- Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas by Douglas Murray
Hodder, 374 pp, £20.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 340 76770 7
What is interesting about Bosie is that he was such a thoroughly bad character. It only adds to the fascination that this bundle of malice, treachery, deceit, hypocrisy and vanity was wrapped up in such attractive features. Wilde compared him to a pet lion-cub wreaking havoc on reaching actual size, but he was less impressive and more sinister than that, a King Charles spaniel of vicious temperament, a cute Walt Disney rattlesnake, or a beautiful child vampire. He was hardly an angel in the 1890s, but he truly blossomed after Oscar’s death, when he converted to heterosexuality and the Catholic Church. Wilde called him a ‘monster’ and ‘evil’, and he seems to have devoted the long remainder of his life to proving Wilde wise as well as witty.
In the early decades of the 20th century Bosie insulted almost all his former friends brayingly and repetitively – and without any trace of talent for it – as filthy buggers or sodomites or corrupters of young boys. Others he labelled dirty pigs or hogs or in one case ‘Irish Pig-Doctor’, and promised all and sundry a thrashing within an inch of ‘your dirty life’, more specifically a ‘horsewhipping’ or a ‘dog-whipping’, depending on their rank. When Frank Harris falls out of favour he becomes ‘a dirty skunk and as crooked as a corkscrew’. When the Duke of Richmond refuses him entrance to the private stand at Goodwood, he gets a letter from Bosie regretting that he himself does not enjoy the ‘Privilege enjoyed by your Grace of being descended from the bastard son of a French whore’. Robbie Ross, guardian of Wilde’s memory, was a favourite target. At a party in 1912, Douglas (now 42 years of age) made a noisy entrance, strode across the room and declared ‘you are nothing but a bugger and a blackmailer.’ Ross ran into another room. Bosie pursued him, still shouting, and lunged at him. Luckily, a table intervened and Ross escaped, leaving Bosie shouting furiously. Since his abuse often appeared in the pages of successive journals (Plain English, Plain Speech) that rich friends and relatives bought for him to edit, Bosie often found himself in court pleading justification, which usually meant merely a larger audience before whom he could repeat the calumnies and an opportunity to get within spitting distance of lawyers, judges and the Recorder of London. Sometimes he won, which encouraged him.
When the First World War broke out he saw an opportunity to initiate a witchhunt against his former friends and acquaintances and wrote a satirical pamphlet which informed wartime Britain: ‘Two foes thou hast, one there one here,/One far one ultimately near,/Two filthy fogs blot out thy light:/The German, and the Sodomite.’ The pamphlet ran into four editions and sold thousands of copies, but although he had had the pleasure of seeing several of his enemies and old acquaintances ruined, in jail or, at the very least, visited by the police, Bosie wasn’t satisfied. A better chance came in the Billing trial of 1918. Noel Pemberton Billing, an MP, had alleged that over two decades German agents had been doing energetic research in England, ‘spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute’. The result of their exertions was a Black Book kept in the Black Cabinet of a certain German Prince containing the names of 47,000 British perverts, a fifth column of vice. In a follow-up article headlined ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, Billing suggested the police would make a good start in winkling out the 47,000 if they seized the list of those who had applied to see the actress and dancer Maud Allan in a private performance of Wilde’s Salome. Allan and her producer sued and the case was tried at the Old Bailey.
Lord Alfred Douglas presented himself in the witness-box for the defence, as an expert on the corrupting power of his former friend. Wilde, indeed, was ‘a diabolical influence on everyone he met’ and ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years’, Bosie claimed, alluding to the period since the Reformation. Dressed in a three-piece suit, a bowler hat and a bow-tie, his once golden-seeming locks now plastered down like varnished leather, he looked less like the hyacinthine, leaf-lipped lovely of Oscar’s letters than a ventriloquist’s dummy or a music hall turn. Indeed, when Wilde’s letter referring to the peculiar virtues of the witness’s mouth was read out in court, Douglas exploded: ‘it is a rotten, sodomitically inclined letter written by a diabolical scoundrel to a wretchedly silly youth. You ought to be ashamed to bring it out here.’ Mr Justice Darling advised him that he was not in court to comment on counsel. Douglas responded that he would answer the questions as he pleased. Poor Darling, who had already been cited by a witness as one of the perverts named in the Black Book, had difficulty controlling the court. In the event, Billing was found not guilty, the gallery applauded uproariously and, outside the courtroom, Douglas was cheered.