It would probably have been better for Lord Alfred Douglas to have died young. Had he died when he was still beautiful and youthful looking, he would have remained forever the gilded youth Oscar Wilde loved. That golden Alfred Douglas survives in the famous photograph on the front of Douglas Murray’s book, with Wilde sitting near Bosie, his arm extended behind the boy with something like possessiveness. Instead the boy survived until 1945, worn, lonely and poverty-stricken, his looks withered, his nose pinched, contemptuous of modernity, but still with a redemptive, blistering integrity.
There were literary critics in Douglas’s day who compared him to Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets
Twenty years after it was first written, Douglas Murray has reissued his fine biography of Bosie: his first book, written in his gap year before he went to Oxford. Looking back now on his precocious work, he thinks he overdid a little his enthusiasm for Douglas’s poetry, understated his toxic anti-Semitism and didn’t quite do justice to the pederastic element of his early sexuality – as Bosie preferred to put it, his tastes were for youth and softness. In practice this could mean 14-year-old boys, even younger, at a time when he and Wilde had reunited following Wilde’s release from prison. Actually, I think Murray’s original estimate of Alfred Douglas’s sonnets was absolutely right; they vary in quality, but as he said, at their best they equalled the poets he most venerated.
Trouble is, not many people think of Alfred Douglas as a poet, even though they might unknowingly quote perhaps his most famous line, about the love that dares not speak its name. But there were literary critics in his own day who compared him to Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets. Remarkably he has fallen almost entirely off the literary radar now, known only as a player in Wilde’s drama, and it is a pity that the success of this biography hasn’t changed that.
One of the services Douglas Murray performs in his biography is simply to reproduce some of his finest verses so we can judge it for ourselves. Indeed, while writing the book he managed to persuade the Home Office to release the copybook in which Alfred Douglas wrote his prison verses, In Excelsis, which the authorities refused to do in his lifetime.
Even in his own time, most people thought of him as the lover of Oscar Wilde, a byword for a bugger, the boy who brought about Wilde’s destruction through the vengeful malice of his unbalanced father. That perception was powerfully reinforced by Wilde’s terrible letter written from prison, De Profundis, in which he empties his bitterness against the youth he loved in an outpouring of emotion which was in many respects unjust and untrue, especially about Bosie’s financial support for Wilde. Fatally, the letter was never given to him by Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend, and only released in full during a devastating court case.
But Alfred Douglas did survive Wilde. He went on to marry – his view was that most people were to some extent bisexual – a well-born girl, Olive Custance, who was also a poet and they had a son.
Murray’s account differs from the others in his matter-of-fact approach to the sexual aspects of Bosie’s life
The marriage ended bitterly, but for a time it was happy. He became a Catholic in 1911, which he always considered the best decision he had ever made, and it was his one solid base when his fortunes collapsed. Fatally, he became an editor when his cousin Pamela Tennant persuaded her husband to buy him a magazine, The Academy, to edit; when this harmless journal was joined by the combative, litigious and anti-homosexual journalist, TH Crosland, he found a new career as a litigant. It was to result in a feud with Robbie Ross which destroyed them both, a campaign against Winston Churchill which he lost and a sentence of six months in Brixton gaol, which nearly killed him. The comparisons with Wilde were not lost on him.
For most of his life he would be insulted or slighted for his association with Wilde – his plea for a state pension as a writer in old age was quashed for that reason. In his days with Wilde he had been a spoiled pet; after the trial he became a cauterised personality who never allowed himself to be put into a position where he might be snubbed.
He was a fascinating and infuriating combination of pride, charm, generosity, sensitivity, ill temper and bigotry – especially his appalling anti-Semitism – but he was also disarmingly honest and often very kind. Douglas Murray discovered his forgotten niece, Violet, the illegitimate daughter of his elder brother Percy, who gives another facet of him as a delightful uncle and loyal friend.
There have been other biographies of Bosie (short for Boysie, pet name for “boy”), and there were Bosie’s own two autobiographies, which are amusingly conceited but often remarkably perceptive. Douglas Murray differs from the others in his matter-of-fact approach to the sexual aspects of Bosie’s life.
Alfred Douglas himself was advanced in his view expressed in his final book on Wilde that homosexuals could not help their sexual preferences and should not be criminalised for them, although as a Catholic he regarded homosexual acts as sinful. What is clear is that the sexual relationship between him and Wilde was short lived and, as Bosie rashly told Frank Harris, the least trustworthy confidant in England, never sodomitic.
Douglas Murray gives a remarkably fair account of Alfred Douglas’s extraordinary career; but really the gist of the story is summed up in his subtitle: The Tragic Life of Lord Alfred Douglas. He wonders now whether Alfred Douglas could really have repudiated his homosexuality, though he accepts that there is no evidence to the contrary.
In a minor way, Douglas Murray was spoiled by his early success
The brief foreword to this edition, just over 10 pages, is worth reading. Douglas Murray is now, 20 years on, a celebrated journalist and columnist, who is brave and combative and prolific, the author of admirable books, wholly at ease with his own sexuality. But he has had to fight off the obvious parallels that readers drew between Douglas Murray and Alfred Douglas. One intrepid woman asked him during the US launch whether he believed in reincarnation, because “there’s a very striking resemblance” between them. Douglas Murray was horrified: “I knew I didn’t look like Bosie. I was sure as hell I didn’t want to be, or live, anything like Bosie. And I felt as though some people were trying to push this template on me”.
And yet in a minor way, Douglas Murray was spoiled by his early success. He was lionised by publishers and producers while he was still an undergraduate; when he should have been having a whale of a time at Oxford, his agent whisked him off to London for a book launch at the Cafe Royale where the guests included Alfred Douglas’ friend, Donald Sinden.
As he put it, “Everything that could be done to ruin me, was done. I should have treasured Oxford. Instead, having seen the world, I just wanted to get out into it”. His youth was, in a way, stolen by the Bosie book. But he found his voice as a writer long before others found theirs, and in his own sphere, unlike poor Alfred Douglas, he continues to flourish.
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