delicious on the page. The Marquess of Queensberry was a notorious womanizer, a loud and boastful atheist, rancorous, niggardly, and cruel. It is almost certain that Wilde would have evaded prosecution had not Bosie goaded him into suing Queensberry for libel after receiving a card in his club that said, “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite [sic].” Under British law a suspect charged with libel can avoid conviction only by demonstrating that his accusation was true and/or served a public good; once the enraged Queensberry hired private detectives to find evidence of Wilde’s crimes, the latter was doomed. Two years in prison broke Wilde’s health and destroyed him as a writer. Having lost the affections of the British public, Wilde correctly noted, he could no longer draw upon their desire to see themselves teased and affronted by his wit.
Douglas and Wilde reunited upon the latter’s release. What remained was a life of deprivations: he never saw his children or wife again or stepped foot in England. But Douglas continued — an excellent example of the folly of longevity. For a few years he mingled so adeptly with the upper classes that had scorned his lover as to become a fop in one of Wilde’s plays. He published poetry. He married Olive Custance, a woman with a fortune and lesbian leanings. “At least in falling for a woman who looked like a boy and wanted to act like one,” Murray writes with typical understatement, “Douglas found himself at last able to have a love affair that was no damned by society.” They had a son, Raymond, who went mad. He lost them both and their money after his funny habit of bringing libel suits against everyone, including his once-beloved father in law, caught up with him. In a pattern familiar to fans of late twentieth century celebrity self-abasement, he was received (awful phrase) into the Catholic Church, a farouche convert who hurled words like “duty” and “charity” as he once gloated about his “shame” in the 1890s. “You drove me out of the state of grace and holiness into mortal sin,” he wrote to Olive after she learned he’d had an affair, thus distinguishing himself as a blackguard and a moral coward.
It is no surprise that Murray would want to fulfill his contract and page count by addressing Douglas’ poetry, about which I knew little except a pallid and winking sonnet steeped in fin de siècle tropes often cited by Wilde biographers called “Two Loves.” What is surprising is how credible a verse writer Douglas became as he crept out of his lover’s shadow. Nothing that bears rereading, mind, but he was capable of the economy of Responsibilities-era Yeats in “The Dead Poet” and a few others. He edited a literary journal and was crucial in sponsoring the early careers of Siefried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, but whether the kinship he undoubtedly felt began with their chiseled looks and bisexuality instead of their dewy pre-WWI sonnets shall remain, as we say, a matter of speculation. Then he got his comeuppance for trading in anti-Semitic drive: after the Great War he accused First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill of publishing a false report of the battle of Jutland for the sake of a consortium of Jewish financiers connected to Wall Street. Murray claims the six-month sentence humbled him, but the hateful verse and reactionary politics turned him into Dorian Gray; he even lost his looks. Murray quotes a correspondent reporting on his findings:
a podgy, alcoholic blob, with the mean eyes and the double chin and the sinister signature of arteriosclerosis in the veins at he sides of the forehead! The deterioration in the brain was as marked as the deterioration of the body. Of wit thee was none, charity was lacking, malice ruled the board…He cursed the younger generation, the modern girl, and the Labour Party.
But the God whom Douglas claimed to love refused to show mercy and end his miserable life. A liar to the end, he wrote a tell-all memoir not long before his demise called Without Apology, whose title has the prosaic malice of a score-settling Tom DeLay memoir.
Wilde’s influence on me was incalculable. High school friends will remember how an obsession with both the novel and film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray marked the first half of my senior year. Fueled by George Sanders’ languid impersonation of Lord Henry Wotton I absorbed Wilde’s aperçus without comprehending them. To love Wilde as a young man is a blessed thing; to understand him as an older one is a victory. The act of coming to terms with my sexuality in college made the absorption of “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying” as smooth as my first kiss; suddenly, I got them. Wilde, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, was almost always right. To waste epigrams, cucumber sandwiches, and love on men and women prepared to throw you in the slammer looks pathetic to us; but if there is a paradox on which his aesthetics depended it was that without the sufferance of fools and cowards the work would not have boasted the superficiality beneath which those fools and cowards lack the fortitude to peer. Plus, for the story to work Bosie, like Judas Iscariot, was required.