Too Young

James Davidson

  • 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.

Having routed the sodomites, he turned his poetic genius on the Jews: ‘How odd/of God/to choose/the Jews’. More specifically, he alleged that Churchill had been paid by a well-known Jew to publish a false report on the Battle of Jutland so that financiers could make a killing on the New York Stock Exchange and that, moreover, Lord Kitchener’s ship, the Hampshire, had been blown up not by a German torpedo, but by a time-bomb set by prominent Jews, whose aim was to scupper a secret mission to replace Jewish Bolsheviks with ‘loyal men of British birth’ and prevent the Russian Revolution. This time Douglas ended up in prison. There he wrote his equivalent of Oscar’s De Profundis, which he called In Excelsis: ‘The leprous spawn of scattered Israel spreads its contagion in your English blood …’ He was let out early for good behaviour in 1924, but he was not reformed.

In 1925 he had a reunion with Frank Harris, an old acquaintance, and went for a drive on the coast near Nice, which ended up at a beauty spot above some cliffs. Harris sat outside the car with the chauffeur, his mistress Nellie stayed inside with Douglas. Douglas became convinced he was a victim of spite, because the author of In Excelsis wasn’t fond of heights: according to Nellie, ‘he raged, he stormed and swore that Frank and the driver wanted to drive him mad. I said “Oh please don’t, this was especially arranged as a treat for you.” He kept on by the hour, “they want to drive me mad” and at length he said I prefer to go to prison for another six months, I came to the conclusion that I really was in a closed car with a lunatic and it continued for six hours.’ Beverley Nichols remembered meeting him for lunch the following year: ‘Of wit there was none, charity was lacking, malice ruled the board.’ A year after that, the Prince of Wales was the target: ‘Common report gives you a splendid character for kindness, generosity and chivalry. Why go out of your way to falsify that report? … remembering that though you are the Prince of Wales I am quite as well born as you are and that my ancestors refused a kingdom which yours subsequently usurped.’ Nine years later, W.B. Yeats had the temerity to leave the author of ‘Two Loves’ out of his Oxford Book of Modern Verse. He received a telegram: ‘Why drag in Oxford? Would not Shoneen Irish be a more correct description?’ In 1936, now well into his sixties, Douglas wrote another book of memoirs, Without Apology, in which he apologised only for ‘the occasional compromises and the (infrequent) runnings away from high attitudes which I failed to carry right through to their ends’. Their lawyers persuaded the publishers not to publish it.

It is difficult to discern degrees of dirt when mud is spattered so liberally but any mention of the name of André Gide – ‘Like a person who has an abscess on his bottom and continuously displays it to the world’ – seems always to have scored highly on Bosie’s venomometer. Gide had dared to remind him what he actually did on holiday with Oscar and himself in 1895 in Algiers. Bosie never forgave the impertinence.

A good baddie, however, depends on more than mere words and court cases and Bosie discovered in marriage and fatherhood a new way to destroy people’s lives. The idea first occurred to him as a useful subsidy: he went to America in 1901, thinking it a better hunting-ground for heiresses than London post-Wilde and found three of them willing to jump the broom – one, apparently, worth £20,000 a year. But he hated America, reckoning it would be half a millennium before it was properly civilised. An alternative alignment, with Olive Custance, though less remunerative, had other advantages. In the first place she looked like a boy and wanted to be looked at like one: ‘Write to me soon,’ she wrote before he set off for America, ‘and tell me you love your little Page, and that one day you will come back to “him”, my Prince, my Prince.’ ‘Why can’t you dress up as a boy and come with me?’ wrote Douglas in reply. Better than that, even, was the fact that George Montagu, an old (possibly boy-) friend who later repudiated him, was interested in her. News that she was seeing Montagu had Bosie back across the Atlantic in a jiffy. The pleasure of frustrating his enemy’s marriage with Olive by marrying her himself was much increased when he discovered Montagu had eventually married someone ‘ugly’ and ‘exceedingly common’. Such an inauspicious engagement did not lead to domestic tranquillity, Olive ‘repeatedly telling me in the most insulting language that you were tired of me and that your marriage to me had been one long misery. Indeed before we had been married a year you told me that regularly.’

Many who saw him in later years agree that this constant viciousness had its effect on Douglas’s entire demeanour. According to Harold Nicolson, ‘His nose has assumed a curious beak-like shape, his mouth has twisted into shapes of nervous irritability.’ Others noted his extraordinary high-pitched voice and exaggerated fidgeting. ‘He had curious movements,’ wrote Anthony Powell, ‘entering a room almost as if about to turn a cartwheel.’ In 1944, Donald Sinden found in a second-hand bookshop a copy of the attack he had made on Wilde and all his works thirty years earlier in Oscar Wilde and Myself. He made the mistake of bringing it with him when he went to see the ‘kind old man’: ‘Bosie leapt to his feet, his whole body twitching, his face became deathly white and his eyes glared, he spluttered and mucus ran from his nose and mouth. He seemed to be choking and his eyes grew larger and sightless … At last he managed an intake of breath and screamed: “WHERE DID YOU GET IT? WHERE DID YOU GET IT?” I was deeply shocked and tried to explain.’ The photographs confirm the bitter expression, but I have not heard the recordings to confirm the truth about the voice. People described him solicitously, because he had been a famous beauty.

The name Bosie comes from Boysie, or little boy, and Douglas seems to have thought of himself not so much as a Dorian Gray but as something less adult, a child from a Pears Soap ad or a painting by Murillo or Greuze, or some innocent but negligent shepherd from a nursery rhyme. This childish sensibility is to be found in most of his writings, which alternate petulance and spite with a saccharine imagery of angels, and continued well into old age, when he would invite visitors such as Malcolm Muggeridge to a feast of jam puffs, cream cakes and scones. George Bernard Shaw, who corresponded with him in his later years, referred to him as ‘Childe Alfred’. Like a child he was always accusing people of being cruel to him, particularly aggrieved by those who fed him, got bitten and, once bitten, withdrew. He seems to have equated this childishness with an innocence which was sure to get him into heaven and certainly he seems never to have accepted responsibility for anything, least of all for his own vile actions.

The world was full for him of powerful influences, great manipulators and invisible puppet-strings, which meant he had a remarkable talent for getting himself off the hook. It was easy to blame Wilde for his early sins, but there was something much more creative in the accusation that his wife had forced him into an adulterous affair through ‘“loving” me and making a fuss of me’. To be fair, he was generous in his justifications and let others off the hook also, especially if it might mean they didn’t hate him as much as their actions implied. He allowed that his wife had left him only because it was ‘forced on you by your father’ and that when his son also later left him it was only because he had been bribed by the same man with a box of sweets, it being eminently plausible to Lord Alfred Douglas that a boy of 14 would be susceptible to confectionery. He lived long enough to see Wilde’s reputation restored and his own blaming him judged once again as blameworthy. But that just meant his blaming was blamed on someone else: after the mucus and the rage, Sinden says, he snatched the copy of Oscar Wilde and Myself and wrote on the fly-leaf that ‘nearly all’ of it was written by T.W.H. Crosland.

Most of this material comes from Douglas Murray’s Bosie, so it might surprise you to know that the biography was written in an attempt to restore the subject’s reputation. The book is framed by references to mortal remains and monuments, to Wilde’s tombstone at Père Lachaise and his more recent plaques and statues, to the lights being dimmed on Broadway in honour of Shaw, to Robbie Ross’s interment with Wilde, to Bosie’s with his mother in the cemetery attached to a red-brick church in Crawley, Sussex. Murray found the gravestone a surprise, and upsetting: ‘I had to kneel beside the stone and wipe away the grime of years.’ The reason for this ignominy he suggests, extraordinarily, is that Bosie was so hard to ‘pigeon-hole’. Pagan-Catholic, married-gay, English-Scot, impoverished aristocrat and ‘hearty poet’, he missed out on a solid constituency of supporters. This reveals a talent for justification in the author himself as insistent, if not quite as ingenious, as Bosie’s own. He thinks Bosie is misunderstood.

Apart from the problems of pigeon-holing, Douglas’s reputation has been destroyed, Murray claims, by ‘inaccuracies and lies’, ‘smears and cover-ups’. The powerful excusing ‘influences’ which Bosie saw everywhere he looked are to be found in Murray’s worldview also. Throughout the book people are ‘led into’ things. Wilde is led into homosexuality. Olive’s lesbianism is ‘nurtured’ by someone else – she added another love to Bosie’s two, the love that ‘walks with delicate feet afraid,/Twixt maid and maid.’ Wilde’s repudiation of his former lover in Reading Gaol, which many have seen as a period of clarity, is for Murray a ‘sustained moment of weakness and madness’. Gradually it becomes clear that despite the mass of damning evidence, Murray has suppressed worse. He omits Bosie’s letter to More Adey, full of threats and indignation at Wilde’s ingratitude, written while Wilde was in prison. He skates over without quotation the anti-semitic editorials Bosie wrote for Plain English. The editor’s views were then shared by the majority of the British public, Murray says in mitigation. In the next paragraph, however, Douglas is fearlessly independent: ‘If there was an unpopular cause, Douglas supported it.’

The greatest feat of excusing, however, is devoted to Bosie’s most spectacular vice, his hypocrisy. A glass wall is allowed to separate the proud sodomite of the 1890s from the homo-hunter of succeeding decades, and another goes up in the late 1920s, to allow a more repentant figure to make an entrance. When the translator is produced in court to testify that an article published in Paris in 1896, celebrating the superiority of sodomites over other men, was indeed written by the defendant, Murray writes, ‘foremost among those who could barely believe this was Douglas.’

His conversion to heterosexuality came at roughly the same period in his life as had Wilde’s to homosexuality. For Douglas homosexuality was simply something in which he and most of his friends had engaged at school and university … Perhaps at times he felt an attraction to a girlishly pretty boy but it is clear that, for him, the switch from one form of behaviour to another had not been a problem.

A few pages earlier, however, he quotes Bosie writing to his wife: ‘You know I am not like other men and that it is possible for me to have a Platonic friendship with a pretty woman.’

For all his ‘tergiversations’, Bosie is recognisably the same man through seven decades, the three glass-partitioned phases of sodomite, homophobe and penitent merely the most spectacular divisions in the life of a man who habitually sequestered himself from the consequences of his actions. Murray thinks his protestations of love for Wilde, often to be found closing a letter of accusations, show constancy, but it was always his habit to end on such a note. He claimed he still loved his wife even while he was describing her as ‘mean and despicable’, libellous and slandering. Many thought, with good reason, that he had driven Ross to his death. Bosie claimed to have prayed for him every day: ‘and I really meant it.’ He concludes the letter attacking the Prince of Wales: ‘All the same I shall forgive you and I shall continue to keep good thoughts about you, as becomes a poet in dealing with a prince.’ Bosie’s ‘forgiving’ was part and parcel of his vanity. His ‘loving’ was minatory, meaning he wasn’t quite prepared to let his victim go yet.

There is a certain thrill to be had in reviewing the career of such a recklessly brazen hypocrite. His most splendid feature was always his undoubted ‘pluck’, not courage, which he never had, but an unquestioning belief in his own bad self, whatever it was up to. The greatest irony is that had he been allowed to take the stand at one of the Wilde trials, he would probably not have pretended Greek love was all about education and holding hands – which was why Oscar’s friends kept him away of course. The conviction would have been more likely, but in the event the consequences could scarcely have been worse. The loud champion of sodomy was right to be disappointed in his chosen constituency. They obfuscated with all their talk of purity and Michelangelo. Wilde and the other sodomites had chickened out. Moreover, as naughty as the Nineties, he is a more perfect epitome of the paradoxes of his age than his more knowingly decadent contemporaries. The childishness and reaction which are so visible in his later life, the nursery teas, the religiosity, the Petrarchan personifications, the sweet tooth and fondness for olden times, the love of lies, are there, reading back, in Wilde and other aesthetes, too. They made art out of it; Bosie reveals what it looks like without the encumbrances of wit and an agenda. No one fell for the 1890s quite like Bosie, which meant he couldn’t feel its form; he was of the age so completely that he never really understood what it was for.

The life is so extraordinary that merely to document and disentangle it is no mean achievement, but it raises very large questions about taste and ageing, Modernism, sexuality, homophobia, class, reaction, repression, forgiveness and the banality of evil in the British 20th century, which require a certain amount of worldly wisdom and critical judgment to be properly addressed. Douglas Murray, only 21, is too young. He began the project during a summer vacation from Eton at the age of 16, and although writing Dorian Gray’s biography seems to have matured him prematurely, it has not given him automatic experience of unlived years. Despite an occasionally comic self-assurance – ‘buggery almost certainly did not take place between the Winchester boys’ – there are few signs of juvenility, and no embarrassments beyond the acknowledgment pages; but there is little sign of any other writerly character to take its place. There is plenty of evidence here of narrative clarity, hard work and chutzpah, but if there are remarkably few troughs, there are no pinnacles either; more than youthfulness has possibly been suppressed.

Notoriously, biographers fall in love with their subjects, but the biographer of Bosie needs to be someone well able to resist his charms. Bad Bosie is a more interesting, important and difficult subject than the whining Bosie of excuses and olde-fashioned verse. What he needed least of all was a sympathetic biographer; he was always far too good at sympathising with himself.