Raison de Mourir

Peter Ackroyd

  • The Mad Bad Line by Brian Roberts
    Hamish Hamilton, 319 pp, £15.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 241 10637 0

The Douglas were interesting only in death: the book opens with a suicide, and closes with the glimpse of a putative heaven in which Lord Alfred Douglas and his father are reconciled, like Belial and Mammon. In life, they were a family of sportsmen whose only sport was self-interest, who made up in neuroses what they lacked in achievement, who relied upon ferocity rather than feeling. Without the light which the falling Oscar distributed upon them, they would have remained in obscurity.

Brian Roberts may well have stumbled upon them by accident. Four of his previous biographies have been set, wholly or partly, in Africa; perhaps it was while he was examining the records of Zululand in 1881 that he came across a most improbable figure, Lady Florence Dixie, a reporter from the Morning Post. She is the key to this book, in the sense that it treats Late Victorian England as if it were an extension of the Dark Continent, wreathed in tribal loyalties and ritualised codes, made more vivid still by the presence of some strange, ancestral curse. Florence Dixie was the sister of the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, the ‘Scarlet Marquess’ who could shoot but not spell, who wrote ‘somdomite’ upon a card and consigned Oscar Wilde to a cell in which Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus was the only light relief.

Mr Roberts, in rediscovering ‘Florrie’, as he calls her, has come across the most active member of the Douglas ‘clan’. A mannish figure, sharing the sexual ambivalence which haunted her family, she had crossed Patagonia and found the Wild West tame before moving on to Africa. Although her pro-Zulu sympathies were dropped as quickly as they were espoused, she fell upon other causes with the horrid glee of the emotionally dispossessed: she was anti-blood sports, anti-vivisection, pro-feminism and pro-Rational Dress. With the possible exception of Rational Dress, a crusade which only the Chinese have taken up, we might be tempted to see in the list of causes she adopted the lineaments of a thoroughly modern woman, a Betty Friedan with blue blood. But she was a Douglas, and would not have appreciated a comparison with any other woman. She used society as freely as she abused it; she employed the newspapers as an advanced form of telegraph service, signalling each of her activities in advance; she dispensed her sympathy as if it were a kind of largesse, and as a result the objects of her compassion changed frequently – when, one imagines, she grew tired of them. She had the arrogance of her family, and her social position protected her from the consequences of her more unpopular actions. She became, in other words, an ‘eccentric’, since eccentricity is the last resort of the ineffectual. The world of the suffering and underprivileged had for her all the innocent pleasure of a society ball: she marked her card with each cause in turn.

When the social conventions involved were of a less peripheral nature, however, she reverted to type. After the first trial of Oscar Wilde, her nephew Percy had made a statement to the press: ‘You may say from me myself that I and every member of our family, excepting my father, disbelieve absolutely and entirely the allegations’ – that is, the allegations which Queensberry had made against Wilde. Florrie immediately issued a statement through her brother, Archie, taking the side of her no less ‘eccentric’ brother, Queensberry himself: ‘We do most certainly believe them ... ’ When it came to a serious confrontation with the ethics of the society which she professed to condemn, she joined ranks with the Establishment and the established press. This was a family with all the characteristics of Tartuffe: during the Wilde trials, as Mr Roberts points out, Queensberry also ‘was able to parade as the upholder of accepted values, to appeal to the very hypocrisy he claimed to despise’. Wilde, he goes on to say, was convicted by a ‘peculiarly British piece of legislation’; and the Douglas were a peculiarly British family. They were rebellious in all those matters that did not affect their sense of the dignity of their caste; they were careless in their beliefs and in their affections because such matters were, in the end, less important than their social position.

If it was a bad family, it was bad in the way children are bad at adults’ parties; if it was mad, it was with the madness of those who rage against a world which puts obstacles in the way of their ambitions. It is a merit of Mr Roberts’s book that he does not duck such matters, and it has the further advantage of being thoroughly researched – there is information about Wilde here which I have not seen in any of the published biographies. Each member of the Douglas family is firmly established within the narrative, which itself never flags under the weight of the historical detail it necessarily accumulates. This is to compliment The Mad Bad Line as if it were a piece of fiction – which is, in the end, the kind of work it is. Mr Roberts has the novelist’s ability to enter the consciousness of his protagonists, although sometimes he betrays the nature of his interest by reverting to the language of conventional romance: ‘She found Kinmount bleak, impersonal, and haunted by sad memories’; ‘Francis was never happier than when clinging to a sheer rock face.’ Mr Roberts is able to reconstruct his characters with such élan because he has already fashioned a mould in which to cast them: as the book’s title suggests, this is an explication of the ‘Queensberry curse’. ‘The Gaelic for Douglas,’ he tells us in the first chapter, ‘is dub glas, meaning “dark water”.’ Death hangs in the air: one Douglas slits his throat with a razor, two others apparently shoot themselves, yet another falls down the Matterhorn. But to trace a lineage in misadventure is properly the concern of the geneticist: a historian does so at his peril – and what we get here is Roots without the injustice. To promote the Queensberries into a legendary family is, I suspect, a new form of snobbery. Since we no longer admire aristocrats for their breeding or their manners, we learn to respect them for their strange destiny.

In corroboration of his mythopoeia, however, Mr Roberts might adduce the example of Wilde himself, whose self-regard was such that he turned anyone who wounded him into a creature of fable. The book is subtitled ‘The Family of Lord Alfred Douglas’, and it is Bosie – that obstreperous creature who fanned the flames of Wilde’s lust, who led him as one would lead a tame elephant into the circus of public obloquy – who provides the family with its raison de mourir. It was not a noble destiny for either Bosie or Wilde, although both tried to make it so: ‘Have you imagination enough,’ Wilde wrote in De Profundis, ‘to see what a fearful tragedy it was for me to have come across your family? Through your father, you come of a race, marriage with whom is horrible, friendship fatal, and that lays violent hands either on its own life or the lives of others.’ Wilde’s hyperbole here is a form of self-aggrandisement which, in Reading Gaol, can be forgiven. But I do not think it can be forgiven in a biographer.

The truth of the matter may lie closer to hand. Although we no longer think of inversion as a ‘curse’, it is really the only one the Queensberries can accurately lay claim to. Homosexuality appears again and again in this history. Queensberry’s father-in-law, Alfred Montgomery, was an effeminate wit, a ‘confirmed bachelor’ despite his marriage: whenever Queensberry felt threatened by his children, he referred to them as ‘the Montgomery lot’, thus announcing his worst suspicions. His eldest son, Drumlanrig, was suspected, before he shot himself, of having had an affair with Lord Rosebery. And there was Bosie himself, a most notorious pederast. In the end, the thing which Queensberry most feared came back to haunt him: when he was dying, he ‘claimed to be persecuted by Oscar Wilde who had driven him from various hotels and who woke him up at night by shouting obscene names at him’. How strange that this family should only serve now as an example of homosexuality, either repressed or overt.